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NewsBusted: The Finkelstein File

NewsBusters blogger Mark Finkelstein has a history of posts that selectively edit transcripts, hurl insults and make odd claims.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 2/20/2007

One of the more prolific bloggers at the Media Research Center's NewsBusters weblog is contributing editor Mark Finkelstein, a Republican and conservative activist whose main claim to fame is hosting a public-access cable TV talk show in Ithaca, N.Y.

With his NewsBusters posts, however, Finkelstein is quickly acquiring another claim to fame: making misleading claims.

Misrepresenting Matthews

The target of many of those misleading claims is MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Finkelstein has repeatedly taken Matthews' words out of context to misrepresent his views.

For instance, a Jan. 4 NewsBusters post by Finkelstein claimed there was a "a very rare display of real anger" between Matthews and NBC "Today" host Matt Lauer during MSNBC's coverage of the swearing-in of the new Democratic-controlled Congress. In Finkelstein's words (boldface and italics are his):

Lauer: "Well, but, you say they're going to try to finesse it. In reality, Chris, they don't have a choice. What are they going to do, suggest they cut funding while troops are still in the ground in Iraq? They can't do that."

That got Matthews's Irish up. Clearly flashing some anger, he responded: "Well, that's a political assessment by you, Matt. I think the Democrats have to decide whether they want to climb aboard this catastrophe or not."

That snippet, and the video Finkelstein supplied, conveniently cut off at that point -- thus avoiding having to show evidence that undermines his claim about Matthews' "anger." Here's the full excerpt of what Matthews said:

MATTHEWS: Well, that’s a political assessment by you, Matt. I think the Democrats have to decide whether they wanna climb aboard this catastrophe or not. Do they want to be partners in the continued war in Iraq? That’s a tough call. I agree with you. It’s a tough call to say, “We’re gonna stand up to the president, say he cannot fight the war the way he wants to fight it.” But the other alternative is that they go along with the war, and they become partners in this war for the next two years.

That's right -- mere seconds after Matthews was purportedly "angry" with Lauer, Matthews said to him, "I agree with you." How is that "angry"?

In a Jan. 19 post, Finkelstein again selectively edited Matthews to make him look bad. In writing that that the Wall Street Journal's John Fund "had something of a nuclear showdown" with Matthews, Finkelstein engaged in transcript-trimming:

Said Fund, speaking of the build-up to the Iraq war: "The administration said there were weapons of mass destruction. They never claimed the United States was in imminent danger."

Matthews: "They did make the claim they [Iraq] had a nuclear weapon."

Fund: "No!! They did not claim they had a nuclear weapon! Give me the statement!

Matthews had none. The most he could muster was an Iraqi claim of a delivery system -- not of a weapon itself.

Not quite. Here's the section of "Hardball" transcript that Finkelstein condensed down to what Matthews could purportedly "muster":

MATTHEWS: They explained – the administration – that they had a delivery system, an airplane that would deliver it to North America. That was a big part of the case they made.

FUND: One, if they -- if they developed a nuclear weapon, they said they had a delivery system. They didn’t claim Iraq had a nuclear weapon.

MATTHEWS: They said don’t wait for the smoking gun because there’ll be a mushroom cloud. They used all the language of fear and imminent danger.

That was a reference to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's statement in late 2002 that "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Further (but not noted by either Matthews or Finkelstein), the Bush administration did, in fact, claim that Iraq had nuclear weapons; on the March 16, 2003, edition of NBC's "Meet the Press," Vice President Dick Cheney stated that Saddam Hussein "has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

Finkelstein then resumed his version of the transcript:

Fund: "Chris, do you believe North Korea has a nuclear weapon?"

Matthews, after some serious dead air: "I don't know."

Fund: "You don't?? We know they do! They've announced it!!"

Matthews: "OK. But what's the point? What's the point here?"

Finkelstein abruptly ends his transcript there, adding: "Oh, I don't know: perhaps that Chris should get his facts straight before venturing into his next facedown with John Fund!" But the exchange continued, in which Matthews explained his point:

FUND: The point is –

MATTHEWS: OK, we’re not going to war with North Korea, I’ve noticed.


MATTHEWS: OK. Why are we going to war, even thinking about it with Iran, then?

FUND: We’re not thinking about going to war. We are trying to put --


FUND: -- diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran so they don’t even think about it.

MATTHEWS: Well, that would be good. But I’m afraid that’s a threat that if it doesn’t work, we could go to war, that’s what I’m afraid of.

To recap: Matthews' question of "What's the point?" applied not to whether North Korea's nuclear weapons actually existed -- as Finkelstein implied by his selective editing of the transcript -- but to why we're engaging in more aggressive postures toward Iran, which to our knowledge does not have nuclear weapons, than with North Korea, which to all appearances does. And Finkelstein's selective editing obscured the fact that Matthews did offer evidence for his claim that the Bush administration did link nuclear weapons to Saddam's Iraq. 

Further, Finkelstein let Fund off the hook for his claim that the Bush administration "never claimed the United States was in imminent danger." That is only true in the very narrow technical sense that the word "imminent" was not used; in fact, President Bush did call Iraq an "urgent threat"; Cheney called Iraq a "mortal threat"; and other senior White House officials assented when reporters applied the "imminent threat" characterization. 

In a Feb. 5 post, Finkelstein bashed Matthews for suggesting that Rudy Giuliani was "a little bit of a fascist" in cleaning up New York City while mayor without, again, noting the context: Matthews was praising Giuliani. Shortly afterward, when guest Susan Molinari noted that because of Giuliani, "neighborhoods were cleaner, neighborhoods were safer, all of New York City," Matthews responded, "Well, you know, as an out-of-towner, I‘ve got to tell you, it‘s better for me to go when there‘s a city that‘s safer. " Earlier that day, Matthews was singing Giuliani's praises, gushing over his "street cred" on the issue of "protect[ing] this country against the bad guys." Then, in a rich bit of irony, Finkelstein used a Feb. 6 post to bash Media Matters (disclosure: my employer) for editing out the "fascist" comment in an item, huffily asking, "How can Media Matters possibly defend its attempted deception?" In fact, the Media Matters item in question was about a different subject altogether -- Matthews' obsession with "the pee smell" in New York subways.

And the very next day, in an appearance on the Don Imus radio show, Matthews clarified his love of Giuliani (dropping an F-bomb in the process): "I think he [Giuliani] did a great job. I'm sorry. And I think the country wants a boss like that. You know, a little bit of fascism there. Just a little bit. Just a pinch of it." Finkelstein made no note of this reference, but a Feb. 7 NewsBusters post by Rich Noyes detailing Matthews' F-bomb took up Finkelstein's misrepresenting baton, saying that Matthews "prais[ed] the 'great job' Rudy Giuliani did in cleaning up New York City -- which Matthews again suggested was done with just 'a pinch' of fascism" without giving the full quote of Matthews endorsing Giuliani's "fascism." (The MRC CyberAlert version of Noyes' post excises the "fascism" reference completely.)

Finkelstein also fell into the MRC trap of depicting Matthews as a hard-case liberal without noting evidence to the contrary. In a Dec. 22, 2006, post, Finkelstein claimed that Matthews' questioning whether Cheney might lie if called to testify in the trial of his former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges of lying and obstructing justice showed that Matthews is continuing his "apparently inexorable plunge off the Olbermann end of the pool," referring to fellow MSNBC host and frequent NewsBusters punching bag Keith Olbermann. Finkelstein failed to note that on the very same program, Matthews also dropped a crack about Al Gore's purported weight problem, calling him "the Hindenburg." (Further, Matthews said that in front of the Washington Times' Tony Blankley, not exactly a svelte man himself.)

Not just Matthews

Matthews is not the only victim of Finkelstein's selective editing. In a Jan. 8 post depicting a debate between MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and "smart and plucky" author Bob Kohn (who, ConWebWatch readers will recall, repeated a false MRC claim about ex-New York Times editor Howell Raines in his WorldNetDaily-published Times-bashing book), Finkelstein misleadingly depicted the debate:

Kohn kicked off the exchange with Joe this way:

"I watched NBC Nightly News, and Brian Williams this evening had a story about Bush's proposal to increase troops in Iraq. He had three experts on the air discussing that proposal. Not one of those experts supported Bush's plan. They all were against it. So that's bias."

Scarborough's first ploy was to assert that in light of weak public support for the surge "it's kind of hard to get somebody that's going to go on as an expert that's going to support a troop surge."

Kohn laughed that lame line out of the water: "Oh, come on, Joe. Tell me that NBC News couldn't find one person in Washington, one expert, who could have supported the administration. Give me a break."

Defeated on that notion, Scarborough hit a new low with this outlandish assertion: "I guess the more important question is: should they? When you're talking about a surge where all five Joint chiefs are opposed to it, where 12% of Americans support it?"

Finkelstein abruptly ended his transcript there. But the exchange continued, and Scarborough hinted at why he took that position:

KOHN: Three of -- no, that's not fair and balanced. You have three experts on.  You can have one of them that supports it.

SCARBOROUGH: You know what? I will remember this, Bob, the next time we have a position where conservatives are on the side of 90 percent of the American population, and you complain because NBC News puts one liberal and one conservative on there. 

Finkelstein apparently didn't disagree with Scarborough's contention that conservatives regularly complain when a liberal is allowed to weigh in on a conservative issue that most of the country supports.

Finkelstein went on to assert that Scarborough engaged in "panel-packing ... with Kohn left to assert NBC's liberal bias alone," but he didn't note how Scarborough ended the segment -- by apologizing to Kohn:

SCARBOROUGH:  All right. We've got to go. Bob Kohn, I'm usually with you. You're usually on the side of the angels. Tonight, though, we knew that you were so powerful, we teamed up on you three to one, just to prove how liberal we really were. Well, I'm a conservative, right?  So I think it's two conservatives, two liberals. But you did a great job.  I appreciate you being here tonight.  Sorry to team up on you.

Finally, in calling Scarborough "so sycophantish, even Keith Olbermann might have been embarassed by it" in defending his network against "charges of liberal bias" by Bill O'Reilly, Finkelstein failed to acknowledge the claim by another panelist, Paul Waldman of Media Matters, that Media Matters had found "over 1,100 instances of conservative misinformation" on NBC and MSNBC, which would seem to contradict that claim somewhat.

In an Aug. 8, 2006, post suggesting that ESPN writer Jason Whitlock's comment on what he called the NFL's "officiating crisis" -- "It's ridiculous to have 50 year-old white guys chasing after 25-year old black guys" -- was racially insensitive, Finkelstein claimed that Air Force football coach Fisher DeBerry was "reprimanded by the Air Force Academy and forced to issue an apology" for saying that black football players "can run very, very well." But that's misrepresentation of the nature of the DeBerry controversy. In fact, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette article Finkelstein cited as evidence of his claim, DeBerry had implied that his team lost a game because the other team "had a lot more Afro-American players than we did, and they ran a lot faster than we did," further noting that "[y]ou don't see many minority athletes in our program." Indeed, DeBerry said in his apology that he was apologizing "for remarks I made recently about minority recruitment." His saying that black football players "can run very, very well" was never the issue in and of itself, as Finkelstein claimed.

Iraq and the military

In November 2006, Finkelstein paid a visit to Iraq and filed articles from it for MRC's "news" division, In two of them, he featured criticism of a idea nobody was making: that the U.S. should make a "quick" or "abrupt" withdrawal from Iraq.

But Finkelstein never defined what he (or the people he quoted) meant by that. The closest thing Finkelstein cited to support such a claim is one Democratic politician's desire for "phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq over a four to six month period" -- arguably not "abrupt" or "quick."

Prior to the trip, Finkelstein wrote a Nov. 2 CNS article that forwarded without challenge a claim by the "chief spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq" that the "reason why Americans don't hear as much good news as bad news from Iraq" is because "as soon as we announce [good news], the insurgents will immediately ... target that, in order to discount it." Finkelstein does not mention that this explanation conflicts with the standard claim offered by conservatives like himself -- that the media, not the military, is to blame for the lack of good news from Iraq.

Finkelstein apparently built up some contacts on that tour, because since then he has been regularly citing military and Bush administration officials

  • In another article for CNS, he uncritically repeated a military officer's claim that "[t]he American media overstate the extent to which the Iraqi police have been infiltrated by sectarian militias."
  • In a Jan. 10 NewsBusters post, Finkelstein recounted "a conference call for bloggers" conducted by White House press secretary Tony Snow and Brett McGurk, the National Security Council's director for Iraq in which he quoted Snow as saying, "Thank God for blogs." Finkelstein doesn't elaborate, but Snow is presumably thanking God only for conservative blogs; it's unlikely that a Republican press secretary would praising his Creator for the existence of, say, Daily Kos or Atrios. And since Finkelstein didn't make a point of saying how liberal bloggers participated, it can probably also be assumed that only conservative bloggers were invited to participate in Snow's "conference call for bloggers."
  • In a Feb. 14 post, Finkelstein again participated in another "conference call with bloggers," held this time by William Caldwell, senior military spokesman in Iraq, echoing Snow's claim: that "Blogs such as NewsBusters are an "incredibly important" news medium whose influence will only continue to grow."
  • And in a Feb. 18 post, Finkelstein quoted "a senior Bush administration official" who relayed to "this NewsBuster" an attack on a New York Times article. Ironically, two days earlier, fellow NewsBuster Warner Todd Huston had praised a New Mexico radio station for not airing stories that featured anonymous claims: "If you are so sure your story is legitimate, put a name to your sources. If they refuse to be named, that should be your first clue that the source has an agenda that doesn't hold "truth" as one of its end games. Remember the basic tenets of journalism: who, what, where and when. Who is not an unnamed requirement!"
Strange claims

In a Feb. 2 post noting Katie Couric's support of "universal vaccination for the human papillomavirus, HPV, for girls," Mark Finkelstein cited as evidence that the issue is "highly-controversial" and that "[m]any traditionalists are strongly opposed to mandatory vaccinations for girls as young as 11" a column on the subject from the Independent Women's Forum. But in the section of the column Finkelstein excerpts, the author, Charlotte Allen, rails against something no proponent of mandatory HPV vaccination has argued for -- that it gives 9-year-olds the green light to have sex.

A Jan. 13 NewsBusters post bashed Democratic Rep. Steven Kagen for having "insulted First Lady Laura Bush, President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and Karl Rove at a White House function for new members," then played guilt by association -- because Kagen was once "the Allergy Consultant for CNN," that somehow meant CNN is to blame for Kagen's remarks as well. "You can take the man out of CNN - and stick him in Congress - but you can't take the CNN out of the man," Finkelstein wrote, adding, "What kind of person would do something like this? The kind of person that CNN would hire to be a consultant." Nowhere did Finkelstein offer evidence that 1) Kagen is still CNN's allergy consultant; 2) Kagen was hired by CNN specifically because he was a Democrat; and 3) Kagen's comments for CNN on the subject of allergies were somehow liberally biased.

Hostile statements

A Jan. 28 NewsBusters post cheered Fox News' Brit Hume for insulting John Kerry: "Hume wryly unloaded this haymaker on the Massachusetts senator of baleful Gallic mien: 'Is it really fair to John Kerry to argue, Bill, that when he's in Switzerland he's away from home?' Brit was alluding to the fact that Kerry had attended an elite Swiss boarding school." Earlier in the day, Finkelstein criticized Hillary Clinton for engaging in similar rhetoric; by issuing the "threat" that "When you are attacked, you have to deck your opponent, and that is what I believe you do," Finkelstein declared that Hillary "went Mike Tyson on us."

More examples of inflammatory statements by Finkelstein:

  • He sniped at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a Jan. 27 post: "Did anyone really believe that Nancy Pelosi's recent whirlwind visit to Iraq was truly the 'fact-finding' mission she billed it to be? I doubt it."
  • After noting that Barack Obama earned a college major in political science with a specialization in international relations, Finkelstein sniped in a Jan. 24 post: "What kind of world-view do you think was inculcated in international-relations major Obama at hyper-liberal Columbia?"
  • In a Jan. 23 post, Finkelstein got alliteratively snide, asserting that Hillary Clinton engaged in "meretricious mirth" and "feigned frivolity" and declared that "Hillary gets way too much credit for winning" her Senate seat in New York because "registered Dems outnumber Republicans by 2 million, and Hillary ran first against a 'C'-list opponent and then against a virtual non-entity who didn't really bother to campaign."
  • In a Dec. 4, 2006, post, Finkelstein claimed that Murtha was suffering from "breathtaking megalomania seasoned with anti-Americanism."
  • In a Nov. 26, 2006, post, Finkelstein noted that a Des Moines Register reporter showed some "delightful Midwestern understatement" by noting that Hillary Clinton "is believed to be weighing a campaign for the Democratic nomination," then added: "Indeed. And in tonight's Nature documentary, a ravenous crocodile was believed to be weighing a run at the wildebeest crossing the river."
  • In a Nov. 5, 2006, post, Finkelstein dismissed a editorial in the Army Times and related publications supporting the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld because the newspapers are "nothing more than cogs in the Gannett chain, a member-in-good-standing of the MSM whose flagship paper is the reliably-liberal USA Today." Finkelstein offers no evidence that every Gannett-owned paper must follow the editorial policies of USA Today. Finkelstein's suggestion that getting rid of Rumsfeld is an inherently "liberal" position conflicts with the fact that numerous Republicans had been critical of Rumsfeld's performance during the war. (A few days later, following midterm elections that turned control of Congress to Democrats, Rumsfeld did indeed resign.)
  • From a June 29, 2006, post: "If she was watching 'Today' this morning, you can imagine Hillary Clinton using her best North-Korean-parliament rhythmical clapping in response to what she saw. It might be 'ronery' in her Georgetown or Chappaqua spreads, but it's always heart-warming to know you've got friends at the highest-rated morning show."
  • In a July 7, 2006, post, Finkelstein bashed MSNBC's Joe Scarborough for apologizing for saying that if Osama bin Laden were caught, "Democrats, George Bush's nemesis, would say 'Well, it's not really that big of a deal anyway, because Americans are dying in Iraq.'" Finkelstein wrote: "Really, Joe? If Hillary, Nancy and Harry woke up tomorrow, turned on the tube, and saw that OBL were caught, you honestly think they'd be happy?"

Despite such inflammatory rhetoric, Finkelstein found time in a Dec. 12, 2006, post to attack Media Matters blogger Eric Alterman for being "one angry guy" who "vents his bile" and whose "anger burns so brightly that it blots out his substance."

For Finkelstein, it's not just his anger that "blots out his substance"; it's all those misleading and just plain strange claims.

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