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Are Smears A Traditional Value?

A conservative group attacks NPR over a story before it even hit the airwaves.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 2/11/2002

Conservatives have tended to lean toward the hypersensitive when it comes to criticism. Anyone who portrays right-of-center causes, organizations and personalities in anything less than a flattering light gets immediately branded as part of the "liberal media."

And now, it appears, not only can you not do actual portrayal without the threat of criticism, you can't even ask the questions in the first place.

The Traditional Values Coalition demonstrates just how this preemptive media strike works. In early January, TVC executive director Andrea Lafferty was contacted by David Kestenbaum, a reporter for National Public Radio. According to Lafferty, Kestenbaum asked if her organization had been contacted by the FBI regarding the investigation of anthrax spores sent to senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, among others.

TVC in the past has been specificially critical of Daschle and Leahy for allegedly perpetrating an "undercurrent of anti-God bigotry" by dropping "so help me God" from oaths administered to nominees who come before Senate committees for confirmation. "Why are Daschle and Leahy so fearful that nominees might swear before God to tell the truth?" Lafferty is quoted as saying in one TVC press release.

It's a perfectly logical assumption that a group with a history of criticism of senators who later receive deadly spores in the mail would get a visit or phone call at some point from investigators looking to find out who did it. Hey, investigators are supposed to follow every possible lead, aren't they? NPR's Kestenbaum, who was apparently to contact groups and individuals who the FBI may have talked to in order to find out the gist of the investigation, seems to have thought so. And thus, Kestenbaum contacted Lafferty.

Lafferty's reaction? Issuing a press release immediately afterward accusing NPR of smearing her group, then engaging in a few smears of her own. ""National Public Radio is the broadcast arm of the liberal establishment," said Mrs. Lafferty. "No wonder many in Washington refer to it as National Peoples Radio. It is a taxpayer-funded employment program for left wing reporters who can't cut it in the big leagues because their bias keeps getting in the way. ... NPR's radio scripts are being written at the Democratic National Committee." Why is it that conservatives who are so quick to accuse others of "smears" don't see their own smears as they happen?

Lafferty's press release, as tends to happen with these kind of things, quickly made its way to the ConWeb. writer Jim Burns did a story heavily quoting from it, waiting until the last two paragraphs of the 11-paragraph story to give NPR's reaction (in which a spokesman says Lafferty "overstated the case"). John McCaslin also wrote about it in the Washington Times Jan. 8.

Mind you, this is all before any NPR story relating to this appeared on the air, before the general public heard a word. This is all about the interview.

When the actual story aired on NPR Jan. 22, the cycle started again. Laffery issued another press release the next day. (The TVC web site has a page dedicated to the controversy, complete with Flash animation.) CNS did another story, which largely repeats the previous one. And WorldNetDaily did its own story this time around, the headline of which states, "NPR smears Christian group" -- an opinion presented as fact -- and includes no response from NPR.

The page dedicated to the controversy states that "Without citing a single fact or source, NPR judged TVC 'guilty until proven innocent.'" But the Jan. 23 press release quotes Lafferty as saying that "they can't cite a single fact other than our press releases." (So, are TVC's press releases factual or not? And while were at it, where are the facts to back up Lafferty's assertion that NPR scripts are "being written at the Democratic National Committee"?) Then, the release quotes the Kestenbaum story's relevant section:

Two of the anthrax letters were sent to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, both Democrats. One group who had a gripe with Daschle and Leahy is the Traditional Values Coalition, which, before the attacks, had issued a press release criticizing the senators for trying to remove the phrase 'so help me God' from the oath. The Traditional Values Coalition, however, told me the FBI had not contacted them and then issued a press release saying NPR was in the pocket of the Democrats and trying to frame them.

But investigators are thinking along these lines. FBI agents won't discuss the case, but the people they have spoken with will. ...

Kestenbaum appears to have treated the TVC fairly in his story, to the point of summarizing Lafferty's smears against NPR.

But, as usually happens, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. NPR issued a statement Jan. 29 saying it was "inappropriate" for Kestenbaum to have named TVC in his story.

Of course, that's nowhere near enough for the aggrieved party. A Jan. 29 CNS story quotes TVC chairman Leo Sheldon as demanding a full apology and retraction of the story. Oh, and that TVC plans to sue NPR. (Does that mean NPR reporters can sue TVC's Lafferty for defamation for calling their employer "a taxpayer-funded employment program for left wing reporters who can't cut it in the big leagues"?)

The story has bounced around the ConWeb echo chamber. WorldNetDaily, in addition to its story, made NPR the subject of one of its daily polls, and (surprise) 90 percent of those responding expressed their disapproval of it in some form, 60 percent agreeing that its "taxpayer funding should be pulled." And since Brent Bozell's CNS has been driving ConWeb coverage of this, Bozell's MRC weighed in with a press release demanding an apology from NPR, and Bozell touched on it in a Jan. 24 column.

TVC, meanwhile, has started an online petition demanding that NPR's federal funding be pulled. In the statement accompanying it, Sheldon states that "It is a serious leap in logic and unprofessional journalism to assume that a Christian group critical of two Senators over an oath would establish an Anthrax laboratory and hire biochemical experts to develop weaponized Anthrax." Yes, it would be -- except NPR didn't do that. Kestenbaum accused TVC of nothing; he merely asked if TVC was contacted by investigators in the anthrax case based on a not-illogical line of reasoning. If TVC had been contacted by investigators, would it have gone public with that too, claiming religious discrimination?

Probably. After all, Accuracy in Media went so far as to pretend there was no evidence of right-wing ties to bioterrorism in denouncing a story in the Washington Post similar to the one NPR did.

It can certainly be argued that TVC shouldn't have been named in the story, but since TVC made such a big stink about being asked about it in the first place before the story ever aired, NPR would have been accused of caving in to intimidation (which would have been a more valid accusation than the bias TVC screams about) had it not mentioned TVC in the story that resulted from the interview that so offended Laffery.

Let's face it: intimidation is exactly was TVC was after in this case. There's no other reason to so publicly object to an interview -- remember, TVC's campaign started two weeks before the NPR story aired -- than to try and get the story spiked.

The Traditional Values Coalition claims "43,000 member churches" in one of its press releases, but it's hard to imagine that most of them support Lafferty's bitter, hysterical attacks against NPR. Then again, at last check, that online petition to defund NPR claims to have more than 15,000 signatures.

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