Once and Future Bias
CNSNews.com took a stab at serving up relatively balanced reporting earlier this year. With the arrival of new management, however, that's all gone.
By Terry Krepel
The illness and death of David Thibault prompted numerous changes behind the scenes at CNSNews.com. The net result, though, is negligible in the final result of what readers see: It's still as biased as ever -- and on its way to getting even more so.
As longtime managing editor and, at the time of his death in July, editor-in-chief, Thibault played a role in perpetuating CNS' pro-conservative, anti-liberal slant -- from subjective labeling of political factions (with positive connotations for conservatives and negative connotations for liberals) to articles built around the assumption that Democrats are motivated only by politics. Two of CNS' most notorious hit pieces were also published under Thibault: a hit job on Democratic Rep. John Murtha featuring attacks by his political enemies (even dead and incapacitated ones), and the false claim that Democratic strategist Paul Begala claimed Republicans wanted to kill him and his family (when called on it, Thibault first insisted that Begala had been quoted correctly, then backed off somewhat only to attack Begala for lacking "political civility and personal responsibility").
In late 2006, as Thibault was battling leukemia, CNS international editor Patrick Goodenough came from the Pacific Rim to CNS' Alexandria, Va., offices to serve as managing editor. Under Goodenough, CNS appeared to take a stab at being somewhat less blatantly biased.
The high point was a pair of July 3 articles that looked at, respectively, the left-wing and right-wing extremists involved in the immigration debate. The surprising part came in the left-wing article, which paints the Aztlan "reconquista" movement of reclaiming the southwestern United States for Mexico as the domain of extremists criticized even by other "pro-immigrant" groups -- and even more surprisingly, debunking a right-wing talking point by pointing out that the Latino group known as MEChA, while referring to Aztlan in its 1960s-era founding papers, is not actively promoting it. The article states that "according to observers on the left and the right, the modern MEChA movement is run by college students and focuses mainly on encouraging Latino high school students to go to college and the retention of Latino students already enrolled in universities," adding that "the group is so decentralized that Cybercast News Service could not even locate a national spokesperson."
Not that CNS was perfect during that period,though. Conservative talking points were promoted and some biases were perpetuated:
Goodenough went back to his Pacific Rim post in July, after CNS hired a new managing editor, Michael Chapman. His CNS bio details his conservative bona fides -- editorial page editor of The Lima News in Ohio (owned by Freedom Communications, a company that generally requires its newspapers' editorials to push a libertarian stance); journalism fellow for the conservative Phillips Foundation; editorial writer and national issues reporter for Investor’s Business Daily (a newspaper with a stridently conservative editorial page); and editorial director of the libertarian Cato Institute. The bio also lists books and publications in which Chapman's "reporting has been cited/published" -- but, curiously, no mention of what exactly it was that Chapman reported on.
The new management team was filled out in September when it was announced that Terry Jeffrey, editor of the conservative weekly Human Events for the past decade, had been hired as CNS' new editor-in-chief.
And lo and behold, two days after Jeffrey's hiring was announced, Jeffrey popped up on the Sept. 19 edition of CNN's "The Situation Room." Jeffrey sounded all the movement-conservative notes, criticizing Rudy Giuliani, defending Dick Cheney, and promoting the Bush administration's economic policy (except for the parts, like the Medicare prescription benefit, that "disappointed conservatives like me").
The arrival of Jeffrey and Chapman appears to have nailed down the lid on Goodenough's attempts at relative moderation and balance.
CNS began a new video segment called, "On the Spot," in which (mostly Democratic) politicians are questioned on camera. A group of videos posted Sept. 20 feature reporter Nathan Burchfiel buttonholing Democratic congressman on the conservative talking point that "violence has been down in the [Iraq] region in the past three months as a result of the troop surge" in ad hoc interviews on what appears to be the little subway system that runs between the Capitol and congressional office buildings.
Similarly, an Oct. 3 article by Burchfiel and Monisha Bansal on the amending of a defense authorization bill to extend hate crimes legislation to cover sexual orientation and gender identity noted, "Some observers think the hate crimes legislation goes beyond criminalizing actions and actually criminalizes points of view." Who are those "some people"? Bansal and Burchfiel don't tell us. Then they forwarded their question of the day: "On Tuesday, Cybercast News Service hit Capitol Hill to ask members of Congress if the government should criminalize points of view and which views should be criminalized." Nowhere did Bansal and Burchfiel note -- as the Democratic members of Congress the questioned pointed out in their response -- that the amendment has an religious exemption.
The video accompanying the article similarly illustrates the ambush aspect -- as far as Democratic members are concerned, at least. All of the Democratic members appear to have been interviewed on the sidewalk outside the Capitol building; the sole Republican congressman featured appears to have been interviewed inside his office, suggesting that CNS extended a courtesy to a Republican that it didn't offer to the Democrats.
An Oct. 11 article by Bansal on a congressional battle over whether to grant retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies who cooperated with the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program stated: "Cybercast News Service hit Capitol Hill Wednesday to ask members of Congress if they would support giving the companies immunity, with the following question: 'Should the government ever prosecute communications companies for helping the government intercept international communications with suspected al Qaeda links in the years after 9/11?'" The wording of the question -- which failed to mention the words "retroactive" and "illegal" -- ignores the obvious fact that the telecom companies wouldn't need immunity if the behavior in question wasn't at least potentially illegal. Also ignored was the flip side of that: allegations that telecom companies such as Qwest were retaliated against by the federal government because they refused to cooperate.
Such interviews appear to be more about trying to corner Democratic members of Congress into making an embarrassing off-message statement, the video of which can then be plastered all over the Internet, than eliciting actual useful information from them. That appears to be the one thing CNS learned from George Allen's "macaca" debacle -- its attempt to use Jim Webb's fiction against him, in apparent conjunction with Allen's campaign, came off as the desperate move it was.
The bias in regular articles seemed to get a little more aggressive as well.
In a Sept. 21 article, Susan Jones asserted that because Sen. Hillary Clinton didn't vote for an amendment condemning a MoveOn.org ad critical of Gen. David Petraeus, "she refused to support Gen. Petraeus or condemn the personal attacks on him." In fact, Clinton voted for a different amendment that did, in fact, denounce the ad (as well as Republican attacks on Democratic members of the military) -- something Jones didn't report.
An Oct. 15 article by Jones uncritically repeated conservative attacks on new laws signed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that were "backed by the homosexual community," treating their claims as fact and not allowing any rebuttal to them. Jones apparently merely rewrote a press release from the Campaign for Children and Families, which has a history of anti-gay activism. She treated as fact a claim that one bill "would indoctrinate via school textbooks and activities" about homosexuality by not attributing it to CCF. While Jones wrote that "Supporters said the new law is supposed to eliminate 'confusion' about the state's responsibility to ensure that all school programs, textbooks, instructional materials and activities are free from unlawful discrimination," she then permitted the CCF to frame the argument, describing the signed bills as disparagingly as possible without any response to that characterization by supporters.
On Oct. 12, as ConWebWatch has previously noted, CNS devoted three articles to the Nobel Peace Prize won by former Vice President Al Gore, but it made no apparent effort to contact any supporter of Gore for comment, quoting only from news articles for quotes from Gore and the Nobel citation, a "statement congratulating Gore" from the Sierra Club, and a full-page ad in the New York Times encouraging Gore to run for president. CNS made no apparent effort to contact Gore or any supporter of him, quoting only from news articles for quotes from Gore and the Nobel citation, a "statement congratulating Gore" from the Sierra Club, and a full-page ad in the New York Times encouraging Gore to run for president. The bulk of the articles, meanwhile, consisted of comments from no less than eight "critics of Al Gore" and "skeptics of man-made climate change," most of whom are described as having "told Cybercast News Service" their comments.
An Oct. 2 article by Burchfiel and Fred Lucas took Rush Limbaugh's side of the argument in a controversy over a comment Limbaugh made on his radio show. Burchfiel and Lucas wrote that Limbaugh was"under fire from liberal media critics and some Democrats in Congress for using the term "phony soldiers" to describe Jesse Macbeth, who was sentenced to five months in prison for falsifying his military records," as if there was no doubt about what Limbaugh had said. While they wrote that "that "Media Matters claims that Limbaugh used the 'phony soldiers' term to describe all soldiers who have spoken out against the war," they never explain the nature of the controversy. Rather, they go on to note: "Limbaugh has explained on his talk-radio show that the "phony soldiers" comment was taken out of context and that he was referring specifically to Macbeth and others like him."
In fact, nearly two minutes elapsed between Limbaugh's "phony soldiers" comment -- made in response to a caller talking about those opposing the Iraq war who "like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media" -- and his first mention of MacBeth. Further, Limbaugh never explicitly linked his "phony soldiers" comment to MacBeth at the time he said it, doing so only after the fact while defending himself against the outcry caused by his statement.
The next day, an article by Burchfiel and Bansal got slightly closer to the truth; it claimed that "Limbaugh used the term 'phony soldiers' in setting up a story about Jesse Macbeth, a former soldier who was recently sentenced to five months in prison for obtaining veterans' benefits by falsifying his military records," but again failed to note the amount of time that had elapsed between the "phony soldiers" comment and his first mention of MacBeth.
An Oct. 17 CNSNews.com article by Fred Lucas on "Hollywood mogul" Peter Paul's failed attempt to drag Hillary Clinton into a lawsuit he filed failed to mention Paul's history as a convicted felon. While Lucas stated that "Paul's suit claims that actions by the Clintons and their associates cost him his multi-million dollar Internet venture, Stan Lee Media, for which he was a majority owner," he did not note (as he sorta attempted to do a June 29 article) that Paul pleaded guilty to a $25 million scheme to manipulate the price of Stan Lee Media stock, or that he is awaiting sentencing on that guilty plea.
Jeffrey himself has been a contributor to the bias, particularly on the issue of whether effectiveness of waterboarding as an interrogation technique. In an Oct. 10 column, Jeffrey set up a pair of hypotheticals: The first is of a soldier who shoots a suicide bomber; the second, which suggests Jeffrey has watched way too much "24" and has worn out his copy of "Black Sunday," offers that an "al-Qaida cell has hidden a bomb inside the stadium where tens of thousands will gather that day for the Super Bowl," learned when "A caller in Pakistan dials a number in the United States. A U.S. spy satellite intercepts the call; an NSA computer records it," though "the computer has no warrant and no probable cause to believe this call will produce evidence of a crime." Jeffrey then tells of "Madame President" receiving purported counsel on the situation from "Attorney General Charles Schumer," who says, "They intercepted this guy's call without a warrant," and "National Security Advisor Sandy Berger," who "nods knowingly." But Jeffrey doesn't mention that the FISA law under which such calls would be monitored allows the government to receive warrants retroactively. Jeffrey then writes:
So much for hypotheticals.
Similarly, in a Nov. 4 appearance on "The Situation Room," Jeffrey claimed:
Brian Ross of ABC News reported that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, was broken by our CIA after he was waterboarded, and he, in fact, revealed ongoing Al Qaeda plots against the United States. If the Democrats in the Senate want to ban the procedure by which we got vital information out of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Harry Reid ought to put up a bill right now that says, "Waterboarding is forbidden. What we did to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed may not be done again."
But Jeffrey appears to be hiding the rest of the story. According to Media Matters, on the Nov. 18, 2005, edition of ABC's "World News Tonight," Ross said that "CIA officers say 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed lasted the longest under waterboarding, two and a half minutes, before beginning to talk, with debatable results." Further, author Ron Suskind has asserted that what U.S. interrogators got out of Mohammed after waterboarding were "things that professional interrogators say could have been gotten otherwise."
When the boss is peddling misleading claims, that's hardly an incentive for the rest of the staff to stay dedicated to CNS' claimed mission "to fairly present all legitimate sides of a story." Which means we'll be seeing plenty of biased reporting from CNS for the foreseeable future.