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Half-Stories and Non-Stories

If isn't trying to make an anti-Obama mountain out of a molehill of news, it's hiding the full story of how a terrorist plot was foiled and refusing to disclose its ties to a group agitating against Obama's planned appearance at Notre Dame.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 5/14/2009 is still trying to build non-stories into real ones.

ConWebWatch detailed how CNS tried but failed earlier this year to turn a reference by President Obama in his inauguration speech to "non-believers" into a controversy, but that was foiled when even the conservative preachers CNS quoted thought it perfectly acceptable for Obama to acknowledge the existence of non-believers in America.

CNS has now given the molehill-into-mountain attempt another shot, again involving Obama.

An April 15 CNS article by Edwin Mora carried the misleading headline, "Georgetown Says it Covered Over Name of Jesus to Comply With White House Request." This was in reference to the covering up of an "IHS" monogram in a pediment on a stage in a Georgetown auditorium prior to an Obama speech there.

In fact, as the article itself points out, the White House requested only that Georgetown "cover up all signs and symbols" on the stage, and Mora offered no evidence that the White House specifically requested that the IHS monogram be covered.

End of story, right? Wrong.

An April 16 article by Matt Cover noted that "Laura Bush spoke at Georgetown University in front of the same 'IHS'" -- baselessly suggesting that Obama administration had demanded that it be covered. As with Mora, Cover's suggestion is contradicted by his own reporting, in which he quotes an Obama White House statement that "Any suggestions to the contrary are simply false."

Mora, meanwhile, repeated the false suggestion once more in an April 16 article, calling it "the unintended consequence of the White House’s desire to have a backdrop of flags behind the president." Despite all the denials issued by the university and the administration, Mora still treated the claim as legitimate, further falsely suggesting that there's a "contradiction" between those denials.

Other branches of the Media Research Center then jumped on the non-story. An April 17 NewsBusters post by Mark Finkelstein breathlessly asserted that Obama's "hand-picked DNC Chairman [Tim Kaine] just went on national TV and denied that the Obama administration requested Georgetown University to cover up the IHS monogram representing the name of Christ" -- which, of course, is absolutely true -- further asserting that CNS "flatly report[ed] that such a request had indeed been made."

Wrong -- CNS never claimed that the Obama administration demanded that Georgetown cover up the IHS -- which is exactly what Kaine said. Nevertheless, Finkelstein called Kaine's claim "credulity-busting."

The non-story was spreading elsewhere in the ConWeb as well. An April 16 Newsmax article by Dan Weil asserted that "The White House had a monogram that symbolizes the name of Jesus hidden from the backdrop of a speech President Obama gave at Georgetown University Tuesday," even though he, like CNS, offered no evidence that the White House specifically asked for that symbol to be covered.

Despite a lack of evidence to prove its claim, CNS continued to promote it. An April 28 article by Penny Starr quoted a Republican congressman as being "disturbed" by "President Barack Obama’s request to have the symbolic name for Jesus Christ – IHS – covered from a pediment that was visible behind him when he spoke at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall on April 14." Starr went on to repeat the claim that "The Obama administration asked school officials to cover the symbol, which was done by placing a piece of plywood painted black over it."

Again, for Starr's benefit: CNS has never presented evidence that the Obama administration made specific demands to cover up the IHS. Absent that evidence, any assertion or suggestion that the administration did is, simply, a lie.

Meanwhile, CNS was heavily into promoting another attack on Obama, involving another Catholic university. Notre Dame had invited Obama to speak at its graduation, during which he would be presented with an honorary degree. CNS began highlighting criticism of the invitation and touted a petition by the Cardinal Newman Society, which it described as "a group dedicated to promoting fidelity to Catholic teachings at Catholic universities in the United States," asking Notre Dame to rescind its invitation to Obama over the president's support of abortion rights and expansion of federal embryonic stem cell research.

A March 24 article by Mora, for instance, noted how "more than 50,000 people had already signed" the petition, while an April 30 article by Mora reported that "the first 300,000" names on the petition have been forwarded to the university. Numerous other CNS articles referencing the controversy mention the petition as well.

Unmentioned by Mora or anyone else at CNS: the connection between it and the Cardinal Newman Society.

As the Washington Independent pointed out, the Cardinal Newman Society -- which it described as "the key advocate for conservative values at Catholic universities" -- is "loosely affiliated with the conservative Media Research Center, whose president L. Brent Bozell III serves on the Cardinal Newman Society’s board of directors." The MRC is the parent organization of CNS.

Related articles on ConWebWatch:

Once and Future Bias

Planned Attacks

Failing the Audition

A search of the CNS archive found that at no point in CNS articles dating back to 2004 that referenced the Cardinal Newman Society also noted that Bozell is on the society's board of directors. Further, no CNS article accurately describes the society's place on the liberal-conservative scale -- an important part of the story.

Indeed, the controversy appears to be raging only among conservative Catholics: a Pew Research Center poll released May 1 found that among Catholics who have heard of the dispute, 54 percent approve of keeping Obama as speaker. Further, a Gallup tracking poll from showed Obama with a 67 percent approval rating among Catholics over his first 100 days in office, despite what the poll called "Obama's more liberal positions on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research."

CNS normally has disclosed conflicts of interest when it covers people and studies linked to other MRC divisions, so it's strange that it has refused thus far to disclose Bozell's link to the Cardinal Newman Society. Further, a May 13 column by CNS editor-in-chief Terry Jeffrey attacking Harry Knox, a member of Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, as a "Catholic-basher" appeared the same day that Bozell released a letter on the MRC website signed by him and other "Catholic leaders" demanding that Obama fire Knox for making "numerous vile and dishonest attacks against the Church and the Holy Father."

But then, failing to tell the whole story is something that CNS has fallen into of late.

Jeffrey claimed in an April 21 CNS article: "The Central Intelligence Agency told today that it stands by the assertion made in a May 30, 2005 Justice Department memo that the use of 'enhanced techniques' of interrogation on al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) -- including the use of waterboarding -- caused KSM to reveal information that allowed the U.S. government to thwart a planned attack on Los Angeles." Jeffrey liked that scoop so much that rewrote the article and turned it into his April 22 column.

Just one problem with the claim: It doesn't warrant the unequivocal assertion Jeffrey is making.

As Media Matters and Slate's Timothy Noah have pointed out, the Bush administration has stated that the plot in question, a plan to fly a hijacked airliner into a Los Angeles skyscraper, was broken up in February 2002 -- more than a year before Mohammed's capture in March 2003. That means Mohammed gave information under waterboarding (if indeed he actually did so) about a plot that not only had already been foiled, it appears to have been not much of a plot in the first place.

Still, CNS repeated the claim in an April 23 article by Josiah Ryan, an April 24 article by Penny Starr, and an April 24 article by Fred Lucas. Like Jeffrey, none of these reporters acknowledged the questions surrounding the claim.

And like the misleading IHS claim, this dubious assertion spread into the ConWeb as well: Hal Lindsey repeated it in his April 24 WorldNetDaily column, as did David Limbaugh's April 24 column, published at Newsmax and WorldNetDaily.

Along with the promotion of a dubious claim about which he won't fully inform his readers, Jeffrey has another problem: He has apparently allowed himself to serve as a stooge for the CIA, treating information fed to him as fact that may not be true at all.

Jeffrey might want to explain that to his readers -- that, and why he feels CNS must keep its readers in the dark about questionable claims and conflicts of interest, as well as why CNS must mislead readers about Obama.

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