TCS Daily


Too Good to Check

By James K. Glassman - September 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Back in the dim past, when I was a pup reporter, a revered veteran passed along some advice: "Never over-report a good story." In other words, if you get a tip about a terrific tale, don't do too much research and interviewing. You might find out it's untrue, and you'll have to scrap it. Some stories, the veteran added, are just "too good to check."

I had a chuckle, but now, after 40 years in journalism -- as a reporter, editor, TV host, columnist and publisher -- I am not at all sure the veteran was joking. I have watched willful distortion become more and more common, in both print and broadcast.

It is not just laziness or psychosis or a lust for fame that causes distortion. Another reason for getting a story wrong is bias -- that is, journalists' own political leanings.

That may be the case in the latest brewing scandal -- the claim on CBS's "60 Minutes II" last week that memos from Lt. Col. Jerry Killian showed that, as a National Guard pilot, the George W. Bush refused to take a physical and benefited from favoritism.

But "it is not entirely certainly that they [the memos] are authentic," write Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff in Newsweek, who raise questions about CBS's sources. In addition, Killian's widow and son, who were not cited in the CBS report, both suspect the memos are fake -- as do many experts who have examined them. These analyses, many of them quite sophisticated, first surfaced on the Internet, on such sites as powerlineblog.com and Little Green Footballs, where experts argued that it was highly unlikely that the memos were produced on a vintage-1973 typewriter and bore the marks of new technology. Blogger amateurs shame the media pros. Bravo.

That journalists lean left is undeniable, as studies back to 1964 have shown. Research by Freedom Forum, for example, found that 89 percent of Washington-based reporters voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and only 7 percent for George H. W. Bush.

Today, the media and the public are even farther apart. A Pew Research Center study in May found that national journalists describe themselves as liberal over conservative by a ratio of five to one. Americans at large call themselves conservative over liberal by a ratio of three to two.

But journalists say that they put their personal beliefs aside as professionals. Most do, but it is clear that producers and editors who have a visceral hatred of, for example, George W. Bush, are more apt to think the worst of him, gravitate toward stories that reinforce their prejudices and conclude such tales are too good to check extensively.

One of the few academic studies that examine bias seriously was just released on Saturday by two of my colleagues, economists John Lott and Kevin Hassett, who are, respectively, resident scholar and director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

In the study -- "Is Newspaper Coverage of Economic Events Politically Biased?" -- researchers looked at coverage of durable goods, GDP, retail sales and employment data by 389 newspapers and found that they "tend to give more positive coverage to the same economic news when Democrats are in the Presidency than for Republicans. Our results are highly significant."

For example, the unemployment rate under Bill Clinton averaged 5.2 percent, just three-tenths of a percentage point below the rate under George W. Bush. But newspapers gave Clinton positive headlines on unemployment 44 percent of the time; Bush, 23 percent.

My own experience is that compared with television networks, the newspapers and wire services are paragons of objectivity. As a result, I rarely watch the nightly news on TV.

Consider the CBS memos: On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that "another retired Air National Guard officer came forward to attack the network's credibility." Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges had been cited by Dan Rather as a key source in CBS's authentication of the documents. "It took a lot for him to speak the truth," Rather said. Another CBS executive called Hodges the network's "trump card."

But Hodges, contacted by the Post's Michael Dobbs, said that a CBS reporter merely "read him extracts from documents purportedly written by Killian." Hodges said he talked to Killian about Bush, "but he denied confirming the authenticity of the documents in any way." Hodges then told Dobbs, "Now that I have had a chance to see them, I think they are fake."

No one can accuse CBS of over-reporting this good story.


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