Jewish World Review March 15, 2004 / 22 Adar, 5764
The not-so-perfect storm
Call it "three green suitcase" journalism.
Let's say a feature writer thinks green
luggage is becoming popular. So the
reporter taps out a story citing three people
in different states who have given up black
suitcases and bought green ones. The
second paragraph begins: "All across
America, people are switching to green
suitcases." This creates a media trend that
might be real but is probably bogus and certainly isn't established by three
The uproar over
President Bush's 9/11
ads was a classic
story. The New York
Daily News broke the
story on March 4, with
a huge headline
"STORM OVER BUSH
9/11 AD." As howling
front-page storms go,
this one was small. The
story quoted three
unhappy members of
victims' families and
one fireman. There were
more bylines (four) than
outraged family members (three).
The size of the headline letters, 2 inches tall, in a famous big-city daily,
established that a major story was underway. With an extra day to rewrite
the News, the Washington Post kept the story rolling, although, it could find
only two displeased family members and one fireman. So did USA Today. TV
and print media blossomed with furor stories, prodded along by a quick press
release from the Democratic National Committee that pointed to the storm in
that morning's Daily News. By dinnertime, the story was all over TV. The next
day, CBS.com was talking about "a flood of anti-ad criticism."
This "flood" consisted mainly of 10 or 12 people quoted over and over. Some
people turned up in stories because they were already in reporters'
Rolodexes as complainers, unhappy about many different 9/11 issues. This
group included a lot of vocal anti-Bush activists, who were not really
representative of the victim-families movement but were fairly well known to
One of the conservative bloggers, John Hawkins at RightWingNews.com,
figured out early what was happening. He pointed out that in the big
Associated Press story on the alleged furor, "5 out of 6 people interviewed
had an ax to grind with George Bush." Monica Gabrielle, who called the ad
"despicable," is a Bush-basher who turned up on at least nine news sites.
David Potorti, who was also quoted in many stories, said last October, "I feel
like the foreign policy of the Bush administration is almost like a second
assault on us." Readers and viewers were not told about these anti-Bush
sentiments in stories about the ads.
Potorti is a founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows,
identified by reporters as "an advocacy group," "a victims' families group," or
"one of the families' organizations." More accurately, Peaceful Tomorrows is
the antiwar segment of the victims' families movement, long hostile to Bush
policies and affiliated with MoveOn.org, a Web-based organization of the left
that wants Bush censured and then defeated. Reporters kept quoting leaders
of Peaceful Tomorrows without mentioning their leftward push or their small
membership (they claim 120 members, out of a population of victims' family
members that surely tops 10,000).
Partisans. Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of
Fire Fighters, denounced the ads in nearly every story. Most reports pointed
out that his union had endorsed John Kerry. But I saw no report mentioning
that Schaitberger is national cochair of the Kerry for President committee and
therefore the most important nonpolitician in the Kerry leadership. Quoting
Schaitberger on Bush's ads is like quoting Karl Rove as a detached analyst
of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Amazingly, the AP story left the impression that
Schaitberger resented the Bush ad because money for first responders had
been cut. According to the AP report, "He said his union is politically
independent even though it endorsed Kerry and has donated money to
Republicans." Good thing the reporter mentioned this evenhandedness.
Otherwise, readers might have concluded that Schaitberger's highly abusive
remarks about the Bush ads were coming from some sort of partisan.
We ought to have some discussion of how these stories were constructed,
why reporters didn't go beyond the first wall of savvy and activist family
members, and why so many of the small decisions reporters made on
deadline seemed to go so heavily in one political direction. It would also be
nice to learn why reporters think that three or four people constitute a storm.
Once the story line was set, of course, there was a storm. But some of us
would like an ombudsman or two to discuss where the storm arose. Was it in
the outside world or in the newsroom?
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