Ratings and real life

ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz last night complained about an article in the New York Times that suggested “World News Tonight” co-anchor Bob Woodruff was in Iraq for the purpose of bolstering the newscast’s ratings. In an interview with NECN’s Chet Curtis, Raddatz said her network would never do any such thing.

Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were badly injured on Sunday. They are said to be in serious condition, but recovering.

Raddatz’s comments are not yet available on NECN’s Web site, so I won’t attempt to quote her directly. But she raises an important issue: How much risk is acceptable for journalists covering the war in Iraq? And where is the line between legitimate newsgathering and ratings-mongering?

For starters, Raddatz would seem to be referring to this article in yesterday’s Times, by Richard Oppel and Jacques Steinberg. Here are the sections to which Raddatz apparently was objecting:

For years now, “World News Tonight” has been lagging in the ratings, and ABC has much money and prestige riding on its new co-anchor format, which was intended to stand out from its competitors by having Mr. Woodruff and his partner, Elizabeth Vargas, take turns reporting from the field while the other stays in New York….

Since his first night as co-anchor, on Jan. 3, Mr. Woodruff has crisscrossed the globe, from Tehran to Jerusalem to northern California, and back again to Jerusalem, in an effort to imbue the program with an on-the-scene immediacy and vitality that ABC executives hoped could improve the program’s ratings against its main competitors, NBC and CBS.

For the moment, the standings remain much as they had in recent years, when the broadcasts had been presided over by the so-called Big 3 anchors. NBC, led since Tom Brokaw’s retirement in December 2004 by Brian Williams, is comfortably in first place; ABC remains a solid second; and CBS, with Bob Schieffer serving as anchor until a permanent successor to Dan Rather is appointed, is trailing in third.

At least in the short run, Mr. Woodruff’s recovery figures to focus even more attention on the three broadcasts, particularly if he makes a quick return, but an extended leave could also upend ABC News, at a moment when Katie Couric of NBC’s dominant “Today” show is mulling whether to further shake up the evening news race by jumping to the “CBS Evening News.”

All three evening news broadcasts have been losing viewers for years, as people’s workdays push past 6:30 p.m. — when the evening news typically begins — and the Internet is increasingly sought out as a news source.

This is pretty mild stuff, all of it obviously true — but inappropriate under the circumstances. I’m quoting from the article at length to show how much analysis of the troubled television news business Oppel and Steinberg offered in an article that was supposed to be about two journalists who’d been injured in the line of duty.

In one sense, Raddatz is wrong. It is transparently obvious that ABC News executives have decided to fly Woodruff and Vargas around the country and the world, reporting and anchoring at the scene of major stories, in an effort to stand out from NBC and CBS — and thus to bolster the network’s ratings.

But in perhaps a deeper sense, Raddatz is right. The tone of the Times article is respectful, but its focus on the game of TV news suggests that there was something not quite serious about Woodruff’s presence in Iraq.

Let’s look at this logically. As a major news organization, ABC News has an obligation to cover the war in Iraq. If it hadn’t sent Woodruff — a gifted reporter as well as someone whom the network is trying to transform into a household name — then it would have sent someone else. If sending someone who’s not an anchor isn’t a ratings stunt, then it’s not a ratings stunt to send Woodruff, either. (Is the presence of John Burns in Iraq a Times circulation stunt?)

As for risk, Woodruff and Vogt do not appear to have been foolhardy. But covering Iraq is incredibly dangerous. According to Reporters Without Borders, 73 journalists have died since the war began — a number that includes local journalists such as the Boston Globe’s Elizabeth Neuffer and the Atlantic Monthly’s Michael Kelly. The horrifying ordeal of Christian Science Monitor freelancer Jill Carroll represents another kind of risk.

That doesn’t mean ABC’s ratings don’t enter into the calculation of whether to send a co-anchor into such a dangerous environment. Of course they do. They always do. It does mean that Woodruff and Vogt were in Iraq on a legitimate journalistic assignment.

Not that the Times article said otherwise. But devoting so much space to ratings and competition at a moment when Woodruff’s and Vogt’s lives were hanging in the balance suggests a certain tone-deafness on the part of the Times.


Beneath contempt

I realize this doesn’t exactly qualify as a news flash. But White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s performance yesterday, which I caught on television last night, struck me as yet another example of a certain type of political rhetoric that is so phony it ought to be held up and ridiculed on every occasion.

And though I’m not prepared to quantify it, it seems to me that it’s the sort of thing engaged in far more often by Republicans — or at least those Republicans whose reason for being is to promote the fortunes of George W. Bush — than it is by Democrats.

The subject: U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s announcement that he’ll try to lead a filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Rick Klein captures it in today’s Boston Globe:

Seizing on the fact that Kerry demanded a filibuster from the economic summit — held in Switzerland’s posh Steigenberger Hotel Belvedere — the Republican National Committee press release labeled Kerry and Kennedy the “Davos Dems.” One Capitol Hill wag tagged their Quixotic move “the Swiss Miss.”

Asked at the White House about the filibuster threat, White House press secretary Scott McClellan chuckled. ”I think even for a senator, it takes some pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps,” he quipped.

Got that? Kerry is working at the world economic conference, doing whatever it is a senator might do at such a gathering. And the spokesman for Bush — who is known for occasionally attending such events himself, as of course he should — immediately mocks Kerry as though he had merely gone on an expensive ski trip. The “rich, elitist, out-of-touch liberal” trope rides again!

Now, if people want to mock Kerry for launching a filibuster that will likely be futile, that’s fine. I laughed along with everyone else at David Kirkpatrick’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times, in which he wrote, “Democrats cringed and Republicans jeered at the awkwardness of his gesture, which almost no one in the Senate expects to succeed.” (Not exactly a model of objectivity, though.)

But McClellan’s putdown is so contemptible because it is inherently dishonest. The media have got to stop going along with this stuff.

Polishing his own apple

The Lowell Sun has a great story today on U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Lowell, whose staff edited his bio in Wikipedia to remove a long-since-broken promise to step down after four terms, as well as the size of his campaign account.

Check out Meehan’s Wikipedia entry now, and it ends with this: “Meehan’s staff members have been accused of editing out references to his campaign money and term-limit promises on Wikipedia.” Yes, indeed.

Even better — or worse, if you’re Meehan — the congressional vandalism made the humor site Fark.com, along with some pretty vicious comments.

The T-word

Now that Hamas has taken over the Palestinian parliament, we can expect a renewal of the debate over whether the news media should label the organization as “terrorist.” Here is some background.

More than two years ago, then-Boston Globe ombudsman Christine Chinlund offered an expansive explanation for why the media shouldn’t use the T-word to describe Hamas, and why they should use the term to describe “specific acts.” An excerpt:

What possible reason is there for not unflinchingly applying the word terrorist to any organization or person who targets civilians? It may seem like hair-splitting, but there’s a reason to reserve the terrorist label for specific acts of violence, and not apply it broadly to groups.

To tag Hamas, for example, as a terrorist organization is to ignore its far more complex role in the Middle East drama. The word reflects not only a simplification, but a bias that runs counter to good journalism. To label any group in the Middle East as terrorist is to take sides, or at least appear to, and that is not acceptable. The same holds true in covering other far-flung conflicts. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; it’s not for journalists to judge.

That said, journalists can not, and should not, be blind to reality. When we see terrorism, we should say so. A suicide bombing on a crowded bus is clearly an act of terrorism and should be so labeled. And it should also be described in all its painful detail. Such reporting is more powerful in its specificity than any broad label.

This approach — call the act terrorist, but not the organization — is used in many newsrooms, including the Globe’s. It allows for variations: The terrorist label can appear in a quote or when detailing Washington’s official list of terrorist groups. But not in the reporter’s own voice.

That appears to be the policy followed by the New York Times, too. (Or as the New Republic Online once caustically put it (sub. req.), “close examination of the Times suggests a policy of referring to attacks against civilians as terrorism except when the victims happen to be Jewish.”) So it was interesting today to see the split between the news pages and the editorial page. The lead news article, by Steven Erlanger, referred to Hamas as a “radical Islamic party,” and noted carefully that the organization is “considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.”

The lead editorial throws such caution to the wind, calling Hamas “an organization that revels in terrorism.” Of course, the editorial page is supposed to be opinionated — and perhaps there really isn’t any discrepancy, since the editorial might be said to refer to “specific acts” Hamas engages in rather than the organization itself.

Obviously Hamas uses terrorism to advance its cause of destroying Israel. Does that make it a “terrorist organization”? You would think so. Expect to see this debated extensively — and heatedly — in the days and weeks to come.

Spit and tarnish

As if Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein weren’t already taking enough grief for his snotty Tuesday piece (the one that begins “I don’t support our troops”), he also manages to repeat a disproven myth about what happened to some soldiers when they came home from Vietnam.

“I’m not advocating that we spit on returning veterans like they did after the Vietnam War, but we shouldn’t be celebrating people for doing something we don’t think was a good idea,” Stein writes.

Unfortunately for Stein, there is no proof that that ever happened. He needs to read this.

Civil-liberties heroes

Kudos to officials in Newton, who refused earlier this week to let the FBI grab computers at the public library without a warrant. Dan Atkinson covered the story yesterday in the Newton Tab; his article was also published in the Boston Herald, the Tab’s corporate big brother. Ralph Ranalli follows up in the Boston Globe today.

Yet this isn’t entirely clear-cut. Reportedly nearby Brandeis University had been threatened with a terrorist attack over the Internet, and the FBI was able to trace the threat to a computer at the Newton Free Library. It’s not inconceivable that time was of the essence.

In today’s Boston Herald, columnist Virginia Buckingham writes (sub. req.), “Why would law enforcement want to look at those Newton library computers? They’d want to know, ‘Is this part of a wider conspiracy?’ one senior federal law enforcement officer told me. ‘The quicker you can get access to information, the quicker you can determine if the threat is real and notify law enforcement around the country.'”

I don’t dismiss that out of hand, although I think Buckingham is too quick to buy into the FBI’s most dire scenario. As Ranalli writes in the Globe, “Gail Marcinkiewicz, Boston FBI spokeswoman, said yesterday that the bureau contends that the agents could have seized the computers without a warrant, under the legal theory that they were ‘evidence of a crime in plain view.'”

Whether you buy that or not, it seems pretty clear from Marcinkiewicz’s comments that if FBI agents were absolutely convinced they had to have access to the computers immediately, they would have acted first and figured out the legalities later. That they didn’t suggests that library director Kathy Glick-Weil did exactly the right thing.

In a measured statement (PDF), the ACLU of Massachusetts praised Newton officials. According to executive director Carol Rose:

To be sure, we should all be concerned with the delay in law enforcement’s access to the computer after it was identified as a possible source of a threat. But the delay is not the fault of the librarian. She was complying with the law, and we expect police officers and the FBI to do the same.

Clearly, after 9/11, there should have been a procedure in place to ensure that law enforcement could promptly obtain a search warrant in an emergency situation. In a situation like this, the answer is not to simply shelve the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but to create an expedited process for obtaining search warrants. We can address security concerns without surrendering basic constitutional rights.

Those are words President Bush ought to consider with respect to the no-warrant wiretapping program he so pugnaciously defends. If the law makes it too difficult to investigate suspected terrorists, work to change it — don’t violate it.

Update: More details from the Newton Tab’s Web site.

Missing context found

Adam Nagourney of the New York Times today writes the paragraph he should have included in his Saturday report on Karl Rove’s speech to the Republican National Committee:

Democrats — and, though Mr. Rove made no mention of this Friday, some Republicans, too — have indeed challenged the administration for eavesdropping without obtaining warrants. They argue, among other points, that the White House is bypassing legal mechanisms established in 1978 that already allow law enforcement agencies to move rapidly to monitor communications that might involve terrorists. Yet it is difficult to think of a Democrat who has actually argued that it is not “in our national security interest” to track Qaeda calls to the United States, as Mr. Rove contested; he did not offer any examples of whom he had in mind.

Not a bad start.