A new poll shows Clinton slumping. But why?

Hillary Clinton in 2013. Photo (cc) by Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.
Hillary Clinton in 2013. Photo (cc) by Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.

The email controversy has taken such a toll on Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy that it’s dragged her below 50 percent among Democrats, The Washington Post reports. But the new Post-ABC News poll from which that conclusion is drawn shows that other, more mundane factors may have more to do with her sagging numbers.

The poll shows that the percentage of Democratic-leaning voters who say they back Clinton has fallen from 63 percent in mid-July to just 42 percent last week — a 21-point drop. Sounds like trouble, especially when you look at numbers showing that a rising percentage of respondents believe Clinton is untrustworthy.

“Hillary Rodham Clinton has lost significant ground over the past two months, as she has struggled to manage the controversy over her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state,” write the Post’s Dan Balz and Scott Clement.

But is that the most important explanation for her declining numbers? My guess is no.

First, Bernie Sanders’ support has risen from 14 percent to 24 percent, a phenomenon that strikes me as entirely independent of any concerns about Clinton’s emails. Sanders is experiencing the sort of surge that is not uncommon for the most clearly progressive candidate in the months leading up to the primaries — that is, the candidate who best represents “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Howard Dean once put it. Sanders is actually leading Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to some polls. We’ll see whether it lasts.

Second, a Joe Biden candidacy wasn’t on anyone’s radar in July, yet the vice president attracted 12 percent of respondents anyway. Last week, with Biden looking like he might jump in, he rose to 21 percent, just behind Sanders. Again, I don’t think it makes sense to assume the emails are mainly responsible for Biden’s rise, although I’m sure he looks better to some voters as a result of Clinton’s struggles. Mainly, though, Biden enjoys an enormous reservoir of goodwill. All it took was an indication that he might actually run for his numbers to go up.

And if you remove Biden from the equation, Clinton leads Sanders by a margin of 56 percent to 28 percent. With Biden seemingly signaling to Stephen Colbert that he won’t take the plunge, that seems like a truer picture of the state of the Democratic race.

Clinton may or may not be in trouble with the electorate as a whole, but there’s little indication that Democrats are inclined to reject her.

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George Stephanopoulos has (had) a secret

Funny. Just yesterday I was discussing with my students why journalists don’t give money to politicians. Of course, George Stephanopoulos only plays one on TV.

Dylan Byers of Politico reports that Stephanopoulos has donated $50,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He notes:

Stephanopoulos never disclosed this information to viewers, even when interviewing author Peter Schweizer last month about his book “Clinton Cash,” which alleges that donations to the Foundation may have influenced some of Hillary Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State.

So far ABC News says it’s standing behind Stephanopoulos. It’s certainly not a Brian Williams-level transgression, but there’s no question that this is unethical and that he deprived viewers of important information. (And to be clear: Disclosure is necessary but insufficient. He never should have given the money in the first place.)

Will he be able to brazen it out? Probably. The fact that he was donating to a politically wired charity rather than to a political campaign will help. But still.

Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997

On Feb. 6, 1997, just after the debut of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), I wrote an article for The Boston Phoenix on the state of the city’s two major public broadcasters, WGBH and WBUR. It was the first time I’d met the host, Emily Rooney. The original is online here, but, as you will see, it’s unreadable; thus, I have reproduced it in full below. In re-reading it, I was struck by what an interesting moment in time that was, with many of the same names and issues still with us 17 years later.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

Copyright © 1997 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

GB_largeplayerEmily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

This is, after all, the first significant foray into local public-affairs programming for WGBH (Channels 2 and 44, plus a radio station) since 1991, when it canceled The Ten O’Clock News. The new show is a huge improvement over the one it replaces, The Group, an unmoderated roundtable discussion that rose from the ashes of the News. (“A tawdry, pathetic little show,” huffs one industry observer of The Group, widely derided as “The Grope.”) Still, Greater Boston is going to need some work. Week One’s topics, which included the Super Bowl and cute animals, were too light and fluffy to qualify the show as a must-watch. And Rooney, who doubles as Greater Boston‘s executive editor, needs to overcome her on-the-set jitters.

It’s crucial that ’GBH get it right. With commercial broadcasters in full retreat from serious news and public affairs, public-broadcasting stations are the last redoubt. Boston’s two major public stations — WGBH-TV and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) — are among the most admired in the country. It’s by no means clear, however, that the people who run those stations are willing or able to fill the gap created by the commercial stations’ retreat into sensationalism and frivolity. Continue reading “Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997”

Goldsmiths honor journalism in the public interest

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

It started with one miner’s medical and legal nightmare and developed like a John Grisham novel. And finally it led to extensive reform of black lung diagnosis.

The Center for Public Integrity’s and ABC News’ yearlong work won it the $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting this week.

It took a medical database and exhaustive scrutiny of previously classified legal findings to produce the series. But Chris Hamby, the Center’s lead reporter, told a Harvard audience on Thursday that his research began with a plight “you just couldn’t ignore”: miner Gary Fox’s “outrageous” treatment by doctors and lawyers.

While Hamby circumvented privacy laws by getting miners’ consent to view their records, ABC News producer Matthew Mosk discovered a law firm that operated “like a John Grisham novel.”

As in past years, finalists for the Goldsmith awards, administered by the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, included much such collaboration between media and public service organizations. Goldsmith winners and finalists are traditionally seen as front-runners for Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced next month.

• The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which bills itself as “the world’s best cross-border investigative team,” used Australian, Chinese and British reporters to reveal a universe of offshore money manipulation that has sparked international tax investigations.

ICIJ director Gerald Ryle said he was leaked 2.5 million files via hard drive and is proud that none of his operation’s anonymous informants has been caught. The 50-article series provides important context into powerful figures’ financial machinations. “We didn’t want to be Wikileaks and just dump documents,” he said.

While Ryle said his reporting was attacked in the Australian Senate and drew four libel suits, he noted that a Chinese colleague has faced even more danger. Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, was fired and then critically wounded in an attack last month. Ming Pao was one of ICIJ’s partners in the Offshore Leaks investigation.

• Another wide-ranging project was a bilingual multimedia revelation of widespread sexual assault against immigrant women by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Frontline,” Univision and KQED.

Reporter Andres Cediel said it took 18 months after an anonymous tip to produce the series, which has sparked criminal charges and pending legislation. The problem: he was committed to telling their story in a human way, but the victims were afraid to talk on camera. His colleague Bernice Young said it took countless trips going door to door to gain their trust. “It was a long, slow process to build a relationship,” she said.

“Frontline” producer-correspondent Lowell Bergman, lead reporter on the project, noted that this was Univision’s first foray into investigative reporting and predicted more such efforts in foreign language media.

• Shorenstein director Alex Jones said the free weekly Miami New Times was “punching above its weight” when it tackled the steroid industry.

New Times managing editor Tim Elfrink, who noted his paper had previously done investigative reporting on a very local scale, said the series started when a whistleblower came to him irate over a $4,000 dispute. The informant gave him a bunch of confusing documents about a Biogenesis operation running out of a Coral Gables strip mall. Elfrink called thousands of clients’ phone numbers — getting rejected 90 percent of the time — but eventually scanned court records to uncover the shady records of some clinic operators.

The stories, which have won a prestigious Polk Award, led to the suspension of 13 baseball players and changed how baseball owners and players approach drug use.

• Seeking national impact and backed by supportive news executives, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel scoured medical records throughout the country to expose potentially fatal flaws in newborn screening. Lead reporter Ellen Garber led a five-person team through a maze of withheld data and official denials.

When her data requests were denied, she had to negotiate state by state for records — finally penetrating the system by discovering that Arizona had kept detailed records of newborns babies from a small Native American tribe. She then confronted the head of that state’s health department, who finally released complete records.

Garber said the series, which has won the Taylor Award for fairness in journalism and the prestigious Selden Ring award for the year’s top investigative work, has had an “incredible impact,” revamping the system so blood samples arrive promptly.

• The Wall Street Journal’s Michael M. Phillips doesn’t consider himself an investigative reporter, but after covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he followed up his novelist brother’s discussions with a psychiatric researcher. This led to the discovery of secret lobotomies of servicemen after World War II.

His problem was to find out how widespread this pattern was. Freedom of Information requests denied, he turned to the National Archives, which he recommends as a fertile source of vintage information. He unearthed 18 boxes of surgical records filed under “L” — lobotomy. He picked the cases with unusual names, thinking their families would be easier to trace after more than 60 years. The multimedia presentation revealed that more than 2,000 servicemen were lobotomized, and he was able to portray some surviving victims.

• Putting a human face on a “numbers” story is a perennial challenge for investigative reporters.

Reuters staffers Scot Paltrow and Kelly Carr found egregious and widespread Defense Department accounting mistakes. Their editors shared the view of the subject’s importance but wrestled with how to make it interesting.

“Vast amounts of dollars resonates little,” said Paltrow. So they settled on a human-interest beginning to show how massive programs affect individuals:

EL PASO, Texas — As Christmas 2011 approached, U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken was once again locked in desperate battle with a formidable foe…. This time, he was up against the U.S. Defense Department. Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered…. But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Black-lung investigation wins Goldsmith Prize

breathless1b.jpg

The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and ABC News last night won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, presented by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The award was for a report on black-lung disease, described as a “yearlong investigation [that] examines how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, have helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung, even as disease rates are on the rise and an increasing number of miners are turning to a system that was supposed to help alleviate their suffering.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley received the Goldsmith career award and delivered an address that she devoted mainly to misgivings about Twitter — an odd topic that led me to make this observation as I live-tweeted her talk:

The Shorenstein Center Storified all the proceedings. Click here to have a look.

Nate Thayer blasts ABC over Pol Pot dispute

220px-FEER-1997Many years ago I met the journalist Nate Thayer at a party. I congratulated him on his reporting on the trial of Pol Pot, one of history’s great monsters. The trial — apparently something of a sham, as it was conducted by Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge movement, which Pol Pot led for many years — was the subject of a special report on ABC News’ “Nightline.”

Thayer told me he’d been having trouble with ABC, which approached him after he broke the story for the Far Eastern Economic Review. I have no memory of the details of what he told me, and I certainly had no idea his dispute with the network had dragged on all these years. But he has now posted a scorching entry on his blog, accusing the network and anchor Ted Koppel of wrongdoing in its dealings with him and daring ABC to come after him for violating a confidentiality agreement.

You might recall that earlier this year Thayer launched a rocket at The Atlantic after a Web editor asked him to contribute something for free — for the “exposure.” The resulting exchange set off a wide-ranging debate over free content and the difficulty that freelance journalists have finding paid work. It also led to an accusation of plagiarism against Thayer, which he vehemently denied.

Image via Wikipedia.

Debunking the “partisan shifts” on surveillance

The most important (and chilling) finding from the latest Pew Research Center/Washington Post survey is that 56 percent of Americans say they support the National Security Agency’s surveillance of phone records, email and other cloud surveillance systems for electronic traffic.

A few, though, have pointed to a chart showing supposed hypocrisy on the part of Democrats. In January 2006, self-identified Democrats opposed the NSA’s surveillance programs by a margin of two to one. Today they support those programs by an almost identical margin.

The chart is helpfully labeled “Partisan Shifts in Views of NSA Surveillance Programs.” But what really matters is a parenthetical: “See previous table for differences in question wording.”

So I did, and you can, too. The 2006 survey, by ABC News and The Washington Post, was based on the following proposition: “NSA has been investigating people suspected of terrorist involvement by secretly listening in on phone calls & reading emails without court approval…”

This time around, Pew and the Post put it this way: “NSA has been getting secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism…”

I added the emphasis in both instances to highlight the differences. Under George W. Bush, without court approval; under Barack Obama, with court approval. And: “listening in on phone calls” in 2006 versus “track[ing] calls” in 2013. A considerable difference, regardless of what you think of the NSA’s activities (and, for the record, I’m glad they’ve been exposed).

Obama’s war on journalism and free expression

President Obama

This commentary also appears at the Huffington Post.

Kudos to David Carr of the New York Times for shining a light on an issue that doesn’t attract nearly the attention that it should: the Obama administration’s abuse of the Espionage Act, which in turn has led to a virtual war on journalism and free expression.

As Carr notes, the Espionage Act, approved in 1917 during the hysteria of World War I, was used three times before President Obama took office in 2009 — and six times during his presidency.

We live in a dangerous era, and there have been prosecutions with which it may be hard to disagree. Carr cites the case of Bradley Manning, who’s been charged with stealing national-security documents that are at the heart of the WikiLeaks disclosures.

But Carr also writes that leak prosecutions often seem to be aimed more at punishing people for embarrassing the government than for genuinely damaging national security. In a particularly ironic case, a former CIA officer named John Kiriakou has been charged with leaking the names of agents involved in interrogating terrorism suspects. Carr points out that “none of the individuals who engaged in or authorized the waterboarding of terror suspects have been prosecuted.”

(More about the Kiriakou case from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Kiriakou has denied the charges.)

Kudos, too, to Jake Tapper of ABC News, whose confrontation with White House press secretary Jay Carney is the hook Carr uses to delve into the issue. A fuller account of Tapper and Carney’s exchange can be found here. Here’s Tapper responding to Carney’s praise for the journalist Marie Colvin, killed in Syria last week:

How does that square with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court? You’re — currently I think that you’ve invoked it the sixth time, and before the Obama administration, it had only been used three times in history. You’re — this is the sixth time you’re suing a CIA officer for allegedly providing information in 2009 about CIA torture. Certainly that’s something that’s in the public interest of the United States. The administration is taking this person to court. There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States.

I suspect Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have gotten a pass from many liberals because they believe a Republican president would be even worse on such matters. The fact is, though, that no president has been more aggressive than Obama in prosecuting suspected leakers.

And given the way the media work, it’s no surprise that they’ve said little, since the heart of what they do is respond to accusations. The storyline being promoted by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich is that Obama is weak on national security, so they’re certainly not going to criticize the president for being too tough on leakers. Thus, no story.

When the government wants to take suspected leakers to court, it inevitably demands that journalists reveal their confidential sources. There is no constitutionally recognized right for journalists to protect their sources, and no federal shield law, which means that such cases have a considerable chilling effect on tough reporting.

In 2006, “Frontline” interviewed Mark Corallo, who was director of public affairs for George W. Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft. In this transcript, you’ll see that Corallo, with the support of Ashcroft — not generally thought of as a friend of the First Amendment — approved only one subpoena for a journalist out of “dozens” that were requested. Corallo continued:

I can’t tell you about that case. It was a national-security case. I believed, after long reflection, that it did put innocent people’s lives in danger, our allies, people in other countries who would be subject to terrorist attacks. The case was so egregious; it was such a horrible instance of unethical behavior by a journalist to boot.

I hope Tapper’s tough questioning and Carr’s column are the beginning of a genuine attempt to hold the Obama White House to account for its repressive policies.

A solid debut by Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour

Not long after Tim Russert’s death, I realized that my aversion to George Stephanopoulos was not nearly as deep-seated as my aversion to David Gregory. So I switched from “Meet the Press” to “This Week” and haven’t looked back. Among other things, “This Week” regular George Will is a great entertainer, and where else other than the New York Times can you get a regular dose of Paul Krugman?

Stephanopoulos, of course, decamped for morning television months ago, never to be seen again — at least not by me. Today, at long last, marked the much-anticipated debut of his permanent replacement, former CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour. I don’t think the occasion warrants a lot of analysis. But surely a little is in order. A few points.

1. I don’t watch “This Week”; rather, I listen to the podcast. So if there were any changes to the set, I wouldn’t know. For what it’s worth, I thought Amanpour, her guests and her panelists all sounded fine.

2. It was a good first week for Amanpour. She had two major gets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. If Amanpour’s questions failed to elicit any major news, neither did she embarrass herself. In any event, with rare exceptions, top government officials are going to say what they’re going to say regardless of what they are asked.

3. Though “This Week” seemed pretty much the same as it always has, Amanpour did shake things up a bit, as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid joined the roundtable from Spain. Over time, I’m hoping that Amanpour turns the entire format upside-down, eschewing political chit-chat for real substance. Perhaps this was one small step in that direction.

4. Jake Tapper deserves kudos for the way he handled “This Week” as a fill-in host the past several months. By taking a few chances (especially by embracing of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen’s suggestion that he add fact-checking to the show), Tapper demonstrated that there’s still some life left in the old format.

If, for some reason, Amanpour doesn’t work out, or if ABC News decides to use her elsewhere, then Tapper would be a natural — and I think viewers would accept him far more readily than they would have before his stint as a substitute.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A cheap shot thrown at Diane Sawyer

Diane Sawyer
Diane Sawyer

Someone will probably try to blame this on the low journalistic standards of them there internets. But the perpetrator of today’s insult against Diane Sawyer — someone I had not previously considered defending — has worked for the Wall Street Journal and written for the New York Times and other publications. And her editor is the legendary Tina Brown.

But not to back into this. According to Rebecca Dana of Brown’s Daily Beast, Charles Gibson was “livid” when he learned that Sawyer would replace him as anchor of ABC’s “World News.” Here’s the relevant paragraph:

Gibson didn’t do interviews this time, but said in a statement that his “heart is full of gratitude.” Although they worked closely for more than a decade, Gibson makes no direct reference to Sawyer in the statement, and a source close to the departing anchor described him as “livid” that she’s succeeding him. An ABC executive called this “nonsense,” and Westin said he told Gibson from their earliest conversations about his retirement that Sawyer would be his replacement.

That’s it. There is nothing else in Dana’s longish piece to suggest that Gibson has a problem with Sawyer. And, as Westin says, there was really no other logical replacement (George Stephanopoulos?), so Gibson couldn’t have been surprised. Dana has one anonymous source who claims Gibson is “livid,” and another who says it’s “nonsense.” What is the value of this bit of gossip?

I realize that the source “close” to Gibson may in fact be Gibson himself. But since the reader has no way of knowing, so what? Moreover, we have no idea why Gibson might be livid. Is it because he thinks Sawyer lacks sufficient gravitas? Or does he suspect her of stealing pencils out of his desk drawer?

Sawyer comes off as quite solicitous of Gibson in Howard Kurtz’s account for the Washington Post, reportedly asking ABC News president David Westin, “Can’t we talk Charlie into staying?” Kurtz also writes:

The friendship between Sawyer and Gibson — who last worked together moderating a health-care forum with President Obama — dates to 1998, when both agreed to fill in at the floundering “GMA” in a temporary assignment that became permanent.

Kurtz is too good a reporter to have used the word “friendship” if he’d picked up any buzz that there was a rift between Sawyer and Gibson.

Sawyer will do a perfectly fine job of anchoring the evening newscast. She wouldn’t have been my choice, given her years as a tabloid sob sister. But, then again, I’m not in the demographic for the network newscasts: I’m only 53, about two decades too young.

As for Rebecca Dana’s gossipy account, it’s a cheap shot. Even if we later learn there’s something to it, her claim that Gibson was “livid” is based on one anonymous source, with no context or explanation. Not good enough.