James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Covering spin, avoiding substance

Saturday, Oct. 2, 2004, my local, once excellent newspaper ran as its second lead – the story that gets second best play on page one – a piece headlined "Spin cycle fast and furious from start."

The story, written by a reporter who used to stand in high regard with peers, but who now seems given to "whatever the boss wants," was a longish waste of space about who thinks Kerry came out best in the so-called debate two days earlier, and who thought Bush was best. It quoted a bunch of columnists, talking heads, campaign people, politicians and blogs and added absolutely nothing to the public store of knowledge.

On the inside page to which the front page piece jumped, a New York Times piece told about what Bush and Kerry said in campaign appearances the day after the debate. Headlined "Kerry, Bush sharpen their words," the Times story also failed to give the reader any substantive information upon which to base an opinion or a decision about anything.

A couple other stories related to the presidential campaign – one on Rudy Giuliani campaigning for Bush in Minnesota, another on Nielsen ratings indicating a substantial number of people watched the debate – were equally as useless, but probably worth about four paragraphs apiece, just for the record.

And the Star Tribune’s performance is among the best among the newspapers I check in on. Even the New York Times and Los Angeles Times fall considerably short of doing a good job on covering the issues of the campaign.

The only really useful political story in the Oct. 2 Star Tribune was one on Page 4, about the fact that Tom DeLay, the House majority leader and a great favorite of the ruling right wing nuts, is in rather deep do-do on – gasp! – questions of ethics.

He’s the guy, you may remember, who led the gerrymandering of Texas to the point that blacks and Hispanics and the great majority of liberals of all colors have essentially been disenfranchised in that state.

Anyway, three of his top aides in Texas have been indicted – in Texas! – for various illegalities having to do with their boss’s political activities. DeLay was rebuked last week by the House Ethics Committee for the way he has put pressure on other House members and there’s apparently more to come.

Wherever you live, ask around and see if anyone you know has heard or read one word of DeLay’s recent troubles. It’s place and size in the Star Tribune indicated to readers that it isn’t a very important story. Television has largely ignored the events, and most other newspapers, where they have run anything, have presented it as trivial.

But back to debate coverage versus substance:

The reporting this year is even worse than it was four years ago, and that was worse than it was four years earlier. The reporters and editors know the truth on every issue that arises in the campaign. There are no secrets this time around about who has done what – or said what – on Iraq, Afghanistan, education, the environment, the economy, or any other subjects of concern to the country and the world. But our entire dysfunctional news system is covering nothing but the horse race, and following the long discredited "He said, she said" pattern of coverage.

If one guy lies baldly on a serious subject, the press reports what he says, but usually fails to point out that what he says is a lie, even though they have incontrovertible proof of that fact. And to compound that failure, the corporate news outlets give no more weight to the opponent's truths (if there are any) than to the first guy’s lies. The public often has no way of knowing from news coverage that one candidate is lying through his teeth and the other is not.

Further, if one guy lies hugely and the other performs a minor stretching of the truth, both sides get equal treatment. The press has come to believe that "balanced coverage" means treating lies and truth with equal respect and never pointing out which is which.

So my question right now for the editors of the Star Tribune and all the other news editors around the country is this: Is your apology for failure to cover the substance of this election written yet? Do you have it already in the can, ready to pull out and publish sometime between January and April, about the same time you ran your mea culpas four years ago, and eight years ago and, in some cases, 12 years ago?

What a disgusting, gutless, rich-owner-pleasing performance!