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Making an issue of the media

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Reporters have long enjoyed front-row seats as politicians hurled volleys of abuse at each other. But with increasing frequency in recent years, the journalists have become targets.

In the quest for votes and allegiances, candidates have found the press to be a useful foil, whose ostensible prejudices are preventing the airing of higher truths. In many cases, it seems, reporters themselves are blamed for whatever shortcomings they might uncover in a candidate.

As the fall election season approaches, the scenario will doubtless play out on many fronts, not least here in Maryland, where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is sending out fundraising letters that blame "the biased media" and other "opponents" for "spreading misinformation" about his record.

Such appeals have long precedent, and have increasingly become a risk-free way to rally those among the faithful who may well pay little heed to what the mainstream media actually print or say.

"The media is everybody's favorite whipping boy," said Matthew T. Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research and educational organization that conducts scientific studies of the news and entertainment media. "Tom Cruise hates Matt Lauer. Tony Snow hates Helen Thomas. Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly hate each other. When politicians attack each other, it's irritating partisan politics. But when politicians attack the media, everybody jumps on board."

Media-bashing is a "foolproof diversionary tactic," Felling said. "If you funnel the discussion away from your mistakes to the journalist's gall, you change the subject and paint yourself the victim. It's a win-win."

There has long been an assumption that the media "had a special role to play" in society, given the provision in the Constitution for freedom of the press, said Paul Waldman, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, which describes itself as a progressive media watchdog group.

But if the media see themselves as the honest referee in political battles, growing numbers of politicians don't.

"This administration doesn't buy into that," Waldman said, referring to the Bush White House. "There has been a concerted effort to undermine the press."

In recent years, "Conservatives have integrated their complaints about the media into their entire worldview," Waldman said. "No matter what the issue is, they say, 'The media aren't treating us fairly,' and it really doesn't matter whether they have a case or not. For a while, the Republicans were saying, 'Everything in Iraq is going well, but the media won't tell you.' "

Liberals and independent media critics have launched their own assaults on journalists, asserting that some mainstream reporters had been reporting the Bush administration line without critical analysis or reporting other points of view.

"We don't believe the media should simply be a sounding board for whoever is in power at that moment," said Waldman.

But that is precisely what some in the media are doing, James L. Baughman, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said in an interview.

"Until fairly recently, politicians regarded you all as a necessary evil," said Baughman, who claimed the mantle of a Republican until, he explained, he became dispirited by President Bush's policies.

"A conservative politician didn't have his own alternative media to turn to. But under the new dynamic, ideologically charged media like Fox News simply serve as an echo chamber for whatever the politician says. You've seen it with your own governor in Maryland, a politician who knows there are other voices he can turn to."

To counter what he calls the The Sun's bias against him, Ehrlich has made himself available to conservative talk shows at Baltimore's WBAL Radio, where he occasionally delivers scoops that might otherwise appear in the paper. Ehrlich also likes to remind listeners that the paper sued him when two of its journalists were denied access to him and his staff.

John K. Hartman, a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University, said that when a candidate believes that a particular news organization "is against him no matter what he does, then it is only logical to try to destroy the public's faith in the news organization and use it as a fundraising prop."

Hartman recalled a journalism professors' convention in Louisiana almost 30 years ago during which Edwin Edwards, running for re-election as governor, blasted the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"He knew the paper disliked him and believed it would not cover him fairly so he tried to discredit it to nullify its negative effect on him," Hartman said. Edwards, a Democrat who served an unprecedented four terms, was sentenced in 2001 to 10 years in prison on racketeering charges.

Three decades after hearing Edwards' tirade, Hartman said, the public is "much less respectful toward the news media," so that attacking them has become an even more effective strategy.

"Just once I would like to hear a politician state that a newspaper has a right to its coverage and commentary about him, and he accepts it without recourse," Hartman said. "It would do wonders for the notion that a public fully informed by the press is likely to make the right decisions on election day - a concept that has not been well taught in our schools for a generation."

But Benjamin M. Compaine, who teaches entrepreneurship at Northeastern University and specializes in media economics and telecommunications policy, said candidates generally attack the press only when constituents are likely to be receptive.

"This tactic can only work if indeed there is pent-up frustration among the hard-core junkies - that influential minority that watch the talk shows, read the op-eds, peruse the blogs," said Compaine, co-author of Who Owns the Media? Competition and Concentration in the Mass Media Industry (LEA's Communication Series, 2000). "There are always those who will be put off by some media outlet that will treat their special hot button in a manner perceived to be unfair."

Compaine suggested, however, that the present-day penchant for keeping up with news via Web sites and blogs means that more people than ever are exposed to partisan viewpoints, many of them laced with vitriol. By the same token, adherents of particular views are likely to click onto sites and sources that espouse those views, leaving the uncommitted trolling for objectivity.

"In the old days, the mass media did have to try to play it straight, satisfying no one," he said. "Today everyone can find a home, though they may still vent that all the other guys got it wrong. Either way, it's an easy mark for the politicians, but mostly harmless: There's only so much damage they could do, even if they tried, so long as the First Amendment isn't repealed."

Eric Boehlert, a former senior editor for Salon.com and the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006), said that while conservatives "have beaten up the press for decades," the Bush administration has raised the tactic to a new level, particularly as the Iraq war -- and the rationale for going there -- have unraveled.

"With Bush, national security issues and the war in Iraq are less appealing as campaign themes, so he goes a few notches lower and goes after the press," Boehlert said. "It's such a safe bet, whereas campaigning on the war is not exactly a safe bet any more."

Almost invariably, The New York Times tops any conservative list of targets for derision. It came under particularly withering attack from commentators who thought it was "treasonous" for the paper to publish stories about the administration's tracking of terrorists' international financial records and eavesdropping on U.S. citizens' phone calls without warrants. In an illustration of how far the comments went, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter argued that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh should have blown up The Times's headquarters and that the paper's executive editor, Bill Keller, should face a firing squad.

Two years ago, Boehlert recalled, the Bush-Cheney campaign kicked a Times reporter off a campaign plane. Bush, in his speech at the Republican National Convention, misquoted a Times editorial published during World War II when he suggested that the paper had been in favor of appeasement. During the 2000 campaign, Bush, in an aside to Dick Cheney that was picked up by an open microphone, used a vulgarism to insult Adam Clymer, a reporter for The Times.

"A lot of reporters have come to see that as deliberate, that Bush knew the mike was open," Boehlert said. "It was a way to show Bush was tough, that he could take on the press."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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