David Zurawik

Rick Perry: Is the press being fair and accurate in its coverage of him?

I doubt this modest request will be heard over the fevered roar for the scalp of Texas Gov. Rick Perry that the media has been sounding since he announced his candidacy for president. There is almost a palpable bloodlust to bring this guy down -- and it is being sounded by parts of the mainstream press that should know better.

My modest proposal: Let's just try and be fair. Let's do a little self-ethnography from time to time and ask why we feel like it is open season on this guy and his campaign -- and it is OK to drop some of the usual standards of fairness in trying to bring him down.


Let's also think back to 2008 and reflect on the way we covered candidate Obama, and ask ourselves if we are treating Perry the same way we treated the senator from Illinois. Really, think about it -- and let's look in the mirror as we are doing so to see if we can hold our own gaze.

I am not defending Perry or some of the statements he made. But I have seen commentary after commentary on cable TV, network TV, in print, social media and on blogs talking about how he accused Fed chairman Ben Bernanke of treason.


What Perry actually said is this, "Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous -- or treasonous in my opinion."

I think he's pushing the envelope of acceptable discourse, but he didn't accuse Bernanke of treason, and I have seen instance after instance in which commentators for mainstream media outlets have ignored the "almost" in Perry's statement. The ones at CNN have troubled me the most, because I have long believed CNN is our last, best hope for journalism on cable TV.

For example, here's Carol Costello, from CNN, on Facebook Aug. 16: Texas Gov. Rick Perry isn't backing down from comments he made in Iowa on Monday night when he said it would be "treasonous" for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to try to stimulate the economy by printing more money.

I also saw an over-the-top Costello piece on CNN last week in which she offered the definition of "treason" and then sarcastically critiqued Perry -- again ignoring the word "almost" in his statement.

I'll spare her the dictionary definition of "almost" and the sarcasm -- I'm trying to be fair in making my point. But maybe she and her editors are familiar with this expression: "Without precision of language there can be no morality." 

Ditto for all the analysts and pundits who stated categorically that Perry "questioned President Obama's patriotism." This is a two-fer. It encourages outrage against Perry and sympathy for Obama.

But, again, that is not what Perry said or did.

As I wrote last week:


I think someone who served in the military as Perry did (as a fighter pilot) has every right as a candidate to raise the issue of who made a bigger sacrifice to his country as a young person -- him or someone who chose college. He has an absolute right to do that and it gets at the hypocrisy of the Washington political and media class that urges people to serve their country as members of the military and then sends their own sons and daughters to elite colleges and universities instead of military service.

Putting his military service against Obama's lack of service isn't calling Obama unpatriotic as many in the press have characterized it, it is showing a clear difference: The person who goes into the military risks her or his life, while the young person who goes to a top college or university gets an education if they apply themselves that all but guarantees them a good economic life if nothing else.

He never questioned Obama's patriotism or called the president unpatriotic. But there is service, and then, there is service. He could have gotten killed in the service he gave to his country -- not true for a student at, say, Harvard. 

But in a Washington culture that features almost everyone gratuitously thanking everyone else for their "service," such distinctions are seldom made. That's where a little self-ethnography by members of the Washington press corps might lead to more balanced coverage.

Having worked as columnist for four years at the late, great Dallas Times Herald, a paper considered way to the left by the conservative Texans, I can tell you members of that culture don't think anyone in Washington is providing any kind of "service" to the nation.

I'll not even revisit the outrageous editing and charge of racism leveled against Perry by MSNBC and Ed Schultz last week for the Texas governor's "big black cloud" statement. And don't tell me it's water under the bridge and everything is now fine-fine, because Schultz apologized. That's what Schultz always does: Says reprehensible stuff and then apologizes for saying it. If someone had done Obama the way MSNBC and Schultz tried to do Perry, the press would be screaming for the heads of the offending parties.

And let's not forget the swooning that so many in the press did over Obama. I remember in June of 2009 writing a column urging the press to "step back" and re-evaluate the free pass we were giving the new president.


Under the headline, "Time for TV press to quit being used by Obama," I wrote:

As we approach another version of what I have come to think of as network-White House  co-productions,  the TV press desperately needs to step back and question how it is covering President Barack Obama....

... The need for such self-scrutiny should be all the more apparent in light of the president's complaint Tuesday about one media outlet (read: Fox News) "attacking" his administration. I am no less troubled than I ever was about the way Fox and MSNBC have turned all-news into all-partisan opinion TV in prime time, but thank goodness at least one TV outlet, Fox, is questioning Team Obama as it pushes for the kind of massive change in American life not seen since the era of Franklin Roosevelt.

And the coverage of Obama was even softer during the run-up to election day. The honeymoon started early, but are we ever paying for it now.

I started thinking of our flawed election coverage while reading a deeply perceptive piece by Emory University professor Drew Westen in the New York Times that gave voice to widespread disappointment in Obama following his lack of leadership on the debt ceiling.

Here's a bit of what Westen wrote in an Aug. 6 opinion piece:


Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

It would not have been so easy to ignore those "disquieting aspects" if the press had done a better job of presenting all sides of the candidate.

Do you think such "disquieting aspects" of Perry's career will be underplayed to the point where they could be "ignored"?

Let's just be fair. If Perry deserves to be shredded by the facts of his life and career, then so be it.

But let's not stack the deck.

Let's not leave modifying words out of quotes -- words that would cast the speaker as being more careful and responsible than he might appear with them missing.


Let's not mischaracterize what he says either -- and only look at his words though the narrow prism of Washington insider identity.

Just as we now understand that Obama was too much loved by mainstream press, let us now ask if Perry is too much reviled.