Thursday, August 30, 2007

Special Report: WashPo and Time Help ABC Bury Treatment of Kucinich

Following last Sunday's Democratic presidential debate on ABC News' This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Dennis Kucinich's campaign asked ABC News to address issues it had with treatment Rep. Kucinich (D-Ohio) received both during the debate and afterward in ABC's online coverage. In an email sent out to supporters on Wednesday, the campaign said it "submitted objections and inquiries to ABC News representatives on Monday and Tuesday. ABC News representatives have failed to respond - or even acknowledge - those objections and inquiries." I confirmed with the Kucinich campaign yesterday that it has subsequently been forwarded the same response ABC News Executive Director Andrea Jones sent to The Washington Post and Time magazine.

ABC News representatives felt it necessary to answer the Kucinich campaign's objections when Time magazine's National Political Correspondent Karen Tumulty queried them. Writing on the Time blog Swampland, Tumulty initially says of the Kucinich team's issues with ABC's treatment (which included Kucinich not having a chance to speak until 28 minutes into the debate), "These all seemed like fair complaints to me, so I asked ABC News to respond." Then Tumulty says, "In an e-mail, Executive Director Andrea Jones answered him [Kucinich] point by point."

While I give Tumulty credit for contacting ABC News, her investigative journalism unfortunately ends there. Once she receives the email from Jones, Tumulty slips into stenography mode. Jones' "point by point" response to the Kucinich campaign's complaints does not in itself exculpate or dispel any of ABC's wrongdoing. Tumulty fails to assess the accuracy and logic of Jones' answers.

First, just so we're all up to speed, here are the issues (an aggregate of the thousands of complaints received during and after ABC's debate coverage) that the Kucinich campaign asked ABC News to address:

* Congressman Kucinich was apparently deliberately cropped out of a "Politics Page" photo of the candidates.

* Sometime Monday afternoon, after Congressman Kucinich took a commanding lead in ABC's own on-line "Who won the Democratic debate" survey, the survey was dropped from prominence on the website.

* ABC News has not officially reported the results of its online survey.

* After the results of that survey showed Congressman Kucinich winning handily, ABC News, sometime Monday afternoon, replaced the original survey with a second survey asking "Who is winning the Democratic debate?"

* During the early voting Monday afternoon and evening, U.S. Senator Barack Obama was in the lead. By sometime late Monday or early Tuesday morning, Congressman Kucinich regained the lead by a wide margin in this second survey.

* Sometime Tuesday morning, ABC News apparently dropped the second survey from prominence or killed it entirely.

* AND, as every viewer of the nationally televised Sunday Presidential forum is aware, Congressman Kucinich was not given an opportunity to answer a question from moderator George Stephanopoulos until 28 minutes into the program.

Now back to Tumulty commenting on Jones' response [emphasis below is mine]:

This gist of her answer is this: She denies that Kucinich was cropped out of any photo, noting that "there are 20 photos live on the ABC News website, Mr. Kucinich is in a number of them and there is even one of him and his wife. He is one of 6 candidates who got his own photo in the slide show. As for the images, clearly nothing was cropped, the image in question was shot by Charlie Neibergall of the AP not ABC."

FALSE. Had Tumulty - Time magazine's National Political Correspondent and former member of the White House press corps - simply located the original AP photo (which, at most, should've taken a few minutes online), she would've found Kucinich in it and realized the following version ABC News prominently displayed online after the debate had, indeed, been cropped:

Abc_website_2 So Jones either lied when she said "clearly nothing was cropped" or was misinformed by someone on her staff. Since Tumulty seems to think her job ends with receiving answers from an ABC News spokesperson, she doesn't question the veracity of Jones' assertion, which is clearly false.

Adding to its duplicity, ABC News has now completely replaced the original photograph in question. If you click on the link in Tumulty's post (which is supposed to bring you to that photo), you are now taken to a wholly different shot that includes Dennis Kucinich and is currently the default debate photo sitting on the ABC News website.

So, in case your keeping score, first ABC disappears Kucinich from a photo by cropping him out, then denies it, then later disappears the original cropped photo, replacing it with a separate photo that includes Kucinich, making it appear as if nothing improper ever occurred.

Eat your heart out Fox News.

Tumulty does later post an update after she manages (she doesn't say how) to find her way to a page on the site Pinkraygun that shows the original AP photo and the doctored ABC photo side-by-side. This compels Tumulty to gingerly concede "there does in fact appear to have been some cropping." First, it was either cropped or it wasn't. "Some cropping" gives the impression a whole cropping didn't occur, which it did. Second, if there was "some cropping," then logic follows that Jones either did some lying or some misinforming. That, in turn, means Tumulty should be doing some follow up with Jones. She does not. Third, a question for Tumulty and her editors over at Time: How did you fail to bring this simple fact to light yourselves? You had three main points to investigate - whether a photo was cropped, whether a poll was manipulated and whether Kucinich was allotted a fair amount of time. Arguably, the cropped photo was the most simple and quick of the three to verify. Did you attempt to find this on your own? If so, what's your excuse for initially failing to obtain such readily available evidence? If not, what's your excuse for failing to pursue this evidence in the first place?

On to the poll(s):

She notes that the poll was and is live on ABC's website. (When I checked it, Kucinich was still winning, with Barack Obama a distant second.) She also notes the poll's disclaimer that it is "not a scientific survey," which seems like a decent reason for ABC not to treat it as a news story.

MISLEADING. Jones' statement circumvents the facts and the original thrust of the Kucinich campaign's complaint about the poll. Tumulty's unobtrusive reporting gives the impression the poll has always been up on ABC's site in clear view and at no time were changes made to it.

FACT: The original poll, prominently displayed, asked, "Who won the Democratic debate?" Once Kucinich jumped ahead, this poll was scuttled from its prominence on the site. As it became clear Kucinich was trouncing his competition, ABC just happened to decide to post a new poll asking, "Who is winning the Democratic debate?" As the Kucinich campaign (and Tumulty) correctly cited, Barack Obama had an early lead in this second poll; but when Kucinich pulled ahead by a wide margin, ABC then dropped this poll from prominence, too. (Because the Kucinich camp had difficulty finding the poll after ABC moved it, they questioned whether ABC may have buried the poll "or killed it entirely." It appears ABC didn't kill it entirely; they just made it difficult for users work to find - which, as anyone who knows anything about online usability, is nearly tantamount to killing it).

Though of lesser importantance (due to the current unverifiable nature of online polls), Tumulty still manages to mishandle Jones' explanation of why ABC News didn't report the poll results. This issue is about nuance and context. Not exactly Tumulty's and the mainstream media's forte.

Yes, the online poll is "not a scientific survey"* (incidentally, it's verboten to mention in the mainstream media that phone surveys, many of which include leading and misleading questions, are often far from scientific accountings as well). But since news outlets (possibly ABC among them) have certainly noted some online polls in the past but in context of their scientific shortcomings, and considering ABC's shenanigans concerning Kucinich, it seems either intellectually dishonest or misinformed for Tumulty to give Jones the free pass "which seems like a decent reason for ABC not to treat it as a news story."

Does Tumulty honestly believe it's "a decent reason"? Or does she merely believe it's decent enough because the target of the question is ABC News and the questioner is the not-so-"viable" candidate Kucinich?

I should note here that Tumulty frames her post with the opening line: "Should the networks and interest groups that have been sponsoring the seemingly endless series of debates and candidate forums start limiting their invitations to those contenders who seem, by whatever definition, 'viable'?" She then claims to like "the idea of including candidates from the second tier--and beyond--in these settings," saying, "You never know when lightning may strike, and how is an underfinanced long-shot going to get a breakout moment otherwise?" and that "candidates such as Dennis Kucinich often are the only ones giving voice to ideas--like single-payer health care and a quick withdrawal from Iraq--that have not been embraced by the leading candidates, despite having significant support among the party rank and file." Yet Tumulty seems incapable of embracing such basic tenets of a democratic political process; instead, she reverts to entrenched media establishment dogma to round out her post's frame: "Still, having decided to include them, should they be given the same amount of time and attention as the leaders in the race?"

This is the journalist we're going to trust to get to the bottom of whether ABC News treated Dennis Kucinich fairly?

Finally, there's ABC's defense of Kucinich receiving so little airtime during the debate and, once again, Tumulty's stenographic framing and conclusions [emphasis below is mine]:

As for Kucinich's complaint that he was not given a question in the first 28 minutes of the debate, Jones notes: "He may not have been addressed in the first 28 minutes, but he was the only candidate questioned in his own segment on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, two weeks in a row, that appearance is posted online as well. Also. Mr. Kucinich was the only candidate to address healthcare in Sunday's debate, and that response was immediately clipped and posted on the ABC News website." Her bottom line: "After back to back appearances on ABC News' This Week with George Stephanopoulos, clearly their claim is not substantiated by the facts nor by the extensive coverage of his candidacy on the website."

First, Jones' "bottom line" skirts the issue at hand: she concedes ABC's debate moderators failed to address Kucinich in the first 28 minutes of the forum (though she frames her concession with the words "he may not have been addressed" rather than "he wasn't addressed," incorporating shades of doubt, as if this were somehow open to interpretation), but claims that ABC News has provided Kucinich much airtime overall.

Yet here's the real bottom line: In any equitable debate, no candidate should have to remain silent for the first 28 minutes. Period. This is not only unfair to Congressman Kucinich, but to all American citizens for whom news outlets such as ABC are supposed to be informing their decision-making process instead of acting to unduly manipulate it.

What's more, Jones' claim that Kucinich "was the only candidate questioned in his own segment on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, two weeks in a row" and that he had "back to back appearances" on this program is blatantly misleading. (I must admit this one initially slipped by me until, while fact-checking another element of this story, I stumbled across the truth in a conversation I had yesterday with Kucinich campaign spokesman Andy Juniewicz. More on that below).

FACT: Kucinich has made one appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Jones has the audacity to count Kucinich's appearance at this ABC debate as his second appearance on the show in which - breathing even new life into the word "truthiness" - he's received "his own segment." Can Jones explain how a candidate receives his own segment during a debate? What in the world is she talking about?

Moreover, in a statistical analysis of the debate performed by USA Election Polls, Kucinich was given less time to speak than any candidate with the exception of former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. Yet it gets worse: in the critical first half of the debate (the time when viewers tend to be most engaged), Kucinich received just 3.4% of airtime, the least of all the candidates. To put that in context, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama combined to chew up 60.4% of airtime during the first half of the debate.

USA Election Polls also points out:

In fact, even Chris Dodd got more air time than Kucinich which is ridiculous because Kucinich is beating Dodd in the majority of state polls. So if the emphasis was on giving the most time to the leaders in the polls, then what was Dodd doing speaking more than Kucinich?

Nevertheless, Tumulty and Time magazine show no interest in such further incontrovertible proof of the unfair treatment to which ABC News subjected Congressman Kucinich. Instead, Tumulty follows up Jones' "bottom line" by closing her post with these thoughts:

I honestly don't know what the right balance is here when you are dealing with such a large field of candidates, most of whom don't have a prayer of winning. What do you think? Was Kucinich treated unfairly? Or should he be included at all?*

*Not a scientific survey.

Cute. But parting shot at the Kucinich campaign aside, shouldn't Tumulty and Time magazine provide the facts in a piece titled "Dennis Kucinich vs. ABC News"? Instead, we're presented with a slanted, inaccurate, misleading and ill-researched breakdown of events that ends with Tumulty floating the question of whether Kucinich should be allowed to attend these debates in the first place.

And sadly, thanks to The Washington Post, that wasn't the worst coverage of the Kucinich-ABC incident by a major news outlet.

In a post titled "Kucinich Mad at ABC" over at The Washington Post blog The Sleuth (oh the irony), journalist Mary Ann Akers (a former reporter for The Washington Times as well as NPR) doesn't try to hide her contempt for Kucinich while barreling ahead without concern for facts or fact-checking.

She opens her post:

Don't expect to see too many more appearances by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) on ABC News.

An apparently irate Kucinich sent out a letter to supporters Wednesday accusing the network of ignoring him in the Democratic presidential debate on Sunday's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

So since Kucinich - along with, and spurred on by, thousands of other American citizens - objected to ABC's handling of the debate, should we expect, and accept, that ABC has a right to actively work to further marginalize him?

If that's Akers' frame, you can guess where this is going.

Also, because she fails to cite any source, we must assume her characterization of Kucinich as "apparently irate" hinges not on fact but projection. And as it turns out, that is exactly the case.

Yesterday, when I contacted Kucinich campaign spokesman Andy Juniewicz, he addressed Akers unfounded assertion:

"Congressman Kucinich was not irate. Nothing in the email communication expressed anger," said the soft-spoken Juniewicz. "It was just a delineation of what we were hearing from thousands of people who contacted us, many of whom weren't even Kucinich supporters. We asked ABC to respond to the questions they raised." When I asked if Akers or someone else at The Washington Post had spoken with anyone in his campaign about this purported demonstration of anger, Mr. Juniewicz said, "No. No one."

Note to Akers and The Washington Post: Before the Internets, there was the telephone. Some news outlets, though fewer and fewer these days, still find it handy for checking facts.

Moving right along, Akers then runs through roughly the same terrain on which Tumulty trodded, but her condescension and bias is profligate and shameless.

Among Kucinich's charges: he was "deliberately cropped out" of photos; after he took a "commanding lead" in ABC's online survey, the survey was mysteriously "dropped from prominence on the web site"; and "as every viewer of the nationally televised Sunday presidential forum is aware" Kucinich was not asked a question until 28 minutes into the program. (Everyone clocked that at 28 minutes, right?)

"Among Kucinich's charges" blunts the fact they've all been proven to be true (something Akers apparently has no interest in uncovering or presenting). Use of the word "mysteriously" not only mocks the assertion that the poll was buried but conjures the mainstream media's favorite attack on uncomfortable truths: it must be the work of those crazy conspiracy theorists (Akers also disregards the full story - previously addressed above in this post - behind ABC's bizarre and devious manipulation of the debate's polls). "Everyone clocked that at 28 minutes, right?" is not only disparaging but gives the ludicrous impression the Kucinich campaign is contending everyone noticed the precise number of minutes Kucinich had been shut out of the debate; rather, the campaign was noting a simple fact: everyone watching certainly saw that Kucinich didn't get a chance to speak for an usually long duration of time.

We deserve more than such absurd manufactured nitpicking from Akers and The Washington Post. Rather than chasing their tail to portray Kucinich in a poor light, think of how much easier it would've been to just present the facts. And to search them out.

But hey, according to Akers, "ABC News Executive Director Andrea Jones addressed every charge Kucinich made." Incredibly, Akers not only embraces Jones' answers without question, but also unwittingly contradicts Jones' claim that the photo in question was never cropped by providing the ABC debate photo below her post. In other words, the AP photo that ABC undeniably cropped is sitting below Akers' post in which she contends no cropping occurred. Again, all one needs to do is locate the original AP photo. And presto! Cropping mystery solved.

Again, too, Jones is either lying or misinformed, and Akers and The Washington Post (along with Tumulty and Time magazine) are complicit in perpetuating this falsehood.

Escaping Akers' notice or range of journalistic concern as well is ABC's wholesale swapping out of its cropped photo with an altogether new one in which Kucinich appears alongside the rest of the Democratic candidates. ABC News, in effect, has worked diligently to cover up this despicable act, one worthy of Fox News and Orwell's vision of totalitarian media manipulation.

In their coverage of the Kucinich-ABC incident, Time magazine's Tumulty and The Washington Post's Akers wind up crystallizing the extent to which big media rigs the game against a candidate like Congressman Kucinich. In defense of sound and equitable journalism, it is incumbent upon both Time magazine and The Washington Post to correct the record on ABC's actions, and the rest of the news media to hold ABC News accountable for this disgraceful performance.

No news organization - especially one charged with facilitating part of our electoral process - should be able to so grossly transgress such basic journalistic standards and not be held to account. This isn't a partisan issue. Congressman Kucinich's chances of capturing the Democratic nomination are irrelevant to this matter.

This speaks to the viability of our national press.

At a time when the mainstream media is struggling to retain and rebuild both its credibility and coveted market share among Americans, it ignores ABC's actions at its own peril.

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