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How the Press Played Dumb About the K Street Project

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One of the most depressing traits of the news media's timid performance during the Bush years has been their newfound fear of facts and the consequences of reporting them. Where Beltway journalists once eagerly corralled facts and dispensed them to the public, scribes today, like youngsters' endless checking to see if it's safe to cross the street, over-think the consequences and end up giving the Bush administration and Republicans a pass.

For instance, in the wake of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea on Jan. 3, some press outlets did their best, belatedly, to explain the crooked lobbying empire Abramoff had built with the help of Rep. Tom DeLay. And specifically, some news outlets addressed the K Street Project, the DeLay/Abramoff/Santorum/Norquist pay-to-play money machine that's playing a pivotal role in the GOP's deepening ethical morass. (Read a smart, concise description of the K Street Project here.) But even then, the media's descriptions have often been half-hearted at best. Appearing on the Don Imus radio show recently, Newsweek's Evan Thomas mentioned, "this thing called the K Street Project," as if he'd just heard about the day before over lunch at The Palm.

In truth, there's not a serious reporter in Washington, D.C. who for the last three years did not know exactly what the K Street Project was. (The GOP openly boasted about it.) The K Street Project was, hands down, the most important behind-the-scenes development in terms of how power/legislation was bought and sold inside the Beltway and represented an epic story with endless angles and repercussions. And yet for the last three years those same serious MSM reporters participated in a virtual boycott of the story, refusing to detail corruption inside the GOP. (Curious, because during the Clinton years the press couldn't stop writing about alleged Democratic funny money scandals that never actually materialized into criminal wrongdoing by prominent Dems.) Only in recent weeks, after Abramoff pleaded guilty and DeLay's grip on power loosened, have reporters felt confident enough to cross the street--to explain what the K Street Project is.

And yes, boycott really is the word that described the MSM's previous don't-ask/don't-tell policy regarding the K Street Project. It's true that on June 10 2002, the Washington Post and the New York Times both published articles detailing the creation of the K Street Project. (Again, GOP leaders were practically advertising it.) But then the cones of silence went up. Between June 10, 2002, and Jan. 3, 2006, here's how many news articles produced by the Times' D.C. bureau mentioned the K Street Project: 4. Here's how many mentioned it three or more times: 0. Between June 2002 and Jan. 3, 2006, here's how many Los Angeles Times articles mentioned the K Street Project three or more times: 0. USA Today: 0. Associated Press: 0. Miami Herald: 0. Chicago Tribune: 0. Boston Globe: 0. Newsweek: 0. Even the Washington Post, which is supposed to meticulously detail the legislative culture of D.C., published just three news articles that contained three or more references to the K Street Project.

As for television news? Here's how many references ABC News made to the K Street Project between June 2002 and Jan. 3, 2006: 1. CBS: 0. NBC: 1. MSNBC: 1. Fox News: 0. CNN: 5. CNN never aired a reported piece explaining what the K Street Project was, although CNN International did. If you do the math for that 2002-to-2006 timeframe, we're talking about thousands and thousands of hours of network and cable news programming aired with a grand total of 8 mentions of the K Street Project.

The MSM were simply afraid of the facts.

UPDATE: ABC's Jake Tapper mocks Democrats for talking about the K Street Project, which he thinks goes over the heads of most Americans: "While the brainy readers of this blog might be able to understand the terms and significance of terms such as "K Street Project," I don't see such tactics as coming close to the resonant language and communications brilliance of Team Gingrich a dozen years ago."

He might be right. Then again if reporters, producers and anchors hadn't spent the last three years consciously ignoring the K Street Project story, perhaps the phrase today might resonate a bit more.