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Terry Krepel

Terry Krepel

Posted February 12, 2009 | 11:03 PM (EST)

Brent Bozell's Evasion


The Media Research Center has declared war on ABC and "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos. The only casualty so far, however, has been MRC president Brent Bozell's self-inflicted wounds.

The war was set off by a Jan. 27 Politico report that Stephanopoulos engages in daily round-robin calls with former colleagues James Carville, Paul Begala and Rahm Emanuel, as they have since they worked together in the Clinton administration. What caught the eye of Brent Bozell and Co. was the article's statement that "it is quite likely that Washington's prevailing political and media interpretation -- at least on the Democratic side -- is being hatched on these calls."

Bozell decided to interpret that statement as proving Stephanopoulos is a shill for the Obama administration -- never mind that it's just as likely that they weren't conspiring to set a media agenda -- and has been on the attack ever since.

A Jan. 29 MRC press release featured Bozell demanding that Stephanopoulos "must from this point forward recuse himself from any reporting involving the Obama Administration." This was followed by a Feb. 4 open letter to ABC News president David Westin demanding that "ABC News must address this publicly and comprehensively" (bold underline in original), adding the not-so-subtle threat:


With each passing day, ABC's failure to speak to and about this issue tarnishes further your network's reputation as a legitimate news entity.

[...]

ABC News may decide that silence is the best policy. I assure you that will be a mistake. We will not stop this discussion. If you think you are bleeding audience numbers now, what do you suppose will be your audience's reaction when it is established that your Chief Washington Correspondent continues to be a key strategist for the Democratic Party?

The problem for Bozell: ABC wasn't silent about it -- and definitely wasn't silent about it to the MRC.

A letter by Kerry Smith, senior vice president of editorial quality at ABC News, was posted the next day by Politico's Michael Calderone, accused Bozell and the MRC of deception:

In your letter and public utterances you falsely assert that ABC News has been silent on this matter. That is simply untrue. Upon reading your press release last week, we reached out to the MRC to make it abundantly clear that you had totally mischaracterized the Politico story written by John Harris last Tuesday. Indeed, Politico posted a story last Friday by Ben Smith pointing out exactly how badly you had mangled the facts.

But that's not the only example Smith cited:

Furthermore, last Friday, a reporter from CNS News, which was founded by you and continues to be directly affiliated with the MRC, contacted our media relations staff for a piece he'd been assigned to write on this very topic. We cooperated immediately and provided him an on the record response. We have since learned from your reporter that his story was killed.

As Media Matters blogger Jamison Foser pointed out, this raises the question of whether the CNS story was killed so that Bozell could claim that ABC refused to talk about it. After all, refusing to tell the other side of the story is certainly of a piece with CNS' aggressive anti-Obama (and anti-Democrat) agenda:

-- CNS' history of inaccurate, right-wing-skewed terminology regarding abortion continued in a Jan. 23 article by Penny Starr, repeatedly described President Obama as "pro-abortion" or as supporting "pro-abortion policies" despite the inaccuracy of that term. Similarly, a Feb. 11 article by Starr referred to "Barack Obama's pro-abortion mandate" and "pro-abortion activists and organizations." At no point in either of these articles did Starr use the term "anti-abortion" except when quoting others; instead, she uses the benign and squishy term "pro-life."

-- A Jan. 29 article by Matt Cover stated that the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the economic stimulus bill "found that only 52 percent of the money in the stimulus bill devoted to new government spending will actually be spent by 2010." In fact, the CBO had concluded at the time that 64 percent of the package would be spent by the end of the fiscal year 2010.

-- A Jan. 30 article by Fred Lucas repeated a smear of Obama it first forwarded during the presidential campaign. In writing about Obama's signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, Lucas added: "Women who worked on Obama's Senate staff last year, however, were themselves paid on average 78 cents for every dollar a man was paid, according to data last year from the Report of the Secretary of the Senate." But Lucas -- either in articles he wrote last April and September, or now -- offered evidence provided that women in Obama's Senate office were paid less than men for the exact same job with equivalent experience -- which is what the issue of equal pay, as well as the Ledbetter act, is all about.

-- CNS tried to concoct a controversy over Obama's acknowledgment that "nonbelievers" live in America.

-- A Feb. 2 article by Pete Winn on the Employee Free Choice Act noted that supporters of the bill have pointed out that it "will not eliminate the ability for workers to choose to have a secret ballot election," which is followed by a paraphrased retort, passed along uncritically, from Michael Eastman, executive director of labor relations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that "business has never said that secret ballots would be forbidden." In fact, numerous opponents of the bill have claimed that the EFCA eliminates secret ballots -- including Eastman.

-- A Feb. 4 article by Susan Jones incorrectly labeled the Democratic Party "the Democrat Party" -- a misleading construct promoted by right-wingers in an apparent attempt to deny the opposing party the claim to being "democratic."

Bozell offered no immediate response to Smith. But CNS put together an article -- posted Feb. 7, a Saturday, when CNS normally doesn't post new articles -- by Fred Lucas that addresses ABC's allegation that CNS killed its ABC story -- but buried it at the bottom.

The article started off with ABC's denial that Stephanopoulos is "advis[ing]" Emanuel or the Obama White House and disputing the tone of the Politico article that launched this, and Bozell still insisting that Stephanopoulos is and essentially calling ABC spokeswoman Emily Lenzner a liar: "If the story is not true, one would expect George Stephanopoulos and ABC to loudly, unequivocally, immediately and unrelentingly denounce Politico for running an untrue story. Instead, they're attacking me for simply repeating what Politico said."

It's not until the 22nd paragraph of the article that we get to the real meat: that ABC did, in fact, criticize the Politico story in its comments to CNS that were not published at the time they were made -- and are, presumably, the comments that lead off the Feb. 7 article. The article then addresses ABC's specific allegation against CNS:

The ABC letter also noted that CNSNews.com, as part of its own reporting on the issue, had been in contact with the network's media relations staff. Smith said ABC "cooperated immediately" with an "on the record response," but had "since learned from your reporter that his story was killed."

Terry Jeffrey, editor-in-chief of CNSNews.com, said in a statement Friday, Feb. 6, why a CNSNews.com story on the ABC statement did not run earlier.

"I decided on Friday, January 30, that I did not want to run a story about a dispute between CNSNews.com's parent organization and ABC News because it presented a conflict of interest for us," Jeffrey said. "I made the decision in consultation with our managing editor."

"I did not discuss this decision with MRC President Brent Bozell, nor did I inform him about the fact that we had considered running a story and not done so, or of the substance of the statement ABC provided to reporter Fred Lucas until the afternoon of Thursday, February 5," Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey issued a statement to his own reporter? Lucas and Jeffrey work in the same office as far as anyone knows, yet Lucas had to rely on an apparently prepared statement from Jeffrey to tell CNS' side of the story? Jeffrey's statement was not otherwise released publicly.

Further, Jeffrey did not let Bozell know about ABC's statement to CNS "until the afternoon of Thursday, February 5" -- that is, after ABC's letter pointing that CNS had killed the story was sent and, perhaps more to the point, posted by Politico's Michael Calderone.

There's also no direct admission by Bozell that he erred in claiming that ABC has been silent on the issue, or that perhaps his left hand should have known what his right hand was doing. Indeed, this article is the only place within the MRC empire that this issue has even been addressed.

Also, Jeffrey's claim that CNS reporting on the Bozell-ABC spat "presented a conflict of interest for us" rings a bit hollow, since CNS generally has little problem promoting corporate initiatives -- CNS news stories have regularly touted claims made by MRC and its sister organizations, and its mission statement insists that "Study after study by the Media Research Center, the parent organization of CNSNews.com, clearly demonstrate a liberal bias in many news outlets." Indeed, isn't the whole point of CNS to help promote the conservative agenda of its owner? It's a little too late for Jeffrey -- who, as we've noted, has a long conservative pedigree -- to declare independence and fret about journalistic ethics now.

It seems that CNS was willing to sit on the truth of ABC's response -- which proved a key contention by Bozell wrong -- until ABC called them out on it. That's a more serious ethical breach than the purported "conflict of interest" between CNS and Bozell.

Bozell himself more fully responded to Smith in a Feb. 9 rebuttal letter. Bozell accused Smith of acting "inadequately, disingenuously and indeed dishonestly" and "accusing me of intentional deceit in this serious matter." But at no point in his letter does Bozell acknowledge he was wrong in claiming that ABC had been silent about the issue, nor does he mention, much less respond to, the specific accusation of "deceit" that Smith detailed: CNS' suppression of ABC's response.

Further, at no point does Bozell and the MRC provide a copy of, or otherwise link to, Smith's original letter, presumably lest his readers learn about the deception that Bozell would rather keep on the down-low.

The accompanying MRC press release claimed that Smith was "hurling false allegations at Bozell and the MRC" -- but like Bozell it failed to note that the allegation of deceit Smith cited was largely true.

Bozell did acknowledge that an ABC official contacted the MRC, but he refused to admit that it, on top of the killed CNS story, proves his original allegation against ABC to be utterly false. His silence seems to indicate that he knows he's been busted but is too stubborn and/or arrogant to admit he was wrong.

Nevertheless, Bozell accuses ABC of engaging in the same behavior he himself is exhibiting:

Finally and most importantly is the matter at hand - the damaged institutional memory at ABC News, especially apparent among you senior executives. You suffer from collective amnesia. Mr. Stephanopoulos, Mr. Begala, Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Carville ran the 1992 Clinton campaign and labored together as Democratic strategists and message makers both before and after Clinton's election. To not even address this fact, and how there just might be even an appearance of impropriety, suggests your institutional memory only goes back to the day Mr. Stephanopoulos came aboard.

Bozell's institutional memory, meanwhile, appears to go back only two days -- ignoring the fact that his own news organization has copped to its role in the deception outlined by ABC.

It's counterproductive for Bozell to harp on ABC's supposed lack of journalistic integrity through its continued employment of Stephanopoulos when Bozell repeatedly demonstrates his own lack of ethics by refusing to admit not only a simple error but the appearance of impropriety (if not actual impropriety) in CNS' suppression of ABC's original response, which allowed Bozell to assert that ABC was silent on the issue.

Bozell has been as silent about that as he falsely accused ABC of being about Stephanopoulos. Ironic, isn't it?

Rather than making an effort to substantively address that issue, the MRC slapped together a "Profile in Bias" attacking Stephanopoulos as "a reliable mouthpiece for the Democratic spin of the day."

Among Stephanopoulos' alleged offenses is determining that Barack Obama and Joe Biden won their respective debates during the 2008 presidential campaign. Unmentioned is the fact that Stephanopoulos' opinion reflected that of a plurality or majority of the American public as demonstrated by post-debate polling.

But hey, anything to keep Bozell from having to admit his mistakes, right?

(Cross-posted at ConWebWatch.)