03/28/2008 02:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In The Paper Of Record, An Inexcusable Error

It was with interest that I began reading the NYT' s Jacques Steinberg's article examining the media's meta-take on recent charges of bias in favor of Barack Obama and/or against Hillary Clinton: "On the Press Bus, Some Questions Over Favoritism." This post might have been about the press musings contained therein had my mouth not dropped open midway at an inexcusable error — an error that would have been inexcusable in any context, really, but is particularly shocking to see in this one: "Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign, which only a few weeks ago released a letter signed by Mrs. Clinton calling on MSNBC to fire a reporter who had made an off-color reference to her daughter..." (emphasis added).

That is NOT CORRECT, and it has been driving me CRAZY seeing the letter portrayed again an again as an explicit call for the firing of David Shuster, the MSNBC reporter who made that remark (if you're confused, get caught up here). I can't believe I have to revisit this, but here's the relevant text of the letter:

Nothing justifies the kind of debasing language that David Shuster used and no temporary suspension or half-hearted apology is sufficient. I would urge you to look at the pattern of behavior on your network that seems to repeatedly lead to this sort of degrading language.

I like to give people in the media credit for being meticulous and intelligent, but I don't see anything there explicitly calling for the firing of Shuster, nor do I think it's implicit, since Clinton made a point of implicating "the pattern of behavior" on MSNBC that led "repeatedly" to "degrading language." Obviously, that meant that Clinton felt the problem went beyond Shuster; what then would be accomplished by firing him? It seems clear to me that the call was for the network to look inward, and not assume that a "temporary suspension or halfhearted apology" was enough.

Never mind; members of the media spread that version, anyway, from the left (Greg Sargent at TPM: "Hillary to NBC: Fire David Shuster") to the right (Amy Holmes embellishing on CNN's "Reliable Sources": "The Clintons complained to MSNBC that Shuster needed to be fired"; neither host Howard Kurtz nor other guest John Aravosis clarified the matter). Somewhere along the line, the media turned a questionable interpretation of the letter into an actual point of fact — so much so that the New York Times media reporter printed it, assuming he was correct. I say "assuming" because I know he did not check, because I just asked Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson to be sure. "Jacques Steinberg and I did not speak for his story," Wolfson told me via email earlier this afternoon. I then asked him if the letter had been meant to call for Shuster's firing. Said Wolfson: "We never called, either verbally, or in the letter to Steve Capus, for MSNBC to fire David Shuster."

Well, alrighty then.

That such an error could be made in the New York Times in the context of an article wondering if there's media bias against Hillary Clinton is pretty damn rich. Seems to prove itself there, doesn't it? It sure as heck proves something.

Incidentally, that also doesn't address the omission in the very same paragraph, noting that the campaign had "provided a letter to The Huffington Post this week taking issue with The Times. The letter, signed by 503 staff members and volunteers, disputed the central point in an article on Sunday's front page: that the campaign was rapidly losing hope." Steinberg neglects to mention that the NYT declined to print that letter (HuffPost headline: "Clinton Campaign Response To New York Times Rejected"). A small quirk next to the blaring, glaring error above, but still a noteworthy omission.

And finally, a question of representation:

It would be difficult to analyze systematically whether the mountain of articles, blog postings and video segments tilts toward one candidate or the other. But the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute that compiles a weekly index of campaign coverage by 48 news outlets, said that by one measure Mr. Obama had outpaced Mrs. Clinton beginning in mid-February -- prominent mentions in that coverage.

I'm going to focus on the first sentence there: "It would be difficult to analyze systematically whether the mountain of articles, blog postings and video segments tilts toward one candidate or the other. " Oh, really? Let's let the PEW Research Center take a crack: "Obama and Clinton Tie for Coverage, But Barack Wins on Tone" (Feb. 20, 2008). Or maybe a more mainstream indicator, like, say Saturday Night Live. I'm just sayin'.

That an article purporting to examine allegations of media bias for Obama/against Clinton would make such errors/omissions here and provide such a glancing view of press coverage is really discouraging. We're talking about a pretty fundamental issue of press fairness here, in the context of what everyone and their brother seems to be calling the most important presidential campaign in recent history, and about how the media is treating a race between two singular, exceptional candidates — the first woman and the first African-American running for the nation's highest office. You'd think that there'd be just a bit more attention to detail. I haven't read, seen or scrutinized all of the "mountain of articles, blog postings and video segments," of course, but in the absence of that, I do the next best thing: Rely on the facts. Anyone out there care to join me?

Update: I see that Media Matters got there before me, also noting the mistatement by Steinberg and noting that the Politico's John Harris had asked her to clarify whether she was seeking Shuster's firing and she returned to the them of taking a look at an overall pattern, like so:

Politico editor-in-chief John Harris asked Clinton during the interview, "Two-week suspension, you said that's inadequate for what was said. What would be adequate? Are you looking for a firing or something more?" Clinton responded: "That's not my job, John. You know, that's the job of the people who run the network. But I think that they need to take a hard look." She continued: "This is like the third time they've had to apologize. And there are a lot of things that they haven't had to apologize for that might have merited one. So I wish they would take a look at, you know, some of the pattern of demeaning comments that are made on their networks."

Also, some of you have noted in comments that the PEW study I cited attributes the difference in "tone" to the events of that week — Obama's continued winning streak, the firing of Hillary's campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle. Absolutely correct, but there were also allusions to press tilt toward Obama in three spots:

"(In some corners of the punditocracy unfriendly to Clinton, her political obit was being prepared.)"

"Here's one symbolic illustration of those divergent narratives. The front-page Feb. 11 USA Today story began with the news that the Clinton team, after a series of primary and caucus defeats, had replaced campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle. The next day, ABC's Good Morning America reported that the famed wax museum, Madame Tussauds, had just unveiled a statue of Obama standing in the Oval Office of the White House. (A Clinton statue had been created a year ago. But in politics, timing and momentum are everything.)"

"On Feb. 14, CBS' Early Show aired a piece examining the power of Obama's appeal with voters. "With soaring rhetoric, Obama is moving his audiences not just politically, but emotionally," declared correspondent Tracy Smith. "The stoic eloquence channels John F. Kennedy." It was the kind of story that has some Clinton supporters complaining about a pro-Obama press bias."

I knew it was a week of events as well, and those should be covered fairly, and coverage would reflect that. Something else happened in that particular week: The reaction to the Shuster suspension (He made the comment on the 7th, was suspended on the 8th and over the weekend Clinton's letter was made public. The following week, the reaction. Here's what I said when I taped "On The Media" on Thursday, Feb. 14th:

"I've been, I've got to say, a little bit surprised at the backlash that Hillary Clinton has gotten following the release of her letter to NBC News President Steve Capus in which she said that a half-hearted apology and a suspension wasn't enough. A lot of people took that to mean that she was calling for David Shuster to be fired, and so there was plenty of outrage over that. But I did not take that to be the meaning of her letter, and nowhere in the letter did it say that."

Jay Rosen pointed out to me that the reason Steinberg said it was "difficult" to entangle negative news tilt from reporting of negative events is because it is, and the study didn't do that. I will definitely defer to Jay on this since it is his area of expertise, but I still maintain that the PEW story references a pro-Obama/neg-Clinton tilt as an element of the story. But to the extent that my use of the example above was misleading I definitely apologize — considering the subject matter of this post, that is the last thing I want!

Jay gave me permission to publish an excerpt from our email exchange, further to the above:

There is definitely a case to be made about unfair media coverage and hostility to Hillary. The way it can be and should be made is through the discussion of cases. Of course you can't discuss all the cases. That's why it's so hard to make definitive statements about media bias. Most people find this intolerable. So they ignore it.

What I am telling you holds true for ALL studies of media bias that focus on, say, "positive" and "negative" news. It is not an observation about Obama vs. Clinton at all. It is an observation about the limits of social science. Nearly all studies of negative and positive news coverage make no effort to disentangle a negative cast to the coverage (or "spin" that the press may add) from negative events that happened. They don't because they can't. If Mark Penn quit today and announced to the world that he can't go on because the candidate sucks so bad, the "negative coverage" meter would go up for Clinton based on stories that simply reported what happened. It would also go up from all the "I told you so" stories loaded with attitude and spin.

Jay, you had me at "intolerable." Thanks for your contribution.

Finally, one more assessment: "Media Expert Decries Campaign Coverage" about Walter Shorenstein, founder of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard (and Hillary Clinton supporter, according to the AP article). For your consideration.

On the Press Bus, Some Questions Over Favoritism [NYT]