Friday, June 9, 2006
Associate Publisher: Public interest in news topics beyond control of mainstream media
The blogosphere has been abuzz. But in the days since Rolling Stone magazine published a long piece that accused Republicans of widespread and intentional cheating that affected the outcome of the last presidential election, the silence in America's establishment media has been deafening.
In terms of bad news judgment, this could turn out to be the 2006 equivalent of the infamous "Downing Street memo," the London Times story that was initially greeted by the U.S. media with a collective yawn.
Robert Kennedy Jr.'s Rolling Stone mega-essay is titled "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" It focuses on widespread voting irregularities, questionable tallies and disenfranchising practices, particularly in Ohio, which President Bush won by more than 100,000 votes.
Singling out Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell for much of the blame, Kennedy writes persuasively that enough was awry in that state alone to raise serious questions as to whether Bush really defeated John Kerry in 2004. Blackwell, now a Republican candidate for governor, headed Bush's state re-election campaign at the same time he was constitutionally in charge of the state's voting machinery.
While Kennedy's article perhaps gives far too much weight to suspicious discrepancies between exit polls and the final election outcome, it meticulously asserts and documents questionable methods of purging voter rolls, intentionally created long lines at Democratic polling places, court-defying practices regarding registrations and provisional ballots, a phony terrorist alert on Election Day and final tallies in some counties and precincts that, to Kennedy's way of seeing it, simply don't make sense. Already, it notes, three Cleveland-area election officials have been indicted for illegally rigging the recount.
Kennedy's 11,000-word article was Rolling Stone's cover story, published on Thursday of last week.
But if you were looking in the five or six days afterward for follow-up stories, investigations or even a mention in the P-I, its cross-town competitor or just about any other major U.S. newspaper, you were almost certainly disappointed.
To his credit, CNN's Wolf Blitzer aired a brief and not-very-illuminating interview with Kennedy late the next day after the Rolling Stone issue hit the newsstands. There was a brief mention on the Lou Dobbs report later that same evening and MSNBC got around to mentioning the article's assertions several days later.
But for the most part, national and regional newspapers, the major networks and news services have behaved as if the article was never published, that it broke no new ground and there was nothing of interest or significance in it.
Understandably, some readers are asking why. One Whidbey Island resident e-mailed the news editors of the P-I and The Seattle Times simultaneously, asking "Which one of you has the honesty and guts to investigate and report about the charges that Robert Kennedy Jr. has written about in regards to stolen 2004 presidential election?
"That someone could claim that our American electoral process was criminally thwarted should be BIG news."
P-I News Editor Gil Aegerter answered courteously, telling the reader he would pass his concerns along to our political coverage team. "In the meantime," Aegerter wrote, "I'll direct you to online coverage that the P-I has been doing on this issue, about the original Rolling Stone report and about reaction to it."
Despite the critical tone in his note to Aegerter and his Times counterpart, our reader, and others who have similarly complained, are right.
Aegerter and other P-I editors who have taken time to respond to complaining readers are to be commended. While there is no pretense here that it is adequate, I'm also proud that, having seen no wire-service accounts, political team Assigning Editor Chris Grygiel was smart enough to write and start a blog about it on our Web site.
It is news. It certainly deserves mention, at the very least in stories about the story, reaction to it or even ones debunking it. Any of those choices would be better judgment than simply ignoring it.
Those of us in what bloggers and Internet journalists derisively call "mainstream media" should have learned that lesson last year, when Internet-fueled curiosity about the "Downing Street memo" made us pay attention to a story we were too quick to dismiss as old news. Badly undervaluing the significance and the public's interest in the new disclosures, we thought former Bush administration officials, including ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and White House counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke, had told us a year earlier that the administration had a predisposition for war with Iraq long before the attack, and long before diplomatic pressures had been exhausted. On hindsight, some of us realize now we should have recognized the newsworthiness of the secret memo and the 2002 meeting it chronicled, even if the report only provided corroboration of something we'd already heard.
The P-I's editorial pages noted the secret British memo in columns before news of it was finally published on the news pages of ours and most other U.S. newspapers. But even so, that was nearly two weeks after Times of London's initial report.
The parallels to the Kennedy article are hard to escape.
Like most newspapers our size, the P-I relies on news services for most of its national and international news. Managing Editor David McCumber did what good editors at regional and midsized newspapers often do. He called The Associated Press and asked if a report would be forthcoming. He got back the predictable and disappointing response that the news cooperative's Washington and national editors had looked at Kennedy's report and determined there was "nothing new."
It is true that there have been reports about voting problems in Ohio since election night. But Kennedy's article is not just old news rehashed. Its 11,000 words, not counting the 208 footnotes, most of which contain Web addresses for links to source information, are certainly overreaching at times. For those with mistrust or partisan fervor against Bush, Kennedy's reporting will sound like evidence of fraud and election tampering that rivals the shenanigans of the worst Third World dictators.
For those who read it with a more balanced view, there is plenty to fuel outrage about imperfections and potential for manipulation of the electoral system.
It's too early to tell whether it will become big news in the same delayed manner the British intelligence memo did. But the titans of the news industry still have things to learn about how news becomes news in the present-day media landscape. Editors will always have responsibility for filtering, and helping readers understand the importance and credibility of news reports.
But nowadays, the American discourse is rightfully in hands other than ours.Kenneth F. Bunting is associate publisher. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org