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Monday, January 30, 2006

Paul Krugman: A False Balance

Paul Krugman wonders why some members of the media find it necessary to paint the Abramoff scandal as bipartisan when there is no evidence that it is:

A False Balance, by Paul Krugman, Media Imbalance, Commentary, NY Times: How does one report the facts," asked Rob Corddry on "The Daily Show," "when the facts themselves are biased?" He explained to Jon Stewart, who played straight man, that "facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda," and therefore can't be reported. Mr. Corddry's parody of journalists who believe they must be "balanced" even when the truth isn't balanced continues, alas, to ring true. The most recent example is the peculiar determination of some news organizations to cast the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff as "bipartisan." ...

Here's how a 2004 Washington Post article described Mr. Abramoff's background: "Abramoff's conservative-movement credentials date back more than two decades to his days as a national leader of the College Republicans." In the 1990's, reports the article, he found his "niche" as a lobbyist "with entree to the conservatives who were taking control of Congress. He enjoys a close bond with [Tom] DeLay." ...

Mr. Abramoff is a movement conservative whose lobbying career was based on his connections with other movement conservatives. His big coup was persuading gullible Indian tribes to hire him as an adviser; his advice was to give less money to Democrats and more to Republicans. There's nothing bipartisan about this tale, which is all about the use and abuse of Republican connections.

Yet over the past few weeks a number of journalists, ranging from The Washington Post's ombudsman to the "Today" show's Katie Couric, have declared that Mr. Abramoff gave money to both parties. In each case the journalists or their news organization, when challenged, grudgingly conceded that Mr. Abramoff himself hasn't given a penny to Democrats. But in each case they claimed that this is only a technical point, because Mr. Abramoff's clients ... gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans...

But the tribes were already giving money to Democrats before Mr. Abramoff entered the picture; he persuaded them to reduce those Democratic donations, while giving much more money to Republicans. ... donations to Democrats fell by 9 percent after they hired Mr. Abramoff, while their contributions to Republicans more than doubled. So in any normal sense of the word "directed," Mr. Abramoff directed funds away from Democrats, not toward them. ... Bear in mind that no Democrat has been indicted or is rumored to be facing indictment in the Abramoff scandal, nor has any Democrat been credibly accused of doing Mr. Abramoff questionable favors.

There have been both bipartisan and purely Democratic scandals in the past. Based on everything we know so far, however, the Abramoff affair is a purely Republican scandal. Why does [this] matter? For one thing, the public is led to believe that the Abramoff affair is just Washington business as usual, which it isn't. The scale of the scandals now coming to light, of which the Abramoff affair is just a part, dwarfs anything in living memory.

More important, this kind of misreporting makes the public feel helpless. Voters who are told, falsely, that both parties were drawn into Mr. Abramoff's web are likely to become passive and shrug their shoulders instead of demanding reform. So the reluctance of some journalists to report facts that, in this case, happen to have an anti-Republican agenda is a serious matter. It's not a stretch to say that these journalists are acting as enablers for the rampant corruption that has emerged in Washington over the last decade.

I wish the media would show more courage and stand up to the pressure that brings this about. Reporting the unpleasant truth will bring howls of protest, cries of bias, the usual chorus of voices attacking the credibility of the messenger. By some measure, some count of the number of words on the topic assessed subjectively as favorable or unfavorable, the number of guests on certain T.V. or radio programs, the particular page in the newspaper that stories appear on, how many minutes were devoted to reporting this or that, bias will be found in most any direction one is looking. I have the impression that fear of being attacked by the smear machine, fear of being labeled as biased or of some other tactic, has affected the way the news gets reported.

Previous (1/26) column: Paul Krugman:  Health Care Confidential
Next (2/3) column: Paul Krugman:  State of Delusion

    Posted by on Monday, January 30, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Politics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (6)

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