The World Turned Upside Down: Reporting 2004

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It will likely stand as one of the great ironies of 2004 that after all of the scandals, lies, cover-ups, investigations, Congressional inquiries, illegal detentions and general mayhem that has marked this year, the only people being threatened with jail time in connection with the Bush administration's malfeasance are journalists.

This topsy-turvy result derives from the still unexplained direction taken in the official investigation into just who leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to the press back in July, 2003. While the reporter who actually blew her cover was unarguably Robert Novak, who refuses to discuss the matter in public, a three-judge federal appellate panel in Washington is currently considering whether or not to uphold sentences of up to 18 months in prison for Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine. Their crime? The refusal to disclose the anonymous sources they used in reporting their respective stories; stories they did not even write.

Miller and Cooper are not alone. On December 9th, Jim Taricani, a television reporter in Providence, R.I., was sentenced to six months of house arrest (the judge made a show of telling him only poor health saved him from prison) for refusing to reveal the anonymous source who gave him an F.B.I. videotape of a local official accepting a bribe. According to an AP report of the sentencing, the presiding judge scolded journalists generally for "thinking they have exclusive, unreviewable authority to employ confidential sources."

Journalists were not only faced with jail time simply for doing their jobs this past year; their jobs grew increasingly perilous. By December 20th, as the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, ( 55 journalists had been killed worldwide, more than the 51 who died in 1995, when journalists were specifically targeted during Algeria's civil war. Of the 55 killed, close to half – 23 – died in Iraq.

Freedom of the press was also curtailed in several important cases, such as Maryland's Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich Jr., forbidding state officials from speaking to two Baltimore Sun reporters because he didn't like their coverage. In addition to this, the US Army began denying The Denver Post access to Fort Carson and to information on military activities in the wake of an article the Army didn't find "fair and balanced."

While journalists have some under fire – literally and figuratively – a number of injuries to the profession have proven self-inflicted. One of the most embarrassing episodes of the year was Dan Rather's sloppy use of apparently forged documents purporting to show that the president did not fulfill his National Guard duty. The CBS flap ended up dominating a news cycle that might otherwise have been devoted to the unfolding quagmire in Iraq, and covering the presidential election that was entering into its final weeks. Like the phony "Swift Boat" scandal that preceded it, too many in the profession allowed false accusations and imagined evidence to carry the day over reasoned debate and sober reporting on issues of genuine importance to voters' lives.

But the 'Swifties' couldn't have done it alone. It wasn't just the father and son team of Bob Novak promoting them on his programs and his son working in their publisher's PR department that made them the dark stars of the election campaign, they also had friends in places like Fox News and the previously unknown, Sinclair Broadcasting. Though it owns some 62 stations nationwide with a reach of roughly a quarter of American households, the company appears to believe it has no responsibility to report the news by any definition that might qualify as impartial or even "fair and balanced." Sinclair created a metaphorical firestorm when it announced it was forcing its affiliates to pre-empt prime time broadcasting in order to air an anti-Kerry documentary. The controversy over the film caused a few inside the media to take a closer look at Sinclair, uncovering evidence that the broadcaster's bias is, if anything, even more pronounced than that of Fox News – if such a thing is possible. In a nightly segment broadcast on all of its local news programs, company spokesman and Vice President Mark Hyman provides "The Point," a one-minute commentary in which he has labeled critics of the Iraq war as "whack-jobs," the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and progressives as the "loony left." Sinclair has also eliminated local broadcasts from many markets in favor of its "News Central" program, which airs centralized news programming from corporate headquarters in Baltimore for its regional stations. The upshot of this is that Sinclair has quietly created a national news program in which to disseminate their right-wing propaganda; all of which was, until its Swift Boat overreach, under the radar of the mainstream media.

The year 2004 was also the year Fox expanded its reach into radio, inking a deal with fellow conservative traveler Clear Channel Communications Inc=, ( the nation's largest radio station operator, to make Fox News Radio the primary source of national news for most of its news and talk stations. Fox will provide a five-minute top-of-the-hour newscast, a nightly news broadcast, and 24-hour national news coverage. The deal stands to jump start the radio presence of Fox News, which rolled out its service last year. The Clear Channel partnership will also give Fox's radio unit close to 300 stations, including 37 in the top 40 markets. Fox said that if all options are exercised, its service could have more than 500 affiliates by mid-2005.

Finally, in what may be the perfect, albeit painful symbol of the unhappy, upside-down media developments of 2004, PBS viewers said goodbye to America's premier television journalist, Bill Moyers – who has done more to elevate his craft and make television news meaningful to millions of Americans than perhaps any of the hallowed names he now joins in television history – only to see the Friday night schedule he dominated crowded with more cable-style right-wing shouters, including Crossfire's Tucker Carlson and the self described "wild men" of the Wall Street Journal Editorial page. PBS was created to be an "alternative" voice in the mainstream media but with the loss of Moyers and the hiring of right-wing blowhards, it is increasingly clear that Americans will have to come up with their own alternatives – Air America anyone – if we are ever to take back our country from the far-right forces in evidence everywhere.

Here's to a happier 2005.

P.S.: It is with great sadness that we end the year by joining JACK NEWFIELD's,0,7391539.column many admirers in offering our heartfelt condolences to his family and countless friends. His public achievements are well known, but when I was a college student I went to see Jack for advice and inspiration, and he was far more generous and gracious with his time than I find myself able to be today.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences ( Paul McLeary is a New York writer.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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