Watching the Detectives

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Like anyone else, reporters make mistakes. Remember, journalism’s just the first draft of history, and first drafts tend to require considerable revision. Occasionally, however, those mistakes have consequences, and frequently, can be as revealing about the media as the topic at hand. Consider the correction posted to The New York Times web site on Tuesday concerning the story posted the previous Sunday on the paper’s Web site regarding Hillary Clinton. In many ways, it illustrates the problem with much of the mainstream media’s treatment of Democratic politicians running for Congress this fall.

In the piece, headlined, “Clinton, in Arkansas, Says Democrats Are ‘Wasting Time,’ ” reporter Ann Kornblut, whose beat is actually Sen. Clinton, explained to readers that New York’s junior senator “chastised Democrats Saturday for taking on issues that arouse conservatives and turn out Republican voters rather than finding consensus on mainstream subjects.” Mrs. Clinton said, “We do things that are controversial. We do things that try to inflame their base.”

But as so many in the liberal blogosphere were quick to point out, Kornblut was ripping Clinton’s words out of context, and using them to convey an impression that was actually contrary to the senator’s words. Upon examining the transcript of the event, it became obvious to any fair-minded reader that the “we” to which Mrs. Clinton was making reference, was, in fact, not the “Democrats” as Kornblut insisted, but the Republican-led Congress. To make matters worse, the Times moved at a glacial pace to correct the mistake, waiting almost three full days to own up to something that should have been fixed the day the piece ran.

For the record, the piece allowed the punditocracy to re-raise its favorite topic of alleged political and social import: the state of the Clintons’ marriage. Kornblut wrote that Clinton “made the trip solo: Former President Bill Clinton has been in Africa, visiting projects run by the Clinton Foundation.” Back in May, the Times calculated that the Clintons spend “about 14 days a month on average” together. That must be viewed in the context of the rest of the paper’s crack political reporting: “Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together.” There is no other politician in America about whom the Times has felt compelled to report on how many nights a month they spend in bed with their spouse. Ever.

Consider also a piece that ran the same Sunday in the Times: this one on Joe Lieberman and the rocky road upon which the senator’s been traveling this primary season in Connecticut. Here, the Times reinforced the conventional wisdom that the forces aligning against Lieberman’s re-election are nothing more than a group of “antiwar activists in his own party to dislodge him.”

Leaving aside all the inter-party fighting involved in this issue, which would take some untangling in itself, it would seem obvious to anyone paying attention that the people, and especially the bloggers, who are leading the anti-Lieberman crusade are more than just “anti-war activists.” Lieberman has long been at odds with a chunk of the Democratic base, as evidenced last year when he wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, in part, defending President Bush and his handling of the war in Iraq, saying, “we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.”

What’s more, although he had previously called for the censure of President Clinton after he had beaten impeachment — and offered up an extremely critical speech of the then-president in which he reiterated many of the Republican talking points vis-à-vis their hopes for impeachment — Lieberman, this time, said he thought the possibility of censuring Bush would be “divisive.” This followed on his decision last summer to side with Republicans demanding that Terri Schiavo be kept alive through feeding tubes, despite both her husband’s wishes, Florida law, and, it turns out, the U.S. Constitution.

As blogger Duncan Black, aka “Atrios” wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, “Lieberman’s problem isn’t bloggers, it’s the voters of Connecticut, who seem to be increasingly tired of his support for some very uncivil policies, including federal intervention into the Terri Schiavo case, the Bush administration’s operations at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and, yes, that disastrous invasion of Iraq.” Speaking of bloggers, The New York Times also reported that Lieberman “appears taken aback by the ferocity of the onslaught, particularly from liberal blogs. To Mr. Lieberman’s camp, the bloggers embody what his longtime friend Lanny Davis calls “the demonizing, hating, virulent, character-assassinating left of the Democratic Party.”

These are, one supposes, the same hateful, vicious denizens of the liberal blogosphere who so excited the editors of The New Republic, (TNR) inspiring TNR’s part-owner, Martin Peretz, to write that one progressive blogger on the “Daily Kos,” was an “illiterate�??? nut case.” And, these bloggers are the same folk whom TNR’s Lee Siegel recently said exemplify “democracy’s dream of full participation but practices democracy’s nightmare of populist crudity, character-assassination, and emotional stupefaction. It’s hard fascism with a Microsoft face.”

Another TNR reporter, Jason Zengerle, reported to The Boston Globe that he had received “death threats” for reporting critically about the Kos community and publishing what turned out to be a phony e-mail. When I questioned Zengerle in detail, however, as the Globe apparently failed to do, for my own MSNBC blog, “Altercation,” I discovered that while he had received some extremely nasty and unpleasant e-mail, none of it could accurately be considered a “threat” under any commonly understood usage of the term.

This flame war between TNR and the liberal blogosphere is unrelated to The New York Times’ coverage of both Clinton and Lieberman, but it does speak to the larger issue of how well some members of the mainstream media, and politicians themselves, fail to understand the new rules of the game. Not too long ago popular support could be mustered by cutting deals with the right party leaders, schmoozing with the right reporters, hiring previously-approved (though usually losing) political consultants, and then fund-raising on the rubber-chicken dinner circuit. But the Internet, as the Dean and later Kerry campaigns demonstrated, has empowered the common man and woman by giving them a collective voice in the process through the same financial power that has been deployed in the past to keep them at a distance.

A corollary to these new rules is the ability of Internet denizens to hold the mainstream media accountable for distortions, mistakes, and outright falsehoods that track insiders’ conventional wisdom but not “reality.” One wonders how long it would have taken the Times to correct the Kornblut story had not several prominent bloggers been all over the case since the piece was first posted online.

Sure, the Web is filled with the same kind of irresponsible rhetoric and bombast that characterizes political discussion on cable news. Some of it is even as irresponsible as one might hear every day on the Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity radio programs. But it is a force for the public that both media, political and poobahs, dare not ignore. And that has to be healthy for democracy.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was recently published in paperback by Penguin, which is the subject of a major historians’ online symposium, H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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