Jewish World Review June 4, 2003/ 4 Sivan 5763

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Consumer Reports

CNN's Relaxed Rules: Karl Gets a Bye?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | I'M WONDERING, DURING this temporary period of intense media self-examination, why the executives at CNN are allowing political correspondent Jonathan Karl to write opinion pieces for print publications. It's not as if the ratings-deprived cable network is number one in the credibility department, even though the New York Times is monopolizing the hand-wringing among the journalism "experts" and maybe one percent of the population at large. Long considered a left-of-center station—the nickname "Clinton News Network" was well-earned—news chief Eason Jordan stunned the Beltway cognoscenti on April 11 with a Times op-ed in which he admitted CNN had compromised its integrity by squelching news from Iraq in order to maintain its bureau in Baghdad.

The good news is that Karl is a fine writer, as proven by his occasional book reviews in the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, his June 9 New Republic article on Trent Lott's thirst for revenge against those Republicans who justifiably orchestrated his removal as senate majority leader last year is very curious. Karl covers Congress for CNN, and supposedly gives viewers a non-partisan view about the news from Capitol Hill. Sure, his reports are shaded with Democratic bias, but he's a working reporter as opposed to talking head. There's a world of difference between moonlighting CNN commentators such as Al Hunt and Kate O'Beirne offering opinions on Capital Gang and Karl compromising his "objectivity" by making like a pundit in TNR.

The New Republic takes advantage of Karl's contribution by hyping it on the cover with a headline—"The Senate's Most Dangerous Man"—that is hardly supported by the piece inside. Karl, while clearly relishing Lott's intent to cause mischief for his successor Bill Frist, doesn't come close to labeling Lott as "dangerous." Where Karl goes wrong is buying the fallen Mississippi senator's born-again zeal for reform in the Senate, and his allegiance to Bush nemesis John McCain. Lott's bitter about his downfall—he said of the president at a recent fundraiser, "He didn't help me when I needed it"—and so is posing as a maverick to mask his obvious quest for payback and media attention.

But one of Lott's main causes these days, while noting Frist's timidity, is the judicial confirmation of Miguel Estrada, which the Democrats have tied up in a constitutionally questionable filibuster. If that's "dangerous," the GOP ought to have 20 more senators who are willing "to blow the place up" in order to break the logjam. Karl also cites Lott's quixotic effort to change arcane Senate rules. Part of his motivation is that he was initially left off a conference committee that would negotiate with the House on Bush's tax cut bill.

Lott's bitter and seeking retribution. But that hardly puts him in the same camp as real reformers like Democrat Russ Feingold or McCain. Karl indulges in wishful thinking with this passage: "As he pushes reform, though, some Republicans may come to wonder whether they made a mistake when they encouraged Lott to return to the Senate after he resigned as leader. At the time, Republicans worried that, if Lott gave up his seat, Mississippi's Democratic governor would name a Democrat as Lott's replacement. And Republicans assumed that, if Lott did come back, he would quietly serve out his term."

This is nonsense. Whatever trouble Lott is causing, had a Democrat taken his place it would've taken just dim-bulb Lincoln Chafee to pull a James Jeffords, to switch parties and make Tom Daschle majority leader once again. I think the GOP can put up with Lott's pettiness, especially since he still votes mostly along party lines, to keep control. And a bright journalist like Karl knows that as well, even if he desires otherwise.

The Times Makes Money

IT'S A SHAME that The New York Times' ongoing controversies over its reporting methods aren't likely to damage its business-side juggernaut. Although more ink has been spilled in newspapers across the country over Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg—and whoever's next to resign—than any topic save the Iraq War or Laci Peterson, the paper's national and international circulation and advertising goals haven't been affected. Whether or not publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is the marketing genius engineering this surge is beside the point: It's happening on his watch, so the journalistic scandals make him an untouchable in the eyes of Times' board and shareholders.

It's a simple fact that most cities have dreadful dailies, and the Times has capitalized on this by pushing their national edition. It makes sense: A reader in, say Cleveland, is taken in by the sheer bulk of the Times, and its exhaustive service sections. As I've written before, the Washington Post is clearly the new "paper of record" in the Boston-Washington corridor, with a far more balanced op-ed page and fewer editorials on the front page, but it's probably too late for publisher Donald Graham to compete nationally with the Times. It's too expensive, requiring numerous printing plants, more staff and prohibitive direct mail and advertising campaigns. And with the Wall Street Journal just recovering from a disproportionate loss of advertising with the financial sector's crash, that already-national daily doesn't currently have the means to compete with the cash-flush Times.

So it appears that conservatives and centrists will continue to despise the Times as an adjunct to the Democratic party, just as diehard liberals detest Fox News as George Bush's personal network. (By the way, I wish Fox would get rid of its slogans "Fair and Balanced" and "We Report. You Decide." It is a conservative network and although I believe it's "fair," the content is certainly not "balanced.")

The Times' financial vigor allows the paper to indulge in blatant hypocrisy, a fact that won't damage its bottom line but will perhaps further erode its credibility. For example, a May 30 editorial began: "The tax bill that President Bush triumphantly signed into law on Wednesday is not just unfair, dishonest and economically unsound. It is also cruel to low-income families."

That's a valid opinion expressed in the supposedly McCarthy-like atmosphere the Bush administration has fostered, and a number of Americans agree with it. Of course, the Times' has received tax breaks from New York for its new headquarters that many in this city would consider "unfair" and "dishonest." The Village Voice ran a long piece on this subject last summer that unfortunately vanished from pubic discussion.

On May 28, an editorial in the New York Sun revived the issue. The one-year-old daily wrote: "A New York Times article on July 25, 2002, reported, 'The city granted The Times $26.1 million in tax breaks.' This while the Times has been fighting against tax breaks for ordinary citizens—and indeed, the paper's editorials have been supporting Mayor Bloomberg's tax increases. The same...article quotes a lawyer opposing the land and tax break deal as saying that the [government] subsidies are 'at least $70 million' and raising the question of whether they 'constitute a waste of taxpayer funds.'"

So why did politicians cave in to the Times' demands? It's not as if the paper would move its offices and main printing plant to Connecticut or New Jersey and jeopardize the last vestiges of its local identity. It's not likely, but it'd be fascinating if Sulzberger explained all this at his next group-therapy session with the paper's staff.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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