Friday, March 27, 2009

Media Matters Reports

Pay no attention to the GOP "power grab" behind the curtain

This week, conservative media figures bombarded the media landscape with accusations that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's proposal to allow the government to take over nonbank financial institutions amounted to a massive White House "power grab." A chilling accusation to be sure, especially when one considers the unprecedented abuses of power that occurred on President Bush's watch. In the words of Fox News' Sean Hannity, Geithner's plan is "the single biggest power grab and move toward socialism in the history of the country."

Others in the media uncritically cited such conservative claims, including House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-OH) charge that Geithner's proposal constitutes "an unprecedented grab of power," despite the fact that the budget blueprint released by House Republicans, including Boehner, contained a call for "a process to address insolvent institutions that stops throwing good money after bad into failing institutions and places insolvent ones into temporary receivership." The GOP's proposal raises the question of whether the media, which reported ad nauseam on the charge that Geithner and the White House are engaging in a "power grab" by asking Congress for this authority, will now note that the same House Republican caucus that made the charge has now proposed giving the federal government similar authority. Hypocrisy, anyone?

Of course, the central question remains: How can it possibly be a power "grab" if the Obama administration is seeking this authority from Congress -- a coequal branch of government?

Where's W? The disappearing of a president

Like last week, much of the coverage this week of the AIG executive bonuses was devoid of any mention of the Bush administration's role in the controversy. A USA Today/Gallup poll question about who was to blame for the AIG bonuses conveniently left out the Bush administration as a possible response, despite the administration's decision to give AIG billions in aid without requiring that the company withhold the bonuses. Similarly, a Wall Street Journal article about Geithner and his aides' involvement in decisions about AIG's bonus payments did not note that it was the Bush administration that negotiated a November 2008 stock purchase agreement with AIG through which the Bush Treasury Department injected $40 billion into the company without requiring that the bonus contracts be nullified.

Worse yet, the conservative Washington Times took things a step further, reporting GOP criticism of Democrats over the AIG bonus issue and quoting a Republican strategist asserting: "This is not something [Democrats] can point to George Bush. ... They own the issue of giving bonuses to the AIG executives." Glaringly absent was any mention that the $53 million in AIG bonuses that the article mentioned were reportedly paid out under the Bush administration or that a Bush-appointed special inspector general for TARP has stated that the Bush Treasury Department knew about the AIG bonus contracts and did not insist on their cancellation as a condition of AIG's receiving bailout money.

For the media, laughter is not the best medicine

Media Matters for America this week released a compelling online video, titled "Infectious Laughter: The Epidemiology of a Smear," that demonstrates in detail how the conservative echo chamber operates, using President Obama's interview with Steve Kroft on CBS' 60 Minutes from last weekend as a case study. Echoing a March 22 Politico article, discussion of Obama's laughter was hyped by the Drudge Report. Additionally, the March 23 editions of several morning news shows featured segments on Obama's laughter during the interview. The segments, which aired on NBC's Today, MSNBC's Morning Joe, MSNBC Live, and Fox News' Fox & Friends, are reminiscent of the media's echoing of the Drudge Report, among others, in seizing on Hillary Clinton's laugh as a new subject of attention in September 2007 following Clinton's appearance on all five Sunday political talk shows. Whereas commentators speculated whether Clinton's laughter -- which some described as a "cackle" -- was evidence of her "calculating" nature, according to the Politico article, Obama's "awkward laughter highlighted an issue Obama has faced dating back to the campaign, a sense that he sometimes is too 'cool' and detached to fully grasp the public anxiety over mounting job losses and economic worries." Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski, however, challenged her co-hosts' fixation on the topic, stating, "I don't care who's laughing. ... I want to look at the plan and really assess it fairly. Tone is one thing; we'll see what the action is."

Reading from Limbaugh's teleprompter

Almost daily over the past several weeks, conservative leader Rush Limbaugh has been fixated on Obama's use of a teleprompter. Despite the fact that such a device has commonly been used by media figures and past presidents of both political parties, Limbaugh presses on, day-after-day, taking every opportunity to lambaste what he refers to as "TOTUS," or the "teleprompter of the United States."

Apparently reading directly from Limbaugh's own personal teleprompter, several conservative media figures -- including Matt Drudge and Sean Hannity -- uncritically highlighted a March 18 report that a "teleprompt blunder has led to Barack Obama thanking himself in a speech at the White House in a St Patrick's Day celebration." But as Toby Harnden, U.S. editor for the U.K.'s Telegraph, noted, the pool report of Obama's March 17 event with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen indicates that in saying, "First, I'd like to say thank you to President Obama," Obama was, in Harnden's words, making "a good-natured and well-received joke" at the expense of Cowen, who earlier in the event had mistakenly read from the teleprompter displaying Obama's speech. Indeed, as early as March 18, Fox News anchor Bret Baier reported that Obama had "jokingly" made the comments in question.

The ghost of George Will's presence

Last month, The Washington Post's George Will faced intense, widespread criticism for dubious global warming claims he made in two separate columns. It now appears The New York Times Magazine has been possessed by Will's science-denying spirit, as it is slated to run a profile of physicist and global warming skeptic Freeman Dyson this weekend.

The profile quotes without challenge Dyson's false suggestion that there was a scientific consensus in the 1970s that the earth was cooling. Unlike the current consensus that global warming exists, there was no consensus in the 1970s that the earth was cooling. A September 2008 article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (a peer-reviewed publication) investigated the "pervasive myth" that "there was a consensus among climate scientists of the 1970s that either global cooling or a full-fledged ice age was imminent." The article found:

A review of the climate science literature from 1965 to 1979 shows this myth to be false. The myth's basis lies in a selective misreading of the texts both by some members of the media at the time and by some observers today. In fact, emphasis on greenhouse warming dominated the scientific literature even then.

Additionally, The New York Times Magazine sent Nicholas Dawidoff, whom Brad Johnson refers to as a "baseball writer" and who has not previously written about science for the Times, to profile Dyson. Dawidoff has published four books -- The Fly Swatter, a biography of his grandfather Alexander Gerschenkron; In the Country of Country, a collection of biographies of country musicians; The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life Of Moe Berg; and The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness and Baseball -- and began his career covering baseball for Sports Illustrated. Dawidoff not only allowed Dyson to advance the previously mentioned falsehood about global cooling, he also quoted Dyson accusing Al Gore of being global warming's "chief propagandist" and "an opportunist" and accusing scientist James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, of "consistently exaggerat[ing] all the dangers" of global warming.

Be sure to check out these lists of Dawidoff's previous articles for The New York Times Magazine and The New York Times.

Clearing up Kudlow's intentions

As Washington Post Co. blogger Greg Sargent noted this week, Media Matters has launched Financial Media Matters, a website dedicated to holding accountable those who report on the financial industry, as well as those who report on labor, the economy, and other fiscal matters. The new website will focus extensively on ensuring that outlets such as CNBC, Fox Business Network, and The Wall Street Journal are held accountable.

Also, following CNBC host Larry Kudlow's expression of interest in running for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, Media Matters President Eric Burns wrote an open letter last week to CNBC President Mark Hoffman that stated, in part, that Kudlow "is either a journalist or a candidate; he cannot be both. ... As a private citizen, [he] has a right to explore a run for public office, but using his platform as a CNBC host to further his political ambitions jeopardizes the integrity of your network." This week, Kudlow announced that he will not run for Senate, as The New York Times and the Hartford Courant, among others, noted.

This week's media columns

Media Matters Senior Fellows Eric Boehlert, Jamison Foser, and Karl Frisch look at Jeff Zucker and the CNBC straw man, deficient budget coverage, and the right's toxic assets, respectively.


Different assisted-suicide groups, one goal
The Times wrongly sees a difference between the Final Exit Network and the assisted-suicide laws promoted by organizations such as Compassion and Choices.
By Stanton J. Price

March 27, 2009

The recent arrests of four members of the Final Exit Network in Georgia have drawn more national attention to the issue of assisted suicide. According to The Times' March 23 editorial, "Sense and suicide," the organization has been involved in about 200 deaths across the country. This group has advised, consulted and even allegedly had its counselors facilitate suicides using helium tanks and plastic bags. Investigations in many of the cases have led authorities to question just how involved officials of the Final Exit Network were in the deaths of its members.

The Times says that the Final Exit Network does harm to the kind of physician-assisted suicide currently legal in Oregon and Washington. Such laws were heavily promoted by the group Compassion and Choices, a national organization that works for assisted-suicide legalization. It was a key player in the legalization efforts in Washington and Oregon as well as in failed attempts elsewhere around the country, including California.

While the groups may have different tactics, the goals of the Final Exit Network and Compassion and Choices are practically the same. Both want to see assisted suicide expanded to anyone who perceives himself to be suffering, and the relationship between the two groups goes beyond their shared cause. According to the timeline on Compassion and Choices’ web site, the group formed in 1980 as the Hemlock Society; it later merged with another organization to become what we now know as Compassion and Choices. Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry is a member of the Final Exit Network's advisory board and author of the book, "Final Exit," first published in 1991. Both Compassion and Choices and the Final Exit Network are active members of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies. The only real difference between the two groups is the way they seek to expand assisted suicide.

Both Compassion and Choices and the Final Exit Network take the definition of "intolerable suffering" beyond terminal illness. They believe that a person suffering from a condition that he or she believes is unbearable (rightly or wrongly) should legally be allowed assistance in ending their own life, whether by inhaling helium from a tank or overdosing on barbiturates. This is a frightening prospect for people with disabilities, particularly those who think they may be burdens on their family and for those of us fighting for disability rights.

If, as The Times writes, there may be growing societal tolerance of expanding this practice, it is not an intellectual stretch to argue that people perceived by themselves or someone else to be undergoing "intolerable suffering" should have access to assisted suicide. Given our current economic climate, the lack of adequate healthcare for many and the stigma placed on those with chronic disease or disability, I do not share the faith in society or in our politicians such laws require. This dubious fight waged by the Final Exit Network and Compassion and Choices equates to dangerous public policy and places far too many vulnerable people in harm's way.

For The Times to write about the Final Exit Network, "Society is unlikely ever to condone the kind of ethically questionable 'help' such groups offer," is naive. When this issue was before the California Senate's Judiciary Committee two years ago, then-state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) voted against the bill and said that he "could not resolve the risk that the power of money will ultimately define [assisted suicide's] parameters." To me, Dunn has a more realistic view of society than The Times.

Stanton J. Price is a health lawyer and member of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.'s Bioethics Committee, which he recently co-chaired.