The uproar over President Bush's 9/11 ads was a classic three-green-suitcase story. The New York Daily News broke the story on March 4th, with a huge headline: "STORM OVER BUSH 9/11 AD." As howling front-page storms go, this one was small. The story quoted three unhappy members of victims' families and one fireman. There were more bylines (four) than outraged family members (three).
The size of the headline letters, two inches tall, in a famous big-city daily, established that a major story was under way. With an extra day to rewrite the News, the Washington Post kept the story rolling, although it could find only two displeased family members and one fireman. So did USA Today. TV and print media blossomed with furor stories, prodded along by a quick press release from the Democratic National Committee that pointed to the storm in that morning's Daily News. By dinnertime, the story was all over TV. The next day, CBS.com was talking about "a flood of anti-ad criticism."
This "flood" consisted mainly of 10 or 12 people quoted over and over. Some people turned up in stories because they were already in reporters' rolodexes as complainers, unhappy about many different 9/11 issues. This group included a lot of vocal anti-Bush activists, who were not really representative of the victim families movement, but were fairly well known to the media.
One of the conservative bloggers, John Hawkins at rightwingnews.com, figured out early what was happening. He pointed out that in the big Associated Press story on the alleged furor, "5 out of 6 people interviewed had an ax to grind with George Bush." Monica Gabrielle, who called the ad "despicable," is a bush-basher who turned up on at least nine news sites. David Potorti, who was also quoted in many stories, said last October, "I feel like the foreign policy of the Bush Administration is almost like a second assault on us." Readers and viewers were not told about these anti-Bush sentiments in stories about the ads.
Call it "three green suitcase" journalism. Let's say a feature writer thinks green luggage is becoming popular. So the reporter taps out a story citing three people in different states who have given up black suitcases and bought green ones. The second paragraph begins: "All across America, people are switching to green suitcases." This creates a media trend that might be real, but is probably bogus and certainly isn't established by three sales.