Avoiding the label

John Leo

5/2/2005 12:00:00 AM - John Leo

John Bolton stands accused of nonsexual harassment (rudeness or crudeness, in plain English) by a woman named Melody Townsel. She says Bolton, President Bush's nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chased her through the halls of a Moscow hotel a decade ago when she was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. government.

 Does it matter that Townsel is a liberal Democrat and founder of the Dallas chapter of Mothers Opposing Bush? Maybe not. Even anti-Bush liberals can find themselves pursued through Russian hotels by rapidly moving Republicans. But it matters a lot that most news outlets withheld her partisan connections in reporting the story. Time magazine, United Press International, and four newspapers, USA Today, the Dallas Morning News, the New York Times, and the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail, reported the information about Mothers Opposing Bush. But according to a computer search Thursday, apart from the conservative press and a couple of in-groupy Washington newsletters like Hotline and the Frontrunner, that was it in the print media. Fox News carried the story on TV. If the major networks and the other cable channels mentioned it, the search engine failed to pick it up.

 Obvious point: When judging the credibility of controversial people in the news, readers and viewers deserve a fair account of their background and affiliations. If the issue is politics, we certainly need to know their political leanings. In the Townsel case, that didn't happen.

 Another example is the story of Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist kidnapped in Iraq. Sgrena was released after a ransom was reportedly paid, then was fired on by American troops as her car traveled to the Baghdad airport. An Italian intelligence agent in the vehicle was killed by the gunfire. The American soldiers said the vehicle was moving at a high speed and failed to respond to warning shots at a checkpoint. Sgrena said that her vehicle was moving slowly and that there was no checkpoint. She suggested she might have been deliberately targeted by Americans because the United States does not like negotiating with the insurgents. She said: "The Americans are against this type of operation. For them, war is war; human life doesn't count for much."

 Few news outlets reported all of the following facts, which surely bear on her probable credibility: She strongly opposed the American invasion, she identifies with the resistance to the United States in Iraq, she works for a Communist paper, and she is a Communist herself. Many media outlets reported that her employer, Il Manifesto, is a Communist paper. Her anti-Americanism was more rarely noticed, and the fact that she is a Communist was almost always omitted. According to a computer search, the New York Times didn't use the "C" word at all in the Sgrena case, referring to Il Manifesto as a "leftist" daily. This is correct, I suppose, in the same sense that a Nazi paper could be called a "rightist" weekly.

 The Times was even more skittish about using the "C" word in covering the big antiwar demonstration in New York in February of 2003. The leader and chief organizer of the demonstration, Leslie Cagan, was a prominent, old-time Communist who left the party only in 1991 and only because it went through an ideological split. She has been described in the New York Sun, a conservative paper, as "a longtime unapologetic Communist who has remained one of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's most tireless supporters." In the Times, however, she was merely "one of the grandes dames of the country's progressive movement." Laudatory semibiographical treatment of Cagan in the Times's "Public Lives" column had no room to mention her Communist past.

 In the Washington Post, Cagan was "a professional dove in the day of the hawk." The Post managed to mention that the conservative magazine Insight called her "a Marxist agitator" with "roots in old Soviet . . . agitprop," but only to assure us that Cagan is big enough to ignore this sort of thing (she "shakes off such criticism as the wages of organizing").

 In 2002, the Times based its estimate of civilian deaths in Afghanistan on numbers provided by Global Exchange, "an American organization." It would have been more honest to say that Global Exchange is an antiglobalization, antiwar group. Many liberal groups often go unlabeled in the media, as if they were somehow unbiased and uncommitted. Among them are the Sentencing Project, the Justice Policy Institute, and September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Right-wing groups that sometimes evade labeling are rarer, but they include the Landmark Legal Foundation and the American Council on Science and Health. More accuracy in labeling, please.