Now in my 27th straight year of judging the Media Research Center’s annual mock awards for “the year’s worst reporting,” I have some self-imposed guidelines. Points of view are fine with me as long as news organizations don’t pretend to be “objective,” defined as not favoring one side or the other. That means no dart-throwing at MSNBC, because that network does not pretend to be neutral.
Instead, I look for outrageous spin such as that offered by anchor Scott Pelley on the “CBS Evening News,” when he said “2 million Americans are likely to pass up full-time jobs because of the president’s health insurance program. … Those aren’t necessarily jobs being lost. They’re also workers choosing to work less.” (Yes, and in 1789 some French families chose not to eat bread because they had cake.)
Eleanor Clift (formerly with “Newsweek,” now with The Daily Beast) stated, concerning the Benghazi horror, “Ambassador [Chris] Stevens was not murdered. He died of smoke inhalation.” Yes, and 80 years ago Walter Duranty of “The New York Times” won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Soviet Union. As a Communist-imposed famine killed millions, Duranty said no one was dying of starvation: True, they died because their weakened organs stopped working.
“Washington Post” business reporter Zachary Goldfarb also impressed me: In February he reported that “with the 2015 budget request, [President Barack] Obama will call for an end to the era of austerity that has dogged much of his presidency.” Yes, federal government debt has risen from $10.6 trillion when Obama took office to about $18 trillion now. Good thing we had austerity.
When interviewing politicians and authors I try to be hospitable without kissing up, so it was embarrassing for journalism when longtime ABC News anchor Barbara Walters started an interview by calling law professor Anita Hill (the accuser of Justice Clarence Thomas) her “heroine.” At least “CBS This Morning” co-host Norah O’Donnell became self-conscious on Oct. 28 when interviewing the new network honey, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren: O’Donnell asked at one point, “That was a softball of a question, wasn’t it?” Co-host Charlie Rose had fewer scruples: He told Warren, “She just teed it up for you. Go.”
Or, listen to these questions Bob Schieffer of CBS threw at Barack Obama on “Face the Nation” on Nov. 9: “You had a tough summer. We saw the rise of ISIS, the outbreak of Ebola, trouble in the Ukraine, illegal immigrants coming across the border. Did you ever go back to the residence at night and say, ‘Are we ever going to get a break here?’ … You came here talking about hope and change. Do you still hope? Is change, was it harder than you thought it would be?” Glad we don’t have a lapdog press.
The softball questions don’t concern me as much as hardball hatred. One journalist long ago wrote she hoped Clarence Thomas would eat unhealthy food and have a heart attack, so it’s not surprising to find Alan Pyke of the Think Progress website writing about the Fox News Channel boss, “I hope Roger Ailes dies slow, painful, and soon. The evil that man has done to the American tapestry is unprecedented for an individual.”
So my vote for the worst reporting of the year goes to CNN Newsroom anchor Carol Costello. On Oct. 22 she had audio in which Bristol Palin described a man shoving her, dragging her on the ground, and repeatedly cursing at her. Networks normally and rightly would criticize such abusive behavior, but since the object of it was the daughter of The Woman Who Must Be Viewed With Scorn, Costello was free to perorate:
“I’m just going to come right out and say it: This is quite possibly the best minute and a half of audio we’ve ever come across—well, come across in a long time anyway. A massive brawl in Anchorage, Alaska, reportedly involving Sarah Palin’s kids and her husband. It was sparked after someone pushed one of her daughters at a party. … And now police have released audio of that interview. It does include some rather colorful language from Bristol. Here now is Bristol’s recollection of how that night unfolded. So sit back and enjoy.”
Sit back and enjoy? Wow. There’s my nominee.