Dean Lemann's musings on the state of MSM
FEAR AND FAVOR
by NICHOLAS LEMANN
Why is everyone mad at the mainstream media?
Issue of 2005-02-14 and 21
Just before last fall’s Presidential election, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, and Philip Taubman, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, went on the road to inspect the candidates’ campaigns. In Florida, on October 22nd, they arranged to have drinks with Karl Rove, the White House’s chief political strategist, and Dan Bartlett, its head of communications. It was supposed to be a friendly get-together, and that’s how it went for the first few minutes, until Keller asked Rove what he thought of the Times’ coverage. It’s the sort of question that editors often ask important people, in the same spirit that a politician asks, “How’m I doing?,” usually hoping for an answer somewhere in the lower-middle range of politeness and candor. But Rove, Keller told me not long ago, “pounded on us for two cocktails’ worth of conversation.” Saying what? “It was three kinds of things,” Keller explained. “It was Bush accomplishments we had ignored, flaws in the Kerry record that we had put inside the paper, and a number of pieces we had done looking hard at the Bush record. In their view, that all amounted to arming the Kerry campaign.”
Keller and I were talking in his office in the Times newsroom at nine one morning, a moment when most newspaper offices are empty and expectantly quiet, like a theatre a couple of hours before the curtain. Keller took his time describing the conversation, to suggest that he wasn’t dismissing the criticisms out of hand. “Your initial reaction, especially in someone as ferocious as Rove, is to drop into a defensive crouch,” he said. “But I try not to do that. I listened, with a fair measure of skepticism, because a lot of it is calculated. But there was some genuineness to it. He went through a long litany of complaints. I do think he was channelling a feeling about the New York Times that’s out there in the land, that we should be concerned about, or at least aware of.”
One item that particularly drew Rove’s ire was a Times front-page story, by Ford Fessenden, which appeared on September 26th, under the headline “a big increase of new voters in swing states.” As Keller remembered it later, in an e-mail message to me, Rove “fired off complaints like a Gatling gun, some specific, some generic, some about specific writers, some about specific elements of specific stories.” When I spoke to Rove about his conversation with Keller, it was obvious that, to his mind, the September 26th story was No. 1 among the Times’ journalistic misdeeds during the campaign. The story left the impression that the Democrats’ organization was vastly superior to the Republicans’, especially in Florida and Ohio. Getting out the G.O.P. vote in those two states had for several years been one of Rove’s main projects, and he spoke about the article in roughly the same tone as a writer discussing a bad review of his magnum opus. He gave me a highly detailed, twelve-point critique, and then, in the interest of conciseness, he boiled down the twelve points to two or three.
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