WHEN VICE PRESIDENT Spiro Agnew teed off against "the left-wing bias of the media" in a 1969 speech, I was just beginning to think about a career in journalism. But the wide controversy that speech ignited - my liberal University of Georgia journalism professors remained furious with Agnew years afterward - helped remind Americans that no institution in our society should consider itself above professional conduct and thus deserving of immunity to criticism.
The recent apology by longtime CBS-TV anchor Dan Rather for speaking at a Democratic Party fund-raiser reminded me of Agnew's criticism of the then-dominant three TV networks. Since the Nixon-Agnew era, Rather was Public Enemy No. 1 for Republicans and conservatives. They knew his nightly reporting was rather biased - either through prejudice or omission. And there were other Dan Rathers on ABC and NBC reporting with a portside spin.
The '70s also spawned the virus of "advocacy journalism" where reporters were told by some print editors to mix facts with a particular slant. (That's supposed to be editorial writing.)
For the past 30 years politicians have successfully continued to tap the resentment of many Americans who feel an elite Big Media doesn't present all the facts. This animus has led to the remarkable ratings success of the young Fox TV network, with its emphasis on "no spin" and news one can't find anywhere else. The news on other cable channels and unfiltered Internet information led to a sharp '90s decline in CBS, ABC and NBC news viewership.
Agnew's main thought, as he examined the practice of journalism over 30 years ago, focused on the need for a sharp line of separation between opinion and reporting. Rather is a journalist who reports the news. He shouldn't be doing editorial commentary and surely must not be speaking to help a political party raise money.
On the other hand, NBC-TV's Tim Russert, billed as an interviewer/commentator, recently addressed a group of congressmen on Capitol Hill to talk about legislation and offer his audience public relations tips. Did he go over the line? In my view, no. He did not accept any money nor help them raise any and, as Russert says, he offered his own views, gave a few tips and came away "with ideas for stories." He is not a news reporter like Rather.
In fact, I always thought one of the worst things TV networks did was to place a beat reporter striving to cover stories objectively during the week on a Sunday talk show to offer opinions. In the 1980s ABC-TV's White House correspondent Sam Donaldson was a prime example of this blurring of the news/editorial line.
The Rather episode is yet another reminder that reporters and editorialists should be kept separate on TV, just as daily newspapers strive to keep opinions and news on different pages.
Senseless in Seattle
SEATTLE'S Mardi Gras violence that left one person dead and 70 injured two months ago exposed racial fault lines in a city supposedly known for tolerance and racial diversity.
The Seattle media covered a series of attacks in Pioneer Square by groups of young black men on whites outside of police perimeters. Police and prosecutors want the assailants slapped with an additional "hate crime" charge. Leaders of Seattle's black community are resisting. But why? It is primarily the nation's African-American leaders who've been pushing for "hate crime" laws. If those laws are applied to white attacks on blacks, why not vice versa?
Pollsters at war
IT WAS SUPPOSED to be a routine survey for Georgia School Superintendent Linda Schrenko but the leaked results caused another prominent polling company to throw a hard counterpunch.
Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates were contracted by Schrenko to poll Georgians on her possible gubernatorial bid. Yet she also let pollsters ask who respondents preferred to be the Georgia GOP chairman - Ralph Reed or David Shafer? The purpose was to gauge the impact former Christian Coalition director Reed's potential election as chairman would have on GOP candidates running in 2002.
The results weren't flattering to Reed, and were leaked to various media pundits. It was predictable that Reed and his allies would fire back, saying they heard from some respondents that the questions were poorly phrased.
What wasn't predictable was the blast against Fabrizio-McLaughlin from pollster Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group in a memo to Reps. Charlie Norwood and Bob Barr, R-Ga.:
"I am always disturbed when I see any political pollster use slanted questions to `push' voters to a conclusion, or even worse, multi-layered questions designed to confuse, distort or exaggerate true voter intent. ... As a Republican pollster, I am very disappointed that another Republican pollster, whom I have always respected, would use this type of `push' question in an attempt to persuade Republicans to oppose one another in an election of any type."
Tony Fabrizio's firm polled for Guy Miller's 1998 gubernatorial campaign - apparently the only statewide race it has done in Georgia. The Tarrance Group, on the other hand, has done regular work for Norwood and Barr.
Reed's main boosters are Norwood and Barr. Opponent Shafer is a longtime Millner adviser and friend of Fabrizio. Coincidence?