Cameron-Gate, Part II (And Why This Story of Incompetence Shouldn't Go Away)
Countdown with Keith Olbermann last night offered, I believe, the first major television report on the incompetence of Fox News' Carl Cameron -- who allowed a parody poking fun at John Kerry to appear on Fox News' web site.
Yes, the story made the rounds among bloggers over the weekend. Yes, Howard Kurtz had a brief item in the Washington Post, and the New York Times and USA Today also had inside stories.
But television -- even on low-rated MSNBC -- potentially has a far greater impact. For the life of me, I don't know why every one of Fox News' competitors isn't highlighting this latest example of conservative bias. After all, doesn't Cameron's action call into question his bias on all other stories related to the presidential campaign?
More on that later ...
Is what Cameron did on the same level as Dan Rather's incompetence at CBS? No. This is a website story; Rather reported for 60 Minutes. But given that Fox is trumpeting how their channel's ratings are through the roof during the fall campaign -- they claimed 10 million viewers for the first debate, crushing CNN and MSNBC -- isn't it important that the station's chief political correspondent at least pretend to be neutral?
Here are the highlights from Olbermann's interview with Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, where he founded and directs the Center for the Study of Popular Television:
OLBERMANN: The gag reporting by its chief political correspondent, Carl Cameron, including made-up quotes attributed to John Kerry, was not supposed to be put on its Web site last Friday as actual news, entitled “The Metrosexual and the Cowboy.”
Fox says it was drawn from what somebody did not know was a farcical script written by Cameron, placed in the wrong part of its news computer, and simply rewritten by somebody else. This, even though the mock script quoted the senator as saying, “Didn‘t my nails and cuticles look great? What a good debate.” And “I‘m a metrosexual. He‘s a cowboy.”
The network issued an apology, calling it a poor attempt at humor and a lapse in judgment, and said Cameron had been, quote, reprimanded.
Fox was just getting back on its feet when another political correspondent, Jane Roh, filed a report about a parody group called Communists for Kerry. One problem—she forgot to mention it was a parody, and she forgot to mention the group was actually pro-Bush. Fox‘s response to that—Roh was duped. She actually believed the folks were serious.
The faux news stories got some media attention, but not a fraction of the CBS Killian memos saga. Is that appropriate? Or is there a political bias there, or what?
Joining me now, Professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, where he founded and directs the Center for the Study of Popular Television. Professor Thompson, good evening.
THOMPSON: Good evening.
OLBERMANN: Well, let‘s try to get some perspective. Are these Fox gaffs even in the same league as what we think we know happened at CBS?
THOMPSON: Well, they‘re not, insofar as they‘re not claiming that Kerry did something that he could be court-martialed for. It‘s on a Web site, as opposed to “60 Minutes.” And they apologized for it, really, really quickly, as opposed to CBS, which kept saying, you know, the sources were false, but the spirit was true. Fox never said the quotes were made up, but the spirit was true. Which I suppose they could of. John Kerry‘s cuticles did look pretty good on Thursday night.
OLBERMANN: There is an irony to this thing, in particular, because of all the people on the air at Fox News, Carl Cameron probably gets the least amount of grief about purportedly having a political agenda. But let‘s say somebody, whose neutrality was equally respected at CNN or at MSNBC, made up quotes about George Bush and they wound up on those Web sites for a similar period of time. Would we not already be living in the middle of a second maelstrom of, these people are trying to influence the election, get Congress to investigate?
THOMPSON: The first debate would be history. Could you imagine if Jennings or Brokaw or, heaven forbid, Rather had put this on one of their respective Web sites? And, you know, there should be a hue and cry about this. Even though it was a silly story, even though it was relatively easy to find out—or to realize that it was fake—let‘s remember that Rather, in fact, put something on from a source that due diligence was not done upon.
Here you‘ve got a guy who made up the quotes, put them in there. And I don‘t care how it got on the air, that stuff shouldn‘t be happening. Those kinds of things shouldn‘t be being written in the newsroom and put in places where they can get on to the Web site. I think the people at CBS were responsible for that. Heads ought to roll. I think the same thing ought to happen over at Fox News.
OLBERMANN: Is there any chance, any hope, that two gaffs by the troops from fair-and-balanced-land might make any measurable percentage of the news consumers and the politically active people of this country on all sides step back from the brink of politicizing literally everything in news, and say, you know what? This has just gotten too heated. We need to go back to the days when fair and balanced was not just some meaningless brand name.
THOMPSON: Well, you would have thought that this may have really made a splash. But it‘s—when that Dan Rather story broke, my phone rang all day long. Today I could hear the crickets in the background and see the sagebrush blowing across my telephone. This has really been, I think, under-reported.
The second story, the Communists for Kerry thing, you have a hard time locating that story on the Internet when you‘re looking for it. So, I think in the end, probably, we‘re not going to hear much about this at all after tonight.
OLBERMANN: To Fox‘s credit, though, as you said, they did—they apologized for it and they damage controlled brilliantly, as opposed to CBS, which did neither brilliantly. So, that may be a factor in addition to anything else.
Over at dailyhowler.com, Bob Somerby took it a step further, suggesting that yes, Cameron was incompetent making up Kerry quotes, but why not chastise the New York Times' Maureen Dowd, who screwed up a Kerry quote?
Dowd, on March 18, wrote that Kerry said: “Who among us doesn't like Nascar?” She added that when Kerry makes such statements, he "can come across like Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet’s pretentious cousin in “Pride and Prejudice.”
One problem: Kerry didn't make that statement.
The actual comment, which appeared on tape on CNN's Inside Politics on February 16, was: "George Bush went down to Daytona yesterday to do a photo opportunity at NASCAR. Now, I happen to like NASCAR, and I'm particularly pleased that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race, for a lot of reasons that many of you who follow it will understand."
But Dowd made her misquote, which since made its way into other Times articles, as well as Newsweek and Time, according to dailyhowler.com
But the question that can't be answered about Dowd, like Rather, is whether this was an intentional effort to distort information and hurt a particular presidential candidate.
With Cameron, it's clear what the intent was.
That doesn't clear Dowd, a darling among television talking heads. No one has asked for an apology or correction, and she has not offered one. But when that faux NASCAR quote gets used -- and if any voter actually changes their vote because of it -- blame Dowd.
Following up on my earlier post, the reason this is newsworthy is twofold -- it strengthens the argument that there is conservative bias at Fox News (not that this should be surprising). But second, the lack of coverage of Cameron's incompetence by rivals would seem to strengthen the argument that there isn't the oft-quoted "liberal media bias."
After all, if there was widespread "liberal media bias," as conservatives claim, wouldn't the Cameron story get overplayed, and the Rather story get swept under the carpet?