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The Times's conservative beat, and more.

Feb 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 21
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The New York Times's "Conservative Beat"

Ana Marie Cox, editor of the excellent new webzine Wonkette, has put her finger on one of those obsessions that animate newsroom chatter in Washington and New York: "Everyone's straining to describe exactly how weird it is that the New York Times has put former media reporter David Kirkpatrick on a new 'conservative beat.'"

She's right about the straining, but as we will show, what the Times is up to is far less weird than it looks. First, though, here's what New York Observer media reporter Sridhar Pappu had to say about Kirkpatrick's new beat:

For the next year, David Kirkpatrick--formerly the man charged with covering the book publishing industry--will cover conservatives. Not the Republican Party or the Bush administration. No, it's real conservatives.

In an announcement earlier this month Times national editor Jim Roberts said that Mr. Kirkpatrick "will examine conservative forces in religion, politics, law, business and the media--a job that will take him across the country and make him a frequent presence in Washington. His coverage will cut across the political campaigns this season," Mr. Roberts continued, "but we expect that much of what he does will transcend the race itself and delve into the issues and personalities that drive--and sometimes divide--conservatives."

"I winced a little when I read that job announcement," said Times executive editor Bill Keller, "because it was a little like 'the New York Times discovers this strange, alien species called conservatives,' and that's not what this is about."

If it seems a little wacky, well, it is. Intellectual movements seldom draw the attention of beat reporters. There is, after all, no correspondent covering think tanks for the Washington Post. What the Times' new beat means to do, Mr. Keller said, is this: Give a great big bear hug to the disparate but at times interconnected conservative organizations--evangelical Christians and anti-abortionists, for example--all as a way of gaining a peek into who the Bush administration listens to, and why.

But again, Kirkpatrick's assignment only seems wacky. The key to the whole enterprise can be found in the national editor's expressed interest in issues that divide conservatives. Particularly, as can be seen in the pieces Kirkpatrick has been filing, in the issues that divide conservatives from the Bush White House.

Here are the headlines for Kirkpatrick's first three pieces on the new beat: "Bush's Push for Marriage Falls Short for Conservatives"; "Conservative Groups Differ on Bush Words on Marriage"; "Concerned Bloc of Republicans Wonders Whether Bush Is Conservative Enough."

In short, there's no weirdness here. From Paul Krugman on down, the Times offers its readers an extensive array of Bush-bashing features. The "conservative beat" is simply a clever new addition to this menu.

Accentuate the Positive

Perhaps you've wondered why the Democratic presidential candidates look so good these days on TV while President Bush is behind the 8-ball. Well, Bob Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs has the explanation.

From January 1, when the Democratic race went full throttle, to January 18, the day before the Iowa caucuses, the coverage of the entire Democratic field on ABC, NBC, and CBS was 71 percent positive. That's the most favorable coverage of presidential candidates ever recorded by Lichter's group. John Kerry's coverage was 96 percent favorable. John Edwards's was 100 percent favorable--not a single unkind word about him was aired on the nets. No wonder he surged in Iowa.

Yes, Howard Dean took some hits, but his coverage was still 58 percent positive. What about Bush? Since the war in Iraq ended last April, his coverage has been 68 percent unfavorable, 32 percent favorable.

The BBC's Disgrace (cont.)

While most of our attention was focused on New Hampshire last week, there was also big political news in Britain. On Wednesday afternoon, the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly--a weapons expert in Tony Blair's government who committed suicide last July--released its report. Lord Hutton, who until his retirement was one of Britain's most respected judges, found that no one in the government had intentionally "sexed up" Blair's September 2002 dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and that no one in the government had acted improperly in confirming that Kelly was the Ministry of Defense employee to whom BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan had spoken. Hutton's only criticism of the government was that it should have made it more clear to Kelly that his name would be confirmed if a journalist asked if he had been Gilligan's source.

In contrast to the almost complete exoneration of Blair, Lord Hutton had some choice words for Gilligan and the BBC. He called Gilligan's chief accusations against the government "unfounded," and concluded that "the editorial system" that permitted Gilligan's story to run unchecked was "defective." He also faulted BBC management for lack of oversight after Gilligan's broadcast, when it responded to the government's criticism by digging in its heels, rather than acknowledging and correcting its mistakes.

If all of this sounds a little familiar to readers, it might be because Josh Chafetz argued precisely these points in our pages five months ago ("The Disgrace of the BBC," August 25, 2003). In a subsequent letter to the editor, BBC Head of Political Programs Fran Unsworth wrote that, "Many of [Chafetz's] allegations relating to the story regarding the now notorious intelligence dossier which ended in the tragic death of Dr. David Kelly are best left to Lord Hutton to pronounce on in due course." Last week, Lord Hutton did just that, and Unsworth's bosses--BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke--resigned.

New Hampshire Postscript

We hope you were reading the daily dispatches from the New Hampshire primary on But in case you missed them, here's David Tell's priceless description of the Dean demographic in action:

"Dean was doing his now-standard rap about the 'increasing concentration of the media' and how it's a 'huge problem' that nowadays 90 percent of Americans purportedly get all their information from the same 11 corporations. It matters a great deal where you get your information from, the governor explained. After all, a full 80 percent of people who watch Fox, along with 50 percent of people who watch CNN, still think Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. But 'if you listen to NPR, only 30 percent' of you are likely to make such a boneheaded mistake.

"The moment Dean mentioned NPR, his audience--I'm not making this up--erupted into cheers and applause. 'I must confess,' the governor then modestly acknowledged, 'I am an NPR fan, too,' which brought him a second, even louder round of cheers and applause. A couple minutes later, a balding, nerdy, middle-aged man rose from his seat in the crowd and told the governor that he and his wife were also 'avid NPR fans--and avid Howard Dean fans.' More cheers and more applause.

"I listen to NPR myself, you understand. But really, now. When Howard Dean says he's just like you to people just like this, I have to believe that, if anything, he's limiting his popular appeal, not expanding it."