"The Watchdog Didn't Bark"

By Harold Evans


Salon Staff
July 18, 2002 11:01PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Thank you for the article by Harold Evans. "Where was the media in the 2000 election?" is exactly the question my husband and I have been asking ourselves in recent weeks. We are both avid readers of political news but never read the details of the Harken/Texas Rangers deals that have been exposed lately. The lack of coverage is a grave betrayal of trust that average citizens place in a free press. One New York Times business reporter told me during the 2000 campaign that he was sick of the Clintons and sick of the scandals. I think that sums up the attitude. I think reporters wanted to believe Bush was as pure as he said he was. Unfortunately, we're saddled with the worst president I've seen in my lifetime.

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-- Gail Donovan

The Evans article on the reluctance of the major media to investigate "The Dog Ate My Insider Trade" was excellent. If we had more TV and newspaper owners with the courage and integrity of Katharine Graham today we would have a different person in the White House. Let's see if they stick with the story and give anything like the attention to the various conflict-of-interest stories that they gave to Monica-gate.

It is difficult not to be cynical about major-media behavior. The canard that they are "liberal" should be decimated by what has happened in regard to this story.

-- David Irwin

Harold Evans seems to have conveniently left out of his account of George W. Bush's sale of Harken Energy stock the fact that two form submissions for such sales are required; one before the sale and one after.

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As it turns out, Bush submitted the one before the sale on time, and as Evans rightly reports, submitted the one due after the sale eight months late.

But from the perspective of investor protection, the first one is much more important than the second. Investors in Harken Energy were able to sell their shares ahead of Bush thanks to the public filing of intent to sell.

Leaving out this tidbit is either deliberately misleading or poor reporting.

-- Russell McManus

More than once I have written to journalists who have raised the issue of why the media has been so reluctant to hold Bush's feet to the fire regarding his business dealings before the 2000 election. (I am one of those holdouts who haven't yet gotten over the result of that election.)

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My own theory is that the journalists covering Bush's 2000 campaign (besides being unaccountably enamored with him) thought it likely that he could be elected, even if they covered the story, and none of them wanted to be denied access to Bush afterwards, as they probably would have been if they had covered such an unflattering story. Perhaps this wasn't really a conscious decision, but just an inarticulated reaction, I don't know. However, it must also come down to money in the end, for the newspaper editor or broadcaster, etc., who has to show a profit must first have access to the newsmakers, even at the expense of reporting the hard stories on same.

The subtext here is that most of the media could be cynical enough to think that Bush would still have been electable if the story of his business dealings had been properly reported. What an indictment of the American public! I guess the media thought we just didn't care enough about Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, etc. (even though these stories were not nearly equivalent to the Harken/Texas Rangers/Enron story in their impact on American life), so why should they bother this time? Or maybe it was really payback for our not reacting more to Lewinsky, et al.?!

Thanks for the work that you do.

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-- Karen Murphy

I share Harold Evans' puzzlement about the lack of solid press coverage of the Harken-Aloha Oil-Harvard Management-Texas Rangers mess during the 2000 campaign. But I think there are some very obvious reasons for this failure that Mr. Evans fails to mention. The most significant is that papers like the Washington Post are themselves corporations and they are driven by the bottom line. How many of the practices that are now being exposed have the editors and board members of the Post been indulging in, I wonder? Today, for example, they are suddenly and very righteously announcing that they are the second company -- not the first -- to voluntarily begin expensing stock options. A practice of which, they parenthetically and pompously assure us, they do very little. Oh, come off it. The fact is, they were doing it. And they sure as hell weren't doing much reporting about this practice or why they decided to do it ...

Another reason, I think, is the generally lower level of competence in the reporters. I sometimes get the feeling that this generation of Post reporters doesn't know how to do anything much except surf the Web and ask "think tank experts" or "senior White House officials" for quotable bits and pieces. Furthermore, it's pretty clear that many of the reporters are themselves confused by the details of the stories they are purportedly covering and unclear how those stories might be related to one another. This helps explain why the Post's "reporting" so quickly deteriorates into cheap cynicism or name-dropping. There's no one out there trying to follow a story, understand events, research past connections. Why would any reporter on the Post do that, when the editors aren't interested? And they aren't. Witness the complete lack of coverage of Dick Cheney for the past several months. On Tuesday there was a front page, below the fold, story on Halliburton, sort of. No mention of [subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root].

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This story follows on the heels of the Sunday ombudsman's column, which concluded with an acknowledgment that the paper hadn't really pursued Cheney and Halliburton as it has Martha Stewart. The ombudsman allowed as how maybe they should do that, even though "there may be nothing there."

By my count, the Post has published only three letters to the editor dealing with the corporate and economic mess. Two of them appeared on Sunday. I really don't think they only received three. What I do think is the Post is scared of a crash because that would impact their own stock value. So they think the "responsible" thing to do is to buck up us readers. To which end, they stay mum about Wendy Gramm while reporting what good old Phil had to say about expensing stock options. And there's no mention of Lynne Cheney and Lockheed.

But it was OK to jump on Hillary and Tipper.

Today's Post epitomizes the lack of genuine public purpose that is destroying this paper. The Style section is headed by a "comic" piece on that silly ole stock market -- gee whiz, who can figger that puppy out anyways?? The Business section contains a lengthy article on Bush's proposal to privatize the testing and review of medical devices, a proposal that is supposedly going to speed up and improve the process that has become slowed to 411 days in the FDA. And why is that? Because the Bush administration and the Congress won't fund the FDA. So now, "user's fees" are going to fund this review process and the process itself will be done by outside companies selected by the manufacturers. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

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I think that the "mainstream" press has half-consciously decided that their "job" is to keep the readers feeling safe. This explains, to some degree, the way the Post is failing to deal with the problems of Harken and Halliburton and the ongoing fundraising that Cheney and Bush are doing even while the administration pretends to be getting on the reform bandwagon. I also think this self-protecting paternalism helps explain why the press doesn't point out the contradiction inherent in the messages the administration is sending to "consumers": We have to stop bingeing, but we have to keep spending. It's the same contradiction inherent in the healthcare mess: The cost of new drugs and new devices skyrockets and ratchets up the cost of insurance and widens the divide between the haves and have-nots of health coverage. Rather than examine the connections between research, production and real benefit, this administration decides to bypass the FDA and put the review process in private hands. How long will it be before we are hearing that the cost of paying for these reviews necessitates an increase in healthcare premiums?

It isn't simply a matter of corporate ethics anymore. It never was. It is about ethics, period. No one who is honest can really believe that an unregulated market economy is ipso facto moral. No one who is honest can really believe that, in a global economy, "conservation is a personal virtue." But we already knew that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney were not honest people before Enron and WorldCom. We had only to look at Florida -- where the election was "privatized" and the review process was handed over to and paid for by the "users."

-- Deborah Schultz

Jeopardy 2010

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Answer: Enron, Halliburton, Harken

Question: What events forced George W. Bush to prematurely declare war on Iraq?

-- John Kelley


Salon Staff

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