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BUT WHO WILL WATCH THE AD-WATCHERS? Rutenberg seems to be over his head. Why can’t the Times do better?

TUESDAY, MAY 25, 2004

TAKING ON TIM: It really is a different day when major scribes start to challenge Tim Russert–but it’s happened several times this past week! First, Nicholas Lemann mocked Russert’s new book in a mordant profile in The New Yorker. Then, Howard Kurtz even took on Tim in a cover piece for the Post’s Sunday magazine!

We’ll take a look at the Russert-roasts in a set of reports this week. Yes, we think both scribes do pull a few punches in the course of their critiques. But Russert has been immune to criticism in the past several years–and his work has suffered accordingly. Tim seems to believe that–being from Buffalo–he is immune to misstatement or error. But then, fawning treatment tends to produce such beliefs. It’s clearly time for the fawning to stop. Lemann and Kurtz start that process.

BUT WHO WILL WATCH THE AD-WATCHERS: Frankly, we were puzzled by Brooks Jackson’s statement. The Annenberg ace has done good work critiquing this year’s Bush/Kerry ads. But in this morning’s New York Times, Jim Rutenberg tackles the crucial subject again. And yes, we were a bit surprised when we saw Jackson search for a word:

RUTENBERG: “Even people who don’t think there is much information in these ads and say they don’t learn anything from them tell us they believe factoids they could only have gotten from these ads, and they’re wrong,” said Brooks Jackson...“It’s beyond subliminal–it’s something I haven’t come up with a name for.”
Luckily, we have come up with a name–disinformation. And yes, there’s been a lot of disinformation spread in this year’s campaign ads. Given the record amounts being spent on such ads, major papers like the Times should be spending more time on this subject. Major papers should be aggressively limning the claims that are made in these ads.

Unfortunately, Rutenberg doesn’t seem up to this challenge. In this morning’s page-one report, he focuses on several ads that are hugely insignificant–and on some ads that seem to be accurate. For example, consider the third ad the worried scribe cites. The ad isn’t being aired by Kerry or Bush. The ad is aired by an “outside group”–and frankly, it seems to be accurate:

RUTENBERG (pgh 5): Outside groups are getting into the act as well.

(6) The League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Mr. Kerry, is running an advertisement in Florida warning that “President Bush opened up Florida’s coast to offshore drilling.” But the drilling area that was opened under Mr. Bush is 100 miles off the coast, much farther than it would have been under a Clinton administration proposal.

Even in Rutenberg’s own critique, this ad would seem to be accurate. But it isn’t clear that the scribe even knows what this ad is really about. Last week, when the ad hit the air, it was analyzed in the Tampa Tribune. Here’s what Garrett Therolf wrote:
THEROLF: In the advertisement, the narrator tells viewers, “President Bush opened up Florida’s coast to offshore oil drilling.” The group is referring to a period early in the Bush administration when he supported drilling in a region known as Area 181, which is within 30 miles of the Florida Panhandle and 300 miles from Tampa.
Does Rutenberg know what this ad is about? Here at THE HOWLER, we can’t really tell. But he gives it high billing in this morning’s story. Ads which have played a much greater role in the process Jackson cites don’t get mentioned at all.

Rutenberg doesn’t tell us who has sinned more in this year’s disinformation wars. But his text tilts slightly in a pro-Bush direction; it critiques three ads by Bush, three ads by Kerry, with this Florida ad as a tie-breaker. At times, he seems to downplay the problems with certain ads. Consider his critique of a widely-aired Bush commercial which says that Kerry has “supported higher taxes more than 350 times:”

RUTENBERG: While Bush campaign aides say the claim is accurate and have made public a list of instances to which it refers, they acknowledge that in several of these cases Mr. Kerry had in fact either voted to maintain tax rates or even to cut them, but not by as much as Republicans had proposed.
According to Rutenberg, Bush officials admit that, in several of the 350 cases, Kerry actually voted to maintain or even to lower taxes. But a graphic which accompanies this morning’s report seems to say something more strenuous:
NEW YORK TIMES GRAPHIC: The votes include many in which Mr. Kerry either moved to maintain a tax in the face of a proposal to cut it or, in at least 71 cases cited by Mr. Kerry’s campaign, supported a tax cut that was simply smaller than another on the table.
If you read Rutenberg’s text–but skipped the graphic–you were plainly misled by the word “several.” If the graphic is accurate, at least 20 percent of the votes in question were actually votes to lower taxes! Beyond that, there were “many” more votes in which Kerry voted to leave existing taxes the same. How odd it is–that a Times report on misleading ads seems to be misleading itself. But this is precisely the type of work Rutenberg has displayed all through the campaign.

Rutenberg’s greatest problem remains his failure to separate wheat from chaff. He worries today about trivial alleged errors; see his complaint about Kerry’s claims on job losses under Bush, or his complaint about Kerry’s reference to his vote for the Clinton budget. Then too, he worries about insignificant ads which almost no one will see or hear (see Bush’s ad on No Child Left Behind). But as he has done in the past, he fails to mention significant, widely-aired Bush campaign ads–ads which have pushed that “subliminal” disinformation process which Jackson failed to name. For example, Bush has aired a major series of ads which attack Kerry for allegedly opposing certain weapon systems–including many weapon systems which Vice President Cheney also opposed. Rutenberg skips these ads completely. Meanwhile, other Bush ads–on the $87 billion spending bill, or on Kerry’s alleged attempt to “gut” intelligence spending–have been far more significant than the ads he critiques. But these ads go down the memory hole, too. Instead, right on page one of the Times, we’re asked to worry about an anti-Bush ad by an “outside group” which would seem to be perfectly accurate.

Jackson has done good work this year–and a lot of disinformation is moving. But Rutenberg never seems up to the task of dealing with this difficult subject. Today’s campaigns are very slick. Their disinformation is skillfully packaged, and it’s therefore hard to critique. If he’s really trying his best, Rutenberg seems to be over his head with this important subject.