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The Not-So-Perfect Storm

March 13, 2004

Call it “three green suitcase” journalism. Let’s say a feature writer thinks green luggage is becoming popular. So the reporter taps out a story citing three people in different states who have given up black suitcases and bought green ones. The second paragraph begins: “All across America, people are switching to green suitcases.” This creates a media trend that might be real, but is probably bogus and certainly isn’t established by three sales.

The uproar over President Bush’s 9/11 ads was a classic three-green-suitcase story. The New York Daily News broke the story on March 4 with a huge headline: “STORM OVER BUSH 9/11 AD.” As howling front-page storms go, this one was small. The story quoted three unhappy members of victims’ families and one fireman. There were more bylines (four) than outraged family members (three).

The size of the headline letters, 2 inches tall, in a famous big-city daily, established that a major story was under way. With an extra day to rewrite the News, The Washington Post kept the story rolling, although it could find only two displeased family members and one fireman. So did USA Today. TV and print media blossomed with furor stories, prodded along by a quick press release from the Democratic National Committee that pointed to the storm in that morning’s Daily News. By dinnertime, the story was all over TV. The next day, was talking about “a flood of anti-ad criticism.”

This “flood” consisted mainly of 10 or 12 people quoted over and over. Some people turned up in stories because they were already in reporters’ Rolodexes as complainers, unhappy about many different 9/11 issues. This group included a lot of vocal anti-Bush activists who were not really representative of the victims’ families movement, but were fairly well known to the media.

One of the conservative bloggers, John Hawkins at, figured out early what was happening. He pointed out that in the big Associated Press story on the alleged furor, “five out of six people interviewed had an ax to grind with George Bush.” Monica Gabrielle, who called the ad “despicable,” is a Bush-basher who turned up on at least nine news sites. David Potorti, who was also quoted in many stories, said last October, “I feel like the foreign policy of the Bush administration is almost like a second assault on us.” Readers and viewers were not told about these anti-Bush sentiments in stories about the ads.

Potorti is a founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, identified by reporters as “an advocacy group,” “a victims’ families group” or “one of the families organizations.” More accurately, Peaceful Tomorrows is the anti-war segment of the victims’ families movement, long hostile to Bush policies and affiliated with, a Web-based organization of the left that wants Bush censured and then defeated. Reporters kept quoting leaders of Peaceful Tomorrows without mentioning their leftward push or their small membership (they claim 120 members, out of a population of victims’ family members that surely tops 10,000).

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, denounced the ads in nearly every story. Most reports pointed out that his union had endorsed John Kerry. But I saw no report mentioning that Schaitberger is national co-chair of the Kerry for President committee and therefore the most important nonpolitician in the Kerry leadership. Quoting Schaitberger on Bush’s ads is like quoting Karl Rove as a detached analyst of Hillary Clinton.

Amazingly, the AP story left the impression that Schaitberger resented the Bush ad because money for first-responders had been cut. According to the AP report, “He said his union is politically independent even though it endorsed Kerry and has donated money to Republicans.” Good thing the reporter mentioned this evenhandedness. Otherwise, readers might have concluded that Schaitberger’s highly abusive remarks about the Bush ads were coming from some sort of partisan.

We ought to have some discussion of how these stories were constructed, why reporters didn’t go beyond the first wall of savvy and activist family members, and why so many of the small decisions reporters made on deadline seemed to go so heavily in one political direction. It would also be nice to learn why reporters think that three or four people constitute a storm. Once the story line was set, of course, there was a storm. But some of us would like an ombudsman or two to discuss where the storm arose. Was it in the outside world or in the newsroom?

From → Media, Politics

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