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Stenographers to the Powerful

Publication Date: 2004-03-17

Here's an incident that tells you why it is so hard for the voices of teachers and parents to be heard above the cacaphony of government shills.

The article below is about the politics of war but the process is so similar to the politics of education policy that it is a must read. The people representing the government Standardisto policy can say anything they damn well please, and it is regarded as news. When anyone opposed to government Standardisto policy tries to speak up, their words are regarded as bias and they are either ignored or treated as lunatic fringe.

I was once scheduled to appear on Newshour with Jim Lehrer, to talk about standards and high stakes testing. In a preliminary phone conversation, I talked with a reporter there for more than an hour. She was satisfied, and they bought the airline ticket--very expensive last-minute purchase with no Saturday night layover.

My publisher sent the reporter a copy of my book One Size Fits Few: the Folly of Educational Standards, but it didn't get there until all the arrangements had been made. Then, all of a sudden I was cancelled. I was told the segment was postponed because breaking news intruded. Somehow they never got around to reissuing the invitation. Sam Smith, who does The Progressive Review Undernews, says, "It is at moments when the status quo is thoroughly shaken that the media most faithfully performs its duty as stenographer to the powerful."

Press Clips
The Village Voice
by Cynthia Cotts
PBS Gets Picky: A Reporter Disses Halliburton, and Newshour Producers Decide His 15 Minutes of Airtime Are Up
March 17 - 23, 2004

In a recent Nation cover story, Christian Parenti described hanging out with insurgents in Iraq. That got the attention of producers on News- Hour With Jim Lehrer, and on March 2, Parenti said something live that knocked Lehrer off his chair.

Parenti, author of an upcoming book on occupied Iraq, was being interviewed by NewsHour's Ray Suarez. He and Middle East history professor Juan Cole were analyzing the recent suicide bombings in Iraq and various groups that might have been involved. Then something went terribly wrong: Parenti suggested that Halliburton and Bechtel have failed to provide "meaningful reconstruction" and that the U.S. occupation might actually be contributing to the instability in Iraq. Lehrer apparently went ballistic.

Michael Mosettig, senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at NewsHour, told me, "This was not reportage, this was giving his opinion, and that's not why we brought him on." The next day, according to Parenti, Dan Sagalyn, NewsHour's deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense, called to inform him that top people were upset, that his comments had lacked "balance," and that Lehrer was planning to run an Editor's Note acknowledging the mistake. It seems they had violated one of Lehrer's internal "rules of journalism," which mandates that producers "carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories" and label it as such.

When I called Sagalyn, he confirmed that he had called Parenti that day, adding, "I said it was too bad what happened happened, and that I would have liked to have him on again . . . but because of this it would be very hard."

On March 4, Lehrer returned at the end of the show and read the following statement: "For those who were watching two nights ago, a discussion about Iraq ended up not being as balanced as is our standard practice. While unintentional, it was indeed our mistake and we regret it."

The Editor's Note surprised Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. "We think Christian Parenti's reporting has been thorough and reliable," she told me. "This is a journalist who spent a great deal of time on the ground in Iraq." According to vanden Heuvel, Parenti's comments about the failure of meaningful reconstruction were based on his reporting and firsthand observation. Parenti called the Editor's Note "excessive to the point of being ridiculous."

It's not the first time Halliburton has surfaced on NewsHour. Talking heads often discuss the embattled contractor, though usually in a left-right format like the one featuring Mark Shields and David Brooks. (Typical Shields comment: "Halliburton . . . has become a laugh line on the late-night monologues. That's not going to go away." Typical Brooks comment: "It does look bad but . . . it's not as bad as it looks.")

As for Halliburton, the company denies wrongdoing. But since shortly after New Year's, it has been reimbursing the U.S. government millions for alleged overcharges, and last month the Pentagon launched a criminal investigation of allegations of fraud by a Halliburton subsidiary. Mosettig said the March 4 Editor's Note was Lehrer's doing. "As far as I know we got no external complaints," he told me. "Maybe we got two or three e-mails from ordinary citizens after the show ran."

Executive producer Lester Crystal reiterated that the show aims for balanced coverage. "We have no quarrel with what Parenti said," he said. "We felt we made a mistake in not trying to get a response."

Asked if Parenti will be invited back, Mosettig said, "When you have a loose-cannon experience with somebody, you're going to be wary." Crystal said, "This is not a bar and not a guarantee to his coming on the program again," adding that they might have him back, "if he's done some firsthand reporting that we think is important."

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