Press Box

The Timesman With a Microchip on His Shoulder

Last Wednesday, the New York Times ran a small correction on its story from the day before about Microsoft’s hiring Ralph Reed to lobby George W. Bush. The company “did not say that its aim was to curry favor” with Bush, the Times conceded. The words “curry favor” were not in quotes in Tuesday’s story. They were the author’s characterization. Obviously Microsoft did want Reed–a close Bush adviser–to curry favor with Bush. But the author’s choice of this phrase was clearly tendentious.

The whole Tuesday article, in fact, is a nice little case study in how to twist a news story. The author, Joel Brinkley, is remarkably biased against Microsoft and gets away with it to a remarkable degree. My special interest in this particular example of newspaper bias is obvious, and so is my own potential bias. But it’s still an interesting example. As for bias: When the subject is Microsoft, Slate does a somewhat better job of suppressing its biases than the New York Times. In my biased opinion. (See Jacob Weisberg’s “Ballot Box” on the Ralph Reed story.)

Brinkley did have a legitimate story here. Whether it was a Page One story (not up to him in any event) is open to doubt. The fact that Microsoft was a client of Ralph Reed’s lobbying firm was reported in the National Journal back in December 1998. The fact that he was lobbying Bush–his own client–was new but unsurprising. The details were interesting but not spectacular. Watch as Brinkley makes a meal of these scraps.

Start with the lead. Microsoft, Brinkley writes, has “quietly” hired Ralph Reed. Quietly as opposed to what? Throwing a party? Putting out a press release? Calling Joel Brinkley with the joyous news? Has any company ever “noisily” hired a lobbyist? The word is meaningless. Its only function is to introduce a sinister implication of something to hide.

Brinkley duly cites Microsoft’s response, which is a) it is reacting to extensive lobbying by its competitors; and b) it is trying to get its message to “all the presidential candidates.” Brinkley notes archly that Microsoft “has not said how it has lobbied” Al Gore. Two clear implications here: First, another coverup! Having been “quiet” about lobbying one candidate, the company has gone on and “not said” how it has lobbied the other. The usual formula is that so-and-so “declined to say” or “refused to comment about” such-and-such. The simple “not said” suggests strongly that the coverup here consists of not answering a question Brinkley never asked. In any event, it is public knowledge that Microsoft has been a lobbying client of former congressman Tom Downey, one of Gore’s closest friends. So the second implication–that Microsoft may be lying when it says it has tried to reach all the candidates–is obviously false.

And hey, what about the question of lobbying by Microsoft’s competitors? Brinkley defers this to the end of the article, where he spends most of a paragraph ridiculing a company PR man for showing him documents that were “two years old,” before a lonely sentence reporting that a competing lobbyist “confirmed that similar lobbying against Microsoft continues today.”

The heart of Brinkley’s story is that Reed’s mission was to get people who might be influential with Bush to write Bush letters criticizing the Justice Department’s antitrust case. (Or, as Brinkley puts it, “in an effort to undermine the government’s suit.”) Reed’s firm “is screening [possible letter writers] carefully to make sure they are influential,” Brinkley reveals. And: “Only after [Reed’s firm] has verified that the supporters are sufficiently influential” are they encouraged to write to Bush. And: Leaked e-mail says Reed’s firm will reject letters from people who are not considered “influential.”  By making it three times, Brinkley definitely nails the point: In their attempt to influence George W. Bush, Reed and Microsoft preferred people who are influential with George W. Bush. The influence of people who had no influence was not being sought. If a person had influence, that was the very sort of influential person they were looking for. People without influence had no influence, as far as Reed and Microsoft were concerned. Influence was the thing. Influence.

Brinkley’s other bit of evidence was a poll that is part of Microsoft’s propaganda package. (Slate’s “Moneybox” reported the existence of this poll three weeks ago, and criticized Microsoft’s efforts to hide its sponsorship.) The poll asked how people rank their concern about the issues in the Microsoft antitrust case against other issues, such as drug company overcharging and sloppy safety standards by airlines. “Not surprisingly,” Brinkley notes tartly, the Microsoft issues “ranked dead last.” And he quotes a state attorney general who is suing the company, who–not surprisingly–declares that the poll was “slanted.” He does not quote anyone saying the poll is not slanted.

Well, what is slanted about it? Microsoft believes, rightly or wrongly, that it is not doing anything so very terrible and believes, rightly or wrongly, that Americans in general share that view. To make that rhetorical point, it commissions a poll. Brinkley offers no evidence that the numbers were cooked or the questions were unfairly worded. The fact that anyone could predict the result tends to reinforce Microsoft’s point, not undermine it.

Next Brinkley asserts that “Microsoft has a history of trying to write public opinion polls that guarantee an outcome.” His only evidence–or the only evidence he offers–for this brutally direct charge–in a news story–is a piece of e-mail Bill Gates sent two years ago. (Two-year-old evidence is OK this time, apparently.) Gates wrote: “It would HELP ME IMMENSELY to have a survey showing that 90 percent of developers believe that putting the browser into the operating system makes sense.”

As a New York Times reader, it would help me immensely to know the following: Was such a poll ever conducted? Does Brinkley have any reason to reject the obvious interpretation of this passage that Gates wished there was a poll to confirm something he believed, correctly or not, to be true? What basis is there for saying that Gates wanted, even in the abstract, to “guarantee”–i.e., fix–the outcome of a poll?

I’m not revealing corporate secrets to report that it’s not unheard of for Bill Gates’ expressed wishes to get acted upon. This same magic power may be enjoyed by other CEOs, like that of the New York Times. But in Brinkley’s hands, we go directly from Gates’ expressing a wish for evidence of something he believed to be true to the bald accusation that Microsoft routinely fabricates evidence.

How does he get away with it?