Kausfiles Special

Enron’s Got Nothing on Rick Berke!

The New York Times’ hyped-up poll story.

When Howell Raines took over as editor of the New York Times, semi-paranoid Times-bashers on the right predicted he’d turn the dignified daily into a blatant crusader for liberal causes, infusing it with the slightly intemperate, self-righteous populism that characterized his version of the Times editorial page. The 9/11 attacks, which coincided with Raines’ formal ascension, calmed these fears. Few readers would argue that the Times did anything but an excellent job covering the attacks and the resulting war in Afghanistan.

But now normalcy has returned—and the Times is in the middle of a huge, slightly intemperate, Raines-like crusade about Enron. Last Friday, I counted 14 separate Enron stories—and that’s not including the two full pages of hearings transcripts, two editorials, and three op-ed pieces. Sure, Enron’s collapse is a big deal, but this is not “follow the news” coverage. This is a mandated-from-above-throw-the-whole-staff-into-the-story news campaign. Such campaigns can produce great journalism, but they also typically produce distorted, propagandistic journalism.

Example? Richard L. Berke and Janet Elder’s weird, front-page, above-the-fold report on the Times/CBS poll conducted Jan. 21-24. The poll contains 74 questions and yields many potentially newsworthy tidbits. Reading over the raw results, I was struck by:

  • The doubling of Sen. Tom Daschle’s “unfavorable” rating since June.
  • The sharp drop (57 % to 47% since December) in the percentage of Americans who approve of “the way Congress is handling its job.”
  • A strange, 16-point net gain for Bush, since the summer, in a face-off with the congressional Democrats over who is “more likely to make the right decisions balancing the federal budget.” (This, even as Bush spent the surplus!)
  • Another large gain (46% to 58%) in the “favorable” rating of the GOP, beating a smaller (53% to 58%) gain for the Democrats.
  • A measurable increase in the percent who think Bush “cares about the needs and problems of people like you.”
  • A truly bizarre decrease (57-50) in the percentage of people who think Bush favors the rich.
  • Perhaps most significant, a sharp decrease (66% to 55%) since last March in those who say it is “very” or “somewhat” hard for them to keep up with their bills—and a big increase (33% to 45%) in the fraction who say it is “somewhat” or “very” easy to keep up with their bills. This could be considered hard evidence that the recession really has already ended. (Both numbers were better than in the same poll in 1995, a boom year.)

From this cornucopia of data, what did Berke and Elder pick to write about? That most of those surveyed (by a 45-10 margin) say “executives of the Enron corporation had closer ties to members of the Republican party” than to “members of the Democratic party.”

By itself, this isn’t a surprising result since executives of the Enron corporation had closer ties to members of the Republican party than to members of the Democratic party. Duh! The Times’ unstartling discovery might be interesting if its poll showed that the percentage who see these closer ties had grown, but the poll doesn’t show this because the question wasn’t asked before.

It would also be significant if the poll showed that this closeness substantially tainted Republicans—as in the headline the Times’ crusading editors gave to the piece: “Poll Finds Enron’s Taint Clings More to G.O.P. Than Democrats.” But there’s not much evidence to support the “taint” headline either—since, as noted, the Republican “favorables” actually climbed more than the Democrats’ numbers. Also, 61 percent of those polled said it wouldn’t affect their vote if their congressman had actually received contributions from Enron. (Twenty-seven percent said they’d be “less likely” to give their support.)

The poll’s one, non-trivial anti-Bush finding was an actual increase, from 44 to 58 percent, in the percentage of people who thought “members of the Bush Administration” are “mostly telling the truth but hiding something”—shortened to simply “hiding something” for hype purposes—about their pre-collapse Enron dealings. Yet the percentage who thought the Bushies were “mostly lying” remained unchanged, at 9 percent, despite a week of Enronomania. (The shift was from the “undecided” column.)

What’s missing, of course, is an indication that the public cares very much that “members of the Bush Administration” may be hiding something about Enron. Berke and Elder try their best to suggest that the public does care, ominously intoning that the “perception could pose a threat to Republican candidates in the midterm elections.” [Emphasis added.] (“Could” is such a great word!) But it’s a difficult case for the Times reporters to make when the poll shows both overall Republican gains and Bush’s “favorables” holding steady at very high levels (82 percent).

Berke and Elder try to fill this gap—the caring gap—in an extraordinarily bogus third paragraph. It begins:

In a demonstration of how the public’s concerns have shifted in recent weeks, the economy has now supplanted battling terrorism—albeit by a slight margin—as the issue people want their elected officials to make a top priority. [Emphasis added.]

There are a number of things wrong with this sentence. The first is that it’s false. The full results of the survey, which were linked to in the Times story on Sunday but have now (suspiciously!) disappeared, don’t show the economy supplanting terrorism as a concern because the economy never ranked below terrorism as a concern. In fact, “terrorism” was listed only on the last two surveys, for an obvious reason. Before Christmas, the economy (according to my annotated printout of the now-vaporized charts) was picked by 21 percent of those surveyed, while terrorism was picked by 13 percent. In last week’s poll, 20 percent picked the economy while 14 percent picked terrorism. If anything, that signals a small shift away from concern about the economy, toward battling terrorism—the opposite of the trend Berke and Elder dramatically announce.

Concerns about Enron, specifically, don’t make the survey at all. Berke and Elder would clearly like their readers to think that concern over the “economy” can be equated with concern over the failed Houston energy company. After their false assertion about terrorism, and a reference to public opposition to deficits, they blithely assert that, despite Bush’s high popularity,

“… it is unmistakable from the survey that he must also contend with the twin political predicaments posed by Enron and the economy.” [Emphasis added.]

As they say, the wish fathers the lie. There is no evidence in the poll that Enron is a “predicament” for Bush on a par with the state of the economy (including the general rise in unemployment). It’s certainly not “unmistakable.”

Berke’s not a very insightful reporter, but he doesn’t usually get things completely wrong, so this smells like editor-induced error—specifically, error introduced by an editor rewriting Berke and Elder’s piece so it meshes with the Enron-promotion campaign sanctioned at the paper’s highest levels! You might say it is unmistakable from the story that the Times must contend with the twin journalistic predicaments posed by ideological bias and institutional self-interest. Members of the Raines Administration are mostly telling the truth but hyping something!

P.S.: Berke and Elder also say:

[T]he poll found that the Republicans’ drive to make a high-profile villain of the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, has not succeeded. He is still a virtual unknown.

Huh? As noted, Daschle’s “unfavorable” rating more than doubled, from 7 to 15 percent, and is now higher than his “favorable” rating, which is stuck at 11 percent. Though Daschle’s not well-known, that’s the sort of shift in “favorable-unfavorable ratio” that terrifies a potential presidential candidate (and makes him compromise on stimulus packages). If I were running the Daschle Demonization Campaign, I’d look at this poll and ask for a raise.

Update: It turns out that  Andrew Sullivan  is also on Berke’s case, making many of these arguments and some of his own. Plus his site showed me a way to get to those elusive complete poll results. (They’re  here.)