Paper's Answer To Air America Scandal
Rhodes, Maddow, Air America Get Soft Times Treatment
Was Sunday's upbeat New York Times piece on Air America hosts Rachel Maddow and Randi Rhodes at least partly the result of a "pitch" by the liberal radio network's public relations department?
Could that make "They Look Nothing Like Rush Limbaugh" the result of a corporate spin campaign? Is that journalism?
After receiving a document-backed inside tip, the Radio Equalizer is investigating whether Air America's Jamie Horn convinced New York Times reporter Susan Brenna to write a self-serving piece on Air America's female hosts.
Should America's third-largest newspaper allow reporters to accept story ideas from PR flaks? Or is that better suited for small-town shopper publications?
While the New York Times Ethical Journalism Standards Guide doesn't appear to directly address the issue, Section 134 does discuss potential "favoritism" conflicts related to arts and entertainment coverage. And restrictions against helping others promote "artistic, literary or other creative endeavors" apply, according to Section 135.
From what the Radio Equalizer has so far learned, the only distinction between her pitch and the ultimate Times decision was in narrowing the focus to just two Air America hosts, Rachel Maddow and Randi Rhodes. Horn pushed for something slightly broader, what she called a "women of the liberal media piece".
At this point, we've not heard back from either Horn or New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame, but any responses will be added here and included in a follow-up piece. We've asked Calame for this concern to be presented to Brenna and hope to quickly get her side of the story.
One key matter to be resolved: did Horn overstate her role in advocating for the Times profile? That's why Brenna's account will be important, it could reduce or eliminate her potential for blame.
What we can so far say for certain is this:
On September 8, in the midst of a steady stream of negative press regarding Air America's Gloria Wise Boys & Girls Club scandal, where $875,000 in taxpayer grants to a Bronx-based community center were diverted to the liberal radio network, the company was in dire need of positive publicity.
Apparently, the damage-control task partly fell on Horn.
While the New York Sun had run a lengthy series of investigative pieces on Air America's troubles and the New York Post published an Op-Ed, "Money Pit" by Michelle Malkin and myself, the Times produced only one brief article.
That made the Times not only the focus of criticism by conservatives, but perhaps a potential safe haven for Air America and its supporters. It might seem logical to think the paper would continue to provide a friendly environment for the troubled firm.
Even Calame recognized the paper's slow response to the unfolding scandal. On his Public Editor's Web Journal on August 17, this admission was made:
The Times Showed Up Late to Air America Story
Readers of The Times were poorly served by the paper's slowness to cover official investigations into questionable financial transactions involving Air America, the liberal radio network. The Times's first article on the investigations finally appeared last Friday after weeks of articles by other newspapers in New York and elsewhere.
The Times's recent slowness stands in contrast to its flurry of articles about Air America in the spring of 2004, when the network was launched. "Liberal Voices (Some Sharp) Get New Home on Radio Dial," read the headline on The Times's article the morning of March 31 when the network went on the air.
The article noted that the network had a staff headlined by comedian Al Franken and hopes of establishing a counterpoint to conservative radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh.
Two months later, The Times reported that the network had come close to running out of money in April but had received an infusion of an undisclosed amount of cash from sources that weren't identified. The article noted that Evan M. Cohen, a primary early backer and the chairman of the network, had resigned.
Yet The Times was silent as other publications reported that city and state investigators were looking into whether the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx had made improper loans of as much as $875,000 to Air America.
Mr. Cohen, it turned out, had served simultaneously as a top executive at Air America and as the club's development director. And since the club operated largely with grants from government sources, any money passed to Air America may have come from the public till.
It has become clearer in the past week or so that Air America hasn't yet fully repaid the "loans" from the club, and its financial condition remains murky even in The Times's article Friday. So the future of the radio network seems to be a key question for The Times to answer.
"We were slow in the first place and need to do more," Rick Berke, an associate managing editor at The Times, told me Monday. While it's no excuse for such a belated response to the brewing scandal, it's true that pieces of the unfolding story fell in the domains of three different parts of the newsroom: the metropolitan desk, the business desk and the culture desk. There was, my inquiries suggest, a lack of coordination and awareness of what the paper's competitors across town were writing.
But it seems to me that this story is still unfolding, and The Times, for the sake of all its readers, needs to get to the bottom of any improper conduct and assess Air America's future.
There's another reason to get to the bottom of the scandal. It's the perception problem — a perception of liberal bias for which I haven't found any evidence after checking with editors at the paper.
Failing to cover the story until late last week has led numerous readers, especially those who seemed inspired by conservative bloggers, to write in saying that a liberal bias in the newsroom caused the paper to downplay the budding scandal.
One reader put it this way: "If a conservative radio network had been started with money improperly 'borrowed' from a charity like a boys and girls club, it would be front page news for weeks in your paper. Once more, your left-wing bias is showing."
If the Calame and Berke were aware of this problem on August 17, how could Horn have the ear of one of its reporters just days later? Did anyone at the Times really take Calame's piece seriously?
In Horn's widely-circulated internal memo, reprinted below, it's inferred that "pitching" had taken place for a period of time before September 8. Isn't the timing ironic?
From: Jaime Horn
Sent: Thursday, September 08, 2005 4:25 PM
Subject: Good press is on the way...I hope!
NYT wants to do a profile on both Rachel and Randi to run in the Sunday's Arts/Leisure section some time in October. I had been pitching a Women of the Liberal Media piece, I am not sure how they decided on Rachel and Randi but I want to go with it.
The reporter wants to come in an hour or so before each show, sit-in during the show, and then interview both Randi and Rachel after their shows are over.
I am setting the interviews up for late September, will keep you posted on other details to come.
Leaving no doubt they considered it to be her coup, Air America executives responded to Horn's email with virtual high-fives. One went so far as to say, "Nicely Done, Jaime!"
At the Radio Equalizer, the November 13 result is a concept we've come to call "Frankenfluffy": a special brand of puff-piece journalism meant to prop up Air America Radio at every turn, no matter how bad the situation. The Times has consistently been at the forefront of this curious mainstream media movement.
While Brenna's piece does make some attempt at balance, with brief mentions of the Gloria Wise scandal, ratings difficulties and Randi's recent run-in with the Anti-Defamation League, there's no question they both look emerge from the story looking especially good.
Here's an edited excerpt:
They Look Nothing Like Rush Limbaugh
By SUSAN BRENNA
RACHEL MADDOW is the sunny, 32-year-old early bird of liberal talk radio, who spices her pre-dawn newscast on the Air America network with news of the weird. "I have to tell you about this story, or it will possess me for the rest of my natural-born life," Ms. Maddow mentioned one very early morning last month.
Ms. Maddow's Air America colleague, Randi Rhodes, is a more political, more acidly caustic voice who calls the Bush administration "the dark side." On Ms. Rhodes's four-hour afternoon show, she's the middle-aged woman (she's 46) who doesn't have the time or patience to be nice. "You're a pig!" she cries at whatever male conservative broadcaster has angered her that day.
They are two sides of the liberal talk-radio coin. In their own small way, over at the far end of the AM dial where Air America is broadcast in most of its 72 cities, Ms. Maddow and Ms. Rhodes are changing the world of talk radio.
If the Air America network hangs on long enough to reach the next presidential campaign, Ms. Maddow and Ms. Rhodes can claim some of the credit. The network's chief executive, Danny Goldberg, calls them "exactly the two people who have emerged in dramatic fashion" from the shadows of Air America's stars, Al Franken and the comic actress Janeane Garofalo, who helped the network make a high-profile debut 20 months ago.
Since then the network has added and lost stations, dipped in the ratings, then slightly risen again, while lagging far behind conservative talk radio in popularity. Its New York station, WLIB, was ranked 24th in the city in the most recent Arbitron ratings report, compared with WABC, the conservative talk home, at No. 8. Air America's reputation was also shaken by revelations that a founder, now departed, had borrowed $875,000 from a Bronx Boys and Girls Club to finance the network. In a statement, the network's current management said that it had repaid the loan into an escrow account, "where the money will remain until the city has completed its investigation of the club."
As for its current financial outlook, Mr. Goldberg said, "We pay the bills any way we can." Earlier this fall the network started an online fund-raising drive similar to a public radio campaign.
Larry Rosin, the president of Edison Media Research, a firm that tracks the radio industry, said that Air America had done "quite a credible job of creating a brand name very quickly." Because of that, he said, the network was well-positioned in a world where "the radio dial is not the totality of the picture any longer," but where programs are also available through syndication, through podcasts and on satellite radio.
The network is expected to announce imminently a move by Ms. Maddow into a more prominent morning drive-time role. She also has a gig debating the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson on his MSNBC show, "The Situation," and a contract to appear on other MSNBC programs. "Rachel is the universal donor of good chemistry," said Bill Wolff, the network's vice president of primetime programming. "You can put her on to talk to just about anybody about just about anything, and she comes across as just so cheerful and hopeful and likable," he said.
And Ms. Rhodes is collaborating with the concert promoter John Sher on a live comedy and music show that she expects to try out in New York then take on the road.
As for Ms. Maddow, her résumé before joining Air America four years ago included a job at a friend's coffee business. An honors graduate of Stanford University, Ms. Maddow identifies herself as the first openly lesbian activist to win a Rhodes Scholarship. She returned to Western Massachusetts to work as an activist on behalf of prisoners with AIDS "even though people think of that as the most marginal and obscure political issue ever - and it is. I didn't talk about it at cocktail parties."
She made cold calls and hounded the Air America founders for a job, then moved to New York to share a program with the comedy writer Lizz Winstead and the rapper Chuck D. When that show was replaced by one with Jerry Springer as its host, Ms. Maddow took the only slot available: 5 to 6 a.m. Now she comes into the network's Chelsea studios at midnight, drills through the Web for her picks of underreported stories. "My challenge is to give you the news I think should be on all national broadcasts, but isn't," she said. At around 8 a.m. she retires to a 24-hour bistro for a Bloody Mary, since "it's your day but it's my night."
For the entire Times story, click here.
What's next? It all depends on how, or if, the Radio Equalizer's requests are met with responses. Would you like to express your concerns or questions about this piece? Write to Mr. Calame at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, there is a great deal of excellent coverage on the fine points of Brenna's piece found at National Review Online's Media Blog and Newsbusters. Additional commentators on the subject will be noted in our follow-up.
3PM UPDATE: so far, no response from Calame or anyone at Air America Radio. Thanks to National Review and Newsbusters for their much-appreciated assistance, both have fresh Tuesday afternoon updates. Also check TimesWatch for additional comments.
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Rhodes photo: NY Times, "They Look Nothing Like Rush Limbaugh", credited to Derek Reed. Maddow: NY Times, Frankenfluff: Pete at IHillary, AAR Scandal: Darleen Click