Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Coloring the News at WTTW and the Chicago Tribune

Caveat: Some of the below criticism directed at individual journalists might more appropriately target their editors. Unfortunately, all I have to work with are the bylines.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s press secretary, Cheryle Jackson, sent out a press release on Tuesday, indicating that the Governor would announce on Tuesday morning a new program that will make Illinois the first state in the Midwest to fund potentially life-saving “stem cell research.”

Perhaps. But, a more accurate statement would have referenced embryonic stem cell research. We don’t really expect fairness in reporting from the Governor’s spinmeisters and flak-catchers. They are paid to spin and catch flak and spin and catch they do.

However, shouldn’t we expect more from the primary mainstream media entities in Chicago. A modicum of balance, objectivity and accuracy in reporting? Placement of both sides of an issue up-front; Do not bury one of the key perspectives at the end of the story. You would think so, wouldn’t you? But, you would be disappointed by at least a few.

First, the facts. The stem cell research controversy in the country, for the last four years, has been over President Bush’s executive order to deny federal funding to “embryonic stem cell research,” other than with respect to federal funding of research on the embryonic stem cell lines that were in existence at the time of his August, 2001 Executive Order. Federal funding of non-embryonic stem cell research, e.g., cord blood and adult stem cells, was not prohibited by Bush’s executive order. And, of course, embryonic stem cell research on other than the August, 2001 existing stem cell lines could continue in the United States, it would just not be subsidized by the Feds.

The AP report [by Maura Kelly Lannan] that was carried in this morning’s Pantagraph and this morning’s online New York Times report both get it right and make it clear that Governor Blagojevich’s newly created Illinois “Stem Cell Research,” program will include the more controversial embryonic stem cell research, as well as the less controversial adult stem cell and cord blood research.

So, what does WTTW- the supposedly fair, objective public TV station —do? It completely misses, or distorts, the story. With the same kind of left bias that we have come to know and expect from Chicago Tonight, especially in the last few years.

In his lead in to last night’s first segment of Chicago Tonight [“CT”], its Managing Editor and Host, Bob Sirott, stated, “The Governor’s new effort to promote stem cell research in Illinois…” Apparently, the copy editor didn’t have room to squeeze in the word “embryonic,” to describe the new state subsidized research. That’s the big news, boys and girls—that EMBRYONIC stem cell research will be subsidized by the State of Illinois.

After a little of Bob Sirott’s favorite music, we go to WTTW correspondent Eddie Arruza, who proceeded to give Bob Sirott and CT’s viewers a six minute summary of the handiwork by Blago, Comptroller Hynes and Republican House Leader Tom Cross, with Hynes and Cross being given plenty of photo ops and air time by the print and electronic media. A generous guy, that Governor Blagojevich.

You would probably think that Eddie Arruza, who is a good recent addition to CT, would explain about the embryonic stem cell issue. Think again.

I counted ten mentions by Arruza and Sirott of stem cell research during their “discussion,” and although every one should have had the word embryonic as an adjective, none did.

In short, apparently Sirott and Arruza, or their copy writers got the memo—the one that said, “please don’t mention embryos when you discuss stem cell research, we are a family station.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get the memo.

Compounding CT’s distortion of the local news of the day, Arruza reported, “The Governor blasted the Bush Administration’s four year old ban on stem cell research today but…” The “but” should have been a statement to clarify that the Governor was wrong factually. As stated, above, the Bush administration has not “Banned stem cell research.” It has restricted federal subsidies for embryonic stem cell research. Ooops, now I remember why Arruza couldn’t make that factual correction of the Governor. That would require him saying “Embryo,” and Eddie got the memo. He is not gonna go there. Distortion yes, Embryo no.

Let’s take a look at the Chicago Tribune’s treatment, in this morning’s print [and online] version of the paper, of the Blagojevich ten million dollar subsidy for embryonic and other stem cell research.

John Chase’s article gets top billing, with the headline “stem-cell grant,” above the fold and the text for the story mostly below the fold and on the back page. Chase includes five mentions of stem-cell research, each of which might more reasonably have stated embryonic stem cell research, but none did.

Unlike Chicago Tonight, Chase at least gave his readers some sense of the controversy that surrounds embryonic stem cell research and the Governor’s proposed ten million dollar program: “Blagojevich said he was making the ‘morally right’ decision even though opponents believe creating embryonic stem cells is akin to cloning and destroying them during research is ending a potential human life.”

And near the end of the article, Chase got a little closer to crystallizing the issue for his readers, “Mary J.C. Hendrix, president of the Children's Memorial Research Center, said Blagojevich's measure would allow researchers to work on embryonic stem-cell lines that are not approved for federal funding.”

And, at the end of the article, for those Chicago Tribune readers who managed to stick it out, they learned this, “ [Robert] Gilligan [executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois] and others, many of whom are Republicans, oppose only embryonic stem-cell research and support research on adult stem cells. ‘Gov. Blagojevich is taking our tax dollars and using it to fund research that people have ethical questions about,’ Gilligan said.

You have to wonder why Chicago Tonight can’t seem to include even this limited kind of balance in its discussion, even if they had to stick it at the end of the segment-- a la the Chicago Tribune.

This morning’s Sun-Times print edition placed the story on page eight, but still it gave it a full page, if you count a half page photo-op for Dan Hynes and Blago, with embryonic stem cell research supporters Tom Cross [Republican House Leader], Jeff Schoenberg [State Senator and perhaps State Treasurer wanna be, D-Evanston] and State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz [D-Chicago] mugging for the cameras in the background [I am guessing it is Feigenholtz from the well coifed hairdo, but if it is Sara, her face is upstaged by State Comptroller and Chief Financial [or is it Health] Officer Dan Hynes [Everybody tells Sara she has to move to the right, at least during photos].

On the whole, the Sun-Times Jim Ritter did a much more balanced job of reporting than his counterpart John Chase. After five mentions of stem cell research that could have and should have said—“embryonic stem cell research,” but still early in his article, Ritter hit the nail on the head with this: “The Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute would fund noncontroversial research on adult and umbilical cord stem cells as well as research on stem cells removed from embryos. Pro-life advocates oppose embryonic stem cell research, because embryos are destroyed in the process.”

And, Ritter included this, “President Bush has limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to studies on a limited number of stem cell lines created before August 2001.”

I mean, balance is not really that hard. You have to wonder how Chicago Tonight consistently screws it up. It is not a matter of whether any specific journalists are for or against government subsidizing embryonic stem cell research, in terms of their personal views. It is a matter of whether such journalists and their editors will make the effort to present the primary alternative positions on an issue, so that viewers and readers will understand the controversies and different perspectives relating to the news of the day.

Perhaps some of its more capable board members, and it has some, should weigh in with some opinions to WTTW’s President Dan Schmidt. In addition to being good journalism, “Balance,” might help bring some new viewers to WTTW’s sparse audience. It is doubtful that it could hurt. But, who that on-air personality could be to bring balance to WTTW- I just don’t know. I just don’t know.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at