June 27, 2011

Name That Party: Blago’s Dem Affiliation Left Out of Seven AP Stories (See Update)

namethatpartyEarlier today, a grand jury convicted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, on 17 of 20 counts of corruption. 11 of of the guilty verdicts related to attempts to profit from the “sale” of the U.S. Senate seat Barack Obama vacated when he became president.

At USA Today’s On Deadline blog (as of its 5:33 p.m. update), Michael Winter failed to identify Blagojevich or any other politician involved as a Democrat. Neither did the video found at Winter’s article. This is not surprising, because the video came from the “see no evil Democrat” Associated Press.

In six items all carrying today’s date found at the AP’s main site in a search on the former governor’s last name at 8:15 p.m. ET, the wire service not only failed to tag Blago as a Democrat, it failed to tag anyone as Democrat. Here’s the list:

APsearchOnBlago062711at815pm

Related links are here, here, here, here, here, and here. They are saved at my web host for fair use, future reference and discussion purposes here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Update: The 7:47 p.m. story above by Michael Tarm and Karen Hawkins was updated at 9:41 p.m., and now contains the following text at the eighth paragraph: “The 54-year-old Democrat, who has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest, spoke only briefly with reporters as he left the courthouse, saying he was disappointed and stunned by the verdict.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s way too little, way too late.)

In the second-most blatant example in the AP’s string of “Name That Party” failures (though the competition was fierce; wait until you see the most blatant example found in a seventh story which was not carried nationally), the item containing others’ comments on the verdict carries the following quotes from Illinois Senator Mark Kirk and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn:

APtagsKirkAsGOPbutNotQuinnAsDem062711

In mild surprises, both the New York Times and Reuters tagged Blagojevich as a Democrat in the first sentence of their respective stories’ second paragraph. Reuters’s description of Blago as a “two-term Democrat” isn’t correct, because he didn’t finish his second term, unlike others who routinely receive the description before their terms are up. “Twice-elected” is the proper term for Blago.

But let’s get back to the self-described Essential Global News Network. Illinois, with its sad history of bipartisan corruption, is an interesting test of the AP’s stated commitment to fairness, the consistency of that commitment over the years, and its claim to play no favorites.

Illinois has had three governors convicted of crimes both during and after their terms in office since the 1960s:

  • Otto Kerner, Democrat (1961-1969) — On February 19, 1973, four years after he left office but while he was serving as a federal judge, “Kerner was convicted on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury, and related charges” relating to his time as governor.
  • Daniel Walker, Democrat (1969-1973) — “In 1987, he was convicted of improprieties related to the First American Savings & Loan Association of Oak Brook” unrelated to his time in office.
  • George Ryan, Republican (1999-2003) — On April 17, 2006, he was convicted on 20 of 22 counts of “racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering and tax fraud” which occurred while he was governor.

As to Kerner, the results of a Google News Archive search on “otto kerner convicted associated press democrat” (not in quotes) indicate that the AP’s coverage carried at the Wall Street Journal on February 20, 1973 at least used the word “Democrat”; it’s not possible to know whether Kerner was tagged, but it seems likely, especially since he was appointed to the Federal Appeals Court by Democratic president Lyndon Baines Johnson, and was “the first active member of the federal Court of Appeals ever to be convicted in criminal trial.” The New York Times’s coverage of Kerner’s conviction (a portion of which is shown here) noted in its very first sentence that until his conviction, he “had been unusual in the rough-and-tumble world of Illinois Democratic politics — a product of the Cook County machine who had never been touched by scandal.”

As to Walker, the AP’s unbylined coverage carried at the New York Times on August 6, 1987 tagged him as a Democrat in its third paragraph.

Ryan is an interesting case, because although a Republican, he gained much sympathy from the establishment press for his outspoken advocacy for ending the death penalty, and because, as the AP’s coverage of his conviction noted, just before leaving office in 2003 he “commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison and pardoned four others.” One AP item by Michael Robinson tagged Ryan as “long one of the most powerful Republicans in Illinois” in its sixth paragraph, while another waited until the 24th of 26 paragraphs to label him as “the Republican governor (who) declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois.”

Now for the most blatant example of “Hide Blago’s Party” — In a a historical compilation (“Sorry history of Illinois governors”) of previous governors convicted of crimes which is apparently being published regionally (it’s not at the AP’s national site as of 10:00 p.m. ET), the wire service opens by saying that “Illinois governors have (a) long history of legal trouble. Rod Blagojevich is just the latest example.” It doesn’t tag Blago as a Democrat. The report then proceeds to list every other previously convicted governor — and his party.

As I have noted so many times, the AP’s Stylebook, at least as of 2008 (there’s no substantive reason why it should change), had the following to say about when and how to report a person’s political party affiliation:

Party Affiliation – Let relevance be the guide in determining whether to include a political figure’s party affiliation in a story. Party affiliation is pointless in some stories, such as an account of a governor accepting a button from a poster child.

It will occur naturally in many political stories. For stories between these extremes, include party affiliation if readers need it for understanding or are likely to be curious about what it is.

The Associated Press has ignored its own guidance, from all appearances deliberately. These actions make a mockery of the wire service’s stated commitment to fairness, and its claim to play no favorites.

Accordingly, as I did in 2008 in connection with another “Name That Party” matter, I’m going to strongly suggest that the AP purge its current Stylebook guidance, and, as it relates to Democrats, replace it with something resembling the following:

Party Affiliation – To foster the impression that corruption, venality, and hypocrisy are at worst minor annoyances in the Democratic Party, and to minimize their long-term search engine visibility, the party affiliation of any Democratic politician or official facing legal or personal problems either should not be disclosed, or should be deferred until later paragraphs.

In those cases where disclosure of the affected Democrat’s party affiliation is unavoidable, the party reference should be made in a manner that is as vague, confusing, and/or misleading as possible.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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