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   Sun Dodges Bush/SEC Story

MEDIA CRITICISM:

Sun Dodges Bush/SEC Story

by Alice Cherbonnier
Our vaunted "watchdog press" is all too often a lapdog that, whether for political or budgetary reasons, or from stupidity, fails to bark when there's an intruder.
Suppose a newspaper subscribes to the Associated Press wire service, and suppose the AP sends out a short but provocative news report that deserves follow-up. Should that newspaper dig in and find out more, or just publish the AP story as-is and leave readers with unanswered questions?

On July 3, The Sun published just such an AP report. It came out of Milwaukee and was called "Bush reticent about his business history," with a subhead, "In '89, was board member of firm that faked profit."

The story, which ran on the inside pages of the news section, doesn't live up to this billing--and more's the pity.

"President Bush defended in a snappish tone yesterday his own business experience with a corporation accused of fishy accounting," the story begins. " 'Everything I do is fully disclosed; it's been fully vetted,' the president said as he paused to speak with reporters during a church appearance in Wisconsin. 'Any other questions?' "

Bush was being asked for a reaction to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's statement that "Bush's recent campaign against corporate malfeasance draws on 'firsthand experience of the subject'."

The brief AP report mentions an SEC investigation that involved Bush's financial dealings with Harken Energy. Bush, who served on the company's board of directors and the board's audit committee, sold off $800,000 in stock just before the company's stock price tanked.

This is called "insider trading," and is not permitted by the SEC. At the very least, filings of intent to sell by insiders must be made with the SEC in advance of such sales--which was not the case with Bush, who, when asked about this, claimed he did in fact file, but that the SEC "lost" the paperwork.

Though the SEC did not take action against Bush for this windfall at the expense of less-well-connected investors, Bush's lawyer in 1993 was notified that the decision not to prosecute "must in no way be construed as indicating that he [Bush] has been exonerated."

Okay--that's once. But this AP story doesn't mention at least three other times when the SEC investigated Bush for alleged violations of security laws. We will not belabor the details here, but refer readers to a story titled "Bush Violated Security Laws Four Times, SEC Report Says," by Knut Royce, published in "The Public i," an investigative report of the Center for Public Integrity.

The point isn't so much that Bush has used his connections to make undue profits--that's old news to any self-respecting journalist who did research on the year 2000 presidential election. But it didn't get reported when it should have been: in time for the public to make informed decisions at the polls. Our journalists aren't doing their jobs, or somewhere along the chain of command they aren't being allowed to do their jobs.

In this case, anyone reading this AP story would wonder: (1) Why did the journalists at the press conference shut up when Bush deflected the question? (2) Why didn't some reporter point out that, in fact, the matter to which Krugman alluded in his column had not been "fully vetted" and ask to know what Bush meant by that phrase? (3) And couldn't some reporter have asked, in response to the "Everything I do is fully disclosed" line, "Sir, could you comment on when your disclosures regarding the SEC have been made?" (4) And when the AP story reached the hands of the Sun's copy desk, why didn't an editor flag it as important and check to substantiate the information and then assign a reporter to develop the story further?

This nation is reeling from shock at the dishonesty and greed of so many of its corporations, and the stock market is taking a beating because people are no longer trusting anyone's information.

That's nothing compared to the shock we all should share: that our vaunted "watchdog press" is all too often a lapdog that, whether for political or budgetary reasons, or from stupidity, fails to bark when there's an intruder.


ADDENDUM:

Wonder of wonders! On July 5, The Sun published an editorial called "Unsavory in Texas" that begins:

LOOK WHAT'S come back to bite President Bush. A stock deal that looked very much like insider trading, and that netted the future president $848,560 when it took place in 1990, is suddenly in the news -- again.

It has never hurt him in the past. It has come up in one campaign after another, and voters just never got excited about something as arcane as insider trading. It never had any traction. With the economy booming, it just never looked like an issue.

But it sure does now....

Only now does The Sun start baying about Bush's financial dealings. Notice that it's not the media's fault (according to their editorial) that the SEC scandals never made much headway: no--it's the public: "...voters just never got excited about something as arcane as insider trading."

Are we to conclude, then, our media only pursue evidence of fraud in high places when "voters get excited"? Is The Sun saying its content is driven by what its readers are "excited" about, putting on the back burner stories that might shake the very foundations of our democracy and national security?

We have clues, as always, to a newspaper's intent to please rather than to inform. Huge color photos of sports figures on page one of the Sun's news section say, in effect, "We know you, the public, want to identify with sports heroes who make millions for hitting/dunking/throwing balls around. We are willing to promote money-making enterprises like sports teams and further create brand-identity for endorsement-rich star players because we know our readers will buy more papers when they see these brand-name faces. They'll see us as being on their 'team' too. We'll all identify ourselves as 'winners' by association. Doing expensive, but necessary, investigative reporting, on the other hand. might at the worst drive away half of our readers, or at best make some of them uncomfortable. So let's do the safe thing, because our real bosses aren't our readers anyhow--our real concern is making 30% profit for the Tribune Corp. stockholders."

And note that The Sun's editorial says the Bush/SEC story is "...in the news-again," as if their news staff ever wrote a story about it. (We are eager to be proven wrong on this point, and urge any Sun staffer to go back into their morgue and retrieve any original stories on this subject that were written by Sun reporters.)

See The Sun's 7/5/02 editorial here.


Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on July 3, 2002.
  
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