Accuracy In Labeling -- How Much Information Should The Audience Get?

The Media Research Center has a criticism of a package done for the CBS Evening News by correspondent Lee Cowan last Friday about former Republican House leader Tom DeLay's first appearance at a Texas court for charges of conspiracy and money laundering. While the MRC says the package was, "on some counts, balanced," they take issue with the portrayal of a frequent DeLay critic who was used in the package.

Beverly Carter, a publisher and Republican precinct chair in DeLay's district, was used in the package as an example of a member of DeLay's own party not happy with him. The part of the story she was used in included a DeLay soundbite concerning his feelings about the prosecutor who indicted him, Ronnie Earle (a Democrat). Here's the pertinent part of the package:

DeLay: "The only reason I had to be in that courtroom today was because Ronnie Earle has abused his prosecutorial power."

Cowan: "That's been his defense all along, and some Republicans aren't buying it."

Carter: "I've not heard of any Republicans that are supporting Tom at this point. Win, lose or draw, whether he's guilty or not guilty, they've kind of had it with him."

Cowan: "And that's coming from a Republican precinct chairwoman in his home district."

Carter: "Pigs get fatter, but hogs get slaughtered, and Tom's been a hog."

Cowan: "Don't mistake that for lack of support. He's still plenty popular here. Margaret Gow runs a neighborhood program for foster children that DeLay and his wife started years ago."
You can view the entire piece here.
Here's the MRC's problem:
"Although Fort Bend Star publisher Beverly Carter has been a longtime critic of DeLay who even endorsed his opponent in last year's election, Cowan simply referred to her as a "Republican precinct chairwoman," thus giving her credibility as if she were simply a typical local Republican leader."
I asked Lee Cowan for a response, and here's what he said:
"We were aware of her past criticism of Delay which we actually thought strengthened the piece. She's known the Congressman longer than most, and her criticism (which for years has all been based on questions of Mr. Delay's ethics) has not affected her standing in the party as a whole. In fact, she has retained her position as precinct chair in that district, which as I understand it, is an elected post. She may not be the 'typical Republican leader' – but she's a very powerful one who is willing to buck her own party's leadership to highlight a wrong she thinks needs to be corrected. We felt she was a well spoken example of what some believe is the thinking going on quietly throughout Mr. Delay's home district."

More Cowan: "We felt if we raised the issue of the past 'feuds' as the writer suggests, it would have raised more questions than it answered – and given our time constraints, we couldn't explain everything. We don't think we left anything out that editorially diminished the story or misrepresented her, or her viewpoint in any way. We believe the interview stands on its own – in fact, had we added the information the writer suggests we left out, it only would have made Beverly Carter's case against Mr. Delay stronger, not weaker."
The use of Carter in the piece is not objectionable, not identifying her as a longtime critic is. Carter was used in the piece as an example of a mainstream Republican in DeLay's own district who was tiring of the Congressman's problems when in fact she's someone with motives that go beyond the charges involved here. The audience should have been informed of that fact.

There aren't many aspects of reporting for an nightly broadcast more frustrating than the time constraints. It's important for viewers to understand that there is only so much information that can be jammed into a minute, maybe two at the most. Still, it seems as though there might have been enough room to add a few words behind the identification of Carter, like, "a frequent DeLay critic."

On the whole, I agree with the MRC, the story was mostly balanced. But I also agree that it would have given viewers more information to consider if they had been informed of Carter's past criticisms.
  • Vaughn Ververs

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