Journalists Mourn Loss of Far-Left, Ideologically-Driven Shoddy Reporters

Illustrating the far-left composition of the faculty at one of the most prestigious journalism schools, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism professor Sandy Padwe called the dismissal by Time magazine, for budget reasons, of investigative reporters Donald Bartlett and James Steele, “a disgrace. Two of the best investigative reporters ever, and they're on the street? It's a f---ing travesty." In fact, at both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Time, Bartlett and Steele delivered shoddy, ideologically-driven left-wing “journalism” which should have embarrassed any journalist with pride in their profession. Nonetheless, in the Thursday CJR Daily posting which quoted Padwe, veteran journalist Steve Lovelady gushed: “Barlett and Steele came to be regarded by many as the premier investigative team in the business, and one that consistently met benchmarks to which others could only aspire.”

Their infamous 1991 series which used ludicrous data and charts to prove that in the 1980s the rich benefitted at the expense of the middle class and the poor, was turned into a 1992 book, America: What Went Wrong. In April of 1992, the duo got a friendly session with Charlie Gibson on ABC's Good Morning America. But it wasn't just the MRC which found their work unworthy of admiration. Philadelphia magazine Senior Editor Paul Keegan asserted: “Their series is so fundamentally flawed, its intellectual underpinnings so weak, that it actually says little about what went wrong with America, and everything about what went wrong with Barlett and Steele."

A reprint of an item in the November 6, 1998 MRC CyberAlert:
The evils of corporate welfare is the November 9 Time magazine cover story. I haven’t had a chance to read the 13-page piece, the first of a weekly series, but the byline jolted me by reminding me of some of the most tendentious left-wing bias ever documented by the MRC. The byline: Donald Barlett and James Steele, most infamous for a 1991 series in the Philadelphia Inquirer and other Knight-Ridder newspapers called "America: What Went Wrong." The series became a book with the same name.

Of course what went wrong for Barlett and Steele was Ronald Reagan and Democrats giving in to business interests. To give you a flavor of their liberal crusading spiced up with exaggerated hype about the dire conditions of the country, here’s a quote from a 1991 installment on deregulation:

"For you, the American taxpayer and consumer, deregulation has meant fewer airlines and higher air fares, more unsafe trucks on the highways, and your tax money diverted to pay for the S&L debacle....The results: There are more rich people than ever before. There are more poor people than ever before. And the ranks of those in between are shrinking, their standard of living falling."

For an idea of how loose they are with basic facts, here’s an excerpt from the December 1991 MediaWatch “Janet Cooke Award” article on the series:
Assertion: A dramatic front page chart [ABC's version to the right] showed a 13-inch high stack of dollar bills labeled "Increase in the salaries of people earning more than $1 million: 2,184 percent." In contrast, a quarter-inch high stack reflected the 44 percent growth in salaries of those making $20,000 to $40,000.

Reality: Barlett and Steele's numbers reflected the total, non- inflation adjusted, dollars earned by everyone reporting an income over $1 million, not the "increase of salaries of people earning more than $1 million." Translated: In 1983, 10,800 households reported an income of over $1 million, for a total of $24 billion. By 1988, millionaires reported $172 billion in income. But that's because the number of households reporting a $1 million-plus income soared six-fold to 65,300. As Joint Economic Committee economist Chris Frenze explained to MediaWatch, the 1986 tax reform cut the marginal rate from 50 to 31 percent, leading the wealthiest to take money out of shelters and report it as income.
A few months later, far from being embarrassed by its shameless manipulation of emotions through misleading generalities in the "America: What Went Wrong" series, Barlett and Steele wrote a front page story on the unfairness of a capital gains tax cut. They charged, as recounted in the February, 1992 MediaWatch, that a cut would "encourage another round of corporate takeovers, such as the ones in the 1980s that led to the closing of plants and the elimination of jobs." They also preposterously asserted: "An Inquirer analysis of the 70-year history of the capital gains preference shows no evidence linking the tax to the creation of jobs."

After their book was published in the spring of 1992, MediaWatch asked: "So who in the media have cared enough to check Barlett and Steele's wild assertions? Just Philadelphia magazine Senior Editor Paul Keegan. In April he found: ‘Their series is so fundamentally flawed, its intellectual underpinnings so weak, that it actually says little about what went wrong with America, and everything about what went wrong with Barlett and Steele.’"

Nonetheless, Time considered them a great addition to the staff. In a "To Our Readers" letter in the November 9 edition, Time Editor-in-Chief Norman Pearlstine, crowed: "Barlett and Steele came to Time, Inc. 18 months ago from the Philadelphia Inquirer, where, over 26 years, they earned their reputations as America’s finest investigative reporters."

More like America’s finest transformers of liberal polemics into a news story format. Liberals and conservatives oppose corporate welfare, but I bet the series approaches the subject from the left. Next week Time promises "Life with America’s Biggest Sugar Daddy."

END of Reprint from CyberAlert

A reprint of an article in the May, 1992 MediaWatch published by the MRC:
ABC & PBS Act As Co-Conspirators
INQUIRER MYTHS PROMOTED

The misinformation and anti-free market vitriol of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele continues to gain new audiences. Last December MediaWatch documented the numerous factual errors in the nine-part, 75,000 word "America: What Went Wrong" series, but supposedly responsible media outlets have continued to promote its claims.

Instead of fulfilling its stated role "to assess the performance of journalism," the Columbia Journalism Review ran an excerpt "meant as ammunition for reporters and editors who are trying to find out what the presidential candidates have in mind for the nation's economic future -- an aid to formulating some questions."

After the series was released in paperback book form, PBS devoted the April 14 and 21 episodes of Listening to America with Bill Moyers to reciting its claims, complete with emotional stories about people hurt in the '80s.

The book release got the duo an April 15 Good Morning America spot. Co-host Charlie Gibson failed to challenge any of their assertions, instead simply providing prompts for their recitations: "This from 1980-1990, people earning a million dollars or more, the total amount of money they earned went up over two thousand percent, is that right Jim?"

During a tour stop on Washington's WAMU radio, a caller asked the duo about MediaWatch's critique of just that assertion. Barlett responded: "MediaWatch completely misread the first chart that they zeroed in on, on salaries. They misread it as total income."

MediaWatch assumed they meant "adjusted gross income" since that's how they measured income changes throughout the series. But their statistical point remains fallacious. They failed to adjust for inflation or explain that the big jump did not so much reflect individuals making more, but that number of people reporting a $1 million plus salary jumped from 3,300 to 51,000.

So who in the media have cared enough to check Barlett and Steele's wild assertions? Just Philadelphia magazine Senior Editor Paul Keegan. In April he found: "Their series is so fundamentally flawed, its intellectual underpinnings so weak, that it actually says little about what went wrong with America, and everything about what went wrong with Barlett and Steele." Expressing the ultimate arrogance, Barlett told Keegan: "We are always so far ahead that people don't understand it. This series is five to ten years ahead of its time."

Philadelphia sent their article to GMA before the interview, but Gibson ignored it. And reporters wonder why people don't believe everything they read and hear.
After their embarrassing 1991 series and 1992 publicity, the MRC lost interest in digging into their clearly tendentious reports since it seemed most realized their polemical nature and ignored them.

Despite their record, on Thursday CJR Daily, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review magazine, posted “An Appreciation: Once There Were Giants.” Steve Lovelady opined, in part:
....First at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 26 years and then at Time for nine years, Barlett and Steele came to be regarded by many as the premier investigative team in the business, and one that consistently met benchmarks to which others could only aspire. As Jim Warren of the Chicago Tribune has admiringly noted, in an age of singles hitters, Barlett and Steele swung for the fences every time, and seldom failed.

Their body of work is a testament to an exacting, relentless, painstaking and meticulous determination that other reporters could only shake their heads at as they admired it from afar. What they practiced was the opposite of "Gotcha!" journalism, or quick hits, or cheap shots. Rather, they burrowed in for months -- sometimes years -- at a time, and then returned with an examination of entire systems gone awry, whether it be an oil crisis, the nuclear waste dilemma, corporate welfare run rampant, the nation's ramshackle tax system, or the economy itself.

Indeed, in the summer of 1992 Americans were presented with the unlikely sight of both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot waving paperback copies of America: What Went Wrong? in voters' faces as they campaigned for president. The volume was actually a newspaper series that Barlett and Steele wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, republished word-for-word as a book, and it resided at #1 on the New York Times paperback best-sellers list for six months -- an eternity in publishing.

This morning, as word moved through the journalism community that Barlett and Steele had been sacked by a corporation as wealthy as Time Warner, the all-but-universal response was dismay. "This," said Sandy Padwe, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a pretty fair investigative reporter himself, "is a disgrace. Two of the best investigative reporters ever, and they're on the street? It's a fucking travesty."...
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center