Holder coverage reveals media flaws

Today we take a tough-truth look at just why it is that many Americans seem to believe that the word "liberal” is really just a prefix to the word "media.”

Consider the coverage of the Feb. 18 remarks by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. at the Justice Department’s African American History Month Program. Or, as you probably better know it, Holder’s "nation of cowards" speech.

The next morning, the newspapers that brought the news to the Washingtonians who still read their news devoted more than 1,100 words to the attorney general’s remarks. Here is a more specific breakdown by the numbers:

— 960: Words in The Washington Times, in a story that stretched across five columns of the front page, above the fold. Headline: "Holder calls U.S. ‘nation of cowards.”’ A sub-head elaborated: "Vows Justice will keep fight on civil rights."

— 214: Words in The Washington Post, in a brief report shoehorned into the bottom of page 2A, wrapped around ads for Rolex watches and "Low Toyota prices!” Headline: "Holder Urges Justice Dept. Workers to Discuss Race Openly."

— 0: Yes, that’s zero, as in no words in The New York Times, Washington edition. No story about Holder’s speech about race in America.

Attorney General Holder had actually delivered a message about race relations in the United States that was, in many ways, thoughtful and measured. He wanted all Americans to reflect upon this thought: "Simply put, to get to the heart of this country one must examine its racial soul. …we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us." And he wanted America to use every February, which is black history month, as a vehicle for doing just that.

But Holder shattered any positive impact his message might convey, by indulging in a dip into hyperbole in which he used language that was not just inflammatory but imprecise, and borderline irresponsible: "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."

Interestingly, both the Washington Post and New York Times did carry major pieces about Holder’s "nation of cowards" remark — but not on their news pages. The Post ran an editorial headlined "A Nation of Cowards?” that took issue with his phrase while supporting his lager message. New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow ran a thoughtful column under the identical headline, discussing polls that showed hidden racial bias.

Was The Washington Times, an editorially conservative newspaper that has become increasingly even-handed in its news coverage, right to seize upon that last controversial quote? Or was The Washington Post right to downplay it? Or The New York Times right to not play it?

Consider what the coverage would have been in recent years past, if Vice President Cheney or either of President Bush’s AGs (John Ashcroft or Albert Gonzales) had blurted a suggestion that opponents of hard-line interrogation of terror suspects would turn America into a nation of cowards.

It would be bannered news everywhere. That’s why, this time, The Washington Times coverage was right on. Partisans of shout radio and the blogosphere seem to see it as the latest example of sinister forces surfacing in the mainstream news media.

But Washington Post assistant managing editor for national news Kevin Merida responded to a query by explaining that the Post’s editors didn’t find out about Holder’s remarks until late in the day and rushed to get even that brief story into the paper. "In hindsight, I wish we would have given it more prominence," Merida candidly added. "But it served to prompt another story idea that we have launched." (New York Times editors did not respond to a similar query.)

So, at least at the Post, this was not a case of a liberal media protecting a favorite.

Just a mistake that led to a misplay. It’s time to move on.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)