Mainstream Media Coverage Slim on NASA, Black Panther Stories

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Last year, it was Van Jones and ACORN that slipped under much of the media's radar. But despite pledges to pay closer attention to the "polemic world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs," two new stories have taken their place in the annals of things not much reported.

One is NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's claim that one of the space agency's primary missions is to improve relations with Muslim countries. The other is the ongoing investigation into why the Justice Department dropped its case against New Black Panther Party members accused of intimidating voters on Election Day 2008.

"The media don't have any credibility when they don't cover the big stories," said Dan Gainor, vice president for business and culture at the conservative Media Research Center. Gainor suggested both stories appear to have all the makings of news value.

Bolden has previously come under criticism for overseeing a halt to the agency's moon-mission Constellation program, and his lengthy interview with Al Jazeera last month raised all kinds of alarms with former NASA staffers -- not only did he claim Muslim outreach as his portfolio, but he called NASA an "Earth improvement agency" and said the United States cannot go beyond low-Earth orbit without international help. His predecessor, Michael Griffin, said that is false, despite his professed admiration for Bolden.

In the New Black Panther case, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a year into its investigation and on Tuesday heard groundbreaking testimony from a former official who claims the Justice Department dropped it in part because it refuses to go after black defendants in civil rights cases.

Only a few national media outlets reported the NASA story. They included CNN and Slate -- and little else. The three broadcast networks' nightly news programs did not mention the controversy, though ABC News did run a blog on the White House response. The New York Times and Washington Post also did not carry any straight news piece on the subject. The Washington Post website, though, did carry a blurb online that linked to a piece as well as an opinion blog on Wednesday. The Los Angeles Times carried a blog on Thursday, comparing the lack of media response to Wile E. Coyote waiting for his rocket pack to go off. "Silence. Nothing," the piece said.

The Black Panther coverage was a bit more robust. The New York Times covered J. Christian Adams' testimony on Tuesday, as did CNN, and The Los Angeles Times noted it briefly. The Philadelphia Inquirer provided significant coverage of the developments -- the alleged voter intimidation occurred in Philadelphia. The Associated Press ran a story on July 1 before the testimony.

The three nightly network news programs did not run the story. The Washington Post did not provide any original coverage -- it ran the July 1 Associated Press story and provided one paragraph on the case Wednesday online with a link to The Times story.

The Black Panther issue rose to the level of the White House press briefing on Wednesday when a reporter asked Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about it. But he waved it off.

"I haven't paid any attention to it," Gibbs said.

So will these stories flame up or fade?

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with The Poynter Institute, said both stories are worth reporting on, but empathized with outlets that might be skeptical of whether the stories have crossed the threshold of newsworthiness.

"When the Civil Rights Commission actually does something then maybe (the Black Panther case) kicks up to being a story," he said. "It's a question of how firm and significant the news to date in both those instances are."

Edmonds, who acknowledged he was not familiar with either story before being asked about them, said they have an obvious appeal to audiences "dubious" about the Obama administration since they reflect poorly on Obama appointees.

Gainor said that with the investigation ongoing, the Black Panther story could eventually attract more coverage. He guessed the NASA issue could dissipate, though he questioned why.

Bolden, in his interview, listed three priorities and "none of them involve the word space," Gainor said. "How is that not news?"

A NASA spokesman on Tuesday claimed Bolden was referring to his outreach priorities, not his priorities overall, and that space exploration is still the No. 1 mission. It's unclear whether the White House or NASA will face pressure to say any more.

The radio silence is similar to the media environment before the Obama administration and Congress essentially cut ties last year with ACORN following a series of undercover videos that appeared to show local ACORN offices offering help to two conservative activists posing as a pimp and prostitute. The same goes for the non-coverage of then-White House green jobs adviser Van Jones, whose controversial past -- and signing of a petition in support of 9/11 conspiracy theorists -- led to his resignation.

After both incidents, The New York Times public editor in September wrote a column acknowledging that The Times "stood still" as the ACORN and Jones stories developed. It noted that The Associated Press also reported that the Census Bureau cut ties with ACORN without mention of the sting videos.

The Times piece said the newspaper may have "trouble" dealing with stories that start in talk radio and cable and blogs but "needs to be alert to them or wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself."

However, the public editor in March ran a new column suggesting it got overly worked up on the ACORN story -- citing the tremendous damage the issue did to ACORN's infrastructure and the fact that activist James O'Keefe "almost certainly" did not dress as an outrageous pimp in the ACORN offices themselves, though he dressed as one in media appearances.