CyberAlert -- 03/10/1997 -- ABC Catches Up

Copy of: MRC Alert: ABC Catches Up; Zahn Zaps Welfare; New Poll

1. Friday night ABC finally reported the Maggie Williams story, and Eric Engberg offered another opinionated Reality Check.

2. CBS's Paula Zahn wondered if welfare reform will derail Detroit's supposed revitalization.

3. David "We Stand by Our Story" Westin takes over ABC News; a former CBS executive says ABC was unfair to Food Lion.

4. A new poll found that most think journalists tilt left, but the finding was buried.

5. An actress gushes over Clinton: "He's an incredibly brilliant person but he also has a huge compassionate heart."

6. From Letterman's show: "Top Ten Ways Al Gore Tried to Raise Money for the Democratic Party."

1) Clinton's Friday press conference generated stories on all the networks. ABC's World News Tonight finally caught up with CBS and NBC and ran a story telling viewers about Maggie Williams accepting a $50,000 check on White House grounds -- a story covered two days earlier on CBS and NBC.

On the CBS Evening News, Rita Braver recounted the highlights of the press conference. Eric Engberg then offered a "Reality Check" piece on Janet Reno's conclusion that it would be illegal to accept a donation for a candidate on federal property, but it is okay to accept a soft money party check. Engberg concluded with the kind of opinionated analysis for which he has become infamous, though in a departure from the norm his target was not a conservative:

"It sounds wacky, but accepting a $100 buck regular donation for a candidate while in the Lincoln Bedroom can send a fundraiser to the slammer, but if it were a $100,000 check for the party's soft money account that's OK in the view of the Justice Department and many outside lawyers too. Such is the state of campaign law -- out of date and outsmarted by the political sharpies. So, prosecutions may not be possible, which doesn't make the stench go away. Eric Engberg, CBS News, Washington."

2) The networks are not employing much entrepreneurial reporting on the scandal front. Without a major newspaper breaking a story on Saturday, March 9 that day's CBS Evening News did not mention the fundraising scandal.

Anchor Paula Zahn, however, did forward the liberal spin on welfare reform. Last year before Clinton signed the bill, Zahn ominously intoned on the August 1 Evening News: "The new, landmark welfare overhaul President Clinton promised to sign won't be law for awhile yet, but there is already is a great deal of fear and anxiety all over the country over the impact it will have."

Eight months later Zahn still promotes the same liberal spin. CBS aired a story on how Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer is successfully revitalizing his city by bringing development downtown. Zahn then interviewed the Mayor. Her first question:

"Given the fact that cities and states are going to have to absorb more of the welfare burden, could that potentially derail some of the progress you have made in downtown Detroit?"

3) On Friday ABC created a new position of ABC News Chairman for Roone Arledge, the news division President since 1977. The new ABC News President: David Westin, the President of the ABC Television Network Group. Westin moves from being Arledge's boss to reporting to Arledge.

News division staffers should be pleased with the move since in the Food Lion case Westin, like Arledge, demonstrated little interest in exploring the accuracy of the story. In the 2 and a half hours the network devoted on February 12 to the case they never let Food Lion present its video case, allowing the food chain time just for a two-minute statement. Westin provided ABC's official response, which concluded:

"Tonight, as we did in 1992, we stand by the truth and the integrity of our Food Lion report. We have an obligation to tell the truth to our audience, and we take that obligation seriously."

When the Fox News Channel showed some of Food Lion's video of excerpts from ABC's original 45 hours of tape on January 22, the day of the punitive verdict, Westin reacted with outrage. He told the New York Times:

"I find it outrageously unfair that a news organization would proceed that way. The tape that Food Lion presented is a gross distortion of what actually occurred."

So much for searching for the truth.

Another network executive realized that ABC's February 12 Prime Time Live and Viewpoint stacked the deck against Food Lion. The February 17 Electronic Media relayed observations from Erik Sorenson, formerly the Executive Producer of the CBS Evening News and now Executive VP of Court TV. Electronic Media's Jon Lafayette wrote:

"Sorenson said that over the course of the broadcast, Food Lion lost" the argument over their contention that ABC deceptively edited the undercover video and staged scenes. Lafayette continued: "While Food Lion's statement was strong, 'what can you do without video,' he said. At the same time, ABC showed enough of the original story to get anyone thinking of eating Food Lion food sick."

4) The March 2 Parade magazine cover story summarized a Roper Center survey conducted in conjunction with the Freedom Forum to promote the opening of the Freedom Forum's Newseum. The Parade article listed a couple dozen of the questions and answers, but only one vaguely touched on bias: "52 percent think the news is too biased."

MRC news analyst Clay Waters dug out a nugget in the full survey summary (available on the Newseum Web site) that Parade skipped over. Note the third point in this sentence: "Majorities also say they have at least some concern that journalists too often quote unnamed sources (58%), that there is too little coverage of international news (55%), and that journalists favor the liberal point of view (53%)."

That the Freedom Forum and Parade didn't highlight this last finding is no surprise once you look at the five options those polled got for the question "How much of the time is news reporting improperly influenced by..." The choices: "Media desire to make profits," "Interests of corporate media owners," "Advertisers," "Big business," and "Elected officials."

The survey results can be read at:

5) Clinton friend and donor, actress Mary Steenburgen, was among those staying overnight in the White House. She's quite impressed with his combination of brilliance and passion. Here's an exchange from her March 6 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman:

Letterman: "Tell me about Bill. Is he a decent guy or is he a thieving crook? Because you know you get two versions of this."

Mary Steenburgen: "Oh I know. It's kind of nice that somebody actually asks someone who actually knows them as opposed to all the people I watch talking about them who never met him. He's one of my favorite people in the world. He's an incredibly brilliant person but he also has a huge compassionate heart and those things don't usually go together. And he's a fanatic problem solver..."

Speaking of Letterman, below is a fairly amusing, though not up to Letterman's potential, Top Ten List from the same night's Letterman show. -- Brent Baker

6) Top Ten Ways Al Gore Tried to Raise Money for the Democratic Party, from the March 6 Late Show with David Letterman. Copyright 1997 by Wide World Pants Inc.

10. Competed in pay-per-view "Ultimate Fighting" match against Janet Reno.

9. For six months, did nothing but check pay phones for quarters.

8. Secretly sold the entire state of New Jersey to the Swedes.

7. Signed a deal to turn the Bill of Rights into "The Frito Lay Bill of Rights."

6. Made a quick $300,000 by returning Ted Kennedy's empties.

5. For $20, let people sign their names to the Declaration of Independence.

4. Got Iraqi spies drunk and sold them the blueprints for a hair dryer.

3. Asked Hillary for a few investment tips.

2. Equipped Lincoln bedroom with coin-operated condom machine.

1. Vice President by day, Hollywood hooker by night.

-- Brent Baker