Nets Distort Alito on Abortion, Peg Him a "Hardline" Conservative --11/1/2005
2. Couric Cues Up Wilson's Attacks, But Blitzer Challenges Him
3. CBS's "Public Eye" Blog Agrees with MRC Criticism of CBS Story
In covering on Monday night the nomination of appellate court judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, ABC and CBS distorted his role and position on the husband-notification abortion case and pegged him as a "staunch" or "hardline" conservative, but NBC managed to correctly describe his role in the abortion case and depicted him as "dependably conservative, though with an independent streak." The NBC Nightly News, however, jumped from Alito to a nearly full story about how the Bush White House's attempt at "diverting attention from the Scooter Libby indictment won't be easy because of the unanswered questions" which David Gregory helpfully went on to list before declaring that what today's administration is saying is "a far cry from the candor that candidate Bush once promised."
ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas teased World News Tonight by asserting, as if it were his preference and not a ruling on the constitutionality of a law signed by a Democratic Governor, that Alito "once said a woman should tell her husband before she gets an abortion." On the CBS Evening News, Gloria Borger maintained that Alito "has favored limits on abortion; most notably arguing that women seeking abortions should be required to inform their husbands first." NBC's Brian Williams correctly related how "he voted to uphold a Pennsylvania law requiring women to notify their husbands before seeking an abortion." (ABC's Jake Tapper undermined the media assumption that Alito was out of touch as he noted that "recent polling indicates more than seven in ten Americans support Alito's position.)
On ideological labeling, ABC's Vargas asserted: "Conservatives are thrilled, liberals incensed." She went on to relay that "he is said to be brilliant and a staunch conservative." CBS anchor Schieffer saw Democrats not liberals when he touted how Bush has "made the conservatives happy, but the Democrats are upset." John Roberts proceeded to assert: "Alito's judicial philosophy so mirrors that of the Supreme Court's hardliner, Antonin Scalia, that he's been nicknamed 'Scalito.'" Roberts ominously warned: "If confirmed, Alito would wipe out the swing seat now occupied by Sandra Day O'Connor, tilting the Supreme Court in a solidly conservative direction for years to come."
[This item was posted Monday night on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org. To post your comments, go to: newsbusters.org ]
Strangest news judgment of the night: ABC's Terry Moran's choice for the second of Alito's "key rulings" during his 15-year judgeship: "His vote to overturn a congressional ban on owning machine guns."
(On CBS's definitive tagging of Alito as a "conservative" and a "hardliner," by way of contrast the MRC's Rich Noyes reminded me of how 12 years ago CBS didn't see Clinton nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a solid liberal, never mind any kind of hardliner. Rita Braver opened her June 14, 1993 CBS Evening News story: "Sixty-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been an Appeals Court judge for 13 years. She's considered moderate to liberal, but today she cited this guideline to judging from ultraconservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist." On the NBC Nightly News that night, Andrea Mitchell insisted: "Bill Clinton's first Supreme Court nominee is a judicial moderate and a pioneer for women's rights.")
Some highlights from the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts on Monday night, October 31, which I managed to cobble together from the closed-captioning that I checked, against the video of what aired, between answering trick-or-treaters at my door:
# ABC's World News Tonight. Elizabeth Vargas' tease: "On World News Tonight: President Bush's latest nominee to the Supreme Court. Conservatives are thrilled, liberals incensed. He once said a woman should tell her husband before she gets an abortion."
Vargas led: "Good evening. President Bush today chose another nominee for the Supreme Court. And in the process, ignited what may be an enormous battle in the Senate. Conservatives say they are thrilled with the selection of Judge Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. One called him a grand-slam home run. But many liberals are incensed and are already lining up in opposition. Judge Alito is a federal appeals court judge with a long and well-documented record on the bench. He is said to be brilliant and a staunch conservative. And ABC's Terry Moran joins us from the White House. Terry, it's that last description that has touched off so much reaction."
In his story, Terry Moran asserted: "He quickly established a reputation on the bench as brilliant and deeply conservative."
After soundbites from Patrick Leahy and Charles Schumer, Moran maintained: "Among Alito's key rulings, his vote in an abortion case to uphold a law requiring women to inform their husbands before obtaining an abortion. And his vote to overturn a congressional ban on owning machine guns. Echoing the opinion of many lawyers who've appeared before him, a former law clerk describes Alito as, above all, methodical."
Vargas set up the next story: "But at least one of his rulings in the past on abortion was directly at odds with the Supreme Court Justice Alito hopes to replace."
Jake Tapper provided a balanced story on Alito's abortion positions. Tapper displayed an on-screen graphic which showed how a 2003 Gallup Poll found by 72 to 26 percent most support the spousal notification law that Vargas and Moran found so noteworthy. Tapper explained:
ABC ended with Vargas talking with George Stephanopolous about the White House strategy to get out of their hole.
Schieffer led: "Well, conservatives wanted a conservative on the Supreme Court, and said the President ought to risk a fight in the Senate to get one. Their wishes have been fulfilled. Samuel Alito is a respected conservative, and if the early Democratic reaction is an indication of what's ahead, it will take a knock-down, drag-out fight to get him confirmed."
John Roberts maintained: "Conservatives were quote, 'deliriously happy' over the choice. And why not? Alito's judicial philosophy so mirrors that of the Supreme Court's hardliner, Antonin Scalia, that he's been nicknamed 'Scalito.'"
Roberts soon warned: "If confirmed, Alito would wipe out the swing seat now occupied by Sandra Day O'Connor, tilting the Supreme Court in a solidly conservative direction for years to come."
Andrew Cohen, CBS News legal analyst: "Whether it's abortion rights or religion in public life or the role of the executive in a time of war, all the cutting-edge issues may actually change."
In the next story, Gloria Borger cited the concerns of "liberal interest groups," and then noted: "Like Justice Scalia, Alito is an intellectual favorite of conservatives. One reason: He has favored limits on abortion; most notably arguing that women seeking abortions should be required to inform their husbands first, a position shot down by the Supreme Court."
On screen as Borger spoke: "Alito's Record - Favors limits on abortion - Husbands should be notified first"
Next, Jim Axelrod provided a look at how those who know in from Philadelphia and New Jersey view him. Axelrod concluded: "Those who know him best are saying as far as the kind of person he is, the President couldn't have done better."
CBS wrapped up with q and a amongst Roberts, Borger and the Chicago Tribune's Jan Crawford Greenburg.
Pete Williams soon maintained: "Judge Alito's most controversial legal opinion came in 1991 when he voted to uphold a Pennsylvania law requiring women to notify their husbands before seeking an abortion. The Supreme Court struck that law down, and abortion rights advocates today called for Alito's defeat."
Williams added a contrasting assessment from what ABC and CBS delivered: "Alito's rulings also show an independent streak, allowing a woman from Iran to seek asylum in the U.S. based on Iran's treatment of women and allowing parents to sue a public school for failing to protect their son from merciless bullying."
Next, David Gregory framed a story: "With today's announcement, a weakened President achieved two goals at once, he changed the subject, and picked a fight."
After soundbites from Leahy, Trent Lott and Grover Norquist, as well as an audio clip from Rush Limbaugh in which the radio host contended that "we want a debate about the role of judiciary in our society," Gregory launched an attack on the Bush White House for daring to try to move on from Friday's indictments:
Finally, Gregory talked with Tim Russert about the White House strategy to get back on track by January.
On Monday's Today, Katie Couric posed a series of softball questions to Joe Wilson cuing him up for his shots at Bush officials, but when he appeared later in the day on CNN's The Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer gave him plenty of opportunities to level his charges, but also pressed him on inconsistencies and challenges to his claims. "How wide, how high up do you believe this goes?" Couric asked in reference to a wider Bush scandal. On Rove: "Do you think that he should step down? Do you agree with Harry Reid?" Couric also wondered: "How damaging, do you believe, this has been to the CIA and, and to your wife?" Citing how prosecutor Peter Fitzgerald concluded "this indictment is not about the propriety of the war," Couric set him up: "You think this is really about the buildup to war, the Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq?" Blitzer hit Wilson with the suggestion that "once your husband writes an op-ed piece and goes political, you have no immunity and that's the way Washington works" since "by your going public in various ways, your wife's identity was eventually going to be made known." Blitzer also brought up how the Senate Intelligence Committee report said, contrary to his claims, that his wife suggested him for the Niger trip and how Wilson endangered his wife by posing with her for a Vanity Fair photo.
The MRC's Geoffrey Dickens took down Couric's questions to Wilson posed during a live 7:30am EST half hour interview:
Couric set up the October 31 session: "Now to the man in the middle of the CIA leak case. No one was following the progress of the investigation into who revealed the identity of a CIA operative named Valerie Plame more closely than her husband Joe Wilson. His op-ed in the New York Times taking on the Bush administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq allegedly led to his wife's outing. Ambassador Wilson good morning, welcome back."
-- "First and foremost what was your reaction to the indictments announced on Friday?"
-- "Meanwhile Patrick Fitzgerald, as you well know, has said the investigation continues. In the indictment there was someone referred to as 'Official A,' widely believed to be Karl Rove and he is the man who is believed to have given your wife's name to Robert Novak in that very first column. There's also speculation that Scooter Libby may reach a plea agreement and if there is a trial that Vice President Cheney may have to testify. How wide, how high up do you believe this goes?"
-- "Do you think that he should step down? Do you agree with Harry Reid?"
-- "But as you know despite this two-year investigation Scooter Libby was indicted for things like perjury, obstruction of justice, misleading officials but not for violating that 1982 law that says it's a federal crime to knowingly reveal the identity of a covert CIA agent."
-- "And that raises the question why, do you believe, Scooter Libby lied?"
-- "Let me ask you about the op-ed that you wrote in the L.A. Times this weekend. You called, you referred to your, are, you and Valerie Plame's 27 months of hell. Why was it so hellacious? How damaging, do you believe, this has been to the CIA and, and to your wife?"
-- "Did you get death threats or have you gotten death threats of any kind?"
-- "When you say threats can you characterize them any more specifically?"
-- Couric finally got to a mild challenge: "During the last two years your integrity has been questioned, your character, there, has been questioned as well. There have been suggestions that your wife was in fact responsible for dispatching you to Niger, that you and she have a vendetta, some kind of personal political vendetta against the Bush administration. That you actually introduced her to parties as, 'Your CIA wife,' and therefore divulged her identity yourself. And that your report about the sale of uranium by Niger to Iraq was actually inconclusive and that the Vice President never saw this report. So I guess that raises the question, do you have some kind of personal vendetta against the Bush administration? Do you want the Bush administration to fail?"
-- "There was such a lag between the State of the Union and the op-ed piece. Did you ever try to contact anyone at the White House or the CIA to say, 'Hey this isn't true, why are they saying this?'"
-- "Do you have a personal vendetta against the Bush administration?"
-- "Having said that Patrick Fitzgerald also took great pains to say that this investigation was not about the wisdom of the war. He said, 'This indictment is not about the propriety of the war.' But you disagreed with that. You think this is really about the buildup to war, the Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq?"
-- "Finally Bill Kristol in the Weekly Standard, the conservative Weekly Standard, says, 'That this is damaging to Scooter Libby, embarrassing to the administration but because there is one person this is no conspiracy and this is the best possible outcome.' Would you agree with that assessment?"
-- "Do you believe that you and your wife will be able to get back to normal in, in any way, shape or form?"
-- "Do you have confidence in Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel who's investigated this leak?"
-- "Are you, though, disappointed that he didn't charge anyone with outing your wife as an undercover CIA operative?"
-- "But you were hoping that someone would actually -- that you'd get to the bottom of this: Who decided to out your wife as a CIA operative?"
-- "But you understand why that's not a crime -- that wasn't deemed a crime by Patrick Fitzgerald?"
-- "On August 21st, 2003, at a forum, you were quoted as saying this -- and I believe you did say this because we've talked about it: 'At the end of the day, it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.' He's still working at the White House. He's the deputy White House chief of staff."
-- "Let's go through some of the criticism that's been leveled at you, afresh over these past several days since this whole leak investigation was coming to a boil last Friday. A lot of your critics blame you for the eventual disclosure of your wife as a CIA operative, and they go back to that early May 2003 column by the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who first reports about an unnamed U.S. ambassador making this trip to Africa. Were you the source, Nicholas Kristof's source, for that column?"
-- "Why you tell Nicholas Kristof about your trip to Africa?"
-- "Because, as you know, this was two months before the Robert Novak column appeared."
-- "The former CIA officer Robert Behr was quoted in Saturday's Washington Post as saying this: 'The fact is, once your husband writes an op-ed piece and goes political, you have no immunity and that's the way Washington works.' In other words, he's one of those suggesting that, by your going public in various ways, your wife's identity was eventually going to be made known."
-- "Even though some of your supporters were on this program last week -- Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer; Pat Lang, a former DIA intelligence analyst. They say your decision and your wife's decision to let her be photographed represented a major mistake because, if there were people out there who may have been endangered by her name, certainly when people might have seen her picture, they could have been further endangered."
-- "So you don't have any regrets about the Vanity Fair picture?"
-- "Let's talk about Joe DiGenova, a former U.S. Attorney, Republican. He was on this program, as you well know -- he among others suggesting: Well, she had a desk job, she was an analyst in the Counterproliferation Division at the CIA. She was no longer really what they call a NOC, someone working nonofficial cover overseas and that it was really no big deal."
-- "Did you ever go around in cocktail parties -- because this has been alleged against you as well -- before the Robert Novak column and boast 'my wife, the CIA agent,' 'my wife works for the CIA'?"
-- "How well-known was it that she worked for the CIA before the Novak column?"
-- "Your trip to Niger -- there's been some suggestion that she came up with the idea of sending you to Niger. And the Senate -- we've gone through this, but I'll let you respond since it keeps coming up over and over again -- the Select Committee on Intelligence that came out July 7th, 2004, last year said this: 'Interviews and documents provided to the committee' -- the Senate committee -- 'indicated that his wife, a CPD' -- Counterproliferation Division -- 'employee suggested his name for the trip.' Did she come up with the idea?"
-- "Larry Johnson, on this program last week, the former CIA officer, said your wife has been threatened by al-Qaida. Is that true?"
-- "If you had to do it all over again, looking backwards, any changes you would have done?"
-- "But let me ask a final question, now: Are you going to file any civil lawsuits against Libby, Cheney, anyone else?"
Vaughn Ververs, Editor of the "Public Eye" blog for CBS News, last Thursday posted an article in which he agreed with CyberAlert's criticism of a CBS Evening News story. The October 24 CyberAlert item, first posted by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth on our NewsBusters blog, had chided Lee Cowan for painting a "Republican precinct Chairwoman" critical of Tom DeLay for blaming his trouble on the DA's political agenda, and whom he featured denigrating him as a "hog," as a typical Republican without noting her long history of hostility to DeLay. Ververs decided: "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."
The October 24 CyberAlert item recounted: On Friday's CBS Evening News, correspondent Lee Cowan filed a story on Congressman Tom DeLay's appearance in a Texas courtroom, which on some counts was balanced, but which glaringly highlighted a Republican critic of Tom DeLay who referred to him as a "hog." 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. To read the item in full: www.mrc.org
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."
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.
END of Reprint
To see the posting, with video of Cowan's story, go to: www.cbsnews.com
-- Brent Baker