PBS Puts Its Power (And Your Dollars) Behind Clinton
by L. Brent Bozell III
October 10, 1996
Call it a microcosm of the media's coverage of Campaign '96. That great investigative series, PBS's "Frontline," kicked off another biased season with "The Choice '96," a two-hour examination of Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. Instead of investigative journalism came two hours of artsy psychobiography, with mostly liberal journalists as talking heads, with predictable results.
Dole, almost always shown in black-and-white photographs, was the dark figure from the harsh plains of Kansas whose mentor was...Richard Nixon. And that was kind compared to other findings. Dole patriotic? Author David Harris attacked Dole for not learning from his war experience that the Vietnam War was wrong. Dole principled? When Dole was threatened with failure in his 1974 Senate campaign, "he glimpsed his own personal darkness: he discovered he would do almost anything to win." Dole dared to make an issue of abortion, and the abortions his obstetrician opponent, Dr. Bill Roy, performed.
Clinton, by contrast, was the seductive charmer from the gentle terrain of Arkansas, who was like a Baptist minister. Clinton patriotic? Robert Reich explained how Clinton and he agonized over the draft because they were "obviously patriotic." Clinton principled? Clinton's failures came because he was too eager to mobilize government to serve people.
In the Reagan and Bush years, "Frontline" served as lead attack dog devoted to scandal coverage, no matter how unfounded the charge. It asserted the Reagan administration funneled drugs into American cities to fund the contras; that Reagan's CIA attempted to kill contra leader Eden Pastora; and (twice) that the 1980 Reagan campaign conspired to delay the release of the Iranian hostages for political gain. Bipartisan congressional investigations unraveled these conspiracy theories with no apologies from PBS.
So what did "The Choice" say about the alphabet soup of present-day Clinton scandals? Less than 60 seconds were devoted to Whitewater (incredibly, used to explain how "this very important reform" - socialized medicine - failed). No other Clinton scandal appeared. It's doubly perverse that under Bill Clinton, not only did PBS do no investigation of the White House for four years, but it funded - without any rebuttal - Hedrick Smith's "The People and the Power Game," which promoted the ridiculous notion that Bill Clinton has been abused by an uncivil news media.
Smith declared: "By focusing on scandal and conflict over substance, and by our increasingly negative tone, the media has distorted the nation's agenda and lost touch with the public we claim to serve." (But if scandal isn't substance, how does PBS defend its own reporting during the Reagan-Bush years?) Among Smith's complaints: coverage of the $200 haircut (it didn't cost $200, it didn't delay traffic!) and New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd writing from Oxford ("President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted, and didn't get a degree.")
Smith began with Gennifer Flowers, shaming Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. Both made appearances not to defend themselves, but to deplore running the story. Smith said ABC aired its first story on the scandal's second day, a Friday, while Rather claimed CBS did it because competitors "went with it strong." But ABC and CBS both waited until Monday, after the Clintons consented to address the story on "60 Minutes" The networks aired only six full stories. Big, big deal.
Then, Smith complained about ABC's Brit Hume: "The traditional skepticism of the White House press corps has slid into cynicism, where a President's thoughtful deliberation is seen as indecision and compromise as backsliding." Example? When Clinton nominated Ruth Ginsburg for the Supreme Court after toying with Stephen Breyer, Hume apologetically asked Clinton: "We may have created an impression, perhaps unfair, of a certain zigzag in the decision-making process here. I wonder if you could walk us through it and perhaps disabuse of any notions we might have along these lines. Thank you." Outrageous!
Mr. Smith also complained about the 1995 State of the Union coverage: "CBS and others in the Washington media were criticized for relying on inside-the-Beltway punditry in their coverage of Clinton's State of the Union address...But polls showed the public loved it."
Smith was probably referring to the instant poll which showed 85 percent "approve of the President's proposals," 74 percent "now have a clear idea what President Clinton stands for" and 56 percent said Clinton "better understands the major problems facing the country today" than the Republicans. That poll was reported that night by none other than the supposedly anti-Clinton CBS; Dan Rather went so far as to repeat all the numbers before signing off.
First, PBS took our tax dollars to goad the commercial media into scandal coverage during the Reagan years; now, PBS takes our tax dollars to scold the commercial media for being too critical of President Clinton. Some choice, "The Choice."