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MediaWatch: April 1988

Vol. Two No. 4

Study: Ducking Jackson's Left-Wing Views

From his embrace of Yasir Arafat and communist dictators like Fidel Castro, to his desire for a unilateral U.S. nuclear freeze, Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson holds radical views that place him well to the left of liberal candidates like Michael Dukakis. But a MediaWatch Study has determined the evening newscasts of the four networks rarely reported Jackson's extremist positions. When it came to Republican Pat Robertson, however, the same TV reporters considered many of his beliefs "controversial" enough to report.

To conduct the Study, analysts examined ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN PrimeNews and NBC Nightly News stories beginning the week before each candidate became a formidable force. For Robertson, the Study ran from the week before his "surprise" finish ahead of George Bush in Iowa through his poor showing in the New Hampshire primary. For Jackson, the study began a week before his strong Super Tuesday showing and continued to the end of March, as Jackson battled Mike Dukakis for front-runner status. After eliminating "horserace" stories, MediaWatch identified 13 pieces on Robertson and 37 on Jackson that entirely or predominantly focused on either candidate.

Jackson has expressed plenty of radical ideas that place him well outside the American political spectrum. These include: praising PLO terrorist leader Yasir Arafat as "educated, urbane and reasonable," calling Zionism a "poisonous weed," and standing arm in arm with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro chanting "Long live Fidel Castro, long live Che Guevara." Only 24 percent of all stories in the month of March mentioned any controversy related to Jackson's candidacy. Just three stories, or 8 percent, contained reference to Jackson's pro-PLO stand. Viewers may never have learned of his Arafat sympathies if not for candidate Al Gore. Two stories near the end of the month included brief clips of Gore denouncing Jackson's desire to radically alter U.S. Middle East policy.

Only 14 percent of the stories alluded in even the most obscure way to his Castro connection. Two of these five consisted of brief film clips of Jackson standing with Castro. On March 2, ABC's Rebecca Chase made passing reference to how "Jackson has practiced a form of foreign policy by photo opportunity." The same day, NBC's Bob Kur didn't see it as a negative either, referring to Jackson "meeting with world leaders." At the end of March, NBC's Ken Bode gave time to conservative Democrat Ben Wattenberg to express concern about the Castro alliance. CBS once showed Gore complaining. Only one time in any of the 37 stories did a reporter utter the name "Castro." During a March 11 interview, Tom Brokaw asked Jackson about his visit to Cuba, but let Jackson's answer go unchallenged: "Positions I have been taking in foreign policy, in Latin America, in the Middle East, are now mainstream American political thought in foreign policy."

Jackson's close ties to Muslim leader Louis Farakkhan and "Hymietown" remark caused quite a bit of controversy in 1984, but this year the networks have practically forgotten them. Just seven stories (19 percent) mentioned either topic. This year he's announced policies that go far left of anything proposed by even liberal Democrats. For instance, he has called for unilateral disarmament, saying he wants to cut defense spending by 25 percent and end production of every nuclear weapons system, from the Midgetman missile to Stealth bomber. Only three stories (8 percent) noted his desire to radically alter American defenses, but none portrayed his cuts as anything extreme. The toughest scrutiny came from CBS' Bob Schieffer: "Jackson talks of cutting as much as $30 billion his first year from the defense budget, which would mean more than just trimming fat."

What did network coverage concentrate on? Emphasizing how he has moderated his views and broadened his base. Over half the stories dismissed concerns about Jackson's extreme and controversial views. For example, without critical comment, NBC's Dennis Murphy devoted an entire story to how Jackson is trying to "prove he is a mainstream, electable candidate." ABC's Peter Jennings told viewers on March 2: "It's eminently clear that the Jesse Jackson of '88 is a much different man than the Jackson that first ran in '84." Just two weeks later Jackson reaffirmed his desire to open relations with Cuba, saying on the March 17 Nightline: "I think in the case of Fidel Castro we would be wise to work out ways to expand our influence into Cuba."

Just over 43 percent of the reports contained statements characterizing the campaign as having a positive impact on his constituency, for instance, CNN's reference to his "promise of hope to the less fortunate." On March 15, Bruce Morton of CBS delivered this glowing assessment: "Jesse Jackson toured Chicago and brought tears and excitement wherever he went. Watch him as he walks to the Robert Taylor project, home of some of this city's poorest people. They gave him what they had, they gave him love."

Since Pat Robertson's Republican opponents refrained from criticizing his beliefs, just as Jackson's Democratic opponents did until the very end of March, you might think the media would have given them equal scrutiny. But MediaWatch discovered just the opposite. In 13 stories that appeared on Robertson, ten (77 percent) negatively portrayed past Robertson statements that network reporters considered controversial. Four reports reminded viewers of Robertson's past religious life, including his faith healing, claims he talks directly to God, and "speaking in tongues." NBC's Chris Wallace was so concerned about Robertson's past that he dug up a video tape in which Robertson said only Christians and Jews be allowed to hold government office. Wallace declared on February 9: "Robertson may be restricted on reaching out by years of controversial statements." Unlike Jackson, who never renounced his chant with Castro, Robertson has apologized for the remark. Wallace made no mention of the fact.

While they ignored Jackson's recent Nightline comment on his desire to improve relations with Cuba, the media were quick to jump on Robertson for any statement liberals found controversial. Seven stories focused on his comments about Soviet missiles in Cuba, that Planned Parenthood is attempting to create a "master race," and that he opposes sanctions on South Africa. Jackson received almost twice as much positive coverage as Robertson; a mere 3 stories (23 percent) referred positively to Robertson's strong appeal among Christians. An even smaller 15 percent of the stories talked about his campaign appealing beyond its base, to Catholics, Democrats, and blue collar workers.

Fear of being charged with racism partially explain why reporters refrained from producing stories that might hurt the Jackson campaign. One unnamed network correspondent admitted to The Washington Post: "It's absolutely clear to me that if Jesse were a white man, he'd probably be getting kicked around rather royally by the press." But another factor is at work. Many reporters do not see Jackson as outside the mainstream. To many in Big Media, it is Robertson who espouses radical views and they feel obligated to alert the American public.