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MediaWatch: April 1989

Vol. Three No. 4

NewsBites: CBS Spikes Pro-Life

CBS Spikes Pro-Life. From March 20 to 25, pro-life Operation Rescue demonstrators barred entrances to abortion clinics in California. According to Newsweek, police arrested more than 700 protestors. On March 22, CNN PrimeNews covered the story. On March 23, NBC Today and Nightly News looked at the event. On March 24, ABC's Good Morning America and NBC Nightly News mentioned the protests. And on March 25, ABC, CNN, and NBC carried the news.

CBS This Morning and Evening News viewers never heard about the demonstrations. CBS spiked the story. However, not all protests were blacked out by CBS. On March 28, This Morning news anchor Charles Osgood easily found the time to show three lonely demonstrators opposing nuclear power at Three Mile Island.

Gorbachev's Useful Flacks. Early March marked the fourth anniversary of Gorbachev's rise to power. During the March 11 CBS Evening News, Moscow correspondent Barry Petersen admired Gorbachev's "courage to end Soviet involvement" in Afghanistan. "The Soviets didn't win," Petersen declared, "but Gorbachev did." Ironically, Petersen also found Gorbachev's Moscow "triumph" over "cold warrior" Reagan noteworthy, forgetting it was President Reagan's support for the Afghans that defeated the Soviet Army.

ABC's Rick Inderfurth joined the lovefest during the next day's World News Sunday. "On the international stage," Inderfurth declared, Gorbachev "is a superstar, the toast of the West." Inderfurth considered Gorbachev a "popular leader, despite those long [food] lines." Inderfurth praised the upcoming "first contested elections since Lenin's day," forgetting that in January 1918 Lenin used armed sailors to stop the Constituent Assembly from falling into the hands of non-Bolsheviks, Russia's only real experiment in democracy.

NBC's Missed Gap In Glasnost. On March 11 CNN PrimeNews interviewed Soviet dissident Konstantin Karmonov, once a political prisoner and victim of abusive treatment in Soviet mental hospitals. Asked about the current status of Soviet psychiatry, Karmonov replied, "as for its essence, nothing has changed." The next morning, The New York Times concurred, with a front page headline, "U.S. Psychiatrists Fault Soviet Units." The subhead read: "Team Finds Inmates Are Still Held for Political Reasons."

NBC Nightly News anchor Connie Chung, however, told viewers just the opposite: "U.S. officials in Moscow said today they have been unable to determine, after meetings with patients in Soviet mental hospitals, whether they are being held because of their political beliefs."

Turner Turns On NBC. Turner Broadcasting Service head Ted Turner has never been known to keep his personal opinions to himself, a reputation demonstrated again recently. Speaking before the Washington Metro Area Cable Club on March 8, the CNN owner claimed General Electric, the parent company of NBC, is run by "bozos" and "thieves" who have been "indicted and admitted to stealing from the Pentagon," making GE the "most corrupt corporation in America." According to Turner "these crooks, these convicted felons, should be behind bars."

Maybe it's just coincidence, but in late April NBC is launching the Consumers News and Business Channel, a new cable competitor.

Lashing the Whip. When House Republicans elected Rep. Newt Gingrich their Whip, some major newspapers and magazines immediately cast doubt on his views and skills. The March 23 Washington Post reported "his ideas are often far from the mainstream of even Republican thought." According to Time, "Gingrich is a bomb thrower...more interested in right-wing grandstanding than in fostering bipartisanship." U.S. News and World Report said Gingrich "resembles a frisky chipmunk scurrying from idea to idea and storing too many bad ones."

But when Rep. Tony Coelho was elected Majority Whip in 1986, the reporters took a much different slant. The New York Times told readers "Mr. Coelho's politics are about mid-range on the Democratic spectrum," and the Los Angeles Times asserted "Coelho is not known as an ideologue" and "just what he stands for remains a mystery."

The truth is that Gingrich is no more conservative than Coelho is liberal. Gingrich averages about an 80 rating from the American Conservative Union while Coelho gets a similar approval level from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. In the eyes of the print media, not all whips are created equal.

Spencer-itis. The National Association of Children's Hospitals issued a study that provided reporters with an opportunity to simultaneously attack past Reagan policies and urge increased social spending. Naturally, CBS couldn't resist.

Dan Rather introduced Susan Spencer's story on the health threat posed to poor kids by asserting, "children are already suffering from cutbacks during the Reagan Administration." Spencer blamed the children's health care "crisis" on "social apathy, in particular on Reagan era budget cuts." Spencer highlighted the report's call for "immediate expansion of medicaid which now covers only half the children in poverty."

ABC was the only other network to cover the study. Peter Jennings reported the study's concern for "child abuse, accidental death, and chronic illness," but he refrained from gratuitous Reagan-bashing.

Alar Alarm. On February 26 CBS' 60 Minutes gave an exclusive report on a study produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a liberal environmental lobby, charging the pesticide Alar makes apples unsafe to eat. The segment by Ed Bradley so alarmed viewers it led to a nationwide apple scare that took three government agencies weeks to calm down.

Viewers weren't told that months earlier CBS guaranteed the NRDC prominent 60 Minutes coverage of their study well before the network had any idea of its validity. In the report, Bradley called Alar "the most cancer-causing agent in our food supply" and let Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-MN) talk grimly of children dying in cancer wards.

60 Minutes didn't mention opposing views, like a report by the National Academy of Sciences which found no evidence that any individual pesticide "makes a major contribution to the risk of cancer in humans." Not only did 60 Minutes give exclusive license to the claims of a liberal lobby, it needlessly scared millions of parents and school officials with a politically motivated and scientifically dubious report.

Ms. Streep Goes to Washington. Where should we turn for expert advice about food? According to CBS News medical correspondent Susan Spencer on the March 16 Evening News, "amid scary reports of cancer-causing chemicals on apples, cyanide-laced grapes from Chile and potential problems with just about all fruit, Capitol Hill today turned to actress Meryl Streep, who seemed to sum it all up." Streep's profound question: "Are we not allowed to know what's on our food?"

Deadbeats for Dukakis. Michael Dukakis' Massachusetts budget deficit woes caught the eye of CBS correspondent Richard Schlesinger on the March 10 Evening News.

Schlesinger was desperately seeking someone in the Bay State not mad about the Duke's spending spree that has turned a $400 million surplus the year before into a $600 million deficit. He reported, "the Governor's most vocal supporters are government officials and employees, who worry that budget cuts will eliminate vital services." Couldn't be they're worried about their jobs, could it?

Ellerbee's Elucidations. The same week CNN anchor Mary Alice Williams left for NBC, Linda Ellerbee showed up. In her first PrimeNews commentary, she told her audience a little something about herself: "Well, am I a liberal, a conservative, or what? What."

Has Ellerbee come to any decisions in other areas? "I believe in sunny summer mornings when the grass is sweet and the wind is green with possibilities. I believe in chili with no beans and iced tea all year round...that Beethoven would have liked Chuck Berry." CNN may never be the same again, unfortunately.

One-Sided Susan. The CBS Evening News used its March 5 "Inside Sunday" segment to investigate ethics. Susan Spencer analyzed the new administration, but curiously omitted using anyone who would defend President Bush or offer a different point of view from the standard "sleaze factor" theorists.

For her testimony, Spencer relied on sources like Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause, who wondered if Bush would abandon Reagan's "no-expectation ethics" and Ira Katznelson of the New School for Social Research, who, Spencer reported, thought "all this ethics talk is merely a diversion to avoid tough problems, like drugs, homelessness, and poverty."

Failing the Fair Litmus Test. In its recent study of guests on ABC's Nightline, the far-left media critics at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) complained that not enough liberals and leftists are allowed on to offer alternative viewpoints. Among those considered not "liberal" enough:

-- Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who "accepts much of the [anti-communist] rhetoric and plays the role of insider opponent, disagreeing on specific administration tactics without challenging the underlying assumptions of the policy (i.e., that the U.S. seeks to bring "democracy" to Nicaragua)."

-- Rep. David Bonior (D-MI), another Contra aid opponent. FAIR complained that Nightline "tilted the discussion rightward by excluding forthright opponents of U.S. policy in Central America," then listed Bonior, duly noted as anti-Contra.

-- Tom Wicker, The New York Times columnist, because he "is in no way connected to the movement opposing U.S. policy in Central America."

-- Michael Kinsley, Editor of The New Republic. FAIR took exception to labeling the anti-Contra Kinsley a "journalist of the left," saying his magazine was pro-Contra and "centrist" at best.

Cabbage Patch Currier. "Cabbage patch commandos" is how CBS News reporter Frank Currier disparagingly referred to those with opinions differing from his on the ownership of semi-automatic weapons. Currier used CBS airtime as a platform to preach for gun control. At one point during his March 15 Evening News report from a Texas shooting range, Currier hoped "this controversy... could signal the beginning of the end of America's love affair with guns."

Currier concluded by "wondering if America's romance with firepower is really worth the price." Cooler heads prevailed at The Wall Street Journal. In a March 24 editorial, the Journal explained that the dispute is "less a public-policy debate than a cultural clash. The cosmopolitan culture doesn't know one kind of weapon from another...the bedrock culture may not like white wine and Brie, but is plenty smart enough to recognize when it is under attack...it does know what it's talking about here."

Dubious Source. In the heat of the Tower debate on the Senate floor, The Washington Post transformed a single unsubstantiated allegation into a damaging front page story. On March 2, Bob Woodward wrote of a visit Tower made to Bergstrom Air Force base in the late '70's. Woodward interviewed Air Force sergeant Bob Jackson, who accused Tower of having "liquor on his breath" and "staggering out of the car and up the steps." He also accused Tower of attempting to fondle female personnel.

Woodward claimed to have other "informed sources," but didn't identify any of them. The very next day, Senator John McCain contacted several military personnel who contradicted Jackson's story. Furthermore, Senator McCain discovered Sergeant Jackson had been discharged in 1978 for "mixed personality disorder and anti-social and hysterical features."

The CBS Evening News picked up Woodward's story the night before, but didn't mention the next day how a U.S. Senator had discredited their coverage. The next day, Woodward wrote an article over the furor his story had created, but the damage to Tower's reputation had already been done.

Troute Fishing. ABC's Dennis Troute expanded the March media frenzy over assault rifles to include handguns. For the March 14 World News Tonight Troute revived a five month old study from the New England Journal of Medicine. Extolling the virtues of Canada's gun control laws, Troute compared Seattle and Vancouver. To show the value of gun laws, Troute noted there were 36 homicides with guns in 1988 in Seattle and six in Vancouver.

According to the NRA, however, the murder rate among whites was the same for both cities, and the percentage of gun-related homicides in Vancouver remained the same before and after implementing gun control. Troute missed both these points. Troute also failed to note that there are 960 registered handguns per 100,000 people in Vancouver, while New York City has only 930. By Troute's logic Vancouver should be a more dangerous place. Not surprisingly, Troute concluded, "crime would be much more deadly here if guns were as widely available as they are in the U.S."

No Home for Media Myths. In an NBC News special last year, Tom Brokaw portrayed the homeless are "people you know." That's just one of several media myths proven inaccurate by an article in the March 20 issue of U.S News and World Report. As Senior Editor David Whitman contended, "homeless men and women are...sadly isolated from the mainstream of American life."

Another popular media untruth is that there are three million homeless. Whitman cited a study by the "nonpartisan" Urban Institute that puts the number at 600,000. Harold Dow, in a report for the February 16 edition of the CBS News show 48 Hours, complained that "people have jobs but simply can't afford a place to live." Whitman explained the more prevalent problem is "about two thirds of homeless adults have at least one serious personal problem that helps put them on the streets." Hopefully, reporters will read Whitman's piece and bring a more rational, fact-based perspective to their coverage of the problem.