In This Issue
Gumbel's Morning Gospel; NewsBites: Telling McGrory's Story; Revolving Door: Two Times A Nader; CBS Claims Millions of Kids Almost Starving; Address Dismisses Conservatives, Iraq War Victory; Joining Stahl's Quest for More Money; ABC News on Lee Atwater; Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Faking the Nation
Gumbel's Morning Gospel
NBC's Today does more than tell viewers what's happened in the world while they slept. Co-host Bryant Gumbel tells an unending story about the country's decline under Republican administrations, and how taxes must be raised and government expanded to correct that decline. To lay out the gospel according to Gumbel, MediaWatch has collected representative quotes from the last three years.
Reagan. Gumbel's legendary opposition to anything Reaganesque is still bursting from his lips more than two years after Reagan left office. In January, Gumbel refused to give Reagan any credit for the success of high-tech weapons in the Gulf War: "For that weaponry a lot of folks have been simplistically crediting Ronald Reagan, whose expensive procurements dominated government spending in the '80s. But as Capitol Hill correspondent Henry Champ reports, not everyone feels Reagan deserves the credit, or wants to return to Reagan-like levels of spending."
Just after Reagan left office Gumbel revealed his contempt. On April 21, 1989 Gumbel asked political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly: "But don't you miss the Reagan Administration? I mean, that's an administration that so unintentionally did so many things that were laughable." The day before, Gumbel had blamed Reagan for environmental problems: "The missteps, poor efforts and setbacks brought on by the Reagan years have made this a much more sober Earth Day. The task seems larger now."
Interviewing Richard Nixon on May 1, 1990, Gumbel asked: "In [your] book, you bemoan the increase in style over substance. You say that politicians should not be wholly concerned with how the media views things, and yet that was the first, last, and foremost concern for eight years of the Reagan Administration."
While talking to Today movie critic Gene Shalit on July 11 last year about an upcoming concert tour by folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary, Gumbel said good riddance to the Reagan decade: "Let's hope the times would warrant those kind of songs again now that the '80s are over with. Thanks, Gene."
Taxes and Spending. Gumbel's approach to fiscal matters was illustrated by an interview with George Bush on November 2, 1988, just days before the election: "If I salute the fact that Ronald Reagan has selected a bipartisan, blue-ribbon National Economic Commission to come up with recommendations to address the deficit, and that commission is going to come back with the probable recommendation of higher taxes, and I know you'll ignore it, why should I vote for you?"
(Who would Gumbel support? Look at his evaluation of Mario Cuomo in a December 1986 Playboy interview: "I like him because he's part jockstrap and part street kid. That's me on both counts... His wonderful speaking ability is obvious. He's also fair. I can identify with his approach to things....He could certainly win my vote.")
Gumbel sounded like a teachers' union lobbyist when he hounded then-Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos on May 3, 1989: "Where's Washington's hand in all of this? Where are the new programs that we need? Where are the new monies that we need? Where is the aggressive approach we need?"
On July 17, 1989, in the midst of seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, Gumbel announced economic disaster: "On After Eight this morning, 'Poor in the USA.' Largely as a result of the policies and priorities of the Reagan Administration, more people are becoming poor and staying poor in this country than at any time since World War II."
Gumbel called for new taxes time and again. From January 31 last year: "It is certain the President won't mention the T word, and yet taxes are very much at the heart of what all our potential solutions are. How long can both sides pretend that a hike's not needed?" Ten days later, on February 9, he repeated himself: "We keep on hearing about limited resources, limited resources, but maybe it is time to say the T word. Anyway, at some point we're going to have to say it."
Today viewers got acid with their coffee when Gumbel started one show: "The bottom line is more tax money is going to be needed. Just how much will be the primary issue on the agenda when Congressional leaders meet with the President later today, Wednesday, May the 9th, 1990. And good morning, welcome to Today. It's a Wednesday morning, a day when the budget picture, frankly, seems gloomier than ever. It now seems the time has come to pay the fiddler for our costly dance of the Reagan years."
On July 20, 1990, Gumbel complained: "I'm worried about the lack of will in Washington to do what's necessary. That probably worries me more than anything else....I mean, that came in with Ronald Reagan. I mean, it used to be that politicians did what was essential and now there seems to be an unwillingness to bite the bullet."
Finally, when the tax-raising budget summit drew to a close on October 5, he asked Democratic consultant Bob Squier what had gone wrong. Squier said Republicans were ruining it: "I think that it was a game of chicken. I think what you had was Gingrich, who is supposed to be part of the leadership, leading people literally out of the deal." Gumbel shot back: "Acting irresponsibly." He later asked GOP consultant Roger Ailes: "Is this the legacy of Ronald Reagan politics, I mean, feel-good politics of the '80s, no-responsibility politics of the '80s?" Ailes replied: "I think that's a misnomer." Gumbel insisted: "But weren't the '80s about spending what we didn't have? And that was Ronald Reagan."
Race. Gumbel badgered anyone who failed to uphold the liberal "civil rights" line. Here's another question from Gumbel's interview with Bush on November 2, 1988: "If I'm a person who's concerned about what I see as a deteriorating state of race relations in the country, which George Bush am I going to get: the one who voted for fair housing in '68 when it was unpopular, or the man who selected Dan Quayle, who has a terrible civil rights record?...Can you deny that the Willie Horton ad tapped a rather rich vein of American racism?"
Gumbel assaulted Le Atwater a day before the Inauguration: "Blacks have looked at the past eight years and seen this administration retreat from civil rights, retreat from affirmative action, make South Africa no priority, continue to see a greater disparity economically between blacks and whites, foster a spirit of racism that hasn't been seen in 20-plus years."
Gumbel didn't change for Urban League President John Jacob on August 9, 1989: "Okay, you've said the niceties. Now let's talk about what [Bush] really said, and what he didn't say. He didn't offer any resources to correct the problem. Are you disappointed? ....He offered no legislative action to address the void left by recent Supreme Court rulings. You disappointed?...On the one hand, he says he's committed to black opportunity, at the same time he applauds all the recent Supreme Court rulings that were against that very opportunity. Are you sure where he is?"
On September 5, he hosted a prime time special called The Racial Attitudes and Consciousness Exam (RACE). Plugging that evening's show on Today, Gumbel committed a Freudian slip that revealed his feelings about conservatives: "This test is not going to tell you whether you are a racist or a liberal."
NBC may think Today is a news program, but as long as Bryant Gumbel uses his position as a platform for political one-liners, viewers looking for a balanced news presentation should change the channel.
NewsBites: Telling McGrory's Story
TELLING McGRORY'S STORY. In a profile of Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, Christian Science Monitor reporter Cameron Barr revealed how one-sided liberal voices find their way into the news. In the March 4 article, McGrory recalled a White House reception at which presidential aide Richard Darman told her she had no influence because she was "so liberal, so predictable." McGrory told Barr: "At precisely that moment Ann Compton of ABC, one of the world's nicest women, came up to me and said, 'Oh Mary, I want to thank you. Because of you and what you wrote I wasn't just on ABC News tonight, I [had] the lead [story].' I said, 'Oooh, how interesting!'...I said, 'Just as a matter of interest, what [did you report]?' And she said, 'Oh, I just took what you wrote and put it on the air.'"
THE BRADY CRUNCH. On the March 8 CBS Evening News, reporter Ray Brady alerted viewers to another crisis, this time in unemployment compensation: "In the 1975 recession, three quarters of the nation's jobless got benefits. Now it's around 30 percent, less than half the earlier level."
But Brady's only expert, Isaac Shapiro of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, told MediaWatch that the 75 percent figure was the highest since World War II. Shapiro's study concluded that the percentage of unemployed people receiving benefits averaged roughly 50 percent. Brady also cleverly rounded 37 percent, the actual present rate, down to get his dramatically lower "around 30 percent" figure.
TAX HACKS. Even though New Jersey voters regard Governor Jim Florio with such disdain that they almost threw out Senator Bill Bradley in the last election in protest, Time Associate Editor Priscilla Painton hasn't lost faith. Painton wrote March 4: "Every Governor in America last year could have recited the Jim Florio Rule of political survival: never mount an honest attack against a state deficit. The New Jersey Governor, who combined service cuts with the highest tax hike in the state's history, was all but tarred and feathered for his efforts. But now with at least 29 states facing potential deficits, Florio's approach is beginning to seem almost prescient."
OFFICE POLITICS. When five corporate executives testified in support of greater spending on social programs for children, The Washington Post made the executives' testimony a large story on its March 7 "Federal Page," followed by a supportive editorial on the next page. But neither story revealed the executives were affiliated with the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a moderate-to-liberal group of corporate executives. Nor did the Post tell readers that its own officers belonged to the group. CED's annual report lists outgoing Post Company President Richard Simmons as a trustee, and outgoing Chairman Katharine Graham as an honorary trustee.
MORE GREENHOUSE GASES. In December, MediaWatch awarded the Janet Cooke Award to PBS' Race to Save the Planet for its one-sided coverage of a range of environmental issues. We also noted that PBS had scuttled The Greenhouse Conspiracy, a documentary revealing scientific problems in the greenhouse model. After the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Richard Miniter criticized the PBS decision in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed, PBS President Bruce Christensen shot back in a letter to the editor on March 7. "PBS coverage of the issue of global warming has been both wide-ranging and responsible," Christensen declared, "Care has been taken in our news and science programs, such as The Infinite Voyage and Race to Save the Planet, to note that scientific debate exists about the issue...PBS does not allow political pressure, private interests, or public controversy to dictate decisions about what we broadcast."
The real question is: has Christensen seen Race to Save the Planet? In 10 hours of the series, not a single scientist was permitted to disagree with the producers' drastic conclusions. In fact, Miniter quoted our interview with Senior Producer Linda Harrar, who defended the absence of balance as an effort to avoid "confusing the public." If Race to Save the Planet is Christensen's idea of a debate, one can only imagine what future PBS documentaries might be like.
ARNETT'S ADMISSIONS. CNN's Peter Arnett returned from Baghdad as a veritable folk hero to the press, which vigorously defended his reporting. At a warm reception at the National Press Club on March 19, Arnett sneered: "I don't think the U.S. public really has a real concept of what the press does." But Arnett demonstrated he didn't have a real concept of the accuracy of what he reported.
In discussing the so-called baby milk factory at the Press Club Arnett admitted: "I didn't see any evidence of biological testing, but then I don't know what biological testing would look like." When questioned on ABC's Prime Time Live on March 21 about the possibility that the Iraqis were disguising a chemical plant, Arnett countered, "Why would they go to all the trouble of doing that? Was their nuclear weapons plant disguised as a bagel factory?"
Perhaps the Iraqis would go to that trouble because they knew they could rely on Arnett reporting it. At the Press Club, Arnett referred to the U.S. bombing of a "shelter, which I called civilian for a while, but which we just call shelter now, because we don't really know what it was." During the ABC interview, Arnett revealed his reporting was based upon suppositions, not actual knowledge: "I didn't go deep down. I really didn't have any equipment for digging. I just, to this day I can't really believe that was a command center."
QUOTA KILLERS. For the second time in less than a year, 60 Minutes has aired a stunning investigative report that challenged conventional liberal wisdom. On December 30, reporter Steve Kroft violated environmentalist taboos by becoming the first network correspondent to publicize the results of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Project (NAPAP). Now, on March 24, Morley Safer sliced and diced the "civil rights" bureaucracy with a story on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Safer reported the story of inner-city Chicago's Daniel Lamp Company, which the EEOC sued for discrimination even though the small factory's entire work force was black and Hispanic, except for owner Michael Welbel and his father. Safer interviewed Welbel's workers, who told him they had no complaints. Despite this, the EEOC demanded Welbel pay $148,000 immediately. Why? Because the EEOC charged that no blacks were working for Welbel at the time of their investigation. But 60 Minutes independently established that 11 blacks had worked for the company during the time of the EEOC investigation. One Hispanic social worker told Safer the most likely result of the EEOC lawsuit: more Hispanics and blacks out of work.
ELLEN FUMES. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Ellen Hume is upset over Senator Alan Cranston's fall from grace. "It was inconceivable to those of us who learned politics from him back in the 1970s that Cranston would end up in disgrace," Hume wrote in a March 3 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece about the California Democrat's role in the Keating Five scandal. "Back in the 1970s Cranston was one of the most progressive, highly-regarded members of the U.S. Senate," she recalled. Sure, he did favors for constituents, but "he balanced private favors with public initiatives."
What could trip up such a liberal? "In the high-rolling Reagan era, Cranston seems to have lost that balance." Hume saw Cranston as a victim of "an insidious, subtle corruption, the kind that sneaks up on well-meaning people by the inch rather than the mile." Hume ended by scolding her mentor: "Cranston, of all people, should have known better. If only he'd remembered why he'd gotten into politics in the first place -- to make a safer, better world for all of us -- Cranston might have been able to keep his balance." If only Reagan hadn't ruined him.
GUNNING FOR THE NRA. When CNN introduced the Special Assignment unit, it promised the extended format would allow for more in-depth examinations of the issues. Instead of providing an even-handed overview, Brian Barger's March 18 segment used music and slow- motion footage to dramatize the case for gun control. Barger declared 1990 the "year of the urban killing fields. A culture of violence fueling a crime rate out of control. More guns in private hands than ever before." For Barger, guns, not criminals, were the problem.
Barger focused on "assault weapons, those high-powered, rapid-fire guns made for the military, designed to kill the maximum number of people in the minimum amount of time." But Barger didn't understand the different between semi-automatic and fully-automatic weapons. Soldiers use fully-automatic rifles and a civilian can't own one without a permit. Nevertheless, Barger continually referred to semi-automatics in emotionally charged terms such as "weapons of war."
Critics and supporters of gun control faced different receptions. While gun control advocate Rep. Lawrence Smith was allowed to attack the NRA without comment, Barger's interrogated NRA lobbyist James Baker: "The next time there is a massacre with an AK-47, what would you tell the mother of one of the kids that gets killed?"
POST PUFFS PORN. The Washington Post remains more concerned with defending the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) than fully explaining what upsets NEA critics. Two March 20 articles on the film Poison illustrate the point. Post arts reporter Kim Masters covered at length the views of NEA chief John Frohnmayer and Poison director Todd Haynes, but only ran two quotes from NEA critics, neither of which discussed the controversial content of the taxpayer-supported film.
Masters did next to nothing to explain the actual debate over the film's obscenity, reporting that the film, "which took top honors at a film festival sponsored by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, includes a sequence depicting homosexuality in prison." That's putting it mildly. Variety must have seen another movie: "A mood of seething, violent homoeroticism permeates the proceedings as one prisoner stalks another in an episode spiked with multiple glimpses of rear-entry intercourse and one of genital fondling." Variety concluded the film "will be unpalatable to many mainstream viewers." The Post doesn't seem to value the public's "right to know" when taxpayers foot the bill for "tasteful" depictions of gay rape.
ABC: ANYONE BUT CHRISTIANS? A recent incident involving ABC and Doug Wead, a former aide to President Bush, raises questions regarding ABC's criteria for selecting guests. When Rebecca Hagelin, Wead's public relations agent, proposed having Wead discuss the war, she was confronted by Ruth Reis, a researcher for the network's bookers. Even though Wead's biography described him as "George Bush's religious guru," Reis insisted that Hagelin had misrepresented Wead by concealing that he was a "fundamentalist." Asked how Wead's religious beliefs were relevant, Reis explained that they "affect his political agenda." As Hagelin saw it, "Evidently, if you're a Bible-believing Christian it disqualifies you from being a guest." Hagelin was contacted by ABC and told not to talk with Reis again.
MediaWatch called Reis but she refused to comment, insisting that all inquiries be directed to Press Representative Arnot Walker. He didn't deny Reis' hostility toward Hagelin, but said Reis was "a researcher and not a booker," and blamed the confrontation on "war tension." Walker explained: "She's young. She doesn't understand why she's suddenly a target for a political group." Walker denied that a person's religious views had any impact on guest selection, so why did it matter so much to Reis?
CONSPIRACY OF PAIN. Liberals claim conservatives have wacky, conspiratorial ideas, but get a load of this. "Beauty is a conspiracy of pain forced upon women," began Time reporter Emily Mitchell's March 4 review of The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. "In the boardroom and in the bedroom, women are entrapped by a cult that is the equivalent of the iron maiden, a medieval torture instrument that impaled its captives on iron spikes." Time not only gave a whole page to the book, but failed to include one sentence of criticism. Mitchell explained: "The beauty myth of Wolf's title is reinforced, she argues, by a global industry worth billions that could be far better used for social purposes; for example, the money spent on cosmetics each year could finance 2,000 women's health clinics or pay for three times the amount of day care offered by the U.S. government." Perhaps Time's $2.50 cover price could be better spent feeding children in Bangladesh.
Revolving Door: Two Times A Nader
Two Times A Nader. Ronald Brownstein, a national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times since last spring, is out with a new book on the Hollywood-Washington connection, titled The Power and the Glitter. It's Brownstein's first book since he co-authored Reagan's Ruling Class: Portraits of the President's Top 100 Officials for Ralph Nader's Presidential Accountability Group in 1982. The year before, Brownstein edited with Nader a book published by the Sierra Club, Who's Poisoning America: Corporate Polluters and Their Victims in the Chemical Age.<D>
Brownstein co-authored the Reagan book with his wife, Nina Easton, who has covered the entertainment community for the Los Angeles Times since 1989. In 1982 Easton authored Reagan's Squeeze on Small Business, a Nader report. In it, Easton concluded that Reagan's economic policies would accelerate economic concentration, "transforming a nation of business owners into a nation of employees."
Losing and Moving. Two aides to unsuccessful Republican Senate candidates have bounced back. Michigan Congressman Bill Schuette lost his seat, but his Executive Director didn't have to go far to find a new job. Roll Call recently reported Rob Rehg, Washington correspondent for Hearst Newspapers until joining the Republican's staff in 1989, has been hired by the man who won Schuette's seat. Rehg's now Director of Communications and Policy for U.S. Representative Dave Camp....
David Fox, Press Secretary to U.S. Representative Lynn Martin, who lost in Illinois, has taken the same post with Republican Congressman Harold Rogers of Kentucky. Fox was an Associated Press reporter for ten years before Martin hired him in 1989.
New Washingtonian. Former Washington Post reporter Harry Jaffe, Press Secretary to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in 1978 and 1979, has joined Washingtonian as a National Editor. As a Post staff reporter, Jaff covered local news in 1981. During the rest of the '80s he contributed freelance articles.
Departing Dinkins. After 14 months as Press Secretary to New York City Democratic Mayor David Dinkins, former New York Times reporter Albert Scardino resigned in March. Scardino, who plans to write a book about his experiences at a weekly Georgia newspaper during the early 1980s, caused some controversy when it was revealed he had advised the Dinkins campaign while still a "Business Day" section reporter for the Times.
Pulitzer Selectors. Two people who have gone through the Revolving Door were among the 65 nominating jurors for the 1991 Pulitzer Prizes issued in early April. Selecting the stories from which the smaller prize board decided were Jodie Allen, the Editor of The Washington Post "Outlook" section who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Jimmy Carter; and Jack Fuller, Editor of the Chicago Tribune, who was Special Assistant to Attorney General Edward Levi during the Ford Administration.
CBS Claims Millions of Kids Almost Starving
MEDIA EAT UP HUNGER STUDY
When the little-known left-wing Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) released preliminary findings of its study on child hunger March 26, it became an immediate smash with major media outlets. Several liked it so much they further exaggerated its already- questionable conclusions.
FRAC classified children as "hungry" if respondents answered "yes" to five of eight questions about the previous year. Some questions didn't necessarily indicate hunger. "Do your children ever eat less than you feel they should because there is not enough money for food?" and "Do you ever rely on a limited number of foods to feed your children because you are running out of money to buy food for a meal?" Some didn't even deal with children: two asked about the eating habits of adults.
CBS made the FRAC study the number one story on the Evening News. Dan Rather began the broadcast: "A startling number of American children are in danger of starving...Good evening. One out of eight American children is going hungry tonight." Starving? Not only did FRAC not claim their "hungry" children were hungry every night -- just at least once a year -- the study did not even focus on clinical malnutrition.
Others also inflated FRAC's claims. Newsweek erred in its April 1 issue: "Childhood hunger in America appears to be worse than many feared....one in eight children under 12 years old -- 5.5 million kids -- goes hungry each day." The Boston Globe's Stephen Kurkjian identically asserted: "The survey, the first nationwide study of the level of childhood hunger in the United States, estimates that one child in eight under the age of 12 -- 5.5 million -- goes hungry each day." Kurkjian should have checked the facts with his wife Ann, who worked as a spokesperson for the FRAC study, a conflict the Globe failed to mention.
Diane Duston, an Associated Press reporter who wrote the story run by most of the country's newspapers, also puffed the study. She began: "One of every eight youngsters under age 12 is hungry, according to a new report that is the most comprehensive look yet at childhood hunger in America." This "comprehensive" study by local activists included only ten counties in seven states.
"It's a joke," said Heritage Foundation poverty expert Robert Rector, who told MediaWatch the Agriculture Dept. found that low- income kids receive roughly the same nutrition as upper-middle class children. But none of the major media stories included any critics, or labeled FRAC as liberal, even though the study's technical adviser, Dr. Victor Sidel, recently wrote a "socialist perspective" on health care for the Democratic Socialists of America.
Address Dismisses Conservatives, Iraq War Victory
Bill Moyers Roots For Democrats
PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers' address to the Democratic Issues Conference should put to rest any idea that he is just an independent journalist. He told the March 8 gathering: "I left partisanship behind when I left the [Johnson] White House in 1967 for journalism, but my roots are all tangled with yours. Down there in Texas I was raised on mother's milk and Roosevelt speeches and over the years I still cherish the party's defining stands."
The House Democrats asked Moyers to advise them on their mistakes and how best to attract votes. "By the 1980s," declared Moyers the advocate, "when the Democrats in Congress colluded with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans to revise the tax code on behalf of the rich, it appeared that the party had lost its soul." In another slap at a conservative policy Moyers complained: "We spend four times as much on the Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars, than we do on the early education program Head Start, which works." Continuing in the Democratic spirit, Moyers asserted: "I know Ronald Reagan thumped his chest about rugged individuals and the self-made man. But Ronald Reagan was a movie, not a man, and I'm talking about real life."
"For ten years now the other party has embraced the notion that war is the health of the state. But in the long run, I dare say, the future belongs to the party that knows the health of the people proceeds the health of the state," Moyers argued. There is "a hunger" for such a vision, otherwise, he condescendingly explained, "we would not be investing so much transcendental significance in a triumph of overwhelming technology and unchallenged power over a country no bigger than Texas and with roughly the same amount of people, ruled over by a paranoid psychopath, who proved to be just a video tiger, all growl and no guts."
Joining Stahl's Quest for More Money
TIME'S INFANT FORMULA
Much like Lesley Stahl, the April 8 issue of Time carped about social spending by comparing it to defense spending. Time head-lined their coverage: "Misplaced Priorities: When it comes to buying weapons, cost is no object and logic goes out the window. But when it comes to saving infants' lives, penury is the rule." The article began: "Why does the U.S., which lavishes nearly $300 billion annually on its military machine, fail to provide the relatively piddling sums needed to care for poor expectant mothers and their children?"
Time Associate Editor Priscilla Painton asserted: "As issues go, infant mortality should be a no-brainer for a politician. Find a catchy slogan, throw money at the problem, and ride the quick results to fame and higher office. Become the candidate of compassion, courage, and common sense, all rolled into one."
Painton didn't detail how much has been thrown at the problem without "quick results," but continued: "Experts agree that the prescription for lowering the infant-mortality rate is simple and can save money: all it takes is good prenatal care...But this elementary arithmetic doesn't seem to add up for the Bush Administration, which is making no more than a symbolic gesture to attack a problem that has become a symbol of America's failure to cope with appalling poverty."
Like Stahl, Painton employed sarcasm and statistic-juggling. She declared "For a while, child advocates actually believed the Administration was serious" and reported "instead of improving at a steady pace, the nation's infant mortality rate leveled off at 9.7 deaths per 1,000 births in 1989." Leveled off? It fell to 9.1 in 1990.
ABC News on Lee Atwater
Early in the morning of March 29, former Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater lost his battle with cancer. CBS, CNN and NBC ran obituaries which included criticism of his campaign tactics. But all three also included heartfelt tributes from both Republican and Democratic colleagues. "He loved the battle of political campaigns. He was a fine and joyful player," concluded Bruce Morton on the CBS Evening News.
In contrast, ABC stuck to the negative. Atwater used Horton to symbolize Dukakis' lenience on criminals, but on Good Morning America, John Martin characterized it as "a sustained personal attack" by "the attack dog of American politics."
From Bill Moyers' 1964 atom bomb ad against Barry Goldwater to characterizing Bush as a "wimp," modern politics has seen plenty of negative campaigning. Atwater was one of the best, but ABC portrayed him as a uniquely detrimental player. On World News Tonight, Peter Jennings charged: "Mr. Atwater, as Bush's campaign manager, brought a new intensity to negative campaigning." Martin proceeded to assert: "He had a vicious streak. He hurt people." Accompanying footage showed a 1988 ad picturing Horton's face, an ad with which neither Atwater nor the Bush campaign was connected.
Expanding Atwater's apologies for specific actions into a general repudiation of his life, Martin concluded: "In the end, Lee Atwater will be remembered as the man who made meanness work in modern politics, yet also as someone who saw before he died that there was much more to life than winning."
ABC doesn't treat everyone so poorly. When Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko died in 1989, ABC did not describe him as vicious or as hurting people. He was "the great survivor of Soviet politics."
Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Faking the Nation
Sunday morning news programs used to be dry, formal proceedings with a panel of reporters questioning a guest. But in the 1980s, CBS simplified its Face the Nation format by scrapping the panel in favor of one host, Lesley Stahl. Instead of just posing questions, Stahl often debates the guest. For battering Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan with false and misleading statistics, Stahl earned the April Janet Cooke Award.
Stahl introduced the March 31 show by painting a dismal picture of how children fared in the last decade. "Truth: In the '80s in America, the number of children in poverty rose 26 percent," Stahl announced.
Misleading. This is technically true, if you're calculating the number of families with children living in poverty. According to the Census Bureau, that figure rose from 4 million in 1979 to 5.3 million in 1989, roughly a 30 percent increase. But Stahl didn't tell viewers that the number peaked in 1983 at 5.9 million, and has been declining ever since. In fact, the steepest increase in poverty came in 1980, while Jimmy Carter was still in office.
But CBS didn't use the Census Bureau; they used the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), a liberal group which lobbies for increased spending on children's programs and for a national day care system. CDF claimed that the number of poor children went up 25.8 percent from 1980 to 1989. Marianna Spicer-Brooks, Executive Producer of Face the Nation, told MediaWatch: "This is just my own peculiar feeling about the Census Bureau. It has proved itself to be unreliable on a number of various issues, but the Children's Defense Fund has made it their business to check out the statistics. They're specialized."
When presented with the argument that CDF might cook statistics, Spicer-Brooks retorted: "As opposed to the government, which has the capability to cook the statistics in a special way so they can cut what they want. I mean, everybody cooks statistics, right? We all know that, and so we attempt to weed through what's being cooked and what's not being cooked to get to what is reality." CBS stuck with CDF.
Stahl continued her introduction: "And a new study that one out of eight children under the age of 12 is going hungry."
Misleading. Stahl isn't citing government statistics here either, but the questionable numbers of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), another liberal advocacy group [See page 1]. Stahl was less interested in the accuracy of this figure and more interested in using it for moral posturing: "Dr. Sullivan, one in eight American children is going hungry. What's gone wrong in our country, where we can afford to fight a war in a foreign land, where we can afford more money for space exploration, but we cannot afford to feed our own babies?" Spicer-Brooks said it wasn't rhetoric, but fact: "We can afford to fight a war and we can't afford to feed our babies....The money for the war is off-budget. Why don't we put money for this off-budget?"
What's responsible for this grim vision of children? According to Stahl, "The problem is the budget cuts. One food program, called WIC for Women, Infants, and Children, has only enough money for half of those eligible."
Wrong. Notice Stahl's bait-and-switch: she didn't follow up her claim of budget cuts with any numbers. Perhaps that's because WIC funding has more than doubled since 1980, from $746 million to $1.7 billion, far in excess of inflation. Spicer-Brooks denied Stahl was referring to WIC, and claimed she had a list "three pages long" of programs cut.
Stahl plunged ahead: "Another truth: more than 26,000 cases of measles were reported last year, a disease all but wiped out ten years ago. The Reagan-era budget cuts were part of the reason." A bit later she returned to the subject: "Why are kids getting measles in America? Now I've heard it was the budget cuts."
Wrong. When asked by MediaWatch if immunization programs had been cut, Steve Sepe, National Vaccine Program Director at the Centers for Disease Control, flatly responded: "No." In fact, federal spending on immunization programs has grown from $32 million in 1980 to $186 million in 1990, and the recommendation for fiscal year 1992 is $257 million, eight times the 1980 amount before inflation. But Spicer-Brooks maintained that while the overall budget for immunization may have increased, the federal funding for clinics had been cut. Who claimed that? "Our source is the Children's Defense Fund."
Trying to convince viewers that even conservatives realize more money should be spent, Stahl told Sullivan: "There was a group of corporate leaders who had supported the budget cuts in the early Reagan years. They are no bleeding hearts. They do not want to see increased spending. They went to Congress and they said that the Administration should double the amount of money spent on these programs to feed the children and pre-natal care, double the amount you're proposing."
Wrong. Stahl was referring to March 6 testimony by five CEOs affiliated with the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a moderate-to-liberal group of corporate executives. Nat Semple, the CED's Director of Governmental Affairs, labeled Stahl "dead wrong." Semple assured MediaWatch that CED members opposed Reagan's proposed social program cuts in the early 1980s: "I'm sick of the media portraying us as some caricature of Neanderthal right-wingers." One of the CEOs who testified to Congress, William Woodside, formerly with Primerica, is credited by the left-wing Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) as a vital supporter of their study on child hunger.
Continuing her attack, Stahl charged: "There's the other problem of infant mortality, which is going up in the United States."
Wrong. The infant mortality rate has not increased since at least 1960. In fact, it declined an average of 2.5 percent during the 1980s, and less than a week after Stahl's performance, the government announced the rate fell six percent between 1989 and 1990. When confronted with Stahl's mistake, Spicer-Brooks said: "I'm sorry, but I'm not responsible if she gets something wrong."
Asked why CBS relied so heavily on liberal groups for the statistics used on the air, Spicer-Brooks responded: "There were other statistics that we got from other organizations, that are statistics we put on the air....We talk to a lot of people, not even a majority of which are liberal people....If what comes across is what you feel is liberal bias, it's not a result of the preparation for the show."
Viewers might accept Stahl's aggressive interviewing style, but they should not accept a public policy debate based on false or misleading statistics. Stahl's shameless performance makes us consider renaming the Janet Cooke Award the Lesley Stahl Award.