In This Issue
Religion on TV News: Still Scarce; NewsBites: Poor, Poor Gorby; Revolving Door: "Balanced" Bill Moyers?; Contract on America's Poor?; Handicapping the GOP in '96; Old Programs Never Die; Computer Forums Reveal ABC Biases; Janet Cooke Award: Emotional Anecdotes Over Evidence
Religion on TV News: Still Scarce
In mid-November, President Clinton and the GOP Congress disagreed over federal spending levels, causing a brief partial shutdown of the federal government. Clinton objected to what he called GOP cuts in education and Medicare and a hike in Medicare premiums. Republicans countered that they were actually increasing spending and the premium in their plan was merely $11 per month higher than Clinton's.
Did the networks give equal weight to both sides? MediaWatch analysts reviewed all of the stories on evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's World News, NBC Nightly News) about the budget impasse from the day before the government shutdown (November 13) through the day after its end (November 20). Of the 104 stories during the study period, not a single one mentioned the actual levels of spending in either the President's plan or the Republican plan. Not a single story questioned the President's rhetoric about "destroying" Medicare, when Republicans were proposing Medicare increases.
The study also found that reporters promoted the Democratic spin on the impact of the shutdown on federal workers and the public.
Spending. Not one of the 104 stories pointed out that Republicans were proposing to spend $2.6 trillion more over the next seven years than had been spent over the last seven, going from $9.5 trillion to $12.1 trillion. None reported that under the GOP plan, the annual budget in 2002 would be $267 billion higher than in 1996.
No story pointed out that on Medicare alone, Republicans would spend $86 billion more in 2002 than in 1995, allowing the program to grow more than 6 percent annually. None reported that spending per Medicare recipient would soar from $4,800 to $7,100. Only one story mentioned that the difference between the two parties on Medicare premiums -- the reason Clinton gave for his veto -- was only $11 per month.
Instead viewers heard about "cuts." Dan Rather reported on the 16th: "Republicans were still pumping out a stopgap budget certain to draw another presidential veto, a bill containing what President Clinton called tonight, quote, critical cuts in Medicare and other programs."
The next day, Tom Brokaw announced: "The House today did pass a bill to balance the budget in seven years with major cutbacks in big government programs and a tax cut of $245 billion." On the same show, Lisa Myers said "the President has promised to veto the bill because of what he calls extreme cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment."
Federal Workers. There was near-universal sympathy for furloughed federal workers. In all, there were 29 soundbites from laid-off federal workers. CBS's Bob McNamara asserted: "There is frustration, too, for the people who get paid to solve these kinds of problems, the federal workers sent home to cool their heels while Congress and the President bicker over the budget."
According to NBC's John Palmer on November 18, "To Tony Chapello and his pregnant wife Kelly, both furloughed by the Social Security office in Kansas City, the shutdown is more than an inconvenience." She told viewers: "I worry about the medical bills, and I want to do the baby's room." Unlike the private sector, laid-off government employees are later paid. Only CNN's Brooks Jackson, on November 13, accurately described the time off: "In effect a paid vacation."
Services. There were 24 stories about the effect of the shutdown on public parks and public services. All but one of them highlighted inconveniences to the public. None explored whether bureaucrats, in deciding what services to shut down, had pursued a "Washington Monument strategy" of stopping high-profile public services to increase public outrage.
Most reporters simply assumed the shutdown was a problem for the public. CNN anchor Kathleen Kennedy, the night before the shutdown, warned that "the echoes of a government shutdown would be felt from coast to coast. The gates of Lady Liberty at New York would be closed. The same will happen at many other tourist attractions, including the Washington Monument, Bunker Hill, and many national parks. A lot of tourist plans will have to be changed if a shutdown occurs."
On November 17 ABC's Peter Jennings opined that "as is evident to a lot of you, a lot of people around the country are already paying deeply for this budget impasse." According to Brokaw on November 17: "While the shutdown of the federal government goes on, it is beginning to have a major ripple effect well beyond Washington....Around the country a lot of people were feeling the pain that even a partial shutdown is bringing."
Over at CBS, Linda Douglass, in addition to national parks, found a unique angle: killer toys. "Imported Christmas toys, which could be unsafe, are not being examined by safety inspectors," she fretted on the 16th. Bob McNamara insisted that "for Americans inside and outside the federal bureaucracy, this week has been a hard lesson on what happens when big government goes away." Other reporters, such as ABC's John Martin and NBC's Lisa Myers, focused on passport offices being closed. Martin complained on November 13: "Journalists won't be able to ask questions at a State Department briefing, which will be cancelled without electricians to light the room."
No story explored why it was that these high-profile services came to be deemed non-essential. Why were passport offices and the State Department's press office deemed non-essential when, according to The Washington Post, about 70 percent of State's employees were considered essential and ordered to work? Or why were some parks not closed until the third or fourth day of the shutdown? Could it be for visuals of angry tourists?
The networks were also one-sided in selecting the "people on the street" they aired about the shutdown. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, reported November 15 that 51 percent considered the shutdown either a crisis (11 percent) or a major problem (40 percent). Forty-seven percent of the public considered the shutdown either a minor problem (33 percent) or not a problem at all (14 percent). So about half of the citizens interviewed would not consider the shutdown a problem, right? Wrong. Of the 74 "people on the street" interviewed, 67 considered the shutdown to be a problem. Only seven didn't consider the shutdown a problem.
Only on network newscasts would spending increases be called cuts, would people paid to take the day off be portrayed as victims, and would half the public's opinion be ignored during a government shutdown.
NewsBites: Poor, Poor Gorby
Returning to an old habit of glorification, the CBS Evening News bemoaned the obscurity in which former communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev now dwells. Bob Schieffer began: "On this date a decade ago, the Soviet Union gained a bold young leader who made us all learn the words perestroika and glasnost." Reporter Jonathan Sanders lamented: "Ten years after he began the revolution that brought down the Soviet Union, his entourage consists of a translator and a few Western journalists...Once he stood at world stage center, ending the arms race, finishing off the Cold War. Today Mikhail Gorbachev has been relegated to the periphery."
Sanders claimed: "At home, Gorbachev gave his people freedom from fear...And freedom of religion, for believers of all persuasions." He left out any mention of the brutal 1990 killings to prevent Lithuanian independence. Sanders allowed CBS consultant Stephen Cohen to proclaim: "Gorbachev's significance in the context of Russia is that he was the first Russian ruler ever to cross the Rubicon from dictatorship to democracy."
Shot with the Starting Gun.
When Republicans run for the presidency, network reporters lambaste them with extremist labels like "far right" and "ultraconservative." On February 19, NBC Today weekend co-host Giselle Fernandez introduced moderate Sen. Arlen Specter as the candidate "who casts himself as an alternative to the far right fringe." The next morning, on ABC's Good Morning America, Bob Zelnick noted that beside Dole and Gramm "other candidates include" Lugar, Specter, former Education Secretary Alexander, "and ultra-conservative columnist Pat Buchanan."
Dan Rather got into the act on the March 3 CBS Evening News: "While others in the GOP pack are running as Mr. Right, or Mr. Far Right, Senator Lugar is stressing his foreign policy expertise." On CNN's Larry King Live March 13, King asked Pat Buchanan: "Are you the majority?...That would be considered the far right, right?" Six days later, CNN World News reporter Gene Randall greeted Buchanan's presidential announcement with the title "champion of the far right."
In 1994, when Democrats controlling the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on an assault weapons ban, ABC, CNN, and CBS replayed emotional testimony for the ban on their evening newscasts. Emphasizing the guns used, not the criminal, CNN's Linden Soles declared on the April 26, 1994 World News: "Relatives relayed horror stories of how assault weapons devastated their families." Soles relayed the Clinton position: "The Attorney General put it bluntly -- assault weapons are made to kill people and should not be available to civilians." Only ABC mentioned testimony against the ban.
This year, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary subcommittee on crime heard testimony on March 31 from those claiming guns had saved their lives. According to the April 1 Washington Times, the panel included "a grandmother from Waterford, Michigan, who used a handgun to wound an assailant who had shot and killed a clerk in her store...[and] a gun merchant, who defended himself with firearms during the 1992 Los Angeles riots." ABC and NBC ignored the self-defense testimony, CNN gave it an anchor-read brief on World News, featuring witnesses on both sides. CBS ran a clip of each side a week later in a story on the NRA expecting a "payback" for its donations.
Sesno Soft on Hillary.
Deviating from the confrontational nature of most Sunday talk shows, CNN's Frank Sesno dared not lay a glove on Hillary Clinton when she granted a rare hour-long live interview on the March 19 Late Edition. Sesno gave the First Lady free rein to accuse the Republicans of being extremists and targeting children, yet did not follow up her accusations with any tough questions. Mrs. Clinton quipped: "I wish we would have our debates on the issues and that everybody would be factual in their presentation of the information so that the American public could know what the debate was about." She added that her husband "tries to bring people together, not to divide them, and that's what the world needs right now." So why didn't Sesno at that point challenge her to the defend her earlier statement on the show about "extremists in the Republican Party who go too far"?
He also could have questioned her about divisive comments coming from the administration and other Democrats, including White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, who accused Republicans of trying to "literally take away meals from kids," and Representatives John Lewis and Charles Rangel comparing Republicans to Nazis. Interestingly, Sesno queried Mrs. Clinton about the baseball strike well before Whitewater, which wasn't mentioned until the very last minutes of the program.
Kurtz's Collapsing Canons.
"It is a time-tested journalistic ritual that in the heady aftermath of victory, the hot new pol enjoys a period of hagiography," wrote Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz in the February 26 Post Magazine. Kurtz suggested "14 rules of media behavior." Under Rule 2, "Politicians on the rise are invariably portrayed in glowing terms," Kurtz declared: "The pattern was particularly striking in Gingrich's case because the very same elements of a career that had drawn so much derision were now cast in a more admiring light...The unusual twist in Gingrich's case is that the gushing profiles took a bit longer than usual to develop."
How long? Kurtz recalled: "First there was a wave of stories with ominous headlines, like Newsweek's `How Normal is Newt?' and `The Gingrich That Stole Christmas' and Time's `Uncle Scrooge.'" He also noted that Sam Donaldson told Gingrich on ABC's This Week: "A lot of people are afraid of you. They think you're a bombthrower; worse, you're an intolerant bigot. Speak to them." In relating Gingrich's anger at a January Washington Post article, Kurtz wrote: "Gingrich got his licks in all right, but a not terribly surprising thing happened: The press made him the issue. `Newt Gets Nasty,' blared the cover of Newsweek. Inside, in a story headlined `Gingrich Goes Ballistic,' the piece began: `Was Newt Gingrich experiencing meltdown? Last Friday it looked and sounded that way.'" When can Gingrich expect the "glowing profiles"?
Bryant and Ted's Excellent Interview.
Many reporters complain there's too much partisanship in American politics, but they may be one of the causes. Bryant Gumbel's interview with Sen. Ted Kennedy on March 15 serves as a good example. Gumbel's questions were more partisan than Kennedy's answers. The Today co-host asked: "You've talked about the Republicans declaring war on working families and war on children. Are there enough moderate Republicans in the Senate to tone down some of the harshest cuts that are certain to come out of the House?"
Gumbel also queried: "Are you disappointed that the public seems to -- I don't know if care so little is the appropriate term -- but not seem to care as much as they have in the past?" Gumbel mused to Kennedy that minority Cabinet members seem to have ethics problems not because of their actions, but because of racism. "Do you think, Senator, they are being held to a higher standard in Washington than their white predecessors?"
Outrage or Not...
When is a slur not a slur? When it's done by a liberal Democrat. On March 21, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) took to the House floor against the Contract with America and paraphrased a famous statement against the Nazis during World War II: "They're coming for our children, they're coming for the poor, they're coming for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled." NBC's Jim Miklaszewski aired Lewis's remarks on the March 22 Today, then quoted Republican Clay Shaw calling them "an outrage." Miklaszewski suggested the point was up for discussion: "Outrage or not, Democratic attempts to paint Republicans as heartless budget cutters are beginning to hit home." The closest thing to network criticism of Lewis's remarks came from Miklaszewski and CBS's Bob Schieffer describing the debate as "nasty." On ABC's Good Morning America, Bob Zelnick called it "emotional."
Compare that to Dick Armey's January controversy over the name of Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), which got big coverage from CBS and ABC. It led the CBS Evening News January 27. Bob Schieffer called it a "slur." The same night, Catherine Crier on ABC's World News Tonight asked: "Was it a slip of the tongue or a sign of deep prejudice? ....Mr. Armey wields enormous power over all kinds of legislation, including laws that deal with discrimination and civil rights. What Mr. Armey says matters."
O'Brien for the Defense.
When House Republicans enacted legal reform as an element of the Contract, they also took on one of Washington's most powerful lobbies -- the trial lawyers. ABC's legal correspondent Tim O'Brien also sided with the lawyers, devoting three World News Tonight reports to debunking the Republican position. Introducing a March 9 story on huge punitive damage awards, Peter Jennings warned of "misinformation on this subject." O'Brien wondered: "Are the courts flooded with such potentially devastating suits, as some proponents of change claim?" He replied: "It is simply not true, according to the American Bar Association," an opponent of limiting damages. O'Brien labeled liberal advocacy groups like Public Citizen "consumer groups who insist the mere threat of punitive damage awards benefits the public."
O'Brien critiqued plans to make losers pay legal costs in certain suits on March 7: "According to the National Center for State Courts, there is no litigation explosion...making the loser pay the winner's legal expenses may reduce the number of lawsuits, but most consumer groups insist only the wealthy could sue."
On March 13, O'Brien featured a man who went to a Tampa hospital, "to have a severely infected foot amputated....[but] doctors amputated the wrong foot." O'Brien stated that the GOP would cap pain and suffering awards at $250,000, and concluded lawyers "say Congress should be working to make doctors more accountable for their mistakes, not less." But Manhattan Institute senior fellow Theodore Olson wrote in the March 27 Wall Street Journal that the amputee "was losing both legs...the question was in what order they would go." Hardly the malpractice horror story portrayed by ABC and the trial lawyers.
Go Away, Mohair Muckrakers!
Remember ABC's Sam Donaldson yelling questions to President Reagan, grilling guests on This Week with David Brinkley, or ambushing evil doers on PrimeTime Live? When a March 16 Wall Street Journal story revealed that Donaldson received federal mohair subsidies for his New Mexico ranch, Donaldson got some of his own treatment. Journal reporter Bruce Ingersoll found that according to USDA data, Donaldson "is the third-largest recipient of wool and mohair payments in Lincoln County....Over the last two years, $97,000 in subsidy checks have gone to Mr. Donaldson's address in the Virginia suburbs of Washington."
Donaldson responded March 19 on This Week with David Brinkley, declaring: "This isn't a tax dodge for me. I operate that ranch within the system that exists, and it's a system that depends on farm subsidies, which if you watch this show, you know I've opposed, and opposed repeatedly. We need to reform them." But Donaldson didn't show his typical reformist zeal when New York Post reporters tried to reach him for comment. Donaldson told the Post: "To ask me to help cooperate in my own daily execution is not realistic." Upon learning a Post reporter with a camera had approached his ranch, he warned: "We are going to call the sheriff and have them arrested if they persist." A sheriff's deputy did confront the reporter. Just the sort of reaction Donaldson decried as a journalist.
CNN demonstrated that even labeling is considered name-calling -- when the label is denigrating to a Democrat. After his speech to the nation April 6, Newt Gingrich did an interview with CNN during which he called the Democratic leadership "a small, left-wing clique." That offended Bob Franken, who asked Gingrich: "Why would somebody want to sit down with you -- and this gets to basic Newt Gingrich -- why would someone want to sit down with you who you call names, you call left-wing, for instance...."
RACE AND THE GOP.
Are Republican calls to cut government hostile to blacks? Newsweek's Thomas Rosenstiel thought so, writing in the magazine's March 6 issue: "There are signs that significant numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans are becoming more conservative. But judging from the actions taken by House Republicans last week, the policies of Gingrich's party seem destined to drive minorities right back to the Democrats." Rosenstiel cited $17 billion in recissions the House passed "fell on the poor, a disproportinate number of whom are minorities... Democrats called the one-sided cuts 'unconscionable.'" Rosenstiel also suggested Phil Gramm's and other conservatives' calls to eliminate affirmative action programs are just cynical ploys for white votes: "Attacking affirmative action, they know, will please angry white male voters who abandoned the Democrats in the 1994 congressional elections."
On March 20, Time ran a similarly themed article by Jeffrey Birnbaum. Titled "Turning Back the Clock," Birnbaum saw Republican reforms as dangerous to blacks. "Coming on top of GOP efforts to balance the federal budget by cutting programs for the poor, the latest broadsides against affirmative action are being viewed as insiduous -- and potentially dangerous -- by the minority community."
Revolving Door: "Balanced" Bill Moyers?
n February promotional spots NBC promised: "Bold, clear, balanced and fair. Now NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw has a new dimension -- Bill Moyers." So what has the Press Secretary to Lyndon Johnson offered in his twice a week commentaries?
A picture of politics subverted by evil corporate interests. From the first on February 14 through April 6, seven advocated a liberal view vs. just one, on March 21, which offered a conservative take. In it he looked at welfare: "It doesn't seem quite fair that" women who can't afford a child "should be paying for someone else to have several children....[The Republican's] reforms may be flawed but not as flawed as welfare itself."
February 14 on the line item veto: "But the bill has a loop hole. The President can veto tax breaks or giveaways to small groups of people and to small companies, but he can't do anything, anything, about special tax breaks or giveaways Congress keeps slipping to the big guys, like the billions of dollars to huge drug companies a couple of years ago. How come?....Well, those big companies are among the biggest contributors to political campaigns, including a lot of politicians who are crazy about the line item veto, but not that crazy, so corporate welfare gets the loophole."
February 23 on Henry Foster: "No one can speak for all Baptists, but in the last decade, the Southern Baptist Convention was captured by a political posse allied with the Republican Party. Their hierarchy wants to impose conformity on the churches. Suddenly, the 39 legal abortions performed by Henry Foster, which he says he did reluctantly, are a theological sin and a political opportunity."
March 7: "Gingrich uses words as if they were napalm bombs....He sent conservative candidates a long list of words to smear their opponents -- words like `sick,' `pathetic,' `traitors,' `corrupt,' `anti-family,' `disgrace.' With talk radio quoting it all back to us, our political landscape is a toxic dump."
March 14 on the Contract's property rights plank: "Now it's pay-back time" for business donors, "and environmental safeguards are being suspended to make way for a massive raid on public lands. The House is about to revoke laws protecting national forests from excess logging. This could mean a fortune for the timber companies," which means "the arsonists are finally in charge of the fire department."
March 23 on Gingrich: "A majority of people say they don't like what they're learning about his Contract. They know the difference between reforming the welfare state and replacing it with the corporate state....Some of this stuff...could only get through hidden in the hubcaps of a juggernaut."
April 6 on the tax bill: "Big winners won this round -- corporations, investors, people with high incomes," but, he cited trade-offs. "One, it invites the return of mischievous tax shelters that distort the economy. Two, you can't be sure of its results. The 1981 tax cuts were followed by the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Three, by encouraging consumption over savings the tax bill risks inflation. Four, it stirs sleeping cynics. How come so many tax breaks are proposed for wealthy individuals and corporations who've been pouring money into party coffers at the rate of $123,000 a day?"
Contract on America's Poor?
As the House passed bills to reduce spending, taxes and regulations, the media promoted the liberal spin. "The new Republican majority in Congress took a big step today on its legislative agenda to demolish or damage government aid programs, many of them designed to help children and the poor," Dan Rather declared March 16, referring to $17 billion in cuts.
"The most drastic measures are not expected to survive in the Senate," ABC World News Saturday anchor Catherine Crier noted before a March 25 story, ominously intoning "but congressional tinkering with welfare is creating fear all across America."
An April 5 ABC story on the property rights bill, which provides compensation when regulations diminish land value, ended by echoing the fears of liberal environmental activists. Warned Barry Serafin: "In the rush to change, reform or reject regulations, little time has been spent in the new Congress sorting out the arguments or the consequences."
To Time, tax cuts are an evil. "For Republicans, tax cuts are becoming a kind of deadly virus, threatening to cripple any GOP measure they infect," Michael Duffy wrote April 3. Welfare reform "should have been a slam-dunk," but the GOP "somehow allowed tax cuts -- the passion of campaign contributors -- to get in the way."
Even if the $500-per-child tax credit were cut, Duffy insisted, "an enormous tax break for the wealthy would still loom." Without citing any contrasting numbers, he reported "Democrats charge that more than 50 percent of the remaining $85 billion in tax benefits in the Contract would go to the ten percent of families whose incomes exceed $100,000." A Joint Economic Committee report cited studies showing that before the rate was hiked in 1985 "fully three-quarters of the value of all capital gains went to taxpayers earning less than $100,000" and 70 percent "reporting capital gains had income of less than $50,000."
What's the public's verdict? For the April 6 NBC Nightly News Bob Faw traveled to the Nashville Speedway and found "most here regard the first hundred days the way an old-fashioned mother regards breakfast, as a good beginning. And most hope the big engines in Washington keep right on running."
But ABC's Jackie Judd noted the same night that a poll showed while most "endorse the general themes of the Contract, they're not so happy with the specifics." Judd aired three negative soundbites before concluding: "One of the most personally troubling aspects of the survey for Speaker Gingrich may be the large number of people who said he doesn't understand their problems. Gingrich views himself as a man of the people. The survey result raises the question -- what people?"
Handicapping the GOP in '96
Journalists see a 1996 GOP presidential field of a few pragmatists and a gaggle of unsavory conservatives. In the March 6 Newsweek, Senior Editor Joe Klein thought the field lacks charisma: "Eight lumpen pachyderms who performed their first casting call for the massed New Hampshire GOP on President's Day eve. Their inelegant, passionless pokiness was a surprising turn for a party that, from Reagan to Limbaugh to Gingrich, has been the prime incubator of vehemence in American politics."
As usual, liberal Republicans garnered the better coverage. Sen. Arlen Specter's 1992 National Tax Limitation Committee rating was 50 (out of 100) and his Children's Defense Fund rating that year was 90. But Time's John F. Dickerson claimed March 13: "Specter offers a mix of fiscal conservatism and social libertarianism." After being booed in Iowa, "he was convinced by that rebuke that the social extremism that had so disturbed him during the 1992 GOP convention had taken control of the party." Time said Specter's "biggest plus" is that he is "pro-choice." On March 6, Newsweek's Jon Meacham and Andrew Murr found Pete Wilson's problem: "Another political liability is that Wilson is no antigovernment zealot....Wilson's record underscores how the GOP's turn right makes it difficult for pragmatists to campaign in the Republican primaries. That's because saying what it takes to win (government must shrink) is not always what it takes to govern."
Sen. Phil Gramm received the worst press, best demonstrated by Time Austin reporter S.C. Gwynne's personal attack in the March 13 issue. "Maybe he just can't help himself. Phil Gramm, the Robespierre of the Republican right and a man with a startlingly real shot at the presidency, just can't seem to avoid making people mad....He is driven, instinctive and fanatically goal-oriented; he is often insensitive to appearances and unwilling to listen to his peers."
Gwynne added that Gramm is "ill-suited to national exposure. He is, by his own description, `ugly.' He speaks in a deep drawl that calls to mind the often grating cadences of Lyndon Johnson. Combine that with his certain endorsement by many right-to-life groups, and an image emerges of an ungainly, deep-fried reactionary with little chance of carrying the moderate vote on Election Day."
Old Programs Never Die
After a series of reports bemoaning House Republicans' $17 billion in spending cuts, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff on March 20 found a glistening bucket of government fat neither party is willing to cut, the Department of Veterans Affairs: "Paying benefits to America's former servicemen and women -- including to people...whose ailments aren't war-related -- now costs $38 billion a year. That's a big ticket item, even for the Feds. But at a time when Washington is desperately seeking spending cuts, the mere suggestion that taxpayers can't afford such a high Veteran's tab summons one of the country's most effective lobbies into action."
Isikoff found "the VA has spent nearly $2.8 billion since 1990 on new hospitals, clinics and nursing homes to expand a system that's actually underused," as the number of veterans declines, from 28 million in 1980 to 23 million this year. Isikoff focused on the VA hospital in Beckley, West Virginia, "a $29 million-a-year, full-service medical center." Though admissions have fallen by a third since 1990, and three other VA hospitals serve the state, Isikoff noted, "VA facilities are among the government goodies hardest to take away -- Congress hasn't shut one down since the Johnson administration."
Values and Victims
U.S. News & World Report writer Wray Herbert took a sobering look March 6 at what social critics are saying about the breakdown of national identity. Herbert found that "a wide array of cultural critics believe this public uneasiness reflects some gut-level sense that the right relationship between citizen, state and civil society has been distorted or perhaps even lost."
Citing liberal critic Christopher Lasch, Herbert wrote, "the new elitists are often those who feel most free to espouse traditional liberal values -- integrated schools, wealth redistribution, preferential hiring policies -- even though those politics don't affect their own daily lives. They then stand above the fray as different groups of less privileged citizens fight over the very real consequences of those policies, often dividing across racial lines."
Herbert got specific: "Schools, for example, have become social-service agencies and self-esteem clinics and are so overburdened with therapeutic tasks that they can't perform their primary function -- teaching -- very well....Similarly, the institutions of government spend less time governing and more time attending to the bruised feelings of various classes of victims."
Computer Forums Reveal ABC Biases
Letting Down Their Hair
The ABC "On Demand" section on America Online is the newest location for reporters to let down their liberal hair. In a January 5 Online Auditorium, where subscribers can pose questions to an ABC reporter, Carole Simpson warned: "I fear that the Contract with America, if enacted, may be detrimental to the family, especially those single women and their children...my fear is that Mr. Gingrich, given his history, may increase what I see as a new mean-spiritedness in this country...I would like to think that the American people care about poor people, about sick people, about homeless people, and about poor children. I am shocked by the new mean-spiritedness." Simpson also claimed: "I think the coverage of the new Republican leadership has been extremely positive."
Day One reporter John Hockenberry also played the worry wart on March 2: "I think American politics thrives on ignorance today. I think American policy works without a backup plan as long as people are so unrepentantly uninformed." Hockenberry added: "I think that capitalism is inherently amoral and it is folly to expect that a system run on greed will be able to adopt some virtuous precepts to prevent the violations of human rights." Of Clinton's political prospects, Hockenberry wrote: "Faced with the choice of a crowd-pleasing fanatic trying to look like a Republican and about a hundred real Repubs...it looks tough to me." Asked if the Contract with America would work, he joked: "Yes. I'm moving to Switzerland."
In the March 23 online session, ABC News Capitol Hill reporter John Cochran claimed: "Sen. Bob Packwood...is certainly conservative on most issues. But Packwood is extremely dubious about any tax cut until we are well on the road to balancing the budget." According to National Journal's 1992 ratings, the socially liberal Packwood drew a 54 percent conservative score on economic issues, compared to 89 percent for Bob Dole.
Janet Cooke Award: Emotional Anecdotes Over Evidence
The networks' occasional concern for the national debt or the rapid growth of entitlements never matches the intensity of network campaigning against spending cuts. As House Republicans passed a "recisions bill" reducing previously approved spending for fiscal 1995 by $17 billion (less than a tenth of the year's deficit), the networks went looking for pain, not the fiscal gain.
For asserting without much statistical evidence that Republican reductions would cause a dramatically growing homeless problem to worsen, NBC's Giselle Fernandez earned the April Janet Cooke Award.
As anchor of the Sunday Nightly News on March 12, Fernandez told the story of four homeless children killed in a fire at a Philadelphia shelter: "The tragedy of that blaze sheds light on the fastest growing homeless population in the country, in our Focus tonight, women and children without a home and with nowhere to go. As Republicans and Democrats fight over a solution, we take a look at the feminization of homelessness."
Fernandez began her report: "They're crowding shelters in cities across the nation in alarming numbers. Single mothers with children." After airing a few soundbites of homeless mothers, Fernandez aired liberal advocate Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless: "It's just simply the most visible sign of very deep-rooted poverty in this country. If you're just looking at the family population, it's skyrocketed; and those families are typically headed by young women, without a husband, who are flooding the shelter system." Fernandez asserted: "Across the nation there are an estimated 20,000 homeless families. And social workers worry the crisis will only worsen if the new Congress keeps its promise and makes deep cuts in bedrock social programs and especially in public housing."
Fernandez did not give a source for her numbers, but the national office of Coalition for the Homeless has done no formal academic count of homelessness to back up Brosnahan's claims of a "skyrocketing" population of homeless families. While Fernandez claimed there were 20,000 homeless families in the country, Brosnahan's group claimed without proof in the February 23 Newsday that there are 20,000 homeless people in New York City alone, and that cuts will double that population.
NBC also failed to provide a statistical breakdown of the percentage of homeless people who are women with children. Even liberal groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which regularly reports dramatic growth in homelessness, found that 56 percent of the homeless were individual adult males, and individual adult females account for another 25 percent. This hardly suggests that families dominate the homeless population, although women with children, who naturally inspire more sympathy than individual men or women, assume a central place in homeless activists' publicity.
Fernandez continued: "Most blame a lack of jobs and affordable housing and child care for their plight. But there are no stereotypes. Becky McDaniel lives with her son in this California home for families. Like 40 percent of homeless women, she fled to a shelter to escape domestic violence." NBC cited no source for this claim either. Fernandez added: "Sister Kristin runs the St. Joseph's family shelter in New Jersey and works first-hand with homeless mothers and their children. If the cuts go through, she says, more families will be on the streets than ever before."
In the midst of nine soundbites of homeless people and liberal activists, Fernandez found time for only one conservative voice: "But Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, lobbying for the cuts this week as part of his Contract with America, says welfare reform is imperative -- not to hurt the children but to save them."
Fernandez immediately countered: "But Democrats say cuts
will only further harm this most vulnerable population. Housing
Secretary Henry Cisneros says, in fact, they'll force 32,000 more
families into shelters....And that frightens homeless mothers like
Angela Draughn at the St. Joseph's Shelter in New Jersey. Every
morning as she gets her kids ready for school, she worries that
once she gets back on her feet, there won't be enough
low-income housing to move into...As Washington debates heat up
over deep cuts in social programs, mothers like Angela just
keep trying to survive." Fernandez concluded: "Congress is
scheduled to vote Thursday on $17 billion in budget cuts. Of
that total, $7 billion would come from the federal Department of
But NBC left out any sense of federal spending on homelessness. The media reported last June that the Clinton administration planned to spend $2.1 billion in fiscal 1995 on homeless aid, three times the $555 million spent on homeless aid in the last year of the Bush administration. Can reducing this dramatic increase qualify as a "deep cut," as NBC suggested?
Fernandez also did not specify whether cuts in Housing and Urban Development funding were for homelessness. For example, $2.7 billion came out of rental assistance for poor families, and $1.1 billion came from funds for repairing damaged public housing projects. NBC also left out that the $7 billion cut was aimed at paying for $7 billion of disaster relief, mostly for Southern California earthquake victims. Those victims were not included in NBC's story. NBC weekend producers failed to return repeated phone calls.
NBC aired no conservative commenting on the estimates aired in NBC's report. Cassandra Moore, an adjunct fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who has worked on the federal government's Interagency Task Force on Homelessness, told MediaWatch: "Sensationalism is the hallmark of media coverage, which only makes is more difficult to deal rationally and solve the problem."
Heritage Foundation housing analyst Ron Utt told MediaWatch the actual structure of the housing budget can obscure the debate: "They never explain what the funding is -- is it authority or is it outlays? The consequence is you can make up whatever you want." Utt's argument is bolstered by a November/December 1990 American Enterprise article by John Cogan and Timothy Muris, which studied liberal claims that housing funds dried up in the Reagan years: "While budget authority for subsidized housing programs declined by nearly 77 percent (from 1981-1989), the number of subsidized units and the number of families living in those units increased by one-third."
Why do the networks report on homelessness without the most elementary documentation? What NBC delivered was not credible information, but unsupported perceptions -- style over substance. When a network prefers the methods of activists to the methodologies of statisticians, they can hardly be surprised when the idea that they are only honest brokers of information falls on deaf ears.