In This Issue
Social Liberalism Rears Its Head on TV; Newsbites: First Pitch Glitch; Revolving Door: Oklahoma Bill's Hate Radio; The Unabomber's On His Own; Rotten in Denmark?; Detecting Deception; Bryant Gumbel, a Conservative?; Janet Cooke Award: "Reform-Minded Catholics...Blacklisted"
Social Liberalism Rears Its Head on TV
In their survey The Churching of America, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark reported that virtually all Americans believe in God or a universal spirit. The vast majority believe the Bible is either the literal or inspired Word of God. Sixty percent can be found in houses of worship in a given month. This "silent majority" still worships under the radar screen of a secularized media elite.
The Media Research Center's first study of TV news coverage of religion in 1993 found a surprising paucity of coverage and overt advocacy against traditional values: only 212 evening news stories and 197 morning show segments dealt with religion. Prime-time magazine and Sunday morning interview shows broached religion on only 18 occasions. Religion coverage declined in 1994. Evening news stories rose slightly to 225, but morning segments fell to 151, and Sunday talk show and magazine show segments dropped to nine.
Out of an estimated 18,000 segments last year on the five programs evaluated (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's World News, NBC Nightly News, and The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS) the networks devoted only 249 stories to religion, a slight increase (11 percent) from 1994.
Despite more than 26,000 segments in 1995, the major network morning shows (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today) devoted 224 morning show stories to religion in 1995. That's a one-third increase over 1994, but still less than one percent.
The blind spot to religious news remains especially noticeable on Sunday morning shows and prime-time magazines. Analysts reviewed the Sunday shows (ABC's This Week with David Brinkley, CBS's Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press) as well as the prime-time magazine lineup (ABC's Day One, Prime Time Live, and 20/20; CBS's Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, 48 Hours, and 60 Minutes; and NBC's three-night Dateline format). Out of roughly 400 shows, the number of religion stories rose from nine in 1994 to 15 in 1995, including segment repeats. But that also included three one-hour programs on religion, one on ABC and two on CBS.
Institutions: The Catholic Church again led the coverage with 111 stories, up eight from 1994. Generic religion stories, often on subjects like school prayer or church-state relations, came in second with 70 stories. News of Protestant denominations was again nearly absent.
The networks again portrayed the Catholic Church as an oppressive, narrow-minded, outmoded hierarchy. When Ireland moved to lift its ban on divorce, CBS Evening News reporter Cinny Kennard applauded on November 18: "It's another example of the country's move to reinvent itself as a more modern and progressive Ireland, an Ireland that is more tolerant and open. Recently, there has been legal reform on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality; signs that the traditional Church grip on Ireland has been loosened; signs that the country is increasingly run from government buildings and not the Vatican."
Kennard repeated her line on the November 30 CBS This Morning: "It's been like an awakening. Ireland, long positioned on the world's stage as a church-dominated backwater, has reinvented itself as a new and energized Emerald Isle. A more open, a more tolerant place."
Abortion: Due to the lack of further violence against abortionists, coverage of violence around abortion clinics on all shows amounted to 142 stories, compared to the 247 in 1994 and 150 segments in 1993.
On January 3, 1995 Jane Pauley promoted an upcoming segment on Dateline NBC by charging: "Still ahead -- the latest round of bloodshed and violence at abortion clinics. The anti-abortion movement has been creeping to the edge of bloody fanaticism for a decade." With coverage like that, reporter David Culhane could convey the results of a new poll during the January 8 CBS Evening News: "A new CBS poll shows that three out of four Americans say the protest tactics of some anti-abortion activists can be blamed for leading to the recent shootings at several abortion clinics."
What about violence perpetrated by abortion advocates? In 1994, only CNN reported that Ernest Robertson Jr. tried to shoot a pro-life protester after picking up his wife outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana abortion clinic. In 1995, Daniel Adam Mahoney became the first pro-abortion activist indicted under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Alice Hand was arrested in January 1995 for making at least three phone calls threatening to blow-up a Catholic church and school in Suffern, New York. But the networks were silent.
While the networks devoted 142 stories to anti-abortion violence outside clinics, only three alluded to violence inside. CNN's September 12 World News broadcast one segment about abortionist David Benjamin, who was convicted of second degree murder in New York City for allowing a woman to bleed to death from a perforated uterus during an abortion. Two 1995 segments aired estimates of 1.5 million abortions a year, two more mentions than in 1993 or 1994.
Social Issues: The number of stories primarily about homosexuality increased from 105 in 1994 to 113 in 1995, still a fraction of the 1993 total of 756. But the networks demonstrated a liberal orientation once again: in the few morning show interviews that aired, proponents of homosexuality outnumbered opponents, 13 to 3. Once again, the networks portrayed the religious right as a negative force in the Republican Party. While the networks would not suggest that a liberal group like the NAACP doesn't represent all black people, CBS suggested the Christian Coalition did not represent all Christians -- or suggested they were less than Christian.
Dan Rather introduced a September 8 story by noting Phil Gramm "was at a meeting of preacher Pat Robertson's political group, the one calling itself the Christian Coalition." Four months earlier, on May 15, Rather charged: "The group calling itself the Christian Coalition is aligned with hard-right stands on issues ranging from gay rights to school prayer, and it's demanding its due for its help in getting Republicans elected."
Newsbites: First Pitch Glitch
NBC's Tom Brokaw swung and missed when he tried to cover for the President. During the traditional first pitch thrown by the President on baseball's Opening Day, Bill Clinton was roundly booed by many in attendance at the April 2 Orioles game. Brokaw delivered the play-by-play:
"President Clinton taking the mound for the ceremonial first pitch. All the way from the pitcher's rubber, it was a little on the high side, and watching from the stands and not booing like most of the rest of the crowd -- Pat Buchanan. By the way the boos, like the first pitch, are traditional whoever the President.
Dan Rather didn't even mention the boos on the same night's CBS Evening News. Viewers only heard cheering at Clinton's lob. But on that day's CNN Inside Politics Bruce Morton replayed five recent Opening Day first pitches, one from Ronald Reagan, three from George Bush, and a previous Clinton throw. In all five, including Clinton's earlier pitch, the President was cheered.
The Nadir of Coverage
GOP presidential candidates like Pat Buchanan and Phil Gramm were not only labeled as conservative but as "hard right," "extreme," and "hard-line." Then it would only make sense that someone to the left of Bill Clinton would be considered, at the very least, a liberal. But in the midst of Ralph Nader's campaign for President on the Green Party ballot, reporters referred to the outspoken leftist as not "hard left" or "far left" but as merely a "consumer advocate" or "consumer activist."
Since the media started paying attention to the Nader candidacy, reporters have failed to mention liberal in the same sentence as Nader. NBC's Gwen Ifill referred to him as "the consumer activist" on the March 24 Nightly News. On The World Today the same night, CNN's Martin Savidge reported: "Consumer advocate Ralph Nader says he'll be on California's presidential ballot this fall." In a search of Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today, only U.S. News mentioned the "L" word: the March 25 issue called Nader a "liberal alternative to Clinton."
What's "Risky and Radical"?
On the March 12 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather warned of coming Social Security reform proposals: "The stock market could play a big role in major changes in Social Security. A bipartisan commission is due out soon to officially propose some radical changes in the whole Social Security system that would include privatizing Social Security, allowing some of your Social Security contributions to be invested in the stock market. Now, this may or may not prove to be a good idea, but it could be risky business."
CBS reporter Bob Schieffer, who also called the plan "radical change," stated on the March 26 CBS This Morning that "even more radical, [is] a plan favored by some commission members to allow taxpayers to invest, any way they want, almost half of what they now pay in Social Security taxes." How does the media's take on Social Security reform stack up against other large-scale changes proposed in Washington?
Database searches reveal that not once did a network reporter refer to the Clinton health care plan as "radical." The plan Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner cooked up amounted to a government take-over of one-seventh of the economy. That's not radical -- but allowing people to invest their own retirement money is.
During this year's Lenten season, when Christians examine their faith and commitment to God, the Los Angeles Times decided to show its own hostility to religion. In the March 28 issue the paper ran an editorial cartoon with the image of Bob Dole crucified. The crown of thorns on his forehead read "Christian Coalition."
Three days later, the paper spiked Johnny Hart's Palm Sunday B.C. comic strip, featuring the character Wiley writing a poem honoring Christ's death for man's sins. Los Angeles Times spokeswoman Ariel Remler told The Washington Times that "lately he's [Hart] been running cartoons with religious overtones." Then in an April 2 statement quoted in The Washington Times, Remler announced that the paper would spike the strip on all three days of the Easter weekend. After receiving hundreds of protest calls, the paper reversed itself, announcing it would run the Friday and Saturday strips.
Two years ago, the Times played a similar game, spiking Hart's "inappropriate" Easter Sunday strip with a resurrection theme, but then ran in June a series of Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury strips featuring John Boswell's controversial claim that the Catholic Church sanctioned same-sex marriages in the middle ages.
No Liberal Lobbies.
In March, the House of Representatives voted on repealing the assault weapons ban and outlawing partial-birth abortion. But the media found a narrow "lobby" on only one side of these issues. During the gun debate in late March, the networks employed the term "gun lobby" over six times on the morning and evening news to denote those who opposed the ban. Most happened on CBS, like the March 21 CBS Evening News piece where Bob Schieffer announced: "With Republicans knowing they lack the votes to override a veto and with little enthusiasm for any of this in the Senate, the House effort may turn out to be little more than a publicity stunt to impress the gun lobby."
In the liberal lexicon of Washington, an industry is termed a "lobby" when it pushes narrow interest for its own gain. But those who opposed the partial birth abortion ban were pushing a narrow, extreme interest to satisfy their own backers. Yet not once during the congressional wrangling over partial birth abortions did anyone on the networks use the term "abortion lobby."
Like they do every presidential election year, reporters are raising the so-called gender gap, claiming that Republicans have problems attracting women. On the March 25 NBC Nightly News, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming stated: "Polls show a huge gender gap brewing. Women, like these we gathered, are more upset than men by budget cuts and family issues that they feel are being ignored." So do Democrats have a problem attracting men? Yes, but this didn't interest ABC and NBC.
On Good Morning America Sunday March 24, ABC's Jack Smith recalled the budget fight: "Where men saw deficit reduction, women worried about what the cuts were doing." In the ensuing discussion, co-host Willow Bay asserted: "If you're still making 70 cents to that male dollar, you're probably more reluctant to see cuts in social spending -- your safety net."
While some attributed the gap to social spending, others cited the GOP's pro-life stance. NBC's Lisa Myers began her report on the March 5 Nightly News: "Republicans have a problem with women....And today, polls show women leaning even more heavily in favor of Democrats. The big reason: Pat Buchanan." Myers spoke to Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe and stated: "Snowe says even though Buchanan won't be the nominee, his polarizing anti-abortion rhetoric has done lasting damage." Myers concluded that Clinton's lead over Dole with women is "not a gender gap, [it's] a chasm."
If reporters believe the gap is due to abortion, they need to examine the polls. A May 1995 Tarrance Group poll found that 47 percent of women (compared to 44 percent of men) believe that abortion should be "illegal and prohibited under all circumstances" or "illegal except in cases such as rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother."
Guilt by association is still a handy media tool. The March 21 Washington Post headline read: "Industry Funds Global Warming Skeptics." Reporter Gary Lee began: "A Washington environmental group charged yesterday that three researchers who are outspoken critics of the scientific evidence for global warming have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the petroleum and coal industries, and that this funding has influenced their views."
Lee described his source, Ozone Action, only as "an environmental group that lobbies on the issues of air quality and global climate change." Lee didn't use the word liberal or note they've even criticized Vice President Gore for being too soft on the environment. While Lee did call the researchers for comment, and quoted Patrick Michaels calling the charges "ludicrous," Lee excluded one obvious point: liberal environmental groups also take in hundreds of thousands of dollars from oil companies. The Capital Research Center noted that Exxon gave the National Audubon Society $112,500 in 1991 alone. The Post didn't do that man-pays-for-dog-to-bite-him story.
Gannett Fires Like America.
The Gannett-owned Burlington [Vt.] Free Press fired Paul Teetor for reporting a story accurately, another victim of political correctness. But now he's been vindicated. In August 1993, Teetor angered black activists by reporting that a white woman was escorted from a community forum on racism after she tried to address it. A black city official, Rodney Patterson, told her the microphone they had set up for comments was for people "of color" only, not whites. After the story appeared, black activists demanded Teetor be fired for publishing an inaccurate story, even though a videotape confirmed Teetor's account. The Free Press canned him and ran a piece whitewashing Teetor's account of the meeting in accordance with the activists' demand.
Teetor filed a lawsuit against the paper. According to the March 29 Washington Post, the paper settled in his favor for an undisclosed sum. At trial, Teetor's lawyer alleged the real reason for the firing was the Gannett chain's "All-American Contest" where papers are evaluated and scored on how many minorities the paper hires and how positively minorities are depicted in news stories. Free Press editors were worried how the town meeting story would affect their scores because the contest results could be a factor in their own job promotions.
The day before Steve Forbes ended his presidential bid, CBS reporter Phil Jones declared on the Evening News: "He struck fear in the hearts of his opponents by launching what may turn out to be the most massive, negative TV attack campaign in the history of American politics." Jones failed to mention the role CBS played in promoting negative politics. The network provided opponents with a free negative ad when it ran Eric Engberg's February 8 hit piece on the Forbes flat tax. Engberg referred to Forbes' "number one wackiest flat tax pro- mise." No wonder the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that with 87 percent derogatory comments, Engberg was the most negative reporter during the primaries.
Goldberg Survives, for Now.
Speaking of Eric Engberg, CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg returned to the air April 9 with an Evening News "Eye on America" segment on rising youth crime caused by a deficit of values. Goldberg had been off the air since his February 13 Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing Engberg's story "set new standards for bias" and the liberal bias charge is "blatantly true."
The CBS Evening News had been airing "Bernard Goldberg's America," but CBS News President Andrew Heyward dumped the feature and has assigned him to the "Eye on America" beat. Goldberg's eight-week shunning and loss of his signature piece, however, may not be his only punishments. The Washington Post's John Carmody reported March 22: "Heyward would not comment on Goldberg's future when his contract expires at the end of the year." So much for promoting free speech.
Revolving Door: Oklahoma Bill's Hate Radio
After a year away to deal with heart trouble, Bill Moyers, a former Press Secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, returned to NBC on April 12 to host a Dateline NBC special "Oklahoma City: One Year Later." The day of the show, the New York Post quoted Moyers as insisting that he went to Oklahoma City "with nothing but a desire to find out what was happening. There was no agenda."
In reality, Moyers implied conservative rhetoric led to the bombing. But instead of having the integrity to name names or cite statements, Moyers offered an hour filled with vague generalities which held culpable "hate radio" and "the rhetoric of politics this season." Dateline featured this exchange with service station owner Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed:
Welch: "I thought, the first few months, that there was probably going to be more unity in the country, politically." Moyers: "That this tragedy would bring us together?" Welch: "Yes, that this tragedy would bring it together, but we're seeing through the elections that's going on right now, the same negative thoughts, the militia groups, the hate radio." Moyers: "And you think that contributed to the tragedy, the bombing here?" Welch: "Absolutely, without a doubt. Because it justifies a lot of the angry feelings that people have."
As Welch listened to G. Gordon Liddy on his car radio, Moyers charged: "The airwaves are still saturated with militant rhetoric. Day and night you can hear a stream of rage and insult directed with unremitting hostility at government and others. It rubs like salt in deep wounds and some of the families are trying to counter it."
Then, as viewers saw several victims being interviewed by KTOK's Carole Arnold, Moyers explained: "Emerging from their private grief, they appeal for an end of hateful talk and political invective. Their experience is their message. What a society sows, it reaps....This local station has given the families a forum, but it also carries several hours of talk every day that they find inflammatory." The station does not carry Liddy, so the broadside against "hate" and "inflammatory" talk goes undefined. Welch proceded to tell Arnold: "Of course I think the media need to be involved a little bit in a little bit of control of the hate radio going on. I'm very disturbed about that. I mean where's the responsibility?"
Having impugned talk radio, Moyers turned to the government shutdown: "Just as federal workers were coming out of shock from the bombing, there was another blow, this time from Washington." He asked a HUD supervisor who survived the blast: "It's been a tough year for you federal workers here. The bombing, the furlough, you lost pay for a while. You continue to be demonized in the rhetoric of politics this season. What does that do to your idea of yourself?"
Finally, Moyers concluded the hour with this seeming indictment of House Speaker Newt Gingrich as co-conspirator: "It will never be the same. The bombers saw to that. The tears and grief, the pain and the sorrow were all intended. Terrorism is the politics of murder. We should have seen it coming. Hate was in the air. Government had been vilified, found guilty and sentenced to die. It didn't matter who was in the way. There are lessons for us here, something to take away from the wreckage of that day, if we're listening, one year later."
The Unabomber's On His Own
After the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing the media hurled charges of complicity at conservatives. Referring to Newt Gingrich's language, Time declared that the "burden of fostering the delusion" that government is the enemy "is borne not just by the nut cases who preach conspiracy but also to some extent by those who erode faith in governance in the pursuit of their own ambitions." Asked Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation: "There's been a lot of anti-government rhetoric, it comes over talk radio...Do you think that that somehow has led these people to commit this act?"
But this April, even after ABC detailed the Unabomber's left-wing ties, the rest of the media failed to pick up the theme.
Two days after suspect Ted Kaczynski's April 3 arrest, Brian Ross reported on World News Tonight that his "name appeared...in connection with an FBI investigation of a radical environmental group called Earth First...Over the years, Earth First has been best known as a violent group spiking trees and blowing up logging equipment, and in many respects its anti-corporate philosophy parallels that of the Unabomber."
Ross noted "that authorities believe Kaczynski was at a meeting attended by top Earth First members." A private investigator, Ross relayed, "says the bomb last year that killed the head of the California Forestry Association clearly can be tracked back to a hit list published in one radical environmental journal." Instead of being consistent, reporters buried the tie. On April 8 the environmental angle made it into the 35th paragraph of a USA Today story as well as the 15th paragraph in The New York Times that day and The Washington Post the next. Insisting "there is no proof," NBC's David Bloom dismissed the link April 10.
The Unabomber manifesto rails against capitalism (it begins "The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race"), but the April 15 Time noted no one recalled him having contact at Berkeley "with the leftists he would later excoriate in his manifesto."
Some were sympathetic. USA Today's April 11 front page read: "UNABOMBER: A Hero to Some." Richard Price reported he's "being romanticized for his intellect" as "some people even feel sorry for him, seeing him a brilliant boy gone astray." On C-SPAN's Sunday Journal April 7, Time's Elaine Shannon found parts of the manifesto she agreed with, such as, "industrialization and pollution are all terrible things." She reasoned: "He wasn't a hypocrite, he lived as he wrote." Kaczynski "carried it to an extreme, and obviously murder is something that is far beyond any political philosophy, but he had a bike, he didn't have any plumbing."
Rotten in Denmark?
The media have often promoted liberal claims about the dangers of "overpopulation." Now that a new book, Our Stolen Future (with an introduction by Al Gore) theorizes that man-made chemicals are responsible for impending sterility, the media reaction is the same: unquestioned acceptance of ominous liberal claims.
Time science writer Michael Lemonick wrote March 18 that "In study after study, sperm counts in men the world over seem to be dropping precipitously." He claimed the book contains "powerful evidence" to support the hypothesis that "reproduction-related ills may be caused by chemical pollutants in the environment, including DDT." The book is based on data from a Danish scientist, Niels Skakkebaek, whose meta-analysis of 61 sperm count studies found a 50 percent decline since 1938.
Though Lemonick wrote "the evidence for a chemical-infertility link does remain largely circumstantial," he warned of apocalypse: "Extrapolating from Skakkebaek's admittedly controversial data, it's conceivable that the average man will be infertile within a century. Even if things are only half that dire, it would be bad news indeed for the human race."
Today's Bryant Gumbel used the same tone with book cowriter Theo Colborn on March 12: "The extinction of the human race has long been a staple of science fiction, but according to a group of scientists, it could one day prove to be all too true, and they say the cause of the problem may be man-made chemicals." In a letter to Today, Dr. Glenn Swogger of the American Council on Science and Health claimed Colborn's "claims of lower sperm counts relates to a subsequently discredited study a number of years ago and is stale news in the scientific community...We run the risk of so limiting pesticide use through excessive regulation and discouragement of research that we will lose the valuable contribution they make to producing cheap and healthy fruits and vegetables." Gumbel only mentioned the ACSH to note they're "partially funded...by industry."
Robert Hager provided a more sober account on the April 1 NBC Nightly News, noting critics claimed the book was "bad science." Journalist Ronald Bailey was then allowed to critique the book's science in NBC's "In Their Own Words" segment.
CNN's Brooks Jackson was first out of the gate to critique the presidential candidates in their ads and speeches. On the April 1 Inside Politics he critiqued Republican charges that Clinton judges were soft on crime. But in a surprising turn Jackson has also slammed Clinton's newest set of ads. His April 4 "Spin Patrol" segment challenged each claim made in the Democratic National Committee ads.
CNN aired the ad: "The President proposes a balanced budget protecting Medicare, education, the environment. But Dole is voting no. The President cuts taxes for 40 million Americans. Dole votes no."
Jackson replied: "Dole voting no to a balanced budget and tax cuts? Let's see that again...True, Clinton's latest budget would balance in 7 years on paper, but experts are skeptical." Jackson used moderate-to-liberal Carol Cox Wait of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and Robert Reischauer of the Brookings Institution.
Jackson found the ad's claim "The President cuts taxes for 40 million Americans" was "Not the whole story." He pointed out that the Clinton administration arrived at the 40 million number through the 1993 budget bill's expansion of the earned income tax credit to "15 million low wage families, 40 million if you count their children." Jackson countered they also raised taxes on 1.5 million high-income families and 5 million Social Security recipients, not to mention higher gas taxes for everyone.
Another ad claimed Republicans cut school lunches. Jackson: "Not so. The Republican Congress appropriated more money for school lunches this year....And the Agriculture Department says it has increased the number of children served."
The same ad charged the GOP cut Head Start: "Money for the Head Start pre-school program has been cut four percent this year, temporarily. But Republican leaders have agreed to a one percent increase once a permanent appropriations bill is passed. Meanwhile not a single child has been affected. In fact Head Start enrollment is up this year."
And the DNC's claim that Republicans "cut child health care" did not go unchallenged. Jackson explained that Republicans only reduced the rate of Medicaid growth and that there is not much difference between the GOP and Clinton's proposal.
Bryant Gumbel, a Conservative?
Denying While Displaying
The March 21 Radio & TV Correspondents Dinner drew a lot of pressattention to the remarks of talk show host Don Imus, but the betterstory came from Marc Morano, Rush Limbaugh's man in D.C. He asked reporters in attendance about liberal bias, and the reporters only demonstrated their liberalism.
Former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite admitted: "Everybody knows that there's a liberal, that there's a heavy liberal persuasion among correspondents." Cronkite argued, however, this is justified: "Anybody who has to live with the people, who covers police stations, covers county courts, brought up that way, has to have a degree of humanity that people who do not have that exposure don't have, and some people interpret that to be liberal. It's not a liberal, it's humanitarian and that's a vastly different thing."
When asked about the new Whitewater book, Blood Sport by James Stewart, ABC's John Cochran felt the book was beneath him: "I haven't read it. I'm just now going through Elizabeth Drew's book, which is about the battle between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House and it's fascinating. It has nothing to do with gossip or Whitewater or what happened with Vince Foster or any ofthat, it has to do with what's happening with issues of importance to the American people." CBS's Bill Plante felt the issue was a waste of time: "The problem with the media coverage of Whitewater is that it has been done over and over and over again. I haven't read the book yet, but I understand that there's nothing basically new in it."
CNN's Judy Woodruff retorted to a query about Bernard Goldberg's comments about liberal bias: "I think Mr. Goldberg went a little bit too far...I don't think there's any blatant, rampant bias in the news media. If there were, then we wouldn't last in the jobs that we have." Most incredibly, Today weatherman Al Roker claimed:"I don't think there's a liberal bias in the media. Let me put it this way, I've never worked with a liberal anchorman, they're all very conservative." This from the man who shares a studio with Bryant Gumbel.
Janet Cooke Award: "Reform-Minded Catholics...Blacklisted"
In the sophisticated ambiance of TV newsrooms, freedom of association is a concept apparently as outmoded as traditional religion. The notion that in America, a church is a voluntary association, bound together by commonly held theological beliefs, is a strange and alien argument. For holding up a Catholic bishop as a symbol of "extremism" enforcing a "blacklist," CBS and NBC earned the Janet Cooke Award.
On the March 25 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather began: "In Lincoln, Nebraska, a bishop is taking the Catholic Church's battle over personal morality a step further. He is threatening to excommunicate any parishioner who joins groups advocating positions the church opposes. That threat puts this bishop in the forefront of a national furor, as we hear from Scott Pelley."
Pelley began: "Critics call him an extremist, a danger to the Catholic Church. What has thrust national notoriety upon Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz is a list, his own blacklist of organizations, he says, threaten the mortal soul...Bruskewitz has decreed that parishioners in his diocese of southern Nebraska have seven weeks to resign memberships in the listed groups, or be excommunicated, severing, the bishop says, their relationship with God."
He added: "The list includes pro-choice Planned Parenthood and the Hemlock Society, which advocates a right to die. But it also includes some organizations that consider themselves to be Catholic, even though they stray from Vatican teaching. One of them, known as Call to Action, advocates the ordination of women."
Call to Action's Robert McClory claimed: "The organization was founded to promote dialogue on issues, about which Catholics are seriously divided. He would prefer, evidently, that there be no discussion, and he's ordered those people, who think so, to simply get out of his house." Pelley noted: "The Bruskewitz list may be unique in America. Bishops rule their own diocese; parishioners are welcome to appeal to the Pope. Randall Moody faces excommunication. He is a parishioner and a member of Planned Parenthood's [national] board of directors." Moody oozed: "The organizations affected by this excommunication order are mainstream America, and it paints the church into the corner of being an extremist organization."
Pelley allowed Bruskewitz to speak: "These groups mislead people into thinking that they're compatible with the Catholic religion when they're not....It's not a question of not wanting to discuss issues. It's a question of an organization, which is, by its very constitution, inimical to the Catholic faith, which is destructive of church discipline."
Pelley ended: "The controversy is an example of tension in the American church, with a conservative Vatican on one side and reform-minded Catholics on the other. Now in Nebraska, there is a deadline for those who must decide whether they live their conscience or keep their faith."
NBC Nightly News had a similar take on April 1. While the on-screen graphic read "Blacklisted," Tom Brokaw pronounced: "A controversy is splitting apart a church as it prepares to enter its holiest week. At issue: A threat by a Catholic bishop in Nebraska to expel members from the church, for reasons his critics say belong in another era. Here's NBC's Linda Vester."
Vester began: "Last night in Lincoln, more than 60 Catholics gathered to figure out how to avoid being kicked out of their church...They're angry with the bishop of Lincoln for threatening them with the ultimate punishment: excommunication. Their crime: belonging to any of twelve groups the bishop has blacklisted, including Planned Parenthood, the Freemasons, and Call to Action, a nationwide organization that advocates women priests, married priests, and birth control."
Bruskewitz said: "Membership in these organizations that are listed certainly imperils the Catholic faith." Vester countered: "But a blanket order of excommunication, for any reason, is rare, unheard of in modern times. Some members of Call to Action, like Rosalyn Carr, are afraid and are quitting the group." Carr charged: "Well, I think the bishop has ways to retaliate."
Vester added: "But at Call to Action's meeting last night, others were defiant. Those who defy the bishop's order will be excommunicated May 15, which means they can attend mass, but they can't take communion or get married in the church. The bishop says he won't enforce the order; he expects people to police themselves....But the bishop is getting help. The pro-life group, Rescue America, is going to give him members' names from the local Planned Parenthood."
Vester asked: "Is it a witch hunt? One theologian thinks it may turn people away from a church already struggling with its image." Father Richard McBride of the University of Notre Dame exclaimed: "It reinforces the prejudice that a lot of people have that it really is a new, a modern form of authoritarianism."
Vester wrapped it up: "Despite what critics say, Bishop Bruskewitz insists his order stands." Bruskewitz said: "Oh, I have no intentions of waffling." Vester's conclusion was almost identical to Pelley's: "Which leaves some Catholics here feeling forced to choose between their conscience and their church." When contacted by MediaWatch, both reporters were said to be on assignment. Despite numerous calls and faxes, neither responded.
William Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told MediaWatch the networks are guilty of "rank hypocrisy" in their coverage of freedom of association: "The American Civil Liberties Union has a policy that every officer is pro-choice. If an officer were to evolve into a pro-life position, he would become a pariah, like Nat Hentoff, who was thrown off the board of directors. That's their prerogative. But where's the charge of authoritarianism?"
Donohue said the same is true for reporters: "I asked a newspaper reporter: what if one of your colleagues went on the local TV station and denounced your newspaper? If a secular organization won't tolerate that kind of insubordination, why is the Church held to a different standard?" This is especially pertinent in the case of CBS News after reporter Bernard Goldberg was kept off the air for months after he denounced the liberal bias of his own network. A CBS statement said Rather "disagrees with Mr. Goldberg's opinion...and its expression."
Perhaps the networks' blind spot is unique to religion, where they imply that dissent is noble and church doctrine autocratic, that theology is subject to a vote and salvation is accomplished by focus group. CBS and NBC had three possible ways to present its story: Bruskewitz as hero for standing up for tradition, Bruskewitz as author-itarian villain, or a balanced presentation of both views. Instead of pursuing the professional third option, they opted for the bishop as villain.