MediaWatch: August 1988

In This Issue

Study: Coverage of the Democratic Convention; NewsBites: Abortion Distortion; Revolving Door: Thomas Rodgers; Dirty Double Standard; Janet Cooke Award: CBS NEWS: Democratic Convention Coverage

Study: Coverage of the Democratic Convention

During their Atlanta convention the Democrats set out to package presidential nominee Michael Dukakis as a competent manager and political moderate, not an ideological liberal. Thanks to the networks, this charade was successful. That's one conclusion of a MediaWatch Study of ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC prime-time convention coverage. Analysts reviewed coverage from July 18-21 from 9:00 PM Eastern (8:00 PM for CNN everyday, for CBS on July 21) until coverage ended sometime between 11:15 PM and 12 midnight.

Networks were assessed in six areas: use of ideological labels to characterize convention attendees; choice of officials to be interviewed; agenda of questions posed to interviewees; consistency with 1984 convention coverage; coverage of controversies and criticisms of Dukakis and/or the Democrats; and the overall educational value of the broadcasts to the voter. Based upon performance in these areas, the Media Research Center, publisher of MediaWatch, issued ratings each night on a scale of one to ten. These final ratings reflect the total for each network over four days.

NBC: 28 CNN: 27 ABC: 22 CBS: 10

1) LABELING -- Overall, network anchors, reporters, analysts and commentators almost evenly split 86 labels they attached to the candidates, delegates, those in attendance or Democrats in general (52 percent liberal, 48 percent moderate or conservative).

The networks played along with Dukakis' game plan to disguise his ideologically liberal record. They accomplished this in two ways: By hardly ever tagging a "liberal" label on Dukakis and by describing him as moderate or "moving to the middle," nearly as often as "liberal." In 49 and a half hours of coverage the networks identified him as a "liberal" or "progressive" just 13 times. In other words, viewers only heard Dukakis properly labeled once every 3.8 hours. Jesse Jackson holds views placing him well to the left of most liberal Democrats, a fact that did not concern the networks. Though he dominated coverage for the first two nights, he got tagged "liberal" just nine times, or once every five and a half hours. Over half the labels came from NBC which placed him to the left on five occasions. With fourteen labels, reporters called Bentsen conservative or moderate more often than they put Dukakis or Jackson on the other end of the spectrum. Dukakis ended up just where he wanted to be: holding down the middle between Jackson on the left and Bentsen on the right.

2) INTERVIEWS -- The four networks aired 112 interviews with Senators, Congressmen, Mayors and Governors (interviews with Jackson, Dukakis, Bentsen and members of their campaign staffs were not included). The vast majority (76 percent) came from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, such as New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Walter Mondale, Senators Edward Kennedy, Paul Sarbanes and Paul Simon and U.S. Representatives Charles Rangel and Tony Coehlo. Interviews with those from the more moderate wing represented only 24 percent of interviews. Among those: Senators Al Gore, Sam Nunn and Ernest Hollings, and former Virginia Governor Chuck Robb. CNN gave airtime to the most moderates, 14 interviews; CBS the least with just three compared to 19 liberals.

3) QUESTIONS POSED -- The networks avoided substance as much as possible. The vast majority of 666 questions put those interviewed on the floor or in the booth dealt with reactions to speeches, the popularity of the ticket or wondering what Jackson might do. Less than a fourth focused on Democratic or Republican agenda policy issues.

Among these, a few centered on whether Dukakis can win back "Reagan Democrats." For example, NBC's Lisa Myers asked a delegate Wednesday night: "How do you get those voters back this year?" Nine percent, categorized as Democratic Agenda, gave convention goers an opportunity to pick up on one of the party's campaign themes. ABC's Sam Donaldson, for instance, spoonfed Senator George Mitchell this query: "Will the Iran-Contra issue have faded or is that going to be an issue this fall?"

Just seven percent challenged Democrats with probable Republican campaign issues. NBC stood apart from the other networks for posing Republican Agenda questions. On Tuesday NBC's Chris Wallace asked Senator Gore: "You campaigned  against Dukakis and your other opponents saying that they were soft of defense. Aren't Republicans this fall going to be able to use that same argument?" In an unusual twist, Wallace even followed up with specifics: "The fact is that Dukakis is still against the MX, still against the Midgetman; he is still for a ban on flight testing of vehicles." With one exception, the networks failed to challenge the Democrats on how they expect to convince voters to support the Democratic ticket given the booming economy under the Republicans.

Here are sample questions matching the other categories in the table.

Fall Campaign/Party Unity: "Are you on board? Are you going to campaign for this ticket? Did they ask you to?" -- CBS' Lesley Stahl to Mario Cuomo.

Floor Events/Reaction: "Kathleen, what is so special about this night?" -- NBC's Chris Wallace to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on Thursday night.

Jesse Jackson: "Are you concerned that Jesse Jackson will do everything he can and that his people will share the kind of enthusiasm for Michael Dukakis as they do for him?" -- CNN's Charles Bierbauer to Morris Udall.

4) CONSISTENCY WITH 1984 -- In 1984 ABC and CBS refused to show the Reagan video preceding his Republican Convention speech. NBC carried it, though warned viewers the film would "insult your emotions head-on." This year, CBS remained consistent, not airing either the Jackson or Dukakis videos. But ABC and NBC carried both without comment.

In 1984, the Republicans tried to run a "feel good" convention devoid of issues. The networks repeatedly criticized the Republicans for their lack of candor in trying to hide their conservative agenda. A study by Professor Bill Adams showed just how determined the networks were. Looking at just two networks, CBS and NBC, he found terms like "ultraconservative platform" and "party of far right conservatives" used to describe Republicans 113 times. This year the Democrats tried to hide their true views. The networks on a few occasions complained about the lack of specifics, but never focused on the Democratic Party's actual liberal agenda.

5) CONTROVERSIES IGNORED -- Despite the fact a "Republican Truth Squad" was on hand in Atlanta, the networks virtually ignored controversies plaguing Democrats and Dukakis. CBS and NBC never once mentioned the ethical conduct questions surrounding House Speaker Jim Wright. ABC briefly raised the issue on two occasions. While CNN devoted almost five minutes to Wright's problems before 8:00 PM one night, the cable network only discussed the issue once during prime-time. Controversies dogging Dukakis in the months before the convention were also ignored. Viewers heard nothing about the Dukakis furlough record, prison site controversy or his consistent record of raising taxes. Doubts about his responsibility for the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle" were similarly dismissed. ABC took an uncritical look at the topic twice.

6) VALUE OF COVERAGE TO THE VOTER -- ABC, CNN and NBC allowed viewers to see only major addresses, ignoring other podium activity. Those wanting to see anymore had to watch C-SPAN. Of the major networks, however, CNN and NBC gave viewers the greatest diversity of views without ignoring major convention events. CBS reporters spent more time talking among themselves than offering viewers convention-related information (See the "Janet Cooke Award," page 5).

In the September MediaWatch: A comparison of Democratic and GOP Convention coverage.

NewsBites: Abortion Distortion

Abortion Distortion. As Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis campaigns around the country he's frequently confronted by pro-life demonstrators.

On the July 24 World News Sunday, ABC's Joe Bergantino noted the presence of anti-abortion protesters as Dukakis attended church. Instead of portraying his pro-abortion stand as a liability with ethnic Catholics, Bergantino declared it is: "Just one of several positions that helps him with women voters."

Bergantino explained how Dukakis is courting "disgruntled working class, Catholic voters" who "he says bought the Reagan message and found it bought them little in return."

Contra Attack? "The Sandinistas today blame the Contras for an attack on a river boat that killed two people and wounded 27, including an American clergyman," CBS' Dan Rather announced on August 3.

Reporter Juan Vasquez reviewed the "terrifying" cruise, explaining "the Sandinistas were quick to seize the propaganda advantage by blaming" the Contras. Since all the other networks ignored the charge, the Sandinista ploy worked only with CBS. Though Rather mentioned "the Contras denied any involvement," Vasquez dismissed the Contra version, concluding: "Since they're counting on the U.S. Congress to bail them out of an increasingly desperate situation, the attack on civilians on Rama River could not have come at a worse time."

Laying the Blame on the Mujaheddin. On the July 23 NBC Nightly News reporter Peter Kent told viewers who is at fault for the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. The Soviets who invaded in 1979? No, the Afghan freedom fighters struggling to liberate their nation. Reporting from Kabul, Kent charged Mujaheddin rockets killed "at least 17 civilians" in a week, claiming: "The problem is the Mujaheddin still want an unconditional victory over the communist regime in Kabul when the Soviet troop withdrawal is completed next year."

ABC's Missing Meese Piece. On July 25 Attorney General Edwin Meese told the National Press Club luncheon audience a criminal probe of his activities could have been avoided had two former Justice Department officials first conducted a competent investigation. CBS, CNN and NBC all ran stories on Meese's view.

The next day those two officials, the former Deputy and Assistant Attorneys General, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and claimed the department turned into "a world of Alice in Wonderland" under Meese, prompting them to resign in protest. ABC, which couldn't find time for Meese's side of the story the night before, made these charges the lead item on World News Tonight. So much for balance.

Britannica Turns on Turner. Encyclopedia Britannica has canceled plans to market to schools an educational package based on "Portrait of the Soviet Union." A glowing look at Soviet society, "Portrait" aired in March on Ted Turner's cable superstition, WTBS, and earned the "Janet Cook Award." Britannica planned to sell a series of videotapes and study guides for elementary, middle and high school students based on the series.

The Media Research Center (MRC), publisher of MediaWatch, mobilized nationwide conservative opposition to the pro-Soviet propaganda. An early August syndicated column by William F. Buckley Jr. alerted parents to the content, prompting a Britannica official to announce the cancellation. The reason given: "Test marketing of the 'Portrait' series indicated there was insufficient demand." Translation: it bombed.

A Feminist Mistake. After reciting the gains made by women since the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, NBC's Betty Rollin concluded her July 25 Nightly News story by repeating a myth pushed by feminists. "Women's earning are still only 70 percent of men's. And women...may rise to the middle of a corporation, but seldom to the top," she announced.

Researchers at Concerned Women for America were quick to explain to MediaWatch that women are 11 times more likely than men to leave and re-enter the labor force, and women are much more likely to choose flexible jobs with transferable skills. These patterns largely account for slower promotions and lower earning. Women aged 20-24 make 89 percent of what their male counterparts earn, and the wages of women are expected to improve relative to men's for the rest of the century.

How could Rollin have missed this? Perhaps it was her choice of sources. In nine minutes over two nights, Rollin featured only one expert: radical feminist Friedan.

Quint-Essential Reasoning? Apparently convinced Mikhail Gorbachev is dedicated to religious freedom, one CBS reporter has found the real villain behind Soviet religious repression. While Gorbachev has promised for five years to allow free worship, still today few churches have been allowed to reopen. The Ukranian Catholic Church was nearly obliterated under Stalin and remains under-ground today.

To CBS' Burt Quint, however, Gorbachev is not to be blamed. Quint absolved him, characterizing the Russian Orthodox Church as the true obstacle. In a June 13 report on the Pope's appeal for religious tolerance, Quint concluded: "The Russian Orthodox Church has resisted the granting of religious freedom to other Christians. It enjoys a near monopoly on legalized religion and would resent losing it. That poses a problem for Gorbachev."

Bronx Wars. NBC's Bronx Zoo, a show about life at an inner-city high school that stars left-wing activist Ed Asner, is at it again. An episode last season promoted birth control and abortion services. This season Asner used a new June 22 episode to denigrate a military career.

When teacher "Sara Newhouse" learns a student plans to enlist in the Marines, she becomes enraged. Insisting "these kids" need "to learn from our mistakes," she gets principal "Joe Danzig," played by Asner, to allow her to photocopy an anti-Vietnam War book not on the approved list. In discussing the situation with other teachers she bemoans her student's choice of a military career since he has "real potential and he's just going to chuck it all for the Marines." She also regrets anti-war sentiments "just aren't that fashionable anymore."

Head's Line on Firing Line. ABC's situation-comedy Head of the Class has, once again, served as a platform for liberal actor Howard Hessman to promote his political views. An episode repeated this summer satirized a TV talk show host described as an "intellectual, novelist, mountain-climber" and "the king of conservatism." The "Lawrence P. Whitney" character even impersonated the voice of William F. Buckley Jr.

Upon hearing "Whitney" wants to interview a member of the advanced placement class, high school student "Dennis" calls him a "right-wing, crypto-fascist, plutocratic sleaze bag." In a letter to the TV host, "Dennis" writes: "Your every appearance is living proof that the phrase conservative thinker is an oxymoron." As the program draws to a close teacher "Mr. Moor," (Howard Hessman) imagines what his appearance might be like. "Mr. Moore" gives viewers a lecture on the virtues of liberalism. "Whitney" naturally sees the light:

"How could I have been so blind. So, I can now at last say that liberalism may, nay let me go so far as to say does, have a profound and unequivocal value. Because of what you have said here today, I feel compelled to re-evaluate the thinking of my entire career."

A Healthy Tilt. Just how widespread is advocacy of the liberal agenda at The Washington Post? Judging by some recent cover stories, it even includes the weekly tabloid "Health" section which the newspaper uses to promote socialized medicine.

Back in March, Karen DeYoung looked at the popularity of Britain's National Health Services (NHS) on the 40th birthday of "the proudest achievement of Britain's post-war social reforms." DeYoung glossed over the well documented problems of an inefficient government run system, including long waits just to get a hospital bed, poor care and unlimited demand for a system without any incentives to control costs. Instead, DeYoung attacked conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for "undermining" NHS by refusing to raise taxes to fund the system.

Concluding the article, DeYoung described her policies as "niggardly and insulting to the citizens of a country that claims to have Europe's highest economic growth rate." An accompanying sidebar article by a Princeton University professor urged the U.S. to raise taxes and further regulate medicine in order to assure "universal entitlement to health care."

After Massachusetts Government Michael Dukakis signed a law forcing private companies to provide health insurance to those uninsured, a cover story asked hopefully: "As Massachusetts Goes, So Goes the Nation?" Back in April 1987 the "Health" section gave readers a six page tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy and his campaign for socialized medicine, praising him for becoming a "torch-bearer of change in domestic politics."

Moscow Meets Main Street. If you think you see more and more communist spokesmen and Soviet government officials on American television news, you're right. A new Media Institute monograph, "Moscow Meets Main Street," by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Ted Smith proves that the American networks increasingly consider official Soviet spokesmen credible source of information. The study of all network evening newscasts in 1981, 1983, and 1985 showed a drastic increase in Soviet on-camera appearance with each year. Smith found that in 1981, 291 stories used at least one Soviet source. By 1985, the Soviets gained unprecedented access to American viewers, as the number of stories with a Soviet appearance jumbed 64 percent to 477.

What explains this increased willingness to put Soviets on the air? Smith suggests the blame lies with the "intellectualization" of the elite journalists and their "culturally neutral" outlook on reporting. All too often the U.S. media, acting as neutral arbitrators above the East-West fray, give equal weight and credibility to Soviet communist policy and the words of leaders in the Free World.

Revolving Door: Thomas Rodgers

Thomas Rodgers, NBC's Vice President for policy planning and business development, promoted to head NBC Cable. The new division will soon launch the Consumer News and Business Channel.

Before moving to NBC in 1986 Rodgers served as Senior Counsel to the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance chaired by then Congressman Tim Wirth, now a liberal Senator from Colorado. In early August Capital Cities/ABC Inc. named Mark McCarthy to the post of Vice President, government affairs in Washington. For the past seven years he's served as a professional staff member handling communications policy for the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by liberal Democrat John Dingell of Michigan.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) recruited some experienced media hands to help promote their party line during July's convention. They hired former CBS News correspondent Ike Pappas to produce interviews and feature pieces for the DNC's "Convention Satellite News Service" fed to local stations.

The DNC also produced Party Line, an hourly "dope sheet" distributed to reporters. Its Co-Editor, Lance Morgan, was once Washington correspondent for the Yorkshire Post and Birmingham Evening News and a contributor to The Guardian, three British newspapers. Mary Russell, a Capitol Hill reporter for The Washington Post in the 1970's, headed the "quote patrol," searching for newsworthy utterances.

Last month's "Study" listed 34 former political operatives who are now playing a role in campaign coverage, mainly liberal activists turned reporters. Here are two commentators for the growing list: Former Reagan Communications Director Patrick Buchanan and Mark Green, the 1986 Democratic New York Senate candidate, provided commentary during CNN's convention coverage.

Through November, Conus Communications is offering analysis from former Mondale campaign Manager Bob Beckel and former Reagan White House political aide Haley Barbour to their 78 subscribing television stations. During the Republican Convention Conus affiliates could also air commentary from Jack Kemp's campaign Manager, Ed Rollins.

CORRECTION: The July "Revolving Door" column stated that Dan Noyes, a new general assignment reporter with ABC News, once worked for the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). MediaWatch was mistaken. There is a Dan Noyes at CIR and another with ABC News.

Dirty Double Standard

In late July a reporter asked Michael Dukakis about the Pentagon scandal. The Democratic presidential candidate shot back: "Well, there's an old Greek saying, 'the fish rots from the head first.'" TV network reporters portrayed the remark as a bold, decisive statement on a popular topic, not as an improper personal attack on Reagan's integrity.

On July 30 CBS News correspondent Bruce Morton told viewers "Dukakis sharpened his attack" since "the Reagan Administration has been scandal plagued, and Democratic strategists say ethics is a good issue." ABC's Joe Bergantino reported a "big and enthusiastic" crowd made Dukakis "feel confident and self-assured" so "he took a risk, and pounced." On NBC Nightly News Bob Kur explained that "at every stop the Governor's pitch on ethics is one of the most well received."

Four days later the President responded to a question on whether Dukakis once saw a psychiatrist by jokingly referring to him as an "invalid." Suddenly, the same reporters became indignant at the "dirty" turn in the campaign. An alarmed Dan Rather warned viewers "about a nasty campaign getting nastier." This "is a story about a rumor and how the news media were forced to cover it," Morton complained. "Between now and November," he concluded, "we may see a lot of dirt."

Even though the charge first appeared in the liberal The Boston Globe, on Good Morning America ABC's Bergantino laid the blame on "rumors reported in this conservative Sun Myung Moon owned newspaper, The Washington Times." The "key question now," Bergantino asked, "is whether the Republicans have deliberately helped keep these rumors alive, and if so, is this just a preview of how downright dirty this campaign will get."

With all this pious self-examination and discussion of media ethics underway, the networks could go a step further. They might consider issuing apologies to others they've impugned by repeating unsubstantiated allegations, such as Ed Meese, Oliver North, Ray Donovan, Robert Bork, etc.

Janet Cooke Award: CBS NEWS: Democratic Convention Coverage

CBS News: Democratic Convention Coverage

The 1988 Democratic National Convention may have been a shining success for Michael Dukakis, but it was a dismal failure for the major networks. The four day affair drew the smallest combined audience share ever, 39 percent. The fewest number of people tuned into CBS, and for good reason.

Anchor Dan Rather began the first night of coverage by saying "CBS News has an experienced team of veteran correspondents here to sort out the substance from the hip, the hype, and the hoopla." In fact, after monitoring all ten hours of CBS coverage MediaWatch determined CBS was more interested in boosting the images and opinions of reporters past and present. For distorting the views of Dukakis and Jackson, for allowing reporters to insert their liberal personal opinions at will, and for showing the least amount of convention activity, CBS News earns the August Janet Cooke Award. (See the "Study" on page 6 for complete convention analysis.)

Of the four networks, CBS best promoted the Democrats and Dukakis as moderate. The network interviewed six times as many Senators, Congressmen, Governors, or Mayors from the liberal wing of the party as they did from the more moderate one. Besides allowing liberal politicians to dominate the airwaves, CBS reporters also pitched in. For instance, on Tuesday evening, Ed Bradley asserted that by voting down the minority plank on no first use of nuclear weapons, the Democrats and Dukakis "come out strong on defense, they follow traditional American policy, and the policy of our NATO allies." Bradley and other CBS correspondents never mentioned Dukakis' opposition to the MX, the Midgetman, new aircraft carriers, or SDI.

Meanwhile, Chief Political Correspondent Bruce Morton went beyond his role as reporter and predictably advocated new taxes. According to Morton, "there's more willingness to talk about and think about" it because "the national mood is also swinging a bit away from 'greed is good,' the line in the movie "Wall Street," back toward 'we've got to do something about the least advantaged in our society.'"

Jesse Jackson became the media's hero, but CBS was the most outrageous at portraying him as mainstream. Wednesday night Walter Cronkite claimed that Jackson "conducted a mainstream campaign." The same night, retired correspondent Eric Sevareid compared Jackson to Hubert Humphrey, claiming he has become the "conscience of the country." These conclusions were not so surprising considering Chief Political Correspondent Bruce Morton twice claimed: "Nobody almost is an old-fashioned liberal anymore in a sense of let's throw some money at a problem." Diane Sawyer found a liberal one night. She described Texas Treasurer Ann Richards as "a die-hard member of the liberal wing of the Texas party," only to be contradicted an hour later by Morton calling Richards a "mainstream lady."

CBS reporters and analysts spent so much time talking among themselves, that those who watched CBS saw the least amount of convention floor or podium activity. For instance, while Senator John Glenn delivered the Bentsen nomination speech, CBS viewers were forced to listen to Sevareid. He concluded his three minute analysis with this brilliant insight: the race comes down "to these two men, Bush and Dukakis." When Vice Presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen was being approved by acclamation, CBS went to commercials. Rather was, well, himself. Rather asked Dukakis' mother "What were his first words as a child?" and "Did he ever come home at night maybe having one too many beers?"

For those who wanted to watch straightforward convention coverage without a lot of misleading analysis from network stars, CBS was not the network to choose.