MediaWatch: August 1989
Table of Contents:
Study: Eric Engberg: Spin Doctor of CBS
On May 29, House Speaker Jim Wright was about to resign. CBS asked correspondent Eric Engberg to give his perspective on the evolving story. "Politics didn't just turn ugly. It evolved from a nasty presidential campaign that featured the GOP's famous Willie Horton ad," he explained. This deft transformation of a liberal complaint into a statement of fact is typical of what viewers can expect from Engberg.
MediaWatch analysts reviewed a year of Engberg's reports (July 1, 1988 to June 30, 1989), including 59 on the CBS Evening News. This review demonstrates that whenever possible, Engberg adds a liberal spin to major news events and files pieces on liberal agenda items no other network finds important enough to cover. Here are some representative examples of Engberg at work:
THE CAMPAIGN. The majority of Engberg's reports in the last half of 1988 focused on the "nasty" presidential campaign. Engberg regularly accused Vice President George Bush of leveling personal attacks on Governor Michael Dukakis. On August 8, for instance, he reported: "Bush continued to pound Michael Dukakis personally, implying that the Democrats' wide lead in the polls stems from ducking the issues."
Engberg also pounced on October 22, when Bush disavowed an Illinois pamphlet suggesting criminals favored Dukakis, asserting "It's one of the few times Bush has publicly voiced any doubts about the pit-bull style Republican campaign. But he showed no signs this week of deviating from a harsh personal-attack style." Observing Bush on the stump during a November 4 campaign swing, Engberg reported: "The headline in the pro-Bush Boston tabloid [Boston Herald] told of bank overdrafts by the state covered by borrowing. Bush, without taking note of the fact that the federal deficit is now $155 billion, acted like an outraged prosecutor." "Bush's read-all-about-it act with the anti-Duke headline may have pleased the crowd," Engberg snidely concluded, "but the big draw was 7,000 free lunches handed out after he left."
IRAN-CONTRA. As the Oliver North trial came to an end, Engberg preferred liberal lectures over a balanced presentation of prosecution and defense. When the verdict came in on May 4, he pieced together his lesson of Iran-Contra with video of Reagan Administration figures: "Once secrecy is embraced, rather than public debate and compromise, the freewheeling covert operators can do as they wish because an invisible policy can't be questioned...But secrecy leads to deception...Deception leads to lies...Lies tear apart the rule of law...Could it happen again? Scholars say yes, until Presidents accept the need to compromise with Congress."
Later, on a CBS News special report, Engberg asked a second time: "Can it happen again? If secrecy and misleading Congress worked once," Engberg began, letting Democrat Clark Clifford finish the sentence "...There is no absolute guarantee to keep it from happening again. It depends upon the acceptance by a President of our system of laws."
A month earlier, his liberal perspective on the world even led to factual inaccuracy. On April 6 he charged: "George Bush as Vice President carried promises of U.S. aid to the military dictatorship of Honduras," misleading viewers about a government that's been elected democratically since 1981.
EXCLUSIVES. Engberg never produced a story based on a conservative agenda concern. On a few occasions, however, Engberg filed stories on activities of liberal organizations, focusing attention on subjects not considered newsworthy by the other networks. On June 13, Engberg reported left-wing attacks on corporate support for university research. "Corporate giving to universities is more like give and take....to the point that critics worry the pursuit of knowledge is losing out to the pursuit of profit."
Engberg interviewed Leonard Minsky of the Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, who said "With the advent of money and greed in the university, the ethics of Wall Street have also invaded the university." Engberg's strange conclusion: "Congress is also concerned about taxpayer money being lost. After all, universities are kept afloat with federal dollars, money that's supposed to benefit the public, not some bottom line."
This past Spring, the left-wing Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) advocated adding money for low-income housing to the S&L bailout bill by occupying federally owned housing. "If taxpayers are going to kick in $40 billion, they argue, then the whole structure of financing homes should be made to benefit the little guy, the idea behind savings and loans in the first place," Engberg explained in an April 12 story. Engberg ended the report: "As the Congress races to do something, the process of writing the bill has turned into what one House staffer calls chaos. Activists hope to take advantage of that and push for changes in a system they claim locks the little guy out of the housing market."
On the eve of President Bush's first State of the Union address February 9, Engberg again served as the CBS spin doctor: "As George Bush presents his priorities tonight, there's evidence in this poll and elsewhere that the nation will respond to a very American idea: that their government by the people sometimes must act boldly for the people." The CBS poll found support for the "very American idea" of more government social spending: 55 percent in favor of government day care, 66 percent for more student aid, and 71 percent for nursing home care.
To explain these liberal causes, Engberg brought on liberal economist Robert Reischauer (then with the Brookings Institution and now the Director of the Democratic majority's Congressional Budget Office) and labor economist Audrey Freedman, who said "I think the country's beginning to develop a sense of guilt after eight years of saying 'I don't care. I feel good, and I don't care.'"
The journalist's only value is credibility. Engberg cannot maintain his credibility if he continues to promote liberal ideology as news reporting. An ongoing record of bias, of turning liberal interpretations into facts and liberal causes into feature stories, leading even to factual inaccuracy should bring into question the credibility of this network correspondent.