In This Issue
Reporters Hold Anti-Clinton Ads to Higher Standard of Disclosure, Accuracy; NewsBites: Health Plan or Else; Revolving Door: The Times Agenda; Networks Fail to Investigate Allegations While Dismissing Revelations; Too Tough-On-Crime Lawman; The Numbers Game; So Much for the Truth Squad; Janet Cooke Award: ABC's Tom Foreman Finds the Majority of Ad "Inaccuracy" and "Scare Tactics" on the Right
Reporters Hold Anti-Clinton Ads to Higher Standard of Disclosure, Accuracy
Harry and Louise Get the Shaft
More than $50 million has been spent on ads in the war over socialized medicine. Conservative ads charged the Clinton plan will reduce doctor choice, lead to rationing and new bureaucracies, and cost more taxes, lost jobs and reduced wages. Liberal ads have focused on the crisis of the current system which leaves sick and dying Americans uninsured, and how greedy insurance companies are stopping reform. So did reporters monitor all sides for accuracy -- conservatives, liberals, industry?
MediaWatch analysts identified 19 examples of print and TV reporting on ad accuracy in the last year, and found the ad watches were often reserved for Clinton's critics. Of our sample, 11 stories attacked anti-Clinton ads exclusively, six stories critiqued both sides, and only two focused solely on a liberal ad.
Harry and Louise. The Health Insurance Association of America (HIAA) aired their first round of multi-million dollar "Harry and Louise" commercials before the Clinton plan was unveiled. The White House quickly attacked the ads.
So did CBS. On September 22, 1993, CBS This Morning reporter Hattie Kauffman did a story featuring Families USA chief Ron Pollack, who denounced the HIAA ad as "unethical to the worst degree" for listing the Coalition for Health Care Choices as the sponsor. CBS did not point out that the HIAA ads exceeded federal disclosure requirements for type size and disclosure of funding, and their disclosure outdid many liberal ads. CNN criticized the ad from the same angle on October 19.
Newspapers also critiqued the HIAA ads. In the first of two New York Times evaluations, on October 21, 1993, reporter Elizabeth Kolbert didn't declare the ad inaccurate, but found it had "a melodramatic, overacted quality that may make viewers suspicious. And once they learn the ad is sponsored by the insurance industry, these suspicions are only likely to increase."
In the November 15, 1993 issue, Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter added his two cents: "Although one commercial wrongly claimed the Clinton plan limits choice, it wasn't any more misleading than the average election year spot."
Time's Margaret Carlson sneered in the March 7 issue this year that the HIAA ads "play on the credibility of successful middle-aged yuppies who have no more pressing concerns than the specter of bad coffee or bad regulation....Harry and Louise shed no more light on health care than their counterparts selling Taster's Choice shed on instant sex or coffee." Carlson quoted Kathleen Hall Jamieson: "Harry and Louise invite false inferences...They frighten people about reform, while insisting they are for it."
Conservatives and Republicans. CNN's Brooks Jackson attacked the Republican National Committee in an October 22 story for an ad estimating 3 million jobs would be lost under the Clinton plan. Jackson reported "independent experts say the GOP ad is just wrong," even though no plan had been implemented.
On April 29, 1994, a Wall Street Journal story was headlined "Truth Lands in Intensive Care Unit As New Ads Seek to Demonize Clintons' Health-Reform Plan." Reporter Rick Wartzman charged: "Many of the groups twisting the facts are hard-line conservatives, bent on stopping any government presence in health care." Wartzman singled out Americans for Tax Reform, whose ad he said "isn't true. Neither the Clinton health care bill nor any of the alternatives on Capitol Hill would force people to call for government approval before visiting a doctor or rushing to the hospital." Wartzman ignored that most reform plans push more Americans into HMOs, which require pre-authorization of doctor or hospital visits.
On May 27, The New York Times carried a story headlined "`Liars' Try to Frighten Elderly On Health Care, Groups Say." Reporter Robert Pear began: "Two large consumer groups charged today that conservative direct mail organizations were scaring elderly people with inaccurate attacks on President Clinton's health care plan." The "consumer groups" were the American Association of Retired Persons and the union-affiliated National Council of Senior Citizens (NCSC). Pear did not evaluate the ads of AARP or HealthRIGHT, which is supported by the NCSC.
Mixed Reviews. The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour let the advertisers debate each other on October 21, 1993 and July 18, 1994. On November 2, 1993, NBC's Robert Hager critiqued HIAA ads for suggesting the Clinton plan would contain global budgeting (which was considered). But Hager also declared it a "half-truth" for Families USA to claim doctor choice is guaranteed when it may require paying more for fee-for-service care, and described HealthRIGHT's contention that health costs are the leading cost of personal bankruptcy as "bizarre."
When the Democratic National Committee misquoted Gov. Carroll Campbell (R-S.C.) in an ad ("you shouldn't say there's no health care crisis" became "there's no health care crisis"), Lisa Myers pointed it out February 17. But Myers also critiqued an RNC ad which claimed "you will have to settle for one of the low-budget health plans selected by the government." Myers responded: "The Clinton plan gives consumers the option of continuing to see any doctor they choose for a higher price." But the RNC quoted Elizabeth McCaughey's February 28 New Republic article citing doctors as confident that "fee-for-service [care] will seldom be available."
The New York Times' Catherine Manegold evaluated ads by the liberal AARP and the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy on July 17. Both ads cited fear of the future. In the AARP ad, "Because the actors are convincing and the concerns they articulate are common, the advertisement hits home." But Manegold panned the CSE ad: "While the ad plays effectively on many peoples' fears, its Darth Vader tone works against it. It has an overblown quality that slips dangerously close to the tone of a spoof."
Liberals and Democrats. Few outlets covered the DNC's Carroll Campbell error. The Washington Post did the story, but it didn't make CBS, U.S. News & World Report and major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, USA Today (which promoted the ad in a February 10 story), and The New York Times. CNN's Brooks Jackson did cover the Campbell story, but reviewed no other liberal ad.
While CBS and CNN critiqued the HIAA's ads for inadequately underlining their funding, with Families USA's Ron Pollack leading the attack, the Health Care Reform Project's pro-Clinton commercials were never critiqued. But its ads don't declare they are paid for by Families USA (which won't disclose its donors) and by businesses like American Airlines, Ford, and Chrysler, which support socialized medicine as a way to pawn their health costs off on the taxpayer.
NewsBites: Health Plan or Else
ABC's World News Tonight devoted a week of American Agenda to the health care debate. For the last one, on July 29, Peter Jennings noted some "say if you don't do it right, do nothing." Which would mean? Failing to consider any downside to big government reform, Beth Nissen endorsed the liberal class warfare angle, concluding: "Without health care reform, there is nothing to stop insurance discrimination. And anyone can get sick. Anyone with a job can lose it -- lose benefits, lose protection....Without reform, only the richest will be protected from a debilitating new kind of disease -- a virulent strain of worry about their health care, their security; worry that is becoming epidemic."
Only Some Opponents Count
On July 15, when conservatives and liberals came to testify against the Supreme Court nomination of Stephen Breyer, only the liberals were worth covering. Michael Farris, last year's GOP nominee to be Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, was completely missing. Instead, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran pictures the next day of Ralph Nader and focused several paragraphs on the testimony of Nader or his associate Sidney Wolfe of the Public Citizen Health Research Group. The Post had one paragraph quoting Paige Cunningham of Americans United for Life.
Good News Is No News
In the past, the media have highlighted the newest AIDS scare statistics purportedly showing the disease spreading through the population. Typically, Dr. Bob Arnot reported on the June 11, 1993 CBS Evening News: "Heterosexual AIDS among Americans is growing faster than any other risk group, up thirty percent in 1992 alone...Heterosexual AIDS in America is exploding." But the latest stats showing a drop in cases has been met with media silence.
Centers for Disease Control data released in late July revealed that in the first six months of 1994, 37,529 new AIDS cases have been reported, a decline from the 59,979 cases reported in the first six months of last year. The CDC broadened its definition of AIDS on January 1, 1993, which officials say mostly caused the increase in that year, but the drop in reported cases also shows its spread has slowed. The number of network stories reporting this? Zero.
Getting Away with Murder
As a crowded tugboat made a mad dash for freedom from Cuba on July 13, four government fireboats intercepted it and used high pressure water hoses to blow many of the refugees off the deck. A July 19 Miami Herald story reported that about 40 people, including many children, drowned in the incident as the tugboat sank after its hold filled with water. Though President Clinton condemned the Cuban action, generating a three sentence USA Today item, no other national news outlet noted it. The Washington Post did not mention it until nine days later. On July 22, the editorial page reprinted four paragraphs of a Miami Herald editorial on the tragedy. As Pedro Reboredo, a county commissioner in Florida, stated in an ad he bought in the Post three days later: "My people do not expect you to invade Cuba. They just want to feel that they are not alone, that the cries of those Cuban children...will not go unanswered or unheard."
Sen. Ted Kennedy faces his toughest reelection bid ever, yet the national media conveniently ignored the tragedy at Chappaquiddick. The 25th anniversary of the incident came and went on July 18 with little media attention shown to the mystery surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. On July 18, CNN's Inside Politics ran a short story on Chappaquiddick, and it was alluded to during a segment on anniversaries on the July 17 Late Edition. It also received a brief mention on the July 24 CBS Evening News in a story on anniversaries. The New York Times on July 18, and Newsweek's July 25 edition also mentioned the tragedy as part of broader stories; ABC, NBC, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time and U.S. News & World Report did not.
While no network found time to do an in-depth look at Chappaquiddick, both CNN and CBS found time to celebrate the 104th birthday of Rose Kennedy, with the July 24 CBS Sunday Morning devoting a full segment to the Kennedy matriarch. And in June of 1993, CNN and NBC evening shows ran stories on the 100th birthday of Cracker Jacks, as did CNN in celebration of G.I. Joe's 29th.
Weiner Roast II
In what has become an annual event, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner charged officials with rigging a 1984 test of the Strategic Defense Initiative. In an August 18, 1993 front-page story, Weiner charged that "Officials in the `Star Wars' project rigged a crucial 1984 test and faked other data in a program that misled Congress as well as the intended target, the Soviet Union." Following the story, then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin concluded on September 9, 1993: "The [June 10, 1984] experiment was not rigged, and deception did not take place."
As voting time for SDI funding approached this year, Weiner repeated his theory in a July 23 article headlined: "Inquiry Finds `Star Wars' Tried Plan to Exaggerate Test Results." How credible is this latest assault? According to the pro-SDI group High Frontier, the General Accounting Office concluded "the Homing Overlay Experiment had not been rigged, and that deception did not take place." In fact, buried in the fourth paragraph of Weiner's story is what should have been the lead: "The [GAO] report directly contradicted accusations, made by four men who worked for the Star Wars program to Congress in August and subsequently reported by The New York Times, that Star Wars officials rigged the fourth test in the series as part of the deception program."
The Washington Post presented a stunning two-part series titled "Uncounted Millions" on mass murder during the reign of China's communist dictator Mao Zedong. On July 17 and 18, reporter Daniel Southerland chronicled tales of murder, famine, and cannibalism and discovered with Chinese and American scholars that "the two people most associated with mass deaths in this bloodiest of human centuries -- Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin -- were likely surpassed by a third, China's Mao Zedong." While Hitler and Stalin killed around 40 million each, "evidence shows" Mao "was in some way responsible for at least 40 million deaths and perhaps 80 million or more."
Southerland explained that "in the early years of Mao, many Western scholars were so enamored of Mao that they refused to believe such widespread atrocities could have been carried out by the Chinese communists." Not to mention Western reporters. On July 22, 1989, for instance, Washington Post reporter Michael Weisskopf euphemistically reported that Mao's "ideological binges...shredded China's intellectual community," but concluded: "While Beijing denies the Tiananmen massacre, Chinese critics merely add it to the list of things Mao never did.
Moscow on the Hudson. Today laid out the second media welcome mat for Stephen Wechsler, the Army deserter turned East German communist. On the heels of June's fawning Washington Post story on Wechsler, Bryant Gumbel introduced Wechsler on July 18: "For most who lived behind the Iron Curtain, the end of the Cold War was a time of joyous liberation, but for one American it was a time of fear." Reporter Jamie Gangel picked up on the fear angle, characterizing the time of his early 1950s defection from the U.S. Army as an era noted for "The start of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and fear of communism."
For most East Germans the Berlin Wall imprisoned them. But Wechsler explained that "I had always been just a little fearful in Berlin, I had heard stories that some ex-soldiers had sort of been brought back to the West...the Wall in a way meant protection for me." Gangel failed to challenge his paranoia, instead reminiscing about how he is "getting reacquainted" with "many things he has never seen or heard before," such as outlet malls. Calling the man who spent 42 years behind the Berlin Wall, where news on the West came in dictator-approved bites, an "expert on America from afar," Gangel allowed him to explain that his return let him confirm the U.S. has "many people without a home." Will Today offer the next Nazi sympathizer to leave Argentina such a warm welcome?
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote July 8 that "ABC News is cracking down on big-bucks speeches by its star correspondents." Why? Kurtz quoted an internal memo from Senior VP Richard Wald: "`It isn't just how big a fee is, it is also who gives it and what it might imply...You may not accept a fee from a trade association or from a for-profit business. Their special interest is obvious and we have to guard against it.'"
How will ABC policy affect speeches before other special interests, like the NAACP? As Susan Gregory Thomas reported in the May 17 Washington Post, ABC correspondent Carole Simpson (and CBS anchor Dan Rather) hosted a $175-a-plate fundraiser for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's 40th anniversary. Would the new policy prevent helping such a liberal advocacy organization? No, Director of News Practices Lisa Heiden told MediaWatch, noting that ABC's policy had always covered "groups with a political purpose" and NAACP doesn't fit that category.
What's a Moderate?
Maybe it's a grand experiment in shifting the political spectrum two clicks to the right through media word association: `Republican,' equals `far right,' while `Democrat,' means `moderate.' See reporter Jackie Calmes' story on an Idaho congresssional race in the July 7 Wall Street Journal.
"Ultraconservative GOP candidates like Helen Chenoweth," and her "far-right supporters," face Democratic incumbent Rep. Larry LaRocco, a "pro-abortion-rights moderate." But Calmes did not inform readers of LaRocco's less than moderate 24 percent rating from the American Conservative Union (ACU).
Eric Pianin achieved a similar distortion in his May 27 Washington Post article on new House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sam Gibbons: "A moderate on most social issues, Gibbons is more conservative on economic matters." Yet a few paragraphs earlier, Pianin noted that Gibbons (ACU rating: 22), cosponsored legislation "to create a national system of government-paid health coverage...a single-payer plan."
A sidebar box in the June 27 Newsweek lamented the retiring of "moderate" Democratic Majority Leader George Mitchell. In 1992, his consistently liberal voting record earned him a 95 percent approval rating from Americans for Democratic Action. In the same year, however, the "moderate" contradicted the ACU's legislative checklist every time, leaving him a rating of zero.
As developments in the O.J. Simpson story slowed, CBS dusted off an old piece of feminist principle: Link male violence to the lack of females in professional sports. On the June 30 CBS Evening News, Bob McNamara demonstrated the speed with which trendy leftist theory can become a gravely reported news story.
Intoned McNamara: "Some...say that baseball, football, basketball, hockey and boxing will always be linked to violence, on and off the field, as long as they're for men only. Mariah Burton Nelson has become a magnet for women tired of a sports world dominated by men." McNamara ran a clip of Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, explaining that "The hardcore statistics we've got are from colleges with football and basketball players and it does show that they rape more than anybody else except frat boys."
McNamara did allow Oakland A's manager Tony LaRussa to say that Burton's conclusions are "stretching it almost to the point of B.S." Undaunted, McNamara concluded, "When an athlete steps over the line, coaches and crowds go along, it may not be that the games have gotten too rough, but that the rest of us can't remember how to play."
Revolving Door: The Times Agenda
The latest to join the already media-veteran heavy National Security Council staff: Bob Boorstin, a New York Times metropolitan reporter from the mid 1980s until jumping to the Dukakis presidential effort in 1988. Boorstin, who will now serve as a foreign affairs speechwriter, remains a Special Assistant to the President for policy coordination, a position he's held since the beginning of the Clinton Administration.
Boorstin has been involved in formulating Clinton's economic and health plans, a role detailed by Bob Woodward in his new book, The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House. In 1992, Woodward reported, Boorstin was assigned to help economic adviser Gene Sperling and "became the campaign's utility writer."
As the economic team worked in June 1992 to finalize Clinton's economic plan, Boorstin came up against health care adviser Ira Magaziner. "Bob Boorstin took a stab at reasoning with Magaziner as they were traveling in a van to the Governor's Mansion. `No one believes you will save $4 billion,' Boorstin told Magaziner. `It doesn't pass the smell test.' He touched his nose and sniffed once, then twice. Smell was vital in politics. `Look, I used to be a New York Times reporter, and this is just not credible.'"
Two pages and a week later in June the economic team convened again, but Boorstin didn't show such concern for the smell test. As tax hike ideas were dropped from the draft plan, "a tax on foreign corporations, which realistically might have brought in $15 billion over four years, was now saddled with the burden of bringing in $45 billion," wrote Woodward. "Boorstin and Sperling knew it was a lie, a vast overestimation, but they had to balance the books and the $45 billion had come from a congressional report, providing at least some outside verification."
Following the inauguration, Boorstin became media adviser to Hillary Clinton's health care efforts. To win the public relations battle, Woodward learned that Hillary Clinton told Boorstin "they had to find a story to tell, with heroes and villains." Boorstin recommended one. He "was undergoing successful drug therapy for manic depression with the controversial drug Prozac. He had seen the price of a Prozac tablet jump from about 60 cents to $1.10 in just three years, and knew firsthand how drug companies were profiting off the ill. Research showed the enormous profits of drug companies, and Hillary was poised to denounce them."
New to the Hill
Capitol Hill will have a second newspaper to supplement Roll Call next month when The Hill, a weekly being launched by former New York Times reporter Marty Tolchin, begins publication. Signing on as Executive Editor is Al Eisele, a former Knight-Ridder Washington correspondent and Press Secretary to Vice President Walter Mondale.
Eisele covered Mondale for Knight-Ridder's St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press in the early 1970s. Explaining why he left journalism on Inauguration day 1977 to join the new Vice President's staff, Eisele told The Washington Post: "Mondale was one of the few guys in politics I respected enough to go work for. I found I could do press work for him -- and for Jimmy Carter, too, for that matter."
Networks Fail to Investigate Allegations While Dismissing Revelations
"Are the Republicans on a witch hunt?" NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on July 31. Russert argued "Bob Fiske found no criminal behavior, the White House Counsel and the Office of Government Ethics have found no unethical behavior." When it came to Whitewater in July, the media's innate skepticism evaporated, replaced with passive acceptance of official reports and Clinton Administration denials.
After Special Counsel Robert Fiske's report was released June 30, the media touted it as the definitive statement on the Foster death and White House-RTC contacts. On the CBS Evening News Dan Rather declared: "For now, at least, President Clinton and his aides are entitled to say, `We told you so.'" On CNN's Inside Politics, anchor Bernard Shaw asked White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, in light of the Fiske report, "Should the Republicans shut up?"
When Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) raised questions the Fiske report failed to answer about the condition of Vince Foster's body, none of their concerns were reported. Faircloth's and other Republican's questions on the subject during the Whitewater Senate Banking Committee hearings were reported, but some were disgusted with the subject. Peter Jennings asked Capitol Hill correspondent Cokie Roberts, "With all they have to do, how did they get into this one?"
On July 26, Day 1 of the House Banking Committee hearing, many reporters reflected CBS' Bob Schieffer's conclusion: "Neither the testimony nor a stack of internal White House documents released by the committee contained any startling new information." Only ABC's John Martin reported that evening new information had, in fact, been presented. Lloyd Cutler revealed he had found 30 White House-RTC contacts, up from the 20 Fiske found.
Two days later Cutler revised his testimony in a letter to the House committee, changing the date on which the White House learned of the RTC criminal referrals, from after a meeting between Clinton and Ark. Gov. Jim Tucker to a month before. Cutler also conceded that information on the RTC probe could have come from the RTC contacts, not through questions from the media as he had testified. Once again, this went unreported by the networks.
When the White House admitted on August 2 that Foster's Whitewater-related papers were moved to a closet in the Clintons' White House residence after Foster's death, not immediately given to their lawyer as they had maintained, no network reported it for a whole day. On August 3, CBS did a piece on the lie, NBC noted it in passing, while ABC waited two days to report it.
Too Tough-On-Crime Lawman
"Meet the dinosaur of Maricopa County, Arizona. Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn't wear boots or ride a horse and rarely carries a gun. But he has a style that would make Wyatt Earp proud, and leave him in the dust. This tough talking crime fighter has a 1990s knack for self-promotion that would rival Madonna." That's how NBC's Fred Francis began his July 13 Now profile of Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Arizona's largest county. The piece criticized the Sheriff mostly for his get tough on crime policies, portraying them as a menace to civil liberties.
"Though he works in seeming disregard of the Constitution, his constituents love him," Francis lamented. One Sheriff policy that constituted a civil rights violation: banning nude magazines from the Maricopa County jails.
"In fact," Francis intoned, "lawyers for the inmates say the top law enforcement officer of Maricopa County is breaking the law. They say the magazine ban is in direct violation of a court order. He gets around it by claiming that nude magazines are a security threat." So in other words, he is acting within his powers and is not breaking the law.
Francis claimed "there are other constitutional issues in Joe's jails -- like the presumption of innocence....Ninety percent of these inmates [in one jail] haven't been convicted, they're still awaiting trial, but they're being treated as if they've been sentenced to hard time." Pre-trial detention, which is usually approved by a judge, is not unconstitutional. That's how Los Angeles prosecutors are holding O.J. Simpson.
The worst rhetoric was saved for Sheriff Arpaio's most creative attempt to curb crime: more community involvement in crime fighting by the formation of citizen posses. These posses volunteer hundreds of hours of their time, keeping a uniformed presence visible and freeing up police to deal with more serious matters.
Maybe if the Sheriff had organized midnight basketball leagues Francis would have portrayed him as an innovative crimefighter with a social conscience. But Francis saw the posses as a threat to freedom: "If this graduation of brown-shirted posse members smacks of fascism, it doesn't bother the Sheriff."
The Numbers Game
Newsweek Senior Editor Jerry Adler in the July 25 issue examined how statistics used by the media can be twisted and shaded by interest groups to advance their agenda. Adler ticked off a list of inflated stats on battered women and the homeless.
Adler reviewed a 1991 Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) study which claimed 11.5 million children under the age of 12 "were either hungry or `at risk' of hunger -- an astonishing one child out of four."
Adler explained: "The `at risk' category is often a fruitful one for social action groups seeking to magnify a problem. In this study children were said to be at risk if their parents answered yes to any one of eight questions. One was this: in the last 12 months, `Did you ever rely on a limited number of foods to feed your children because you were running out of money to buy food for a meal?' Not being able to afford what you might otherwise buy (even once a year) is a pretty tautological definition of poverty." Unfortunately, Newsweek editors have failed to reflect Adler's skepticism toward the FRAC study. Newsweek dutifully reported FRAC's faulty child hunger findings in its April 1, 1991 issue and again in an article by Laura Shapiro in the March 14, 1994 edition.
When Hillary Rodham Clinton appears on morning shows, the questions are usually fawning. However, on the July 19 Good Morning America devoted entirely to the Clinton health plan, co-host Charles Gibson questioned the assumptions behind the First Lady's plan. He observed: "Your entire system is based on savings in Medicare and Medicaid, which in the past has proved problematical. Secondly, it's based on the concept you can contain costs in health care to no greater than the Consumer Price Index...No nation in the world has been able to do that." When Mrs. Clinton answered that costs were slowing, Gibson retorted "if market mechanisms are doing it, then why do we need reform?"
Gibson challenged the cost projections. "Even if you're able...to simply cut the inflation in health care costs in half, the estimates are you're putting upwards of $600 billion on the deficit over ten years." After Mrs. Clinton told businessmen how many benefits they would receive, Gibson asked: "Your plan contemplates subsidies for poor people, people above the poverty line, subsides for small business, subsidies for early retirees, subsidies for any big business that pays more than 7.9 percent in their payroll in health costs....even the chairman of the Finance Committee in the Senate said this is a fantasy, that we can hold costs down and pay for all this."
Mrs. Clinton appeared for two hours, but while Gibson promised the show would air "opposing voices in the health care debate for extended discussions," when it came time for the Republican view on July 27, Rep. Newt Gingrich got only 45 minutes.
So Much for the Truth Squad
An obviously impressed Howard Kurtz led off his Washington Post "Media Notes" column on July 8 with a study by the far-left Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) charging that Rush Limbaugh is guilty of "sloppiness, ignorance, or fabrication" and has a "finely honed ability to twist and distort reality."
But Kurtz, as well as every other news outlet that covered the story, including Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, failed to explore FAIR's record of accuracy. That includes FAIR's role in charging, without any scientific proof, in 1993 that domestic violence increased dramatically on Super Bowl Sunday. In a January 31, 1993 story Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle revealed that FAIR and the other activists publicizing these claims had no scientific data to back them up. Two days later, FAIR spokesman Steve Rendall told The Boston Globe: "It was not quite accurate...It should not have gone out in FAIR materials."
When it comes to accuracy in reporting about Limbaugh's profession, Kurtz should look closer to home. In a May 22 story, Post reporter Ann Devroy referred to syndicated talk show hosts "Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and Ron Reagan," apparently meaning Michael Reagan. In a June 15 report on a GOP fundraiser, the Post's Lloyd Grove and Joe Donnelly described the "mistress of ceremonies Blanquita Cullum" as "a Texas radio shock jock." In fact, she hosts a political talk show on a Richmond, Virginia station.
Janet Cooke Award: ABC's Tom Foreman Finds the Majority of Ad "Inaccuracy" and "Scare Tactics" on the Right
Who's "Strangling Fair Debate"?
In the 1992 campaign, the networks appointed themselves as truth squads on the candidates' advertising. But almost all the "misleading" ads came from the Republicans. With the health care debate reaching culmination, ABC identified the source of "misinformation." For attacking only conservatives without allowing them to defend themselves, ABC earned the Janet Cooke Award.
On World News Tonight July 25, ABC's Tom Foreman began: "In the battle over health care reform, the first casualty may be the truth. Special interest groups promoting a wide range of positions have committed $50 million to ad campaigns, yet many are causing more confusion than clarity."
Foreman based his entire story on a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. ABC chose the Annenberg Center's Kathleen Hall Jamieson as their referee, but never told viewers the study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "a nonprofit group with close ties to the Clinton reform effort," as the August 1 Time described it.
While the study often supported Clinton's statistical claims for health reform, the report singled out some liberal ads and said "questionable claims are not the unique property" of either side. But Foreman mentioned seven claims, and all but one criticized the Clinton plan.
Foreman explained: "Consider this commercial by Empower America, a conservative political group. It says the Clinton reform plan will mean patients losing the right to choose their own doctor." ABC soundbited the ad: "The bureaucracy will decide when and even if you see a specialist. Under this plan, you will lose choice and control."
Foreman "corrected" it: "All the plans being considered would offer consumers a relatively wide choice of doctors within a selected coverage pool. If patients want to go outside of the pool, they can, but it will cost more." Jamieson added: "The notion that the Clinton plan will remove choice is fundamentally false."
That is not a question of fact, but a matter of prediction. The Clinton plan would move more Americans into HMOs, with their prescribed lists of doctors and reluctance to allow specialist care. In the February 7 New Republic, Manhattan Institute analyst Elizabeth McCaughey pointed out the Clinton bill "pre-empts state laws protecting patient choice" denied by HMOs. As for "going outside of the pool," she quoted Dr. John Ludden of the Harvard Community Health Plan (who ABC interviewed on Good Morning America July 19) predicting that the fee-for-service option will "vanish quickly." But Foreman didn't ask a medical expert; he asked a journalism professor.
Foreman continued: "Another myth: access to health care would be limited, rationed. An ad by the National Right to Life Committee." Foreman showed part of the ad: "I think they'll be targeting handicapped babies and older people." Jamieson weighed in: "What is false about the claim about rationing is the assumption that we don't have any now...Virtually everyone in the country who's not wealthy is facing some form of rationing."
Douglas Johnson of the NRLC told MediaWatch that rationing "is not just the inability to obtain something because it is not free and you don't have the money to pay for it. To `ration' something is to deliberately restrict or withhold it. For example, gas rationing in World War II didn't mean some people couldn't afford gas. It means that the government forbade people to purchase gas."
Foreman went on: "Another myth: reform will mean almost everyone paying more. A commercial by the insurance lobby." The ad said: "You know, 40 percent of all plans could be taxed. Congress should know that's not fair." Foreman countered: "In reality, right now the legislation is so far from its final form, no one knows what the bottom line will be, though there are few indications of widespread cost increases." Jamieson added: "Some people will pay more, but it's not going to be a great deal more. Most are going to pay the same or pay less."
But if no one knows how legislation will end up, how can these claims be judged? Notice the ad did not say "reform will mean almost everyone paying more." The ad said 40 percent of plans could be taxed, which Sen. Bill Bradley proposed in the Senate Finance Committee. As for most paying the same or less, it's not only a question of premiums, but of taxes. Republican economist Chris Frenze told MediaWatch: "Under the Clinton plan, employers could pay as much as 7.9 percent of payroll, essentially a payroll tax larger than the standard employer tax rate of Social Security."
Foreman moved on: "Some of the worst scare tactics have come from highly conservative groups through thousands of direct mail flyers aimed primarily at older people. The Heritage Foundation warns the first people to be rationed out of health care are the elderly. The Seniors Coalition says doctors will have less time to treat patients. And the American Council for Health Care Reform says the government would use health records to end privacy for all Americans and determine who shall live and who shall die. Although there is little evidence to support any of these claims, each group asks for substantial contributions to help fight for seniors' rights."
But all six groups attacked in his story to MediaWatch they were never asked for evidence. Since the elderly need health care more, restrictions would affect them more. The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) pointed out that in Britain, 80 percent of kidney dialysis centers refuse to treat patients over 65. As for privacy, McCaughey noted the Clinton plan mentions privacy, but "doctors must report their patients' personal medical information to a national data bank or risk harsh penalties."
Foreman cited one ad from the Democrats touting Hawaii as having "The highest health care coverage in the nation. Business is thriving. People are healthier." Foreman meekly noted: "Those claims may be true for Hawaii. That does not mean the Hawaiian model will work for the nation."
But in the February 22 Investor's Business Daily, reporter John Merline noted the Urban Institute put the state's percentage of uninsured at 11 percent, greater or equal to 16 other states. The NCPA found that in the decade after the start of Hawaii's plan, employment growth lagged behind the national average and the state fell from 25th to 36th in average annual employee wages.
Foreman ended: "Scare tactics and misinformation could strangle fair debate and special interest groups will effectively rob Americans of the right to choose for themselves." But he strangled fair debate by not allowing his targets self-defense. MediaWatch called Foreman to ask why he took this approach, but he didn't call back.