MediaWatch: August 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 8

NewsBites: No Nazi Gaffes Unless it's Newt

No Nazi Gaffes Unless It's Newt. When Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Jay Rockefeller brought an "average" American to a press conference to illustrate who'd benefit from the Clinton tax plan, Rockefeller described him as "a very close and personal friend." But the guy had a Nazi swastika tattooed to his arm. News? Naah.

Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz explained the gaffe that wasn't on July 28: "Most of the reporters at Daschle's July 18 news briefing (including two from The Washington Post) couldn't see that Rickey McCumbers, the $5-an-hour worker there with his wife, had a small swastika near his right wrist. But Roberta Hornig, an NBC reporter seated near McCumbers, said 'my eyes popped' when she saw it." Was it news? Hornig told Kurtz: "'I just thought it would be unfair to make an issue of this couple who Rockefeller was using to make a point. It would have blown it way out of proportion.'"

What if the politicians were Republicans? Kurtz wrote, "A CNN producer phoned it in for Inside Politics, but on a busy day, said Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno, 'like many other pieces of copy, it didn't make it....I think it's a story. Clearly if Newt Gingrich walked out with a guy with a swastika on his arm, people would have jumped all over it.'" Yet on the "busy day" in question, July 18, Inside Politics found time for a story on Senator Lauch Faircloth's bill to ban computer games like Solitaire from government computers.

Class Warmongers. While the network news hailed the recent budget agreement, there was one facet of it they didn't care for: tax cuts, specifically capital gains tax cuts. The networks mischaracterized the budget from the left as helping the rich the most.

On the July 29 World News Tonight, ABC substitute anchor Diane Sawyer emphasized the liberal angle that wealthier people "benefit" the most dollar-wise: "Economists everywhere spent the day trying to sort out who wins and who loses. Here's one view the economists agreed on: People with very low incomes under $13,000 a year will stay the same, or actually pay a little bit more if they smoke because of higher cigarette taxes. As for everyone else, the range of the tax cuts is huge, as you can see, ranging from $14, at the lowest income levels [on-screen $12,800] to nearly $17,000 at the highest levels [$246,000]. Those with the very highest incomes benefit the most from cuts in capital gains, estate, and inheritance taxes."

On MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams, substitute anchor John Hockenberry relayed the same numbers and introduced a piece by Jonathan Alter: "Now some people busy calculating the actual tax relief generated by the budget agreement think it will end up mostly benefitting people who need it the least: the rich." Alter elaborated: "After the back-slapping, after the fine print, the bottom line on the tax bill is still this: The richer you are, the richer you'll be." While Alter never took the time to point out how much the wealthy pay in taxes, he did take this pot shot as he stood in front of a New York hotel: "The biggest winners from the new tax cut are those...making more than $200,000 a year, the top one percent of all taxpayers. They'll get an average of well over $5,000 a year in new tax relief, enough for a couple of weeks here at the Plaza."

The networks did not point out that the poor who have kids benefit the most, percentage-wise, getting a payment greater than the income tax they pay. The August 1 Washington Post showed how a working mom, who has two children younger than 17, now gets a refund of $771. Under the new deal, it will be $1,771, a tax cut of $1,000, or 130 percent. On the other hand, take the power couple with two children, one in college, one younger than 17. They earn $400,000 and declare $100,000 in capital gains. Now they pay $96,080. Under the new system they would pay $88,080. A tax cut of $8,000, but that's just 8 percent. Only on network television is 8 percent larger than 130 percent.

Healy's Homilies. Los Angeles Times reporter Melissa Healy strove to leave the impression that state-run programs employing welfare recipients are completely inhumane. In her July 5 front page article "N.Y. 'Workfare' Not So Fair After All, Some Say," only four of her 41 paragraphs were allotted to welfare-reforming Republicans, with only one quote from Rep. James M. Talent (Mo.) defending the program. Healy devoted the rest of the article to the complaints of workfare recipients and liberal union and welfare activists that workfare is "slavery" or "indentured servitude."

Healy wrote that one workfare recipient, Geneva Moore, "is reminded of her second-class status daily... Moore and many others say that as long as she is doing work that other people are hired and paid to do, she should not need to wait to be treated like a worker. Showing up promptly on the job each morning, Moore says she does exactly the things that any city maintenance worker, who in New York would earn roughly $9 per hour, would do. And while she does it, she says, some of those workers drink coffee and remind her that they pay for her welfare check, so she should get to work."

The Liberal Libertarian? Longtime Supreme Court Justice William Brennan died on July 24. Instead of taking a serious look at the man who expanded government power in many areas, reporters celebrated Brennan's liberalism.

NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw praised Brennan's habit of reading his personal views into the Constitution, calling Brennan "a brilliant constitutional scholar who used that document as a dynamic instrument in American life and used it to reshape and expand individual rights in this country." Legal reporter Pete Williams added he was "appointed to the Court by President Eisenhower, but became an advocate for the right of individuals to challenge government power." Over on ABC's World News Tonight, anchor Renee Poussaint gushed: "He was one of the most influential jurists in American history with a legacy of defending individual rights."

Tony Mauro and Mimi Hall wrote in the July 25 USA Today that Brennan "led the Supreme Court on a quiet revolution that expanded individual rights and press freedoms to an extent found nowhere else in the world...Brennan saw his influence wane as justices appointed by Presidents Reagan and Bush cut back the court's role as active protector of individual rights." In Newsweek, Stephen Vermiel, a former Wall Street Journal Supreme Court reporter, had a bizarre take on Brennan's legacy, in light of the fact that Brennan's views have been soundly rejected by the voters at the ballot box. Vermiel wrote: "His influence came from his ability to make his expansive view of rights in the Constitution a more attractive, more appealing alternative for other justices than the pinched reading of the Constitution advanced by conservative colleagues."

Death to Balance. A network reporter finds religion when the life of a murderer is at stake. On the July 23 NBC Nightly News, Bob Faw took up the case of Joseph O'Dell, convicted of raping and murdering a Virginia Beach waitress in 1985. Tom Brokaw opened the story: "The clock is counting down for a convicted murderer who does have a powerful advocate, no less than Pope John Paul, asking that he be spared, but so far not even the Pope has been able to persuade Virginia's Governor to reopen this case."

Faw devoted more of the soundbites to O'Dell and his supporters than to those seeking justice for his crime. Faw added: "He was found guilty after a prison inmate said O'Dell confessed and after DNA tests concluded the victim's blood was on his clothes. But later the inmate admitted he'd lied and DNA tests in 1990 showed the blood on O'Dell's shirt was neither the victim's nor his. When tests on his jacket were inconclusive, his lawyers sought one final test on evidence from the victim's body."

Faw did air a soundbite from Katherine Baldwin at the Virginia Attorney General's office pointing out O'Dell's case has been reviewed by over 40 judges and the Supreme Court, but that did not deter Faw. "With O'Dell on death row, friends proclaimed his innocence on the Internet; there were demonstrations for him, the latest today in Rome. A delegation of European legislators even flew to Virginia's Capitol to plead his case." After airing an Italian parliament member's plea for O'Dell to punctuate his point, Faw declared: "The Pope agreed, as did Mother Teresa, who wrote to Virginia Governor George Allen, but Allen rebuffed them." Faw then interviewed "noted defense attorney" John Tucker, who also supported O'Dell.

Faw did run soundbites from Allen and the victim's mother, but nonetheless gave the last word to the convicted murderer and called the story "a case which O'Dell's defenders say will show whether Virginia cares more about a notch in its belt or the truth."

A Tale of Two Interviews. ABC's World News Tonight airs a weekend interview feature called "A Conversation With." But the tone of the conversation can depend on the ideology of the subject. On August 2, reporter Carole Simpson got nasty when interviewing black conservative Ward Connerly, proponent of California's Proposition 209, which repealed racial quotas. Anchor Deborah Roberts introduced Simpson's report: "His critics call him a traitor, or worse. We wanted to hear his side." Not if Simpson could help it. Her first question set a hostile tone: "May I ask you the question that all black people have wanted me to ask you, all the black people I know? Why you, why you leading the fight against affirmative action?" Her next question: "You've been called an Uncle Tom, an Oreo cookie. How do you respond to that?" When Connerly later explained the drop in black admissions in California graduate schools was based on merit, Simpson shot back: "You're trying to suggest to me Bell Curve stuff, that blacks are just intellectually inferior."

But Simpson was respectful to Jesse Jackson when she introduced Erin Hayes' "Conversation With" Jackson on February 23: "The Rev. Jesse Jackson is trying to change the face of education in this country. And he's brought together some of the nation's leading educators to Chicago for a three-day summit." When Hayes challenged Jackson, she put criticism into other people's mouths: "Some people are convinced that pouring money into [education] won't help." Then she fawned: "I was wondering what you've seen that makes this a priority for you."

"Ugly Thing" Forbes. Money-laundering from communist regimes into the U.S. political system. Selling access to the White House. Allegations of policy changes in exchange for donations. None of this shakes Matthew Miller's faith in the political system like a wealthy American using his own money to run for President. Miller, a U.S. News & World Report economics reporter, wrote in the July 17 Philadelphia Inquirer: "There are two big things wrong with the current hearings on campaign-finance scandals. First, they're not really about foreign influence. And second, John Huang isn't the poster boy for what ails money and politics Steve Forbes is."

Miller explained: "Forbes represents the purest, most offensive challenge to the idea that money should equal speech." Then he got rough: "Must we really accept a doctrine that lets a vain twit pour Daddy's millions into so much flat tax propaganda that it lands him on the cover of Time and Newsweek and influences the national agenda?" Miller advocated limiting speech instead of the laws which deny Forbes the ability to make big donations to other candidates: "Is Steve Forbes constitutional? The court might tell us that Forbes' fetishes are among those ugly things we have to tolerate in a free society. In any event, this is the kind of conversation that might begin to fix our campaigns, not witch hunts for red perils that don't exist."

Of course, limiting the free speech of candidates would make journalists like Miller all the more influential.