MediaWatch: December 1989

Vol. Three No. 12

NewsBites: Bias Realized


BIAS REALIZED. Fewer and fewer Americans believe reporters are fair and balanced. The latest public opinion poll by the Times Mirror Center for People & the Press, released in November, found 68 percent think the media "tend to favor one side" in news "dealing with political and social issues." That's up 11 points from the 1988 survey and 15 points from the first one in 1985.

Asked "to what extent do you see political bias in news coverage?" 76 percent answered "a great deal" or "a fair amount." Even a sizeable minority (42 percent) of the 508 members of the press community polled, which included network executives, managing editors, news directors and reporters, offered the same assessment. Of those members of the media, 10 percent identified the bias as "liberal/left," barely 2 percent as "conservative/right."

PARTY POLITICS. The liberal Children's Defense Fund, the major interest group behind the fashionably federalized Act for Better Child Care (ABC) bill calling for subsidies and regulation of day care, raised $400,000 at an enormously successful fundraiser November 30. Among the media bigwigs who graced the $300-a-ticket bash for babysitting regulations: from CBS, 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley and Sunday Morning host Charles Kuralt; Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham; MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer; Today co-host Jane Pauley; and National Public Radio's Susan Stamberg.

Dan Rather had also agreed to attend, but couldn't make the festivities thanks to the summit in Malta. "Journalists rarely get a chance to express approval of good things," said former U.S. News & World Report Editor Roger Rosenblatt. "It's an opportunity to put our voices behind a good cause."

ADOPTING ONE SIDE. For CBS reporter Lesley Stahl, there's only one side to the adoption-over-abortion debate. On the November 3 Evening News, Stahl reported, "Justice Department lawyers expressed outrage" when the received a memo from the Attorney General "urging them to adopt a child." But if you believe Newsweek's story, "officials say they haven't received any employee complaints about the memo." Moreover, said Newsweek, "Some adoption advocates see the administration's support as a real boost." Stahl didn't bother to mention that.

SAINT GORBACHEV. The recent meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II gave CBS and ABC an opportunity to take moral equivalence to new heights of absurdity. During the November 29 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather declared "This week's meeting of Pope John Paul and Gorbachev brings together two traditional enemies, both of whom have shown, time and again, that they can rise above the hatreds of history." As if that weren't enough, Rather went on to relate, "The meeting, said one priest in Rome, is like the lion lying down with the lamb. But in this case, he said, it's hard to tell who's the lion and who's the lamb."

During the next day's Good Morning America, ABC correspondent Steve Fox noted the similarity of the two men: "The Pope is a tough disciplinarian. He will brook no dissent on doctrinal matters....And if you think about Mr. Gorbachev, he, early in his career, was the head of the KGB." CBS correspondent Barry Petersen continued this line of thought, "I think [Gorbachev's] trying to say to the Pope, listen, communism and Catholicism, we really have a lot in common. Kind of an astonishing thought if you think about it." Kind of a ridiculous thought if you think about it.

MISSING MIKHAIL'S MESSAGE. In the midst of Eastern Europe's turmoil, the national media have largely ignored Gorbachev's defense of communism for his own country. The most egregious example came after the Soviet leader asserted in an extraordinary November 15 speech that "the October Revolution was not a mistake." Gorbachev declared his nation's woes were due to "distortions of socialism" rather than "its very nature and principles."

These telling statements attracted the attention of The Washington Times, which made it the lead story on November 16. But The Washington Post buried the story as a small item on page 44 with only four words from the speech. NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw gave a brief summary. But CNN, CBS, and ABC ignored the speech, while managing to find space on their November 15 newscasts for stories on Ringo Starr, luxury trains, and presidential portraits.

In late November, Gorbachev went even further in a Pravda article. He rejected capitalism for the Soviet Union as "dreaming" and "vigorously defended one-party rule, making it clear he believes the Communist Party will be the force that guides the Soviet Union into the next century," ABC's John McWethy reported on the November 27 World News Tonight. CNN and NBC didn't once mention the article. With so much time devoted to its upbeat "Changing Face of Communism" series, CBS couldn't find time to mention the article.

FAR LEFT FAVORITES. Two regular contributors to the "independent socialist newsweekly" In These Times are popular stringers for the major media. William Gasperini, currently a reporter for CBS Radio, wrote of the Sandinista dictatorship in the July 19 issue: "Made by men and women of socialist inspiration, Central America's first revolution has consistently found its road blocked by the geopolitical realities of the '80s...But the biggest roadblock has been the destructive hostility of a U.S. government never tolerant of change that threatens Washington's control of Latin America." Gasperini has also reported for UPI, U.S. News & World Report, The Christian Science Monitor, Macleans, and the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter.

Chris Norton, in addition to his writings for In These Times and the pro-Castro North American Congress on Latin America's Report on the Americas, has been a stringer for The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday, and twice this year contributed to Time. While The Nation's Alexander Cockburn found liberal reporters James LeMoyne and Lindsey Gruson of The New York Times and Charles Lane of Newsweek too reminiscent of the "consonance" between Reaganism and the major media, Cockburn has praised Norton twice this year as one reporter who "has provided fine reports."

RAY'S RECESSION REFRAIN. CBS News business reporter Ray Brady has been urging on a recession for years, and he hasn't stopped yet. On December 8, the Labor Department reported a 0.1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, which has hovered between 4.9 percent and 5.4 percent for the past year. He found two economic "experts" to say this "confirms that the U.S. economy has slowed," and "the economy is in a mini-recession."

Of course, there's another side to the story. The same night NBC's Irving R. Levine reported that the low jobless rate means more opportunities for urban workers, who can make good wages for unskilled work in the suburbs.

But Brady missed that. His CBS report featured a Boston unemployment line, where out-of-work computer technicians said "they'll keep writing resumes, hoping that despite today's jobless figures, they'll somehow land a job." They needn't have worried about the "jobless figures," since the unemployment rate in Massachusetts declined in November. If Brady keeps predicting a recession, someday he may actually be right.

CLAPPING FOR CANADA. NBC, which won the June Janet Cooke Award for a favorable story on Canada's socialized medical system, has once again hopped on that bandwagon. On the October 30 Today, reporter Henry Champ compared Canadian and American health care. Anchor Bryant Gumbel set the tone, introducing the piece by declaring: "America's system is in trouble. The cost of medical coverage is skyrocketing. 37 million Americans have no coverage of any kind, and the most needy seem to get the least care."

Champ began by claiming that in Canada "you can afford to get sick...Canada's health system is universal and free." He later dismissed detractors' arguments about the low quality of care north of the border, saying "all vital statistics show Canadians enjoy longer life and lower infant mortality than Americans." He chose to ignore demographic and social factors that might better explain those statistics. Champ alluded to the long delays: "It really does operate on the principle: the farm laborer and the banker are the same. The flipside is both have to wait as long." But Champ neglected to mention that the undesired delays in diagnosis and surgery are at best just unsound medical care, at worst fatal.

Keeping up his campaign, Champ concluded a November 26 Sunday Today story, "there is a cry in the land for some sort of attention toward a national health plan."

TARNISHED TERENCE. CBS reporter Terence Smith made his feelings about former Presidents Carter and Reagan clear in a November 5 New York Times op-ed. Smith conceded that "the majority of Americans still regard Jimmy Carter as a failed President" and that "Ronald Reagan...left office at the pinnacle of his popularity."

"But history is a harsher judge," Smith asserted. "Historians will note, for example, that it was Jimmy Carter who focused the nation's attention on the need for energy conservation and defined human rights as a legitimate consideration in foreign policy." And what of Reagan's legacy? "Fundamental management was abandoned in favor of rhetoric and imagery. A cynical disregard for the art of government led to wide-scale abuse. Only now are we coming to realize the cost of Mr. Reagan's laissez-faire: the crisis in the savings and loan industry, the scandal in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the deterioration of the nation's nuclear weapon's facilities, the dangerous state of the air traffic control system -- not to mention the staggering deficit. The neglect was pernicious, not benign."

Smith's "suspicion is that hard-headed historical review, when it is finally done, will enhance the image of the man from Plains, and tarnish that of the squire of Bel Air." MediaWatch's suspicion is that Smith's claim to objectivity as a reporter is what's been tarnished.

TED WAVES HIS POM-POMS. Owning a network has its advantages. Take CNN's recent special presentation of Ted Turner's November 16 interview with former President Jimmy Carter. Turner, the would- be-journalist, dismissed all pretense of objectivity with his introduction about ex-Presidents.

"Well, if you're Ronald Reagan, you might be traveling on a lucrative lecture circuit, earning a few million dollars. Or if you're Gerald Ford, there's a good chance you could be found perfecting your putt on the golf course...But if you're Jimmy Carter, there's no telling where you could be found. The President is just as comfortable slinging a hammer in the South Bronx, or prowling the streets in Panama looking for election fraud. In fact, since Carter left office in 1981, he's mediated high-level negotiations in China and taught African farmers to grow better crops."

Turner allowed Carter to do the great majority of the talking on the hour-long show. But in between Carter's commentary on current events, the CNN boss turned cheerleader. On Carter's recent peace efforts in Ethiopia, Turner gushed, "that's really terrific," and on the Carter Center, "terrific." When the ex-President applauded Gorbachev and urged more American help for him, Turner sounded like Carter's potential running mate: "Well, I couldn't agree with you more." Finally, when the last Democrat to live in the White House spoke of his upcoming role in monitoring the Nicaragua elections, we were treated to, "This sounds terrific, it really does."