In This Issue
Budget News Without Basic Numbers; NewsBites: A Wee Bit Off; Revolving Door: Crossing Into Crossfire; Deck the Cuts with Gusts of Folly; TV Ignores Travelgate Acquittal; "Al Capone of Apple Juice"; Media Mourn Moderates' Decline Pennsylvania's Problem; Janet Cooke Award: DeParle's Drama of Destruction
Budget News Without Basic Numbers
In mid-November, President Clinton and the GOP Congress disagreed over federal spending levels, causing a brief partial shutdown of the federal government. Clinton objected to what he called GOP cuts in education and Medicare and a hike in Medicare premiums. Republicans countered that they were actually increasing spending and the premium in their plan was merely $11 per month higher than Clinton's.
Did the networks give equal weight to both sides? MediaWatch analysts reviewed all of the stories on evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's World News, NBC Nightly News) about the budget impasse from the day before the government shutdown (November 13) through the day after its end (November 20).
Of the 104 stories during the study period, not a single one mentioned the actual levels of spending in either the President's plan or the Republican plan. Not a single story questioned the President's rhetoric about "destroying" Medicare, when Republicans were proposing Medicare increases.
The study also found that reporters promoted the Democratic spin on the impact of the shutdown on federal workers and the public.
Spending. Not one of the 104 stories pointed out that Republicans were proposing to spend $2.6 trillion more over the next seven years than had been spent over the last seven, going from $9.5 trillion to $12.1 trillion. None reported that under the GOP plan, the annual budget in 2002 would be $267 billion higher than in 1996.
No story pointed out that on Medicare alone, Republicans would spend $86 billion more in 2002 than in 1995, allowing the program to grow more than 6 percent annually. None reported that spending per Medicare recipient would soar from $4,800 to $7,100. Only one story mentioned that the difference between the two parties on Medicare premiums -- the reason Clinton gave for his veto -- was only $11 per month.
Instead viewers heard about "cuts." Dan Rather reported on the 16th: "Republicans were still pumping out a stopgap budget certain to draw another presidential veto, a bill containing what President Clinton called tonight, quote, critical cuts in Medicare and other programs."
The next day, Tom Brokaw announced: "The House today did pass a bill to balance the budget in seven years with major cutbacks in big government programs and a tax cut of $245 billion." On the same show, Lisa Myers said "the President has promised to veto the bill because of what he calls extreme cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment."
Federal Workers. There was near-universal sympathy for furloughed federal workers. In all, there were 29 soundbites from laid-off federal workers. CBS's Bob McNamara asserted: "There is frustration, too, for the people who get paid to solve these kinds of problems, the federal workers sent home to cool their heels while Congress and the President bicker over the budget."
According to NBC's John Palmer on November 18, "To Tony Chapello and his pregnant wife Kelly, both furloughed by the Social Security office in Kansas City, the shutdown is more than an inconvenience." She told viewers: "I worry about the medical bills, and I want to do the baby's room." Unlike the private sector, laid-off government employees are later paid. Only CNN's Brooks Jackson, on November 13, accurately described the time off: "In effect a paid vacation."
Services. There were 24 stories about the effect of the shutdown on public parks and public services. All but one of them highlighted inconveniences to the public. None explored whether bureaucrats, in deciding what services to shut down, had pursued a "Washington Monument strategy" of stopping high-profile public services to increase public outrage.
Most reporters simply assumed the shutdown was a problem for the public. CNN anchor Kathleen Kennedy, the night before the shutdown, warned that "the echoes of a government shutdown would be felt from coast to coast. The gates of Lady Liberty at New York would be closed. The same will happen at many other tourist attractions, including the Washington Monument, Bunker Hill, and many national parks. A lot of tourist plans will have to be changed if a shutdown occurs."
On November 17 ABC's Peter Jennings opined that "as is evident to a lot of you, a lot of people around the country are already paying deeply for this budget impasse." According to Brokaw on November 17: "While the shutdown of the federal government goes on, it is beginning to have a major ripple effect well beyond Washington....Around the country a lot of people were feeling the pain that even a partial shutdown is bringing."
Over at CBS, Linda Douglass, in addition to national parks, found a unique angle: killer toys. "Imported Christmas toys, which could be unsafe, are not being examined by safety inspectors," she fretted on the 16th. Bob McNamara insisted that "for Americans inside and outside the federal bureaucracy, this week has been a hard lesson on what happens when big government goes away."
Other reporters, such as ABC's John Martin and NBC's Lisa Myers, focused on passport offices being closed. Martin complained on November 13: "Journalists won't be able to ask questions at a State Department briefing, which will be canceled without electricians to light the room."
No story explored why it was that these high-profile services came to be deemed non-essential. Why were passport offices and the State Department's press office deemed non-essential when, according to The Washington Post, about 70 percent of State's employees were considered essential and ordered to work? Or why were some parks not closed until the third or fourth day of the shutdown? Could it be for visuals of angry tourists?
The networks were also one-sided in selecting the "people on the street" they aired about the shutdown. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, reported November 15 that 51 percent considered the shutdown either a crisis (11 percent) or a major problem (40 percent). Forty-seven percent of the public considered the shutdown either a minor problem (33 percent) or not a problem at all (14 percent).
So about half of the citizens interviewed would not consider the shutdown a problem, right? Wrong. Of the 74 "people on the street" interviewed, 67 considered the shutdown to be a problem. Only seven didn't consider the shutdown a problem.
Only on network newscasts would spending increases be called cuts, would people paid to take the day off be portrayed as victims, and would half the public's opinion be ignored during a government shutdown.
NewsBites: A Wee Bit Off
A brief item on the November 9 NBC Nightly News and a Washington Post story the next day were the only major reports on an audit that could further damage the Clinton administration's credibility. A General Accounting Office audit found the President's Task Force on Health Care Reform spent $13.4 million, instead of initial White House claims putting the cost "below $100,000," later raised to $200,000. After ignoring the math of a White House that spent $134 for every dollar they claimed to spend, one can understand why reporters might not have done the math behind Medicare "cuts."
A classic case of dirty Democratic politics in Florida went unreported by the same vigilant media that piled on GOP campaign consultant Ed Rollins in 1993. On November 9, Florida's Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles admitted his 1994 campaign placed scare calls to senior citizens in a successful last ditch attempt to defeat his Republican opponent, Jeb Bush.
The November 10 Washington Post reported "The scandal took off after Jim Krog, Chiles's former chief of staff and senior campaign manager, admitted last Friday to reporters in Tallahassee that he had authorized the calls and use of fictitious fronts." The scare calls claimed Bush cheated on his taxes and that his running mate wanted to "abolish" Medicare and Social Security. The New York Times buried a story on page 39 while the network morning and nightly news shows ignored it. Bush lost by less than 65,000 votes and a Chiles spokesman conceded 70,000 senior citizens received the scare calls, many from the non-existent "Citizens for Tax Fairness."
When Republican consultant Ed Rollins claimed (falsely, it later turned out) that he paid black ministers to encourage blacks not to vote in the 1993 New Jersey Governor's race, the four networks aired 38 evening news stories in 20 days on what CBS labeled a "dirty trick." The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, and Washington Post combined for a total of another 62 stories in the same time period, 15 on the front page.
Hiding HUD's Blacklist.
On June 14, CBS Evening News reporter Eric Engberg warned that House Republicans were seeking to end federal funding of liberal lobbyists by "drafting a bill to severely restrict lobbying by any activist group that gets federal grant money." He noted that some of the "targets include unions" which are "regarded as opponents of the GOP agenda." But CBS did not unleash Engberg when a November 23 Associated Press story revealed a union targeting Republicans. The other networks also ignored the news of political blacklisting.
AP's Richard Keil began: "The week President Clinton took office, the head of a federal employees union sent Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros a list of agency workers that the group said were anti-union, racist or aligned with Republicans." John Sturdivant, President of the American Federation of Government Employees, admitted that "these workers, most of them career senior managers, could pose a `blocking mechanism' to the new administration's policies." Keil noted that "eleven of those on the list were career workers who by law are supposed to be free from political pressures." Retired HUD worker Walter Sevier was described as a "reported racist," but Keil found internal HUD records that showed Sevier's office in Fort Worth "had the highest percentage of minority workers among regional offices." The networks overlooked Sturdivant's defense of the purge: "It was part of working with the administration that we helped elect."
National reporters tried to insert race into one gubernatorial campaign while ignoring its obvious presence in another. On the November 16 World News Tonight, ABC's Jim Wooten called the vote in Louisiana between white Democrat-turned-Republican Mike Foster and black liberal Cleo Fields an example of how "more and more whites are leaving the [Democratic] party, leaving it to a few die-hard whites, to Cleo Fields and most of the blacks. What is happening here is the steady resegregation of politics." Wooten tarred Foster, noting he "has the endorsement of David Duke, the former Klansman turned Republican." A GMA story made the same point.
The next day National Public Radio's John Burnett got in the act: "Both Fields and Foster have tried to take the high road by downplaying mentions of race, but it's been hard to ignore. David Duke, who ran a divisive, racially tinged campaign four years ago, has endorsed Mike Foster. Foster was asked why he hasn't rejected Duke's endorsement." But later in the story, Burnett allowed a Fields supporter to declare that Fields "epitomizes" Louis Farrakhan's virtues.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, Secretary of State Dick Molpus ran a radio ad against Republican incumbent Kirk Fordice implying a vote for Fordice was a vote for segregation. In it, a white-sounding voice intoned: "You go to the back of the bus," followed by a black-sounding voice: "Back of the bus, that's where Kirk Fordice wants to put folk like you and me." Only USA Today mentioned it.
Aim for Bambi. In July, an ABC promo promised "a series of reports about our environment which will tell you precisely what the new Congress has in mind: the most frontal assault on the environment in 25 years." That theme continued with a November 20 Nightline. ABC inaccurately suggested Republicans were not out to trim excessive regulations that cost billions for little environmental benefit: they were out to clear the books of pollution laws. Reporter Ned Potter described the grand Republican deception: "It's worth remembering that the word environment never appeared in the Contract with America, no mention of air or water....There was a lot in the contract, though, about stripping away any government regulation...Their elimination became nothing less than an ideological crusade....So, almost from the outset, the new Republican majority set out to reverse 25 years of environmental lawmaking." Potter charged: "It became clear that the legislative assault was not just coming from loggers and ranchers. It was, in fact, one of the best-organized corporate lobbying efforts in years." Potter even tossed in a Republican saying this "isn't what we voted for."
Potter concluded: "The Republicans have handed their opponents a weapon for the '96 campaign." Host Chris Wallace's first question to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska): "Now it seems that the GOP is going after everything but Bambi. How come?"
Partial News on Partial Birth. When the House voted to ban partial birth abortions, most reporters looked for a way not to describe the gruesome procedure or even mention its name. Dan Rather warned on the November 1 CBS Evening News: "On Capitol Hill, abortion is re-emerging as a national election issue. The House voted overwhelmingly today to make a rarely used type of late-term abortion a felony, a federal crime punishable by prison time for doctors who perform it." CBS This Morning aired a whole report by Sharyl Attkisson without describing the procedure. Only ABC's Good Morning America and World News Tonight described the procedure: a doctor partially delivers a baby 4 1/2 months old or older, then takes a pair of scissors and thrusts them through the baby's skull. The baby's brain is sucked out through a catheter.
There was no real effort to investigate how many such abortions occur each year. The numbers ranged from "100 to 400" in a November 13 U.S. News piece by Steven Roberts to "13,000" in an ABC World News Now segment by Dick Schaap. The networks also pretended these abortions are done solely because of genetic defects or the mother's health. On the November 2 NBC News at Sunrise, Ann Curry stated "The bill makes it a felony to perform the procedure, which is mostly used to save the life of the mother, or when the fetus has severe abnormalities." But one of the foremost practitioners of partial birth abortions, Dr. Martin Haskell, told the American Medical News: "In my particular case, probably 20 percent are for genetic reasons, and the other 80 percent are purely elective."
Harry Hits the War Drums. In a cover story on the November 12 CBS Sunday Morning, Harry Smith displayed his disdain for GOP attempts to curb federal spending on social programs, in this case federal aid to American Indians. Decrying how the U.S. government simply stole land from the Indians in the mid-1800s, Smith declared: "Now they and most of the nation's two million Indians are about to lose more. Congress is hacking away at Indian support programs....Cuts that are averaging 20 percent. Some call it betrayal."
Smith looked at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where "there are no jobs for these hunters" and where "unemployment is 85 percent. Virtually everyone relies on federal aid." Smith concluded by portraying Indians as helpless victims: "What makes it particularly harsh is that many Sioux cannot accept the sacrifices in the here and now being asked of them so that future generations of white folks may be a little better off."
Instead of taking a hard look at why things are bad for Indians on reservations -- lack of education, high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, and dependence on the government -- Smith decided to go with the one-sided, liberal viewpoint that more, not less, government support is needed. No one got any time to suggest that total dependence is the core problem, as all five people Smith interviewed for the story favored more spending. One man "worries about the effect of the cuts on the Indian children" as "tribal leaders see the coming cuts as the beginning of a destructive cycle." One woman, an Indian artist, suggested that the government wanted to "cut our throats eventually." Smith insisted that "Indian art work, a successful $500 million a year business, will also suffer. Congress has cut in half the budget for the Institute of Native American Arts." Smith did not explain why a thriving business venture would need government funding.
Post-Soviet Stress Disorder. Last November it was Mary Williams Walsh reporting on the post-communist collapse of child care in East Germany. This year it's a two-part series from Sonni Efron on health care in Russia. The demise of communism keeps driving the Los Angeles Times Column One into lamenting the decline in social services in post-communist countries, as if communist statistics are a reliable standard with which to measure decline, and communism is a preferable alternative.
On November 12, Efron wrote "public health officials have begun to point to alcohol abuse as a key factor in an alarming decline in public health since the demise of the Soviet Union." Efron noted that in the old Soviet Union, "Chronic drunks were locked up in hospitals for treatment; if that failed, they were sentenced to stints in special labor camps for alcoholics." Sounding almost wistful, she noted "there is no totalitarian state to brake antisocial or self-destructive behavior. Labor camps for alcoholics have been closed."
The teaser for Part Two read: "Old diseases pose new threats as Russia's sickly health care system starts to collapse." The November 13 headline was even more stark: "Post-Soviet Russia Slips Into Third World's Sickly Ranks." Efron warned: "As the underfunded health system here slips into critical condition, infectious diseases that had been nearly extinguished by the now-defunct Soviet Union have returned with a vengeance." Efron sounded like an advertisement for communism: "For 70 years, the communist social contract held that Soviet citizens might be poor -- and might have to wait decades for an apartment or a car -- but that if they feel ill, the socialist workers' state would look after them."
Revolving Door: Crossing Into Crossfire
Michael Kinsley's decision to leave the liberal chair on CNN's Crossfire has created a much coveted opening. The Washington Post reported November 10 that 30 people had contacted the network. While Robert Novak, a columnist, and John Sununu, a former presidential aide, alternate weeks on the conservative side, a reporter may get the liberal slot.
Two of the four people being "personally recruited" by CNN President Tom Johnson, a revolver who toiled as a top aide to President Johnson, are journalists: long-time Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson and Time columnist Margaret Carlson, a Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Carter years.
Carlson, a former Time Deputy Washington Bureau Chief, took the liberal chair for two nights. At the conclusion of the show, normally one host says "From the left, I'm" and gives their name, followed by the other saying, "From the right..." Not Carlson. On November 13 and 14 she signed off "From Washington, I'm Margaret Carlson. Good night for Crossfire," baffling Novak: "I'm, ah, from the right, you almost confused me, I'm Robert Novak."
This after Carlson spent the previous half hour hitting U.S. Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) with points right out of the House Democratic talking points on the budget: "Medicare can be discussed when we get to the merits of the budget, not when you're trying to shove a revolution down the President's throat....The capital gains tax benefit goes dramatically to the top ten percent of income earners," and "Wouldn't it look fairer if you were proposing these spending cuts without the tax cut? The spending cuts wouldn't need to be so savage."
Two Capitol Hill liberals have tapped print media veterans to head their press operations, Roll Call reported November 30. Dan Holly, who covered city hall for Knight Ridder's Detroit Free Press for the past two and a half years, is the new Press Secretary for U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.). Earlier, he worked for the Newark Star-Ledger and Miami Herald....Senator Carol Moseley-Braun has hired Read Scott-Martin as her Communications Director. Roll Call reported that he "was a United Press International reporter in both Washington and St. Louis until 1991." He joined UPI's D.C. bureau in 1990, covering PAC finances "and working on the foreign desk during the Persian Gulf War." In 1988 he was a press aide in Democrat Richard Gephardt's presidential effort, in 1992 he worked for Senator Bob Kerrey's presidential run, and in 1994 he directed research for Pennsylvania's unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Mark Singel.
New to McHugh
Congressman John McHugh, a New York Republican, has brought aboard ABC News veteran Robin Wolfgang as his Press Secretary. After helping produce video news releases for the Bush-Quayle campaign, in late 1992 she joined ABC's Washington bureau, putting in a brief stint as a production assistant for Good Morning America. A few months later, she told MediaWatch, she began handling production for Political Director Hal Bruno's weekly radio show before taking a production associate slot with the now-defunct TV show Day One.
Deck the Cuts with Gusts of Folly
As the holidays approach, Americans can enjoy certain holiday traditions: shopping, caroling, and panicked media reports on unprecedented suffering for the poor. This year's angle: charities can't make up for "deep cuts" in social programs. Time's David Van Biema warned on December 4: "Those who work in charity expect a new cascade of the homeless, the hungry, and the abused to spill out of the government's shrinking safety net and turn to the private sector for help."
CBS Evening News reporter Eric Engberg used the same theme in a December 5 "Reality Check," claiming: "The federal cuts mean that for the charities to stay even, private contributions will have to soar 16-fold. For charities to replace all the federal aid to the poor that's being cut, private giving will have to grow 40 times faster than it ever has."
ABC World News Tonight reporter Kevin Newman contended on December 3: "To make up for proposed Republican spending cuts, an average-size church would have to fill every pew and more than double its donations. Leaders of all faiths have written Congress warning they can't provide that much more."
What numbers did the reporters provide to verify these "deep cuts" in social programs? ABC used none. Time used President Clinton's Office of Management and Budget figure of "$515 billion over seven years from programs affecting the poor." But are these actual reductions in spending, or just more reductions in growth from an arbitrary baseline? Time didn't say.
Unlike past years, reporters pointed out private charities are dependent on federal funds. CBS claimed the "cuts" would cost charities "$260 billion over seven years." That number resembles figures put together by Independent Sector (IS), a liberal alliance of nonprofits that fights for more federal funds. Time also used the IS numbers. But the reports did not focus on these groups' self-interest in federal funds or their ideological commitment to statism. The Capital Research Center quoted IS President Sara Melendez: "[Nonprofits] must not be asked to assume tasks properly performed by government with its vastly greater resources." ABC and CBS did air soundbites of conservative Arianna Huffington.
Time's Van Biema interviewed conservative Marvin Olasky, who he said argued "there is so much flab and inefficiency in both welfare and the big charities that small, nongovernment-funded groups, in sufficient number, would get better results." But Van Biema allowed another social service provider to end the story, predicting the GOP 's plans "will become painfully obvious to average Americans when they see levels of pain and suffering never anticipated."
TV Ignores Travelgate Acquittal
Who's Billy Dale?
Billy Dale had booked flights for the White House press corps since John F. Kennedy was President, but when the Clinton White House's effort to justify firing the travel office staff was proven groundless, the press corps was missing in action. The ousted White House travel director was acquitted of embezzlement
charges on November 16.
The acquittal failed to generate any mention on ABC, CBS or NBC nightly newscasts, nor CNN's World News. No TV magazine shows rushed to book Dale. Among the morning news shows only ABC's Good
Morning America had a brief mention of the acquittal on the 17th. PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer also had a brief mention. The New York Times and Time ignored Dale's vindication while Newsweek and U.S. News squeezed in brief notices. The Washington Post and Washington Times highlighted the news November 17, and the next day had stories quoting Dale specifically blaming the President, but that still failed to interest the networks.
In May of 1993 Dale was fired and accused of mismanagemtent, including taking kickbacks. "An internal White House investigation later showed that Hollywood producer Harry Thomason, the President's distant cousin Catherine Cornelius and several other aides improperly schemed to take over the office for personal gain," reported the November 17 Washington Times.
Later the White House offered jobs to five dismissed Dale aides while Dale was prosecuted. According to The Washington Post the FBI "examined every check he, his wife, Blanche, and their three adult children had ever written, trying to find evidence that Dale had used $68,000 in money the news media paid to cover costs of traveling with the President."
Dale and his family were subjected to the type of persecution from the Clinton administration and the government that would usually warrant an outcry in the journalistic community. "I feel like the victims of Ruby Ridge and Waco. The only difference is they didn't use guns on us," Dale told the Post.
What's particularly puzzling about the Dale blackout by the networks was that several prominent journalists, including ABC's Sam Donaldson, actually testified on Dale's behalf.
"Al Capone of Apple Juice"
On November 17 the new CBS Evening News feature "Bernard Goldberg's America" showed a country whose government has lost all sense of proportion. Goldberg focused on Ben Lacey, 73, a Virginia business owner who makes sparkling apple cider. He is also a convicted felon. He could be sent to prison for up to 24 years, longer than most convicted murderers, and fined up to $2 million. Goldberg noted, "He's even been called `the Al Capone of apple juice.'"
What could he possibly have done to face such prison time? Goldberg explained: "Ben Lacey is in big trouble, not because he killed anyone or robbed a bank. No, it's a lot worse than that: Ben Lacey has been convicted of falsifying environmental reports. Each month he had to fill in numbers, numbers about how much oxygen and nitrogen and ammonia was in the apple juice run-off and the bathroom waste water that was being discharged into this tiny stream behind the plant. The government found seven wrong entries that it said Lacey intentionally falsified. Seven out of thousands."
Lacey says the incorrect entries were mistakes, not intentional. Goldberg found that even a local environmental group agreed the stream was not polluted. But the bureaucrats won't bend: "The government says Lacey's no victim, he's a big time polluter who years ago was fined for violating labor laws involving his apple pickers...So whether he's the monster the government says he is, or whether he's the victim of a bureaucracy run amok, Ben Lacey could face 24 years in prison, and while no one really thinks the judge will give him the maximum, at 73 he faces the possibility of some time behind bars and a stiff fine."
Wehmeyer: Faith Works
Every once in a while the media admit that sometimes the private sector is more efficient than government bureaucracies. Even less often do they admit that religion can accomplish something that government cannot. On the November 7 World News Tonight, anchor Peter Jennings made a startling discovery: "In Texas there is a faith-based program which has been remarkably effective in dealing with alcohol and drug addiction. It does not cost the taxpayers a cent."
ABC religion reporter Peggy Wehmeyer asserted: "At 130 Teen Challenge centers across the country, addicts are taught that Jesus Christ, not Prozac or psychiatrists, can help free them from addiction....A recent University of Tennessee study showed that 70 percent of Teen Challenge graduates were drug free after six months," compared with a state-funded rehab specialist's suggestion that a 25 percent rate would be "very good." Despite their success, Wehmeyer found Texas state auditors are looking at revoking their license over, among other things, the accreditation of the counselors: "Teen Challenge doesn't want to pay for training they don't believe in. They use their own reformed addicts as counselors."
Media Mourn Moderates' Decline Pennsylvania's Problem
In the wake of Colin Powell's campaign retreat, CBS Sunday Morning host Charles Osgood asked November 19: "Is there room under the Republican tent for points of view so different from those of its most conservative wing?" Reporter Russ Mitchell also asked: "Is there room in the Party of Lincoln for moderates like Colin Powell?" CBS did not explore the question of "room" for conservatives or moderates within the Democratic party, since they keep tumbling out to join the Republican column.
Mitchell looked at the Pennsylvania GOP, formerly dominated by moderates: "Professor Mike Young says Pennsylvania Republicans tolerated each other because no one thought ideologues could win state office. He fears [conservative Senator} Rick Santorum could change that." Mitchell focused on theway conservatives treat moderates, but did not examine the divisive presidential campaign of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who attacked the "intolerant Right."
Mitchell did mourn the Specter candidacy by observing: "It appears moderate Republicans can win the Governor's house, or the U.S. House or Senate, but when it comes to this house [the White House] it may be a different story." Mitchell concluded his story by warning: "The extreme right wing of the party cheered when Colin Powell decided not to run, but polls show two-thirds of Republicans view him favorably. General Powell and moderates like him say they have no plans to go away."
Janet Cooke Award: DeParle's Drama of Destruction
Sheila Burke is Bob Dole's Chief of Staff. She is also the center of a small controversy revolving around the question: How conservative is Bob Dole? Some conservatives contend Burke has used the power Dole has granted her to undermine conservative goals. Writers such as Robert Novak and Paul Weyrich have identified Burke as a problem if Dole wishes to win conservative votes.
This small gathering of criticism was blown up on the cover of the November 12 New York Times Magazine into "The Campaign to Demonize Sheila Burke: The Conservative Attack Machine Strikes Again." The cover featured Burke's picture with red horns sketched out of her head.
Inside the magazine, the headline read: "Sheila Burke Is the Militant Feminist Commie Peacenik Who's Telling Bob Dole What to Think." That was followed by the subhead: "Well, no. She's just the Senator's moderate chief of staff, the latest victim of the conservative attack machine." For wallowing in a conspiracy he couldn't prove, reporter Jason DeParle earned the Janet Cooke Award.
DeParle focused on the conservatives' "attack dog wing proficient at demonizing individuals, whether through Willie Horton ads or talk radio hosts who label Hillary Rodham Clinton a `feminazi.' When it comes to vilification, the left isn't always more virtuous: recall Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. But for now it has little of the right's fervor, finances and reach."
The Times reserved one page for a listing of "specialists in bare-knuckle attacks on political opponents." Listed, among others, were Rush Limbaugh ("pioneer of `anything goes' commentary"), Robert Novak ("cultivates a snarling image"), R. Emmett Tyrrell ("Clinton hater"), Floyd Brown ("all-around attack entrepreneur"), and The Washington Times (a "broadsheet mix of fact and rumor.") "Victims" included Anita Hill, Vince Foster, Hillary Clinton ("talk radio's `feminazi'") and Bill Clinton ("`Slick Willie' or worse in direct-mail appeals.")
Burke also made the list of "victims," although she has yet to be fired, demoted, or otherwise embarrassed. Apparently, Burke was "demonized" as a liberal Republican. But DeParle hailed Burke's openly pro-abortion views and told of Burke "dispensing a $20 million gift to a New York Democrat -- one insisting, at that very moment, that the Republican bill will flood the streets with orphans. But Burke thinks the study worthwhile." The study requested by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan claimed a million children would be hurt by the Republican welfare reform, and drew major media play.
How did this "conservative attack machine" work against Burke? DeParle reported Novak wrote an anti-Burke column in the spring of 1994. Then this year, one Senator called New York Times columnist William Safire "urging him to expose Burke as a moderate. [Safire didn't.] So something was already in the air when Novak fired his shot in late June."
DeParle continued: "The subsequent chronology would look awfully suspicious to a conspiracy buff...The Wall Street Journal's op-ed piece was written by John Fund, a former Novak research assistant. Fund, in turn, quoted Weyrich. Weyrich then followed up, hitting Burke with both a television commentary and a column in The Washington Times. Novak, meanwhile, is the host of a show on Weyrich's network. Mmmmm. Sounds like a plot."
After noting that Weyrich denied a conspiracy, DeParle admitted: "Weyrich is probably telling the truth when he disavows any formal plan. Then again, who needs a plan?"
DeParle complained about the role of the "attack machine" in Burke's fame: "Of course the whole thing would have gone unnoticed by anyone beyond the movement faithful had the mainstream press not picked it up. The Burke story reincarnates an old problem: covering an attack campaign inevitably helps the attackers by keeping the story alive....Once the Burke story was in play, it echoed everywhere despite the emptiness of the accusations."
But DeParle did not discover that Burke surfaced earlier in the March 28, 1994 U.S. News & World Report, where Gloria Borger paired her with Hillary Clinton, titling the article "Health Reform's Other Woman." As for the "emptiness" of calling Burke a liberal, Borger wrote that "Clintonites try to figure out what Burke is thinking -- and take some comfort in her open devotion to [health] reform." With articles like that in mind, the November 27 Weekly Standard critiqued DeParle's attack-machine thesis: "A computer search has turned up seven conservative pieces totalling about 6,000 words attacking Burke. And a total of 15 totalling 23,000 words defending her."
From DeParle's position on the political spectrum, he could not believe Burke would be accused of being a liberal, most of all on health care. "It would be a flattering, if true....There is, in fact, a case to be made against Burke and her boss, but it's the opposite one: following the polls, they dashed all hope of a health care breakthrough, disowning even the moderates' bill, which Dole himself had endorsed the year before."
DeParle not only found conspiracy on the right but repressed psychological problems: "The portrayal of Burke as a feminist Svengali may say more about the phobias of her critics than it does about her." Later, he added: "There is also what sounds like a lot of old-fashioned fretting about a woman's achieving power." To drive home the repressed-male-chaunivist angle, DeParle implied the claim that "if you like Hillary Clinton, you'll love Sheila Burke" came from men: Burke replied "I'm strong-willed and I'm independent, and I see women as fully capable as men of doing anything they choose." DeParle did not report Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition claims authorship of the phrase. Sheldon told MediaWatch: "That's the worst part of the article. Women also disagree with her. I don't agree with her."
Sheldon appeared in the DeParle article concerning a disagreeable meeting Burke held with conservatives about welfare reform. DeParle wrote: "Conservatives wanted the bill's preamble to call marriage `the foundation' of society. Burke sided with those suggesting `a foundation.'" (Italics his). Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector told MediaWatch DeParle was wrong: "The actual debate was to substitute the word `family' for the word `marriage,' which goes to the heart of the problem: the bill had no provisions dealing with illegitimacy. The fight was over the substance of legislation she brought to the floor, on an issue of fundamental importance to our society, and DeParle chose to trivialize it." DeParle failed to return repeated phone calls.
Why would the Times publish such a stew of personal attacks and unproven conspiracies? Perhaps they're a broadsheet mix of fact and rumor, a part of the liberal attack machine.