MediaWatch: December 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 12

NewsBites: Weather Trumps Washington

Weather Trumps Washington. On December 11 a grand jury indicted former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros on 18 counts of lying to the FBI about payments he made to a former mistress, Linda Jones. Cisneros is the second Clinton cabinet member indicted this year. But you wouldn’t know much about it from watching TV.

Of the three broadcast networks, only NBC offered an evening story, as well as two brief updates the next morning. ABC gave it 18 seconds on the 11th, CBS nine seconds a night later. Both ignored it in the morning. More important to Dan Rather, two minutes on "The huge Pacific weather machine, whipping up the waves, is also giving a gentle lift to the tender wings of the Monarch butterfly. CBS’s John Blackstone has the story and pictures that will make you flutter with delight."

Matt Attacks. On the April 8, 1991 Today, Bryant Gumbel gushed over Kitty Kelley’s salacious book on Nancy Reagan that charged, among other things, an affair with Frank Sinatra. Gumbel praised Kelley’s "courage" and "credibility." Fast forward six years and change the target to liberal icon John F. Kennedy and we see a different tack from a Today show host. Seymour Hersh, a hero to liberals in the ‘60s and ‘70s as the New York Times reporter who broke the My Lai massacre story, ran into a hostile Matt Lauer on November 10 and 11. Lauer greeted Hersh harshly: "The book, The Dark Side of Camelot, is out today, but the controversy began earlier this fall when a collection of Hersh’s source documents on some of the most titillating topics proved to be fakes. Seymour Hersh, good morning...You handle the legacy of JFK with about as much tenderness as a steamroller. What was your goal with the book?"

Lauer praised Hersh’s past work, when he was taking on conservatives, but raised the questions of Kennedy backers: "I know you’ve done some wonderful works in the past, but they think that possibly you’ve been twisting the words of sources. Some of your sources in this book have now come out and said you twisted their words. As a matter of fact, one gentleman, Jerry Bruno, a former Kennedy advance man, says after being interviewed by you and reading the final product that you should have called this book The Dark Side of Seymour Hersh."

Money-Grubbing Clinton-Haters? When questions were raised about big insurance companies footing the bill for President Clinton’s legal defense in the sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones, ABC and Time were in the vast majority of media outlets that ignored it. Recently, a double standard was exposed when these outlets made a big deal out of who is paying the bills for Jones.

On the November 12 World News Tonight, Peter Jennings suggested they were just evening out the publicity: "Paula Corbin Jones faced a round of questioning from the President’s lawyers on her claim that she was sexually harassed by Mr. Clinton in 1991. The President’s defense is being handled by a major Washington attorney, Bob Bennett, been in the news a lot. ABC’s Jackie Judd reports tonight on the people providing the most support for Paula Jones."

Judd profiled Jones as she arrived in Little Rock "flanked by her representatives and backed by organizations associated with conservative causes." Judd played up the right-wing puppet angle: "The Rutherford Institute in Virginia has signed on to finance the lawsuit. It’s known for defending religious rights activists and abortion protesters. It recently mailed 60,000 fundraising letters appealing for money, quote, ‘to keep fighting for the truth.’"

Judd went on to Jones’ spokeswoman, "some say her Svengali, self- described conservative feminist Susan Carpenter McMillan." Judd asked: "Is this about getting Bill Clinton?" After a soundbite of McMillan, Judd declared: "The President’s supporters see some value in Jones being backed by conservative activists. They say it proves that this is not about sexual harassment but about politics and damaging President Clinton."

In the November 24 issue, Time White House reporter Jay Branegan profiled John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute: "Clinton’s embarrassment is a spectacle many conservative groups are relishing." Like ABC, Branegan spun the fundraising angle: "He [Whitehead] says some of his traditional donors are ‘horrified’ that he’s involved in such a seamy public episode. All the same, after taking up the case, he rushed out a fundraising letter."

Connerly the Cat’s Paw. When 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace profiled Ward Connerly, he was astonished a black man would dare hold conservative beliefs. In the November 9 piece Wallace allowed Connerly, who led California’s ballot initiative to do away with quotas in government hiring, contracting, and college admissions, to fully respond to each charge. But he accused Connerly of what he thought every self-respecting black man would hate most: being a tool of Whitey. Wallace asked, "Do you ever feel like you’re being used by white conservatives to lead this thing, that you’re the cat’s paw?"

After Connerly asserted that he believed he furthers the idea of equality by opposing racial preferences, Wallace related that Connerly’s "critics" believed him to be a race traitor: "One of your critics says: ‘For someone to stand within the ranks and say, ‘I’m not black,’ but use it to destroy his own people, that’s the kind we label a traitor.’ That’s how you’re perceived by many people in the black community." To bolster his charge, Wallace interviewed Elizabeth Stansbury, Connerly’s cousin and a quota activist. Stansbury charged that Connerly, who grew up poor in the care of his grandmother, was treated like a "little prince" by their family and that Connerly’s rags-to-riches story was false. Finally, an incredulous Wallace lectured Connerly: "I get the feeling that you’re looking at things through rose- colored glasses. I can see black folks across the country looking at him now and saying ‘What world does this Connerly guy think we’re living in?’"

Bitter Bryant. CBS’s Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel may be doing poorly in the TV ratings, but it’s doing very well in the liberal bias ratings, especially when Bryant Gumbel discusses racial matters. On the November 19 show Gumbel asked guest Oprah Winfrey: "You talked about the responsibility of being an African-American woman, and being the descendants of slaves. Conservatives are quick to point to you, and people like an indication that ours is a color-blind society. Where do you come down on what is now the popular whipping boy in politics, affirmative action?"

After a profile of University of Texas Law School professor Lino Graglia on the December 3 edition, Gumbel tried to keep his cool when discussing the anti-quotas professor with correspondent Bernie Goldberg: "Bernie, let me see if I can address this in a civil tone and begin by assuming that Professor Graglia is an intelligent man. When he looks at scores as a barometer of intelligence, how does he just ignore factors of income, access, opportunity, all of which he surely knows impact education?"

Goldberg tried to explain how poor white children are the big losers in the quota game because they don’t have the advantages rich white children have nor can they rely on a racially-based quota to admit them to a university like blacks and Hispanics. An exasperated Gumbel shot back: "Hard to believe that he thinks a white student doesn’t enjoy more advantages in this society than a student of color. That’s hard to believe."

Later in the same show, Gumbel used actor Will Smith to make the point that to him, America is still an unrepentantly racist place: "Smith’s rap sounds similar to that of other young black men. Unfortunately, so do some of his all too real run-ins with cops. Do you think it would surprise people to learn that you still get stopped by cops for being nothing more than a young black guy driving an expensive car?"

O’Leary Amnesia. Lost in all the fuss over Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision not to recommend an independent counsel to look into the fundraising practices of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, was her decision to let former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary off the hook. Reno decided not to recommend an independent counsel over Johnny Chung’s allegation he gained a meeting for five Chinese officials after an Energy Department official suggested he donate $25,000 to O’Leary’s favorite charity, Africare.

The story first broke in a Tom Brokaw interview with Chung on August 19. So did the networks send out their crack investigative "journalists" to get to the bottom of the story? No. Excluding brief mentions on the following Sunday’s morning shows, here’s how the networks covered the story:

The day after the Chung interview, NBC’s Today uttered not a syllable about their own scoop. Later that night the Nightly News aired a follow-up report on the Chung allegations. Over the next week, NBC ran one story on the Nightly News and two on Today. The story then died on NBC until September 19, when the Nightly News did one story reporting on Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision to look into the possibility of asking for the appointment of an independent counsel. This was the last time NBC would mention Chung’s allegations.

A month after the Chung interview on NBC, CBS broke the story that Attorney General Janet Reno was being urged to appoint an independent counsel by lawyers at the Department of Justice. In their first story on Chung’s allegations, Dan Rather reminded viewers: "It is important to note that O’Leary denies any wrongdoing." CBS then forgot about the story until December 2, when they reported Reno had decided not to ask for an independent counsel.

At least you can count on the all-news networks to develop and investigate the story thoroughly, right? Wrong. Between the August 19 interview and the December 2 decision, CNN’s The World Today did just two stories on Chung. Inside Politics also only mentioned the story twice over nearly four months. PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and ABC have yet to run one story on the investigation.

Strike Good, Scandal Bad. On November 17, federal election officer Kenneth Conboy disqualified Teamsters Union president Ron Carey from running again for re-election after he diverted more than $700,000 in union funds for his own election in December 1996. The scandal threatens not only Carey, but top Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe (who was told of the illegal schemes), the AFL-CIO (whose Secretary-Treasurer, Richard Trumka, took the Fifth), and liberal groups who joined the illegal fundraising conspiracy. Big news? Not if you work at the networks. That night, CBS and NBC provided only briefs. ABC aired one story in which John Martin relayed the sad note: "One analyst called the day a disastrous setback for the union and the nation."

This wasn’t the first time the networks skipped over the Teamster scandal. This summer, the three broadcast networks aired 71 full stories and 17 anchor briefs on Carey’s Teamsters strike against the United Parcel Service, but only six full stories and four anchor briefs on Carey’s post-election decline and fall.

The Big Three morning shows aired 94 full segments on the UPS strike, but only three through mid-December on the Teamsters scandal. The strike led the morning shows 20 times. Within that sample, the morning shows aired 26 interview segments on the strike to just two on the Carey scandal. ABC’s Good Morning America carried almost all of that; NBC’s Today aired one anchor brief in three months, and CBS This Morning aired nothing. Clearly, the UPS strike has more news appeal to a broader audience than Teamster corruption does. But the prominence the Teamsters gained through the burst of strike coverage ought to make their current struggles more prominent than the near-blackout so far.