MediaWatch: February 1989

Vol. Three No. 2

Janet Cooke Award: Reagan Bashing: ABC News


Just days before the inauguration of George Bush, residents of the primarily black section of Miami named Overtown began rioting over the shooting death of a black motorcyclist by white police officers. Some in the media took the Overtown issue to an extreme, charging the riots were a consequence of the disregard for the poor and underclass. ABC's Richard Threlkeld went one step further. He found the real villain to be Ronald Reagan and his administration's policies, and for that receives the February Janet Cooke Award.

On January 20 Threlkeld was in Miami to learn, in Peter Jennings words, "how the new President's remarks might play in a place like Overtown." Jennings noted that "in his speech today, President Bush tried to reach beyond the crowd of well wishers to another America where the problems of poverty and crime and homelessness are still unresolved." True enough, Overtown qualifies as such a place; but Threlkeld's examination of the black area quickly became a condemnation of Reagan's overall civil rights and economic policies. Threlkeld used sweeping rhetorical judgments without any attempt at balance.

Threlkeld's first words set the tone for his entire report: "There wasn't much of an inaugural audience today in Overtown, which like much of black America has not felt part of the life of this nation for a long time." Why is that so? Threlkeld alleged: "After eight years of what many see as the Reagan Administration's benign neglect of the poor and studied indifference to civil rights, a lot of those who lived through this week in Overtown seemed to think the best thing about George Bush is that he is not Ronald Reagan."

After putting on several citizens to support the assertion, Threlkeld concluded: "There is an Overtown in every big city in America -- pockets of misery made even meaner and more desperate the past eight years." As for Bush's inaugural address, he added: "In this place, the response to the promise of a new President of an offered hand is 'show me.' Overtown's already shown this week there's a price to be paid when the Overtowns of America are too long overlooked."

If Threlkeld had been interested he could have easily located many blacks who have benefitted from Reagan's policies. As Wall Street Journal editorial writer Joseph Perkins recently pointed out in a Policy Review article, "most debates about the state of black Americans focus on negative indicators" and "this emphasis offers a very skewed picture of black progress."

Census Bureau statistics show that the Reagan years have been a boom time for the vast majority of black Americans. Median black family income has increased by more than nine percent in constant dollars since 1981. (During the Carter Presidency, black family income dropped by more than five percent). From 1985 to 1987, middle class black families saw their real incomes jump by approximately ten percent per year. In this decade alone, the pool of upwardly mobile blacks has grown by more than a third. It was trend even evident to CNN's Jeff Levine who stated on January 15: "There are signs of an emerging black bourgeoisie. For the first time, the majority of blacks can call themselves middle class."

As for black unemployment, Labor Department figures show that it has dropped by 25 percent during the Reagan years. That translates into more than two million new jobs. While the black poverty rate increased somewhat at the beginning of Reagan's term, Census statistics find it has begun to fall considerably and is now below the 1981 level, when Carter's policies were still in effect.

But Threlkeld failed to offer anyone airtime to describe these trends. He spoke of a "studied indifference to civil rights," but neglected to mention the strives toward equality that blacks have made in the work place. Perkins noted that black professional and managerial classes have burgeoned in the 1980s, as has black college enrollment.

The CNN story by Levine featured many middle class blacks "climbing the corporate ladder" who have "overcome the burden of racial discrimination." ABC's Mike Von Fremd, reporting from Alabama, found: "Today, when you watch Montgomery's children together in school, look at its streets, or eat in its restaurants, you see a community that has achieved at least part of Dr. King's dream."

When reached by MediaWatch, Threlkeld defended his story: "We have a difference of opinion. The research we've done over the years is to the contrary. Not just blacks, but the poorest fifth have done worse under Reagan. Public opinion polls show time and again that the vast majority are victims of benign neglect." But Threlkeld would not provide any statistics to prove his point, nor was he willing to discuss official Labor or Census numbers: "If we want to get into a contest over'll have to drop me a letter and through our research department we'll do it."

He contended that his report was meant to examine only Overtown and little else: "Of course there is a large black middle class But indicators show that things are manifestly worse in places like Overtown....Our point was being in Overtown." Despite the substance of his story, Threlkeld tried to deny he cast blame: "I don't necessarily blame Ronald Reagan or Reagan's administration ....[The report] says a lot of [blacks in Overtown] blame him."

But why cover Overtown and not cover the stable black middle class that has grown by leaps and bounds this decade? Threlkeld agreed that the news media "ought to cover every aspect," but saw no need to expand his effort: "This was a piece we thought would be interesting to do because it dominated that week." What about a separate piece focusing on a middle class black neighborhood to get reaction from them on Bush's inauguration? He didn't see any need: "But there weren't riots there." Apparently when ABC News wants to learn how blacks fared under Reagan and what they think of the new President, the only appropriate place to survey is a poor, riot-stricken area. Need we say more?