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MediaWatch: February 1992

Vol. Six No. 2

Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Sunday Mourning Michigan

In the past few months, network news watchers have seen increasingly manipulative stories on welfare spending cuts. Often, reporters stress an emotional portrait of the abandoned poor and skip over the real statistics. Last month, MediaWatch noted how CBS reporter Bob Faw dishonestly presented a Connecticut welfare mother with four kids as the victims of approaching cuts. But the Connecticut legislature considered nothing to reduce benefits to families.

On January 12, CBS became a repeat offender. Sunday Morning aired a heart-tugging profile of welfare cuts in Michigan. The story ignored many details that would have contradicted its portrait of conservatives kicking helpless poor people. For that report, CBS earned the Janet Cooke Award.

Charles Kuralt began with an indictment of Michigan's lack of compassion: "You know the old saying about giving a hungry man a handout -- he'll just be hungry again after he's eaten. But if you teach him to fish, the saying goes, why, then he'll always be able to feed himself. A lot of states are thinking along these lines, trying to reduce their budgets by cutting dependence on welfare, telling a lot of people, in effect, to go fishing. Trouble is, as David Culhane reports in our cover story, in Michigan as elsewhere, the fishing isn't very good right now."

Culhane began: "They are praying for people here in Flint, Michigan, whose general assistance welfare benefits have been cut off. They are praying for people looking for jobs in the face of an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent in the city, almost 10 percent in the state, a state reeling from layoffs in the automobile industry...Even so, beginning in October, Michigan stopped welfare payments to 80,000 single adults across the state. And critics say the overall social services budget has been cut by 20 percent."

Wrong. Chuck Peller, a research analyst in Michigan's Department of Social Services, told MediaWatch: "In real dollars, the budget increased. It's the biggest budget ever." The total budget, including state and federal dollars, added up to $5.8 billion, up from $5.1 million in fiscal 1990. State spending slowed, but an increase in federal aid has meant the budget has continued to grow.

When asked by MediaWatch about his figures, the producer of the segment, Jim Houtrides, couldn't say exactly where they came from: "We got this from several people, including some people on the welfare services or whatever that thing is called, committee in Lansing. And we said 'critics say' because you can look at those figures and add them up any which way."

Later, Culhane moralized: "Many of the people who are taken off general assistance in Michigan are in fact not able to work because of medical or psychological reasons. Critics ask: Is it morally wrong to withdraw their aid? And is it morally wrong to withdraw aid from people eager to work when there are no jobs, people like George Mongene. He's been sleeping outside in Flint for twelve nights."

Misleading. Culhane failed to tell viewers that Republican Governor John Engler set up a $3 million contract with the state's Salvation Army, which guaranteed that no state resident should sleep on the streets. The Salvation Army answers an 800 number, and if no shelter is available, they put the homeless in motels.

Nowhere in the report did Kuralt or Culhane cite anything that would make Governor Engler's case. Take the elimination of the general assistance program for single adults. CBS failed to note that the average general assistance benefit ($145 a month) was well below the average welfare program. CBS left out the damning fact that in the months preceding the cuts, an unprecedented 25,000 people voluntarily left the general assistance rolls. CBS also skipped the fact that 6,700 general assistance recipients with medical or psychological problems have been added to the disability fund.

When asked about these statistics, Houtrides told MediaWatch he hadn't known any of them. Then, he denied it was his job to provide the other side: "The Governor could have made his own case if he thought it was significant that 25,000 had dropped off the rolls."

CBS not only aired just five soundbites of their 25-minute interview with Engler, they insured that Engler's point of view would be outnumbered by more than three to one. Seventeen soundbites expressed gloom or outrage over Engler's proposals. For example, Culhane reported: "State Representative David Hollister says the Engler administration...should also be giving unemployed adults aid and job training so that they're better able to find work."

Misleading. Engler isn't against giving training to adults. Culhane did not report that Governor Engler proposed (but the legislature rejected) a basic education initiative to pay a $100 a month stipend for those seeking training. When asked about this, Houtrides again responded: "I don't know the specifics of that."

Culhane aired a clip of social worker Peppy Rosenthal: "I'm a survivor of the Holocaust, and you know, in my wildest dream, I never dreamt I would come to this country and have to protect children from going hungry and homeless."

Misleading. This is not about children (or the Holocaust). Families with children were excluded from cuts, as was the state's Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program. In 1990, before Engler won the gubernatorial race, Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard signed a 9.2 percent cut in all state cabinet departments, including a 17 percent reduction in the ADC program. Under Engler, funding has been slowly restored, eight percent in July 1991, another seven percent in November. On January 1, the majority of ADC cases got another grant increase under a new system. The typical grant to a family of three: $459 a month. But Houtrides didn't know anything about these funding hikes, either: "I don't know if that's, in fact, true, perhaps it's true, perhaps not. I don't think it's true."

Houtrides also objected to the charge that outnumbering Engler 17 to 5 was unfair: "It is probably a mistake to add up poor people and Holliste and Peppy Rosenthal as one side and Engler as the other side. I think the Governor of the state of Michigan carries with him great weight because he's the Governor."

He also admitted that CBS edited out Engler comparing his record on welfare to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton: "He kept comparing Michigan's positive welfare programs, constantly with, and only with, Arkansas." But while CBS made Michigan look like the nation's number one welfare welsher, the state currently ranks eighth in welfare spending per capita.

In all of its reporting from Michigan, CBS (like other media outlets) avoids asking questions from the taxpayer's point of view. Reporters ask: Is it morally wrong to withdraw welfare? They don't ask: Is it morally wrong to take money from those who have earned it? Reporters focus on the burdens of the nonworking poor, but not the tax burdens of the working poor and middle class. The tax burden in Michigan has been rising steadily, driving business out of the state, but the government is seen as the protector of the unemployed, not the destroyer of jobs. But CBS not only wallowed in liberal assumptions: it utterly failed to check the most basic information that might have challenged the liberal case.