In This Issue
A Social Problem Blamed on Reaganomics Fades Away in Clinton-Era Media Coverage; NewsBites: Tricky Dick's Tax Break; CBS Reporter Bernard Goldberg Charges Colleague; Networks Scared of Flat Tax; Global Warming Shtick Returns The Heat Is Off; Transportation's Travel Bill; Knowledgeable Limbaugh Dittoheads; Janet Cooke Award: The Evangelical Right Wing That Wasn't
A Social Problem Blamed on Reaganomics Fades Away in Clinton-Era Media Coverage
The Incredible Shrinking Homeless
The poor may have always been with us, but the network news has often presented homelessness as a problem created by the Reagan adminstration.
"In the 1980s, the Reagan years, the amount of government money spent to build low-income housing was cut drastically. Then the homeless began to appear on streets and in doorsteps and housing became a visible human problem," proclaimed then-NBC anchor Garrick Utley on November 3, 1990. ABC's John Martin told the same tale in reporting a 1989 homelessness march: "They staged the biggest rally on behalf of the homeless since the Reagan revolution forced severe cutbacks in government housing programs."
It mattered little that budget experts John Cogan and Timothy Muris noted in The American Enterprise in 1990 that "while budget authority for subsidized housing programs declined 77 percent (from 1981-89), the number of subsidized units and the number of families living in those units increased by one-third." Reporter Harold Dow recycled the same old media spin on the March 26, 1991 CBS Evening News: "In New York there are an estimated 70,000 homeless people, three million across America. A problem that got a lot worse during the boom times of the 1980s."
So now that Bill Clinton has been in office for three years, has the ever-growing problem of homelessness continued to burden the White House? Or did the problem recede from the media's agenda? MediaWatch analysts used the MRC Media Tracking System to count the number of network evening news segments on homelessness in America on the four evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's Prime News or World News). Analysts found the problem faded from the list of priorities. In the Bush years (1989-1992), the number of homeless stories per year averaged 52.5, but in the first three years of the Clinton administration, the average dropped to 25.3 stories a year.
During the Bush administration, the story count grew from 44 in 1989 to a peak of 71 in 1990, followed by 54 stories in 1991 and 43 in 1992. By contrast, stories on America's homeless dipped slightly to 35 stories in 1993, and 32 in 1994. In 1995, the number fell dramatically to just nine. When the count is broken down by network, CNN had the widest gap in reporting during the Bush years and Clinton years (90-30), closely followed by ABC (45-16), CBS (41-15), and NBC (36-15).
But the numbers alone do not tell the whole story. The decline in homeless coverage coincided with the lessening of unsupported statistics about the size of the homeless population. CNN anchor Lou Waters announced on August 8, 1989: "A new research report is warning that homelessness in this country could easily double or triple if there is a mild recession...there now are up to 40 million Americans living on the knife edge of homelessness, just one paycheck, one domestic argument from the streets."
The willingness to wildly extrapolate the number of America's homeless began to change slightly in 1991, when the Census Bureau's partial count of the homeless in shelters and on the street reported an estimate of 220,000 homeless Americans. All four networks reported on the Census count the night it occurred (March 20, 1990). But when the Census Bureau released its official report announcing a count of 220,000 on April 12, 1991, only CNN reported it. ABC referred to the estimate on May 9, but only to note that congressional sources claimed the estimate was "meaningless."
While the stories in the Bush era regularly blamed Republican administrations, not one of the 75 homeless stories in the last three years has placed any blame on the Clinton administration. On January 21, 1993, ABC featured a report on the gaudiness of the Clinton inauguration, which reporter Judy Muller concluded: "The Republicans were criticized for their show of wealth in the face of need. The Democrats seemed to have avoided such criticism. Perhaps because President Clinton has promised to help those less fortunate. For now, not many people seem to begrudge Bill Clinton his night on the town, considering the sobering realities he faces the morning after."
Indeed, in a March 12, 1995 NBC story, reporter Giselle Fernandez warned of the consequences if congressional Republicans succeeded in trimming spending on homeless aid programs in a small $17 billion rescission bill: "Across the nation there are an estimated 20,000 homeless families. And social workers worry the crisis will only worsen if the new Congress keeps its promise and makes deep cuts in bedrock social programs and especially in public housing." Fernandez did not explain why the networks did not blame this problem on the Clinton administration: they announced plans to spend a whopping $2.1 billion in fiscal 1995 on homeless aid, more than three times the $550 million spent in the last year of the Bush administration. To NBC, reducing this dramatic increase was a "deep cut."
The only story that MediaWatch analysts found on ABC in 1995 was an anchor brief by Catherine Crier: "A new report today from the advocacy group Children's Defense Fund finds life for millions of American children still filled with poverty and violence. In its new yearbook, the group cites Census Bureau figures showing nearly 16 million children living in poverty last year, the highest level since 1964, and among the homeless, one in four is a child." In other words, the liberal group that used to be chaired by Hillary Clinton has noted that child poverty by one measure is the worst in thirty years, but ABC never wondered whether the Clinton administration could be at fault.
The network trend of slowly dropping the story of homelessness, and quickly transforming the issue from an indicator of Republican economic failure to a nonpartisan social problem, suggests that politics more than journalism is at play. Homelessness served as a negative campaign tool against the Republican intention to curb the unending growth of federal spending on social programs.
NewsBites: Tricky Dick's Tax Break
When Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) filed an ethics complaint against House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt for possibly illegally evading capital gains taxes on a land swap, the story's hypocrisy angle seemed obvious. Insight reported last summer that Gephardt, who dem-agogues against capital gains tax cuts as windfalls for the rich, listed a beachfront property he was purchasing as an investment property, thus avoiding tax on a $79,500 capital gain. To obtain a loan to build on the North Carolina property, he signed a covenant pledging the house would be used as a second home, and not as an investment property.
Reporters had two chances to make Gephardt's hypocrisy a news story, one when Dunn filed the complaint February 2, and another when Gephardt's lawyer denied the allegations a week later. Despite short stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times, in both cases the network evening news programs completely ignored the allegations.
Newt Left Hanging.
Last July, when the National Republican Congressional Committee printed a Wanted poster featuring targeted Democrats, CNN thoroughly covered the ensuing outrage from Democrats. The NRCC Wanted poster merely pictured Democratic incumbents up for re-election in 1996. CNN gave the most coverage overall of the poster, airing stories on the July 10 and July 15 Inside Politics as well as on World News for July 12 and 13. Declared anchor Bobbie Battista: "Some of the Democrats pictured on a Republican Wanted poster are complaining the ad is racist and could even put their lives in danger." The next day anchor Linden Soles reported, "Democrats say the poster is racist, anti-semitic and could even lead to physical attacks against them."
So where was CNN when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) posted a Hangman game on its Web site that depicted Newt Gingrich as hanging from a gallows? According to John Pitney in the January 29 Weekly Standard, "For each correct guess, the site added a new part to a stick figure and displayed a different quotation from Gingrich. At the end of the game, the screen showed the stick figure hanging from a gallows, above the game's magic word: EXTREMIST." Surely, the lynching of the Speaker of the House on an official DNC computer Web page deserved at least a brief spot. But neither CNN's Inside Politics or The World Today aired a report on the Hangman game. A review of the three other major networks showed they also failed to mention the DNC's ghoulish depiction of Gingrich on the gallows.
PBS on Privates.
Are the personal lives of politicians relevant? Apparently, the PBS answer is "only if they're Republicans." On January 16, the tax-funded documentary series Frontline devoted an hour to the rise of Newt Gingrich, which included tales of how friends had to raise money to feed Newt's kids because he wouldn't pay alimony. Frontline also aired a man heckling Gingrich at a book signing: "You profess family values. This is hidden wisdom in the Holy Bible. And I want to know where it says oral sex doesn't count as adultery. I'd like you to sign it because, you know, you've been cheating on your wife. You've been crying family values. I don't know where it says oral sex is moral while you're trying to take away children's rights and children's benefits."
But Frontline has almost completely avoided dealing with Bill Clinton's sex life. The only snippet came on March 3, 1992, in a documentary on racist David Duke, who declared: "I am not a wizard under the sheets. I have to leave that title to Bill Clinton from Arkansas." But that's about it. The October 21, 1992 Frontline titled "The Choice," a two-hour history of Bush and Clinton, leaped at the very end from Clinton's announcement speech in 1991 to the Los Angeles riots. There was no Gennifer Flowers. In 1995, Frontline aired "What Happened to Bill Clinton?" The answer: He hadn't been liberal enough. PBS said nothing about the allegations of state troopers or the sexual harassment lawsuit of Paula Jones.
Another Travelgate Yawn.
While promoting her new book in January, First Lady Hillary Clinton defended her role in the May 1993 firing of the White House Travel Office staff. She said "financial mismanagement" justified the action. But a recent audit by the General Accounting Office shows that whatever the situation in 1993, it has only gotten worse.
According to an Associated Press story that appeared in the January 30 Washington Post and Washington Times, an audit by the General Accounting Office found: "The current travel office rarely follows its own policy of paying vendors, such as airlines and telephone companies, within 45 days of the invoice date....office employees never balanced checkbooks from January through August 1995." The audit also found that the office's accounts receivable had soared to $5.6 million under the new management, while the employees that were fired had only $366,000. The new employees also forgot to enter over $200,000 in deposits into the office's checking accounts.
The audit drew little national media attention. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today all failed to report the embarrassing revelations. With the exception of the NewsHour on PBS, no network evening news show ran a story. Neither did Time or Newsweek.
Hillary's Decade of Greed.
Newsweek's Martha Brant and Evan Thomas analyzed the duality of Hillary Clinton in the January 15 issue. Instead of condemning her as a hypocrite for trashing the "greed is good" 1980s in public while cashing in on her influence in private, the Newsweek duo marveled at her "missionary zeal" as a liberal crusader. "The same zeal that is so impressive in her fight for worthy causes," Brant and Thomas suggested, "can also lead her (at best) to be politically insensitive and (at worst) to be ruthless about getting her way."
The article shows why Hillary never resorted to ruthlessness when dealing with the press on Whitewater; reporters like Brant and Thomas are willing to rationalize her behavior: "It has fallen mostly to Hillary to finance the Clinton's public service. (As governor, her husband never earned more than $35,000 a year.) To the outside world, her commodities trading -- a $1,000 investment to make $100,000 -- looks suspiciously cozy. And the family's lost investment in the failed Whitewater land development has the smell of a sweet deal turned sour...Although she would never admit it, she may feel that she was relatively restrained in Little Rock, given the temptations of her position and the culture of the place. For a governor's wife who was also a senior partner in a politically connected law firm, the opportunity for lucrative deals must have been huge."
Zuckerman's Zero Interest. Liberals often claim that media owners push the media to the right. Not so at U.S. News & World Report where owner Mortimer Zuckerman liked investigating George Bush, but is not so happy about probing the Clintons. Zuckerman used a two-page editorial on January 29 to lambaste Republican handling of the Whitewater hearings. He recalled Joseph Welch's famous dictum, "Have you no sense of decency?" from the Army-McCarthy hearings of the 1950s as he regurgitated the Clintons' public relations line that a report prepared for the RTC by former Republican U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens cleared the Clintons. On the issue of the billing records that were discovered nearly two years after being subpoenaed (and which contradict the RTC report), Zuckerman wrote: "What about the time sheets showing the amount of legal work that Hillary Clinton performed for the failed S&L?...Again, no. Her role...was minimal."
The editorial led to a January 26 guest appearance on Michael Jackson's KABC talk show in Los Angeles. Talk Daily reported that "he called the charges against the Clintons `outrageous' (a term he used several times)," claimed that in the First Lady's Madison dealings "all transactions were legitimate," was "disgusted" by the investigation and considered much of the press coverage a "witch hunt."
Zuckerman's U.S. News piece also attacked fellow journalists for investigating a Democrat: "The press has slipped its moorings here...The two questions now -- what did the President's wife know and when did she know it? -- seem a childish irrelevance by comparison [to Watergate]." However in his own June 22, 1992 editorial on Iraqgate, Zuckerman suggested the Bush administration obstructed justice, claiming: "Certainly the attempts to limit inquiries by Congress on the spurious grounds of national security smell of coverup....In short, what did the administration know and when did it know it?"
Host Jane Pauley's introduction to the January 23 Dateline NBC dripped with sarcasm: "Do you feel that everyone is after your job, and they just might have an unfair advantage? That people can criticize you and it's OK? Are you a white American male? In California, two men have taken up the cause of the beleaguered species. They've written a ballot proposal that, if passed in November, would change affirmative action in California's state hiring and education admissions." Reporter Josh Mankiewicz charged, "They (Glynn Custred and Tom Wood) are portrayed as `genial scholars,' just two `apolitical professors,' an image Wood and Custred have worked hard to maintain."
Then Mankiewicz moved to discredit them: "The two are key figures in a conservative organization...very critical of many aspects of higher education, including black and women's studies, sexual harassment policies, the emphasis on racial diversity, and affirmative action." John Leo of U.S. News & World Report took exception to the Mankiewicz segment in the February 19 issue: "Senator Joe himself couldn't have phrased this better. It artfully left the impression that NAS [the National Association of Scholars, to which Wood and Custred belong] is a sinister, antiwoman, antiblack group." In fact, Leo noted that "a prominent Marxist, Eugene Genovese, sits on the board of advisers."
Mankiewicz criticized the men for not having statistics on how many white men have suffered discrimination, but Leo pointed out "Nobody has good statistics on this. Since a lot of reverse discrimination is legal under Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act], many who are hurt by it never bother to file any complaints and thus don't get counted."
Judge Baer Not Bared.
When Federal Judge Harold Baer threw out the key evidence in a New York drug arrest, $4 million in cocaine and heroin, only one news magazine noted that the Clinton administration had appointed the judge. All four networks ran stories on the case, explaining how the judge tossed the evidence, which officers found in a duffel bag they earlier saw being placed inside a car, under the guise of it being obtained through an illegal search. A story on NBC's February 6 Dateline noted that the woman charged admitted to being a drug runner and that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) now regretted suggesting Baer be nominated. But none of the networks noted the Clinton link.
U.S. News & World Report was the only news magazine to make the connection between Clinton and Baer. However reporter Ted Gest, writing in the February 12 issue, failed to tie Baer's ruling with any liberal leanings. Analyzing the administration's judicial choices, he wrote, "Clinton's Supreme Court choices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are moderates, and so are most of his lower court appointees...Assistant Attorney General Eleanor Acheson...stresses diversity without sacrificing quality." Quality that let a $4 million admitted drug trafficker go free.
CBS Reporter Bernard Goldberg Charges Colleague
Reality Check for Eric Engberg
This month MediaWatch planned to include an article about CBS reporter Eric Engberg's February 8 CBS Evening News "Reality Check" attack on Steve Forbes' flat tax. But one of Engberg's colleagues beat us to it. In an unprecedented February 13 Wall Street Journal op-ed, CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg said that "Mr. Engberg's report set new standards for bias." Reaction was swift: CBS News President Andrew Heyward tagged the charge "absurd."
Goldberg began by observing that one reason fewer people are watching network news "is that our viewers simply don't trust us. And for good reason. The old argument that the networks and other `media elites' have a liberal bias is so blatantly true that it's hardly worth discussing anymore. No, we don't sit around in dark corners and plan strategies on how we're going to slant the news. We don't have to. It comes naturally to most reporters."
Reciting the story, he noted that Engberg showed Forbes saying the "economy can grow twice as fast if we remove `obstacles,' starting with the tax code. Mr. Forbes may be right or wrong about this, so Mr. Engberg lets us know which it is. `Time Out!' he shouts in his signature style. `Economists say nothing like that has ever actually happened.'"
Next, Engberg showed Forbes asserting "A flat tax would enable the economy to grow. That would mean more revenue for Washington." To that "Engberg tells the audience: `That was called supply- side economics under President Reagan. Less taxes equal more revenue. It didn't work out that way.'" Engberg then allowed an economist from the Brookings Institution, which he failed to label as liberal, to predict the same thing would happen again.
Goldberg wondered: "But haven't other experts argued that we wound end up with `hideous deficits' not because of the tax cut but because of increased spending?"
Engberg offered this snide hit: "OK, how about Forbes' number one wackiest flat tax promise?" In a clip, Forbes explained how "parents would have more time to spend with their children, and with each other." Goldberg queried, "can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a network news reporter calling Hillary Clinton's health care plan `wacky?'" Engberg concluded: "The fact is, the flat tax is one giant untested theory. One economist suggested that before we risk putting it in, we ought to try it out someplace, like maybe Albania."
"Reality Check," Goldberg explained, "suggests the viewers are going to get the facts. And then they can make up their mind. As Mr. Engberg might put it: `Time Out!' You'd have a better chance of getting the facts someplace else -- like Albania."
Networks Scared of Flat Tax
Furious At Forbes
The higher Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes rose in the polls, the more reporters felt compelled to discredit his flat tax proposal, often by trying to stir class envy.
In the February 8 Investor's Business Daily reporter Thomas McArdle uncovered the agenda. In mid-January ABC News interviewed Alvin Rabushka, a Senior Fellow with the Hoover Institution and an architect of the flat tax idea, for a Peter Jennings piece. Rabushka told McArdle that "the cameras rolled for an hour, and throughout the hour, over and over again, he kept trying to get me to agree it would be a tax on the middle class, if not in the long run, then at least in the interim period. And over and over I wouldn't say it." Rabushka concluded that Jennings just wanted to "get me to say the 18-second soundbite he wanted to use to discredit Steve Forbes."
Indeed, Rabushka did not appear in Jennings' January 15 World News Tonight story in which he tagged the flat tax as "a very radical notion." Jennings wondered "Will plumbers be hurt more than plutocrats? President Clinton believes that middle class homeowners will see the value of their homes go down if there is no mortgage deduction. And charities worry about how generous folks will be if their contribution is no longer deductible. Certainly the rich would do better than the middle class."
Two days later NBC's Mike Jensen looked at three families, concluding as fact: "For poor and middle class families, critics say the 17 percent flat tax is a cruel hoax, that to avoid big deficits, it would have to be much higher than 17 percent. So not only would it fail to help the poor, it would increase taxes for most middle class Americans."
Nightline devoted its February 1 edition to a 30-minute assault. Robert Krulwich went through four supposed benefits of the flat tax, concluding each was wrong. As for fairness, he decided that "it doesn't seem fair that while" millionaire candidate Morry Taylor "pays zero tax on his $15 million" in stock sales, "his employees -- because they're not getting stock, they're on a salary -- they pay a 17 percent tax on their money; but that's what happens when you eliminate capital gains."
As for whether it's simpler, Krulwich decided it's not because not everyone will really be able to do their taxes on a postcard. Moving on to the third claim of lower taxes for everyone, he countered: "Sounds wonderful, but then Forbes' tax helps some more than others, especially wealthy families. Still, somebody must lose and the government could be the big loser. Forbes' tax could cut government revenues by $40 billion a year or $180 billion, depending upon who you ask, which means deeper cuts in programs" or bigger deficits.
On the last claim, that it "will be good for the economy," he explained how "Forbes is an old-fashioned, kick-up-your-heels optimist. He believes if you don't tax savings, people will save a lot more. If you don't tax investment income, people will invest a lot more, and in the end, the economy will grow a lot more." He countered that "history does not bless Steve Forbes' optimism." For the rest of the show Ted Koppel interviewed two opponents: Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson and the magazine's Wall Street editor Allan Sloan, who sneered, "when I first heard it, I almost fell on the floor laughing wondering how anyone could take it seriously."
Global Warming Shtick Returns The Heat Is Off
Snow in Arizona, ice in Mississippi, and record low temperatures in between? It must be global warming. So said Newsweek's January 22 cover story: "The Hot Zone: Blizzards, Floods, & Hurricanes: Blame Global Warming."
Senior Writer Sharon Begley promoted Goddard Institute scientist James Hansen (an early and influential exponent of global warming). The story included a graph claiming, "The average surface temperature of the earth has risen more than 1.5 degrees in the last 135 years."
Begley noted how some scientists are skeptical, but didn't detail their evidence. Instead, she concluded by endorsing Hansen's theory of immenent climate change, writing "to many people trudging along streets lined with urban Himalayas last week, it already has." Reporter Bob Dotson fingered the same suspect to explain the weather on the February 2 Dateline NBC: "Despite the cold, last year was the hottest on record. Mix those two extremes, says Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, and stir with global warming." Dotson failed to tell viewers that Oppeheimer is a long-time promoter of warming scenarios for the liberal Environmental Defense Fund.
Both got their data from the University of East Anglia, whose climate researchers anointed 1995 the warmest year ever after measuring the Earth's surface temperature for the first 11 months of data, making an "educated guess" about December.
Reporter Kathy Sawyer in the January 26 Washington Post pointed out "Temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere plummeted in December by almost 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit," a drop "unprecedented in the 17-year satellite record." She cited figures from NOAA, whose satellite data showed that out of 17 years included in their research, "1995 was only about the eighth-warmest year." Ronald Bailey, producer of Ben Wattenberg's Think Tank on PBS wrote in the February 5 Weekly Standard that "One climate scientist at NASA speculated that the East Anglia group was afraid that if they waited, December temperatures might plummet and they'd lose their opportunity for a scary headline." Bailey suggested a more accurate headline: "'95 Eighth-Warmest Year on Record."
Transportation's Travel Bill
The national news media are usually more than happy to support increases in government spending. On the January 31 NBC Nightly News, however, correspondent Robert Hager exposed frivolous spending on travel by Department of Transportation (DOT) officials. Tom Brokaw introduced the Fleecing of America report: "This time the excess appears to be by officials of the Federal Transportation Department. They like to travel in style, it turns out. This as other members of the Clinton cabinet are coming under scrutiny for their travel habits."
Hager looked at trips that top DOT officials had taken in the past year. He noted: "The Paris Air Show. A 17-day trip to the Orient by Secretary Pena. A trade mission to Rio. Just three of the 700 trips taken by senior officials of the Department of Transportation last year, at a cost to taxpayers of $600,000." Hager went on to explain that many of Clinton's DOT officials spent in excess of 100 days traveling out of the country, many to areas with nothing related to their relevant concerns. Hager offered an illustration: "South Africa, the head of the Transit Administration spent 10 days there at government expense for a transit conference. He's the official who oversees subways in the U.S. -- there are no subways in South Africa."
Nightline Finds Whitewater
In 1995, ABC's Nightline dedicated only three programs to the Whitewater story, with host Ted Koppel and his colleagues largely failing to explore Republican charges of a coverup. But what a difference a month makes.
Since missing Whitewater billing records surfaced on January 8, Nightline has dedicated five programs in the 30 subsequent days. The shows examined who could have moved the billing records and contradictions in Hillary Clinton's statements about work related to shady Arkansas land deals.
ABC realized not all the press were so attentive. In a Jan. 19 review of reaction to Mrs. Clinton during her book tour, Koppel posited to Chris Bury: "When she says...`after the week I've had,' you would think that she had just been battered and bruised all week long and in point of fact journalists seem to have been very, very docile." Bury agreed: "The press was surprisingly meek," as interviews with her were "deferential."
Knowledgeable Limbaugh Dittoheads
Not The Media Caricature
In his just published book, Hot Talk: All Talk, All the Time, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz argues that talk radio, especially Rush Limbaugh, has a corrosive effect on society as hosts heighten division and spread misinformation. But a new poll by Kurtz' own newspaper found that listening to Limbaugh may be the antidote, not the cause, of public ignorance as his listeners are among the best informed Americans.
A major Washington Post survey revealed an incredible level of ignorance as 40 percent of the public could not name the Vice President, 47 percent failed to identify the House Speaker, 66 percent had no idea who is U.S. Senate Majority Leader, 94 percent were unable to name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and 58 percent thought the U.S. spends more on foreign aid than Medicare.
But Limbaugh listeners are in a better league. As the Post noted January 29, "They are much more knowledgeable than most about what goes on inside the Beltway and, although they are among the least trusting of the federal government, they are also among the most politically engaged voters." Over 80 percent are registered voters, "compared to only a quarter of non-dittoheads."
The poll demonstrated just how far off the mark reporters have been. In a January 1995 NBC Nightly News Bob Faw asked whether "talk radio is not democracy in action, but democracy run amok." Writing a Washington Post book review last May former CBS and NBC reporter Marvin Kalb charged: "Cut off the funding for NPR, or gradually reduce its funding to the point where it becomes a mere shadow of its usual robust, sensible self, and the American people may find themselves left with nothing much more than Rush and dozens of his mini-clones for information about the world. For Limbaugh's `dittoheads,' this may be the most splendid of tomorrows, but for other more thoughtful listeners, it may be the bleakest of forecasts."
Six in ten Limbaugh listeners "have very little confidence in the news media." Sounds like dittoheads have a better understanding of the media than the media have of them.
Janet Cooke Award: The Evangelical Right Wing That Wasn't
Pro-life activists gather together in the nation's capital every January 22 to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. This year, 60,000 came to Washington for the annual March for Life, but the networks didn't pay much attention.
NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News each gave the event 19 seconds. CBS followed up with a long story about the federal investigation into anti-abortion violence. CNN also had an anchor brief, although reporter Anthony Collings did a story the night before. On the day of the march, CNN's Inside Politics didn't mention the march, but devoted more than seven minutes to an interview with pro-choice Republicans Ann Stone and Julie Finley.
ABC's World News Tonight didn't even mention the march. But just nine days later, on January 31, Peter Jennings announced a "major demonstration on behalf of the environment designed to pressure those congressional Republicans who wish to eliminate or dilute many of the country's environmental laws. ABC's Barry Serafin reports that the pressure comes from a group of the Republican conservatives' strongest supporters." For ignoring the march of religious conservatives against abortion and then promoting the activities of a small group of religious liberals as if they were conservatives, ABC earned the Janet Cooke Award.
Serafin explained: "Protecting the environment is a relatively new issue for evangelical Christians. But a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network [EEN] says it will spend a million dollars on a campaign to block efforts by congressional conservatives to weaken the Endangered Species Act, starting with a television commercial in 18 states." ABC aired a section of the ad which asserted: "The Endangered Species Act has rescued dozens of God's creatures from extinction. But today, the Act itself is threatened."
Serafin added that the group encouraged children to write letters lobbying Newt Gingrich to stop the GOP bill, before concluding: "The evangelical delegation in Washington delivered some of the children's letters, but it was unable to meet with Gingrich today. Gingrich's position on the Endangered Species Act is still a question. A bigger question is how congressional conservatives will deal with opposition from those they usually consider political allies."
ABC's report was grossly misleading for a number of reasons. Despite Jennings' insistence, there was no "major demonstration." ABC showed no video of a demonstration, only a shot of a few professionals in overcoats walking outside the Capitol. In other words, ABC had ignored a major demonstration of 60,000 pro-lifers, only to cover one that did not even occur. The Environmental Information Center (EIC), which other news accounts identified as the million-dollar funder behind the evangelical group's ads against GOP reform of the Endangered Species Act, told MediaWatch there was no demonstration, only a press conference.
In an August 19, 1995 Washington Post story about the activities of the liberal environmental groups Greenpeace, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and the Sierra Club to stop Republican proposals to strengthen the rights of property owners, reporter Gary Lee noted the liberal strategy behind the founding of EIC: "The major conservation groups and a few private donors and foundations pooled their resources last spring to create the Environmental Information Center, a new lobbying organization charged with doing whatever it takes to stop the anti-environmental tide in Washington."
The Post noted EIC spent $1.3 million during last year's House debate on regulatory reform on TV ads saying "Don't let Congress roll back 25 years of environmental progress." But ABC identified these liberal activists as "a group of the Republican conservatives' strongest supporters" and "those they usually consider political allies."
Not only has the Environmental Evangelical Network taken sides on the environmental issues, it has taken sides against the religious right as well. The February 1 San Diego Union Tribune noted EEN leaders "were critical of the environmental stands of some conservative Christian groups, such as the politically influential Christian Coalition." ABC aired a soundbite of Ron Sider, President and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, the EEN's parent organization. But they did not note he signed a document last May called the "Cry for Renewal." The primary authors of the letter, leftist Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis and Clinton friend Tony Campolo, declared their intention to create a "progressive evangelical caucus" to challenge traditionally conservative evangelical events and hold town meetings to address community problems like "gay bashing." ABC did not reconcile Sider's partisan press conference with his signature on the "Cry for Renewal" document, which declared "religion as a political cheerleader is inevitably false as religion."
ABC denigrated Republican stands with pejorative adjectives ("eliminate," "dilute," "weaken") without allowing the GOP to explain their side of the debate. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) issued a press release the day after the ABC telecast asking the Evangelical Environmental Network to be honest in their characterization of the Republican bill, which currently has 126 co-sponsors in the House. Among the major provisions of the bill is an actual increase in funding for Endangered Species Act programs.
ABC's blindness to opposing views extended to free-market environmental experts like Ike Sugg of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who told MediaWatch the Young-Pombo bill "doesn't go nearly far enough. They tried to pre-emptively compromise, and Gingrich is seeking to water it down further. The Republicans are not guilty of what they're accused of."
Sugg added: "The Young-Pombo bill is a step in the right direction since it weakens the federal government's power over private land use. But the current Endangered Species Act has created perverse incentives for property owners to remove any possibility of endangered species appearing on their property. It creates an enmity between wildlife and land owners. The ESA's supporters care more about saving the act than saving wildlife."
Serafin did not return phone calls to discuss his story. ABC's story contrast suggests the irony of their biases. Their focus suggests heart-tugging concern for the kangaroo rat, but not the unborn child. ABC sometimes labels the religious right as "ultraconservative," but the religious left receives no label, or worse yet, is portrayed as conservative. But the worst characteristic of their reporting is the absolute refusal to acknowledge that issues they advance with partisan passion have more than one side.