In This Issue
Same Liberal Song, Second Verse; NewsBites: The Silent Veto; Revolving Door: If You Cant Boost 'Em; The Shutdown Soap Opera; Today Gushes Over Hillary; Nightline's True Story; Brinkley Agrees Media are Liberal Paula Zahn is "Overloaded"; Janet Cooke Award: Newt Gingrich, Political Liability
Same Liberal Song, Second Verse
As a second partial government shutdown descended on Washington, network coverage once again favored President Clinton's arguments over those of House Republicans. Last month, MediaWatch examined coverage during the November 13-20 shutdown and found not a single story noted how much more than the GOP Clinton wanted to spend. No story questioned his rhetoric about "destroying" Medicare even though the GOP plan called for hikes. Reporters conveyed the Democratic spin about the disastrous impact upon federal workers and the public.
As a new budget impasse began in mid-December, MediaWatch analysts reviewed all 131 budget-related stories on evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's World News) from the evening before the shutdown (December 14) through the day it ended (January 5).
After President Clinton vetoed several spending bills, not one story blamed Clinton for the shutdown, but nearly two dozen declared the GOP culpable. Furloughed workers and other "victims" were featured in half the stories while no story explored the "Washington Monument" strategy or the financial boost offered by a balanced budget.
Blame. To fund the government, Congress passes appropriation bills which the President must then sign. Clinton vetoed spending bills on December 18 and 19 that would have kept open six cabinet departments. But on the question of who caused the shutdown, reporters exclusively pointed a finger at the Republicans. In the 48 stories in which reporters allocated blame, 23 assigned blame to the Republicans, but not one held Clinton culpable (25 blamed both).
On December 16, when the government's temporary spending authority ran out, Bob Schieffer led off the CBS Evening News like a disappointed father: "Well, they've done it again. Nine days from Christmas, Republicans have forced another partial shutdown of the government because they cannot come to an agreement with the White House on how to balance the budget." The next night, ABC's Jerry King also blamed the GOP. "There's no indication from House Republicans, whose budget-cutting zeal started all of this, that they are ready, Christmas season or not, to end it."
During the negotiations that followed the vetoes, reporters repeatedly blamed Republicans for not compromising. On December 23 CNN's Wolf Blitzer pined for an earlier time: "In the old days, the two sides would simply have split the differences, but House Republicans say they are proud to be revolutionaries...From the White House perspective there's still one very big wild card: the most militant House Republicans say they're in no mood to compromise. The question remains whether Speaker Gingrich can reign them in, or wants to."
Even as Clinton delayed agreement by breaking his promises to release a seven-year balanced budget, the networks still blamed the GOP. ABC's Peter Jennings intoned on January 4, "We begin in Washington tonight, where the Republicans and the Clinton administration may be inching their way towards a partial resolution of the government shutdown. President Clinton and the Republican leaders in Congress have been meeting almost daily this week, but today the Republicans apparently felt the need to reassess their position, which has kept a quarter of a million government employees off the job."
Spending. None of the 131 stories compared the higher levels of spending both sides proposed. Only two mentioned the levels of spending in the President's plan or the Republican plan, one coming not in a news story, but in a CBS commentary by Joe Klein.
Federal Workers. Only 280,000 workers were placed on furlough, just 15 percent of the work force. Still, the media focused on the issue in nearly half the stories (62), while only three reports focused on overburdened taxpayers. ABC's John Martin examined those angry at the de facto paid vacation on December 18: "This time government workers have an added worry -- Congress has been hearing from people who do not want to pay furloughed workers as they were paid after last month's shutdown."
"Victims." Sixty-seven of 131 stories mentioned a victim of the shutdown. Thirty stories called attention to families being turned away from National Parks or Smithsonian Museums. On December 22, CBS looked at how the stalemate canceled a re-creation of an Olde English Christmas banquet. John Blackstone reported, "For thousands of people, a Christmas dream is a traditional Christmas in Yosemite National Park. But the budget stalemate has closed the park gates and Yosemite's old fashioned Christmas is slipping away....The valley has somehow been drained of a seasonal joy it's known for almost 70 years." Although not by a reporter, in this story both sides were blamed as one of the participants wrote a poem about the cancellation in which she referred to Newt Gingrich as "slimebucket" and Clinton as "sleaze."
"Washington Monument." Not one report brought up the "Washington Monument" game being played when high profile services, like national parks and passport offices are closed in order to maximize inconvenience. No report questioned why these services were stopped even though, as The Wall Street Journal found, one-third of the federal workers at the Interior Department and two-thirds of State Department employees were considered essential and thus were on the job.
Upside to the Shutdown. If you relied exclusively on the evening news, you would never have thought there was an upside to the shutdown. Only twice did a report call attention to a positive effect of the shutdown. Both were on CNN and dealt with the airline ticket tax expiring at the end of 1995. Anchor Linden Soles announced on January 1, "Washington's budget battle has reaped a windfall for air travelers," saving these travelers $12 million a day. But NBC anchor Brian Williams saw just the opposite the same day: "We have this footnote to the mess here in Washington tonight, because of it a tax on domestic airline tickets expired at midnight so while the budget negotiators are arguing about the best way to save money, the government is actually losing money."
Similarly, never mentioned were the benefits of a balanced budget. The Washington Post reported January 4 that experts estimated a balanced budget would give $1,000 annually to families through lower interest rates.
For years, the media have complained about politicians ducking the tough issues; debating slogans, not substance. Finally, a substantive policy dispute presents itself. Unfortunately, the media aren't able to overcome their biases and look beyond the very bumper sticker politics they formerly decried.
NewsBites: The Silent Veto
Bill Clinton vetoed the welfare reform bill late on January 9, in an apparent attempt to avoid that night's news coverage. His concern was understandable; the veto would be an admission that he was breaking his famous campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it."
Clinton worried needlessly: None of the network's January 10 evening news shows mentioned Clinton's veto, even after possible GOP opponent Bob Dole took to the Senate floor to criticize Clinton's betrayal. Although the media properly focused on criticism when George Bush broke his "no new taxes" campaign pledge, there was no focus on criticism of Clinton. The media missed another opportunity when Clinton held a press conference January 11. He was peppered with 18 questions, but not one raised the issue of his breaking his welfare promise, the crux of his effort to portray himself as a "New Democrat."
At first glance, Steve Forbes' presidential campaign would seem to fulfill the media's standards for a proper Republican candidate: One with sufficiently soft stands on social issues to avoid the "divisive" label. Unable to attack Forbes as extremist (he has suitably "tolerant" stands on such issues as abortion and immigration), in the December 4 Time, Senior Writer Richard Stengel charged that "for all his patrician good humor, Forbes' message and his campaign have begun to show a hard edge." Stengel exploited a tenuous link between Forbes and Senator Jesse Helms' racially-tinged campaigns: "While Forbes generally shuns the politics of exclusion, he has nonetheless attracted to his organization two veterans of Jesse Helms' race-baiting campaigns."
He also attacked Forbes' centerpiece flat tax proposal: "Despite his frequent protestations that he understands the needs of the average Joe, his flat-tax proposal would reward wealthy investors while leaving the burden on middle-class families." He added the plan would "do little to disabuse taxpayers of the notion that the rich get a better deal from the tax system." He cited data from the "generally liberal" Citizens for Tax Justice, stating a seventeen percent flat tax would produce a revenue shortfall of $200 billion. The group also claimed Dick Armey's similar flat tax plan would raise taxes on middle class families, estimating increases in the $1,740-$4,600 range on families earning between $45,000 and $85,000.
Stengel didn't quote a conservative expert, but for a balancing view he could have referred to Time's very own flat tax analysis of April 17, when a CPA estimated how much tax a hypothetical family of four making $50,000 could expect to pay under the Armey plan. Time found the family's taxes would be cut by almost half, from $4,249 under the existing system to $2,244 under the Armey plan.
Twice in December, The New York Times provided a platform for reporter Jason DeParle's personal crusade against Republican welfare reforms. In the December 17 New York Times Magazine he depicted a post-welfare reform nightmare. DeParle wrote his story as an encyclopedia entry from the year 2015 that took a look back at the history of welfare.
The fictitious excerpt presented welfare reform as an initial success when left to the states until a recession hit in 1999: "Faced with declining revenues and rising aid requests, states slashed their payments....With families crossing borders in search of aid, the `race to the bottom' ensued, with each state trying to be as tough as its neighbors." DeParle described an almost apocalyptic state where mothers were "arrested each year for locking their children in cars as they worked." DeParle predicted a million families would be "lining up at shelters, stealing into abandoned buildings and begging on street corners." DeParle continued his gloomy forecast: "Some became more reliant on abusive boyfriends, and reports of domestic violence rose. Abortion rates hit record levels and so did arrests for prostitution, leading several cities to decriminalize the practice in specified red-light zones."
DeParle's Other Platform. Two weeks earlier in a Times "Week in Review" piece, DeParle charged: "While the Republicans promise that the poor will prosper, the evidence does not. Indeed, most suggests the opposite: whether the economy or poor people are ultimately to blame, most will fail to replace their lost benefits. If the past is a guide, less will not mean more. Less will mean less, for those who already have little."
DeParle criticized the GOP plan to let states run welfare, taking on supposed GOP arguments such as "The programs don't help much anyway," and "Earnings will improve with time." DeParle even refuted the notion that the poor actually "will be better off by working," answering: "Or will they? No one knows how many of the five million women of AFDC will be able to find and keep work. Many have few skills and lead the kinds of chaotic lives that interfere with full-time work: sick kids, dangerous neighborhoods, abusive boyfriends, broken cars."
Newt the Destroyer?
ABC previewed the Democratic strategy to hang Republican Tom Campbell with the "Newtoid" tag, but when the strategy backfired ABC ignored the results. In Carol Lin's December 10 piece for World News Sunday she highlighted Democrat Jerry Estruth's effort to defeat Republican Campbell in a special congessional election to replace retiring Democrat Norman Mineta. Anchor Carole Simpson introduced the story: "For all of Mr. Gingrich's power on Capitol Hill, opinion polls show his star is fading with American voters. So much so that one congressional candidate in California is using the Gingrich image to beat down his once-popular Republican opponent."
Lin reported Campbell at one point had enjoyed a 43-point lead over Estruth. "Yet this political novice has managed to cut his popular Republican opponent's lead in half. By redefining the enemy. Estruth launched an ad campaign attacking House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And labeling Tom Campbell as a Gingrich clone." Lin pointed out that Campbell was more moderate than the Speaker on many issues, "But the strategy seems to be working. With more than a million dollars in donations pouring in." Lin continued, "Democrats hope Gingrich's negatives will be the central issue that can turn election campaigns across the country," before concluding: "Campbell is still the front runner in this race but only by a narrow margin. Democrats say that alone is still a victory for their party. Because they found their weapon. The man who started the Republican revolution may give frustrated voters reason enough to bring more Democrats back to office."
So, did ABC make it a big story when Campbell trounced Estruth by 23 points on December 12? No, not a word about the result on World News Tonight.
Hot Media Air.
CBS and ABC have recently portrayed House Republicans as the catalysts to impending global doom, but have ignored scientific studies which back the GOP. "Some House Republicans are objecting to the global agreement to ban industrial chemicals widely believed to be depleting the earth's ozone layer," Dan Rather intoned on the November 23 CBS Evening News. Eric Engberg explained "that 150 countries have signed a treaty banning production of ozone depleting chemicals," but "to the number three Republican in the House, it's Chicken Little Stuff...Time out! Not proven? Didn't this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry go to Dr. Mario Molina and two others who discovered ozone depletion?"
Over a month later, ABC's January 4 World News Tonight ran another alarmist warning. Peter Jennings began: "Two thousand scientists from all over the world agree the earth is getting warmer all the time, in part because the United States is not practicing what it has been preaching." Ned Potter followed, "scientists say if they [temperatures] keep going up as they have heat waves will spread across North America. A third of the world's glaciers will melt, flooding coastlines in dozens of countries. Tropical diseases will spread, exposing large parts of the U.S. to malaria." Potter charged that the Clinton administration "gave in to the petroleum and auto industries" and then he allowed Vice President Al Gore to blame the House GOP.
But the need for action isn't so clear. Washington Post science writer Boyce Rensberger reported January 8 that of the three major studies of global temperatures during 1995 one reported an increase in average temperature, one called 1995 "ordinary," and one found some cooling. Guess which two the networks have ignored?
Moyers On Wages. PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers returned to Milwaukee for the December 19 Frontline to visit two families who suffered layoffs in 1991 at the motor company Briggs and Stratton. Moyers complained: "Good-paying jobs are heading south or out of the country and workers like Tony Neumann are searching desperately for new jobs that will support their families...In the early '90s, families like the Stanleys and Neumanns were thrown into a emerging new economy built on light manufacturing and service jobs. It was a time when unemployment hit record lows. But many of the new jobs offered only part-time work and no benefits, and they paid lower wages." Moyers concluded the show: "For working people all over America, real wages continue to decline."
But in a review on the morning before the show, a sequel to the 1992 program Minimum Wages, Washington Post reporter Steven Pearlstein told a story Moyers didn't: "In fact, today there are 12,000 more manufacturing jobs in the Milwaukee area than there were in the fall of 1991 when Claude Stanley and Tony Neumann were laid off, while the average hourly wage in manufacturing has climbed from $12.54 an hour to $13.98, just about keeping pace with inflation." Pearlstein added that Briggs and Stratton motors are now cheaper for consumers and the company is making money for its stockholders.
Rather Embarrassed. While on Denver's KOA talk radio host Mike Rosen's program, Dan Rather tried to defend himself and his network against charges of bias. Rosen questioned Rather's repeated use of the word "cut" when describing the Republican Medicare plan on the CBS Evening News. Rather shot back, "Some of the time we use the language, `Medicare cuts,' which is what the Democrats insist these are, and some of the time we use that these are, `cuts in the rate of growth for Medicare,' which is what the Republicans prefer. We try to walk that line, we try to call it one way one time, one way the next time."
A review of Evening News broadcasts from September 20, the night before the Republicans unveiled their Medicare plan, to November 28, when Rather appeared on Rosen's program, shows the CBS anchor should pay closer attention to what comes out of his mouth. During this period, Rather used the Democratic spin term `cuts' eight times such as when Rather announced as fact on September 20: "Democrats and Republicans in Congress late today came close to actual physical blows over proposed cuts in Medicare. That's the separate U.S. government health care coverage for 37 million older Americans of all income levels. There's no doubt that Medicare spending will be cut, the question is how much and for how many." On October 25 he claimed that "Republicans vowed to press for huge cuts in government spending and $245 billion in tax cuts. President Clinton vowed to veto it as too radical and extreme."
He applied the phrase that best described reality, "reducing the rate of growth," or "reducing spending" three times. He relayed the Republican spin, "making the plan solvent" just once; hardly the "one way one time, one way the next time" which Rather claimed.
Revolving Door: If You Cant Boost 'Em
Just weeks after writing a piece for The New Republic denouncing Republican efforts to shut down AmeriCorps, Newsweek Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Steven Waldman decided he could do more good helping run the government program than he could as an external advocate. In mid-January he became senior adviser for policy planning and evaluation for former Senator Harris Wofford (D-Penn.), the new Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National Service, overseer of AmeriCorps and VISTA.
Waldman "explained that the program's recent change in leadership convinced him that the move would be ethical even though he's written extensively about the program," National Journal reported.
"Republican attacks on AmeriCorps have been bizarrely hyperbolic," Waldman charged in the November 13 New Republic. "The GOP has also practiced gross statistics-abuse in order to portray AmeriCorps, inaccurately, as a boondoggle." He predicted that "when Republicans calm down and start picking bits of safety net from their teeth, they will undoubtedly feel silly. They will realize that AmeriCorps -- which gives college scholarships to young men and women who do full-time community service -- was the solution to their dilemma of how to dismantle the welfare state without seeming cruel."
Earlier in 1995 Waldman, part of Newsweek's Washington bureau since 1987, wrote The Bill, a book detailing the creation of AmeriCorps. It grew out of a "behind-the-scenes" look at the program for the September 20, 1993 Newsweek, in which he concluded: "John F. Kennedy attracted to his Peace Corps a narrow group of mostly white, well-educated Americans. Clinton's plan is far more ambitious, seeking to regenerate fragmented American communities and break down rock-hard barriers of the heart. Because Clinton must confront the emotional issues of race and class, he is more likely to fail. But should he succeed, Clinton will have accomplished something far more significant than his hero ever did."
AmeriCorps is hardly the only area in which Waldman has been a liberal advocate. He co-authored a September 19, 1994 piece headlined, "The Lost Chance" with the subhead, "The Clintons: Newsweek reveals how they set out to reform a broken health care system -- and squandered a historic opportunity." One impediment: those who spent money "on blatantly untrue advertisements meant to scare the public."
A few issues later his byline accompanied a story on the Contract with America: "The problem is that the Contract's main idea has already been tried and discredited. House Republicans are now pledged to tax cuts, increased defense spending, and a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. Sound familiar? `This was a dopey political move,' [Rep. Fred] Grandy says. `We were holding the high ground on welfare, foreign policy, so why would we go back and shoosh down the Laffer Curve? This is like giving the Democrats a nuclear weapon.'"
A CNN veteran is the new Deputy Press Secretary to Senator Frank Lautenberg. Ken Jaques, an off-air reporter in the CNN political unit from 1992 to 1994, has come aboard the New Jersey Democrat's staff, Roll Call reported December 21.
The Shutdown Soap Opera
December brought a second shutdown of the federal government, and with it came the networks' ratings-grabbing specialty: hanky-waving sob stories of shutdown "victims."
On December 22, a week into the shutdown and before paychecks were delayed, Jack Smith mourned on World News Tonight: "The shutdown now has a human face. Joe Skattleberry and his wife Lisa both work for the government. Both have been furloughed. They can't afford a Christmas tree."
NBC's John Palmer warned on the December 29 Today: "The shutdown is affecting more people's lives every day in places like Grand Teton National Park, where furloughed park employees worried about mortgages, car payments, and credit card bills have begun filing unemployment benefits. In California and in dozens of other states, serious cutbacks in food programs are threatened unless the budget crisis is resolved soon." Later, David Bloom added: "The shutdown continues. The pain spreads. The pressure grows for Washington to end America's worst budget crisis."
On January 2, CBS Evening News reporter Scott Pelley compared budget negotiators to bombers: "In April, terrorists tried to kill them. Today, politicians stopped their paychecks. In Oklahoma City's Social Security office, they're being ordered to work for nothing....The bomb broke Beverly Rankin's ankle. Politics is breaking her bank."
That night NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw mourned: "Far from the marbled halls of Congress and the elegant furnishings of the White House, this government shutdown is about a lot more than politics. It's about people and their real needs."
NBC's George Lewis found an Indian health clinic in San Diego: "Two-thirds of the clinic's budget, $95,000 a month, comes from the federal government. Without that money, the clinic can't meet its payroll. The people who run this clinic fear that if it has to close its doors, many of the 4,000 patients who seek treatment here will not look elsewhere. Ron Morton says traditionally, Native Americans do not like to accept handouts." But didn't NBC just say the clinic is two-thirds funded by the federal government? Morton later asserted that "if this budget is not signed there are people who are going to die."
Bryant Gumbel preached at the start of the January 4 Today: "Although some politicians have foolishly suggested the fact that we are going on about our business despite the absence of the workers says maybe they weren't needed anyway, we will show you how some average Americans are suffering each and every day as a result of what is now 20 days of the government shutdown."
Today Gushes Over Hillary
"Really Terrific" Book
As questions swirled around Hillary Clinton's veracity on Whitewater and the travel office, NBC News gave her a gift: a January 16 Today interview by Maria Shriver, who campaigns for and donates to her uncle Ted Kennedy's Senate campaigns. Shriver served more as political flack than journalistic inquisitor. Shriver opened the show by calling Clinton's new book, It Takes a Village, "really terrific."
Her first question: "What's this last week and a half been like for you personally?" She followed up about daughter Chelsea: "What has she said to you about these attacks?...This is beyond the territory....This is your mom that someone's talking about." After wondering if she'd be willing to testify before the Senate and posing one question about the travel office, Shriver showed sympathy for Clinton's plight: "Whitewater, I know you've been answering questions on this subject for four years, thousands of pieces of documents have been handed over, but they still want even more. As you look back on this, do you wish you'd never worked for Madison Guaranty?"
Shriver did ask: "Regarding these billing records that came about that had been subpoenaed two years ago, people say, `Gosh, how could a woman as smart and politically savvy as Hillary Clinton not know where these records were these past two years? Why didn't she make that her priority to find them, particularly when they were found in her own home, under an assistant's desk?'"
Shriver returned to softballs: "You also quote a letter in there that Nelson Mandela wrote to one of his daughters while he was in prison, and I'm paraphrasing a bit, but he wrote that there is no personal misfortune that one cannot turn into a personal triumph if one has the iron will and the necessary skills. You clearly have an iron will, you clearly are skilled. How are you going to turn this personal misfortune into a personal triumph?"
Shriver then stumped for liberalism: "You think government should do a lot more than it's doing in terms of making children a priority, doing things for kids. We're clearly living in an age where people are anti-government. How do you get across the message that we all need to see everybody's kids as our own, we need to have more programs, the government needs to be more involved?"
Nightline's True Story
ABC News has never been eager to report the truth on GOP efforts to reform Medicare. Good Morning America anchor Morton Dean continually got the story wrong. On October 12 Dean relayed the Democratic line: "The Republican plan would cut $270 billion in Medicare spending over seven years." Exactly two months and scores of inaccurate reports later, ABC finally told the truth with a December 12 Nightline dedicated to exposing President Clinton's demagoguery.
Chris Bury explained the game, "`Devastate, destroy, dismantle` -- strong words, but in reviewing Mr. Clinton's performance on Medicare, Republicans have another word in mind: deceptive...The truth is, both President Clinton and the Congress want to spend more money, not less, on Medicare."
Reviewing Hillary Clinton's 1993 appearance before Congress, Bury showed the First Lady's testimony where she proclaimed that her health plan reduced "the rate of growth in Medicare from about 11 percent increase annually to about a 6 or 7 percent increase annually." Then Bury added, "But this year, when Republicans proposed to slow the annual growth of Medicare spending to 7.2 percent...President Clinton accused them of gutting the program."
Bury concluded his report: "Since August, when President Clinton cast himself in the role of Medicare's protector, his own standing in the polls has risen steadily, and though his performance has been a smashing popular success, many critics believe the price of admission has cost the country an honest debate."
A Woman on Welfare
When Republicans began to tinker with the welfare system, reporters were quick to point out the millions who would end up in poverty as a result. But on the November 19 60 Minutes, CBS' Lesley Stahl offered a different take when she profiled "a woman who knows as much about the subject as anyone. A woman on welfare? No, a woman on the subject of welfare."
She was Eloise Anderson, head of California's welfare division. Anderson knows what welfare is like; she was once on it. She also supports Republican proposals. Stahl noted: "What Anderson wants to get rid of are the cash payments that go directly to welfare recipients, known as AFDC....It seems there's no argument for AFDC that she agrees with. The problem, she says, starts with the way welfare marginalizes men, because no poor man who makes the minimum wage, can compete with it."
Stahl pointed out: "Her critics have called her everything from mean-spirited to compassionless, but Anderson says it's a question of fairness to low-income workers who pay taxes." As for fears of disaster, "Anderson says there will be no excuse for not taking a minimum wage job when the cash payments end, because poor people will still get help; with food stamps, medical coverage, and child care."
Brinkley Agrees Media are Liberal Paula Zahn is "Overloaded"
In a December 7 appearance on CNBC's Cal Thomas, David Brinkley reacted with dismay when read a quote from the MRC's Best Notable Quotables of 1995: The Eighth Annual Awards for the Year's Worst Reporting.
Thomas, one of the judges who voted on which quotes deserved inclusion in the year-end issue, asked: "Could you get away, for example, with asking a question like this, that was recently asked by a major network anchor of Pat Buchanan...`You've got political enemies out there calling you an isolationist, a bigot, you're anti-gay, and some even go so far as saying your social stands are reminiscent of Nazi Germany.' Now that's the kind of ideologically loaded stuff that turns a lot of people off, isn't it?"
Brinkley agreed: "That is so loaded, it's overloaded and it destroys itself in its own excess. Nobody would ever take that question seriously, I wouldn't even bother to answer it." Though Brinkley didn't know it, the quote, first runner-up for the "Damn Those Conservatives Award," came from Paula Zahn's July 5 CBS This Morning interview.
Earlier in the show the former NBC anchor and current This Week host acknowledged liberal bias."Well, it's there and it doesn't show itself in everything that is printed or broadcast but it is there, and I think we're all used to it, we discount it. Some of the press also is more conservative and it's just the way the action is in this country and I don't know any way to change it. You just have to live with it."
Janet Cooke Award: Newt Gingrich, Political Liability
Time selects its Man of the Year not by picking its favorite person, but the person with the most historical impact in that given year. In 1995, certainly, Newt Gingrich had a powerful impact on America's political debate. But that didn't mean Time had to like him -- and neither did CNN in producing a December 17 CNN Presents to announce the pick. For maligning the Speaker as a politically damaged and morally questionable figure after celebrating Time's choice of Bill Clinton in 1992, CNN earned the Janet Cooke Award.
CNN split its show between interviews with Gingrich and documentary segments. In the first segment, host Judy Woodruff used loaded language to describe Gingrich's "Path to Power," calling his ambition to be Speaker "An obsession that shaped almost every decision, every alliance, what some saw as every betrayal on his path to power." Woodruff relayed a rumor about Gingrich's first wife, Jackie: "It has become part of the Gingrich legend that he would later go to her hospital room where she was being treated for cancer to discuss a divorce."
Woodruff described how Gingrich first came to the capital's attention: "In late-night tirades on C-SPAN, he needled then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill, painting ruling Democrats as corrupt thugs." Woodruff called him "a clown prince of an out-of-favor group." She concluded: "His self-ordained mission to save Western civilization is becoming overshadowed by a barrage of accusations that the most powerful Speaker in history illegally used political money." While CNN followed with Rep. David Bonior charging Gingrich's ethics are "in the toilet," Woodruff did not explain any of the charges, most of which were dismissed by the House ethics committee days later.
Another segment, titled "Homefront," explored Gingrich's hold on his constituency in Georgia: "Cobb County -- the soul of Newt country, Republican, white, well-educated, and affluent. The man who would wield the federal budget ax represents a county that exploded into suburban sprawl because of billions of federal dollars. Unemployment is low here, at 3.4 percent. It's well below the national average. And only a scant five percent of Cobb's population is on public assistance. The social fallout of the Contract with America if it passes will have little consequence here, but those hit will be hit hard."
CNN talked mostly to social service providers, liberal activists, and projected victims: "For the Hogan family, some cutbacks are the wrong thing to do. Daughter Kimberly, disabled from birth, has spent most of her life in a hospital. Thanks to Medicaid, this year has been different." Protesters held up signs reading "Newt: Your Plan Will Kill Us."
These documentary segments were heavily salted with Gingrich opponents: "The Path to Power" featured five negative talking heads (including three from Rep. Pat Schroeder and one of Bonior) to only three positive. "Homefront" featured twelve anti-Gingrich soundbites to four defenders. A segment called "Report Card" focusing on his future balanced the talking heads six to six, which included Bonior predicting that Gingrich's ethics problems were "so severe" he wouldn't be in office much longer.
If that hostility weren't enough, there were Woodruff's interview questions to the Speaker: "There's something we saw that was kind of interesting, the latest CNN-Time poll, they asked people what they thought about you and a lot of people said, most people said, very intelligent. A number of them said he has a vision for the future, but they also said -- a large number of those same people said, and I thought this was interesting, they agreed you were too extreme, 66 percent -- and out of touch, 52 percent, and even scary 49 percent. Where does that come from?"
When Gingrich suggested that things like being portrayed as Scrooge on the cover of Time didn't help, Woodruff replied: "But there's also been, in addition to that, what many people look at as the effect of the Republican budget cuts, and most of the people -- what they see is that most people, according to the studies we've seen, who would lose under the combined budget cuts and tax changes are the very poorest Americans, and people have a hard time understanding that."
Gingrich challenged that spin, but Woodruff reacted: "The study I'm referring to came out I think in the last week or so, by the Urban Institute, highly respected group, supposed to be nonpartisan -- and they set aside Medicaid and Medicare, they just looked at the budget cuts separate from Medicare and Medicaid and tax changes, and their conclusion was that the families that would lose under the Republican plan, two-thirds are in the poorest fifth of the population." The Urban Institute has often disseminated research that concludes with the need for more federal social spending.
Woodruff concluded the program with a decidedly negative spin: "He couldn't have envisioned the blizzard of ethics charges or the stir his fits of pique would cause. Now that they've gotten to know him, more than half of all Americans say they don't like him. More than half say they don't trust him. The irony is that Time's Man of the Year may wind up the biggest liability to the revolution he launched."
This program was a 180-degree change from the show CNN aired on December 26, 1992, when Bill Clinton was named Time's Man of the Year. The 30-minute show featured at least 18 positive talking heads, including Clintonites Robert Reich, Ron Brown, Dee Dee Myers, and Betsey Wright, Democratic Reps. Tom Foley and Lee Hamilton, Democratic consultant Bob Squier, and black academic Henry Louis Gates. Only one soundbite from conservative Arkansas editorialist Paul Greenberg offered any balance.
The narration by CNN's Lou Waters and Natalie Allen said nothing about Clinton's troubled private life, nothing about ethics, nothing about overweening ambition. Allen began the show with a quotation: "He was not born a king, but a child of the common people who made himself a great persuader, therefore, a leader by dint of firm resolve, patient effort, and dogged perseverance." Chimed in Waters: "The words were written by Horace Greeley a century ago to describe Abraham Lincoln. They apply as well to this persevering young man from Arkansas, now leader of the Free World." Allen continued: "The election of 1992 was a leap of faith in a sour and unpredictable year. American voters were angry and disgusted and often afraid of the future. They took an enormous risk and made a fascinating choice."
CNN prepared a response to MediaWatch questions, but it did not arrive by press time. It will appear next month. CNN may have contributed to the effect its polls have noticed: viewers were instructed that the Speaker was politically extreme, even scary, while Clinton was Honest Abe.