MediaWatch: July 1989

Vol. Three No. 7

Janet Cooke Award: TIME: Atwater Assault

"What one does in Washington behind closed doors generally stays out of the paper. But the persistent rumor that one of the potential 1988 presidential candidates has a homosexual past is testing the unacknowledged code of silence among reporters." -- Margaret Carlson in Esquire, November 1985.

"An effective smear has at its core an outrageous charge that would be devastating if true. The author must be both coy and cowardly: he must make the charge stick while retaining deniability." -- Margaret Carlson, "How to Spread a Smear," Time, June 19, 1989.

Who better to cover a story about a smear, Time editors must have thought when they assigned Margaret Carlson to the story about malicious rumors regarding House Speaker Thomas Foley's alleged homosexuality.

But Time's June 19 article never did examine the true sources of the rumors. Instead, Carlson and editors openly broadsided the Republican Party, even calling for the firing of RNC Chairman Lee Atwater. For its frenzied partisan attacks, Time magazine earns the July Janet Cooke Award.

The uproar centered around a memo circulated by the RNC's Mark Goodin to GOP leaders. "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet" compared Foley's liberal voting record to self-proclaimed gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Democrats labeled it a smear of Foley's character. Goodin was forced to resign with Democrats aiming next at Atwater.

Despite what the Democrats claimed, neither Goodin nor the RNC had any smear tactic in mind. Dan Casey, Executive Director of the American Conservative Union, explained to MediaWatch that the RNC originally planned to compare Foley's record to that of Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey. The RNC decided to use Frank instead after conservatives pointed out that Frank's liberal voting record was far better known than the more obscure Markey's.

So where did the rumors about Foley being gay originate? As Hodding Carter, former Assistant Secretary of State under President Carter, stated on the June 11 This Week with David Brinkley: "The story, the innuendo, the smear on Tom Foley as everybody in our business knows didn't start with Lee Atwater. It started with some Democrats and it started as an attempt to make sure that nothing bad happened to the Speaker of the House...Jim Wright."

Carlson took a different angle, beginning her piece: "'Have you no decency sir?' That was the question Army counsel Joseph Welch asked Joseph McCarthy 35 years ago when the Senator ruined the lives of those who did not agree with him by impugning their character and patriotism. The same question could be posed to RNC Chairman Lee Atwater, his communications director Mark Goodin, and Congressman Newt Gingrich."

Furthering the Democratic scenario, Carlson continued: "Acting directly or through subordinates, this trio last week worked to spread a long-standing unsubstantiated rumor designed to humiliate new House Speaker Thomas Foley." Without mentioning that Democrats began the rumor, Carlson went on to say that "For days, an aide to...Gingrich had been calling more than a dozen reporters trying to get the homosexuality rumor into print."

Focusing next on Atwater, she added: "Although Goodin, Atwater's friend of a decade, took the fall, the tactic bore the unmistakable Atwater stamp. As Bush's 1988 campaign manager, Atwater specialized in character assassination."

Time abandoned all pretense of balance in a bolded summary box surrounded by Carlson's main article: "From his early campaigns in South Carolina through the 1988 presidential election Lee Atwater has displayed a talent for smearing opponents and then either apologizing or suffering memory lapses about his role." The insert box titled "'Sorry' Is Not Enough" demanded: "If Bush really wants to prove himself a political environmentalist in search of a kinder, gentler America, he should sack Atwater."

In an interview with MediaWatch, Carlson defended both her 1985 Esquire article and what she wrote on Atwater.

MediaWatch: "You spread a smear in 1985 in Esquire. Isn't it hypocritical to come back now and write this?"

Carlson: "I don't think I was spreading a rumor about Jack Kemp. I wasn't thinking of Jack Kemp. There were at least fifteen candidates at the time who might run for President. It was an analytic piece about the press and how they deal with this issue of homosexuality in public life. We [in Esquire] had the decency not to mention anyone by name. Atwater didn't have the decency not to name Tom Foley. One politician trying to smear another by name, a direct hit, is very different."

MediaWatch: "Isn't your recent article just another example of how Time has come into blatant editorialization lately?"

Carlson: "I think the facts are put into some sort of context and that analysis sometimes turns into opinion. I think there is more characterization of the facts than there used to be."

MediaWatch: "Sounds like opinion to me."

Carlson: "I already admitted there's a fine line. You're right, one person's characterization of the facts is another's opinion. But it's not an editorial, it is not taking a position [like] 'I'm for flag burning or I'm against flag burning!'"

MediaWatch: "Yet you are for or against Atwater and you come out very definitively against him."

Carlson: "[Against] the incident."

MediaWatch: "Against Atwater too."

Carlson: "Well, yes. That's true, that's true."

If the rumor really was started by Democratic opponents of Foley, why didn't Time pick up on that issue? "I'm not protecting Democrats -- I know your point here," she assured, "We didn't have it at the time -- honestly. If we did, believe me, we would have published it." But consider what Time's competitor, U.S. News & World Report, relayed that same week: "This is a story about a bad rumor and its sorry consequences. Democrats probably started it. Republicans gleefully fanned it. And the press ultimately gave it full-blown legitimacy..."

The article blamed the RNC and the GOP for lending full credence to the smear, but U.S. News pointed out the role of Democrats, including Congressman Jack Murtha (D-Penn.), and their "cloakroom chitchat" in initiating the rumor. How did Carlson account for the U.S. News spin and its different facts? Grudgingly she admitted: "I guess they just outreported us."

Still, the most blatant bias came in the box, which Carlson declined to discuss. So who, then, is writing these inserts anyway? Senior Editor Robert "Terry" Zintl confessed that it is usually not the writer of the article: "That was written by Larry Barrett," the National Political Correspondent. More to the point, Zintl admitted the inserts are editorials: "We do these boxes to be provocative, to make a little editorial point. They are supposed to have a point or opinion to them. The magazine has gotten more opinionated on certain subjects. That's the function these boxes play."

So, there you have it. Time is now officially a magazine of opinion. Carlson had free reign to attack Atwater, Gingrich, and the Republican Party. But to get the complete look at how Time writers view the world, read the insert boxes. It seems any Time writer can freely express political views. Move over National Review and The New Republic -- your competition has arrived.