In This Issue
The Media Mandela Mania; NewsBites: Havana on My Mind; Revolving Door: South African Sun Rise; Make the Rich Pay More & Everybody Else Too; Media Swoons Over "Conservative" Reagan-Basher; More Mandela Mania; Janet Cooke Award: MacNeil-Lehrer Tax Hour
The Media Mandela Mania
Nelson Mandela's 27 years in South African prisons have transformed him into a powerful international symbol of the fight against South Africa's apartheid system. But the same reporters who have been so critical of the power of symbolism in American politics dwelt mainly on the symbol, and not the substance of Nelson Mandela during his American tour.
Coverage of Mandela has been notably long on adulation and short on investigation. A MediaWatch study of evening news coverage of Mandela's release during the first three weeks of February found that reporters often compared Mandela to the Pope, Jesus Christ, and Moses, but not one story discussed Mandela's embrace of communism and only a few CNN reports mentioned his role in acts of terrorism.
MediaWatch analysts found the same thing in network morning news (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today) and evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's PrimeNews and NBC Nightly News) from June 17 to June 30. In 142 news stories, network anchors and reporters ignored Mandela's embrace of communism and his terrorist past.
Instead, Mandela was hailed as "the hero of oppressed people everywhere" (David Ensor, ABC); a "larger than life figure" (John Holliman, CNN); and "a virtual symbol of freedom" (Harold Dow, CBS). On June 24, NBC's Brad Willis described "A huge rally on Boston's esplanade for a freedom fighter that many compare to the revolutionaries who fought against the British here more than two centuries ago." But what didn't the reporters cover?
Communism. In their rush to proclaim him a symbol of freedom, none of the networks covered Mandela's ideology or the relationship between Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). In his own handwritten manuscript How To Be A Good Communist, Mandela wrote "Under a Communist government, South Africa will become a land of milk and honey." With the exception of NBC's Bob Kur and Mike Jensen, no reporter even mentioned Mandela's support of economic nationalization. With Mandela's ideas and "loyal and disciplined" membership in the ANC, would South Africa become a multi-racial democracy or a one-party Marxist state like its neighbors? No one asked.
Political Prisoner. "The former long-time political prisoner will address Congress," Dan Rather announced when Mandela arrived. TV reporters called Mandela a political prisoner eight times, but never referred to Mandela as a saboteur or terrorist, even though Amnesty International declared in 1985 that "Mandela had participated in planning acts of sabotage and inciting violence, so that he could no longer fulfill the criteria for the classification of political prisoners." Network reporters did report Mandela's refusal to renounce violence in 14 stories, but most referred to it only in the context of fighting apartheid, not in the context of the ANC's involvement in black-on-black violence or the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians.
Arafat, Castro, Qaddafi. Without Ted Koppel's June 21 "town meeting" with Mandela, the tour might have escaped controversy completely. Questioners asked Mandela to explain his praise for Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Moammar Qaddafi. The questions were prompted by Mandela hailing Castro's Cuba in May: "There's one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest. That is in its love for human rights and liberty." A week later in Libya, he praised Qaddaf's "commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world." These statements, which appeared in The New Republic, were never quoted on the networks when he said them, or when he visited here.
The networks barely reported Mandela's ABC remarks until Jewish and Cuban groups and print outlets made them an issue, mentioning the controversy in 26 stories. ABC, which taped the Koppel special in the afternoon on June 21, didn't find the remarks worth including in a story on that night's newscast summarizing the "town meeting."
The next morning, Good Morning America did one story on the remarks, but left it out of its three other newscasts. NBC's Today aired three stories without mentioning the remark. Harold Dow left it out of the one story on CBS This Morning. In fact, NBC and CBS dropped the Mandela story from its morning news for the next two days. On the Evening News, CBS gave the remarks brief mentions on June 22, 25, and 28. NBC Nightly News spent 45 seconds on the remarks on June 22, and included brief mentions on June 24 and 26. But the show ignored Mandela from June 27 to 29, when Mandela was greeted by thousands of protesting Cubans in Miami.
ABC's World News Tonight was the only newscast to question Mandela's contentions. Reporter James Walker noted: "Many find it a paradox that Mandela asks Americans to involve themselves in South Africa's internal affairs while he refuses to pass judgment on the internal affairs of Libya or Cuba, or to involve himself in America's racial problems." But Peter Jennings dampened the impact with his remark on Castro: "The Cuban President has long been a leading supporter of liberation movements in southern Africa."
Puerto Rican Assassins. The networks never reported some other terrorists Mandela praised. He welcomed to his Harlem speech platform three of the four Puerto Rican terrorists who shot and wounded five U.S. Congressmen in 1954. "We support the cause of anyone who is fighting for self-determination, and our attitude is the same, no matter who it is. I would be honored to sit on the platform with the four comrades you refer to." The quote appeared in the early local edition of The New York Times June 25, but the Times dropped it from later local editions and the national edition.
ANC Antics. The networks have repeatedly failed to report recent events that give the Mandela legend a less lyrical ring. When a South African court implicated his wife Winnie in the beating and murder of a 14-year-old, only CNN PrimeNews briefly noted the incident. ABC, CBS and NBC have ignored it. On June 11, ANC members murdered Sipho Phungulwa in apparent retribution for Phulungwa's public allegations that the ANC tortured and killed dissident members. The networks have never mentioned it.
ABC's Don Kladstrup was the only reporter to put Mandela's importance in South Africa in context: "Mandela is not the undisputed leader of all South African blacks." Kladstrup reported that more than six black organizations are fighting apartheid, and interviewed black activists who said "Heaven help us if the ANC takes over here" and "If you do not go along with them, they will run roughshod over you." Kladstrup reported: "Many complain: why does Nelson Mandela talk with President de Klerk, but refuse even to meet with Chief Buthelezi, leader of South Africa's Zulus?" Kladstrup wondered whether a multi-racial democracy would emerge: "Many fear not until blacks remove the wall of intolerance that now divides them."
Did the networks realize how much of the Mandela story they missed? David Ridenour of the National Center for Public Policy Research wrote to the networks about their refusal to report the seamier side of Mandela or cover the Americans who protested his visit. NBC Nightly News Executive Producer Steve Friedman, whose program offered the least coverage of Mandela and didn't even cover Mandela protests in Miami, responded: "We have pointed out what Mandela said and what he stands for. I have to say you must have missed that part of the program."
NewsBites: Havana on My Mind
HAVANA ON MY MIND. As the number of communists holding onto power dwindles, Fidel Castro takes on novelty status. You'd think someone with the opportunity to interview him would ask if he ever plans to give Cubans freedom. But not CNN owner Ted Turner when he traveled to Cuba to interview the dean of the dictators.
The June 25 hour-long special must have had even CNN interns wincing at the interviewing methods of their boss. The fawning Turner read his questions from cue cards and offered no follow- ups to the long-winded propaganda Castro offered in response. Among the whiffle-ball questions Turner posed: "In the United States we hear that there are severe economic problems in Cuba. Is this true?" and, "I know this is a difficult question, but Cuba has been accused in the past years of being involved in the drug trafficking business. How would you like to answer that statement?" And the question on everybody's mind: "Mr. President, would you please tell us your perspective of the U.S. government's attempts to block the televising of the Pan Am Games in the United States?"
JABBING AT JESSE. In the June 18 Time, Senior Writer Ed Magnuson eagerly told the people of North Carolina how they should view Jesse Helms' and Harvey Gantt's campaigns for the Senate: "North Carolina seems in the grip of political schizophrenia. The calm and articulate Gantt, a former two-term mayor of Charlotte, may appeal to the progressive voters who gave the state a reputation for moderation....The tart-tongued Helms, on the other hand, has won three terms by pushing hot-button hard-right issues -- pornography, school prayer, busing -- among whites in more rural parts of the state....[Gantt] is a far cry from Helms' description of him as 'Jesse Jackson's candidate.'"
NBC's Andrea Mitchell chimed in June 24, declaring: "North Carolina is changing. Many voters say they worry more about the economy, the environment, things that affect their daily lives, instead of fighting homosexuality or communism." Mitchell predicted a Helms loss, citing two people who declared, "I think Jesse is out of pace with what the needs are," and, "I just think Jesse Helms has gotten out of control. He's just a little too prejudiced and I don't think his opinions really reflect what the average person is thinking." But then, that's what we've been saying about the media.
NOT CZECHING UP ON GORBACHEV. Reporters have credited Mikhail Gorbachev for the changes in Eastern Europe. Recent revelations by Britain's BBC-2 on the Czechoslovakian revolution, however, dash Gorbachev's 'liberator' image. According to a May 29 story, Gorbachev hoped to manipulate the revolution to install a communist ally, not give people their freedom.
The KGB and Czech secret police (STB) plotted to "install Zdenek Mlynar as party leader. Mlynar had been a close friend of Mikhail Gorbachev when the pair were law students in Moscow....The failed plot also involved the faking of a death at the hands of riot police, the framing of leading dissidents and manipulation of Western media." In fact, the dead student was an STB lieutenant.
A June 7 CBS story by Tom Fenton was the only coverage the story received on the U.S. evening news. Fenton passed on some of the basics of the BBC story, but then turned to the downside of freedom. Fenton noted the "Introduction of a market economy is bringing price increases and unemployment. But the most alarming change is a sudden wave of violent crime...Czechoslovakia has won its freedom, but it's no longer safe to walk in Wenceslas Square at night."
MOURNING UTOPIA'S PASSING. More reporters than Fenton are grumbling over the end of the communist welfare state in Eastern Europe. "East Germany provides what may be the world's most extensive family services system. It includes abortion on demand and free day care centers for children, enabling eighty percent of East German women to work," CBS reporter Allen Pizzey declared on June 16, "Reunification threatens more than the economic security of East German women. It could also mean an end to their legal right to free, easy abortions."
NBC's Mike Boettcher also worried about a reunified Germany. During a June 26 story, Boettcher claimed that "East German women who simply had to line up to receive abortion on demand are afraid West Germany's tough regulations on abortion will be imposed on them after reunification." Boettcher also found a metaphor for East Germany's post-communist fate in the story of one state circus: "Even the lion tamer is scared that this state supported circus won't survive in the free market....A new ringmaster is demanding that East Germans learn a new act. The lion tamer says he might have to sell his animals if the circus doesn't make a profit. Even such a brave man weeps at the prospect of failure. Under the new German big top, only the strongest will survive."
REPUBLICANS SHOULD CRY WOLF. In the midst of his Capitol Hill duties, USA Today reporter Richard Wolf has written a number of puff pieces on congressional Democrats, completely devoid of criticism. Compared with just two articles on Republicans, the Democratic barrage has been overwhelming: since February 20, recipients of his gifts have included Sen. Ernest Hollings, Speaker Thomas Foley, Rep. Leon Panetta, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (twice), and deposed House Speaker Jim Wright.
The editor of the congressional section, Bob Minzesheimer, ventured that the imbalance was caused by the Democrats' majority in Congress and their subsequent control of the legislative process. But that doesn't explain the lofty praise given lesser figures as Rep. Mike Espy, Rep. Ron Dellums, and Rep. James Traficant, all liberals profiled in Wolf articles.
Despite their reputation for loving tax hikes and unending spending, liberals were never subjected to any questioning. Rostenkowski was the "nation's top elected tax expert," Hollings a "tart-tongued truth-sayer," Foley full of "integrity and bipartisan comity," while the disgraced Wright was "still bringing home the bacon to (his) Texas district." Moving even further left, Wolf claimed on March 15 that "it took twenty years for the world to come Ronald Dellums's way," emerging "in 1990 as a principle player on defense policy." The Democratic National Committee must be proud.
PERIL AND POMPOSITY. Once anchor of NBC Nightly News, John Chancellor now offers his opinions thrice weekly. His commentaries have recently been distilled into a book on what's wrong with America, Peril and Promise.
So what's wrong? The deficit, which he attributed to a Reagan recipe of "big tax cuts, big increases in defense spending, and a hair curling recession." Pardoned from blame: congressional mismanagement. And though federal revenues went up swiftly in the '80s, Chancellor remembered only that "cuts in taxes and domestic spending resulted in the first redistribution of income in favor of the affluent since the 1920s and a reduction of the federal government's obligation to the poor." Another Reagan error was the Grenada liberation which Chancellor called "a sham triumph," a "tragicomedy," which "might not have been necessary."
Chancellor harped on America's faults for 130 pages, but dedicated fewer than 40 pages to suggesting solutions. He called his remedies to America's woes neither conservative nor liberal, yet higher taxes remained the pillar of his plan. Another major objective: mobilization of a national corps of volunteers because "The poor and disadvantaged need help, especially after the cutbacks in social services during the Reagan years."
NPR & NICARAGUA. National Public Radio President Douglas Bennet, who was Director of the Agency for International Development under Jimmy Carter, recently appointed long-time foreign correspondent Bill Buzenberg the new Vice President for news and information. In a 1983 Christian Science Monitor opinion piece, Buzenberg urged Secretary of State Shultz to "reassess seriously U.S. policies for all of Central America." The man now in charge of news content for all NPR shows, claimed Reagan's support of the Contras "has proved counter-productive, rallying support for the central Sandinista government."
By emphasizing "military solutions to what are essentially political, social, and economic problems," Buzenberg complained, "the administration has been slow in recognizing the more immediate threat from the right in countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala."
0'BRIEN'S ODE. For liberals, the Iran-Contra affair represents yet another Republican conspiracy to subvert the Constitution, while conservatives consider the investigation a blatant political move to undermine a conservative presidential policy. But when Admiral John Poindexter faced sentencing last month, Tim O'Brien, ABC's law correspondent, didn't make any pretense of giving the two viewpoints equal weight.
In a June 11 Good Morning America piece predicting what sentence Poindexter might receive, O'Brien brushed over (in 14 seconds) the defense's arguments against jail time. O'Brien then spent 33 seconds reading excerpts from prosecutor Lawrence Walsh's diatribe alleging that Poindexter's "diet of lies" threatened our constitutional system. "It's now up to Judge Greene to balance the arguments on both sides," O'Brien said, an ironic statement coming just after his own imbalanced coverage.
His conclusion sounded more like a lecture than a news report, asking that Judge Greene find "what punishment it will take to teach a lesson about abuse of power, to John Poindexter, to those who follow him in the corridors of the White House."
POTTER'S PUBLICITY SERVICE. CBS News reporter Deborah Potter sounded like press secretary for the liberal Children's Defense Fund in her report on their Washington protest June 24. Anchor Richard Schlesinger reported "hundreds" gathered to protest "the slow progress in curing a social ailment, inadequate child care." Potter played the publicist, giving two soundbites to CDF chief Marian Wright Edelman, one to liberal Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD), and two to working moms complaining about the cost of day care.
Potter didn't air anyone who opposed federal child care programs or offered alternatives. Instead, she placed the responsibility for child care not on parents, but on the government: "Now that school is out for the summer, the need for child care is even more critical for many working parents. But Congress is debating, so families are still waiting."
RAMPANT REVISIONISM. Restoring the historical reputations of Carter and Mondale isn't easy work, but some reporters still try. On the June 21 CBS This Morning reporter Hattie Kauffman gave it a shot. "There is a new chorus of praise for former President Jimmy Carter," Kauffman proclaimed, "His pace and purpose a marked contrast to other former Presidents." Carter wasn't shy about his record: "When I go to Asia, Latin America, Africa or you know, Egypt, and so forth, I'm kind of a hero." Carter added, "I'm very grateful now to President Bush and Secretary Baker, because they have treated me with friendship and with the proper level of respect," unlike Reagan, he complained. Kauffman gushed: "It just may be Jimmy Carter has found his true calling out of office, where values count for more than votes and where the results of a hard day's work are tangible."
On ABC's 20/20, Hugh Downs came to Walter Mondale's defense on June 22. "But the man we most seem to remember as a loser had a long and brilliant political career," he declared. "In 1966, he was elected to the United States Senate and became a champion of the working man, the poor, and the disenfranchised...Mondale remains forever the quintessentially good man."
CARPING AT THE CARDINAL. For a group so adamant about the separation of church and state, reporters are having a hard time separating the two when they cover America's Catholic Church. When Cardinal O'Connor declared that pro-choice politicians can be excommunicated by their bishops, Newsweek found he "succeeded only in stiffening the necks of New Yorkers who find his style abrasive and consider his speaking out on abortion politically intrusive." Media bigwigs weren't so worried about church involvement in politics when segregationist Leander Perez was excommunicated in 1962, not to mention the bishops' wading into politics on nuclear weapons and American capitalism during the 1980s.
On June 27, CBS reporter Richard Threlkeld implied the Church should make its teaching by conducting polls: "A lot of Americans feel Rome is behind the times. The Vatican remains adamantly opposed to women priests, birth control, and divorce, despite the expressed feelings of most Catholics."
Threlkeld concluded with the dire warning: "By insisting on discipline rather than dialogue, the Vatican runs the risk of creating a whole new generation of displaced persons in the pews: frustrated American Catholics who will first stop giving to their church, then just stop going."
ANOTHER NEA HURRAY. Following on the heels of Time art critic Robert Hughes' blatant advocacy of the National Endowment for the Arts [See last month's Janet Cooke Award], Newsweek Senior Writer Tom Mathews struck many of the same chords in a July 2 cover story on "Art of Obscenity?" Matthews blamed the furor not on tasteless artists, but on desperate conservatives: "What the artbusters have been looking for is a hot issue and some quick victories. The Red menace is not what it used to be, Ronald Reagan is gone, ultraconservatives cannot rely upon George Bush to uphold their righter-than-thou social agenda."
Mathews also found it necessary to advocate subsidized culture: "For the same reason the government supports health, education, and science, it makes sense for it to support the arts. The total budget for the NEA last year ($171 million) was $22 million less than the Pentagon spent to keep the oompah in the country's military bands ($193 million). It would be a pity if everyone got so lathered up about obscenity, real or in the eye of the beholder, that this pittance seemed too much." Funny how $100 million in aid to the Contras was never a "pittance" like this.
ANOTHER ARTS PATRON. Followers of the NEA story and media philanthropy should consult the July Spy magazine for a list of the sponsors of "performance artist" Annie Sprinkle. At her performance in New York, the porn star asked the audience to yell "nipple, nipple" and then come up and view her cervix. Among the list of Sprinkle supporters: the New York Times Company Foundation.
Revolving Door: South African Sun Rise
South African Sun Rise. After three years of obstinacy, the South African government has finally granted a visa to Jerelyn Eddings, enabling her to become Johannesburg Bureau Chief for the Baltimore Sun. In 1978 the American Political Science Association selected Eddings, then an United Press International reporter, to be one of eight congressional fellows allowed to work in the office of their choice. Eddings selected two Democratic Senators: Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Paul Simon of Illinois. Eddings returned to UPI in 1979 as a congressional reporter, jumping to the Baltimore Sun in 1982 where she wrote editorials until this June.
Barry Brigade. Trying to put the best spin on daily revelations during D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's cocaine and perjury trial is Lurma Rackley, his Press Secretary since late last year. Rackley spent the 1970s working for The Washington Star, where she rose to metro editor by the time she left in 1979. She's not the first reporter to toil for the liberal Democrat. Rackley replaced John White, who joined Barry from the Philadelphia Daily News in 1987. Kwame Holman, Assistant Press Secretary in 1979 and Press Secretary to Barry in 1980, signed on with the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour as a Denver-based correspondent in 1983, moving to his current Washington position in 1987.
Mouthing & Molding Mandela. The Mandela National Welcome Committee hired Christine Dolan, Cable News Network Political Director for four years before a salary dispute prompted her 1988 resignation, to serve as Press Secretary. She coordinated press relations during the African National Congress Deputy President's late June and early July tour of U.S. cities....The same committee has chosen Globalvision, co-founded by former ABC News 20/20 producer Danny Schecter, to create the official Mandela tour documentary, The Boston Globe reported. Globalvision produces South Africa Now, seen weekly on many PBS stations. Schecter has served as Executive Producer since leaving ABC in 1989 and Carolyn Craven, a National Public Radio White House reporter in the early 1980s, is anchor. The show is funded by the Africa Fund, established by a leading lobbying group for U.S. corporate divestment, the American Committee on Africa.
Summer Reading. Three reporters who once held political positions are out with books. Steven Emerson has co-authored The Fall of Pan Am Flight 103: Inside the Lockerbie Investigation. Emerson was an aide to the late Senator Frank Church and an investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the late 1970s. Last month he joined CNN's special assignment unit as a contributing correspondent....Judith Miller, Deputy Media Editor for The New York Times "Business Day" section and formerly Deputy News Editor in Washington, has written One, by One, by One: Facing the Holocaust. Miller began her career as Washington correspondent for the Progressive...Michael Barone, Vice President until 1981 of Peter Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm, and now a Senior Writer for U.S. News & World Report, recently completed Our Country, The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan.
Make the Rich Pay More & Everybody Else Too
TAXING THE MEDIA'S WAY
Major media reporters have challenged President Bush to raise taxes ever since he issued his "Read my lips: No new taxes" pledge. Now that Bush has "faced reality" by agreeing to raise taxes, some are championing the Democratic crusade to increase the burden on the wealthy, and everyone else.
"President Bush today conceded that new taxes will be necessary to get the federal budget deficit under control," NBC's Tom Brokaw began June 26. Dismissing Bush's promise as unworkable, Steven Roberts and Gloria Borger asserted in U.S. News & World Report: "For almost 18 months, the country's fiscal policy was dictated by a promise that helped elect George Bush President and then crippled his ability to do the job. Last week, Bush finally made a 'surrender to reality,' as Democratic Representative Beryl Anthony of Arkansas put it."
In a July 9 "news" story, Time's George Church insisted that both Democrats and Bush "were recognizing reality. It has long been obvious that spending cuts alone cannot reduce the deficit as much as required. It was obvious in 1988, too. Bush should never have voiced his pledge, he should never have made it the focus of his campaign, and he should have backed off from it long before he did."
CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer enthusiastically embraced class warfare, praising New Jersey Governor Jim Florio for doubling the income tax rate on higher earners, making toilet paper taxable and hiking the sales tax. Schieffer asked: "Is New Jersey starting a trend that could shift some of the tax burden away from the middle class?" During the June 30 story he talked to state resident Carl Smith, "who voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush, [and] feels that he and his wife Cheryl have been on the losing end of the nation's tax system."
"Florio's tax plan is part of a larger attempt to redress what some see as the excesses of the '80s," Schieffer reported, when tax cuts "produced a financial bonanza for many wealthy people. But Florio says it also put too much burden on the middle class." But in The Washington Post the day before, economics columnist Robert Samuelson noted that "in 1990 the wealthiest one percent will pay an estimated 15.7 percent of federal taxes, up from 12.8 percent in 1980." Schieffer didn't bother to mention that or any view challenging his thesis.
After explaining how the tax increase trend is spreading from state to state, Schieffer concluded: "We may be at the end of an era, time when too many people wanted more from government than they were willing to pay for." The next day, 8,000 taxpayers protested the hikes, chanting "Florio must go!" CBS ignored that, too.
Media Swoons Over "Conservative" Reagan-Basher
KEVIN PHILLIPS' CLASS WAR
Take a man who calls himself a conservative; have him write a book echoing liberal themes -- in this case, that Reaganomics made the rich richer and the poor poorer -- and what do you have? A media celebrity who can hardly keep up with all the interview requests from reporters who find confirmation of their views in him. That's what has happened with Kevin Phillips, author of The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath.
Here are just two examples: During a June 25 Today interview Deborah Norville shifted from questioner to prompter: "George Wallace you quote in your book as saying 'the rich get richer, the rest just get taken.' The '80s have been a period in which those in the middle found themselves with less and less." Newsweek dedicated a page to urging Democrats to use Phillips' arguments against Republicans. Senior Writer Jonathan Alter charged: "It's hard to finish the book without being convinced that Reagan-era policies effectively mortgaged the future of the country for the short-term interests of the top 20 percent of Americans."
This might have been less convincing if they had bothered to offer another perspective. Newsweek economic columnist Robert Samuelson, for instance, pointed out that adjusted for inflation, the share of all families "with incomes over $35,000 rose from 41 to 46 percent" during the 1980s. David Stockman, move over -- the media have found a new darling.
More Mandela Mania
More Mandela Mania. Dan Rather drooled over Nelson Mandela on the Arsenio Hall Show June 27: "The power of Nelson Mandela is the power of the idea and the ideal. Nelson Mandela knows what he believes. He knows what he's willing to die for, and that carries a tremendous power and it radiates from him as it did from Martin Luther King, as it does from Mother Teresa, as it did from Golda Meir. There's tremendous power in that, and when we say accurately I think, that Nelson Mandela is a worldwide hero -- people of all races and nationalities look up to him -- I think that why."
Rather was so passionate about Mandela, he even contradicted Amnesty International's refusal to consider him a political prisoner because of his violent activities: "A lot of people tried to get the world to believe that this man was a radical, terrorist, killed, psychological killer -- all bullbleep, because they feared him. Because he knew what he believed in and what he was prepared to die for."
Janet Cooke Award: MacNeil-Lehrer Tax Hour
MacNeil-Lehrer Tax Hour
It was quite the irony. While George Bush was busy caving in to Democrats in Washington on taxes in late June, residents of Massachusetts were bemoaning the results of the tax and spend governance of Michael Dukakis. The Governor has brought the Bay State to the brink of collapse. Faced with a $1.2 billion short-term debt due on September 1, the Massachusetts legislature on July 7 passed its third tax increase package in as many years ($1.2 billion for fiscal 1991 and $1.8 billion for fiscal 1992), upping the income tax rate from 5.75 to 6.25 percent, nearly doubling the state gas tax to 21 cents per gallon, and extending the sales tax to include many professional services.
Raising taxes at a time when the economy is stagnant is counterproductive. Cutting them expands the tax base, as Ronald Reagan certainly proved. But eight years of growth and prosperity have not dimmed the media's love affair with taxes. Take MacNeil- Lehrer NewsHour Business Correspondent Paul Solman on June 8. He fervently defended the need for new taxes in Massachusetts while obscuring the true roots of the fiscal crisis: the overspending and overtaxing of Dukakis. For that he earns the July Janet Cooke Award.
In Solman's view, just two words describe what ails the state's economy: tax cutters. "These folks," Solman declared, referring to citizens behind a November ballot initiative to roll back recent tax hikes, "say they are dedicated to cutting taxes. But ironically their efforts may actually wind up costing taxpayers money, including the money of their most devout followers. You see -- and here's the point of this story -- tax cutters sometimes lose sight of a hidden cost: the interest you pay when you go into debt." Reinforcing the point, Solman added: "The longer...state legislators debate the deficit and borrow money in the meantime to cover it, the more they wind up paying in interest. That's one reason the Massachusetts legislature has finally proposed raising taxes."
It is true that servicing debt is wasteful. But tax limitation groups argue that ending the spending spiral, not raising taxes, is the best way to solve the problem. Solman dismissed the point as ludicrous: "Ah, if life were only this simple. There are political hacks on the Massachusetts pay-roll, but almost everyone agrees they represent a tiny fraction of the budget deficit. Spiraling health costs, pension obligations, these are the real budget busters. And even though it's been labeled Taxachusetts, the state and local tax burden here, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is one of the lowest in the country. According to this data, only seven states tax their citizens less. As for the complaints about federal taxes, consider this: America is the country with the lowest tax burden in the entire industrialized world. It should come as no surprise then, that cutting government expenses in America these days, often means cutting to the bone."
He also blamed the "tax cutters" for the state's bond rating, the lowest of any state: "The irony of the modern tax revolt: the more the rebels succeed in keeping taxes at bay, the more money they wind up costing us all in interest....In Massachusetts [the deficit is] now more than a billion dollars. And the more the state has borrowed to cover the deficit, the higher its interest rate has gone. This year alone, extra interest will cost Massachusetts taxpayers about 75 million dollars...because the state couldn't balance its budget either by raising taxes, or lowering expenses. That's the hidden cost no one wants to face, including the tax rebels of today."
Throwing a huge bag of money into Boston Harbor, Solman closed: "What's the historical moral of the story? Well, Americans still hate paying taxes. But we're no longer throwing someone else's tea overboard. Nope, the tax rebels of our era are throwing away their own money, in interest payments they should never have to make."
MediaWatch asked several tax policy experts to analyze the MacNeil-Lehrer report. "To blame it on the tax cutters is absurd," said syndicated columnist Warren Brookes. "The result of tax reductions [initiated by Dukakis' predecessor, Ed King (1979-1983)] was the fastest revenue increases in Massachusetts history, 1983-1988. Incomes shot up during that time, but growth began slowing when taxes were raised by Dukakis. Revenues began dropping off when the state began spending like mad. The numbers from last year's Comptroller's report show that Dukakis hasn't balanced the budget since fiscal 1986. It's an unmitigated disaster. The heart of the problem is that Massachusetts spent its way into trouble."
That State Comptroller's report shows tax revenues have increased each year since 1986 (due to growth and tax increases), but spending has increased disproportionately. [See Graph] In 1986, entire tax revenues were $11.56 billion while spending was $11.15 billion. By 1989, revenues had increased by more than $2.56 billion, but expenditures increased by $4.72 billion in the same time frame. Thus, in 1988, Massachusetts had a $1.2 billion deficit. By 1989, it was $1.75 billion. Fiscal Year 1990 ended on June 30 with further borrowing to cover a projected deficit of $1.1 billion. Charles Baker, co-director of Boston's non-profit, public policy Pioneer Institute, concurred. According to the institute, spending increased by 53 percent from 1984 to 1989. Inflation was 24 percent, giving Massachusetts a real spending increase of 29 percent in just five years.
Other facts courtesy of Brookes: On average, from 1984-1989, most states saw their revenues increase 8.2 percent each year, while spending increased about 8 percent. In Massachusetts, revenues increased 9.6 percent each year on average. The problem: spending went up even more, about 10.4 percent each year. And lately, Massachusetts revenues have begun to plummet because large 1988-1989 tax increase packages have stifled growth. From 1984 through 1986, General Fund revenues increased by more than ten percent each year. In 1986, revenues hit 116.6 percent of 1985. In 1987, the increase ws only 8.6 percent; in 1988 just 2.1 percent; and in 1989 only 5.2 percent from the previous year. The State Revenue Department announced on July 6 that Fiscal 1990 saw a real drop of 3.3 percent in revenues.
While King had cut 5,000 employees from state payrolls from 1979-1983, Dukakis added 23,000 new ones as the state population was dropping. Borrowing for housing doubled in four years. Executive Department spending rose to three times the inflation rate; under King it dropped in real terms.
What about Solman's contention that Massachusetts has one of the lowest tax burdens? He used the income analysis model (total state and local taxes/total state personal income). Brookes noted "the state's tax burden according to income has come down, but that is because of Proposition 2 and 1/2 [a 1980 referendum that capped property taxes at 2.5%] and King's tax cutting policies."
If you look at Massachusetts per capita tax burden (total state and local taxes/total population) supplied by the Census Bureau, a strikingly different picture emerges. Just six states demand more money from their citizens. According to Duane Parde, Legislative Director of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Census statistics for 1980-1988 show that Massachusetts' per capita tax burden has gone up 112 percent.
In a conversation with MediaWatch, MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour Executive Producer Les Crystal denied that Solman was pushing any tax agenda for Massachusetts: "I saw it as an 'explainer' piece that said borrowing is a very expensive way to deal with the problem. It wasn't intended to be 'should we tax or should we cut.'" He denied that Solman was attacking tax cutters or their position, but admitted the conclusion was flawed: "There wasn't any agenda, at least that wasn't our intent. We might have been more careful with that line. We're not perfect and I think looking at that line now it might have been adjusted a little bit if it left an impression that we didn't intend."
Crystal said that the NewsHour would be examining the issues of deficits on all levels in the future: "Obviously if we go and do a story about the Massachusetts budget crisis we will give the different points of views and we will be happy to get some proposed names from you." MediaWatch will be watching and waiting.