MediaWatch: July 1995

Vol. Nine No. 7

NewsBites: Retiring the L Word

Reporters have finally begun to describe the American Association of Retired Persons as a powerful lobby with a vast tax-exempt business empire. But reporters still refuse to put together the words "AARP" and "liberal." (From 1990 to 1992, not one of 196 stories in four major newspapers attached a liberal label.) The latest example: USA Today reporter Richard Wolf's June 13 article teemed with labels for conservative groups, but lacked one for the AARP. Wolf referred to the AARP's "conservative rivals" three times, and quoted "James Martin, chairman of the 60-Plus Association, another of the AARP's smaller, right-wing rivals."

Kings of Pain.

CBS News is quickly becoming the grand marshal in the parade of spending cut victim stories. Two features on the June 25 CBS Evening News detailed the destruction of spending cuts, one on federally funded summer jobs and the other on surplus food programs.

First, anchor John Roberts explained in his "Sunday Cover" segment that "by next summer, 600,000 teens who turn to the government for work may find a dead end. Republican members of Congress want to cut summer jobs funding." He questioned whether teens can find jobs in the private sector: "Are there really plenty of jobs available for teens?...Even in Boston, organizers who aggressively seek out summer jobs for kids in the private sector say they can't make up for the proposed federal cuts." Teens looking for work may find it in the fast-food sector. Over six million people work in it, and it is predicted to grow at 2.5 percent a year in the next few years, Tracy Thompson reported in the July 2 Washington Post. It's a plentiful source of jobs but quite demanding compared to the make-work jobs many teens receive through the federal program.

A story by Diana Gonzalez the same evening focused on the USDA's surplus food program. Roberts warned: "Time is running out for another government program, one that gives surplus food to people in need." Gonzalez predicted congressionally mandated cutbacks in the program and interviewed people who will have to get their food elsewhere. She ended on this somber note: "The government says there are other assistance programs available. But that help might not come soon enough for those being served at this distribution center, one of many slated to close at the end of this month."

Better Dead Than Well-Read.

In another instance of lionizing anti-anti-communism, most of the networks marked the passing of former U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith with praise. On May 29, Katie Couric intoned on the NBC Nightly News: "Smith, a Republican, was the first woman to serve in both the House and Senate. She's remembered for being a voice of conscience during the anti-communist fervor that gripped the nation in the 1950s."

Couric and others in the media have yet to acknowledge Harvey Klehr's book The Secret World of American Communism. Klehr and other researchers dug into the Comintern and CPUSA's Moscow archives, using the Communists' own files, to illustrate that the Soviet Union used the CPUSA as a front for espionage against the United States. But that kind of information might lead the viewer to conclude some "anti-communist fervor" was justified.

Whose Free Ride?

Time Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson dove into the budget battle with his June 5 advocacy piece titled "Why the Pentagon Gets a Free Ride." He argued: "As anxious advocates for the poor and elderly fight to stave off budget cuts, the Pentagon seems immune." The word "immunity" did not match the accompanying chart, which showed a real decline in 1996 dollars from just over $400 billion in 1985 to about $275 billion in 1995. That's quite a contrast to programs "for the poor and elderly" like Medicare and Medicaid, which grew 72 and 132 percent in the Bush years alone.

Kindling for the Class War.

In a May 29 front page story subheaded "Tax, Spending Cuts May Add to Inequality," The Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein claimed that "For the last 15 years, the gap between rich and poor in America has been growing wider." Pearlstein argued "The tax and spending cuts now moving through Congress are likely to reduce the after-tax incomes of American families at the bottom of the economic ladder...while leaving incomes of wealthy Americans largely unchanged." He declared: "Government data show that since the late 1970s the share of national income earned by the richest households has been rising steadily while almost everyone else's shares have declined."

But in the May 10 National Review, Economics Editor Ed Rubenstein noted that "Americans are all getting richer." He continued: "Since 1967 the share of households earning $75,000 and above per year (in 1993 dollars) has more than doubled, from 5.1 per cent to 12.5 per cent. Middle-income households, far from being squeezed, have been pushed up." Rubenstein also noted that "real income per person has soared 60 per cent since 1967."

Rebutting Newt.

Karen Arenson of The New York Times took to the front page June 4 to make the case against Newt Gingrich's call for dismantling the welfare state and handing its duties to private charities: "The Speaker's ideas are unworkable because his vision of what charities do and how they are financed is a page out of Norman Rockwell, a far cry from reality." Arenson contended that "while most charities depend on volunteer labor and on billions of dollars in donations from the public, they are even more dependent on government money for their survival." She repeatedly quoted heads of charities dependent on government subsidies who "contend that government not only has the responsibility to continue to meet the human needs of society, but that in many fields, is the only entity capable of assuming that burden."

Arenson claimed "some of the tax plans that are under the most active discussion in Washington now, like a flat tax or a consumption tax, would actually raise the cost of giving, by reducing the tax incentive that occurs when donors take their charitable contributions as deductions on taxes." Arenson noted "charitable contributions grew in the 1980s, when government cuts were threatened," but didn't finish the story. Professor Richard McKenzie noted in The Right Data: "The annual rate of growth in total giving in the 1980s was 55 percent higher than in the previous 25 years....This occurred at a time when real tax payments, part of which were intended to serve charitable goals, were on the rise, and at a time when, because tax rates fell, the after-tax cost of giving rose."

All Wet on Clean Water.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which fooled the nation with the Alar hoax in 1989, remains popular with the the networks. On March 14 Robert Hager promoted a NRDC study and called them "highly respected." On June 1 Today's Bryant Gumbel hosted NRDC lawyer Eric Olson. Gumbel summarized: "In the past year, one in five Americans routinely drank water that failed to meet EPA standards, and that as many as seven million Americans are getting sick each year from water-born infections."

After pointing out the NRDC's "new" study is simply publicly available EPA data, Jonathan Tolman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute told MediaWatch that the EPA methodology misses the point: "The biggest problem is that many of these water systems are not adding enough chlorine. In fact, 43 million of last year's 57 million violations were coliform violations [coliform is a harmless, easily detectable bacteria that is often an indicator of the presence of harmful pathogens] which are easily cured through chlorination. What the EPA is passing regulations on is totally irrelevant to the real health concerns of people. The EPA has a list of over 80 contaminants they check for, things that 99 percent of the water systems never even see in their water. And the EPA must come up with 25 more contaminants every three years. They just keep adding more and more bizarre chemicals to the list while ignoring the number one problem, the coliform violations."

But Gumbel suggested Republicans were forcing Americans to boil water: "This comes at a time when Republicans are looking to gut the Clean Water Act and also the Safe Drinking Water Act. What are our options? Are we now forced to boil water because bottled water is not an economically feasible option for a lot of people?"

Warmed-Over Willie.

Seven years after the Willie Horton ad, it's still getting saturation play from some liberals. On the June 1 Today, Bryant Gumbel interviewed David Anderson, author of a book on the ad, Crime and the Politics of Hysteria. Gumbel's introduction left no doubt where he stood: "An extremist supporter of Republican presidential candidate George Bush bankrolled this political ad. Its gut-level attack played to America's racial fears." Anderson defended Massachusetts' furlough system, which allowed the rapist and murderer Horton to get out of prison on a weekend pass. Gumbel approved: "So the policy was good but Willie Horton was a bad candidate....You spent a lot of time for this book talking with William Horton. Is the man you found an awful lot different than Willie Horton of the infamous ad?"

Gumbel managed to out-liberal his liberal guest by asking a question he thought he knew the answer to: "The facts of race and crime in this country are pretty clear, but was the ad pretty racist, did it try to capitalize on racist fears?" When Anderson paused, Gumbel added: "Let's put it this way -- if William Horton had been white?" When Anderson answered that Bush supporters still would have used it, a shocked Gumbel asked "You do? Would it have had the same impact?" Gumbel ignored the findings of Washington Post pollster Richard Morin, who in 1992 cited "substantial evidence [negative ads] didn't work four years ago. Bush's poll numbers in 1988 didn't budge during or after the Willie Horton ad controversy."

Opry Omissions.

For the March 31 CBS Evening News "Eye on America," John Blackstone focused on how House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R.-La.) would cut National Endowment for the Arts funding, which might cancel a grant to his district's Piney Woods Opry: "Without financial help to keep the show running and keep the recorders turning, they say these songs will soon be gone, along with those who play them."

But a June 12 Washington Times editorial revealed that CBS knew the opposite. Opry sponsor Jonathan Bachrack of Abita Lumber Company explained: "I was interviewed by CBS for a half-hour. I didn't say what they wanted to hear. They wanted me to say that we need the federal government's money, and that Bob Livingston is a hypocrite." Bachrack said he "told the people from CBS that we don't need the federal government to run a local concert."

Nina's Next Assignment.

Nightline devoted its June 7 program to the sex discrimination lawsuits filed against the "old-boy network" at the Central Intelligence Agency. For its initial report, ABC chose as its reporter Nina Totenberg, the National Public Radio reporter who also broke the story of Anita Hill's unproven charges.

ABC and Totenberg have ignored another sex discrimination lawsuit against a federally-funded agency: NPR. The May 25 New York Times noted that NPR reporter Katie Davis filed a $1.2 million lawsuit, adding that "in the 1980s, at least two employees, including Mara Liasson, the current White House reporter, had threatened to file sex discrimination cases against the network, but settled with the network out of court." As Davis told the Times: "They run around and report all the time on discrimination. But they don't look hard enough at their own situation."