MediaWatch: July 1995

Vol. Nine No. 7

Janet Cooke Award: Engberg's Latest Republican Conspiracy

Experience CBS News: "I'm Watching You Like a Hawk, You Lying Little Worm"

Thomas Jefferson wrote that "To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical." Conservatives seek to reform the government's tendency to award grants to left-wing groups who use taxpayer money to lobby for more government. For describing this effort as a spiteful plot to "silence" opponents, CBS reporter Eric Engberg earned the Janet Cooke Award.

Dan Rather introduced the June 14 story: "The majority Republicans in Congress believe they've found a new way to silence their opponents. They plan to do it by cutting off funding for certain nonprofit groups. CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg has been investigating for tonight's CBS Evening News Reality Check."

Engberg began: "From mega-battles like Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination to irritants like the disruption of a Newt Gingrich speech, nonprofit activist groups are often on the cutting edge of Washington policy disputes. It infuriates Republicans that many of these groups are liberal in outlook....It infuriates them more that many are getting federal money."

He continued: "House Republicans now have a pet plan for striking back called `defunding the Left.' They're drafting a bill to severely restrict lobbying by any activist group that gets federal grant money....Targets include unions, the National Council of Senior Citizens [NCSC], Planned Parenthood, and environmental activists, all regarded as opponents of the GOP agenda."

CBS did not explain the extent of the funding. The NCSC takes 96 percent of its money from the federal government, $68.7 million, and yet contributed $183,779 to 60 Democrats running for federal office in the last election cycle. The American Association of Retired Persons, which fights any entitlement cuts, received $73 million from the government.

Engberg reported: "Right-leaning advocacy groups would be largely untouched by the legislation because they receive little federal aid and often have deep-pocketed backers in the business world." CBS showed video of the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Coalition, and the Free Congress Foundation. But do conservative groups dominate the corporate giving agenda? The Capital Research Center's 1993 Patterns in Corporate Philanthropy reports that Planned Parenthood received $425,000 from the top 250 corporations, and the National Audubon Society received $311,800. The chart is topped by the National Urban League ($2.6 million) and the NAACP ($1.6 million). The Heritage Foundation received $262,000 from these top 250 corporations.

Heritage analyst Marshall Wittman told MediaWatch: "The greatest inaccuracy is that we receive `little' federal aid. Heritage and the Christian Coalition -- both have been my employers -- don't receive a penny. As for corporate money, that's only eight percent of the Heritage budget, and the Christian Coalition -- we're talking de minimus." Free Congress spokesman Brad Keena told MediaWatch corporations account for only seven percent of its budget.

Engberg then aired "government watchdog" Gary Bass: "This is nothing more than a backdoor witchhunt. I think it's devious, I think it's disingenuous, and I think it's dangerous." Engberg did not explain that Bass heads OMB Watch, which the Heritage Foundation charges is linked with a group called the Unison Institute (awarded $285,000 last year by the EPA), which shares the same address and fax number as OMB Watch.

Engberg added: "The GOP faces opposition not just from left-leaning groups, but also many well-regarded charities," and aired Alfred Munzer of the American Lung Association. But in his book Health Research Charities: Image and Reality, James T. Bennett found the ALA also has a liberal lobbying agenda -- such as subsidized catastrophic health care and large cigarette tax hikes. Bennett found the ALA regularly spent less than 4 percent of its budget on research to cure disease, spending "more than eight times as much on management and fundraising than it does on research."

Engberg did include two soundbites from Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), but introduced him like this: "As Vice President Quayle's anti-regulation hatchet man, McIntosh tangled with many of the groups he now wants to muzzle." Engberg charged "Notes from a strategy session leaked to CBS News quote one congressional aide, `spin is crucial, this can't just look like an enemies list.'" Jon Praed, chief counsel to McIntosh's Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, said of CBS's "notes": "Until and unless the handwritten notes are produced, I believe the memo is a pure fabrication."

Wittman told MediaWatch he was puzzled by Engberg's methods: "I talked to him twice. Once, he asked if I used the word `spin' in the meeting. I said no. Then he said 'What if I told you I have ten people who said you used the word `spin' in that meeting?' I said no again, and he replied: `Well, I didn't have ten people anyway.'"

Engberg ended his story: "One Republican was asked if `defunding the Left' is about government reform or settling old scores. He replied, `Oh, I'd say it's about 40-60.'" When called to defend the integrity of his story, Engberg instead yelled insults at MediaWatch associate editor Tim Graham, referring twice to "your stupid little newsletter." When asked if conservatives ever used words like "silence" or "muzzle," Engberg replied: "I thought it was a fair characterization."

Engberg fumed at a Graham letter to the editor in the May American Journalism Review: "You little geek, in this letter you have lied about me. You are a liar." Graham wrote: "In the 1992 campaign, Engberg regularly attacked the Bush campaign's political ads, using ungentlemanly words like `lying,' but only produced one story critiquing Clinton commercials."

On October 5, 1992, Engberg critiqued Bush's ad on what Americans "could pay" in higher taxes under Clinton. Off camera, Engberg suggested to Steven Colford of Advertising Age: "The stacking up of assumptions like this, there's a word we used for that." Colford replied: "Uh, I think it's lying." Engberg complained: "I never used the word lying. I said `there's a word we use for that.' I was trying to get him to say `that's dissembling.'"

Engberg then read salary figures for Graham and others from the Media Research Center's IRS forms: "Is this really all you're making from all of Bozell's operations, Timmy?" He added: "I'm watching you like a hawk, you lying little worm." Before Graham could finish his questions, Engberg said "You are not only a liar, you are an incompetent," and hung up.

As Wittman noted: "His story never went to a liberal group and asked them if they're lobbying for more government with taxpayer money. We're uncovering this big scam, and instead of investigating the scam, he's investigating the investigators."