In This Issue
The Soviet Spokesman Sensation; NewsBites: Tax Time; Revolving Door: ABC's Democratic Lobbyist; Reporters Mourn Collapse of Communism; Blaming America for a Return to the Killing Fields; Janet Cooke Award: TIME'S Artful Dodger
The Soviet Spokesman Sensation
Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost has given American reporters a chance to explore the tremendous dissent lurking behind the fading happy face of the Soviet revolution. But the new Soviet Union's comparative openness has also given the American media the temptation to become overly generous in its assessment of Soviet "journalism," too eager to make earnest noises about a newly independent press in a country where criticism of Gorbachev is newly illegal.
Reporting during the May Washington summit, NBC's Robert Hager asserted: "Tonight's Soviet news was evidence of the new journalistic relaxation: a generally factual account, heavy on reporting, light on commentary, and frank in dealing with Soviet problems." As a perfect example of excessive generosity, Hager extended this to "Vladimir Posner, the most popular Soviet commentator," whose "nightly summit broadcasts have included straightforward looks at issues like the effect of peace on the U.S. defense industry."
Hager was not alone. To discover the way Posner was described by other media, MediaWatch analysts used Nexis to study all Posner mentions in six print sources (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post) since Gorbachev's March 1985 ascension. Posner was described most often in unofficial terms. The most popular was "commentator" (43 times). Other unofficial terms included "journalist" (13 times), as well as "reporter," "broadcaster," "correspondent," "talk show host," and "TV personality." The most generous and mysterious label came from Bruce Weber of The New York Times, who called the New York-raised Posner a "Soviet- educated journalist and commentator on East-West relations."
By contrast, reporters identified Posner with the official term "spokesman" 21 times, as an "official" three times and otherwise identified him explicitly as a Soviet government bureaucrat five times. Only one out of 157 stories used the word "communist." The toughest label came from New York Times TV critic Walter Goodman, who called Posner "a Soviet official who specializes in shaping Soviet propaganda to American tastes." Thus, Posner was described by unofficial terms, which leave the impression of an independent analyst, twice as often as he was described by official terms, which make it clear that he hews to the government line.
The same pattern applied when American journalists depended on Soviet officials for "independent analysis." In January, CBS News hired Sergei Plekhanov to advise the network and appear on the air as a CBS News consultant. Plekhanov's second banana to long- standing Soviet spokesman Georgi Arbatov as Deputy Director of the Soviet government's Institute on the USA and Canada. MediaWatch analysts watched every Plekhanov appearance from the beginning of 1990. Although every utterance toed the Gorbachev line, CBS has repeatedly failed to properly identify Plekhanov as an official of the Soviet government.
In his first appearance, on CBS This Morning January 15, he was identified as Deputy Director of the USA and Canada Institute, but the screen read "Soviet Expert." When Dan Rather interviewed him right after Bush's State of the Union address on January 31, the screen read "Institute on the USA." The average viewer had no reason to believe the Institute was anything other than a typical private think tank. CBS never noted it is an arm of the Soviet government. In Plekhanov's seven appearances on the CBS Evening News since his appointment as a consultant, CBS identified him once as a "Soviet political scientist" and six times as a "Soviet foreign affairs analyst." CBS did not once explicitly identify Plekhanov as a government official until the June 4 Nightwatch, when host Charlie Rose introduced Plekhanov as a "Soviet expert on the United States," but his on-screen label read "Soviet Government Adviser."
How ironic it is that the same media establishment that vows daily not to be gulled by American government spokesmen rom Marlin Fitzwater on down is so indulgent and unchallenging to Soviet government spokesmen. While no one would or should portray Fitzwater's comments as the independent opinions of an American journalist, Soviet spokesmen like Posner are often solicited for their "personal views" and described as "journalists" and "commentators."
The attitude expressed by Boston Globe reporter Jonathan Kaufman on June 3 demonstrated the Posner media mystique: "Unlike old Soviet television shows on America that harped relentlessly on poverty and discrimination against blacks, Posner's shows on this summit have been positive, even glowing."
Kaufman must not have seen the six minutes Ted Koppel gave Posner to air a Soviet TV report on the May 30 Nightline. Their favorite Soviet "journalist" went looking for Washington blacks willing to attack American society as racist, and when a few didn't oblige, he found others that were "much more forthcoming." One black woman told Posner what he wanted to hear: "Racism is more overt ...I think before the Reagan years there was somewhat of a tolerance as a result of what happened during the Johnson Administration and what happened during the Kennedy years...The new leadership threw everything out of the window. Every civil rights movement, every step we made forward, we've made ten back."
Posner went on: "Washington is at the top of the city murder rate list, and most of those murders are drug-related and occur in black neighborhoods. Why?" The woman replied: "Historically, when you put a group of people together that are oppressed, they will destroy one another, and it has been systematically done. It has not happened by accident." Posner ended: "Nearly 130 years ago, President Lincoln fought a civil war to save America. The issue was slavery: whether it was to survive or were black Americans to enjoy equality. Today, 130 years later, if I could, I would turn to Lincoln and ask: Mr. President, will that equality ever arrive?"
American journalists need to apply at least the same amount of skepticism to Soviet "journalists" and "news consultants" that they apply to American government spokesmen. Until they do, Americans will be hard pressed to realize the difference between propaganda of those in power and truly independent ideas.
NewsBites: Tax Time
TAX TIME. The decision of California voters to double the state's gas tax renewed media hopes for higher taxes. Time's June 18 issue gleefully concluded that "after more than a decade of sharply reduced services, Americans have at least grudgingly acknowledged the need to pay for badly needed improvements." Time was so excited it listed five methods politicians could employ to convince voters of the need for higher taxes. Among them: "If all else fails, try leadership." Time's model? New Jersey Democratic Governor Jim Florio, who proposed massive increases in his state's income tax. Florio's picture appeared under a red graphic that read "Facing Realities."
Newsweek agreed: "In the post-Reagan era, more states are facing up to the need to raise taxes...Some states have no choice but to raise taxes." Anchoring the June 6 CBS Evening News Ed Bradley worried: "For all the talk of hiking taxes and reversing the trend of more than a decade, there is a question tonight if that would come in time to help the nation's beleaguered public school system."
BRYANT GRUMBLES. Every day under a Republican President is a bad day for NBC Today co-host Bryant Gumbel, but some, like May 9, are worse than others. During the show's introduction, Gumbel groused about the budget summit: "The bottom line is more tax money is going to be needed. Just how much will be the primary issue on the agenda....It's a Wednesday morning, a day when the budget picture, frankly, seems gloomier than ever. It now seems the time has come to pay the fiddler for our costly dance of the Reagan years."
Taxes weren't the only issue on Gumbel's mind, however, as he moved on: "Family leave. It's an employee right guaranteed through-out the world, but not in the United States." Mad that Bush threatened to veto a bill to "correct" the situation, he grilled John Sloan of the National Federation of Independent Business. For Gumbel, regulation is the only solution: "How else then do you claim that a worker might get the minimum standards? Should he just depend on the good wishes of his employer?"
SUMMIT SLANT. Profiling budget summit participants on May 14, USA Today reporters Paul Clancy and Johanna Neuman described Democrats more favorably than Republicans. While Democrat Dick Gephardt was "a consensus builder who thrives on long meetings and eye-glazing detail," Republican Newt Gingrich was "an ardent conservative" who "often blasts Democrats." Clancy and Neuman called Democratic Whip William Gray a "master of budget politics" who has "steered a middle course" and Sen. Wyche Fowler a "rising star in the Senate." At the White House, John Sununu, "no stranger to controversy," was the one who "shook environmentalists" when he toned down a Bush speech on global warming.
A DEMOCRAT TO SAVE DIXIE. New York Times Washington Editor Howell Raines recently traveled home to Alabama. "While neighbors have flourished," he announced in a June 3 Times Magazine article, "weak leadership and excessive perks for business have kept the state in a Wallace-era time warp, dirt-poor and backward." The solution? Elect a liberal Democrat, preferably an Ivy League graduate. "For years, Alabamians comforted themselves by making fun of their backward neighbors. But Louisiana and Arkansas elected polished young Ivy Leaguers as governors while Alabama wallowed along with Gov. Guy Hunt, a former Amway salesman," Raines sneered.
After detailing how the entrenched political establishment ruined the state, Raines noted that "behind his [Hunt's] back, Alabama's educators and lawyers laugh at his table manners and grammar," missing the point that the people laughing are the establishment which Republican Hunt upset in 1986 by wresting control of the State House from a century of Democratic rule.
Still, Raines urged voters to replace Hunt with one of the three liberal Democrats then facing off in an early June primary: "It is clear that [Attorney General Don] Siegelman and [Congressman Ron] Flippo, as well as [union boss Paul] Hubbert, could provide worthy leadership on the New South model. These three men may represent Alabama's only chance to escape a long siege of dynastic politicians."
MEANER AND HARSHER ATTACK. "Judging from several of his actions, it has been difficult to imagine in recent days that during his 1988 campaign, President Bush called for a 'kindler and gentler' presidency," Boston Globe Washington reporter Stephen Kurkjian began a front page diatribe, labeled "news analysis." Bush's opposition to further child care regulation and a bill forcing employers to give their employees three months of leave for family illnesses, Kurkjian's May 16 article charged, "have been seen as a reversal of his campaign pledge." Bush "also faces the political fallout from the gap that has evolved between his campaign rhetoric on the environment and Oval office reality.
In short, "some Democrats believe Bush is finally beginning to pay the political price of running a campaign that was based on high rhetoric but little substance." Kurkjian didn't bother to quote anyone pleased with Bush's resistance to liberal demands.
MAO'S MILLER TIME. As the one-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approached, NBC reporter Keith Miller's interests laid elsewhere. His May 28 report focused on the revival of Chairman Mao's cult of personality. "The number one train to Shaoshan in south central China is running full these days, loaded with pilgrims to the holiest of China's revolutionary shrines," he declared. "The birthplace of Mao Tse-tung is at the heart of the national campaign to renew the spirit of Chinese communism." Miller claimed that "Some people come here because of nostalgia." Fond memories, no doubt, of Mao's purges and mass executions. Miller told viewers that "Mrs. Mao" of Mao's Restaurant "cried when [she] met [Mao]...they were tears of happiness. She says people miss the Chairman because he knew how to take care of the Chinese people."
Why is Mao's cult returning now? "The government is promoting this revival of all things connected with Mao Tse-tung as a way to restore traditional communist values."
CHALLENGING CHENEY. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's caution during uncertain world events has made him a target for network reporters on the Pentagon beat. Fred Francis began an April 26 NBC story: "Secretary Cheney enhanced his image as a cold warrior today by trimming only two and half billion dollars from a defense budget that many critics say ignores the prospect of peace."
ABC's Bob Zelnick unloaded on Cheney in a May 15 World News Tonight story: "Cheney's attitude towards Moscow has him out of step in Washington...Cheney has often appeared out of sync with the administration, Congress, and military leaders inside his own building." Zelnick offered no on-air opinions defending the Defense chief, but included clips of Senator Sam Nunn, Lawrence Korb of the Brookings Institution, and Gordon Adams of the Defense Budget Project. The latter two organizations have each called for defense cuts in excess of 100 billion dollars.
As his one example of Cheney's alleged "political weakness," Zelnick implied that the Marines lobbied for the V-22 Osprey helicopter because of Cheney's lack of clout. In fact, as Cheney has tried to kill the Osprey, he's battled the pork barrel spending process. Cheney can't win: when he tries to end wasteful programs, he's called politically weak, but his "fight against drastic cuts...continues to erode his influence," according to Zelnick.
FLAGS FOR FASCISTS. When the fight over flag burning reached the Supreme Court on May 14, NBC's Carl Stern noted that the defendants were "the same activists who last year won a Supreme Court decision that they could not be prosecuted for flag burning," but never mentioned they were members of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Only a caption under Gregory Johnson's name noted his affiliation. Stern's treatment of the RCP's opponents wasn't so generous: "There were also counter- demonstrators, even American Nazis."
ABC's John McKenzie took the fascism argument to a more global level, noting: "In Britain and most other democratic countries, people don't take their flag that seriously." As viewers saw black and white video of Nazis, McKenzie declared, "In Europe, many experienced what happened when a flag was once considered sacred, when it so symbolized a nation's identity."
HIDING HUDSON. When the liberal Economic Policy Institute released a study condemning the U.S. for ranking 14th in education spending as a percentage of national income among industrialized nations, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor and Time all gave coverage to their recommendations. Yet when the conservative Hudson Institute rebutted the EPI report, concluding that "restructuring education does not require bigger budgets but different priorities," none of the above gave any mention. The Hudson Institute study noted the U.S. ranks second in per capita education spending, slightly behind Sweden.
SHOOTING BLANKS AT LIBERALS. USA Today "Inquiry" Editor Barbara Reynolds and reporter Shrona Foreman loaded the deck in conducting interviews on gun control May 16. Gun control opponent Stephen Halbrook was asked direct, accusatory questions such as, "Since thousands of deaths are caused yearly by handguns, why do private citizens need guns?" and "In London, where guns are banned, the murder rate is only a quarter of the USA's. Doesn't that make a strong case against guns?" and "Why do citizens need the right to bear the kind of assault rifles that Patrick Purdy used to mow down children in a Stockton, Calif., schoolyard?"
On the other hand, gun control advocate Joshua Horwitz got softball, open-ended questions: "Why is gun-control legislation so important to you personally?" and "What do you think of the NRA's power to block gun-control legislation?"
FALLING SHORT. Covering the April 28 Rally for Life, National Public Radio reporter Paz Cohen gave NPR's liberal listenership an overly triumphant account. In NPR's first feed of Weekend All Things Considered at 5 p.m., Cohen reported: "The organizer of today's rally, J.C. Willke, head of the National Right to Life Committee, had tied his movement's political future to its ability to turn out greater numbers of people today to those who marched in defense of abortion rights a year ago...But the number present at the anti-abortion rally fell far short of those of last year's abortion rights march by police count. Today's crowd was estimated at 60,000. The abortion rights march had drawn some 300,000."
When contacted by MediaWatch, Cohen explained she revised later reports to the final police count of 200,000, as well as the organizers' estimate of 700,000. But that hardly excuses making convenient political conclusions before the final attendance figures were even released.
SAME OLD MEDICINE. Once again, ABC's "American Agenda" series has urged increased government regulation and control as the answer to America's health care problems. Health correspondents George Strait and Dr. Tim Johnson spread the myth that socialized health care is free. "In Canada, families never have to struggle to pay for medical care," Johnson claimed April 30. "In the U.S., the most sophisticated care is readily available for the wealthy and the insured...In Canada...no one who needs reasonable care is left out in the cold." Some may prefer the U.S. system, but Peter Jennings asserted, "others have been saying for quite some time that what the U.S. needs is what already exists in Canada."
On May 3, Strait lauded Hawaii: "In this state, health care is a fundamental right." He suggested other states could imitate Hawaii's mandated benefits system: "They too could start and copy what makes the system here work: One set of rules, one set of benefits, equally and universally distributed among all citizens." Dismissing the failure of similar programs in California and Massachusetts under Michael Dukakis, he claimed "those failures do not mean the Hawaii model is a fantasy that cannot be duplicated." Indeed, Strait suggested Hawaii offers "a glimpse of what the rest of America could be, if it chooses."
TV'S GREENHOUSE DEFECT. The networks have a strange way of reporting on the greenhouse effect: promote studies confirming it, and ignore studies challenging it. For example, when the United Nations issued a report May 25, all three networks reported the story and used it to prod President Bush into taking action.
On World News Tonight, Peter Jennings introduced "A new warning today about global warming and one likely to put considerable pressure on President Bush. The President has been skeptical of research predicting a warming trend, calling always for more studies before he takes any action. Now the most prestigious panel yet has reported in." ABC reporter Ned Potter took it from there: "[Scientists] say the administration has lost its excuse not to take more action...One environmentalist says the only real uncertainty about global warming is what President Bush will do about it."
But two days earlier, when a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study of nearly 1,000 official weather station records showed that the nation has cooled by one-third of a degree since 1920, the networks were silent. Data that contradicted the media- friendly theme of dramatic global warming was better left forgotten.
GREENHOUSE PAPER TRAIL. The same was true for newspapers. The UN report made page 1 of The Washington Post, covered by Post reporters Michael Weisskopf and William Booth. The Boston Globe ran the Post story on the front page. The New York Times ran a story by Craig Whitney on page 6. But none of the papers found the USDA study important enough to assign their reporters to it and the placement was quite different: The Post ran a brief AP dispatch on page A16; the Globe buried a Knight-Ridder brief inside; and the Times, the paper of record, ignored it.
When Science magazine released a study showing no warming trend March 29, only The Boston Globe assigned a reporter to the story and put it on the front page. The Post reported the study with an AP dispatch on page A26. The Times again ignored it completely. But USA Today has been most one-sided, ignoring both skeptical studies while pushing its front-page panic button last December 5: "Scientists now fear global warming and ozone depletion could have the same impact on health as a nuclear holocaust."
DOW DOUBT AFTER DOUBT. "Dow defies doubters, hits new high" read the June 5 USA Today "Money" section headline. USA Today should know about doubters. Just take a look at some of its worry-wart headlines in the midst of May's bull market: "April stock dip likely to go on" (May 1); "Uncertainty paralyzes stock market" (May 7); "But sudden surge may be short-lived" (May 15); "Individual investors getting wise to Wall Street rallies" (May 17); "Dow's high still leaves some skeptics" (May 18); and "High-tech slump may doom rally" (May 29) and our favorite, "Dow may hit potholes on road to 3000" (June 4).
Revolving Door: ABC's Democratic Lobbyist
ABC's Democratic Lobbyist. After nearly 20 years with ABC, Eugene Cowan has retired from his position as Vice President in Washington. Cowan was a Deputy Assistant to President Nixon for congressional relations from 1969 to 1971. Cowan's been replaced by his deputy, Mark MacCarthy, Vice President for government affairs at Capital Cities/ABC. Before moving to ABC in 1988, MacCarthy worked for seven years as a professional staff member for the House Energy and Commerce Committee where he focused on communications policy for Chairman John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.
Texas Ties. Glenn Smith, the Campaign Manager for Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards, the Democratic nominee for Governor, spent several years as a newspaper reporter before going into politics. Smith was a Houston Chronicle State House reporter until becoming Austin Bureau Chief for the Houston Post in 1985. Two years later, when Texas Lt. Governor Bill Hobby promoted Saralee Tiede from Press Secretary to Executive Assistant, Smith took the Press Secretary position. He stayed on the Democrat's payroll until joining the Richards campaign last year.
Tiede jumped to politics after working as a State House reporter for both the Fort Worth Star Telegram and Dallas Times Herald, a job she took after reporting from Washington for the Dallas Morning News.
Turning Through Turner. Nell Payne, Director of Government Affairs in D.C. for Turner Broadcasting System (TBS), parent company of CNN, has accepted a White House job: Special Assistant to the President for legislative affairs. Before jumping to TBS in 1987 she served as Chief Counsel to the Senate Budget Committee's Republican staff. Replacing Payne at TBS is Peggy Binzel, Legislative Director for U.S. Representative Jack Fields (R-TX) for the last five and a half years.
A Judicious Move. In the wake of an inquiry into who confirmed an embarrassing CBS News story about an investigation of Demoratic Whip Bill Gray, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh has reassigned some officials. David Runkel, a former Philadelphia Bulletin reporter who ran the public affairs department since 1987, has become Communications Director for the Justice Department. A Washington bureau reporter from 1980 to 1982, Runkel covered the State House and City Hall in the 1970s for the now defunct newspaper.
New to the Hill. Two new staffers for Democrats on Capitol Hill used to have media jobs. Jo-Anne Goldman, the new Deputy Press Secretary for Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), worked for the past year or so as a free-lance news writer and producer for CNN and National Public Radio, Roll Call recently reported....Brian Keane, who joined the office of U.S. Representative Les Aspin (D-WI) in April as a Legislative Assistant handling environmental and educational issues, spent the previous few months as a staff assistant in the CBS News Boston bureau.
Reporters Mourn Collapse of Communism
The Marxist economic system which crippled Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is crumbling, but that has not made network correspondents optimistic about the future. Several think capitalism is even worse.
"Communism is being swept away, but so too is the social safety net it provided," CBS reporter Bert Quint warned from Poland on the May 9 CBS This Morning. "Factories, previously kept alive only by edicts from Warsaw, are closing their doors, while institutions new to the East, soup kitchens and unemployment centers are opening theirs," he charged. Who will profit from Poland's new freedom? "A few slick locals, but mostly Americans, Japanese, and other foreigners out to cash in on a new source of cheap labor. And for the Poles, where are they for this first springtime of freedom? Somewhere, it seems, at the start of a long, hard road to nobody really knows where."
Steve Hurst, CNN's Moscow reporter, doubted whether Soviets with "no collective memory of capitalism" can ever adapt: "Can the people here deal with free markets at all, gradual approach or no? "Two days later, on the May 24 PrimeNews, Hurst contrasted the benefits of communism with the looming threat from capitalism: "Soviet people have become accustomed to security if nothing else. Life isn't good here, but people don't go hungry, homeless; a job has always been guaranteed. Now all socialist bets are off. A market economy looms, and the social contract that has held Soviet society together for 72 years no longer applies. The people seem baffled, disappointed, let down. Many don't like the prospect of their nation becoming just another capitalist machine."
CBS' Barry Petersen saw no appeal in Soviet capitalism May 14, since "people don't want to give up their cheap prices in a land where a loaf of bread costs about three cents, where a street car ride is less than a penny, and a phone call costs even less than that." To change all this he concluded, "means abolishing state subsidies, and accepting higher prices, unemployment and uncertainty in a country which has always guaranteed cradle to grave security for its people."
Assertions that communism prevents hunger and homelessness were shattered by the May 20 installment of Washington Post reporter David Remnick's "Vast Landscape of Want" series. "To describe the Soviet Union in terms of overwhelming poverty is no longer the work of fire-breathing ideologues from abroad. Now even the press organs of the Soviet Communist Party ruthlessly survey the wreckage of everyday life. Nothing, it seems, poisons ideological purity more thoroughly than an empty shelf."
Blaming America for a Return to the Killing Fields
ABC'S CAMBODIAN CRUSADE
Americans do not follow Southeast Asia very closely, which made ABC's April 26 special, From The Killing Fields, even more influential. Peter Jennings painted a simple picture: the United States, mentally trapped in the Vietnam War, has allied itself with China in support of the Khmer Rouge (which killed over one million of their fellow Cambodians between 1975 and 1978) in revenge for losing Vietnam. Jennings charged that aid passes through the non-communist resistance to the Khmer Rouge. As Jennings saw it, "the United States is deeply involved in Cambodia again. Cambodia is on the edge of hell again."
Former West 57th producer Leslie Cockburn, who also produced a Frontline segment, "Guns, Drugs and the CIA," co-wrote the special. Tom Yellin, the other writer, was a West 57th Senior Producer when the CBS show aired Cockburn's conspiracy pieces linking the CIA, the Contras and drug trafficking.
ABC's sources were no less ideologically committed. Rep. Chester Atkins (D-MA) declared, "[U.S. policy] is a policy of hatred." Jeremy Stone, the son of Marxist journalist I.F. Stone, has written many articles attacking U.S. policy on Cambodia, several of which were co-authored by former CIA Director William Colby, another source. Both Stone and Colby advocate supporting the Vietnam-installed Hun Sen regime. Jennings used Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon as a token advocate of the U.S. policy of supporting the non-communists while shunning the Khmer Rouge.
Jennings questions revealed an implicit slant: "Why isn't the U.S. outraged about all this?" and "Why does the United States, the Bush Administration, have anything to do whatsoever with the Khmer Rouge?" The questions implied the U.S. isn't outraged and supports the Khmer Rouge. Both points were vehemently denied after the special by politicians as ideologically diverse as Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-NY) and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Thomas Pickering, who declared, "I'm certainly appalled by what you presented tonight....We are certainly not supporting the Khmer Rouge."
Jennings view of the Marxist Hun Sen regime's military situation seems odd since the Soviets heavily support Hun Sen: "Hun Sen has the tanks which the Vietnamese left him, but he does not have much of an army....The Defense Minister knows that his troops alone, without the Vietnamese, have a real problem fighting forces supported by two superpowers: the United States and China." Jennings' conclusion revealed his worldview: "The United States is in danger of being on the wrong side of history." As New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman observed, that echoes "a phrase that might have been borrowed from Marxist texts, seems a touch dated after the anti-communist upheavals of 1989."
Janet Cooke Award: TIME'S Artful Dodger
If Charles Dickens were alive today, he certainly would have found his modern day Artful Dodger in Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes. In his June 4 article on National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding, Hughes crafted a relentless attack on conservatives while gingerly dodging the compelling issue in the debate: the indecency and obscenity in previous NEA-funded projects. For that, he receives the June Janet Cooke Award.
Last Fall, conservatives led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) attempted to establish standards for NEA grantees. According to Rohrabacher, the amendment, before liberals watered it down, would have barred "tax dollars from continuing to be spent for obscene, indecent, or anti-religious 'art.'" It would also have prevented funding of art "used to denigrate, debase, or revile a person, group, or class of citizens."
Outright Opinion. Time has received this coveted award three times before. Each time we singled out the magazine's blatant editorialization in its "news" sections. It was no different with Hughes' "Nation" section article titled "Whose Art Is It Anyway?" You only had to look at the Table of Contents teaser to see there would be no pretense of balance: "Jesse Helms is leading a right- wing assault on the NEA. But his anti-obscenity campaign threatens to stifle free expression and many worthwhile projects." The subtitle of the article itself resounded: "Desperate for an enemy, the radical right accuses Washington of subsidizing obscene, elitist art. The facts paint a different picture."
Hughes argued the U.S. is spending too little: "Last year the U.S. Government gave the NEA $171.3 million...Compared with the arts expenditures of other countries and with the general scale of federal outlays, this is a paltry sum." And what would happen without the NEA? Hughes gave the "vaporings of antifunders," such as Rohrabacher and the Cato Institute's Douglas Bandow, a few sentences. They pointed out that the private sector could adequately fund the arts and that it is inherently unfair to ask lower income Americans to pay for productions or exhibits "frequented primarily by the wealthy." But he dismissed those points out of hand, claiming "small, marginal, obscure" projects would not attract corporate dollars. He even invoked the class consciousness sloganeering of Karl Marx: "The idea of an American public culture wholly dependent on the corporate promotion budgets of white CEOs, reflecting the concerted interests of one class, one race, one mentality, is unthinkable."
How would Hughes solve the crisis? "Plenty of folk on Capitol Hill have been sandbagged into acting as though a vote for the NEA is a vote for blasphemy, pederasty, and buggery. They should think again....The real 'silent majority' on this issue is the millions of Americans who believe in the value of the arts -- and it is time they spoke out."
Attacks On Conservatives. Hughes began the article: "Helms knows as well as anyone in Washington how strong the know-nothing streak in America is and how to focus its rancor....Only this can explain why thousands of people who don't utter a peep when the President pulls billions from their wallets to bail out crooks and incompetents in the savings and loan industry start baying for the abolition of an agency that indirectly gave $30,000 to a now dead photographer."
Outrage was not based on morality, but on politics: "There has been plenty of method in the anti-NEA demagoguery. At its root lies a sense of lost momentum, a leakage of power, in the far American right. The cold war thawed out after 40 years and left its paladins standing with wet socks in the puddle....Casting the NEA as the patron, if not of Commies, then of blasphemers, elitists, and sickos. The arts grant becomes today's version of the Welfare Queen's Cadillac."
Neglecting The Issue of Obscenity. Hughes praised the NEA for supporting the Harlem School for the Arts, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but he refused to describe or let readerssee the works of art he so viciously attacked conservatives for criticizing. He simply claimed: "The grant to Mapplethorpe and artist Andres Serrano, creator of the notorious Piss Christ, were two controversies in 25 years that caused a big public outcry. Two out of 85,000 is statistically insignificant."
But the June 5 Village Voice described the NEA portfolio and included pictures: "...the coolly unregenerate S&M images in Robert Mapplethorpe's 'XYZ Portfolios"; urine, semen, and menstrual blood in Serrano's photographs; the demystified female body in Annie Sprinkle's performances; the frankly homosexual body in David Wojnarowicz's paintings/writings..." (In a side bar, Time's Richard Lacayo did describe the NEA-funded art of Karen Finley: "She fills the stage with shrieks and spit, sometimes stripping off her clothes and smearing food across her body. In a now legendary piece that she introduced several years ago, she slathered yams around her buttocks.")
Reached by MediaWatch, Hughes denied that the art was obscene, but perhaps Serrano's work was "blasphemous." So why not run the photos? He skirted the issue: "The situations of pictures in a gallery and in an open circulation magazine are not analogous." As for ignoring conservative views, Hughes dismissed Rohrabacher as "a little opportunist" and said of Helms: "I do have respect for Helms, although I do think he's a political ass." So how could Time expect a person with such strong opinions to provide a balanced picture? Simple. Hughes told us he never tried: "It was a highly opinionated article. I make no bones about that. My whole purpose for being employed at Time is to offer my opinion." Terry Zintl, "Nation" editor, declined to be interviewed on why Time presents opinion as news.