MediaWatch: June 1995

Vol. Nine No. 6

NewsBites: Direct Mail Divergence

Since the Oklahoma City bombing, the media have kept close tabs on the National Rifle Association. Between April 25 and June 1, the evening news shows devoted 30 stories to some aspect of the NRA, 25 of which mentioned the now-famous fundraising letter referring to agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms as "jackbooted government thugs." Seven stories covered the group's May convention.

But when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a fundraising letter accusing Newt Gingrich of "promoting the policies of a terrorist" by favoring Drug Enforcement Agency cuts, the media yawned. ABC's Peter Jennings gave it a brief mention May 5, and the same night NBC's Tom Brokaw threw it in at the end of a story on talk show host G. Gordon Liddy. CNN mentioned it on the May 5 and 6 Inside Politics. But CBS Evening News and CNN World News ignored it, as did Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. The DCCC's May 23 fundraising dinner drew no reporters demanding that donors defend the hateful remark.

Reporters also ignored the leftist Quixote Center, which used the autobiography of a convicted cop-killer as a fundraising tool. Asserting that Mumia Abu-Jamal was "a victim of a racist and corrupt justice system," they invited donations for a free copy of his book, Live From Death Row. The only TV coverage came in an Anthony Mason piece on the May 19 CBS Evening News, which failed to mention the Quixote letter.

A Divided NRA?

Reporters at the NRA convention often went looking for an ideological shoot-out. Charles Osgood introduced a May 21 Sunday Morning cover story: "For the NRA, there seems also to be an enemy within." Reporter David Culhane claimed: "The gun group is meeting during a blaze of withering criticism from across the nation for its inflammatory fundraising rhetoric, attacking federal agents."

Culhane portrayed a group divided over the leadership's "uncompromising and fiery language," noting: "Now even some rank and file NRA members have recoiled in disgust at the extreme language of the national office." On the May 12 CBS Evening News, Jim Stewart asked about the NRA 's fundraising appeals and print ads with menacing federal agents dressed in black: "But when you use words like that and you print pictures like that, what's to distinguish you between the militia?" Although bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh had stopped paying NRA dues years ago, Stewart concluded: "Since then, in a letter to his congressman, he railed against gun control and affixed this sticker to the envelope: I am the NRA."

Washington Post reporter John Mintz painted a different picture on May 20: "The spirit of the 22,000 members who gathered here today for the group's annual convention could perhaps best be described by the hand-scrawled lettering on a sticker on one member's sports shirt: `NRA...Not Ready to Apologize`....Judging by the NRA activists interviewed at its gathering here...the NRA's leadership has read its members well."

Potter's Precedent.

ABC's Ned Potter worked himself into a lather May 11 over the environmental laws passed by the new Republican Congress. In a World News Tonight piece, Potter was aghast at the fact that lobbyists were helping craft the bill: "It's not just what's being done, it's how it's being done. Leading Democrats say they're being cut out of the process while business interests get to write some of the legislation that directly affects them. A key case is the Clean Water Act, rewritten by a House committee. Senior Democrats say behind their backs, Republicans sat down with lobbyists from oil, chemicals and agriculture to craft the bill...The new Congress is putting 25 years of environmental progress at risk."

Potter, upholding his usual commitment to balance, only cited liberal environmentalists, never interviewing conservative experts. He could have discovered, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Jonathan Tolman told MediaWatch: "Environmentalists have been writing legislation for the Democrat-controlled Congress since 1972 with the first Clean Water Act." Tolman pointed out that Potter's characterization of the bill was wrong. The legislation's "biggest loopholes are for municipalities. Industry spends $20 billion a year to comply with the Clean Water Act and will still have to pay $20 billion a year after this is passed....If you look at what the bill really does, big business doesn't get a whole lot out of the bill."

Lovable Moderates.

When does a liberal Republican become a conservative? When he's profiled by liberal reporters. In the May 1 issue, U.S. News & World Report's David Hage and Robert F. Black reflected on those in control of the Senate's fiscal committees: "Like Hatfield, Packwood is an Oregon maverick who represents his party's moderate wing on social issues such as civil rights. But on fiscal issues, Packwood is a conservative who made the 1994 honor roll of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates a balanced budget." But National Journal gave Packwood a 54 percent conservative rating on economic issues in 1992, lower than most Republicans.

A Los Angeles Times article five days later explained the good that moderates do. In a piece titled "Senate GOP Moderates Feel Pressure From the Right," staff writer Janet Hook asserted that in the Senate, "The money committees were not run by conservative zealots but by more moderate, old school Republicans -- Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Oregon Sens. Mark O. Hatfield and Bob Packwood. Certainly, the liberals thought, those three would ditch the most extreme conservative measures that careened through the House." Despite Domenici's record of supporting tax hikes like the 1990 budget deal, Hook observed: "The perception of Domenici as a political moderate is a measure of how far right the GOP has moved."

Flying Past Daschle.

Reporting on congressional hearings into the FAA letting planes fly with unapproved or counterfeit parts, CBS's Dan Rather warned May 24 of "possible airline disasters out there just waiting to happen." He could have started with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. While each network devoted at least one story to the hearings, they have yet to cover allegations that Daschle influenced safety inspectors' treatment of a South Dakota friend's air carrier company that suffered a fatal crash. A May 7 New York Times story by Neil A. Lewis contained the most serious allegations yet, involving Daschle's wife Linda, second in command at the FAA.

Lewis wrote: "According to department investigators, at least two senior FAA officials have said Mrs. Daschle broke a promise to withdraw from cases involving her husband and instead played a prominent role in quashing a proposed FAA experiment that would have trained Forest Service flight inspectors in South Dakota to conduct inspections for the FAA." Mike Wallace's February 60 Minutes story remains the only TV story on the scandal.

Vive la France.

In early May, Today went to France where, between accidental shots of topless women on the beach, anchor Katie Couric marveled at French food, the beauty of the Mediterranean, and France's system of socialized day care. A taped segment on May 5 focused on one French school. Couric observed: "Ninety percent of France's three to five year olds attend government subsidized centers like this one." She recited the benefits while assuring her American audience, "The system works because the French make it work. Child care is a national priority and is neither debated nor questioned." Couric then interviewed an American living in Paris, whose daughter is a pupil in the French day care system. While conceding there are large classes and that it "costs taxpayers a lot of money to subsidize these schools," Couric ended her interview effusively praising the system: "Sounds like Americans could learn a lot from the way the French do things in terms of day care."

Abernethy's Buddy System.

Bob Abernethy, the officially retired NBC religion reporter, has been popping up to give his friends lots of exposure lately. In April, he did an admiring profile on aging pacifist and Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy. On May 20, Abernethy profiled left-wing activist Rev. Jim Wallis, who is on a cross-country campaign bashing religious conservatives.

Anchor Brian Williams introduced the piece: "The religious right is continuing a political offensive it started a few years ago but there is a growing number of religious people who find the conservative agenda offensive." Abernethy described Wallis' opposition. "His biggest problem with the Christian Coalition is its programs towards the poor. Wallis is a founder of Sojourners Religious Community which believes Christianity requires ministry to the poor. And when Christians identify with the rich and powerful?" Wallis replied, "I don't want to overstate this but I think that's a heresy." Abernethy didn't label that intolerant.

Abernethy wasn't big on disclosure: he never labeled Wallis a liberal, nor did he tell viewers that Wallis is editor of the far-left Sojourners magazine. Wallis was once quoted as saying he hoped "more Christians will view the world through Marxist eyes." The NBC reporter also failed to disclose that he endorsed Wallis' magazine in a direct mail fundraising letter in 1989. Abernethy, then NBC's Moscow Bureau Chief, wrote: "To find in one magazine both excellent reporting and commentary, and also a deep Christian commitment, is inspiring....Sojourners' ability to serve as a caring observer is a model for all of us."

Simon's Simple Lessons.

CBS News sent Bob Simon back to Vietnam for a series of reports highlighting the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the war. Simon reported the war as if America was the invader, and only one side fought. On the April 28 This Morning, he noted: "There are astonishingly few signs of the American war in Vietnam today. Everything seems back in place. The natural order has been reestablished after the convulsion we wrought." Instead of focusing on the convulsion wrought by the Vietnamese communists (the mass murder, the concentration camps), Simon admired the communist dictator. Remarking April 30 on watching the Vietnam War anniversary parade, Simon observed: "Ho Chi Minh, the man who did not want to be idolized, was not obeyed by his successors. The kindly old uncle was smiling over every part of the parade."

On the April 28 Evening News, Simon described the war as a waste of time, as if communists would have turned to capitalismif the West hadn't fought communist expansion: "We waged war to save Saigon from communism. We lost the war but Saigon has been saved. Just look at this place, that long march down the Ho Chi Minh trail has ended in the shopping mall. Saigon has moved from socialism to Sony, from VC to VCR. Everything we fought for, everything we lost 58,000 men for is being given to us now. Perhaps we have trouble accepting that, for its one final confirmation that the war never had to be fought at all."

The Cooke Books.

Belatedly, we mark a MediaWatch milestone reached in March: our 100th Janet Cooke Award. It began with a June 1986 critique of an NBC report on the Contras by NBC's Jamie Gangel and marked 100 with Time writer Elizabeth Gleick's tale of school lunch "cuts" in March. CBS was cited the most with 32 worst-story-of-the-month award winners, followed by NBC (25), ABC (19), PBS (9) and CNN (8). Time led the print media with 12, while Newsweek had 3. (Some months had multiple winners.) TBS and The Washington Post won twice, and one-time winners were The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, the Discovery Channel, and A&E.