In This Issue
GOP Candidates: Far Right, Anti-Choice, Draft-Dodging, Abrasive, Ethically Challenged; NewsBites: Direct Mail Divergence; In the Media: Want More on Clinton Success; Reporters Describe GOP Plans to Increase Spending as "Huge Cuts"; CBS This Morning Hails Hillary; Truth About Consequences; Still Missing "Hate Radio" on the Left Pacifica Prattle; Janet Cooke Award: All Things Ill-Considered
GOP Candidates: Far Right, Anti-Choice, Draft-Dodging, Abrasive, Ethically Challenged
1991 Collaborators, 1995 Eviscerators
The day that Phil Gramm became the first to toss his hat into the ring for the 1996 GOP nomination, February 24, Richard Berke wrote in The New York Times: "The only time you are assured flattering news coverage is on the day you announce and on election night -- assuming you win."
To see if the first part of this adage applied to both Republicans and Democrats, MediaWatch analysts compared network coverage of announcements by GOP candidates this year, to the coverage received by Democrats when they announced in 1991. The study looked only at evening news announcement and profile stories on ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN World News, and in 1995, also CNN's Inside Politics.
There were 29 stories introducing the six major candidates (Clinton, Kerrey, Harkin, Tsongas, Wilder, and Brown) for the Democratic nod in 1991, and 40 stories on the eight current GOP candidates (Gramm, Alexander, Dole, Buchanan, Keyes, Lugar, Specter, and Dornan). Almost a third of the labels applied to Republicans were extreme labels such as "far right," while Democrats were never tagged as extreme; reporters were 20 times more likely to identify Republicans' position on abortion; lack of military service was never mentioned in 1991, but seven 1995 stories mentioned Republicans who hadn't served; and reporters were more than three times as likely to question public and private conduct of Republican candidates.
Ideological Labels. Of 58 labels found in this year's Republican coverage, 51 (88 percent) depicted the candidates and the party as either conservative or in terms even further to the right. Terms such as "far right" accounted for 18 tags, or almost a third of all labels.
On February 24, CBS reporter Linda Douglass alleged: "For years, critics have called Gramm an extremist." On March 30, CBS's Eric Engberg introduced Sen. Arlen Specter as a "pro-abortion rights moderate willing to fight what he calls the Republican ultraconservative fringe." ABC's Jim Wooten claimed Lamar Alexander has "moved far and fast from the center of his party to a conservatism that makes him almost indistinguishable from the others." On April 13, CNN's Gene Randall proclaimed Bob Dornan came "from political stage far right."
In 1991, 16 of 23 labels (70 percent) characterized the Democrats or their party as liberal. But eight of the liberal labels applied to Tom Harkin. CNN's Randall described Sen. Bob Kerrey as "a populist, liberal enough to challenge Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Kerrey would also compete with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton for his party's moderate center." Clinton drew no liberal labels: NBC's Lisa Myers characterized Clinton as being "driven less by ideology than by what works...Name a problem, Clinton probably has a solution." Wilder was twice called a "fiscal conservative." No one referred to Harkin or Jerry Brown as "far left" or even "left."
Abortion. Suggesting a pro-life position hurts the GOP, reporters this year identified Republicans' position on abortion more often than the uniformly pro-abortion Democrats in 1991 by a margin of 20 to 1. CNN's Jeanne Meserve explained the advantage of a pro-choice position with a CNN poll on Inside Politics March 30: "The latest CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll should encourage Specter....better than 6 of 10 said they would support a candidate who favors current abortion laws."
Military. Mentions of Republicans' military record outnumbered those of Democrats in 1991 by a margin of 16 to 6. Seven Republican profiles disclosed a lack of service; no reporters mentioned that any Democrats lacked military service, including Clinton's draft avoidance. Five of the six stories in '91 highlighted Kerrey's and Wilder's decorated war records. But ABC's Jim Wooten proclaimed on February 24: "Gramm has not been a paragon of consistency...He urged Texans to reject a Democratic candidate because he hadn't been in the military. Neither was Gramm."
Temperament. Reporters this year mentioned the temperament of the candidates more often than they did in 1991 by a margin of 11 to 3. While NBC's Andrea Mitchell did call Harkin "an angry man waging a campaign of class warfare," CNN's David French also touted him as "well known for his rousing stump speech-es." This year, the networks cast all 11 references to GOP candidates in a negative light. On the February 23 Inside Politics, Bruce Morton claimed that Gramm was "too abrasive, sometimes just plain mean." ABC's Jim Wooten warned on April 10 that Dole will "be closely watched for signs that he is still quick to bristle." CBS's Douglass said on April 13: "Dornan doesn't state his opinions, he spews them."
Public or Private Lives. Questions about the public or private conduct of Republicans surpassed those of Democrats by 7 to 2. CNN led the way with four references to the past conduct of GOP candidates, two of them full-length first-day expos‚s.
Brooks Jackson ended a lengthy piece on Gramm's vacation home and the S&L owner who helped him build it: "Gramm may now be the first Senator cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee twice on the same question." He then alleged: "This looks, looks, I stress looks, worse for Gramm than the original Whitewater allegations did for the President." Four days later, Jackson explored how Alexander became a millionaire: "Nothing illegal here....But the sheer size of his deals makes Hillary Clinton's commodities profits look like a widows and orphans fund."
Reporters scrutinized Specter for what Eric Engberg alleged on March 30: "He enraged many women during the Clarence Thomas confirmation fight by attacking Anita Hill."
In an April 12 profile Gene Randall disclosed that Dornan's entry "coincides with his 40th wedding anniversary. The irony: Sallie Dornan filed and then dropped four separate divorce actions against her husband between 1960 and 1976. She told the Los Angeles Times she lied about charges of physical abuse and that the real problem was her own addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs." The playing field had changed. When Clinton included in his 1991 announcement speech that his marriage "has not been perfect or free of difficulties," Randall wondered "Why did Clinton even say that much?"
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."
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."
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.
In the Media: Want More on Clinton Success
Media's Liberal Take
A poll released in late May discovered that among one group of Americans, seven times more think Whitewater has been over-covered as under-covered; 24 times more believe Clinton's achievements have received too little coverage as think they've garnered too much; while over 80 percent reject the charge that the press has been too negative in covering the new Congress. A poll of Democratic consultants? No, a March Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press survey of 248 national media outlet staffers.
Princeton Survey Research interviewed the most influential journalists: "28 were with respondents employed at the executive level including presidents, publishers, CEOs, vice presidents, and other high-level executives; 83 were at the executive producer or managing editor level; and 137 were at the correspondent or reporter level."
Two percent identified themselves as "very liberal," and another 20 percent as "liberal." Only four percent called themselves "conservative" and just one percent "very conservative." Overall, 64 percent answered "moderate."
The rising numbers of women and blacks may be pushing the media left. Adding another 267 members of local media, the poll found: "Women were twice as likely to say they were liberal than were men (31 percent vs. 15 percent), and blacks were much more liberal than whites (31 percent vs. 18 percent)."
Given this skew it's no surprise that just two percent believe the press has given "too much" coverage to Clinton Administration achievements. The rest split with 49 percent calling coverage "about right" and 48 percent saying there's been "too little." A post-1992 election poll of reporters by Times Mirror found reporters thought Iran-Contra was undercovered: 71 percent called coverage fair or poor, 24 percent thought it good. This year, while 55 percent think Whitewater's been covered "about right," 35 percent think it's been covered "too much" and just five percent say "too little."
Reporters think the new GOP Congress is getting it easy. Asked if coverage has been "too cynical, too negative and has nitpicked too much," 81 percent responded no. Just 19 percent agreed. They were asked: "Others charge that the press has not adequately covered the potential consequences of passage of many elements of the Contract with America. Do you think this is a valid criticism or not?" Half said no; 49 percent overall and 53 percent of broadcast network staffers said yes.
Media figures frequently deny their personal views have any impact upon their reporting, but Times Mirror found about half acknowledge the opposite. Overall, 47 percent agreed with the statement that "the personal values of people in the news often make it difficult for them to understand and cover such things as religion and family values." And 53 percent agreed that "the distinction between reporting and commentary has seriously eroded."
Don't count on ombudsmen to help. The Boston Globe's Mark Jurkowitz reported May 15 that a survey of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) found that liberal bias is the most frequently lodged complaint. But, at ONO's convention he noted, "sassy liberal columnist Molly Ivins' Rush Limbaugh bashing remarks were much more warmly received by ONO members than Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Pauken's suggestion that the industry actively recruit more conservative journalists."
Reporters Describe GOP Plans to Increase Spending as "Huge Cuts"
Mangling the Medicare Math
For twenty years, the Washington elites have discussed taxing and spending through the odd prism of baseline budgeting. For example, as Medicare grew 72 percent and Medicaid grew 132 percent from 1989 to 1993, reporters described efforts to stem projected increases as "cuts."
When House and Senate Republicans introduced their plans to balance the budget by 2002, Robert Pear reported in the May 10 New York Times: "Under current law, Medicare would grow about 10 percent a year. Under the assumptions of [Sen. Pete] Domenici's budget, it would grow 7 percent a year, from $178 billion this year to $283 billion in 2002.....and the growth in Medicaid spending would be halved, to five percent a year."
But many reporters still painted a frightening picture of "cuts." CNN reporter Bob Franken announced on May 9: "The House Republican budget bloodletting will infuriate lots of people. Besides the Medicare cuts, Medicaid, the government health plan for the poor, loses $184 billion." USA Today reporter William Welch wrote on May 10 that Domenici's budget would "Make huge cuts in Medicare and Medicaid."
Also on May 10, ABC's John Cochran reported: "Domenici said huge cuts in Medicaid will be offset by savings made if Washington turns the program over to the states." Connie Chung announced on CBS: "Senate Republicans on a key committee geared up to approve one version of a plan to balance the budget. House Republicans voted their version out of committee earlier today. Both call for deep cuts in Medicare and other programs."
Newsweek's Tom Rosenstiel claimed in the May 22 issue that Republicans "would slash funding for...medical care for the poor and elderly." Edwin Chen and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times suggested: "Many members of Congress from both parties -- as well as some independent analysts -- acknowledge that the deep Medicare cuts sought by the GOP would increase costs in the private sector while reducing insurance coverage."
On The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, PBS reporter Kwame Holman claimed "In entitlement programs like Medicare, the proposed spending cuts total $270 billion. Medicaid...would be cut by $184 billion." Elizabeth Kolbert explained the political impact in the June 5 New York Times: an American Hospital Association poll found two-thirds backed the GOP when pollsters talked of a "balanced budget," but two-thirds supported Democrats when asked about "cuts in Medicare." That might explain some reporters' mangled mathematics.
CBS This Morning Hails Hillary
Countering Mr. Newt
Broadcasting the week of May 15-19 from David Letterman's Ed Sullivan theater, CBS This Morning gave Hillary Clinton the star treatment while repeatedly challenging House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
On Monday, Paula Zahn and Harry Smith spent an hour with Gingrich. Zahn declared about Medicare, "your plan for a seven year period is looking from anywhere to $250 billion to $300 billion in cuts." Gingrich explained: "We today spend $4,700 per senior citizen...At the end of the House Republican budget plan, we will spend $6,300 per senior citizen."
Zahn countered with Leon Panetta's claim that many will see their premiums rise. Later Smith added: "But your premium is going to cost you, it's going to cost you more money." Gingrich disagreed with Panetta's math, prompting Zahn to note that the AARP "says you're moving too fast, that this plan doesn't make sense." When Gingrich asserted the GOP has long been interested in health care, Smith shot back: "There were plenty of Republicans marching around a year or so ago saying there was no health care crisis."
During her hour on Friday, Hillary Clinton found more supportive hosts. Zahn and Smith granted plenty of time to talk about breast cancer research and the challenges of being a working parent. After Mrs. Clinton declared when Republicans want "to cut education to give the richest people in America a tax cut, we have our values upside down and backwards," the hosts failed to challenge her partisan charge.
Zahn seemed disappointed by Mrs. Clinton's post-health plan retrenchment, observing: "You've been touching on health issues, family issues, women's issues, and as you know, because you read newspapers, there are some Americans who are wondering where the `Lawyer Clinton' is, where the `Legislating Hillary' is?"
Giving her a chance to return to her favorite topic, Zahn set her up nicely: "Are you in favor of overhauling Medicare without doing it within a huge, huge, large framework?" Unlike with Gingrich, after Mrs. Clinton recited her liberal litany of how she's "very scared about overhauling Medicare without health care reform," neither host followed up on her lengthy answer.
Truth About Consequences
NBC Nightly News ran a series in the last week of May, "Red Tape," linking government rules and regulations with their real-life effects, demonstrating the unintended problems government intrusion causes.
On May 30, Roger O'Neil profiled a century-old family logging company with 200 workers that went out of business. Why? "Timber sales slowed down as regulatory red tape from the Forest Service increased. Studies for clean air, clean water, recreation, wildlife. Study this, study that. Twenty-four studies in all cut the log supply in half. Then in 1993 it was cut in half again. The Mexican spotted owl -- never seen in the Kaibab Forest but photographed 200 miles away...was put on the endangered species list. That forced four more studies." The next night, Robert Hager examined the Depression-era Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates that federal building contractors pay local union wages. Hager pointed out that "Davis-Bacon is blamed for a staggering $2 billion a year in extra construction costs. Of that, $100 million is spent just on extra paperwork."
Mike Jensen tackled the capricious rulings the IRS has made on independent contractors on June 1. The segment introduced viewers to the fight over who pays a free-lancer's taxes: business owners or the free-lancers themselves. Often the IRS engages in its own form of double-dipping. Jensen related how "the IRS has collected more than $750 million from company owners in the last seven years, even though many of the freelancers had paid their own taxes." A computer consultant linked it to real-life effects: "If you're thinking about expanding your business and getting people to work for you, you're scared away."
Diane Sawyer began ABC's May 3 PrimeTime Live wondering about education being underfunded: "Is that really the problem?...Americans are now paying more than four times what we paid in the 1950s for education...On average, we pay as much per student per year in a public school as some private schools charge." Sawyer also noted the root problem: "Back in 1950, two-thirds of all the money budgeted for education was actually spent in the classroom, on instruction. But by 1992, less than one-half made it there, in part because the percentage of the budget for administration doubled."
ABC visited schools where bureaucracy reigned. In Los Angeles, Sawyer found principal Yvonne Chan, who ordered computers three years ago. "Chan told us that if she had gone to an outside company, she could have got a comparable system cheaper, and in only three months." Sawyer cited Texas Controller John Sharp, who found a district where administrators "cut out all the Saturday tutorials and cut the budgets of all the schools," but "had seven public relations officials on the payroll to take care of the district image." Rather than spend more,"Sharp found he could save over $100 million without touching the classroom...in just 17 districts out of more than 1,000 in Texas."
Still Missing "Hate Radio" on the Left
The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour invited six talk show hosts to discuss the Oklahoma City bombing on April 25, including Larry Bensky of Pacifica, the far-left network of five FM stations that receives around $1 million a year from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Bensky explained: "Talk radio is an entertainment medium. It is set up to be commercially successful on AM radio by getting the maximum number of listeners. It plays to the lowest common denominators, in many cases, of fear, of anxiety and anger. It doesn't spread information. It spreads paranoia."
Bensky was not asked to defend Los Angeles station KPFK's "Afrikan Mental Liberation Weekend" of 1993, when Elijah Muhammed declared: "I would not say that the white man is a descendent of Satan, because that would be wrong. We didn't have a Satan before the white man. So the white man is Satan himself."
During Operation Desert Shield in 1990, Berkeley station KPFA invited on Craig Hulet, who explained: "George Bush is a threat...[He] has perpetrated the most heinous race war against [the] black [and] Hispanic community...since slavery...That's who's going to the prison camps...We've got a man in the White House that is more fascist, more racist, more dangerous than any man on the planet." KPFA then offered Hulet's tapes as a premium for donating to the station. But the media that harped on Limbaugh and Liddy have failed to notice.
Janet Cooke Award: All Things Ill-Considered
National journalists are rarely more fawning than when profiling other national journalists. Despite its reputation as the avenger of corruption, even 60 Minutes can go soft. For airing a one-sided tribute to and defense of National Public Radio, 60 Minutes earned the Janet Cooke Award.
Morley Safer's June 4 profile began: "There's a lot of talk about radio these days, not all of it about the haters and the screamers. Some of it is about that other radio, public radio, and despite its restraint, there are those that want to switch it off." Safer added: "In the brash and abusive world of contemporary radio, shock jocks, and hate merchants, NPR prides itself on its calm and reasoned voice."
Safer had already committed two mistakes: he made no distinction between privatizing public broadcasting and "switching off" the entire system; and he ignored those public radio programs which are not "calm and reasoned." Federally-funded Pacifica radio has aired two "Afrikan Mental Liberation Weekends," which devoted hours to racist and anti-Semitic propaganda by speakers like Louis Farrakhan, Leonard Jeffries, and Steve Cokely, who insists that Jews spread AIDS in the inner city.
Safer also didn't consider NPR commentators like Bebe Moore-Campbell, who called the NRA "the Negro Removal Association,"or Philip Martin, who proclaimed: "In the 1930s, Father Coughlin's anti-Semitism enjoyed enormous popularity because a vocal minority of people shared his views. The same is true today for devoted listeners of Rush Limbaugh and company."
CBS did allow a CNBC snippet from Newt Gingrich and four soundbites from Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), who argued NPR was elitist and liberal. Safer described Dickey's viewpoint as insisting that NPR is "not for real Americans." Safer then worked to disprove him, interviewing NPR's Scott Simon, Susan Stamberg, John Burnett, and NPR President Delano Lewis, who called conservative criticism "a direct attack on America's right to know."
Safer suggested: "NPR claims it's as wholesome and rural as Charlie Kuralt, that their 7 million listeners are not all politically correct left-leaning bean sprouts." CBS ignored a 1989 Gallup survey done for NPR that showed that Morning Edition listeners were "significantly more likely to describe themselves as liberal" than the average American or the average college-educated non-NPR listener. Thirty percent believed Morning Edition had a liberal slant, while only three percent thought it was conservative. "About equal percents of both self-reported liberals and conservatives think the program is liberal in nature," Gallup concluded.
As for "left-leaning," Charles Kuralt proclaimed in a special honoring his retirement: "It is liberalism, whether people like it or not, which has animated all the years of my life. What on Earth did conservatism ever accomplish for our country?"
"Wholesome" may not describe an All Things Considered report three days before the 60 Minutes story. NPR's Joe Neel addressed the increased risk of AIDS transmission at new gay sex clubs. Neel quoted historian Allen Baraby, who frequents the clubs: "It's the adventure of meeting someone that you don't know and feeling this erotic charge and you know, exploring them and their bodies and having conversations, and having this kind of bond with someone that you never met before and never may meet again. There's this specialness about that kind of intimacy with a stranger." Two days after the CBS story, reporter Martha Guiled explored Kaiser Permanente's new classes for lesbian parents.
Safer continued his critique of conservative arguments: "When All Things Considered broadcast from Nashville a few weeks ago, it covered barbecue, country music, Bible publishing, and regional economics. It was classic public radio cuisine."
But when anchor Linda Wertheimer reported from Nashville March 10, she profiled TennCare, a state-enforced managed care system, noting the Democrats "saw to it that opponents would have no time to raise objections. Before the lobbyists could get their act together, TennCare was implemented in six weeks." NPR aired four soundbites of TennCare planners, two of a Blue Cross official, two uninsured people, and four doctors, one of whom thought TennCare did too little for the poor -- and no conservatives. Wertheimer ended: "If there are lessons to be learned about federal health care reform, the moral of TennCare might be, reform can be accomplished and it can cut costs. But if everyone has to feel good about reform, it can't happen."
CBS tried to disprove liberal elitism at NPR by showing non-political programs. Safer proclaimed: "This side of NPR is not exactly a Republican Congressman's idea of effete liberalism at work. Meet Alice McChesney, star of KCAW, Sitka, Alaska." Displaying an accordion-playing grandmother does not answer the argument that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could make massive cuts and still fund rural stations.
Safer asked Susan Stamberg about their critics' motives: "The cuts are being made in the name of genuine economy, that everybody's got to cut. But is there really another agenda at work here....by those people who think that you do represent a monotone voice from the left, to kind of cut you down to size?" Stamberg typified liberal elitism: "Those people really need to have their hearing repaired and if they are happy listening to Rush Limbaugh all the time, well, that's too bad."
Safer stressed:"Over the years, NPR has grown into a major force in American journalism." The story finished with Scott Simon's declaration: "What makes us distinctive is reporting. We get out there, we see stories, we look them in the face. Now journalism as opposed to opinion-mongering is expensive, it's compromising, it can get you into trouble. But on the other hand, that's the great gift that we give the American listening public." CBS never mentioned reporting like Nina Totenberg's spreading of unproven charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. Safer didn't ask: if NPR is so great, why can't it make it on its own, without federal funding?
Laurence Jarvik, Washington Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, sent many of the Center's NPR critiques to CBS producer Elizabeth Pearson, as did MediaWatch. When asked why they failed to explore all this evidence, Pearson said "I don't feel comfortable commenting on this," and suggested producer Steven Reiner, who did not return calls.
Jarvik told MediaWatch: "It was clear they wanted to make NPR look good. They didn't want to report on the sex discrimination suits against NPR, the complaints of reporter Phyllis Crockett about racism. And NPR is violating a law that requires them to be objective. Why did 60 Minutes throw that fight?"