MediaWatch: June 1995

Vol. Nine No. 6

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 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?"