In This Issue
The Dick Morris Echo Chamber; NewsBites: Dole's Code; Defining Fear and Extremism: Israel's Gingrich?; Stand for More Money; Liberal Bias Admitted; "Moderates" Vote Left; Janet Cooke Award: The Nonpolitical Stand Against Newt
The Dick Morris Echo Chamber
At the dawn of the Clinton era, the Democratic Party dominated both the executive and legislative branches. Within months, Democrats peeled away restrictions on abortion on demand, pushed for openly gay soldiers in the military, raised taxes to historically high levels, and promoted universally subsidized health care.
Two years later, in the gloomy days after the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994, Bill Clinton sought the advice of political consultant Dick Morris, who urged him to "triangulate" between the extremes of the ascendant conservative Republicans and the liberals in his own party. Would reporters label liberal Democrats "extreme"?
To analyze the media's use of labels to describe the political parties, MediaWatch analysts used the Nexis news data retrieval system to search for the word "extreme" within 25 words of "Republican" or "Democrat" in the three news magazines (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report) and USA Today from January 1, 1993 to May 31, 1996.
Analysts discovered reporters did not use many extremist labels in 1993 and 1994 -- 41 -- but 26 of those were applied to Republicans, compared to ten mentions of dual extremes and only five for the Democrats who ruled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But in the first 17 months of GOP control, Republicans were described as "extreme" in 123 stories, while only 15 found "extremes" on both sides. Just two mentioned "extreme" Democrats.
USA Today's Richard Benedetto exemplified reporting on Republican extremism on June 16, 1995: "Democrats are trying to keep a stiff upper lip as they continue to oppose `extreme' GOP cuts." Many of these were attributed to Democrats, but more than 20 came directly from reporters, such as Gloria Borger's March 11, 1996 U.S. News suggestion that "taking on Buchananism would be good for Gingrich. Recall that until Buchanan surged, Gingrich was Washington's resident extremist."
The reports citing dual extremes weren't always perfectly balanced. Witness U.S. News's Kenneth Walsh on July 31, 1995: "The President is trying to position himself as a moderate who occupies a middle ground between liberal Democrats and ultraconservative Republicans."
A rare extreme label for Democrats came in the August 22, 1994 Newsweek, when Joe Klein hit the Clintons: "This President -- and more to the point -- the First Lady have cultivated the most extreme Democratic health-care cultists and boycotted the moderates of both parties." The breakdown by publication:
USA Today described Republicans with extreme terms in 14 news stories in 1993 and 1994, compared to five on dual extremes and two touching on Democrats. More common was Richard Benedetto on June 27, 1994: "Some analysts warn the growing strength of conservative Christians in the GOP, and their reputation for intolerance, will drive moderates and independents to the Democrats, and cause selection of an extremist 1996 presidential candidate who can't win."
USA Today tossed in 62 mentions of GOP extremism in 1995-96, seven of dual extremes, and one on Democrats. Judy Keen and Bill Nichols found just one extreme on March 16, 1995: "Clinton wants to steer a middle course between traditional Democratic liberalism and `extremist' GOP budget cut proposals." The duo explained this "middle course" involved "using the broad theme that the GOP agenda is extremist, callous toward children and the poor, and cuts government more than the nation will tolerate."
U.S. News & World Report contained four mentions of Republican extremism, three of dual extremes, and one of Democratic extremism in 1993-94; but in 1995-96, U.S. News led the magazines with 28 GOP extremist labels, two mentions of dual extremes and just one Democrat extreme. Kenneth Walsh claimed on March 25, 1996: "Clinton's feuds with some allies will make it harder to label him a liberal extremist, as George Bush in 1988 caricatured Michael Dukakis." On October 27, 1995, Walsh happily noted: "President Clinton, playing Horatius at the bridge against the Republican hordes, is finally winning some favorable reviews. Democrats are rallying to his side as he defends the poor and elderly against GOP `extremism.'"
Time carried five mentions of Republican extremism, and zero mentions of dual or Democratic extremes in 1993-94, but forwarded 21 mentions of Republican extremism in 1995-96, compared to three mentions of dual extremes and zero of Democratic extremism. A typical mention was Robert Hughes arguing in an August 7, 1995 cover story that to Republicans, PBS was "a carcass they can toss to their extreme right."
Newsweek was the least tilted in 1993-94, with three mentions of GOP extremism, two of dual extremes, two of Democrats: one came in Klein's story quoted above, the other a Sharon Begley mention of a professional protest group called BEIRUT (Boisterous Extremists for Insurrection Against Republicans and Other Unprincipled Thugs). But in 1995-96, the magazine employed 22 references to GOP extremism, three mentions of dual extremes, and no example of Democratic extremism.
Howard Fineman tapdanced around associating Republicans with Timothy McVeigh on May 8, 1995: "the Oklahoma bombing has illuminated a once dark landscape much farther afield: a radical fringe of militant gun owners, `hate radio' talk-show hosts, racial extremists, and religious cultists. Their numbers are small -- and their GOP ties tenuous at best. But their fervor is influential at the grass roots Republicans call their own." Joe Klein cheered on November 13: "[Colin] Powell has done a great national service by confounding the extremist publicists and fundraisers of the Republican right."
On CNBC's Tim Russert May 25, Time's Jeffrey Birnbaum told of an adversary relationship with the White House, which saw reporters as a group "that was there to be manipulated....the conduit for their talking points." That's all too accurate. The evidence shows reporters aren't stenographers for the White House -- they're stenographers for White House political consultant.
NewsBites: Dole's Code
How will the media cover Bob Dole and Bill Clinton clashing on issues? The May 23 CBS Evening News offered a preview of how Dole is the divider while Clinton is the unifier. First, reporter Phil Jones analyzed Dole's criticism of Clinton's veto of the partial birth abortion ban. Jones predicted it would energize the religious right, but that it really served a more sinister purpose: "It's also Dole campaign code. When he talks about abortion, that leads to morality. When he talks about morality, that raises the issue of character. And that's exactly what Dole and the Republicans want -- to force a presidential election based on Bill Clinton's character."
Next, Rita Braver praised Clinton: "The White House had expected the Republicans to go negative, but not this hard, this fast. And the President's remarks were very well thought out. He was sending Dole a message that your remarks are not going to go unchallenged." Braver then criticized Dole for raising the issue: "You could see the President's strategy here and that is to tell Americans that Bob Dole is dragging the campaign into the mud and trying to divide the country."
Hands Off Clinton
The Bush campaign got lambasted over Willie Horton while the media ignored that future Vice President Al Gore first raised Horton in a 1988 primary debate. This year, while fulminating about a 1990 ad from Republican Jesse Helms, the media failed to dredge up the President's relationship to the man behind the Helms ad, Dick Morris.
NBC's Bob Faw warned May 7 that "every time he has run, Helms has exploited racial tension." Faw showed a clip of the Helms' 1990 affirmative action ad, "Hands," showing a pair of white hands crumpling up a job rejection letter: "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority." Faw continued: "For many voters here the basic if bedeviling question is whether a black or white challenger has a better chance against an incumbent who in the past has played the race card and can be expected to do so again." (Black 1990 candidate Harvey Gantt won the primary again this year.) On May 5 ABC's Carla Hill played the ad, adding: "Jesse Helms successfully played the race card against Gantt in 1990." Los Angeles Times reporter Eric Harrison wrote May 11: "Helms unleashed a barrage of racially inflammatory television commercials as the close contest came to an end and defeated Gantt by six percentage points."
Only reporter Lloyd Grove noted, sotto voce, in the 35th paragraph of a May 24 Washington Post profile of Gantt: "One of his [Helms'] key advisers -- pollster Richard Morris, who has taken credit for conceiving the so-called `Hands' spot -- is working this year for President Clinton."
A Lying Shame
As part of NBC's week-long series on "Dishonesty in America: Lie, Cheat, Steal," the May 19 Dateline NBC aired a story on how to recognize when someone is lying. With the Clintons telling whoppers weekly, NBC wouldn't have to go back very far to find some good examples. Instead, reporter Sara James left an amazing impression: only Republicans lie.
James interviewed Paul Eckman, a psychologist who trains law enforcement officers to detect lies. Eckman used video of five liars to demonstrate his techniques; child murderer Susan Smith, former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, Oliver North, who James stated lied "in the name of country," and Reagan national security aide John Poindexter. Closing the piece, James showed a video of Richard Nixon denying involvement in Watergate. She stated: "Eckman is the first to admit that many lies, especially when they come in prepared statements, are tough to catch. As America discovered, it was far from the truth, but not even Paul Eckman knew that Richard Nixon was lying back then." Before the James story aired, Dateline promos left the same partisan impression, showing only Nixon and North, not the Clintons.
The Unabomber was just a troubled soul who lost his way, said The New York Times. "Theodore Kaczynski: Unabomb Suspect's Tortured Genius and Lost Promise" blared a May 26 front page headline. Reporter Robert McFadden set a romanticized scene: "It was just a dusty, cobwebbed cabin high in the Rockies, as remote as a cougar's lair. But it suited a man who had always been alone, this genius with gifts for solitude, perseverance, secrecy and meticulousness, for penetrating the mysteries of mathematics and the dangers of technology, but never love, never friendship." McFadden continued: "The furnishings were the fragments of his life: the books for companionship and the bunk for the lonely hours, the wood stove where night after night he watched dying embers flicker visions of a wretched humanity, the typewriter where, the authorities say, the justifications for murder had been crafted like numbered theorems." Put the Hammer Down.
Reporters constantly argue for the most expansive interpretation of the Bill of Rights. But there's one amendment on which reporters' interpretations become very narrow -- the Second. Look at how Jack Ford assaulted National Rifle Association President Marion Hammer on the April 28 Today. Ford asserted: "Assault weapons. The NRA has been consistent in its opposition to any restrictions on assault weapons. What possible compelling reason is there for private citizens to own assault weapons?" Ford also asked, "What would you say to the mother of an inner-city child who was killed by stray gunfire? How would you explain to that mother why the rights to own weapons are more important than that mother's child?" Finally, he raised the now standard media linkage, "We've seen recently that members of anti-government groups, militia groups, have been linked, if not directly, in some ways philosophically, with the NRA. Are you concerned about that?"
Do you wonder if reporters make up facts or use questionable information to support their own views? ABC's Lynn Sherr did in an April 26 20/20 in which she argued "the number one way to get sexy, in many women's minds, is with larger breasts."
But Washington Post pollster Richard Morin revealed May 19 that Sherr ignored ABC's own scientific poll conducted specifically for the story. Instead she relied on an unscientific Self magazine survey which found that half the women felt their bosoms were "inadequate." In fact, the ABC poll found only 23 percent had "ever" wished their breasts were a different size. Asked by Barbara Walters whether breast size is most important to men, Sherr explained that the ABC poll found that "It's the face first, breasts come a close second." Really? Morin noticed that at eight percent, breasts came in a distant fourth place.
As summer approached the media offered a barrage of stories decrying the condition of the national parks and laying the blame at the feet of the Republican Congress. The Los Angeles Times led the charge with a May 14 story titled, "Tapped-Out National Parks Turn to Corporations for Aid." Staff writer D'Jamila Salem began: "As Congress pulls the purse strings tighter, the National Park Service is turning to corporate America for funds to refurbish and maintain many of the nation's parks and memorials, including the Washington Monument....The National Park Service has a 1996 budget of $1.32 billion, down $67 million from 1995." But the Heritage Foundation's Scott Hodge told MediaWatch the Park Service's budget has risen $79 million from $1.488 billion in 1993 to an estimated $1.567 billion for 1996.
NBC's Bryant Gumbel opened a May 24 Today interview: "On Close Up this morning, our national parks are in a bit of trouble...Budget cutbacks have left many more understaffed struggling to cope with the needs of visitors." Talking to two park service officials, Gumbel queried, "How much have you had to cut those regular levels of seasonal employees?" And, "To what extent do you think safety has been compromised at your facility as a result of the cutbacks?" He asked, "Are you saying that when people say they want lower taxes, maybe they don't think about what happens to their parks?" Finally, he took a jab at Congress, "Do you think Congress, the people on Capitol Hill, have any true appreciation of the dire straits the parks are in?"
On the May 27 World News Tonight, ABC's Tom Foreman brought some reason to the process. He observed that while visitors to the parks have been increasing, "It is worth noting the National Parks have been spared some of the major budget cuts...This year the park budget actually went up $4 million. No wonder some in Congress feel the park service is crying wolf."
Skip the Other Side
"A balanced report, in some cases, may no longer be the most effective or even the most informative. Indeed, it can be debilitating. Can we afford to wait for our audience to come to its conclusions? I think not." Apparently this policy, written six years ago by CNN producer Teya Ryan, continues today.
On the May 8 The World Today, anchor Linden Soles scared viewers: "It's elementary. We need to breathe to stay alive. But what if the air is so dirty it could kill you? That's what happens to tens of thousands of Americans each year, according to a new report. It comes as environmental regulations are under fire in Congress." Reporter Skip Loescher opened: "Depending on where you live and your medical condition stepping out for a little fresh air may not be a good idea. In fact, according to a new report what's in the air we breathe may be prematurely killing us." Loescher offered soundbites from a press conference by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the author of the new report. David Hawkins, from the NRDC claimed 64,000 prematurely died from heart and lung disease brought on by particulate air pollution. Acting like an NRDC spokesman, Loescher simply lifted numbers from the report. "The number of premature deaths in some cities is startling. In Los Angeles, for example, the report cites more than 5,800. More than 400 early deaths are estimated in New York..." Nowhere did Loescher offer an opposing side to counter the NRDC claims.
Part of the Clinton Administration's attempt to paint itself as moderate involves "reinventing government," fostering the idea that they are making government smaller. Peter Jennings played along on the May 14 World News Tonight. He delivered this finger wag to anti-government folks: "There are a couple of things about government which may surprise you. The federal government is only about three percent larger than it was more than thirty years ago. And the number of federal employees is about the same as it was in the 1950s."
Office of Management and Budget (OMB) figures for federal employees have indeed been relatively stable at around 2 million over the last thirty years. But in the February American Spectator, Byron York pointed out that most of the Clinton-era cuts were from a Cold War drawdown begun by the Bush Administration and the closing of the Resolution Trust Corporation: "Add up just those two areas-Defense and the RTC-and you get 140,800 jobs, or 90 percent of the cuts claimed by Clinton and Gore. That means the administration has cut a grand total of 16,000 jobs -- less than one percent of the workforce." The actual scope and power of the federal government is measured most directly by the federal spending level. According to Edwin Rubenstein's The Right Data, OMB figures showed federal spending grew 173 percent in real terms between 1965 and 1992. Hardly the benign "three percent larger" federal government of Jennings' imagination.
Israel's Gingrich?--Defining Fear and Extremism
An upset election occurs, turning the media conventional wisdom on its head as a conservative politician wins. The media dismiss the win as unsubstantive, the product of fear and angry white men. They throw terms like "hardliner" and "right-winger" at the winner and accuse him of inspiring violence with his rhetoric.
In 1994, the target of this media barrage was Newt Gingrich. In 1996 it was Israel's new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Prior to the vote, on the May 27 CBS This Morning, Jesse Schulman set up the choice: "Shimon Peres, statesman of the old school...talking about the big picture, about Israel's place in a changing Middle East, about hopes for peace, versus Benjamin Netanyahu, the slickest TV politician in the business, master of the soundbite, master of the cheap shot."
Others picked up on Netanyahu's American conservative connections. That night, NBC's Martin Fletcher tried some guilt by association: "[Netanyahu] has American politician written all over his campaign. That's thanks to an American political consultant, who has advised conservatives like Senator Al D'Amato and Jesse Helms. The consultant told Netanyahu to stick to one simple, negative theme: fear."
The media stuck to a simple message, increasingly invoking the fear theme as the returns became clearer. Good Morning America anchor Charlie Gibson made the charge on the May 30 broadcast: "Yesterday's watershed vote, so important to the peace process in the Middle East, has been called a choice between Israel's hopes and fears, and it now appears, though the results are still oh so close, that Israel may have voted its fears. Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to apply brakes to the peace process, if not reverse it entirely, is ahead in the vote count."
Later on the same show, New York Times reporter Judith Miller declared that "it was both a victory for the forces of fear and militancy." Just like Newt Gingrich in 1994, Bibi Netanyahu was accused of running a campaign not on important issues but on base emotions.
In 1995, Gingrich and House Republicans were accused of inspiring the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1996, Netanyahu was charged with creating the environment for Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. On the May 31 CBS This Morning, Harry Smith asked Middle East analyst Fouad Ajami: "Let's talk about his words for a second. Because it's not that many months ago that a lot of people were accusing Bibi Netanyahu of fanning the flames of the Israeli right, of setting the rhetorical tone for Rabin's assassination."
Netanyahu, like Gingrich, was subjected to extreme labeling, but their opponents, Peres and the Democrats, were almost never tagged left wing, extreme or radical. On the May 30 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather suggested "Serious questions about the future of Middle East peace as Lebanese terrorists attack an Israeli army convoy and the Israeli government appears headed for a major shift to the hardline right." The next night he announced, "Right-wing hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu is declared Israel's new Prime Minister."
On Today May 31, NBC's Ron Allen worried: "The transition seems already underway. This morning Netanyahu continued talks that could create the most right-wing Orthodox religious government here ever. During the count, Netanyahu has been silent, leaving aides to offer reassurances that nothing radical is about to happen."
Defining Fear and Extremism: Israel's Gingrich?
An upset election occurs, turning the media conventional wisdom on its head as a conservative politician wins. The media dismiss the win as unsubstantive, the product of fear and angry white men. They throw terms like "hardliner" and "right-winger" at the winner and accuse him of inspiring violence with his rhetoric. In 1994, the target of this media barrage was Newt Gingrich. In 1996 it was Israel's new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Prior to the vote, on the May 27 CBS This Morning, Jesse Schulman set up the choice: "Shimon Peres, statesman of the old school...talking about the big picture, about Israel's place in a changing Middle East, about hopes for peace, versus Benjamin Netanyahu, the slickest TV politician in the business, master of the soundbite, master of the cheap shot." Others picked up on Netanyahu's American conservative connections. That night, NBC's Martin Fletcher tried some guilt by association: "[Netanyahu] has American politician written all over his campaign. That's thanks to an American political consultant, who has advised conservatives like Senator Al D'Amato and Jesse Helms. The consultant told Netanyahu to stick to one simple, negative theme: fear." The media stuck to a simple message, increasingly invoking the fear theme as the returns became clearer. Good Morning America anchor Charlie Gibson made the charge on the May 30 broadcast: "Yesterday's watershed vote, so important to the peace process in the Middle East, has been called a choice between Israel's hopes and fears, and it now appears, though the results are still oh so close, that Israel may have voted its fears. Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to apply brakes to the peace process, if not reverse it entirely, is ahead in the vote count." Later on the same show, New York Times reporter Judith Miller declared that "it was both a victory for the forces of fear and militancy." Just like Newt Gingrich in 1994, Bibi Netanyahu was accused of running a campaign not on important issues but on base emotions. 20 In 1995, Gingrich and House Republicans were accused of inspiring the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1996, Netanyahu was charged with creating the environment for Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. On the May 31 CBS This Morning, Harry Smith asked Middle East analyst Fouad Ajami: "Let's talk about his words for a second. Because it's not that many months ago that a lot of people were accusing Bibi Netanyahu of fanning the flames of the Israeli right, of setting the rhetorical tone for Rabin's assassination." Netanyahu, like Gingrich, was subjected to extreme labeling, but their opponents, Peres and the Democrats, were almost never tagged left wing, extreme or radical. On the May 30 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather suggested "Serious questions about the future of Middle East peace as Lebanese terrorists attack an Israeli army convoy and the Israeli government appears headed for a major shift to the hardline right." The next night he announced, "Right-wing hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu is declared Israel's new Prime Minister." On Today May 31, NBC's Ron Allen worried: "The transition seems already underway. This morning Netanyahu continued talks that could create the most right-wing Orthodox religious government here ever. During the count, Netanyahu has been silent, leaving aides to offer reassurances that nothing radical is about to happen."
Stand for More Money
Liberal advocates of increased welfare spending used kids to advance their own interests through the Children's Defense Fund's (CDF) June 1 Stand for Children march. And the media bought the facade.
Time set the tone with a June 3 story headlined "The Children's Crusade: A '60s style campaign aims to put kids first in this year's budget battles and the presidential race." Elizabeth Gleick managed to squeeze only two conservatives into five pages as she painted the CDF as a group working to fix the "disconnect between what Americans say they want for children and what they actually do for them." Joan Lunden endorsed the message of organizer Marian Wright Edelman during a May 30 Good Morning America interview: "It seems like there's more money being spent for the environment or for the gun lobby...the federal government's talking about turning over a lot of the social programs to the states...What do you think is the best way to approach this?" As Edelman responded, "The first thing is we've got to make a commitment," Lunden chimed in "Yeah, yeah." Edelman then charged that march sponsors "will no longer tolerate the neglect and abandonment of our children or the massive budget cuts or the dismantlement of the safety net." To which Lunden gushed: "Gotta get the message out there and get people to rally around one of our most important problems."
Even pieces that included a conservative view still spun for the marchers. On the May 30 CBS Evening News, Wyatt Andrews talked to kids at a teen center, noting "the fear they express and the troubling state of kids in general is the reason" for the march. "A massive rally for children sounds like one of the least controversial ideas in history, and yet conservative critics believe this march is just a backdrop masking a liberal agenda." After a clip of the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, he showed a teen saying "I don't want our future to be messed up. I want to, like, have a nice environment and live peacefully."
NBC's John Palmer concluded his June 1 Nightly News story with the marcher's spin: "As the rally ended, parents were urged to go back home and fight for increased public funding for programs that help children and to carry the message that children should come first."
Liberal Bias Admitted
A major media figure has conceded that liberal bias really exists. On the May 12 Inside Washington, host Gordon Peterson raised House Speaker Newt Gingrich's charge that the media are in a "passive conspiracy" to help President Clinton. NPR's Nina Totenberg shot back: "I think it's basically sour grapes....and I'm tired of politicians just sort of saying, when things go badly for them, blaming us. It's not our fault, it's their fault." But then Evan Thomas, Newsweek's Washington Bureau Chief, asserted: "They blame us, but this is true. There is a liberal bias. It's demonstrable. You look at some statistics. About 85 percent of the reporters who cover the White House vote Democratic, they have for a long time. Particularly at the networks, at the lower levels, among the editors and the so-called infrastructure, there is a liberal bias. There is a liberal bias at Newsweek, the magazine I work for -- most of the people who work at Newsweek live on the upper West Side in New York and they have a liberal bias." Thomas, however, didn't make a full confession, denying any bias with those under him: "I don't think it's so much Washington. It's New York. You have to look at which city we're talking about. It's where the networks are based. It's where The New York Times is based. I think the greatest liberal bias is amongst the people who work for large, major news organizations in New York."
"Moderates" Vote Left
A survey of his colleagues by a White House correspondent has confirmed that the Freedom Forum poll, showing 89 percent of Washington reporters voted for Clinton and 50 percent identify themselves as Democrats, but just four percent as Republicans, matches how they've voted since 1976.
For his new book, Feeding the Beast: The White House Versus the Press, U.S. News & World Report White House correspondent Kenneth Walsh personally polled 28 of his White House colleagues. His findings: "In 1992, nine respondents voted for Clinton, two for George Bush, and one for independent Ross Perot. Three said they had not voted for anyone, and one reporter wrote in the name of former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas. In 1988, twelve voted for Democrat Michael Dukakis, only one for Bush, and three did not vote for a presidential candidate. In 1984, ten voted for Democrat Walter Mondale, no one admitted voting for Ronald Reagan, and four said they had not voted for a presidential candidate."
In a May 10 appearance on the Fox Morning News Walsh maintained "that the overwhelming number of reporters" he polled "identify themselves as moderates." Walsh insisted reporters don't have a liberal bias, "I think it's more just an engine of anti-incumbency." But that's not what his poll found the last time a Democratic incumbent faced re-election: "In 1980, eight voted for Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, two voted for Ronald Reagan, four voted for independent candidate John Anderson, and three did not vote. In 1976, eleven voted for Carter and two for Republican incumbent Gerald Ford."
Walsh's survey included reporters from all the major media: the four TV networks, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post; Copley, Cox, Hearst, Knight-Ridder, plus Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report.
Janet Cooke Award: The Nonpolitical Stand Against Newt
Marches on Washington can get a lot of press coverage -- if the march is liberal. In January, the annual "March for Life" drew one story on CNN, 17 seconds each on NBC and CBS, and nothing on ABC. But when the welfare-reform opponents at the Children's Defense Fund held a "Stand for Children" on June 1, the networks aired 12 evening and five morning stories. For filing the most promotional report, NBC veteran Andrea Mitchell won the Janet Cooke Award.
Anchor Brian Williams touted the CDF march on the May 31 Nightly News, beginning with a promo under the words "Children's Story": "NBC News In Depth tonight, those who can't fight for themselves, hoping there's power in numbers." Later, Williams announced: "Washington's getting ready for a major gathering -- a march to focus attention on kids that organizers are calling `The Stand for Children'...Organizers refused to estimate the crowd size, but the figure on their march permit is 200,000, coming from 3,000 sponsor organizations from all over the country. About 1,000 buses are leaving from New York City alone. But there are critics who think this march is all about all the wrong things, like big government and big spending on social programs."
Mitchell proclaimed: "They are America's future, and all too often, America's forgotten people. Too young to vote, too small to be heard, now coming to Washington with a message: America, listen up...From Miami, Ava and Jerra McDonald are heading to the nation's capital, joining thousands of families from around the country, all coming to talk facts, alarming facts. Every 32 seconds, a child is born into poverty; everyday, three children die from abuse or neglect; everyday, six children commit suicide, 13 are murdered; today, 100,000 are homeless." Added Harvard professor Deborah Prothrow-Stith: "Children are suffering because in this country we have had public policy over the last decade and a half which has literally been mean to children."
Mitchell continued: "Elementary school teacher Mark Lewis sees the results. An arrest right outside the yard where second- and third-graders are learning to play baseball.... This class, part of a special program, tutoring in math, reading, geography, for kids who play in a baseball league...The federal government kicks in $50,000, exactly the kind of spending critics think is a waste of tax dollars." Mitchell aired a clip of Newt Gingrich: "But those solutions we think have to start with balancing the budget and not crushing these young people with a generation of having to work to pay off our debt."
Mitchell ended: "You might wonder why marching for children would be controversial. But critics think rally organizers are using the kids to try to prevent cuts in welfare and other big government programs. That's politics. To a lot of the children coming here this weekend this rally is about something far more important: survival."
How could Mitchell maintain that the CDF's rally was beyond controversy, beyond politics? Mitchell told MediaWatch: "As you know, the event involved the Girl Scouts, church groups of all denominations, diverse organizations around the country. We did reflect the fact was politically controversial, but we did not set out to do a political piece. We were trying to focus on the children, on the needs of the children, which is why we went to a school and found inner-city kids who were being taught on a one-on-one basis by a wonderful teacher. We were taking a step back, if you will, from the daily news aspects of it. We added depth and context."
But the story put Gingrich in a liberal political context (opposes wonderful teachers for poor children), it said nothing about the financial self-interest of the march's supporters. As the Heritage Foundation's Ken Weinstein noted, "Over 100 of the endorsing groups received a total of at least $392 million [in federal grants] in Fiscal Years 1993-94 alone." As for CDF, Edelman defined herself as so ultraliberal that she got in a public fight with liberal Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Tom Downey (D-N.Y.) over their failure to be liberal enough on government-funded day care. CDF is best known for opposing any welfare work requirement for parents. Mitchell explained the lack of focus: "We would get to covering the march the next day. We weren't covering the organizers or the politics."
But if Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition announced a march for children, would the networks simply cover it as a nonpartisan event? Think again: in covering a Denver rally of the men's Christian group the Promise Keepers on June 22, 1995, NBC's Roger O'Neil asserted: "while [founder Bill McCartney] attacks abortion and homosexuality, his organization says it has no political agenda."
If the CDF were really beyond politics, they might have noted in their press materials that Census Bureau statistics show child poverty went down every year from 1983 to 1989. It's gone up in every year since then. If children were only interested in the best program for "survival," would they see the need for another Reagan? Mitchell said no: "I think that a lot of things went right, a lot of things went wrong. Those statistics are taken way out of context. That isn't the issue. In this country we have terrible conditions for lots of kids."
In an analysis for the Joint Economic Committee, economists Lowell Galloway and Richard Vedder argued the trillions spent in the "War on Poverty" haven't led to an automatic reduction in child poverty: "Between 1959 and 1969, the child poverty rate falls precipitously, from 27.3 to 14.0 percent, an average of 1.33 percentage points a year. After 1969, however, the official child poverty rate begins to drift upward, reaching a new peak in 1983, at 22.3 percent. In the 24 years between 1969 and 1993, the child poverty rate rises by 8.7 percentage points, about 0.36 percentage points a year."
In their research on labor-force participation and the attractiveness of welfare benefits relative to wages, Vedder and Galloway come to a very different conclusion: "On average one of every ten [children] will be classified by the federal government as officially living in poverty precisely because government is too large." (Italics theirs).
What was the source of Mitchell's "facts"? Take the claim of 100,000 homeless children. The CDF has promoted that number for years, citing a National Academy of Sciences study from 1988. But the NAS didn't do any original research to determine its number: it used an August 28, 1985 front-page story in The New York Times by reporter Josh Barbanel, which included no figures on the number or percentage of homeless children, making the 100,000 estimate baseless. When asked her source, Mitchell said: "NBC research." When asked where "NBC research" got the number, Mitchell replied: "I asked for research. I'm not sure what the basis was. I think it's fair to ask. I'll check."