In This Issue
More Badly Biased Budget Reporting; NewsBites: Profiles in Courage; Revolving Door: Edelman Admirer; Waited Months to Correct "Inappropriate" Reporting; Goodbye, American Way; Budget Reviews; Morgan on Medicaid Raids; Clinton Kiddie Clan; Janet Cooke Award: What if the "Wrong" Ad is right?
More Badly Biased Budget Reporting
Despite the talk about the new media being in touch with the people, the old news media are still more in touch with the politicians. Harvard professor Timothy Cook has theorized that inside-the-beltway reporters often practice "top-down policymaking: instead of bringing public opinion to official Washington, the news disseminates the views of Washington across the country."
This is especially true in coverage of the federal budget. In 1990, MediaWatch analysts reviewed a month of evening news stories during the conclusion of the budget deal and discovered network reporters had failed to explore the most elementary topics. Reporters never explained that the projected fiscal 1991 budget was a full $100 billion more than the fiscal 1990 budget; never explained that many spending "cuts" were only cuts in projected increases; never explored the savings from cutting government waste; and never pointed out that the planned across-the-board Gramm-Rudman spending cuts, which the budget deal was designed to avoid, would have still left the budget $15 billion higher than the year before.
Two years later, the fiscal results of the 1990 budget deal are clear: Instead of reducing the deficit by $500 billion, the 1991-95 debt is projected to increase by $500 billion over 1990 figures.
To revisit network budget coverage, MediaWatch analysts reviewed every evening news story (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's World News, and the NBC Nightly News) on the Clinton budget from February 14 to 28. In total, 93 news stories were reviewed to determine:
How many times did reporters mention that the 1990 budget summiteers also claimed they would reduce the deficit by $500 billion? Zero. For a group that has been forcefully critical on the state of the economy, it's surprising that TV reporters aren't relaying the failure of the last major agreement pledged to cut the deficit. But maybe that's because the deal raised taxes.
To determine if this trend also held sway on the network morning shows, MediaWatch analysts reviewed every morning news story and interview on the budget (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today) on February 17, 18 and 19. Out of 62 stories and interviews, only three references to the 1990 deal appeared, all on ABC. Charlie Gibson asked Vice President Gore: "A major foundation in Washington said it was four tax increases in the last ten years that were designed for deficit reduction -- in each year, the deficit has gone up. So why should people believe there'll be any change in the deficit this time?" Gibson asked the same question to Paul Tsongas, and Joan Lunden asked it to Clinton budget director Leon Panetta the next day.
How many times did reporters point out that many spending "cuts" were actually cuts in projected increases? Zero. Again, you would think reporters had been humbled by the last budget deal. For example, on September 30, 1990, ABC reporter Ann Compton declared: "Tonight, both sides say that unlike budget deals of the past, these cuts are real." But reporters continued to describe planned reductions in dramatically growing programs like Medicare as "cuts." On February 14, CBS reporter Wyatt Andrews suggested: "The Administration wants to cut $35 billion from Medicare costs."
The networks were repeating print media mistakes. The Washington Post ran a story headlined "Proposed Medicare, Medicaid Cuts Total $62.6 Billion Over Five Years." But the story reported: "The measures announced today are intended to slow the projected annual increase in Medicare from 12.3 to 10.5 percent and in Medicaid from 14.2 percent to 13.8 percent."
How many times did reporters point out the discrepancy between the $493 billion in deficit reduction promised in White House briefing materials and the $325 billion in reduction promised the next day? Three. CNN anchor Patrick Greenlaw simply labeled it "confusion," and CBS and NBC simply broadcast the new number without comment. Only ABC harped on the point. On World News Tonight January 18, reporter Brit Hume showed Leon Panetta citing "$500 billion in deficit reduction," and declared: "According to the official Clinton budget document, though, that's misleading," since $168 billion in spending hikes were not included.
ABC was also the only network to mention the discrepancy in the morning. Reporter Ann Compton referred to it in one report. In an interview with Panetta, Joan Lunden asked if the President was aware of the discrepancy when the White House released budget documents citing the $500 billion figure before the President's speech. Panetta responded: "He was very aware." Although all four networks were quick to critique the "misleading" ads of the Bush campaign, misleading budget documents weren't news to some networks.
According to Cato Institute budget analyst Stephen Moore, the 1991-95 deficit "will be $1.3 trillion higher than it would have been if Congress had summoned the will to meet the Gramm-Rudman target and had never held a budget summit." Until the networks marshal the real numbers about spending "cuts" and review the record of past "deficit reduction," viewers will have to find other sources to learn how Washington really works. For now, the networks are as absorbed in the Capital's convenient budget illusions as the politicians themselves.
NewsBites: Profiles in Courage
Profiles in Courage. On the February 16 NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw introduced a report on governors "who have raised taxes, cut programs, and yet politically survived." According to reporter Bob Herbert, New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio took a tough stand once elected: "Immediately, he raised taxes." Citing Florio's improving but still dismal popularity ratings, Herbert asserted: "The good news for Clinton is that Florio has at least survived. The bad news is that other governors have tried to impose tough economic medicine, and they're not doing too well." Not surprisingly, the "tough economic medicine" Herbert referred to included tax hikes by Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker and California Gov. Pete Wilson. Preceding soundbites from Weicker, Wilson, Florio, and Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles on the merits of taxation, he insisted "the governors say Clinton should stick to his guns."
But can't Clinton learn from governors such as John Engler of Michigan, or Bill Weld of Massachusetts, who balanced budgets by cutting spending, not raising taxes? Herbert didn't mention them.
Panther Pride. On February 19, Today co-host Bryant Gumbel lionized the Black Panther Party, which he claimed in the 1960s and early 1970s "preached revolution as an appropriate response to American racism." Gumbel theorized this preaching "got to" then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. "The Panthers took up arms in the midst of the Sixties struggle for social justice. They preached self-determination....They also preached self-defense, and to that end took on policemen who brutalized blacks. It was the intensity of that effort that made the Black Panthers the focus of Hoover's undeclared war. A war that eventually killed at least 19 Panther Party members."
Not all remembered the Black Panthers in the same light. Peter Collier, who worked with them as an editor of the '60s left-wing magazine Ramparts, told MediaWatch: "To pretend the Panthers were another civil rights organization is absurd." He rejected Gumbel's "self-defense" claim, citing the murder of their own dissidents. He compared the Panthers to Al Capone's Murder Inc., "at war with pimps and drug dealers over turf." Regarding the FBI, Collier asserted, "if anything, there should have been more surveillance" and added, "the figures of Panther deaths were bogus."
Later, Gumbel mused "though the same racist conditions that gave rise to the party back then still in great part exist, African- Americans today don't seem inclined to organized resistance." Collier responded: "The idea of `no progress since the '60s' is trivializing," and that Gumbel "glorified the Panthers on TV is disgusting."
Reed's School Read. Reporter Reed Galin's February 2 "Eye on America" report on the CBS Evening News focused on a big problem in the U.S. -- dumb kids. He reported teachers describe these kids as "the ones who are distracted. Can't tell left from right or dial a phone. Can't say where they live or speak in complete sentences." Galin pointed to the cause: "Surveys indicate 30 percent of their parents never read to their pre-school children. Forty percent do not teach them numbers or letters. Most parents do not tell stories to their children, engage them in arts and crafts or teach them songs or music."
Galin's solutions to the problems were more federal programs, claiming "few federal programs exist, and those few, like Head Start, can only help a fraction of those eligible." Conservatives would say these programs allowed parents to escape responsibility for their child's early development, and the programs that exist don't always work. In a February 19 Washington Post article, Mary Jordan described the criticisms of the $2.8 billion Head Start program, including the reservations of its founder, Yale professor Edward Zigler. Although still agreeing with the Head Start concept, Zigler "recommended against puttin more money into it unless it is improved. He cited a new report by the [HHS] inspector general that calls many of the programs poorly administered and unsuccessful in giving youngsters even basic care."
Time for Reform. Time Associate Editor Michael S. Serrill's February 15 article "Law and Disorder" criticized the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments for being too politicized. While conceding this happened in many other administrations, Serrill charged it reached new heights during the Reagan and Bush years. "What is different about the Justice Department that Clinton is inheriting is the depth to which politicization has seeped into the bureaucracy...Traditionally, career bureaucrats at Justice formed a strong middle-management layer that protected the department against the excesses of political appointees. But under Reagan and Bush, even the lowliest attorney had to pass an ideological litmus test."
Serrill then approvingly listed parts of Clinton's plan for the Justice Department. "Transition officials have some clear ideas about the general direction of reform. First, they want to root out the `true believers' from the Reagan-Bush years." Quite a reform: Root out the Reagan-Bush ideologues and replace them with Clinton ideologues. In a era when taxes are called contributions, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Time calls this reform.
Kramer, Still In Love. The almost-nomination of Kimba Wood as Attorney General created some interesting ethics questions for her husband, Time Senior Political Correspondent Michael Kramer. After Clinton dropped the nomination, Time staffers told The Washington Post that they were worried that the punting of Kramer's wife would cause his writing to grow more critical of Clinton. "He must have something of an ax to grind," one said. But Time Managing Editor Jim Gaines told the Post he is "completely confident that [Kramer] can put aside an personal feelings he has and write objectively about the Clinton administration." Question: did Kramer write objectively about Clinton before?
In the October 19 edition Kramer wrote: "The Republicans, it is clear, see nothing wrong with extending the Me Decade indefinitely; no matter that Reagan's trickle-down nostrums, which were supposed to lift all boats, lifted only yachts....the core of Clinton's economic vision is distinguishable from the President's and is best described as a call for a We Decade." Time staffers shouldn't worry. After the Kimba Wood fiasco, Kramer hailed Clinton's budget as "the definition of courage in American politics...Clinton's economic plan deserves to be known as a new New Deal, and Congress should pass it quickly."
FAIR's Feminist Fraud. Before the Super Bowl, reporters fell for the feminist news "hook" that studies showed domestic violence increased during and after NFL football games. In a news conference called by the far-left media critics Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Sheila Kuehl of the California Women's Law Center cited an Old Dominion University study, claiming violence against women increased 40 percent after Washington Redskins games. But of all the reporters who covered the story, only Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle called the author of the Old Dominion study, who said "that's not what we found at all."
Ringle also pointed out that FAIR representative Linda Mitchell claimed she knew Kuehl was misrepresenting the Old Dominion study, but declared: "I wouldn't [challenge] that in front of the media...She has a right to report it as she wants." Ringle also revealed that The Boston Globe cited "one study of women's shelters out West...showed a 40 percent climb in calls" to shelters on Super Bowl Sunday. Globe reporter Lynda Gorov told Ringle she never saw the study, but had been told about it by FAIR. That's an interesting picture of the media news chain: from liberal activist's mouth to front-page story with no fact checking.
Liberated by Communism. Democratic reforms in the former Soviet Union continue to bother some reporters. On February 21, the Los Angeles Times' Elizabeth Shogren reported from Moscow that "The women of Russia are less liberated, in the feminist sense, than they were when the Communist Party ruled their country." Under the friendlier communist system, Shogren asserted, "Equality for women was legally mandated, and women as well as men were required by law to work. Although this emancipation-by-decree failed to create many female factory directors or top politicians, women made up more than half the workforce," allowing women the freedom to enjoy such jobs as "jackhammer operators."
Toeing the sensitivity line, Shogren stated that forced equality "did not, however, change the public consciousness of a woman's role at home." Today many women "are being forced out of professional jobs, sexual harassment is considered business as usual," and horror of horrors, "increasingly, young women believe that freedom means enjoying traditional female roles." Personal freedom is fine for women, it seems, but only if they exercise it in the politically correct way.
ABC's Of Tolerance. Parental outrage convinced the New York City School Board to fire Chancellor Joseph Fernandez on February 10. Parents were upset by two Fernandez programs: The distribution of condoms in high schools and teaching elementary children about homosexuality. Just two days later, ABC's World News Tonight honored Fernandez as its "Person of the Week."
The controversial curriculum book Children of the Rainbow caused Fernandez's downfall. According to Peter Jennings, the curriculum "includes teaching first and second graders tolerance of gays and lesbians....[He] has certainly helped us to understand better what a challenge improving education and understanding really are. Which is why he makes a difference." Similarly, NBC's Bob Herbert claimed Fernandez was doomed by his "call for tolerance of gay men and lesbians."
But the chancellor's program went a bit beyond tolerance. Insight magazine reported the curriculum guide told teachers "classes should include references to lesbians/gay people in all curricular areas" and encouraged them to teach first graders to "respect" and "appreciate" homosexuals through "creative play, books, visitors..." The guide also claimed that ten percent of the students would grow up to be homosexuals. The bibliography included Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate.
Secret Hillary Update. Last month, MediaWatch reported the lack of media attention paid to Hillary Rodham Clinton's violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act by holding meetings of the President's Task Force on Health Care Reform in secret. The law requires any presidentially appointed committee that includes non-governmental employees, like the Presidential Partner, to make its meetings open to the public. Only The Washington Times had reported the violation.
A day after MediaWatch went to press, The Washington Post reported the criticisms of Hillary's closed-door meetings by Rep. William Clinger (R-PA). On February 25, three groups filed a lawsuit to prevent the task force from meeting until it opened its sessions. The suit and a complaint from the AMA prompted stories in The New York Times, Washington Post, and from ABC's Brit Hume, while the other networks noted it in unrelated stories. Many, including ABC's Ned Potter, suggested conspiracy when Dan Quayle's Competitiveness Council legally met in private. But this time, reporters don't seem to care. NBC's Tom Pettit didn't mention it in a Feb. 27 profile of the group. "I'm all for secrecy," volunteered Newsweek D.C. Bureau Chief Evan Thomas on Inside Washington. "For one thing, that's the only way they are going to get it done."
Revolving Door: Edelman Admirer
Newsweek White House correspondent Clara Bingham has left the beat she covered since late 1991 to write a book on women in Congress. Part of Newsweek's Washington team since 1989, Bingham was Tennessee Communications Director for the Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988. In February's Harper's Bazaar, she penned a glowing profile of Marian Wright Edelman, head of the left-wing Children's Defense Fund (CDF). In an editor's note to the article, Bingham oozed: "Her energy and idealism are infectious. After spending two hours with her, I felt like giving up writing and finding a cause to devote my life to."
The article reflected Bingham's enthusiasm. She described Edelman as "America's universal mother" and "the most respected voice for children in the nation." Never calling CDF liberal, she noted that Edelman is criticized by the "ultraconservative Eagle Forum."
In a particularly gushing paragraph, Bingham wrote: "Edelman is intense. She identifies herself so closely with her cause that she speaks in the first person plural. It's as if she wants to remind us that we -- you, too -- have an obligation to the nation's children. Congressmen who have crossed swords with her in legislative battles call her `arrogant,' `a bully.' But what Edelman really is is fearless. Not everyone can meet her high standards. The selfish, the uncommitted, the cynical, and the self-satisfied need not apply."
Despite evidence (reported in past issues of MediaWatch) that CDF figures are often inaccurate, Bingham insisted: "While most Washington lobbyists exert their influence with money, Edelman's currency is facts."
Planned Parenthood & Co.
When Catherine Crier left CNN last fall to join ABC's 20/20, her Crier & Co. show was re-named CNN & Co. so different reporters could host it. For the month of March CNN went outside the reporter ranks to sign former Planned Parenthood President Faye Wattleton to host the daily half-hour discussion show. Wattleton left Planned Parenthood last year to launch a Tribune-distributed daily TV talk show, but it never got off the ground.
Nightline's Clinton Line
Signing up as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton: Carolyn Curiel, a Nightline writer and producer for the past year. Before joining ABC News in Washington, Curiel was an editor with The New York Times for four years and at The Washington Post for the previous two years.
During the Carter Administration, Rick Inderfurth served as a Special Assistant to the National Security Adviser and later as Deputy Staff Director to the Democrat-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 1981 to 1991 Inderfurth held various reporting assignments with ABC News.
Now, with a Democrat back in the White House, Inderfurth's back in the administration. President Clinton has nominated him for a position as top deputy to United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright, a NSC colleague from the Carter days. At ABC, Inderfurth served as Pentagon correspondent, national security affairs reporter and finally Moscow reporter from 1989 to 1991.
White House Helpers. The Clinton White House is providing positions for at least a few media veterans. Anne Edwards, Director of the White House Television Office for Jimmy Carter, is back in the press office. Since her last trip through the White House gate she spent four years as a CBS News Washington bureau assignment editor, followed by a stint with the Mondale-Ferraro campaign. Mondale's loss sent her back to the media as a Senior Producer with National Public Radio. Last year she headed the Clinton-Gore press advance operation....
Signing on as a Deputy Press Secretary, Arthur Jones, a long-time Boston Globe reporter who spent the 1980s as Press Secretary to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn.
Waited Months to Correct "Inappropriate" Reporting
NBC: How Sorry Are They?
Twice in February, NBC became the target of TV comedians after being forced to admit fabricating parts of earlier stories. In both cases, NBC characterized its reporting as "inappropriate" and said that it regretted the incidents. But NBC didn't bother telling viewers about its errors until threatened by a lawsuit and public ridicule.
When challenged over the accuracy of a test crash in the now famous Dateline NBC story on pickup trucks, NBC News President Michael Gartner avoided any admission of guilt: "We remain convinced that taken in its entirety and in its detail, the segment...was fair and accurate." Gartner insisted the "sparking" devices NBC hooked to the GM truck were to "simulate sparks which would occur in a collision," so weren't misleading.
The next day, at the conclusion of the February 9 Dateline NBC, the story changed. Jane Pauley conceded "that what we characterized in the November Dateline segment as an unscientific demonstration was inappropriate and does not support the position that GM CK trucks are defective. Specifically, NBC's contractor did put incendiary devices under the trucks to insure that there would be a fire if gasoline were released from the truck's gas tank." Added co-anchor Stone Phillips: "We deeply regret that we included the inappropriate demonstration in our Dateline report. We apologize to our viewers and to General Motors." This concession occurred 84 days after the November 17 segment aired, and a day after GM held a news conference to show NBC's fabrications and to announce a lawsuit against NBC.
Still, some journalistic icons praised NBC. On the Feb. 14 Meet the Press, Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward explained "How many people in news organizations when they make a mistake...never come out with that. They try to fudge and get defensive, and so [NBC] faced the fact that they made a mistake."
Fifteen days after the GM correction, on NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw conceded that in a January 4 story on how timber clear- cutting in Idaho was killing fish "we inadvertently used footage of dead fish from another forest further south" and showed fish that appeared to be dead, "in fact, they were not. They had been stunned." This correction took 50 days and came the same day Sen. Larry Craig took to the Senate floor to denounce NBC's distortion.
How sorry is NBC? On March 2, the same day Gartner resigned over the GM story, the network announced it was hiring Michael Moore, the producer-star of the movie Roger & Me, which contained fabrications about GM.
Goodbye, American Way
CBS Plugs Europe
CBS News reviewed the wonders of European tax and infrastructure policies. "No, President Clinton is not on 60 Minutes Sunday, but we hope he'll be in the audience. Lester Thurow has the best explanation yet of what's wrong with us." That's how CBS promoted its February 14 piece on European-style socialism. Reporter Steve Kroft traveled with the MIT Professor to Germany where Thurow peddled some of his proposals to model the U.S. after Europe.
Thurow argues that the U.S. doesn't spend as much money on infrastructure as Europe. Kroft accepted the premise, asking: "Why hasn't the American government been investing in infrastructure?"
According to the Hudson Institute's Alan Reynolds, the U.S. has spent quite a lot. In 1991 federal, state, and local infrastructure expenditures totaled $139 billion. In National Review, Reynolds explained the U.S. private sector "takes care of much of the investment that is left on the taxpayers' backs in many other countries, where governments mismanage national telephone companies, airlines, universities, hospitals..."
60 Minutes should have explored Thurow's previous predictions. In 1982, prior to Reagan's boom, he wrote: "The engines of economic growth have shut down here and across the globe, and they are likely to stay that way for years to come."
A few days later CBS suggested how to pay for all of Thurow's spending: a Value Added Tax (VAT). On the February 19 CBS Evening News, Tom Fenton promoted the tax on the increase in value of a product levied at each stage of production: "Consumption taxes are nothing new in Europe. They help pay for high-speed trains that cruise at almost 200 mph; German highways that are so well built they have no speed limit; and social benefits that will pay this unemployed Frenchman two-thirds of former salary for the next two years."
Fenton briefly noted a VAT's regressiveness and that such a tax in the U.S. could "slow consumer spending and stall the economic recovery," but he asserted: "A VAT does help provide social benefits to everyone, rich and poor alike. That even includes treatment at health spas at government expense....A mere five percent VAT could raise a hundred billion dollars a year. That would knock a big hole in the deficit."
"Offering a new direction for the country, President Clinton today begins selling his tough budget-cutting program to the American people." -- CBS This Morning co-host Harry Smith, February 18.
"I think regardless of what you think of the specifics of the program, the President deserved great, great credit for having the courage to come forward with a plan to deal responsibly with the deficit. Yes, there are flaws....But I think that Bill Clinton really set the nation on a new course last night in trying to deal responsibly with our problems, and make the tough choices." -- NBC's Lisa Myers on Today, February 18.
"If Republicans don't cooperate, are you prepared to make it tough on them, and remind the nation that it was Ronald Reagan who quadrupled the deficit, and cast the Republicans as the architects, new architects of gridlock?" -- Today co-host Bryant Gumbel questioning Vice President Gore, February 18.
"Wasn't it the Republican Party under the leadership of Ronald Reagan especially, and George Bush who put the country in the fix it's now in?" -- Tom Brokaw to Rep. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Feb. 17 Nightly News.
Morgan on Medicaid Raids
In a sharp and valuable investigative series on February 7, 13 and 28, Washington Post reporter Dan Morgan exposed how state governments circumvent federal Medicaid rules to fund projects unrelated to medical aid for the poor and elderly.
On the 28th, Morgan showed how Republican legislators in New Hampshire used a Medicaid loophole to make up for revenue lost by a downturn in the state. "We're funding our state judicial system, our state highway program, and everything else out of a Medicaid loophole, which is being funded out of the deficit," said GOP lawmaker Douglas Hall.
Morgan also noted that of the New Hampshire hospitals handling large numbers of Medicaid patients, "few if any of the hospitals have used the Medicaid windfall to reduce rates to private patients and insurers. Yet hospital officials acknowledge those rates already include some or all of the cost of caring for indigent patients." Reporters covering the forthcoming health care "reform" should follow Morgan's lead.
The Straight Scoop on Gays
The gay rights movement has long claimed that 10 percent of Americans are homosexual. This figure, based on decades-old research of Alfred Kinsey, has been used as a major piece of ammunition in the battle over gay rights. In the February 15 Newsweek, Senior Editorial Assistant Patrick Rogers took issue with this oft-quoted figure: "Policymakers and the press... adopted the estimate [of 10 percent] despite protests from skeptical conservatives -- citing it time and again."
Rogers wrote that "ideology, not sound science has perpetuated a 1-in-10 myth. In the nearly half century since Kinsey, no survey has come close to duplicating his findings. Most recent studies place gays and lesbians at somewhere between 1 and 6 percent of the population. While experts say these survey results are biased by underreporting from reticent participants, the gap is still significant. Some gay activists now concede that they exploited the Kinsey estimate for it tactical value, not its accuracy."
Rogers referred to the 1992 version of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center's (NORC) General Social Survey to further skewer Kinsey's data: "Between 1989 and 1992, the [NORC] added two sex questions...The results have been consistent. Among men, 2.8 percent reported exclusively homo-sexual activity in the preceding year; women registered 2.5 percent."
Clinton Kiddie Clan
In the last 12 years, many in the media complained about manipulative White House photo opportunities. Yet, on February 20, ABC created one for Bill Clinton. Peter Jennings hosted a two-hour program from the White House which provided a forum for the President to take questions from children.
Some reporters saw this for what it was -- a 120-minute photo op. In the February 21 New York Times, reporter Michael Kelly wrote that "The children's questions, which were rehearsed in the White House by ABC News Friday night, included the cute (`Is Chelsea single?'), the soft (`Why did you want to become President?') and the politically pointed (`As a country, we are very biased towards homosexuals; what are you going to do to help America accept them?')."
Kelly questioned ABC about the White House rehearsals: "ABC News chose the children to `show a cross section of America' and to illustrate such specific issues as the environment and homelessness, said an ABC News spokesman, Arnot Walker. Mr. Walker said the network knew in advance the general nature of the questions that would be asked...but did not rehearse the questioners. He said the children used during a technical rehearsal at the White House...were different from those shown on the program."
But an ABC staffer told Kelly "The child who got the program's biggest laugh by asking Mr. Clinton if his daughter, Chelsea, were single, had first asked that question as a member of the rehearsal audience and had been invited to return and ask it."
On World News Saturday that night, reporter Tom Foreman raved: "As one parent put it: `There is no better way to make me change my opinion than to change the world for my child.' With nothing more than a listening ear, that is what Bill Clinton did."
Janet Cooke Award: What if the "Wrong" Ad is right?
Last year, Bush ads contended that Bill Clinton would raise taxes on the middle class. Reporters pledged to monitoring campaign accuracy called them "wrong" or "misleading." But once Clinton took office, he called for a tax hike on the middle class. That raises a question that "ad watch" advocates didn't consider: What happens when the "wrong" candidate turns out to be right? For their misleading "Ad Watch" features, all four news networks earned the February Janet Cooke Award.
On October 1, the Bush team released an ad with specific estimates of how much in new taxes middle-class Americans "could" pay under a President Clinton. All four networks called the ad misleading. But take a look at the five assumptions for the ad, as reported October 2 by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post:
"That Clinton will raise just $1 billion, not $45 billion by improving tax collection from foreign companies operating in this country." Budget director Leon Panetta concedes it will be hard to get $3 billion.
"That Clinton will not enact the $60 billion in tax relief he has promised for families earning less than $90,000." That's been abandoned.
"That Clinton's plan to raise $150 billion in new revenue over four years will fall short, forcing him to raise taxes on individuals with taxable incomes about $36,000." That has been proposed, with the Social Security and energy tax hikes.
"That Clinton has proposed $58 billion in `phony' spending cuts." Among those cuts: $9.8 billion in savings over four years from enacting the line-item veto, which also has been abandoned.
"That Clinton's health care plan will cost $117 billion more than what he says." Actually, the Bush campaign claimed that Clinton would have to raise taxes $117 billion to pay for his health plan. This isn't true yet, but reporters now estimate taxes will have to be raised at least $30 billion a year, or $120 billion over four years. To find out what the networks might do now to remedy their accuracy patrols, MediaWatch asked reporters for their response:
ABC. On October 2, Jeff Greenfield attacked ads from both campaigns, but said of the Bush ad: "The numbers don't come from Clinton's plan at all. They come from the Bush campaign's very questionable assumptions about Clinton's plan." On Nightline, Greenfield called the ad "very misleading, to say the least," which suggested Bush was lying.
Greenfield told MediaWatch that the MRC was "sloppy" in characterizing his reporting as "wrong," claiming the Bush campaign said its numbers came from the assumption that taxpayers over $36,000 would pay a new top rate of 36 percent.
"The Bush campaign ad that I was criticizing was specifically aimed at their use of apparently accurate numbers based on an assumption that even Clinton's [current] tax plan comes nowhere near doing. Clinton is not raising middle class tax rates anywhere near a marginal rate of 36 percent," Greenfield argued. "Did Clinton mislead the middle class? Absolutely. Did many of us point that out, both in print and on the air? Absolutely. Was the Bush campaign commercial therefore accurate in accusing Clinton of planning a marginal tax rate of 36 percent on the middle class? No way. Lesson: Intellectual dishonesty is not the province of the left or right in campaigns. It is endemic."
CBS. On October 5, reporter Eric Engberg asserted: "The tax figures jump from the screen with fact-like exactness. They were provided not by Clinton, but by the Bush staff, which admits they are based on assumptions. They assume Clinton will fail to get his [campaign] program through Congress, that his proposal to tax the wealthy won't raise enough money, and that he will then tax the middle class, which he says he won't." Engberg asked: "The stacking up of assumptions like this, there's a word we use for that." Cracked Steven Colford of Advertising Age: "I think it's lying."
When asked if CBS would air a story on how Bush's "lying" is coming true, producer Randy Wolfe responded "I don't know...We've done several very tough `Reality Checks' on President-elect Clinton and President Clinton. But you all always ignore those, just as you did during the campaign." MediaWatch did not find one critique of Clinton ads from September 1 to October 5, but Engberg took on Clinton radio ads on October 19.
CNN. On Oct. 2, reporter Brooks Jackson took a different angle on the specific-numbers ad, critiquing the Bush ad on its health care tax assumptions: "Clinton says his proposed controls on health costs will save enough to pay for gradually extending health insurance to all 35 million uninsured Americans. No taxes required."
Jackson then pronounced "A nonpartisan group that did study both the Bush and Clinton health plans sides with Clinton." Jackson's "nonpartisan" expert was Ron Pollack of Families USA, a left-wing group.
Jackson was surprised when MediaWatch called Families USA partisan: "You think of them as partisan? Well, I hadn't heard anybody say that before. They certainly favor governmental action in the health arena." But the February 6 Washington Post reported the group "hired eight field representatives to wage a health care reform campaign of its own in 60 `swing' congressional districts where support for Clinton's general themes...is not considered firm." Can they be honestly labeled "nonpartisan"? Jackson explained: "It was my first contact with the group, and I think as a legal matter, they're nonpartisan," since they're tax-exempt. Jackson insisted: "I don't claim to be perfect, but I sure try to be fair."
NBC. Like Greenfield, Lisa Myers critiqued both campaigns on October 2, but called the Bush ad "...misleading. In fact, Clinton has proposed cutting taxes for the sort of people in this ad. The tax increase that the ad claims could result under Clinton is based on leaps of logic about how he'd pay for his promises." But last August 30, a Clinton ad claimed: "Those making over $200,000 will pay more. The rest of us get a break." Only CNN critiqued the ad. Why didn't the other networks? Myers told MediaWatch: "Well, we can't read the guy's mind. It was a reasonable assumption [Clinton would raise taxes]. But based on his program, what Bill Clinton said was reasonable...We tried to deal with the ads that were most clearly over the line in some respect."
In 1992, reporters called the Republicans inaccurate for predicting that Clinton would raise taxes. Before 1996, they should watch the tax returns of the people in the Bush ad who "could" pay more under Clinton. If their tax burdens meet or exceed the Bush commercial, all the networks should admit it was they who misled the voters, not the Bush campaign.