MediaWatch: March 1996

Vol. Ten No. 3

NewsBites: Jack White, Smear Artist

In an attack uglier than any of this year's attack ads, Time national correspondent Jack E. White announced the culprits behind black church burnings in the South. After blaming Pat Buchanan's "ugly rhetoric" in the March 18 issue, he broadened the smear: "In fact, all the conservative Republicans, from Newt Gingrich to Pete Wilson, who have sought political advantage by exploiting white resentment should come and stand in the charred ruins of the New Liberty Baptist Church in Tyler [Alabama]...and wonder if their coded phrases encouraged the arsonists. Over the past 18 months, while Republicans fulminated about welfare and affirmative action, more than 20 churches in Alabama and six other Southern and Border states have been torched."

White noted the current lack of evidence of a racist conspiracy in the bombings, yet concluded: "But there is already enough evidence to indict the cynical conservatives who build their political careers, George Wallace-style, on a foundation of race-baiting. They may not start fires, but they fan the flames."

Rooting Against Rush.

Tom Brokaw may have engaged in wishful thinking on the February 14 Nightly News when he devoted the "NBC News Online" to the alleged fall of Rush Limbaugh. Brokaw claimed "Election results are one way to tell who's hot in politics. Then there are the ratings in this business." Brokaw charged that Limbaugh's "radio and television ratings have tumbled, and his books, once huge best-sellers, now are in the discount bins." He added a plug for the book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot by Al Franken, a fellow NBC employee: "And a book about Limbaugh, by the comedian Al Franken, is riding high, it's number two behind Hillary Clinton's book and rising fast."

But as Talkers magazine Editor Michael Harrison noted in the March 3 Washington Times, Limbaugh's ratings "dropped a marginal, insignificant amount" in the fall. "The guy belches in ratings, and everyone runs around as if the witch is dead," Harrison said. He noted Limbaugh is on 650 radio stations, with a total audience more than double his closest political talk show competition.

Linda Cecere of the Rush Limbaugh television show told MediaWatch there are 8.9 million copies of Limbaugh's two books currently in print, and noted the books have spent a total of 114 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (hardcover and paperback). His first book spent 24 weeks at the #1 spot. Brokaw ignored how virtually all bestsellers with a big press run are eventually discounted.

With Friends Like These....

During the usually contentious primary season the media focused on Republican rifts, but ignored Democratic divisions over their party leader. With two exceptions the networks failed to report attacks on President Clinton from two prominent Democrats. In an interview with Washington Post reporter Martha Sherrill in the January issue of Esquire magazine Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) insisted: "Clinton's an unusually good liar." Kerrey's extraordinary admission received very little coverage. Tim Russert, prompted by a Washington Times article, asked Colorado Gov. Roy Romer about the Kerrey quote on the February 4 Meet the Press.

CNN's Bernard Shaw briefly mentioned the quote on the February 6 Inside Politics, and added the remarks of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) who joked of Clinton's poll ratings: "If they get up to 60 percent, his people tell me Bill can start dating again." Shaw also relayed a Hollings quote from a South Carolina paper: "Clinton's as popular as AIDS in South Carolina." The Hollings quotes received no coverage in the usually AIDS-sensitive television networks of ABC, NBC and CBS. By contrast, in December 1994 when Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) joked that Clinton was so unpopular that he had better bring bodyguards if he visited any military bases, the Helms remark generated nine stories on the three broadcast network evening news shows.

Our Sweet Little Terrorist Helper

In the weeks following the Oklahoma City bombing, the news media were quick to portray suspect Timothy McVeigh unsympathetically as a violent extremist, as well they should. But when 26-year-old Lori Berenson was sentenced to life in prison by a Peruvian military tribunal for being closely involved with the Marxist terrorists of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), the news media tried to portray her sympathetically as a concerned American who went to Latin America to work for the poor.

Although she admitted to being affiliated with the MRTA, the January 22 Time didn't feel that was important: "Her friends and relatives know Lori Berenson as a compassionate idealist, an innocent waylaid by her concern for the poor and oppressed of Latin America." Time concluded: "But Berenson's real passion was always to help the downtrodden; as a teenager she donated time to a soup kitchen." A February 4 Washington Post headline read: "Little Girl Lost. American Lori Berenson, 26, Was a Good Daughter, A Good Worker, a Good-Hearted Person. In Peru, She Got Into Trouble. Bad Trouble." On February 21, ABC Prime Time Live reporter John Quinones used the same approach in a story titled "To Love A Country": "In the 8th grade, Lori volunteered to work at a soup kitchen. Later that year she was selected to narrate a commercial for CARE, an appeal to feed needy children."

This theme was countered by a Mark Falcoff article in the February 26 issue of The Weekly Standard: "But let the record show that she is charged not for her views, but for her involvement with a terrorist group that, in recent years, has been involved in assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, robberies, and attacks against innocent people, many of them poor."

Ethics Absentees

The networks continue to ignore ethics complaints against Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives. In early February, the networks saw no need for a story when Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) filed a complaint with the House ethics committee suggesting House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt may have evaded capital gains taxes on a land swap.

The February 23 Washington Times reported that Gephardt dumped his share of ownership of the vacation home on North Carolina's Outer Banks. George Archibald wrote that Gephardt, who is an avid opponent of capital gains tax cuts, "claimed for financial-disclosure purposes that his condo was not a rental property the year he sold it for $183,000. He simultaneously claimed it as a rental property for tax purposes to escape capital gains taxes of about $17,000 in 1991." Archibald struck again with a March 6 piece in the Washington Times noting that Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) formally requested the Justice Department undertake a criminal probe of Gephardt's tax situation. Neither story piqued the networks' curiosity.

On March 6, the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation filed a complaint against House MinorityWhip David Bonior, the ethical scold of Speaker Newt Gingrich, for misusing his congressional staff to write a 1984 book on government time. The networks didn't cover that either.

Paris Envy

"This morning we're taking a close look at the problem of child care, a problem some countries are solving," co-host Harry Smith announced on the February 21 CBS This Morning. The country with the solution? France and its expensive, old-style socialist system.

Smith marveled at the state-mandated benefits: "Like all new mothers in France, Helene took a 16-week paid maternity leave from her job. In addition, mothers who work for larger companies can take off two more years unpaid, with the guarantee their jobs will still be there when they get back." To support this system, Smith admitted that taxes are "much higher in France than in the United States...and that may be why they're going through some of their own economic problems." But, incredibly, he also referred to the system as free: "When Jeanne leaves day care, she can attend a completely free, good quality, state-run pre-school where she stays until she is six and primary school begins." Smith followed the segment with an interview of Ellen Galinsky of the liberal Families and Work Institute. His first question was more accusation: "In the United States, are we just not willing to pay for child care?"

ABC vs. the First Amendment

A special interest group wants to use the coercive power of the government to silence the opposition. ABC News naturally comes down on the side of free speech, right? Not quite. Here's how Peter Jennings introduced a February 14 World News Tonight story: "Supporters of gun control, who had no success convincing a Republican Congress to pass stronger gun control legislation, have adopted a new tactic. They have asked the Federal Trade Commission to stop certain advertisements by gun manufacturers."

Lisa Stark explained that the ads "sell safety and security, offering guns as a way to protect loved ones, to guard home and family. But critics say this picture is deceptive and misleading." After a soundbite from Sarah Brady, Stark elaborated: "Gun control advocates point to tragedies you won't find in the ads. In Texas, a teenager shot and killed, mistaken for a burglar by her father; in California, a four-year-old shoots himself," and a 15-year-old "killed by his best friend."

Stark asserted that "scientific studies show handguns are more likely to hurt family members than protect them." ABC aired three soundbites from opponents of the gun ads, but only one from Tanya Metaksa of the National Rifle Association. Metaksa was only allowed to defend the right to air ads, not to counter the liberal statistics about gun accidents. If Stark had any interest in balance, she could have noted that Dr. Arthur Kellerman, a fervent gun control advocate, explained in the August 14, 1994 U.S. News & World Report that "Studies such as ours do not include cases in which intruders are wounded or frightened away by the use or display of a firearm." Last year in his book Guns, David Kopel noted that bicycle and swimming pool accidents kill more children annually than do guns. If ABC wants the FTC to regulate advertisements from weapon manufacturers, then who will regulate the network's own gun control ads disguised as journalism?

The Episcopalian Inquisition?

The word inquisition brings to mind torture sessions in dark castles in medieval Europe where unbelievers were strapped to the rack until they swore allegiance to the church. Recently, the networks used the word to describe whether the Episcopal Church should allow a practicing homosexual minister to lead church services.

Peter Jennings led off the rhetorical overkill about Bishop Walter Righter on the February 27 World News Tonight: "This next story in the news tonight may conjure the Spanish Inquisition for some but the dateline is Wilmington, Delaware. A retired bishop could become the second Episcopal priest in the two hundred year history of the U.S. Episcopal Church to be tried for heresy, the most serious breach of Christian faith. His offense: ordaining a practicing homosexual five years ago."

On the same night's CBS Evening News, reporter Richard Threlkeld referred to the trial as something "right out of the middle ages" and stated that "critics charge Bishop Righter's the victim of a conservative inquisition." The idea that conservative bishops inside the Episcopal Church wanted to enforce church doctrine left Threlkeld scratching his head: "It's ironic that something so medieval should be happening within the Episcopal Church, one of the more tolerant of Protestant denominations."