MediaWatch: March 1996

Vol. Ten No. 3

Janet Cooke Award: McNamara Tries Guilt by Association

After newscasts highlighted the story of Larry Pratt, the Pat Buchanan campaign co-chairman who resigned to combat the discovery that he spoke in a number of forums where racists and other bigots appeared, liberal Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant loaded his February 20 column with friendly fire: "For liberals to be silent simply because this filth is being directed at a creature of the Right who happens to be on a political roll is intolerable." If the networks wished to investigate the charge of bigotry against Buchanan, they had a library of columns and an archive of video clips to spend weeks hunting through for examples. Instead of doing the hard work of combing the minutiae of his paper (and TV) trail, the networks decided to practice guilt by association, suggesting his campaign appeal is too indiscriminate, too likely to appeal to bigots.

In a February 23 Nightline, ABC's Ted Koppel refined the issue: "It's not that Pat Buchanan today is associated with overtly anti-Semitic or racist acts or statements, but rather that he has created an image of someone who might be sympathetic to such acts or statements by others." Koppel not only suggested Buchanan's father was a regular listener to the anti-Semitic radio show of Father Coughlin (he later apologized when the family denied this), he even stooped to accusing Buchanan's little brothers of having beaten up Jewish kids in the 1950s. This is odd coming from Koppel, who said of Bill Clinton's 1969 draft-dodging thank-you letter: "If we were electing that 23-year-old man, what he said and thought and felt at that time would be germane."

Koppel ended his show with a pro-Buchanan letter from Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky charging Israel controls America's finances "through American Jews or Negroes." Koppel concluded: "It's not that Buchanan hasn't expressed some of the views that Zhirinovsky echoed, but perhaps he'd never realized how ugly they sounded until he heard them in the mouth of a genuine bigot." For a desperate search for damaging Buchanan allies, the other networks could not match CBS. For finding Buchanan guilty by association with people he's either repudiated or never heard of, CBS reporter Bob McNamara won the March Janet Cooke Award. On the February 28 Evening News, Dan Rather began the story: "For his part, Buchanan vowed to come back big in the next phase of primaries and immediately, quote, `lit into' Forbes during a southern campaign swing today, lit into Forbes as too liberal. At the same time, Buchanan is trying to deflect criticism that he is an extremist, who, at the very least, uses code words to attract voters with racist, bigoted views. Buchanan flatly denies this. Correspondent Bob Mc- Namara has been looking into it."

McNamara moved quickly to the issue of Buchanan's fans: "They were waiting 3,000 strong for Pat Buchanan outside Atlanta last night. They say they've been waiting for years... Here, his call to take back the country is a crowd pleaser. But outside the campaign, critics charge that Buchanan's rhetoric is making this race about race. And the man and his ideas are now beginning to be judged by the company they keep."

McNamara explained: "Lurking in the shadows of last month's Louisiana campaign, there was former Klan leader David Duke." Duke told CBS: "I let the word out to all my supporters in the state that I supported Patrick Buchanan, and if Patrick goes on to win the nomination, I guess part of the credit will have to go to us." McNamara allowed a perfunctory rebuttal: "It is not an endorsement Buchanan wants, and today his backers took pains to distance their man from charges of extremism on economics and immigration, race, and religion." CBS aired Buchanan backer Rabbi Aryeh Spero: "This is a guilt by association, which is very dangerous to our whole political system."

Focusing on racism, McNamara countered: "Today, even in the New South, old ideas have not been completely laid to rest. And for people uncomfortable with the way the world has changed, Buchanan's message is hitting home....Danny Carver is a roofing contractor, a Christian, and a lifetime member of the Ku Klux Klan. He says he and Buchanan speak the same language." Carver told McNamara: "About everything he says we agree with....When he's talking about affirmative action he has to be talking about women and niggers, I guess." McNamara asked: "Do you think Buchanan would want to hear that you support him?" Carver replied: "He would want to hear it, but he don't want it on TV."

CBS didn't explain how Carver came to their attention. He's not an unknown, but a self-promoting semi-regular on Howard Stern's syndicated radio show. Stern, who's Jewish and calls Carver a "lunatic," has featured him as the butt of humor on his Butt Bongo Fiesta video (where he struck out in the game "Guess Who's the Jew"), and as a judge of the topless "Miss Howard Stern" contest in a 1993 New Year's Eve pay-per-view special.

McNamara concluded: "The Buchanan campaign said tonight that it adamantly rejects all forms of racism as immoral, saying that their campaign is, quote, `populated by people who embrace the sense of justice in the Old and New Testament.' But he has become a candidate battling a political Catch-22. A man who says what he means and means what he says and now must fight the embrace of people who think they know exactly what he is talking about." CBS News spokeswoman Kim Apgar told MediaWatch "I can't speak to this. You need McNamara." But CBS could not locate a number where McNamara could be reached.

While CBS attempted to connect Buchanan with neo-Nazis and the KKK, they have been critical of any look at the associations of Bill Clinton. In October 1992, The Washington Times and others investigated Clinton's role in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Father Richard McSorley's book Peace Eyes recounts Clinton's role as an organizer of a protest service that ended in a march to the U.S. embassy with white crosses, left "as an indication of our desire to end the agony of Vietnam." McSorley reported the protest's organizers were "Group 68 (Americans in Britain)," which "had the support" of the British Peace Council, a Soviet front group.

After Clinton's anti-war involvement came up in the first presidential debate, CBS This Morning co-host Harry Smith declared on October 12: "Clearly, that red-baiting junk didn't work last night." The networks aired no stories questioning "the company Clinton keeps" or suggesting "It's not that Clinton has signaled through acts or statements his support for the Soviet Union, but that he created an image of someone who might be sympathetic to such acts or statements." They called it a smear. Guilt by association is clearly a game reporters play on only one side.