In This Issue
Earth Day Without Alternatives; NewsBites: Reds Like Ted; Revolving Door: New Times Projects; Pro-Choice Celebrated and Pro-Life Ignored; CBS Slams Conservatives as 'Anti-Poor'; USA Earth Day; Janet Cooke Award: ABC News: Thatcher Thrashing
Earth Day Without Alternatives
In the television age, protests are no longer simple expressions of democratic discontent; they're often elaborately planned public relations mega-events. Most protest organizers would settle for a small 24-hour news binge, but the organizers of Earth Day on April 22 enjoyed a solid week of anticipatory coverage and homage. Media outlets did much more than report on Earth Day: they celebrated it.
In the midst of all the feel-good stories about cleaning up roadsides and recycling beer cans, the networks failed to investigate the radical views of Earth Day organizers. In 1970 organizer Denis Hayes explained the true Earth Day agenda: "I suspect that the politicians and businessmen who are jumping on the environment bandwagon don't have the slightest idea what they are getting into. They are talking about emission control devices on automobiles, while we are talking about bans on automobiles."
To see what kind of environmental viewpoints the networks relied upon this Earth Day, MediaWatch analysts watched all morning and evening news shows during the week of April 16-22, in addition to Nightwatch, the CBS overnight show. MediaWatch compared the amount of time given to liberal environmentalists (Earth Day and major environmental group staffers and ecologists like Barry Commoner) to the time given to free-market environmentalists. We differentiated between talking heads (people appearing in news stories) and in-studio interviews.
Liberal environmentalists were offered more than 30 times as many opportunities to speak as their opponents, tallying 68 talking head appearances, compared to two soundbites by one free- marketeer. Interviews were just as heavily weighted: 26 liberal environmentalists to one free-marketeer.
Although reporters relied heavily on liberal environmentalists, they rarely questioned them about their hostility to free enterprise or their advocacy of massive government intervention. (In fact, not one environmentalist was described as liberal.) Instead, most of the soudbites and interviews allowed them to make generalizations about the precarious state of the planet and the need for action. By providing them with an unchallenged platform in which they simply appeared to be concerned citizens with reasonable solutions, the networks made viewers more likely to believe drastic government action is needed when they call for it on other occasions.
In naming Denis Hayes ABC's "Person of the Week," Peter Jennings simply echoed Hayes' frustration with how the environment suffered since 1970, mostly under Reagan. He never investigated Hayes' radical proposals, and concluded by lauding Hayes as "the true believer whose reverence for life has always been a calling, never a fashion, who millions of Americans owe a vote of thanks."
Liberal activists fielded questions like this one posed to Meryl Streep by ABC entertainment reporter Chantal: "The first Earth Day, of course, came out of the '60s, when people were so concerned about changing the world and wanting to make it better. I think a lot of people miss the '60s for just that reason. And yet, we've just come out of a decade that was so materialistic, so money-oriented. How do we show them what you're talking about?"
Bryant Gumbel questioned liberals by criticizing conservative policies: "Well, you've all touched on it a little bit, but the failure of the government, particularly the problems encountered in the Reagan years, are very much with us and prompt the question: Is government even equipped to take on these issues or must we talk in local terms?"
The majority of morning show interviews came on April 20. On CBS, Nightwatch interviewed eight left-wing guests, including West German Green Party leader Petra Kelly, anti-technology activist Jeremy Rifkin, and Washington Post reporter Cynthia Gorney, who's writing for Mother Jones on how to go green in "this grossly over-consumptive and wasteful society." Rifkin told host Charlie Rose that "A radical reduction in energy use is not a big sacrifice: it's just hanging habits...convenience culture is destroying the planet."
In another segment, Rose questioned Jay Hair of the National Wildlife Federation, Mike Roselle of the radical group Earth First!, and Barry Commoner. Rose's comparatively probing questions about free enterprise and the environment demonstrated the kind of hostile rhetoric simmering beneath the feel-good coverage. "It's the very principles of the free market, the free enterprise system, that has caused this," Commoner stated. "That simply won't work. We have got to get the common interest in environmental stability into the decisionmaking process, and I'm afraid, when we do that, it won't be a free enterprise system."
On ABC's Good Morning America, co-host Charles Gibson introduced "three men with three different approaches to environmental activism." Gibson's idea of a diverse panel: polar explorer Will Steger, Howie Wolke of Earth First!, and David Brower of the Earth Island Institute, a man too radical for the staffs of both the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. When Gibson asked a challenging question about probable job losses from environmental proposals, Wolke replied: "Any time a transition is made, there's going to be a loss of jobs during that transition period. Let's face it: people were unemployed when they closed down Auschwitz."
NBC's Today was the epitome of imbalance. Bryant Gumbel interviewed Ellen Silbergeld of the Environmental Defense Fund, rainforest advocate Thomas Lovejoy of the Smithsonian Institution and Paul Ehrlich, notorious author of The Population Bomb, which falsely predicted mass famines in the 1970s. Rather than allow someone to challenge Ehrlich's lengthening record of false predictions, NBC continued to legitimize Ehrlich. Earlier in the week Today gave him his third unchallenged three-part series in the last year.
What the networks failed to do was offer time to almost anyone who challenged the scientific, economic, and political assumptions behind the entire Earth Day protest. The dominant save-the-planet message was shared by nearly everyone, including all of the 17 soundbites and interviews with celebrities and most of the 21 administration officials and 11 corporate spokesmen.
The only exception: meteorologist Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia, who joined the debate over global warming on This Week with David Brinkley (clips of which were later used once each on World News Tonight and Good Morning America). Earth Day Alternatives, a coalition of free-market environmental groups, held a press conference and made numerous spokesmen available, but was shut out completely. News people, who have prided themselves on always finding sources to counter any conservative consensus over the past decade, preferred to let the Earth Day consensus go unchallenged and allow the Earth Day organizers to remain untainted by any hint of radical politics.
NewsBites: Reds Like Ted
REDS LIKE TED. Soviet Life magazine recently gave its first Glasnost award to CNN founder Ted Turner. The May cover story explained: "A new era in East-West relations has erupted from the seeds of glasnost that were planted just a few short years ago by leading visionaries of our time. One such visionary is famed entrepreneur and media titan Ted Turner."
Turner is now shooting for the Chairman Mao Publicity Award for his defense of the Tienanmen Square massacre. As Tom Brokaw reported during the May 10 NBC Nightly News, "[Turner] said he would not criticize China, adding the demonstrators violated Chinese law despite repeated warnings. Said Turner, 'We bleed in our hearts for the students, but we also bleed for the government and the soldiers who felt like they were being forced to take this action.'"
DEBORAH LOVES DAN. Deborah Norville, the much-ballyhooed new co-host of NBC's Today show, took the network to a new low in a fawning April 24 interview with Daniel Ortega in Managua. "For a man who for ten years was applauded and admired by thousands of Nicaraguans, rejection at the polls has required Daniel Ortega to become philosophical about politics.... Ortega's statesmanlike acceptance of the voters' decision has prompted some in Washington to call the Sandinista leader a champion of democracy." MediaWatch tried to ask NBC who used this description, but NBC didn't return our calls. NBC also wouldn't reveal the source of this Norville question: "We talked to one observer who told us if he were awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, he would nominate Mikhail Gorbachev and Daniel Ortega. What do you think of that?"
When Norville's questions weren't thinly disguised compliments, her questions came from Ortega's left: "There are some members of the FSLN who say you've sold out. How do you respond to that?" Despite Ortega's 15-point loss after a campaign of government intimidation, Norville asserted: "His personal magnetism which helped bring him to te fore remains undiminished." Ortega's cult of personality was rejected by his countrymen, but it's still going strong on American TV.
BABYSITTING BLUES. A child care bill passed by the U.S. House provides $30 billion to subsidize child care. But that's not enough government intervention for ABC's Peter Jennings. Introducing a March 28 "American Agenda" story on the subject, Jennings complained, "It leaves the issue of child care standards up to the individual states, and according to virtually every child care expert, that is a mistake."
Reporter Rebecca Chase lined up a selection of child care educators in favor of federally imposed standards, concluding with a sweeping declaration: "So the experts are unanimous. The nation needs higher and uniform standards when it comes to child care." Chase noted Congress probably will reject this "unanimous" advice, prompting her to warn: "Experts fear that without mandatory standards nothing will change, leaving most parents without any assurance that their children are in good hands."
MISSING MANDELA'S ADMISSION. When Nelson Mandela was released in February, reporters hanged on his every word. At one point NBC anchor Tom Brokaw exclaimed, "Now we can watch him eat his dinner, and help lead South Africa to a new age." However, reporters were less attentive two months later when Mandela was forced to concede that his African National Congress (ANC) had tortured dissident members.
ABC and CNN ignored his April 14 revelation and CBS weekend anchor Susan Spencer only gave the story a brief mention. Only NBC devoted serious attention to the admission of the ANC's record of brutality, but did so with regret. "It was not a pleasant thing to say, but Mandela said it today in South Africa," NBC's Garrick Utley declared, adding "It is one more problem Mandela certainly does not need." Reporter Robin Lloyd agreed: "It was a political embarrassment." One thing NBC failed to mention: Winnie Mandela's participation in torturing several black teens.
PARADE'S ABORTION CHARADE. Parade, the Sunday newspaper supplement, had a strange way of looking at the abortion debate, commissioning abortion advocate Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan to write a piece presenting the arguments of both sides. Sagan and Druyan spent little of the April 22 cover story attacking the assumptions of the pro-choice movement, devoting most of the article to knocking down the pro-life argument by stretching its technical basis to ridiculous conclusions.
For instance, they wondered if masturbation or menstruation is murder because of the potential of eggs and sperm to create a human being. The article also claimed "there is no right to life in any society on Earth today," irrelevantly noting how often and remorselessly "we destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there; kill deer and elk for sport." They concluded: "We find Roe v. Wade to be a good and prudent decision addressing a complex and difficult issue"
REBUTTING RABEL. Last month MediaWatch detailed NBC reporter Ed Rabel's coverage of Cuba. During a two-part series on March 30 and April 2, Rabel insisted that the demise of communism couldn't spread to Cuba: "If they're bored with Castro's rigid Marxist- Leninist doctrine, or if they long for the sweeping changes occurring in Eastern Europe, they are not saying so publicly... There is no movement here for change, they say, because the revolution is too strong."
More observant reporting came the following weeks from CBS' Juan Vasquez, a reporter not known for being particularly tough on Marxists in Central America. On April 4, he noted: "After 31 years of revolution, Castro senses that Cubans, especially the young, may be losing some of their revolutionary fervor." Six days later, Vasquez again delved below the government line. "There are signs that Cuba's people see the handwriting on the wall: enrollment in advanced English classes has tripled...The appeal of a western-oriented consumer society may yet prove stronger. After 31 years of sacrifice, Cubans are getting tired of being on the outside looking in."
REPEATING RABEL. TV network news reporters aren't the only ones susceptible to the Cuban government's public relations. Take, for example, Frank Wright's two-part Minneapolis Star Tribune front page series April 29 and 30. "There is no sign of substantial organized resistance, and indeed, popular support remains strong for Castro and the revolution's provision of health care, education, employment, and other basic needs over the years."
Despite being "the best and most broadly educated younger generation in its history," Wright explained why Cuba's young just aren't appreciative: "Many are apathetic, others disaffected. They aren't old enough to remember the bad old days, and satisfying just their basic needs isn't good enough for them." Other countries like Vietnam may have "inched toward concessions that smell of capitalism," wrote Wright, but "communism won't go into the tank so easily ." One of Wright's sources, Manuel Lopez, President of Cuba's biggest cooperative, insisted "It is one of the fairest systems Cuba ever had." Wright's series relied heavily on communist Cuba's officials and "Cuba specialists" like Carter diplomat Wayne Smith, but how many sentences did Wright dedicate to the thoughts of Cuba's dissenting voices? Not one.
DON'T BOETTCHER LIFE ON IT. "What a pretty picture, if it were true. The foreign worker laboring happily at the side of an East German. For four decades communists proclaimed their state free of the prejudice that afflicted the West. The picture was a lie," Mike Boettcher began an April 14 NBC Nightly News story exposing the facade of interracial harmony the East German communists have for so long declared was the norm. "When a young Vietnamese student attempted to climb from East to West," for example, "he was grabbed by East German police. East German bystanders applauded the rough treatment he received."
But after so conclusively discrediting the communist propaganda line, Boettcher concluded the piece by echoing that same propaganda: "East Germany's guests quietly endure their ordeal and patiently wait for what reunification will bring. They knw it's bad here, but they've heard it's not much better out West."
CHEMICAL MIX-UP. From gun control to unilateral dis-armament, the left has shown an inability to distinguish between the possession of a weapon for defense and the use of that weapon to commit a crime. A classic display of this theme was Jeanne Meserve's dig at efforts to modernize U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles during the March 27 World News Tonight.
"Ever since Iraq used poison gas on Kurdish civilians, the United States has campaigned to stop the spread of chemical weapons," Meserve declared, "but that campaign may be undercut by the administration's efforts to buy the chemicals for itself." Elisa Harris of the Brookings Institution chimed in: "And this is perceived outside the United States as hypocritical."
Meserve concluded, "The Pentagon says it will produce chemical weapons until they are banned worldwide and it refuses to acknowledge any contradiction in pursuing the two goals simultaneously." Apparently no one has ever explained deterrence to Meserve.
AIRTIME FOR AIRLINE ATTACK. "Federal deregulation has put the airline industry in a tailspin. That's the word from a new study," CNN PrimeNews anchor Susan Rook announced on March 28. Rook failed to mention what organization released it: the Economic Policy Institute, a group founded by some former Dukakis advisers, a fact that made the conclusions hardly surprising. "The study concludes a little re-regulation may be the ticket to better service."
Reporter Frances Hardin, who failed to air an opposing view, claimed that the new study "confirms what many airline passengers already know about services, fares and what seem to be fewer and fewer direct flights." And what passenger complaints would re-regulation solve? One passenger whined: "This morning it was just a danish and coffee for breakfast; before, you used to have your bacon and eggs." And to think this atrocity is all blamed on federal deregulation.
VILNIUS VACUUM. Last year, the presence of the foreign press exposed to the world the atrocities committed in Tienanmen Square. In Lithuania, however, Mikhail Gorbachev expelled Western reporters over the March 31-April 1 weekend. The Committee to Protect Journalists, the Newspaper Guild, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of Newspaper Editors protested the expulsion. But very little of this protest carried over into network coverage, which only mentioned the expulsion in passing.
CBS gave the story a brief reference during an April 1 piece by Allen Pizzey. NBC's Rick Davis mentioned the story on the March 31 and April 1 Nightly News. On March 31, CNN's Jim Clancy warned, "The last members of the foreign press were ordered to leave the Lithuanian capital over the weekend, raising fears that the Kremlin planned to remove pro-independence politicians by force, if necessary." ABC's Jim Hickey mentioned the expulsion in his March 30, April 1 and April 2 stories from Vilnius, but ABC never again told viewers why all subsequent stories came from Moscow.
South African and Israeli restrictions on press coverage generated far greater reaction. The media aired entire stories on the anti-press actions b those countries and referred to restrictions at the beginning or end of many reports. Clearly this has not been the case in Lithuania, which raises the possibility that the media are more concerned with protecting Mikhail Gorbachev than telling the full story.
CHIDING CUBA'S CHURCH. Religious freedom is returning to Eastern Europe, but a number of reporters argue that it will not happen in Cuba. During the April 12 CNN PrimeNews, reporter Charles Jaco noted that "the number of priests [in Cuba] has dropped from 1,000 in 1959 to around 200 now." Jaco blamed the Catholic Church, not Castro, for this decline. "There's little indication Cubans are intensely religious like people in Poland or Czechoslovakia. One reason: the Catholic Church in Cuba has been historically conservative, often run by Spanish, rather than Cuban, priests," Jaco asserted. That's ironic since Cuba has been a haven for Marxist liberation theologians. Jaco used Jorge Gomez, a member of the Cuban Central Committee, to support his claim: "There does exist a separation between the Church and the people. It is not a conflict with the party, and the Church must resolve that conflict with the people themselves." Jaco downplayed the beating and jailing of Cuban Christians, declaring, "Despite some harassment from Castro's neighborhood revolutionary committees, churchgoers say they are free to worship."
Jaco concluded that "the Vatican indicated the Pope may come here in December. If he does it could put the Church's stamp of approval on a government that until recently tried to put the Church out of business." Did the Pope's visit to Austria put his stamp of approval on Kurt Waldheim? Did his trip to Poland mean he approved of that regime?
Revolving Door: New Times Projects
New Times Projects. The New York Times has two new projects editors. Eric Eckholm, a State Department policy planning staff member during Jimmy Carter's last two years, is now projects editor for enterprise reporting. For the past year Eckholm has edited the Sunday "Week in Review" section. Martin Gottlieb was a New York Times reporter until becoming Editor of the trendy left-wing weekly Village Voice in 1986. Now he's back at the Times. Before he joined the paper of record in 1984, Gottlieb spent eight years reporting for the New York Daily News.
Democratic Consulting. Podesta Associates, a Democratic political consulting firm has brought aboard a new Associate: Michelle Baker, a reporter and researcher in the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau from 1987 until late last year. Brothers John and Tony Podesta, both veterans of numerous liberal causes, teamed up in 1988 to form the firm. Most recently, John directed the Opposition Research and Quick Response Office for the Dukakis campaign. Tony was President of the liberal People for the American Way until the Dukakis campaign asked him to run its California operation. Legal Times reported that in 1987 Tony advised Sen. Ted Kennedy on how to derail Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination. John did the same for Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Good Morning OMB. As a Good Morning America Associate Producer in Washington from 1986 to 1988, Kimberly Timmons Gibson booked guests for ABC's morning show, a job she left to join the Bush campaign where she spent the last months of 1988 as a researcher in the surrogate campaign department. Since Bush took office she's been Deputy Director for External Affairs for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In March, OMB Director Richard Darman added the role of Spokeswoman to her duties.
Post Time. Myra Dandridge, a Legislative Correspondent since late 1987 for liberal U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenso (D-CT), has decided to apply her research and writing talents to journalism. In May Dandridge reported to The Washington Post where she is now a news aide for the "Metro" section.
NBC Executive Moved Moynihan Left. In the 1970s, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked for President Nixon and was considered a leading neoconservative thinker. But by the early 1980s, the Democrat had moved left and become a staunch advocate of liberal policies. Who influenced this shift? "Moynihan's leftward turn," former Washington Post reporter Martin Schram wrote in the April Washingtonian, "coincided with the rise on his staff of a young fellow Irishman named Tim Russert." That Irishman, who later worked for Mario Cuomo, is now NBC's Washington Bureau Chief.
"Russert saw that the only thing standing between Moynihan and a career of landslides was the prospect of primary challenges by liberals," Schram explained in his profile of Moynihan, noting: "The turning of the USS Moynihan from starboard to port was slow but steady. Russert handled the politics, Moynihan the policy."
Pro-Choice Celebrated and Pro-Life Ignored
TWO MARCHES, TWO STANDARDS
Last year's pro-abortion rally by the National Organization for Women (NOW) captured the media's attention. ABC anchor Sam Donaldson began the April 9, 1989 World News Sunday by claiming: "Not since the height of the Vietnam War have so many people marched in Washington as did today in the name of legalized abortion. Organizers placed the number at 600,000. Police said 300,000, but whichever, it was a giant outpouring of sentiment by the pro-choice movement." Kathleen DeLaski reported: "They flooded the streets of Washington. Thousands marched and chanted ....This march is the cornerstone of a new offensive by the pro- choice forces....There was little sign of the opposition....The march and rally were bigger than even the organizers predicted."
But when pro-life forces rallied this April 28, ABC anchor Carole Simpson gave a completely different spin: "Anti-abortion forces staged a major demonstration today here in Washington to draw fresh attention to their cause and to try to recapture their momentum in the political struggle over abortion rights. Organizers claimed 700,000 people attended today's Rally for Life. Police say there was a much smaller crowd of 200,000." DeLaski reported that the organizers "called it the largest rally ever against abortion," but told viewers that "opponents of this movement say these people don't have any momentum, and that this rally is a desperate act....More politicians have found it safer to support the other side, abortion rights."
The Washington Post provided equally imbalanced coverage. The NOW rally dominated the front page, generating a dozen stories taking up 15 columns of space. The pro-life rally got two stories in the "Metro" section. Ombudsman Richard Harwood took the Post to task on May 6, charging the coverage "left a blot on the paper's professional reputation." Harwood noted the less-populated Earth Day rally attracted 77 columns of space, with 44 pictures and drawings.
Though reporters are "pigeonholed fairly" as "liberal Democrats," Harwood attributed the disparity to the biases "we carry around as members of a social class whose magnetic pole is the metropolitan East Coast." According to Harwood, Post Managing Editor Leonard Downie recalled "a pervasive awareness of [the NOW march] among editors and reporters here: people in the newsroom, many of our relatives, and many of our friends were geared up to participate. Like Earth Day 1990, it was an 'in' thing to do." Harwood revealed the pro-life rally was not even mentioned at Downie's weekend planning meeting. Said a Post weekend editor: "I didn't even know this was anything important."
CBS Slams Conservatives as 'Anti-Poor'
LAUDING THE LEGAL LEFT
Reporters usually press government agencies to perform their intended mission. Sometimes, however, they help agencies press their critics instead. Case in point: Bob McNamara's April 9 CBS Evening News report on the Legal Services Corporation. "Legal aid for the poor is on hold," McNamara began. "The Legal Services Corporation funds 325 local offices to do the legal work of America's poor. But in the '80s came efforts to abolish Legal Services...Today, local offices are surviving on 40 percent less in real dollars than ten years ago, a total budget not much more than the cost of a single B-1 bomber."
McNamara's elaboration of the LSC workload was poetic: "They call for help in custody cases, to stop an eviction, or keep the lights on. But the lawyers of last resort have seen the budget cuts take a toll....the human face of it is Amanda's. A custody case Legal Aid has no time to help her mother fight....It's the face of a tenant who fears eviction from her HUD-subsidized apartment...And it's the face of a woman, wanting to adopt an orphaned girl she's caring for, but Legal Aid is swamped...Today, regional Legal Aid director meetings are gatherings of the battle-weary, full of talk of witch hunts and politically motivated audits directed from Washington, about new laws against defending illegal aliens and farm workers."
If McNamara would have pursued an opposing view, he might have heard that eviction and child custody matters are going unaided because LSC lawyers have been busy filing political suits: defending Central America protesters sending convoys to the Sandinistas, gays seeking rent control protections in New York City, and liberal and minority groups trying to target redistricting to their advantage. Last year's Stenholm-McCollum reform bill would have mandated that LSC spend a certain percentage of its time and resources handling its real mission of service to the poor instead of service to the Left. These are the "witch hunts" and "politically motivated audits" of McNamara's imagination.
When McNamara finally noted "what irks conservatives most is that government money might be funding a liberal agenda," he discredited the idea by putting on Thomas Smegal, a liberal former LSC board member. "There was just this view," Smegal explained, "that somehow or other, taxpayers should not bear the price of lawyer fees to obtain equal access to justice." McNamara then concluded: "In a climate when anti-poverty has at times meant anti-poor, perhaps those needing help should feel fortunate the phones are answered at all."
USA Earth Day
USA Earth Day. USA Today editors gave Earth Day promoters more free space than they ever could buy, especially in a 24-page Friday special section. Our favorite public relations piece: "Earthlings, Take It From Your Environmental Leaders," a half-page of features on left-wing activists, including Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, Barry Commoner, Greenpeace USA Executive Director Peter Bahouth, Environmental Action Executive Director Ruth Caplan, National Audubon Society President Peter Berle, and Lois Gibbs, head of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes.
USA Today also helped environmental groups by staffing its Earth Day Hot Line with representatives of Greenpeace and other groups, and printing their addresses and phone numbers. The paper also put together an Earth Day "reading roundup," recommending titles like Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism.
Janet Cooke Award: ABC News: Thatcher Thrashing
Without Ronald Reagan to kick around anymore, why not slam Margaret Thatcher? Elected before Reagan, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has embarked on an 11-year battle to dismantle socialism instituted by a series of Labor governments in the '60s and '70s. She has accomplished many goals by selling off inefficient state-run industries, re-implementing free enterprise, monetarist principles, and reforming huge social spending programs.
So it's no surprise that when a controversial poll tax for local services went into effect in England, many American reporters derided Thatcher and her decade-long conservative tenure. London-based ABC News reporter Barrie Dunsmore was by far the most tendentious, employing misinformation and untruths. For his April 12 World News Tonight report, he earns this month's Janet Cooke Award.
Dunsmore ostensibly was reporting on rioting caused by the new tax, but his true target soon became the British Prime Minister and her policies: "The worst riot in central London in this century, sparked by a new tax here called the poll tax. Because rich and poor will pay the same in each municipality, the taxes seem, even by many of the well-off, as intrinsically unfair. But many in Britain believe the riots were also an expression of anger about a decade of Margaret Thatcher's policies." Mimicking a line that could be pulled out of any media report on Reagan's economic legacy, Dunsmore continued: "The division between haves and have nots has widened."
Dunsmore accused Thatcher of pitiful governance: "Since World War II, the government here has promised the people of Britain that it will provide the minimum requirements in shelter, education, and health care. Mrs. Thatcher's growing unpopularity appears to be directly related to the number of people who feel that she has broken those promises." He described the National Health Service (NHS) as "once the model for Europe: high quality health care free for everyone. Now patients are treated in hospital corridors. There are acute shortages of beds, doctors, and nurses. More than a million people are now waiting for admission."
Next on Dunsmore's list was the school system: "60 percent of British school children leave school at the age of 16. That compares to ten percent of Germans or Americans." On the homeless and welfare issues, he was the most harsh: "The sight of large numbers of people living on the streets is new in Britain. A national organization for the homeless says there are a million people now without permanent homes. These people, and the permanently unemployed, are part of a growing underclass in Britain, a class the Prime Minister does not even concede exists." The report had this exchange:
Dunsmore: "Your critics are likely to say very often that your policies have created an underclass in this country."
Thatcher: "I think their analysis is totally wrong. I do not recognize an underclass. It is a new word and I think it is a commentator's word. I don't think it ties in with reality at all."
Dunsmore added: "In recent years, the government has stopped making support payments to anyone under 18." A homeless activist claimed: "They can't vote because they don't have an address. They don't get any welfare payments. They have nothing to lose." Dunsmore concurred: "Which may account for the very unBritish behavior in last month's riots, and for the fears that there may be more to come."
MediaWatch asked three British policy experts to analyze the report. All characterized it as extremely misleading and, at times, untruthful. Simon Clark, Director of the Media Monitoring Unit in London, pointed out that the riots were organized by prominent far-left groups, including communists and Trotskyites. Andrew Hubback, Research Director for the International Freedom Foundation-UK, noted that rich and poor certainly do not pay the same poll tax: "People on low incomes can claim rebates up to 80 percent."
Peter Allum, Secretary for Economic Affairs at the British Embassy in Washington, countered Dunsmore's argument that the gap between rich and poor is growing. Real average male earnings have rocketed up 38 percent from 1978 to 1990. Even those making half the average male earnings saw their real wages go up 32 percent. This compares to a real drop of one percent in average male earnings during the Labor Administration in the '70s.
Hubback added that the NHS budget "has been doubled since 1979 -- an increase in real terms of 30 percent." Thatcher succeeded in cutting back the bureaucracy, leaving more money for proportional increases in the number of doctors and nurses on staff. Thus, Hubback remarked, "the NHS now treats one million more patients a year than in 1979." In late 1989, Allum pointed out, waiting lists for in-patient hospital care was down seven percent from 1979 levels.
Social Security benefits were cut for those under eighteen to discourage dropping out of high school. Clark pointed out that Thatcher introduced the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) to teach dropouts to work in the private sector. If there are young people living on the street, Clark insisted "they are there by choice." As for the homelessness, it is not one million. A quick call to London's Department of the Environment put the figure at no more than 93,000 in late 1989 -- 88,000 of whom were being housed by local programs. According to Clark, the one million homeless figure (that would be one out of every 56 people) probably comes from a well-known, left-wing group called Shelter.
Dunsmore did not want to discuss his story nor defend his sources or statistics. Reached in London, he would only say: "I think not. As a general proposition [ABC] takes the attitude that we do our reports and do not comment on them. People either like them or they do not." It's safe to say, critics of Reagan in the United States liked what Dunsmore had to say about Thatcher and British conservatism.