In This Issue
Amount, Tone of Scandal Coverage Markedly Different Than During the Reagan Era; NewsBites: Newsweek Loves the Times; Revolving Door: Formative 60's; First Lady Called "Candid" and "Responsive" After She Evades Questions; Vanishing Liberal Bloc?; Stossel's Scare Special; Washington Post's America of Cliches; Janet Cooke Award: NBC's Ann Curry Offers Dire Scenario of Overpopulation Without Citing Sources
Amount, Tone of Scandal Coverage Markedly Different Than During the Reagan Era
Why Clinton Can't Complain
Clinton defenders have reviled the media "overplaying" of Whitewater revelations. At a National Press Club panel on April 19, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ellen Hume compared Whitewater coverage to "the hot wind of a mob all shouting into each other's faces."
To determine how much Clinton supporters have to complain about, MediaWatch analysts compared the news coverage of Whitewater with previous reporting on scandals and ethical problems, and discovered the networks have been much less aggressive in pursuing the many tentacles of the Whitewater story.
1. No "Sleaze Factor." Clinton has never been identified with the "sleaze factor." A survey through Nexis of the term in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, and The Washington Post found that since 1984, when the term was used by Walter Mondale, 114 news stories containing the term referred specifically to the Reagan administration or Republicans, and only eight times referred to Democrats.
2. Press Self-Criticism. When the Iran-Contra story broke on November 25, 1986, the networks dived into the story. ABC gave its entire World News Tonight that night to Iran-Contra, and expanded Nightline to 60 minutes. CBS aired a half-hour special, and NBC did an hour special. On December 18, ABC devoted an entire 20/20 to the story. Sam Donaldson proclaimed: "If Lt. Col. North is the evil genius of the present crisis, there stands behind him a framework of ideological zeal, frustration, inattention, and tone, that can be laid to only one doorstep -- the Oval Office." NBC aired two one-hour special reports on December 15 and January 6. After the Tower Commission report on February 26, CBS aired a special called "Judgment on the White House." Combined, that's at least seven hours of specials.
When the Whitewater story first broke on March 8, 1992, the networks barely touched it, with five stories on four networks in that month. When the Whitewater story gained steam after he became President, the only special was ABC's late-night Whitewater: Overplayed or Underplayed? The only magazine show segments on Whitewater have been an April 10 60 Minutes piece on the improbability of Mrs. Clinton's commodity trading success, and two ABC Prime Time Live segments, one an interview after Clinton's Whitewater press conference with Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), and the other on Garrison Keillor's attack on the media's Whitewater coverage.
By the time the Iran-Contra story turned to analysis, media writers defended the media frenzy and blamed the White House for its problems. Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter described the ethos on December 15, 1986: "After six years of state-of-the-art White House media manipulation and large-scale public indifference to criticism of the President, reporting about his shortcomings finally had found an audience." Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon told Alter: "People are finally listening to what's wrong with him." A month later, an Alter media column asked "Was North pampered?"
"The American press can hardly be blamed for the Iran-Contra scandal, since it deserves so little credit for unearthing it," Time writer Thomas Griffith wrote in the March 30, 1987 issue. "The press was not so much overplaying the story as playing catch-up in doing its job." Griffith noted "some in the Washington press corps acknowledge that they had slacked off in frustration from pursuing stories of the Administration's bumbling and misdeeds. The public seemed either to ignore the stories or find them carping...In some of the comment and columns out of Washington there is now a patronizing note of we-tried-to- tell-you-but-you-wouldn't-listen." Once the Whitewater story achieved critical mass, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and CNN all ran stories on the "feeding frenzy."
3. Whitewater Tributaries. While Democrats complain the media have "overplayed" Whitewater, the Center for Media and Public Affairs has shown that Whitewater received one-third as much coverage as the early days of Iran-Contra or Watergate. Perhaps because of this smaller load of stories, network reports were often much less detailed than print stories. When the White House released its Whitewater tax documents, the April 15 Los Angeles Times found that while the Clintons claim they put $46,000 into Whitewater, "the tax records and supporting documents show only about $13,000 in such payments by the Clintons." None of the networks mentioned this.
The Washington Post reported on April 21 that the Clintons' company made $50,000 by repossessing lots from 16 Whitewater buyers without any return of equity, even if the buyers paid tens of thousands of dollars before defaulting. None of the networks followed up (although Terry Keenan's January 13 CNN report focused on foreclosures following Whitewater's forfeiture on the Lorance Heights development).
The May issue of Money magazine told the story of "midwestern ranchers who allege that manipulation of the futures market undermined the prices they got for their cattle...to this day the ranchers remain convinced that [Thomas] Dittmer [the sole owner of Mrs. Clinton's brokerage firm Refco] led to some of the financial hardships they suffered." The ranchers have sued in federal court, but the networks, usually so quick to do the hard-luck story in the Reagan era, never touched this angle.
In fact, the four networks have done only 18 stories between them on Mrs. Clinton's commodity trades. Despite The New York Times breaking the story on March 18, none of the Big Three evening newscasts reported the story until 11 days later. Twelve of the 18 stories appeared on the three days the White House released documents or met the press: March 29, April 11, and April 22, after Mrs. Clinton's press conference.
NewsBites: Newsweek Loves the Times
Newsweek Loves the Times
Newsweek's Larry Reibstein and Nina Archer Biddle sent a late Valentine to the new editors of The New York Times in an April 18 article on personnel changes at the paper. Retiring Executive Editor Max Frankel was "cerebral and decent." New Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld was called "an uncommonly graceful writer" whose "brilliance is noted as frequently as his shyness." New Managing Editor Eugene Roberts "brilliantly covered the civil rights movement for the Times" and is "loved in his newsroom" for his "Columbo-like, disheveled personality [which] has endeared reporters for decades." Brilliant, cerebral, loved, decent -- Newsweek usually reserves these adjectives for Eleanor Clift's stories on the Clintons.
Gumbel's Dumbbell Questions
The crime bill before Congress, containing provisions to deny weightlifting equipment and expensive college grants to convicts, came under fire from Bryant Gumbel, citing the need for "rehabilitation." On the April 18 Today, Gumbel claimed that for prisoners, weightlifting was "one of the few recreational activities still available to them." He asked Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) if she was "just kissing off the idea of rehabilitation?" Gumbel added: "If you're really worried about a convict's muscles when he gets out, why don't you do a better job of rehabilitating him, rather than depriving him of something because of what they might do when you've failed to do that?"
Gumbel also taunted her: "Should we not educate them, because they might become smarter criminals?" Gumbel mocked Pryce's claim that weights could be used as weapons: "Utensils are used more as weapons. Should we make them eat with their hands so they don't have silverware?" On April 21, after Pryce's legislation passed, Gumbel acted as if prison weightrooms were an entitlement, snapping "I guess they just want them [prisons] to be warehouses."
It's been a long time since the media caricatured the 1992 Republican convention as a "festival of hate and fear." So pardon The New York Times for its recent reminder. On March 27, reporter Richard Berke focused on "How Houston's Angry Din Still Haunts Republicans." Berke claimed: "The aura of negativism, even intolerance, that seemed to encase the Astrodome that week in Houston, still hangs heavy over the Republican psyche." He added, "The gathering is remembered for the vituperative orations in prime time of Patrick J. Buchanan, Pat Robertson and Marilyn Quayle." By whom?
Berke asserted "the fallout from Houston especially recalls that of the Democratic convention in 1984," when Walter Mondale promised to increase taxes. But CBS News exit polls found few 1992 voters based their decision on the conventions. During election coverage CBS correspondent Ed Bradley even stated, "I think in past years the conventions were very important how they played on television....This year they fell at the bottom of the list." Still, Berke concluded, "It may be a long time before that week in Houston is forgotten. Consider the best face that [William] Bennett could put on the event: `It wasn't as bad as people remember it.'"
Racist Redistricting? The Supreme Court recently rejected North Carolina's oddly-shaped congressional districts, designed to elect more minority members to Congress, with Justice O'Connor citing "an uncomfortable resemblance to...apartheid." CNN's Bruce Morton suggested other ways to play racial politics. On the April 3 Late Edition, he charged: "Usually, sadly, whites don't vote for blacks, so if blacks are to sit in Congress, the rules have to change somehow. If drawing funny district lines is out, something else will have to be tried." Morton ignored the victories of Virginia Governor Doug Wilder in a state which is 77 percent white, or Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.) who has won two terms in an 88 percent white district. Morton declared "you have to tinker with one-man, one-vote somehow because it just isn't that simple" and mentioned that "Lani Guinier...suggests cumulative voting."
To ABC anchor Peter Jennings, redistricting for minorities "created districts next door which caused all sorts of problems." Jennings outlined the "problem" on the April 18 World News Tonight: "When you draw up a district for blacks, you create ultraconservative white districts right next door to them."
The Same Green Routine
Another Earth Day, another set of stories dominated by the left. In an April 21 "American Agenda" report, ABC's Ned Potter sought an answer to Peter Jennings' introductory question: "The President said today, as he said so many times before, 'We have the responsibility to pass on a better environment to our children.' But is this administration doing its part?" Potter consulted Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund and Albert Meyerhoff of the National Resources Defense Council before concluding that, "many groups say...the administration has not used enough of its muscle to protect the earth."
Similarly, Washington Post reporter Gary Lee's April 22 story cited only Eric Olsen of the National Resources Defense Council, Steve Kretzman of Greenpeace, and the newsletter Greenwire as critics of the administration. And from the right? Not a single free-market environmentalist.
Pauley Pummels Protesters
On April 26, Dateline NBC profiled teen pro-life protesters, and while anchor Jane Pauley allowed the teens and their parents to explain their positions, she didn't hesitate to step in and refute them. One teen had passed out pro-life literature at a high school, Pauley suggested she place her energies elsewhere: "Why aren't you out there passing out information about contraception, because that guarantees that there won't be a baby aborted?"
Another teen veteran of clinic protests explained that children have more leeway when demonstrating because of lenient juvenile laws. Pauley was amazed: "That, some people are going to say, Josh, that is a cold and cynical political strategy. That you have found a way to maximize the bodies on the front lines by making them children who can cycle in and out of the justice process quickly." The pro-life movement didn't invent this tactic. It's been used by the left in anti-war protests during the Vietnam and Gulf Wars and by ACT-UP demonstrators today. Where are the NBC reports on these protesters' "cold and cynical" political strategies?
Back in July 1992, Dateline reporter Deborah Roberts described laws allowing girls seeking an abortion to secure a judge's permission instead of parental notification "humiliating" and a "grueling ordeal for a teenager." For Dateline, it seems teens are old enough to get an abortion without parental notification, but too young to protest it.
The last bastion of misogyny appears to be America's hospitals and medical schools. In an April 13 "American Agenda" report, ABC reporter Jackie Judd explained: "To hear women talk it's as if the women's liberation movement made barely a mark on medicine....Slow-to-change attitudes have helped to keep women in the dark. Even today, some women complain that doctors don't take them seriously." How could this happen? To Judd, the answer was simple: "The chaos, perceived and real, is the result of decades of neglect, lingering discrimination and the imprecision of science."
As Judd pointed out, "A few years ago, women agitated and they did get more research dollars devoted to their health, including a $625 million federal study covering everything from osteoporosis to heart disease. But women are still behind the curve." Her report, however, neglected other results-oriented statistics. For example, the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics has found female life expectancy increased at a faster rate than males over the last 20 years. Women are more likely to be covered by medical insurance than men, according to the Census Bureau. The 1994 National Institutes of Health spending estimate includes $262.9 million for breast cancer as opposed to $55 million for prostate cancer, or 3.5 times more funding for each new case of breast cancer as opposed to prostate cancer. Peter Jennings ironically introduced Judd's segment, "The medical establishment in the United States, when it comes to treating men and women, often has a double standard." Maybe so.
More Homework for CNN?
Refuse to increase taxes and the education establishment raises public alarm by threatening to cut popular programs. It's a ploy CNN bought hook, line and sinker. "In some schools the three R's soon may be all that's left as funding dries up. It's a problem across the nation, a problem apparently having few solutions," lamented anchor Linden Soles in introducing the April 8 World News segment. Reporter Lisa Price explained: "Next fall, the voice of the BloomTrail High School choir will be silenced. Spanish and other languages dropped from the curriculum and competitive sports lose to a shrinking budget. A small school district outside of Chicago cuts $5 million in spending after voters fail to raise property taxes." Price later added: "Educators are calling for the federal government to pay more."
CNN didn't speak to Angela Henkels of the Center for Education Reform. Henkels documented that while education spending tripled over the last 30 years, SAT scores have declined. Her conclusion: "Billions of dollars continue to be wasted, absorbed by layers of administration and countless regulations." Ironically, Department of Education statistics show that in 1992-93, Illinois had the highest teacher salaries as a percentage of expenditures in the nation. No wonder they can't afford the choir.
Frazier Presents Poverty
The new show CNN Presents aired "One Paycheck from Poverty -- The Working Poor" on April 10. Reporter Steven Frazier spoon-fed the liberal slant on poverty statistics: "They're barring the door all over the United States. The number of working poor in America went up 50 percent in the past 13 years, a development the Census Bureau called `astounding.' Eighteen percent of full-time workers cannot make enough to lift a family out of poverty. Incomes got worse for every group the Census measures -- men and women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, young and old, college graduates and high school dropouts, rural and inner-city. More rural in fact. But hard working people, all of them."
Frazier did not talk to Chris Frenze of the Joint Economic Committee, who told MediaWatch this 1992 Census report was "scandalous and bizarre." More than 80 percent of the "working poor" counted in this study are not below the Census poverty line when figured for family size. In other words, if a single teenage male makes less than the poverty level for a family of four, this report called him "working poor." Adjusted for family size, the percent of working poor below the poverty line actually fell from 15.8 percent in 1979 to 12.9 percent in 1990. Frazier told MediaWatch: "We weren't looking at the poverty rate, we were looking at the number of people who were working year-round full time, yet were still poor." Census figures show only four percent of people who worked for 50 or more weeks in 1991 lived in poverty.
The House bank scandal keeps unfolding, but you'd never know it. Last year most media ignored former House Sergeant-at-Arms Jack Russ's embezzlement admission. On April 5, former Rep. Carroll Hubbard (D-Ky.) pled guilty to channeling campaign funds through the House bank to help his wife's political campaign. CNN and The Washington Post ran full stories, and USA Today and U.S. News ran brief mentions. But ABC, NBC, CBS, Time, Newsweek and The New York Times ignored it.
Revolving Door: Formative 60's
A recent interview and profile have revealed that two top ABC News staffers toiled for left-wing politicians in the 1960s. On CNBC's Equal Time February 17, co-host Mary Matalin asked 20/20 correspondent Sylvia Chase why she left politics.
Chase responded: "Because I had two Kennedys sort of shot. I had been involved in both those campaigns and I, it was a very sobering experience for me, actually, the second one. And I was at the hotel, and I had organized Southern California volunteers and committees. And I felt it was time to move on and also in that time career opportunities for women had opened up finally in journalism."
Chase rejoined 20/20 in 1990 after a four-year stint as an anchor with KRON-TV in San Francisco, a job she took after ABC refused to air a segment she reported which romantically linked John and Robert Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe. She reported for CBS News from 1971 until jumping to ABC in 1977.
In 1968, an April 12 Washington Post profile revealed, World News Tonight Executive Producer Richard Kaplan worked as "an advance man" for Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. During that campaign he met Susan Thomases and in 1980 she introduced him to Bill Clinton. Kaplan soon became a FOB.
While Executive Producer of Prime Time Live in 1992, he advised Clinton on how to control damage from the Gennifer Flowers story. In February, Knight Ridder's Marc Gunther reported that in 1992 "Kaplan and Clinton stayed up late playing cards and talking about how to deal with" an upcoming talk show appearance. Last year, Gunther noted, Kaplan played golf with the President and stayed overnight in the Lincoln bedroom.
Bringing Helms to Baer
Last month MediaWatch reported the move of U.S. News & World Report Assistant Managing Editor Donald Baer to the White House as Director of Speechwriting. An April 9 National Journal profile divulged that this wasn't Baer's first spin through the revolving door. "In 1972," James Barnes wrote, "he attended the Democratic National Convention in Miami as a junior aide to ex-Gov. Terry Sanford's token presidential bid." By 1981 Baer had became a lawyer in New York City. When North Carolina Governor James Hunt, a Democrat, opposed Senator Jesse Helms in 1984, Baer "organized a $75,000 Manhattan fundraiser for Hunt." Three years later, he joined U.S. News.
James Cannon, a Time and Newsweek reporter in the 1950s and 1960s, has written a new book titled Time and Chance: Gerald Ford's Appointment with History. Cannon can offer some first-hand observations: He served as domestic policy adviser to President Ford.
Following the Korean War, Cannon spent two years with Time before switching to Newsweek. By the time he jumped into politics in 1969 as an adviser to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, The Washington Times noted April 19, he had risen to the position of Chief Political Correspondent for Newsweek. When the liberal Republican became Vice President, Cannon moved with him to Washington, later joining Ford's staff. Following Ford's loss he became Chief of Staff to Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, Jr.
First Lady Called "Candid" and "Responsive" After She Evades Questions
Three Cheers for Slick Hillary
Reporters were happy when Hillary Rodham Clinton took their advice and held her long-awaited Whitewater press conference on April 22. They could finally ask hopefully as New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse did on Washington Week in Review: "Is this basically the end of Whitewater?"
But in reality, the end is nowhere in sight because many questions were left unaddressed. As columnist Tony Snow wrote, she "answered precise questions with lawyerly evasions [such as] 'There's really no evidence of that' ....and she invoked the amnesia defense more often than Ronald Reagan did in the days of Iran-Contra," saying "I don't remember" at least six times.
The media ignored her lack of specificity, grading her instead on style. NBC's Tom Brokaw gave her high marks: "She was cool, articulate, and for the most part very responsive to all questions." ABC's Peter Jennings repeated Mrs. Clinton's charge that attacks on her show "the country is having some difficulty adjusting to a working woman in the role of First Lady."
CNN's Jill Dougherty praised the First Lady on that evening's World News: "It was an extraordinary performance...[she] answered questions for more than an hour, for more than 100 reporters."
"A riveting hour and 12 minutes in which the First Lady appeared open, candid, but above all unflappable. While she provided little new information...the real message was her attitude and her poise," Time's Michael Duffy enthused in the May 2 issue. On CNN's Capital Gang, Time columnist Margaret Carlson touted the triumph: "Her explanations were perfectly reasonable, something else might come out, she didn't answer every question, but, hey, she came across fine."
An "A double-plus" was the grade Newsweek's Eleanor Clift gave her on The McLaughlin Group, explaining "She's been re-zoned back into the stratosphere...She really was convincing and sincere."
Of the network reporters, only ABC's Brit Hume suggested "Mrs. Clinton may not have answered all the questions about the family's financial dealings." Some papers explored the questions left hanging, such as why did the Clintons, 50-50 partners with the McDougals, bear less of the debt for Whitewater? How did Mrs. Clinton avoid receiving margin calls on her cattle futures trades?
The Washington Post ran an article inside headlined "First Lady's Explanations Yield Little Information" and even The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, who called it "an exceptionally polished and calibrated performance," conceded later that "she never fully resolved the central questions of Whitewater and the commodities trades."
Vanishing Liberal Bloc?
The Blackmun Blues
Reporters split into two camps upon the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun: those who hailed him as a liberal and those who failed him as not liberal enough.
Blackmun was "widely regarded as the conscience of the court," Bryant Gumbel told April 6 Today viewers. Reading from the same script that afternoon on CNN's Inside Politics, anchor Judy Woodruff proclaimed Blackmun's "fierce protection of individual rights led some to anoint him the moral conscience of the court." The next day, Los Angeles Times reporter David Savage asserted Blackmun "slowly transformed himself into an outspoken liberal and a champion of justice and fairness."
In an April 7 Associated Press story reporter Laurie Asseo wrote that Blackmun traveled a "philosophical journey that brought him a new sensitivity toward the human beings behind the legal issues." On April 11, The Boston Globe called him an "increasingly passionate advocate of the oppressed and underrepresented."
The April 18 Time honored Blackmun as someone who "underwent a highly public evolution from conservative to liberal jurist, becoming one of the court's most passionate defenders of constitutional liberties for ordinary citizens."
Newsweek's David A. Kaplan led the other camp the same week in an article titled "Why the Court Needs a Liberal," which complained: "John Paul Stevens will be about the closest thing to a liberal that the Supreme Court has left....Blackmun's `liberalism' was apparent only against the right-wing backdrop at the court that emerged in the '80s." The solution? Clinton "should pick an unabashed liberal for the court...because it would enhance the court's prestige for the long term. There hasn't been a liberal nominated since 1967." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a staunch supporter of abortion rights and opponent of the death penalty, didn't qualify.
New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse told colleagues on the PBS show Washington Week in Review: "As for Harry Blackmun's liberalism, you know, it's everything in context. I think that the last true liberals on the court were Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall." Steven Roberts of U.S. News replied: "Is this the end of the liberal bloc on the court?"
Stossel's Scare Special
Consumer reporters have often focused on allegedly deadly chemicals, contaminated food, or a "dying planet." Even if scientists found the fears overblown, the media had already moved onto another exposé. In an amazing turnabout, ABC consumer reporter John Stossel devoted an April 21 news special to the topic with a show titled Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?
Examining the asbestos scare which paralyzed the New York City schools last fall and cost taxpayers "almost $100 million dollars," Stossel found "most scientists who research asbestos and the dangers say closing the schools made no sense...what the kids were exposed to in school wasn't a real risk." He cited Dr. Stephen Levin, "an activist who usually advocates more safety regulations ....he says New York's attempt to remove asbestos probably spread more into the air."
Stossel visited Aspen, Colorado, where "EPA proposed to excavate thousands of truckloads of dirt from this neighborhood, because there's lead in the soil. Blood tests done on local children found no lead poisoning. In fact, lead levels were below the national average."
He showed that statistically, everyday activities like driving and common objects like water-filled buckets were more deadly than "toxic" chemicals. Stossel wondered "what if simply having so many regulations kills people?" He explained: "Regulations act as a brake on the economy -- when it takes five years for the factory to get a permit to open, fewer people are employed. If pesticide use is restricted, food costs more and people have less to spend on other things...there's a good chance we're shortening lives by making more people poor. Yet we rarely take this into account when we spend billions trying to squeeze the last ounce of risk out of these smaller threats."
Unlike reporters which pass along the latest environmental horror story without question, Stossel took the media, and even himself to task. He recalled: "I was there when the government evacuated the town of Times Beach, Missouri because there was dioxin in the soil." At the time he claimed "dioxin is incredibly deadly." He admitted the dioxin risk had been overstated: "Years later, the government official who urged that the town be closed said, well, he may have made a mistake...But that didn't get much publicity. The media had moved on."
Stossel concluded with a rhetorical question: "Today we're exposed to far more dangerous-sounding chemicals and technologies than ever before -- pesticides, pollutants, bioengineering, electromagnetic fields. And the result? We live longer than ever....What's lengthened lifespans by 30 years just this century is the very technology we now fear so much."
Washington Post's America of Cliches
Decimated by the Evil '80s
Frequent PBS Washington Week in Review panelist Haynes Johnson traveled around America and found -- surprise -- that most people agreed with his liberal views. In his latest book, Divided We Fall: Gambling with History in the Nineties, the former Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor offered a series of platitudes:
"By the Nineties, there was no longer any doubt about what had happened. The safety net had developed gaping holes, and more and more Americans were falling through it. It wasn't only the social welfare recipients who were suffering; every element of American society was being affected by major cutbacks in police and fire protection, schools, and hospitals. No area of the nation was exempt. Everywhere I went I found examples of suffering, of worsening conditions, of growing anger and fear."
"[Clinton] represents a departure. He is a President with a sense of history, and one who asks himself what Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or Truman -- the models he cites -- would have done when faced with difficult judgments. At the least, he is the President who challenged Americans to rethink their future. His presidential agenda remains the most ambitious in decades. Despite the difficulties of the first year, his record of legislative success was the greatest since Dwight D. Eisenhower -- and...was achieved without the use of a presidential veto. Not only is he gambling with history when he attempts to reduce the deficit by simultaneously raising taxes and cutting spending in a weak economy. He also rolls the dice in his health care reform plan -- the boldest, most visionary domestic initiative since the 1930s."
Janet Cooke Award: NBC's Ann Curry Offers Dire Scenario of Overpopulation Without Citing Sources
Desperately Seeking Science
Every spring, the networks turn their attention to environmental issues, and every spring, viewers see another set of warnings that the planet is in crisis. Perhaps the most overdone story is the threat of "overpopulation." Despite decades of failed predictions of planetary doom (like Famine 1975!), reporters continue to present the doomsayers' side with no rebuttal from the optimists. For continuing this one-sided and inaccurate pattern, NBC's Ann Curry earned the May Janet Cooke Award.
Substitute anchor Jon Scott introduced Curry's April 3 NBC Nightly News story: "In Focus tonight, overpopulation and poverty. Beginning tomorrow at a conference sponsored by the United Nations, delegates will begin discussing the need for a world population policy and the consequences if none is developed."
Curry warned: "This baby in Mexico City is one of 1.8 million born each week into a world now severely threatened by rapid population growth...Today's population has already set off an environmental spiral, depleting the world's forests and contributing to overfishing and overgrazing. Soil is being eroded, which in turn is hurting crop production, leading to starvation, and often, political unrest."
But Curry's only "experts" in the story came from the left: Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, Joseph Speidel of Population Action International, and Tim Wirth, the former liberal Senator turned State Department appointee. NBC did not look for another point of view, like that of University of Maryland economist Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource. MediaWatch asked Curry's producer at NBC, Tom Dawson, why he wasn't contacted. "I'd love to talk to Simon," he said. But did he? "No, I did not call him."
Other network producers have argued that Simon doesn't deserve to be interviewed, claiming the majority of scientists disagree with him. Dawson agreed: "That is generally my feeling. I've run across him in several issues I've dealt with...his views are not shared by very many, if any, serious academics."
Simon told MediaWatch: "My research is the mainstream now. In 1986, the National Academy of Sciences came out with a report nearly reversing its earlier and more alarmist conclusions. It said `The concern about the impact of rapid population growth on resource exhaustion has often been exaggerated.' It found positive and negative consequences. The scientific community has made a dramatic U-turn. But my views are not shared by the press and the community of academics who are not specialists on population economics -- biologists, sociologists, physicians." Simon said Speidel is "a physician. How is he a scientist on population growth?" As for Lester Brown, "one percent of his professional group agrees with Brown. But he gets 99 percent of the press."
Curry didn't cite any actual sources or studies for any of the dramatic claims in her story. When MediaWatch asked why television stories on science often fail to cite any research, Dawson responded: "The whole problem is not as simple as it's presented on television. The problems of soil erosion are different in different parts of the world for different reasons. In some parts, they're having to deal specifically with deforestation. Some parts they don't. It's a matter of trying to take a very complex issue and simplifying it in such a way that it is accurate and comprehensible."
MediaWatch challenged Dawson to prove his report, asking if he could confidently produce data to prove that world starvation is increasing. His response? "Off the top of my head, I can't answer that question. Simon bases his thing on the green revolution," a new crop of agricultural products and technology. Dawson continued: "The green revolution has increased grain production. But the experts are now saying that the green revolution is reaching its limits, and no new technologies have developed to create an increase in production."
Dawson's views came through clearly in Curry's script: "Through- out the world, family size has shrunk significantly, down a third the last forty years. But the change comes too late to prevent an explosion. At the current rate of growth, the population would still soar from 5.7 billion to 22 billion in 55 years. Food production isn't keeping pace, and experts say that means food prices will rise worldwide because of the increasing demand."
NBC didn't cite U.S. Department of Agriculture and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization measures of world food production per capita from 1951 to 1990. For forty years, the measure has steadily increased in every decade with no significant downturn. This doesn't support NBC's claim of decreasing crop production and starvation.
Simon insisted every one of NBC's claims was demonstrably wrong. "I have a wager for NBC. Pick any measure of human material welfare -- from nutrition to the number of cars per capita -- in any country in the world. I will bet the measure will show improvement rather than deterioration. If I win, the money will go to charity."
Curry concluded: "Monday, the UN begins studying the next decade's priorities on population. The main issues are how to develop poor countries and whether increasing the status of women would slow the birthrate. Most countries agree family planning should be a top priority, even though it would cost billions every year...According to the experts, the world finds the will to bring down the population now, or its children pay later."
Curry's only expert here was Speidel, who recommended spending an additional $10 billion on international family planning. Dawson told MediaWatch: "That was the dream figure of someone at the State Department...Tim Wirth. It's what he thought it would take to educate the world on family planning." Dawson added that he would have liked to focus more on China, whose forced abortion policies were called "harsh" in the NBC report, saying they're one of the few countries with the "grass-roots institutions capable of intervening in people's lives" to curtail population growth.
Year after year, the alarmist conclusions of reporters have failed to come true. Reputable scientists opposing gloomy scenarios have been regularly more accurate than the doomsayers. When will network reporting on environmental "crises" consider them worthy of getting their 10 seconds of argument in a news story?
In a 1990 Public Interest article, Simon wrote that despite his reputation for optimism, he was "extremely pessimistic about the short-run likelihood that people in the West will get the chance accurately to assess the issues discussed here, and hence avoid the great losses of life and wealth that faulty assessments of the impact of population growth will ensure...there will be innumerable avoidable tragedies because the good news goes unreported. How sad that is."