MediaWatch: May 1996

Vol. Ten No. 5

NewsBites: TIME and TIME

Time and Time Again. "Raise Gas Taxes Now!" blared the headline over a May 13 Time piece by contributing editor Matthew Miller. The subhead: "The U.S. pays a huge price for still-too-cheap gasoline. Higher fuel taxes can clean the air and lower the deficit." The gas tax debate allowed Time to return to old form. Back in 1993 MediaWatch determined that at least 24 times in the previous for years the magazine had demanded a gas tax hike.

Miller argued: "At roughly a billion dollars a penny in annual revenue, a 50 cent gas tax would slice a quarter off our budget deficit by 2000, while still leaving prices 20 percent below their 1981 high and less than half what motorists abroad pay." He decried a stingy public: "In 1993 Americans found 4 cents on top of $1.20-per-gal. gas almost too much to bear, even while we bequeath our children dirtier air, the continued risk of war over oil and a trillion dollars in fresh debt every four years. Now Dole’s trying to get that nickel back for us. He ought to know better."

Faw Pas. NBC's Bob Faw surprised Today viewers April 10 with footage of Bill Clinton leaving a memorial service for Ron Brown. Clinton laughed until he spotted a camera -- and then dropped his head and began to wipe phantom tears from his eyes. NBC was the only network to air the video but even Faw tried to soften Clinton's moment of fraudulence: "Rituals like this do matter, while they hardly define a presidency or make up for its shortcomings, they help a nation heal, and in the process they shed light on whether a president is compassionate, an actor, or both."

But journalists would rather eat their own than criticize Clinton. The media panel on CNN's Reliable Sources unanimously bashed Faw on April 14. Martin Schram of Scripps-Howard scowled: "I used to think that the low for television was that in-your-face journalism, when they would put a camera and a microphone in a guy's face and chase him down the street. This is worse, this is in-your-head journalism." PBS’s Ellen Hume added: "In this case Bob just went way overboard, and he went into territory he has no idea what was genuine and what wasn't."

In a spin-control job the White House would envy, Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz made up a new scenario: "You could be at the funeral of a friend and you could be talking and accepting condolences, and then when you go up to make a speech, you kind of choke up because you're emotional about it. What's so crazy, what's, what's noteworthy about that?" Host Bernard Kalb concluded: "How does a reporter trivialize the President's emotions or the President's sincerity? I don't know where the starting point is for that sort of journalism, but I find it, as you do, Ellen, clearly unacceptable."

The Very White House. President Clinton's trip to a Miami public school to announce his salvo in the war on drugs set off controversy. According to an AP story in the May 3 New York Times, "At issue was a decision by a White House aide to reject a local group's recommendation that Mr. Clinton be introduced at an anti-drug event by a black teenager and to request a white speaker instead." But the race-conscious "mainstreaming" received no network coverage. Neither did Hillary Clinton's racial gaffe in a speech to the liberal women’s PAC Emily’s List. On April 27, Los Angeles Times reporter John Broder noted she affected a black accent to recount San Francisco mayor Willie Brown asking who is this "Emily List":"She's supportin' all these people. She's supportin' Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She's supported Sen. Barbara Boxer....She supported everybody. Why won't she support me?"

Ed Rollins didn't get the same benefit of the doubt when he spoke at a May 1995 Brown roast, when Brown was Speaker of the California Assembly. Rollins, putting words into Brown's mouth, said that if elected Mayor of Los Angeles, Brown "could show those Hymie boys Berman and Waxman [Democratic Congressmen] who were always trying to make Willie feel inferior for not being Jewish." CNN devoted five stories to Rollins' remark (with Jill Dougherty calling it a "slur") and his subsequent resignation from the Dole campaign.

Morales Boosters. Victor Morales and Al Salvi surprised their respective party establishments during recent Senate race primaries, with Morales winning the April 9 Democratic nomination in Texas and Al Salvi gaining the GOP nomination in Illinois on March 19. But judging by network coverage, the similarities ended there. After Morales' victory, he garnered in-studio guest slots on CBS This Morning and ABC's Good Morning America, as well as CNN's Inside Politics. NBC's Today show had already profiled Morales in March, before any votes were cast. In all, Morales' win garnered six network stories.

Meanwhile, Al Salvi, who shocked moderate Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra, only made the CNN show Inside Politics. Even in the mostly favorable "Play of the Week" story by CNN’s Bill Schneider, Salvi was labeled a "very conservative" surprise who demonstrated how conservatives can lose "the nasty edge a lot of conservatives seem to have these days." Schneider referred to Salvi's conservatism five times. The Big Three completely ignored the race.

Rosty Dearest. On April 9, former Illinois Congressman and Ways and Means Committee boss Dan Rostenkowski pled guilty to two felony counts of corruption while in Congress. The night of and morning after the plea, the Big Three networks read anchor-briefs on his conviction. Time, U.S. News and World Report, and Newsweek also kept the conviction to tiny one- or two-paragraph blurbs in their April 22 editions (although Newsweek broke the plea story the week before).

ABC’s Cokie Roberts was the only network reporter to address the story. On the April 14 This Week, Roberts hurled a softball to Rosty about his good intentions. She recalled that in 1992 she asked him, "'Why are you running for re-election when you could just go home and have this money.' You said 'I want to get healthcare done, I want to hang that scalp on my wall.' Here it is four years later, you've spent $2 million in legal fees, you're about to go to jail and health care isn't done. What are you feeling?"

Invisible Cardinals. On April 1, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsored a candlelight vigil with two Cardinals outside the White House to urge Clinton to sign the partial birth abortion ban, but the broadcast networks ignored it. Today gave 11 seconds to the protest, but didn’t mention the Cardinals. Only CNN gave it a full story plus Crossfire.(ABC's This Week with David Brinkley later interviewed Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston on April 21.) The vigil got even less publicity in print; no major newspaper or news magazine touched the event.

It was another story when President Clinton vetoed the bill on April 10. That received front-page coverage in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post. The Post’s Ann Devroy wrote: "The veto came in an emotional Roosevelt Room ceremony where five women sometimes tearfully described having had such abortions." NBC's Tom Brokaw also described the ceremony as "emotional." Every evening news program reported on the veto ceremony, but ABC's World News Tonight was the only network to include comments from pro-life advocates.

But when the bishops criticized GOP welfare reform in march 1995, ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN’s Inside Politics and NBC Nightly News aired full stories.

What Liberal Judges? Bob Dole's insisted that Bill Clinton names liberal judges. "Are Clinton Judges Too Liberal?" asked USA Today's May 7 front page. The answer in the subhead: "Dole May Be Out of Order." Tony Mauro asserted: "Studies indicate that the 187 men and women Clinton has placed on the bench are markedly moderate."

The Washington Post's Joan Biskupic felt so strongly Dole was wrong she wrote a Sunday Outlook section editorial on April 28 charging "Dole's characterization of the judiciary is way out of date." In a March 9 news story, Biskupic had insisted "the 'liberal' justices appointed by President Clinton are hardly extreme...[Pat] Buchanan often targets [Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg, who was appointed in 1993 and on the Rehnquist court is comparatively liberal." Later she found ideology in Justice Antonin Scalia, calling him "distinctively brash, opinionated and far to the right in his view of constitutional limits." Other reporters agreed on Clinton's moderate picks. On March 23, New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse found "the Clinton nominees compromise a moderate, mainstream group." Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Barrett argued on April 3: "the White House angered liberal activists by picking many moderates and steering away from some strongly ideological liberals."

But the Free Congress foundation’s Thomas Jipping managed to learn, as he noted in the May 20 National Review, "some of Clinton’s appointees...have ruled for the defendant in every criminal-law opinion they have written."

Fine Distinctions on the Left...The national media were quick to connect the dots between the Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh and conservative talk radio hosts and politicians, blurring any distinctions. But the discovery of Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski led reporters to draw precise distinctions between the Unabomber and his sympathizers.

On the April 17 World News Tonight, Peter Jennings ignored the Unabomber's trail of deaths: "A small but determined group of rejectionists traces its roots to the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. English workers, in that case, who destroyed the machinery they thought would rob them of their jobs. Today's movement is kinder and gentler." After talking to people from both sides of the anti-technology spectrum, reporter Ned Potter insisted: "In truth, anti-tech sentiment runs the gamut, from extremists like the Unabomber to radical environmental groups like Earth First to ordinary people, uncomfortable with the pace of the modern world."

New York Times reporter Dirk Johnson also excluded the Unabomber in an April 15 piece on a Luddite gathering: "Today's Luddites differ from their forebears in other important ways as well. For one, they oppose violence....The Unabom case has focused more attention on antipathy toward the advances of technology. In fact, the Unabomber's published manifesto included references to Luddism. While nobody here agreed with the actions of the bomber, several people said his fears were rational."

...No Distinctions on the Right. Reporters still weave a conspiracy between talk show hosts, the militia movement, the NRA, and Newt Gingrich for the Oklahoma City bombing. NPR’s Mara Liasson asked on the April 19 Washington Week in Review on PBS: "When the President went out to Oklahoma City last year and made those comments about loud and angry voices, he also made some other comments about certain conservative talk show hosts, that was very controversial. Do people in Oklahoma City connect the loud and angry voices with what happened to them?" Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report replied: "Yes, they're not happy about the G. Gordon Liddys of the world. They're not happy about the name calling that goes on on talk radio....We used to be able to passionately disagree about issues without threatening each other." When Borger noted the need to "lower the decibel level," host Ken Bode interjected: "Well, one of the people who has got to take some of that advice is the Speaker of the House."

CNN's Marc Watts made a similar connection to Oklahoma City on the April 19 Inside Politics: "After that tragedy the NRA was accused of promoting the anti-government sentiment that may have spurred the bombing...The organization said it was all a misunderstanding and it denies any involvement in the blast."

Who said the NRA was "involved"?