MediaWatch: May 3, 1999

In This Issue

Colorado Tragedy Exploited for Politics; NewsBites; Short Shrift for Clinton's Contempt; MSNBC's Contrarian Take; French Day Care Touted; ABC Focused on Teen's Faith

Colorado Tragedy Exploited for Politics

Within hours of the shooting at Columbine High School the first instinct of some network producers was to exploit the tragedy to attack gun rights advocates instead of holding the perpetrators responsible or focusing the blame on lax parenting and inattentive school officials. While those angles have received attention in the massive coverage, all the networks served as one-sided conduits for the arguments of gun control advocates.

Promoting Suzann Wilson
. While ABC and CBS managed to hold off, temporarily, on the gun control preaching, within hours of the shooting NBC Nightly News went to Suzann Wilson, the mother of a girl killed 12 months ago at a school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, who is now a gun control crusader. The night of the Colorado shooting NBC’s Ann Thompson relayed her reaction, explaining: "Suzann has used her hurt and anger to campaign for laws to hold gun owners responsible when children use those weapons to hurt others, taking on gun rights advocates on the front steps of the Arkansas Capitol." Thompson cut to Wilson yelling, "This is not about the Second Amendment. This is about parents burying children."

ABC and CBS picked up Wilson’s crusade the next morning as CBS invited her onto This Morning. She also appeared on Today. Over on ABC’s Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer asked Janet Reno: "But we keep hearing over and over again that even troubled kids could get access to help, without this sort of incident, if they didn’t have access to guns first. Is there a gun control measure that you think would actually help prevent a situation like this?"

Too Many Guns the Problem
. That night, on the April 21 World News Tonight, Peter Jennings announced: "It is no surprise that this became a big international story, and in the other nations headlines, not for the first time, America is seen as a country which cannot control violence committed with guns. In Japan today the headline was ‘How sick is the gun society?’"

On NBC’s Today, the second morning after the shooting, Katie Couric pressed the Republican Governor of Colorado, Bill Owens, about gun control: "A lot of people are asking about the accessibility of guns. Have you wondered about that yourself?" Owens pointed out that the killers had broken many laws on the books already, but no network pursued that angle on the futility of more gun restrictions.

CNN’s Judy Woodruff served as a gun control advocate on the April 22 Inside Politics when she interviewed Republican Senator Wayne Allard and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. She demanded Allard respond to Senator Feinstein’s points about how the shooting shows the need for more controls, but instead of challenging Feinstein with his retorts she tossed up Feinstein’s own talking points for easy replies. Woodruff harangued Allard: "Let me just begin by asking you to what extent do you think the easy availability of guns was one of the main causes of what happened?" And: "You voted in the last session of Congress to repeal the assault weapons ban. Do you stand by that vote?"

NRA’s "Cruel Reminder."
While the NRA shortened its annual convention planned for Denver, that did nothing to dissuade the media’s rancor. Using loaded language Peter Jennings, on the April 22 World News Tonight, warned: "The gun lobby scaled its plans down, but it may not have been enough."

Aaron Brown provided a full report, starting with a soundbite from Denver Mayor Wellington Webb urging that the convention be canceled. Brown noted that three bills expanding gun rights for Coloradans had been dropped by the legislature and aired a soundbite of state representative Doug Dean suggesting it would have been a "slap in the face to those families to debate any kind of gun legislation." Brown led into a soundbite by NRA President Charlton Heston: "And the gun lobby’s leader drew criticism from what he said to a TV interviewer yesterday." Heston made the point that even one armed guard could have saved many lives and perhaps even prevented the shooting. Brown picked up: "In fact there was an armed officer in the school on Tuesday trying to do that." The Jefferson County Schools Security Director, Howard Cornell, pointed out that the shooters were engaged by the guard with a handgun.

However, Brown failed to draw the obvious conclusions that a school of Columbine’s size required more than one guard or that the guard’s cornering of the shooters may have prevented even more deaths. Instead, Brown went to a soundbite from Bob Walker of Handgun Control. Brown then concluded, "A pro-gun legislator, the House Majority Leader, said the same thing to us today: that the fear of the victims’ families testifying, re-living the tragedy, he said, will keep legislators from even considering loosening gun laws for many years to come."

The CBS Evening News caught up with the anti-gun cause on Friday night, April 23. Reporter Sandra Hughes, over a video of a NRA billboard advertising its convention showing Charlton Heston holding a rifle, Hughes chastised: "This National Rifle Association billboard is a cruel reminder for those still grieving over the events in Littleton that next week the NRA is coming to Denver, even though Mayor Wellington Webb asked the NRA to go away."

After a soundbite from Webb, Hughes continued: "It will only scale back its planned three-day conference to a one day meeting. NRA President Charlton Heston refused our request for an interview. A spokesman told CBS News, the NRA quote, ‘wants the community to bury their children’ before it will discuss gun control. The Littleton massacre has galvanized the anti-gun movement across the country." Hughes went on to detail gun control legislation in California and allowed a gun store owner to say gun laws are not about crime control but people control and then concluded, "Even in many conservative states pro-gun legislation is being tabled and in Colorado two bills long supported by the gun lobby were shut down days before becoming law."

As the week came to a close CBS’s Face the Nation brought aboard Colorado Governor Bill Owens. Bob Schieffer demanded: "Governor, have you changed your mind now about gun control laws? I know you favored the concealed weapons law that was being debated out there, did you not?"

Schieffer and Gloria Borger quizzed the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre about whether he favors allowing teachers to "carry heat" and why he isn’t for holding adults criminally responsible for their kids before they turned to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. He got nicer treatment as Borger set him up: "Do you think tougher gun laws could have prevented this?"

Not once in any of these stories did reporters highlight statistics showing how passage of concealed weapons laws, according to University of Chicago economist John Lott, have reduced crime or that one of the Framer’s intents for the Second Amendment was to grant citizens the ability to protect themselves and loved ones from the criminally-minded like the crazed murderers in Colorado.


Tax Wonders

At tax time ABC lectured viewers about the wondrous benefits of taxes. On the April 14 World News Tonight, Judy Muller found some locals in San Louis Obispo, California to complain about big government and high taxes. She countered: "In fact, the federal government takes about a billion dollars a year from this county, but what most residents don’t realize is that the government gives back almost the same amount – money that makes a difference."

Muller ran through a list of local projects, for which residents should be grateful, such as stabilizing the banks of a creek, dredging a bay, fixing a water tower and issuing $6 million in grants to Cal Poly for such projects as writing a computer program to load cargo onto military ships. In an analysis reminiscent of the trickle-down economics so disparaged by the networks, Muller explained their value: "While that money does not directly affect the townspeople, it does add to the prestige and overall economic health of the university which is directly linked to that of the town."

Over video of an empty field Muller contended: "What you don’t see is suburban sprawl. That’s because federal money helped the county buy up development rights in order to preserve farmland – farmland that feed the farmers who feed the tourists, who feed the town."

In her conclusion, Muller stated, "In other words, the benefits of tax dollars are not always visible." And just why are the federal middlemen needed to gather funds to redistribute instead of simply allowing localities to levy the taxes to pay for all these things? Muller didn’t explain.

Lying to Congress?
Energy Department officials admitted before a House committee on April 15 that they withheld information from Congress about Chinese espionage at the national labs, but only FNC found it newsworthy. Not a word that night on ABC, CBS, CNN or NBC.

The Associated Press reported that subcommittee Chairman Duncan Hunter said two Energy officials "testifying under oath in a closed session in October, dodged specific questions about spying activities at the department’s national weapons laboratories."

Notra Trulock, the agency’s special adviser for intelligence, said on April 15 that "he acted at the behest of then-Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Moler, who also testified at the hearing, when he did not discuss the investigation into possible Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico." The AP’s Jim Abrams added: "Trulock said Moler also edited written testimony he had prepared for the hearing to delete references to counterintelligence operations. Moler denied editing the testimony and said she only instructed Trulock to limit his comments to the subject of the national labs’ foreign visitor program."

This was Trulock's second congressional appearance of the week and the second time ABC, CNN and NBC ignored him. As noted by the April 19 MediaWatch, on April 12 he told a Senate hearing his bosses "ridiculed" and "ignored" his discovery of espionage.

Arnett Axed
Nine months after retracting its Operation Tailwind piece reported by Peter Arnett, CNN decided to not renew his contract. In doing so, CNN fulfilled the recommendation of Perry Smith, CNN’s military consultant who quit in protest after CNN ignored his warnings.

The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz relayed how Arnett "has said he contributed ‘not one comma’ to the story, which aired on the debut of the CNN-Time program NewsStand, charging that U.S. troops used nerve gas in Laos in 1970. He said he participated in only a couple of interviews but read the script on the air because he is a ‘company man.’" In fact, producer April Oliver, who was fired by CNN, told a Freedom Forum event last July: "Peter participated fully. He took time off in April and May just to be available to us for this program."

Appearing on the January 5 Late Late Show with Tom Snyder, Smith said that while CNN admitted making an error, "They didn’t get rid of Peter Arnett and [CNN President] Rick Kaplan, which they should have done." One down and one to go.

Short Shrift for Clinton's Contempt

More on a Local Rescue and Celebrity Breast Implants

The morning after federal judge Susan Webber Wright cited Bill Clinton for contempt for lying in the Paula Jones deposition, NBC News VP Tim Russert told Katie Couric on Today: "Bottom line, to be held in contempt by a federal judge is a big deal."

Russert issued his assessment just past 7:30am, after Today dedicated most of the first half hour to talking with five people involved in, or who covered, the rescue of a man in Atlanta trapped on a crane above a roaring fire. The April 13 Today allocated 13:34 to the fire rescue versus just 4:24 dedicated to the contempt citation issued to the President the afternoon before, a first in American history.

Today’s priorities matched other major outlets. The three broadcast networks each aired a brief story the evening of April 12, but only CNN and FNC followed up with a story the next night. On the Fox Report David Shuster uniquely showed viewers how the White House refused to address the embarrassment: "At the end of an event in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Clinton was asked the question directly." Viewers heard a reporter asking "Will you appeal the contempt, Mr. President?" Shuster showed how Clinton walked away.

CNN skipped Clinton’s obfuscation, going on The World Today with a piece by Bruce Morton on how after surviving so many scandals, "Finally, he ran out of teflon"and "got nailed for contempt of court. Not a close call, either. ‘Contumacious’ the judge called the President. Webster’s says that means ‘stubbornly perverse or rebellious, willfully disobedient.’"

The two biggest weekly news magazines were derelict. While the April 26 U.S. News gave Gloria Borger a page to tell readers about the ruling, Time gave it two sentences in an article about Starr’s loss in the Susan McDougal case. Viveca Novak wrote that "for a President who told Dan Rather he doesn’t consider the impeachment vote a ‘badge of shame,’ the legal slap may amount to a footnote in the saga."

Indeed it will if all take it as seriously as Newsweek which provided only this 15-word quote from Webber on its page of quotes: "The court takes no pleasure whatsoever in holding this nation’s President in contempt of court." Newsweek did have room for a 150-word item about Pamela Anderson’s decision to remove her breast implants while 17-year-old singer Britney Spears "confronted allegations that she’s had her chest augmented."

MSNBC's Contrarian Take

In contrast to the calls for greater gun control cited above, on the night of the shooting MSNBC’s Brian Williams broke from conventional media wisdom in an interview with Bobby Mitchell, the husband of a Jonesboro victim, and his attorney.

Instead of taking the obligatory swipe at the NRA, Williams tried to understand how public policy could have averted the massacre by two deranged gunmen hell-bent on destruction and contemptuous of the law: " represented the victims there in Jonesboro, Arkansas and that led to positive change...There is great anger, of course, and there is great sadness in Littleton, Colorado tonight. Should they try to do something right away, try to harness that, put it into positive change and would this have happened with the strictest gun laws in the country anyway?"

French Day Care Touted

U.S. Solution: Elect Hillary

Those concerned with the "crisis" in childcare found a sympathetic ear for their liberal solutions on ABC’s Good Morning America. The entire 8am half-hour block on April 20 was spent on childcare, starting with a preview for a left-leaning documentary on Lifetime Television, "Confronting the Crisis: Childcare in America." During this time, host Charlie Gibson offered an unchallenged platform to actress Lee Grant, the special’s director, and actress Kyra Sedgwick, its host.

Gibson outlined the supposed crisis: "Nearly two-thirds of mothers with children under age six work outside the’s a startling statistic, and it makes childcare an unrelenting worry that is pushing many parents to the brink, emotionally and financially."

Sedgwick lamented, "I felt so terribly sad that we in America, we’re constantly talking about how children are our future," yet "we don’t put them first, and it’s not a priority and there’s no help in this area for most parents."

Without objection, Gibson offered Grant an easy opening for her next topic: "What’s the solution to all this? Is there a country that’s found a way out of this?" And off went Grant, extolling the government-run system in socialist France. Grant outlined how "the corporations and the government pay higher taxes for this, but their philosophy is that a well-educated child is a civilized adult,.and this is the way I think we have to approach it."

Gibson related his struggles to find childcare 25 years ago for his daughter, adding: "I kept thinking if a politician would just run on the issue of day care, and maybe throw in education, a politician would win, if they could come up with a solution. The problem is, what’s the solution?"

Sedgwick shared her solution: "I think we should vote for people who are, obviously, going to do something about this issue. I mean, hopefully, Hillary’s gonna make her bid in this area." Gibson broke out laughing, exclaiming: "Little plug, little plug from a New York resident who’s looking for a Senate candidate. I see." Sedgwick continued: "I’m going to do my part in voting, that’s the only thing I really can do."

But perhaps it would be even more helpful to fix the problem of government regulations making whatever problem exists worse by raising the costs and hassles that neighbors, churches and synagogues must overcome before kids can be in their care.

That issue was never considered.

ABC Focused on Teen's Faith

Church Credited

"Today at Cassie Bernall’s funeral friends and family celebrated the strength of one young girl’s faith," ABC’s Peggy Wehmeyer observed in opening a story unusual for network TV, about how church and faith straightened out a wayward teen. Various forms of Wehmeyer’s April 26 profile of one of the students killed at Columbine High School ran on Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and 20/20.

On World News Tonight Wehmeyer, the only religion reporter employed by a network, noted how Cassie Bernall’s "story has touched the Christian community here because of how she responded when she was challenged by her killer." Her father told Wehmeyer how one of the killers asked Cassie if she believed in God, "she boldly said yes" and was shot dead.

Wehmeyer explained how religion turned Cassie’s life around: "Cassie’s faith in God had not come easily. In her early adolescence she was angry and rebellious, dabbling in witchcraft and experimenting with drugs and alcohol." Her parents felt they had to step in, Wehmeyer recalled: "Cassie wasn’t allowed to see her friends or use the phone. The only place she could go was to church, to an intense weekend church retreat which her parents said changed her life."

Her mother told Wehmeyer: "She looked at me in the eye and she said, ‘Mom, I’ve changed.’" Wehmeyer picked up: "Just two days before she died Cassie Bernall recorded these words on a video for her youth group." Viewers saw Cassie in a home video proclaiming something possibly unprecedented for a network news story to include: "You really can’t live without Christ. It’s like impossible to really have a true life without him."

Wehmeyer concluded by highlighting Cassie’s legacy: "Today Cassie’s friends and family are determined that she will be remembered as a modern day martyr, a young woman willing to die for her faith."