MediaWatch: November 16, 1998

In This Issue

Was 1998 "The Year of the Moderate?"; NewsBites; Stamping Dirt Down on Newt's Grave; ABC's Quiet on Quotas; Silently Playing the Race Card

Was 1998 "The Year of the Moderate?"

On the liberal Web site Slate, William Saletan declared that post-election spin "can address more than who’s up and who’s down. It can redefine people, issues, and events by rotating their facts so that people see them from new perspectives. For this reason, the contest of interpretation that consumes the 24 hours after an election is as important as the election itself. It defines the election and its mandate."

Saletan explained that the 1998 elections turned the tables on Newt Gingrich’s attack on liberals. "Now the tables are turned. The word ‘conservative’ is being manipulated by Gingrich’s enemies and the media to caricature and marginalize Republicans. If Gingrich isn’t careful, the C word could go the way of the L word, and conservatives could go the way of liberals." Election night coverage on the networks seemed to carry that inspiration, to continue burying the Republican "revolution." The media mantra quickly became that "moderate, pragmatic, centrist" Governors won, teaching a lesson to conservative ideologues in Congress for the next two years.

"Moderate" 1994 Results?
But is this new? Take election night 1994, as the polls rolled in showing one of the most stunning victories for conservatism in modern times, coming after weeks of media demonizing of the man CBS’s Eric Engberg called "bombastic and ruthless" Newt Gingrich. Even then, network analysts on six occasions found a mandate for centrism, while the networks mentioned a defeat for liberalism only five times. CNN’s William Schneider declared: "The cynics would say this is a vote for gridlock, but I think it’s easier to say, and I think the data points to the conclusion, that it was a vote for bipartisanship, for centrism." NBC’s Tim Russert claimed the results showed the American people wanted "a centrist, moderate government, maybe tilt a bit right of center. They don’t want extremes."

Spin Early, Spin Often.
This year, the media spin hardened early around the first returns, as two Republican Senators (Al D’Amato, Lauch Faircloth) and two Republican Governors (David Beasley in South Carolina, Fob James in Alabama) were defeated: moderates won, social conservatism and impeachment lost. On NBC’s election special, Tom Brokaw prodded Trent Lott: "As you know, the Republican candidates for Governor who were successful tonight ran away from the presidential scandal and concentrated on more pragmatic and practical solutions to everyday problems out there. Do you think congressional Republicans need to learn something from their brethren in the state houses?" Brokaw didn’t explain which Governors lost who made Lewinsky an issue.

On Nightline, ABC analyst George Stephanopoulos sounded the same alarm: "I think that the hand of the moderates has been strengthened tonight. The big winners in the Republican Party tonight, George Pataki in New York, John Engler in Michigan, George Bush in Texas, Jeb Bush in Florida, were all trying for a more compassionate conservatism, more centrist, moderate conservatism, not the far right-wing agenda that really cost the Republican Party a lot tonight."

At about 12:40 am ET on CNN, network veteran Bruce Morton insisted: "This was a fairly tough season for very ideological Republicans, not the moderates but the social conservatives." Minutes later, CNN’s Jeanne Meserve chimed in: "It seems to be the year of the moderate. The two most ideological candidates, Fob James in Alabama and David Beasley in South Carolina, went down to defeat....You saw moderates in places like Connecticut and New York winning. Also in California, you have to look at Gray Davis, a Democrat, and say he ran a very centrist campaign stressing issues like education and crime."

The next morning on Today, Tim Russert also insisted: "Matt, it’s quite striking. Republican Governors who won by margins of 2 to 1 from the northeast to the midwest were those who emphasize pragmatism and performance. When the perception of the Republicans in Congress was different than that, that they were ideological or philosophical the tone and the result was different. It appears that the people chose to emphasize Social Security, education, those kinds of issues and try to downplay the whole notion of scandal."

On ABC, Good Morning America co-host Kevin Newman knew the tune: "It was interesting. We saw a rush to the center. The Republican Governors, the ones that succeeded were the ones that moved to the center. Is this, are we in a period where we’re going to have a debate within the Republican Party over who will control it?"

NBC’s Gwen Ifill strangely added that now tax cuts were a "moderate" issue, apparently because the networks would rather report a tax cut debate than an impeachment debate: "Today Republicans realized that many of their successful candidates are pragmatic Governors concerned with getting results. Congressional Republicans say they’ve learned their lesson, that the first thing the new Congress will focus on is something that people care about: tax cuts."

What Was Missing?
Almost entirely missing from the coverage was the conservative line on Republican losses: that the lack of a conservative agenda hurt the Republicans. One network analyst did suggest that the GOP’s problem was inconsistency. On Wednesday’s Good Morning America, ABC News political director Mark Halperin told co-host Lisa McRee: "The Republican Party, which obviously is the more conservative party, has sort of made a hash of everything. They so mishandled the year, focusing too much on Lewinsky, focusing too much on their agenda, and then only to give up and give the President everything he wanted on the budget deal, that it’s hard to know why their base would have turned out at all, and that obviously allowed Democrats to do better, and makes it unclear how Republicans proceed now."

Ignoring A Bigger Picture.
The networks also didn’t do any homework on the overall fiscal picture for state governments. As the Cato Institute’s Stephen Moore pointed out in his last fiscal report card on the Governors, these Republican Governors in large states are using the current economic good times to look both liberal and conservative — increasing state government spending by five or six percent a year at the same time they’ve offered supply-side tax cuts or simple tax rebates. In addition, one of the reasons these governors have increased spending on day care and children’s health is because Washington passed welfare reform and devolved these duties from the federal government to the states.

By Wednesday night, Tom Brokaw broadened the media line: "The American political landscape looks a good deal different tonight than it did just 24 hours ago. It now has a broad middle road running through it, the preferred passage of both successful moderate Democrats and pragmatic Republicans."

But was it a bad night for extremes? Consider some 1996 ideological scores from the American Conservative Union: the Democrats sent to the Senate Barbara Boxer (5), Russ Feingold (10), Patty Murray (0), Charles Schumer (5), and Blanche Lincoln (a 10 in 1994 before she retired from the House). The Republicans sent Mike Crapo (95) and Jim Bunning (100), and Peter Fitzgerald, who two networks warned was too conservative to win.

Back in April CBS’s John Roberts claimed "Conservative Peter Fitzgerald, who wanted to legalize concealed weapons and ban abortions, won the GOP nomination over moderate Loleta Didrickson. Many Repubicans say she would have a better chance of beating Carol Moseley-Braun." CNN’s William Schneider claimed Didrickson "looked like the perfect candidate, a moderate woman who supports gun control and abortion rights."

Aside from the historical trend of sixth-year gains, since when does losing five House seats signal a tectonic shift in Washington? In the end, the networks appear to be attempting to create political reality instead of merely report it, and ringing the death knell for electable conservatives was all in a week’s work.


Body Double
Did former pro wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura win the race for Governor in Minnesota because he was a tax-cutting, government-trimming conservative or because he pushed a liberal social agenda? Depends which network you believe. On ABC’s World News Tonight the day after the vote, reporter Jim Williams declared: "His simple message: smaller government and lower taxes." NBC’s Jim Avila disagreed, insisting on NBC Nightly News that liberals gave him the margin: "He won among liberals with a social agenda that is pro-choice and pro-gay rights. And scored half the large independent vote in Minnesota with a message that appealed to voters fed up with politics."

CBS’s Ad Blitz for Team Clinton
As America prepared to head for the polls, CBS Evening News aired the White House party line unrefuted on the two weeknights before election day. On Friday’s newscast, correspondent Scott Pelley reported from the White House where he highlighted Clinton’s new role as conciliator-in-chief: "With no strong issues propelling voters to the polls, Democrats are now raising impeachment as a threat to the nation’s well-being. Late today Mr. Clinton carried that theme to African-American ministers in a classic of Clinton campaigning." Clinton declared: "If you believe in your heart that you have been a part of my presidency, and I tell you that you have, I wouldn’t be here without you, then I ask you this one thing: Realize that this too is an important election. That this is not an ordinary time, it is therefore not an ordinary election." A considerable Clinton soundbite but no time for a Republican rebuttal.

More of the same followed election eve when the Evening News found time to offer vituperative barbs against "extremist" Republicans from Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton without any counterpoint. Again, Pelley focused only on the Democratic point of view. The first clip showed Clinton on BET urging blacks to vote: "Do they want more of the last eight months of partisanship or would they like more progress?"

Hillary’s attack at a rally for Charles Schumer followed: "So when he fights, he’s not fighting for some extremist Republican agenda. He’s fighting for a New York agenda that will improve the quality of life of people." Remarkably, after three unchallenged Democratic soundbites, Rather then plugged his network’s election coverage, stating "CBS News’s clear, understandable, in-depth coverage of the election results will start when the polls begin closing." In-depth coverage of one side.

Fonz the Fascist?
In the media’s dictionary of political slurs, apparently "putzhead" outranks "fascist." On October 26, ABC, CBS, and NBC all noted Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s use of a Yiddish insult of his opponent Charles Schumer at a private meeting. Peter Jennings warned of "probably the meanest campaign in the country." Also that night, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw found "One of the closest and nastiest Senate races of all" and CBS anchor Dan Rather said "This race is also down and dirty, negative and nasty." CNN also did a story on D’Amato’s Schumer slam.

Flash back to 1992. No outrage erupted when D’Amato’s opponent back then, state Attorney General Bob Abrams, called D’Amato a "fascist" at an October 10 rally of college students, and no one broached the subject on NBC. ABC, CBS and CNN touched on it weeks after the first reports, but CBS and CNN left it out of their evening news shows.

On the October 22, 1992, CBS This Morning, ad expert Bob Garfield defended Abrams: "At this stage I think he’s probably wishing he apologized to the fascists, because it has been so twisted by the D’Amato campaign into an ethnic slur." On the October 26, 1992 World News Tonight, Jeff Greenfield referred to Abrams as "an unreconstructed liberal with a limited charisma quotient and a squeaky-clean reputation" as he mentioned the less-than-squeaky-clean insult in passing. On CNN’s Inside Politics on the 29th, Jeanne Moos aired snippets of a radio debate: "Off the cuff, a frustrated Abrams called D’Amato a fascist. D’Amato seemed ready to cry...D’Amato choked up was too much for some folks to swallow."

Stamping Dirt Down on Newt's Grave

Media Outlets Pile on Gingrich Even As He Resigns as Speaker

Hours after House Speaker Jim Wright resigned over ethical failings on May 31, 1989, ABC’s Jim Wooten mourned on World News Tonight: "And if his moving speech today does not restore those decencies he so wistfully remembered today, then perhaps history will remember that at least he tried." When Majority Whip Tony Coelho resigned five days earlier, ABC’s Barbara Walters murmured on Nightline: "It seems to be a personal tragedy as well as, perhaps one for the country." On May 26, 1994, Good Morning America co-host Charles Gibson asked Newt Gingrich about Democrat Dan Rostenkowski stepping down: "You’re an admirer of good legislators...Is this an American tragedy?"

But charity was not in the air when Gingrich announced his resignation on November 6. While Peter Jennings just called the step "bizarre" on Friday (and Linda Douglass noted he’s given the GOP "a snarling image"), Carole Simpson led off World News Tonight Sunday with a poll: "Good evening. A new poll from ABC News shows Americans will not miss Newt Gingrich: 70 percent approve of his decision to step down as Speaker of the House. And 90 percent say his successor should try harder to work with the Democrats instead of against them."

Ending CBS’s Face the Nation that morning, host Bob Schieffer claimed Gingrich’s self-importance led him to believe "it was alright for him to take ethical shortcuts" and "he once got a bad seat on Air Force One and said that was one of the reasons he shut down the government." But Gingrich said he’d been on a plane with Clinton for 15 hours and never discussed avoiding a showdown. Schieffer ended: "The man who saw himself as a transformational figure in American politics may turn out to be no more than a figure in transit. So long Newt. We hardly knew you."

In the November 8 Washington Post, reporter Thomas Edsall dredged up Willie Horton: "Gingrich followed that example but added new sophistication to the GOP’s use of such race-tinged issues as crime and welfare to win control of the House in 1994." Edsall ignored facts like how Gingrich lost two times to old-line Democratic segregationist John Flynt before being elected to the House in 1978.

On Fox News Sunday, ex-ABC reporter Brit Hume noted: "Gingrich had a terrible press and animosity. I know a lot of reporters in this town and their attitude about Newt Gingrich is poison... They hated the guy. Thought he was a bad person. Thought he was evil." It showed.

ABC's Quiet on Quotas

Covered 1997 Win, Ignored 1998 Loss

What a difference a year makes. Last year, when Houston defeated Proposition A, which would have banned the city’s racial quota program, ABC ran a full story. But a year later, when the liberal state of Washington approved a ballot measure for a statewide end to affirmative action, ABC did not air a word.

Peter Jennings announced on the November 5, 1997 World News Tonight that "in Houston, voters chose to keep in place an affirmative action program that steers city contracts to companies owned by women or minorities. The Houston decision seems to buck a trend developing in the country to reverse course on affirmative action."

Dean Reynolds followed with a report about the measure, which would have ended Houston’s policy of awarding 20 percent of all city contracts to women and minority-owned firms: "The city says that number is only a goal, not a rigid quota. But opponents of the policy, spurred by the success of the anti-affirmative action campaign in California, said the policy was biased and the time to end it had come." Reynolds explained how the opponents wrote Proposition A to "make it sound as if it were a way to end discrimination without ever mentioning the words affirmative action," but Houston Mayor Bob Lanier managed to get the wording changed, so "affirmative action" would be mentioned. Reynolds ended his piece with a denigrating comment on the conservative view: "Mayor Lanier said the choice for Houston was clear: people here had to decide whether they wanted to be viewed as a cosmopolitan, diverse, international city or, as he put it, ‘Redneckville.’"

But all ABC shows ignored Washington state voters deciding to eliminate racial and gender-based preferences by a decisive margin of 59 - 41 percent.

Two days after the election, on World News Tonight Jennings even ran down several of the ballot measures that won: "Some leftover election news, in case you missed it. Those ballot propositions on Tuesday, let’s call it citizen action on the cutting edge." Jennings ran through "citizen action" on the new cigarette tax in California, approval for medical use for marijuana in six states, and bans on cock fighting and bear wrestling in Missouri, but no mention of the citizens of Washington state rejecting quotas.

Silently Playing the Race Card

The ads run by the GOP in the waning days of the campaign created a fuss among some in the media, complaining about too much negativity and too much Monica. But when the Missouri Democratic Party targeted blacks with a race-baiting ad in the St. Louis area, it only made it into the national spotlight on Fox News Sunday and FNC’s Fox Report.

Running on local black radio stations, the ad tried to scare minority voters to the polls: "When you don’t vote, you let another church explode. When you don’t vote, you allow another cross to burn. When you don’t vote, you let another assault wound a brother or sister. When you don’t vote, you let the Republicans continue to cut school lunches and Head Start." Despite such inflammatory tactics, the ad didn’t make a single ripple among other news shows. But Tony Snow on the November 1 Fox News Sunday challenged guest Rep. Barney Frank about the appropriateness of the ads: "Congressman, the President said that one of the hallmarks he wants to make is in civil rights, and I know that you’ve been actively involved in a number of civil rights issues. What I want to do is to play for you an ad that’s been running in the St. Louis area, and there are also some counterparts around the country, and I want to get your reaction to it ....Congressman, is that fair play?" Snow again brought up the ad in a segment with guest Paul Begala, a presidential counselor: "Is it part of the Democratic strategy to scare black voters into going to the polls?"

During the show’s final roundtable discussion, Snow asked Juan Williams of The Washington Post what he thought about the ad, and Williams responded by calling it "scandalous," "incendiary," and "patronizing" to black voters.

The day before the election, Jim Angle’s piece on FNC’s Fox Report about President Clinton’s efforts to get out the black vote included White House accusations of Republicans trying to intimidate black voters. After clips from White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart and President Clinton making this claim, Angle turned to RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson for a response: "Nicholson pointed to Democratic ads that he said equate voting Republican with racism, such as this radio ad from the Missouri Democratic Party."

Silently Playing the Race Ca