MediaWatch: November 1989

Vol. Three No. 11

American Agenda's Liberal Agenda

When ABC's "American Agenda" debuted on November 11, 1988, Peter Jennings introduced the series: "Most people would probably agree that there are some issues in our national life which are more important than others, and therefore, worth more of our attention: the economy, the environment, crime, and drugs, particularly; education, health, and the family. Well, every night, at about this same place in the broadcast, we will take a look at some of the choices to be made on the 'American Agenda.'"

MediaWatch analysts reviewed all "American Agenda" stories on World News Tonight for the past year and found that ABC often followed liberal concerns in the day-to-day choice of subjects, while items on the conservative agenda were ignored. Despite a wealth of ideas generated by conservative policy experts, their policy suggestions were never the main focus of an "American Agenda" story, while liberal think tanks and politicians were often plugged by Jennings and the ABC reporters.

MediaWatch analysts found that of 154 stories broadcast through early November, education came up 14 times, drugs were the subject of 12 stories, and crime only four. (Defense was a topic only once.) Though it was the first topic in Jennings' introduction, the economy did not qualify for one story, and ABC Economics Correspondent Stephen Aug never appeared.

The network did cover business issues on six occasions, but what was ABC's idea of a business story? Beth Nissen's report on the excessive advertising of alcohol companies in black neighborhoods (Dec. 29) and Bettina Gregory's profile of a Vermont bank's "socially responsible" investment fund for left-wing causes (Aug. 16) were just two examples. ABC never explored topics like urban enterprise zones, higher food prices caused by subsidized agriculture, the cost of regulation, or how the minimum wage can serve as a barrier to employment for unskilled workers.

The majority, 92 stories, or 60 percent, were spread among three dominant topics: health, wit 32 stories, social issues (such as abortion, day care, and the homeless) came next with 31 stories, and 29 focused on the environment.

HEALTH. ABC's concentration on health issues made obvious sense in light of the country's increasing health consciousness, not to mention the demographic strength of the elderly in the nightly news audience. A majority of stories addressed informational topics like cancer or autism, but when the network took up the Big Picture on health care, the solution was usually Big Brother. Twelve stories highlighted a liberal approach favoring government solutions to health problems, and eight of the 12 came from Health Correspondent George Strait. Among his reports: favorable stories on a federal plan forcing employers to provide health insurance (last Nov. 16) and on government fetal tissue research (Dec. 15). Looking for victims of a catastrophic health care repeal (Sept.18), Strait went to some lengths to find a bedridden stroke victim and her daughter suffering from multiple sclerosis. Although Strait reported the two depended on Social Security, he solemnly warned that "they could lose and lose big. They could lose their independence and end up on welfare."

In a January 30 profile on Canada's socialized medical system, Strait called it "a system that works." Strait maintained that "health care is seen as a social commitment in Canada, a commitment that America is not yet ready to make." Strait repeatedly stressed that health care was a "right," meaning a government obligation. In a year of health reports, ABC never explored one conservative contention--the explosion of government spending on health in an age of rising deficits, how government health programs force market distorting price controls on doctors, or how regulations and liability costs add to the price of health care.

Most of Dr. Tim Johnson's reports addressed less political topics and provided more straightforward explanations. But in a June 29 segment on teen pregnancy prevention in the U.S., Johnson suggested Holland's method of providing birth control for teenage children with no parental notification, no pelvic exams, and no warning about possible side effects. ABC apparently couldn't find one parent in all of Holland who disagreed with their country's permissive approach.

SOCIAL ISSUES. ABC's coverage of the family sometimes openly insulted traditional family values. In an April 12 report on divorced or widowed housewives, Peter Jennings asserted that "our society encourages women to pursue such a career with all those images of the happy homemaker. Well, sometimes society lies." ABC added injury to insult by airing Carole Simpson's report on abortion (Apr. 25), which began with a classic tale of a drunken mechanic with grease under his fingernails performing illegal "back-alley" abortions. Simpson told viewers "No statistics were kept, but it's estimated that in the 1960's more than a million women had illegal abortions each year, and as many as 5,000 died every year from complications." ABC compounded its irresponsibility by putting the completely unconfirmed figures up on the screen in large green letters.

ABC also did reports on government-mandated parental leave programs (last Nov. 21), on how the infant mortality rate is rising because of the lack of government programs (Mar. 7), and on the California state government's version of the New Deal "Citizens Conservation Corps" (Jan. 25). ABC found it worthy of a report even though they mentioned the program had a 75 percent dropout rate.

By contrast, reporter Rebecca Chase often broke with liberal dogma, filing a number of groundbreaking stories exploring the reasons behind homelessness, such as family breakdown and deinstitutionalization, that "homeless advocates" disdain. In addition, on seven occasions, ABC's social coverage gave attention to volunteer ideas, from midnight basketball leagues in the inner city to hiring the retarded, without preaching the need for government action.

ENVIRONMENT. ABC's concentration on environmental stories reflected Jennings' feeling that "We are destroying the global home in which we live...We are literally in the process of choking ourselves to death." ABC followed the agenda of environmental groups like the Sierra Club right down the line. For example: oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Feb. 8), tree-harvesting in the Tongass National Forest (Oct. 10), Superfund and its right-to-know provisions (Nov. 23, Mar. 6), and even promoting government money for solar power (Sept. 11). In an April 6 report plugging a bill by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) to force automakers to raise federal fuel- efficiency standards, Jennings sounded like Jimmy Carter: "This country has apparently forgotten the lessons of recent history when it comes to the need for more fuel-efficient cars."

Most importantly, ABC has been an active proponent of the greenhouse effect theory, warning in ominous tones of global warming in eight separate "American Agenda" segments. Ned Potter called it "the most urgent problem on the environmental agenda," but ABC never investigated the loss of jobs or sacrifices in lifestyle that would occur under an anti-greenhouse program. Despite the admission of the EPA's climate specialists that there's an 80 percent chance that global warming will not occur, not one report was dedicated to that possibility. Not one report even mentioned it.

Potter, who crossed the line into advocacy in a good three- fourths of his reports, couldn't even cover trash disposal (Dec. 2) without panicking: "The problem is that what makes our life convenient is burying us...Is this our fate? To be buried in our own debris?" When Potter wasn't scaring the viewer with visions of environmental catastrophe, he was engaging in political advocacy, promoting the anti-capitalist, pro-disarmament Green Party as the wave of the future (July 13): "Europe is gray with pollution, worse than America's. But Europeans have an option we do not. They can vote Green." Potter reported that "In years past, Eurpe's Green Party was a fringe movement. Today, Green has become a mainstream attitude, pushing the world to clean up." 

Only one environmental report promoted private sector action, a Barry Serafin story last December 9 on how groups like the Nature Conservancy purchase private land trusts to preserve the land themselves at no cost to taxpayers.

The "American Agenda" series is an effective antidote to media critics' most frequent complaint, that television news only covers the surface of events. In that regard, the series has become a praiseworthy vehicle for longer, more informative reporting. But if the network is bold enough to break out of network news conventions, it should be bold enough to challenge conventional liberal wisdom, not just float along with it.