In This Issue
Selective Post-Debate Truth Squads; NewsBites: Mandate for What?; Revolving Door: Clinton's Network Help; Networks Say "Extreme" GOP Convention at Fault; Bush Loss is Reagan's Fault; NBC's Ross Dogs Dems; Simon's Sermons; Janet Cooke Award: CBS Reporter Eric Engberg, Running on Empty
Selective Post-Debate Truth Squads
CLINTON & GORE IGNORED, QUAYLE SCORED
Throughout the 1992 campaign, reporters were quick to label the Republicans as the party of distortion and inaccuracy, but the networks could have just as easily documented the daily errors and distortions of the Democratic ticket. The October 21 Wall Street Journal included an article by economist Alan Reynolds titled "The Worst Lying About the Economy in the Past 50 Years," detailing distortions in Clinton's statements in stump speeches and the debates.
Reynolds noted that in the first debate, Clinton said we are suffering "the first decline in industrial production, ever." Reynolds pointed out industrial production has risen by 2.1 percent since May 1991. Clinton also charged that U.S. wages have slipped to 13th in the world. Reynolds asserted: "All these figures show is that high German interest rates pushed European exchange rates up. That did indeed make European wages look high when converted to dollars, but it also makes European prices look even higher. The real purchasing power of foreign wages is a great deal lower than implied by converting them into dollars." (Italics his.)
In the third debate, Clinton said "I defy you" to find where he supported higher CAFE standards. Newsweek economics columnist Robert Samuelson wrote in the October 28 Washington Post: "Please, give me a hard one. Page 98 of Putting People First (the Clinton-Gore manifesto) says that a Clinton administration would 'raise the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards for automakers to 40 miles per gallon by the year 2000 and 45 miles per gallon by the year 2015.'"
In fact, the networks did not devote one evening news story to assessing the accuracy of the presidential debates. But on October 14, the evening after the vice presidential debate, ABC and CNN both scored Quayle for lying about the Clinton-Gore record. On World News Tonight, ABC reporter Jim Wooten declared "The blue ribbon for factual flexibility goes to the Vice President. More often than Senator Gore, Mr. Quayle was either mistaken or misinformed."
CNN reporter Brooks Jackson agreed: "It was Quayle who repeatedly twisted and misstated the facts...The political reality is that voters don't score campaign debates on the basis of who gets the facts straight. But if they did, Dan Quayle would have lost Tuesday night's debate hands down."
Quayle asserted that raising the CAFE standards to 45 miles per gallon would cost 300,000 jobs. Wooten asserted: "That estimate is based on an unlikely worst-case scenario that all workers now building cars which do not meet that standard would eventually lose their jobs."
Wooten took exception to Quayle's claim that Gore favored a $100 billion environmental Marshall Plan, as proposed in Gore's book Earth In The Balance: "That is not true. Gore's book proposes a global plan financed by several countries, not the U.S. alone. And it does not specify a total cost or America's share."
On CNN's Inside Politics, Jackson agreed: "Dan Quayle was flat wrong about that. The $100 billion figure on Page 304 of Gore's book refers to the cost in today's dollars of the post-war Marshall Plan, not what Quayle said." But suggesting a Marshall Plan for any problem means a massive financial commitment of foreign aid. Instead of following up with Gore on the charge (If not $100 billion, how much?), reporters hit Quayle for bringing it up.
Jackson pointed out that contrary to Gore's assertion, Clinton's policies did not create a lot of high-wage jobs in Arkansas, since the state's average hourly wage is $2.38 below the national average. But Jackson quickly turned back to the Vice President: "Quayle misrepresented Clinton's economic plan, which calls for a net tax increase of only $46 billion spread over four years -- the $150 billion Quayle mentioned, minus $104 billion in cuts he neglected to mention."
But the conservative weekly Human Events discovered the $104 billion figure was nowhere to be found in the Clinton-Gore book Putting People First, which underscores an important point: throughout the year, Clinton's economic plan has changed repeatedly. By the time he sends a plan to Congress, it may change again.
Network reporters like Wooten and Jackson easily slipped into choosing sides by calling candidates "wrong" on amorphous estimates of future policy decisions. Quayle couldn't give a precise number for Gore's environmental Marshall Plan, because Gore won't commit to one, but it would cost billions. No one can give a precise estimate of job losses with more regulations on automobile production, but it would cost jobs. No one knows how much Clinton will raise taxes and spending, but he's declared that he would raise both. Even debates over past policies, like Clinton's claims about wages, are points of debate that reporters would do better to explain than superficially declare "wrong."
The networks can be much firmer with matters of public record that are easily determined right or wrong, such as Quayle's charge that Gore voted for the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). Jackson charged: "Once again, Quayle was wrong. The record shows Gore voted against final passage of the initiative in 1983." But ABC's Wooten corrected CNN: "[Gore] did vote against it, twice, but also voted for it once as part of a larger legislative package."
Outside the network news, syndicated columnist Mona Charen added: "In 1991, Mr. Gore voted for the [CBI] program in stand-alone legislation." None of the networks followed up on Gore's charge that through the CBI, the Agency for International Development (AID) was supporting the export of American jobs to Latin America. Gore specifically charged that a plant in Decaturville, Tennessee was closed and its jobs moved to El Salvador.
But Charen corrected Gore: "The plant in Decaturville was closed because the company went bankrupt, not because it moved to El Salvador. In fact, the only connection between the two plants (which made different items) is that the same holding company at separate times owned both of them." Charen added that "The 40-year-old American company that opened the plant in El Salvador was able to increase its U.S. employment by 20 percent since expanding its operations to Latin America in 1984. It has never closed a U.S. plant."
Exploring the details of candidates' claims is a laudable practice that brings voters more of the statistical nuts and bolts of governing that the networks don't always have the time (or take the time) to explain. But singling out one candidate over another for "ribbons of factual flexibility" isn't educating the voters; it's just telling them how to punch their ballot.
NewsBites: Mandate for What?
Mandate for What? Shortly after midnight eastern time election night, CNN analyst William Schneider reviewed a network exit poll question: "We asked them which would you favor -- 'A government that provides more services but costs less in taxes,' only 37 percent said that, and even though a Democrat was elected today, most voters said they favored a government which would have lower taxes and fewer services." An on-screen graphic showed 55 percent for "Lower Taxes."
Schneider concluded that "the consensus of the Reagan era, for less government, appears not to be entirely gone." The exit poll was completed by Voter Research and Surveys for all the networks, but this answer never got mentioned in the days after the election by ABC, CBS or NBC, nor The New York Times, Washington Post or USA Today.
A Sweeping Mandate? Bill Clinton garnered the lowest popular vote percentage since Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Someone needs to break the news to The Boston Globe's Curtis Wilkie. In a front page "news analysis" the morning after the election, Wilkie exclaimed: "Bill Clinton called for change, but he never dared ask for a mandate as sweeping as the one he received last night. The magnitude of the Democratic triumph was so enormous that it ensures Clinton a strong alliance with Congress and an incentive to move quickly on his domestic programs....Clinton marched to victory in state after state, from New England to the Old Confederacy, across the industrial belt and the Great Plains to California, where the Democrats last won in 1964. He piled up a popular vote nationwide that transcended predictions, while his party strengthened its hold on Congress." In fact, the Republicans gained nine House seats and, depending on a run-off, may break even in the Senate.
Wilkie proceeded with some additional historical revisionism to justify a Clinton mandate: "The repudiation of President Bush was so vast that it is reminiscent of the election 12 years ago that drove another President, Jimmy Carter, from office." Of course, in that three-way race Carter won just six states. Bush won 18. Later, Wilkie asserted: "The overwhelming margin of his election gives Clinton an opportunity to create a new Democratic epoch, in the same way that Lyndon B. Johnson's 44-state majority in 1964 produced a Great Society....It has been a long, barren period for the Democrats, but Clinton is in a position to lead a restoration."
Do the Left Thing. CNN's look at George Bush in its October 25 "Battle to Lead" special was critical of the President's record -- but only when he refused, as reporter Ken Bode put it, to "do the right thing." In other words, only when he refused to take the liberal position.
Bode intoned: "When it comes to questions of race and civil rights, George Bush has a tendency to shift sides. Sometimes he follows a conviction to 'do the right thing.' Other times he seems motivated by politics, what will help win the election." Bode explained: "For two terms as Vice President, Bush watched as Reagan chipped away at civil rights gains: the Voting Rights Act was one target. The courts began to roll back decisions in discrimination cases. The days of aggressive civil rights enforcement were over. Bush never broke publicly with Reagan over his racial policies. But supporters say privately, he pushed the President to take more moderate stands."
Bode also smeared the conservative position on quotas: "David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, ran for office as a Republican, using themes that sounded very much like George Bush's own words."
Pink Panic. Is "gay-bashing" on the rise in America? Dateline NBC co-host Jane Pauley believes so. She introduced an October 27 piece by declaring: "You're holding your sweethearts hand as you walk down the street. And for that, you're kicked in the face. Why? Because you and your lover are lesbians. Attacks like that, many far more violent, have been reported across the country. Just how far will intolerance go?"
Reporter Deborah Roberts talked to various members of OutWatch, a New York City-based gay activist group, about "gay-bashing" and what is being done to fight it. She lectured that "what is happening is a surge in hate crimes against gay men and lesbians ...Last year there were nearly 600 assaults reported. The vicious assaults -- gay-bashings -- are happening all over the country." On what did Roberts base this? She did not speak to any government or other law enforcement representatives. Three news clippings, detailing assaults on homosexuals were presented as evidence; but they came from three different regions of the country and spanned nearly two years.
Roberts ended up undercutting her story. To illustrate this "surge" in hate-crimes, Roberts convinced two homosexuals to walk up and down a New York City street holding hands. The men were wired for sound and filmed by a hidden camera, but they were approached only by panhandlers. After two hours, the two walked by a group of drunks who did little more than yell a few insults. Even Roberts later acknowledged that in two years of patrolling New York streets, OutWatch has not intervened in a single gay- bashing incident.
Accentuate the Negative. When the government released its figures showing the latest economic growth rate at 2.7 percent, ABC countered with a barrage of naysayers. Peter Jennings opened the October 27 World News Tonight: "[The 2.7 percent rate] is more than economists had projected, but in many cases, less than meets the eye." Reporter Bob Jamieson followed, "The increase in economic growth was driven by a surge in consumer spending. The best news came from spending for big appliances and furniture, which rose by nearly nine percent. But many economists say the report is not proof the economy is taking a sharp turn for the better."
As if that were not enough, Jennings returned the next night to dampen the good news further: "The President may complain about the news media, but the economic growth figures which he is so pleased about are not that definitive, according to a great many independent economic analysts...The government reports that personal income and consumer spending were up in September, but orders for durable goods, for such long-lasting items such as cars and household appliances, were down for the third straight month. And all over the country, millions of people hardly need any statistics to tell them what is happening."
This Magic Moment. When Magic Johnson joined the National Commission on AIDS the media praised the appointment. But his replacement on the commission, Mary Fisher, wasn't given quite the same welcome. On the October 7 CNN World News, anchor Patrick Greenlaw emphasized complaints about Fisher. "Some groups criticize President Bush's appointment, saying Fisher brings no medical expertise to the panel and was chosen just because she's the daughter of a Republican fundraiser."
Did CNN ever point out Magic Johnson's similar lack of medical expertise or suggest that he was chosen for the Commission just because he was a famous basketball player? Of course not. On the November 11, 1991 World News, anchor Bernard Shaw reported, "Magic Johnson is being suggested for a position on the National Commission on AIDS. Chairwoman June Osborn says someone of his stature would be a wonderful appointment. AIDS activists agree Johnson's high profile will help AIDS education efforts."
Scheer Madness. Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer pounced on Dan Quayle but praised Al Gore after the October 13 vice presidential debate. On CNN's post-debate coverage, Scheer thought "Quayle was a disaster for the Bush ticket, one thing he kept reminding people was that he could be President, and he was a disaster because he was quintessentially Dan Quayle. He was unctuous, and I disagree that he suggested sincerity...If your fear of the federal government is so enormous, and you don't want government to play an active role...then [Quayle] would serve you well as kind of an anti-government, anti-competency impulse. But if this were a competition to run a business, it would seem to me the stockholders would clearly vote for the person who knows what he's talking about, and that's not Dan Quayle."
But Scheer praised Al Gore, saying: "I thought Al Gore, if anything, seemed much more impressive than Bill Clinton, and did seem very presidential, and very well informed. It was the most impressive I've seen Gore yet...He obviously knows what he is talking about most of the time, he's very competent, he thinks clearly, and so forth. I just don't understand how any one could think Dan Quayle is in his league."
Harry Hurls. The normally chummy co-host of CBS This Morning, Harry Smith, didn't miss an opportunity throughout October to rail against Republican campaign strategy. Following the first presidential debate, Smith declared to pundit Fred Barnes: "Clearly, that Red-baiting junk didn't work for the President last night. What's he going to try next?" Apparently, character issues continued to irritate Smith, as he grilled Pat Buchanan on October 19: "Why is it the White House though, has insisted on this sort of campaign to discredit Bill Clinton, which has clearly not worked in the least." He then suggested that "the Bush/Quayle team spent too much time paying attention to the Right, and as they paid too much attention to the Right, they lost the middle." To radio and television talk show host Rush Limbaugh on October 21, Smith again insisted that "none of this Red-baiting, none of this stuff, none of it works."
Did the Democrats receive the same campaign advice from Smith? Hardly. On October 15, Smith simply reversed the question to Clinton/Gore co-chairman Senator Tim Wirth: "The poll lead, if not staying the same, is increasing a little bit. If George Bush comes out like a junkyard dog, the way the Vice-President did two nights ago, what does Clinton do to fight off that kind of attack?"
Sam's Sources. When grillmeister Sam Donaldson interviewed President George Bush and Governor Bill Clinton on ABC's Prime Time Live October 29, Donaldson challenged Bush with some of the Clinton campaign's favorite statistics on health care and Bush's record on federal spending, and Bush said he doubted the numbers.
At show's end, Donaldson did a short wrap-up from his anchor booth: "You'll notice in that portion of our interview with the President, he and I disagreed over certain figures. Later, we double-checked them. On the question of whether Congress spent less money than Mr. Bush asked for, a statement of mine with which the President took issue, we relied on the analysis of the Congressional Budget Office, which says Congress spent less. We also disagreed on my assertion that the President's health plan would leave out 27 million Americans of the 37 million now uninsured. Our figures came from a study of the Bush and Clinton plans by the respected public interest group, Families USA."
Donaldson failed to mention that the CBO is controlled by the Democratic leadership in Congress, and that Families USA is a relentless liberal advocate for greater entitlement spending whose leader, Ron Pollack, has been an outspoken Clinton supporter.
Revolving Door: Clinton's Network Help
Clinton's Network Help
Among those likely to get a position in the new Clinton Administration: Heidi Schulman, a 17-year veteran of NBC News. Married to Clinton campaign Chairman Mickey Kantor, Schulman served on Hillary Clinton's staff and handled Hollywood celebrities for the Democratic ticket. When she left NBC in 1990, Schulman was covering Hollywood for Today. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Schulman and Chris Wallace made up NBC's two-person team covering future President Reagan.
Left and Right Moves
The St. Petersburg Times has promoted Eileen Shanahan to Washington Bureau Chief. An economics reporter for the Florida paper for several months, Shanahan spent 15 years in The New York Times Washington bureau before becoming Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at HEW under Jimmy Carter in 1977....Sherrie Rollins, Assistant to the President for Public Liaison until her husband, Ed Rollins, joined the Perot campaign, has landed a new position. She's become Senior Vice President of communications for Mort Zuckerman's publications: U.S. News & World Report, The Atlantic and the newly acquired New York Daily News. From mid-1990 until this past Spring Rollins served as Director of News Information at ABC News, a position she took after a couple of years handling public affairs for Jack Kemp at HUD.
Former television news reporter Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky ran as a Democrat to fill an open U.S. House seat representing suburban Philadelphia. On November 3, she won. A long time reporter for CBS-owned WCAU-TV in Philadelphia and NBC-owned WRC-TV in Washington, she also regularly contributed stories to NBC's Today during the 1980s.
GOP Senate Slides
The newly appointed President of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Richard Carlson, has selected Philip Smith to serve as Vice President for corporate communications. A Washington Post reporter for 14 years who had risen to assistant Foreign Editor by the time he left in 1985, Smith has worked as Press Secretary to Virginia Republican Senator John Warner since 1985....
Warner's Minnesota colleague, Republican Dave Durenburger, has hired Kevin Quinn as a Legislative Assistant for health issues. From 1981 to 1985 Quinn reported for The Wall Street Journal from the paper's Toronto bureau. Since then, he's held health policy positions with the Saskatchewan government.
Ghostwriting for Lieberman
Jamie Stiehm spent 1987 and much of 1988 as an assignment editor for CBS News in its London bureau. Returning to the states in 1988 to work for the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign, Roll Call reported that she became a field organizer in the San Jose area. Now, she's joined the Capitol Hill office of Senator Joseph Lieberman where she'll write speeches for the Connecticut Democrat.
In a January 1989 op-ed piece for the Christian Science Monitor, Stiehm complained: "It was easy, all too easy, to like Mr. Reagan the man or myth, even if you disagreed with almost everything he did in practice."
Networks Say "Extreme" GOP Convention at Fault
CONSERVATIVES SUNK BUSH?
On election night, as state after state fell behind Bill Clinton, the networks worked overtime to suggest that George Bush lost because of social conservatives and their speeches at the Republican convention.
On NBC, Tom Brokaw asked Pat Robertson: "There are many people in the Republican Party who believe that the Republican National Convention in Houston, at which you were a prominent part, was simply too extreme, too strident in its positions, and they cite your speech and Pat Buchanan's as well."
On CNN, anchor Catherine Crier joined the chorus: "You may have to move to the far right or the far left during a primary to pull those voters to support you during a primary, but you've got to move back and moderate for the general election. We remember the convention in Houston, the Patrick Buchanans and the very conservative movement that took over -- looks like it may have hurt the President."
On ABC's overnight newscast World News Now, anchor Lisa McRee declared: "Patrick Buchanan's speech was one of those speeches that not many people will ever forget. It divided the party and many moderates were frightened away by that."
NBC's John Chancellor also promoted the theme: "I think that the convention -- and certainly all the polling data indicates this -- offended a lot of women, offended a lot of people in the country who thought it was too religious and too hard-edged."
All the polling data? Not the network-commissioned exit poll, as CBS reporter Ed Bradley explained after midnight: "We gave the voters a list of things to choose from, Dan, things that helped them make up their minds. I think in past years, the conventions were very important, how they played on television, television ads. This year, they fell at the bottom of the list. The single most important thing that helped them decide were the debates between the candidates -- 64 percent said that was number one."
But listen to Bradley when Rather asked: "Did people talk about the Buchanan speech at the Republican convention? Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson at the President's side? Was that mentioned very often?"
Instead of repeating the poll results, Bradley ignored them: "Well, I don't have it in this survey, but my recollection of talking to people, in an informal survey, and particularly among Republicans, there were a number of Republicans who said that they felt let down by their convention, watching it on TV, that what Pat Buchanan had to say, that some of the positions of the religious right, did not represent the way they felt."
Bush Loss is Reagan's Fault
As November 3 drew closer, some in the media tried to determine the cause of George Bush's impending loss. The culprit? Ronald Reagan.
Despite Bush's abandonment of Reaganomics, responsibility for his electoral woes was laid on the shoulders of the man who moved out of the White House four years ago. In the October 19 Time, special correspondent Michael Kramer wrote: "For a dozen years the nation's life has been dominated by a philosophy that proposes to limit government, encourage the creation of private wealth and confront enemies with a huge arsenal and a hair- trigger willingness to fight....The Reagan-Bush policies hastened the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war. But at home only the rich have truly prospered. The middle class is hurting, the poor are poorer, inequality has grown and the country's ability to compete has been hindered by an undistinguished education system and widespread inattention to the problems of those caught in the backwash of the West's victory over the 'evil empire.'" He concluded: "The Republicans, it is clear, see nothing wrong with extending the Me Decade indefinitely. No matter that Ronald Reagan's trickle-down nostrums, which were supposed to lift all boats, lifted only yachts."
On the October 17 NBC Nightly News, Garrick Utley chastised Bush for being too loyal to Reagan: "For eight years, [Bush] supported policies which, it is now widely acknowledged, contributed mightily to our excesses then and our economic problems now; above all, America being held hostage to debt. George Bush went along to get ahead, and it worked. He became President. Now, the painful irony. Now, Ronald Reagan is in happy retirement in California, and President Bush is left to pay the price. The price for supporting something he did not believe in to begin with. He knows it -- knows it is now too late to do anything about that fateful bargain he entered into twelve years ago. Going along to get ahead made George Bush President. Now it may unmake him. The ancient Greeks wrote about this sort of thing. They called it tragedy."
NBC's Ross Dogs Dems
While many in the media have worked to highlight GOP scandals, NBC's Brian Ross has stood out from the crowd by digging up details on the Democrats. On the October 9 Nightly News, Ross picked up on some hypocrisy by Al Gore: "Al Gore gets a lot of applause for his criticism of junk bonds...He even blamed junk bond dealers for President Bush's veto of the family leave bill."
Ross then noted: "But five years ago, when Gore was preparing to run for President, he received tens of thousands in campaign contributions from the junk bond industry." Ross pointed out that Gore got $20,000 from Thomas Spiegel, a junk bond dealer whose financial dealings helped bring down an S&L. Ross displayed a letter Gore wrote to Spiegel in which Gore praised Spiegel for his financial skills. Confronted by Ross, Gore downplayed his relationship with Spiegel (who has since been indicted for fraud), contradicting his own records.
Ross concluded: "There's no record that Gore took any official action in Congress to benefit junk bond dealers. And the junk bond industry gave similar contributions to dozens of other Democrats and Republicans. What makes the contributions to Gore noteworthy is that he's now campaigning for Vice President claiming he and Bill Clinton are different from all of the others."
Threlkeld's Clinton Cut
Richard Threlkeld of CBS was the only network reporter to dedicate a story to sorting out Clinton's middle-class tax cut proposals. On October 23, Threlkeld outlined the shift in emphasis from January, when "his [Clinton's] promise to cut taxes on the middle class by 10 percent was a big deal," to the Democratic convention, when "the tax cut wasn't 10 percent anymore" and "not such a big deal," to October, where "the middle class tax cut sort of got lost altogether."
Unlike many of his colleagues, who cite economic figures from liberal sources such as the Economic Policy Institute and Citizens for Tax Justice, Threlkeld balanced the Clinton campaign spin with a soundbite from Daniel Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation. Mitchell refuted Clinton's previously unchallenged claim that he could raise $150 billion from only the top 2 percent of taxpayers.
Since joining the weekend Today shows in August, former National Public Radio anchor Scott Simon regularly preaches the liberal line to his flock. Some examples:
On September 5, Simon delivered a lecture on the economy that sounded like a Clinton-Gore commercial: "According to the Census Bureau, 35.7 million people are living in poverty, two million more than before....But aiming blame at politicians may actually steer blame away from ourselves. Over the last generation, after all, we elected politicians who gave voice to our grievances and reduced what the government could regulate and guarantee...The financial wealth of the United States has doubled, but the number of poor people has stayed the same. Instead of trickling down, apparently that wealth mostly stayed in the tight fists of those who became richer."
On Columbus Day Weekend, Simon railed against the Italian explorer: "Christopher Columbus didn't discover a New World. He ran into the other side of the world....In the past year or more, many people have been asking 'What's to commemorate in that?' Of course, race found its way into the discussion: He sailed just as Jews and Muslims were being expelled from a Spain. The persecution of these peoples and the riches robbed from them paying for his small armada of ships....For Native Americans, the people who hardly felt discovered, Columbus' landing commenced a holocaust."
On October 17, Simon offered pronouncements on the Vietnam War: "And the cruel truth was that there were more Vietnamese ready to die for their country than there were Americans ready to die for a country that wasn't theirs at all....For many Americans, including many who served there, the war in Vietnam wasn't to defend the United States, but to prop up a corrupt and brutal South Vietnamese dictatorship....It may be useful for any politician who may be President to recall almost a generation later how that war really felt to people who didn't feel they were being asked to defend their country, but punish a smaller one."
His NPR colleagues must be proud.
Janet Cooke Award: CBS Reporter Eric Engberg, Running on Empty
WILLIE HORTON HILARITY
Willie Horton still haunts the national media. Soon after George Bush was elected, network reporters began routinely showing an ad with Horton's face, falsely labeling the commercial a "Bush ad." (Bush ads never featured Horton's name or picture.) But none of the networks came forward and made the explicit charge that the independent expenditure campaigns (like the National Security PAC) were working hand in glove with the Bush campaign. That is, until CBS reporter Eric Engberg's October 14 report. For coming up with nothing more than silly innuendo, Engberg wins the Janet Cooke Award.
Dan Rather introduced the CBS Evening News story: "CBS News has learned that a major congressional probe of possible illegalities is under way...Eric Engberg has spent six months independently looking into this case."
Engberg began: "It was the most racially charged, divisive TV ad in the history of presidential campaigns. It worked. The Willie Horton commercial of 1988, blaming Michael Dukakis for a black criminal's attack on a white couple, gave George Bush a big shove toward victory. But the Horton ad also raised questions about racism and dirty politics that still haunt the electoral process like a ghost."
This is the media gospel -- that Bush won by "appealing to racial fears." But Washington Post pollster Richard Morin questioned that worn theory in a September 27 Sunday "Outlook" section article, citing "substantial evidence [negative ads] didn't work four years ago. Bush's poll numbers in 1988 didn't budge during or after the Willie Horton ad controversy." Morin even quoted Clinton consultant Samuel Popkin: "There is no credible evidence showing that the Horton ad or the Boston Harbor ad affected the vote at all."
Engberg continued: "The President and his campaign officials have always denied any involvement with the ad, which was produced by a legally independent committee. But CBS News has discovered new links between that committee and the Bush organization which throw those blanket denials into question. There is also evidence that federal laws may have been violated. A congressional committee is now investigating what it calls serious allegations that financial disclosure and reporting requirements that might have exposed Bush links to the Horton ad makers were conveniently ignored."
Engberg told how Candace Strother, a "shadowy political intelligence operative," coordinated anti-Dukakis research at the Republican National Committee, and how she may have broken federal election law by contacting Elizabeth Fediay, the head of National Security PAC. Claimed Engberg: "When the Federal Election Commission conducted a limited investigation into that ad last year, Fediay's TV producer said a key source he used to write the ad was newspaper clippings he believed were obtained at the Library of Congress. But a check by CBS News revealed that one of the principal sources he listed, a newspaper from Massachusetts, was not available at the Library of Congress. There was one place in Washington where the clippings from that newspaper were readily available: the Bush campaign files."
How on earth could Engberg suggest that the only place the Horton story could be found in 1988 was the Bush campaign? Al Gore first raised the furlough issue in April. Then the largest-circulation magazine in the world, Reader's Digest, did its own Horton story in July. In fact, conservatives were distributing the Pulitzer- Prize winning Lawrence Eagle-Tribune series on Horton all over the country.
Engberg's "investigation" devolved into gossip: "Was there any connection? Someone thought so. A memo from the FEC's General Counsel, Lawrence M. Noble, details a tip he received from an anonymous caller claiming to be a GOP insider. The caller said: 'Candace Strother gave the material and information gathered on Willie Horton to Lily Fediay so the Bush campaign would not be connected to a racist ad.'" CBS has skewered the Bush campaign for raising questions about unsubstantiated charges, so why did Engberg report this anonymous tip without any proof?
Near the end of the story, Engberg asserted: "The committee is reportedly investigating charges Strother has received preferential treatment in a $100,000 a year job that didn't exist before she got it. The FEC never followed up on the report of the secret link between the Horton ad makers and the Bush campaign. The congressional investigators, with a second chance, appear to have a troubling new question on their agenda: Did the administration use a high-paying job on the federal payroll to make sure that the true story of Willie Horton would never be told?"
Again, for all his investigation, Engberg left only innuendo -- and a glaring double standard. For if CBS were really concerned with the spectacle of a woman getting a government job to hush up a scandal, why wouldn't they investigate how Gennifer Flowers suspiciously received a state government job in Arkansas, causing a promotion to be wrongfully denied to Charlette Perry, a black state employee? The taped evidence of Clinton's involvement in Flowers' employment (including his telling her to lie about his role in it) is arguably more concrete than Engberg's story.
When MediaWatch's Tim Graham asked Engberg if he would answer a few questions, this exchange ensued:
Engberg: "Well, if you can answer a couple of questions for me. Why should I spend one minute with a political, propagandistic rag like yours, number one? Number two, did Brent Bozell tell you to call?"
MediaWatch: "No, it's just the usual practice."
Engberg: "Oh, it is? Because, you know, you've got a real conflict of interest with Bozell on this. He was involved with the Willie Horton ad."
MediaWatch: "You're right."
Engberg: "So I was just kind of wondering whether maybe he's trying to figure out what I know about him."
MediaWatch: "Well, no. I was not put up to this. We just selected this..."
Engberg: "Oh, you don't work for Bozell?"
MediaWatch: "Yes I do."
Engberg: "Tell you what. You tell Bozell if he will call me and tell me the truth about the Willie Horton ad, I'll answer your questions. How's that for a deal?"
Engberg hung up. In his role as head of a PAC, MediaWatch Publisher Brent Bozell did produce a 1988 ad featuring Willie Horton. Bozell's ad had nothing to do with the National Security PAC, a fact one hopes even Engberg has learned. But in Engberg's story, facts weren't as important as conspiratorial whispers, a brand of journalism that's less solid investigative work than sensationalism worthy of Geraldo.