In This Issue
A Continuing Pattern of Omission; NewsBites: California's Clock; Whatever You Say, Mr. Clinton; Slow Growth Hailed in '96; The GOP Shutdown?; Ross Stands Alone; Media Highlight Brinkley; Janet Cooke Award: Money is the Root of All Media Evils
A Continuing Pattern of Omission
Six days after the election, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz noted that several print media outlets had pieces of the Democratic National Committee's foreign fundraising in hand, but didn't think they had enough for a major story -- until the pieces came together in the person of John Huang in October. Just as MediaWatch found last month, front-page newspaper scoops failed to attract much network interest or intensity, even in the final days of the campaign. A MediaWatch review of October morning (ABC, CBS, NBC) and evening news coverage (ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN's The World Today) found the networks were slow or missing in action on critical campaign stories in the last few weeks before the election.
The networks aired only 26 explanatory or investigative pieces by non-campaign correspondents (8 on CNN, 7 on ABC, 6 on CBS, and 5 on NBC). To review the developments:
October 8: The Wall Street Journal front page introduced the story of John Huang and his resume: the Lippo Group, an Asian conglomerate with ties to Little Rock, followed by Ron Brown's Commerce Department, and then the Democratic National Committee, where he raised large amounts from Asian donors. Network coverage? None.
October 14: Three days after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for an independent counsel to investigate and one day after Newt Gingrich said the Indonesian story "makes Watergate look tiny," two networks arrived on the story. ABC's Jackie Judd led off World News Tonight with it, while on CBS, Eric Engberg had the newscast's number two story. The morning shows had small mentions in their Clinton stories.
October 17: The Washington Post reported on the front page that the DNC acknowledged a "mistake" in holding an $140,000 fundraiser at a Buddhist temple in April organized by John Huang and attended by Vice President Gore. Neither that nor an October 25 Post front-page follow-up drew a network news story. Also on October 17, ABC's Brian Ross investigated Yogesh Gandhi, a $325,000 donor to the DNC, noting he owed the state of California $10,000 in back taxes. which raised the question if the $325,000 was really his money, or someone else's. No other network developed this story. (None of Ross's reports were replayed on Good Morning America.)
October 19: The Washington Post reported on its front page that the DNC removed Huang from his money-raising duties and asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate the legality of Huang-solicited contributions. All four networks ran about a sentence-long update in the middle of their campaign coverage -- CBS on the 18th, the rest on the 19th. NBC's Today read two briefs on Huang's suspension. That same day, the Democrats returned a $20,000 contribution from convicted Miami cocaine smuggler Jorge Cabrera, admitting they do not systematically check the background of donors None of the networks reported the story that night. ABC's Brian Ross did a full report on October 22, noting that while Cabrera was convicted of possessing more than 5,000 pounds of cocaine in July, the DNC did not give the money back until Newsweek began asking about it. CNN and NBC followed on the 24th. CBS did not. In the morning, Cabrera drew only two brief mentions on NBC's Today.
October 23: Expanding on Brian Ross, the Los Angeles Times reported that Yogesh Gandhi, the $325,000 donor to the DNC, claimed pauper status in not paying the $20 filing fee for his divorce. Network coverage? None. Federal judge Royce Lamberth issued an order for the DNC to produce Huang. Only NBC Nightly News reported the subpoena. October 24: Lamberth issued another order demanding the DNC produce Huang. Only ABC's World News Tonight reported on the story. After Brian Ross focused on the effort to locate Huang, Asia-based reporter Mark Litke reported on the Clintons' ties to the Riady family, the Indonesians who run the Lippo Group. The morning shows were absent.
October 25: A panel of federal judges asked independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate whether former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum lied about Hillary Clinton's role in the hiring of Craig Livingstone. Two days later, NBC's Tim Russert insisted on the Sunday Today: "This is dead serious....I don't know how we can dismiss it nine days before an election." But only CNN's Bob Franken filed a full report. ABC and NBC had their anchors read briefs. CBS aired nothing. Other than one anchor brief on Saturday's Today, the morning shows reported nothing.
October 29: The Washington Post published a front-page story reporting the DNC would not file a pre-election contributions report with the Federal Elections Commission, and John Huang surfaced after 11 days in hiding to testify. All four networks arrived on the story that evening. (While ABC's and NBC's morning shows reported the DNC's failure to file in anchor briefs, CBS This Morning aired nothing until the next day.)
October 30: The Los Angeles Times reported that Mark Middleton, "a little-known, 34-year-old ex-White House aide from Arkansas," arranged a meeting between President Clinton and the chief financial manager of Taiwan's ruling party. The Times reported that the official, Liu Tai-Ying, offered to donate (illegally) $15 million to the Clinton campaign. Only CNN and NBC reported the story that night. ABC didn't even report a full campaign story. CBS followed the next day. NBC's Today, with a full report by Andrea Mitchell, was the only morning show on the story.
October 31: "DNC Fundraiser Huang Visited White House Often," reported the front page of The Washington Post, 78 times since July 1995. ABC and CBS reported the story, but NBC did not. ABC's Good Morning America covered the story, but CBS This Morning and NBC's Today did not. ABC's Charles Gibson suggested "if Republicans had done this, the press would be killing them."
November 3: The Associated Press reported former Clinton CIA Director R. James Woolsey criticized Democrats for inviting foreign businessman Grigori Loutchansky to a 1994 DNC dinner, where he was photographed with the President. Clinton's own CIA Director, John Deutch, had testified that Loutchansky's company, Nordex, is "associated with Russian criminal activity." Network coverage: None.
November 4: The Detroit Free Press reported on an October 21 Detroit fundraiser that netted $800,000 from Iraqi Christians who lobbied the President to lift the embargo against Iraq. CBS and NBC threw in brief evening news mentions. ABC and CNN did not. The morning shows were silent.
NewsBites: California's Clock
NBC's Maria Shriv-er and CBS's Jane Robelot laid into the California Civil Rights Initiative, Proposition 209, after it passed by a wide margin on November 5. The measure banned the state from awarding preferential treatment to anyone on the basis of race, sex, or religion -- to liberal reporters, an obvious step backwards. Shriver tossed Jesse Jackson a loaded softball on election night: "Affirmative action was a hotbed issue in this country, still a big race on that subject going on about that in California. Did you feel at times like we've turned back the clock on some of these issues?" On CBS This Morning the next day, Robelot attacked initiative sponsor Ward Connerly for touting an end to preferences: "But that's sort of living in an ideal world. I mean it's nice to say it on paper. If you look around at corporate offices in America and in CEO's offices, you're gonna see very few minorities and few women. Are we really ready to backtrack on civil rights now, or on affirmative action?"
Gore vs. Gingrich
Rarely have the media's double standard toward the two parties been more evident than in the Today show's interviews in the first week in October. On October 8, substitute co-host Matt Lauer hit Newt Gingrich with six ethics questions, including: "Do you envision any circumstances, Mr. Speaker, under which you might be forced to resign based on the investigation?....So if the ethics committee comes back and says Newt Gingrich was not truthful with us in supplying information?" Gingrich responded: "I don't think they can say that." Lauer eagerly countered, "If they did, would you consider resigning?" The next morning, substitute co-host Ed Gordon tossed bouquets at Al Gore: "Many can see that you have indeed been the most powerful Vice President in our history. You satisfied with the role that you played for four years?" And: "The debate is coming up. What do you want people to come away with, after they watch you and Jack Kemp? What should they know about Al Gore?" Gordon also asked: "You want to be the best second guy you can. You're there to help the President. Now having said that, do you want the job in 2000?"
The national media have never been in love with the National Rifle Association, so when anti-gun Democrat Carolyn McCarthy beat freshman Republican Rep. Daniel Frisa in New York, media praise soon followed. The morning after the election, McCarthy made the talk show rounds. On the November 6 Today, Katie Couric went straight to the NRA: "What do you think the lesson is for the National Rifle Association? Of course, one of the cornerstones of your campaign was to maintain the ban on assault weapons in this country." Over on Good Morning America, ABC's Joan Lunden claimed: "McCarthy turned her rage over the availability of assault weapons into political activism and last night this ultimate outsider, a former nurse and homemaker, defeated incumbent Daniel Frisa." After McCarthy, who has never held political office, made some broad comments about various government programs, Lunden praised her: "Sounds like you really educated yourself too. Are you at all daunted by this task that lies before you?" On November 8, World News Tonight picked McCarthy as the Person of the Week because, as anchor Peter Jennings put it: "We have chosen her because the people who chose her were so impressed by her notion of public service." McCarthy was the first politician selected as Person of the Week this year.
GOP freshman Rep. Helen Chenoweth won re-election despite being targeted by the Democrats, labor unions, environmentalists and...Tom Brokaw. On the October 24 NBC Nightly News, Brokaw chose Chenoweth's Idaho congressional race as the subject of his "In Depth" report on big money from special interests. Brokaw opened: "From sunup til late night, the sounds of politics are in the air in Idaho like a migraine headache with a voice track. And this is why: Helen Chenoweth, a controversial first term Republican Congresswoman." When Chenoweth claimed: "I don't have a clue why they would target me. I come from an innocuous state. I'm just a plain-spoken Western woman," Brokaw countered: "Not exactly. In her first term Chenoweth was a cheerleader for the New Right. Voting against an increase in the minimum wage, trashing traditional environmental organizations. She was a hard-liner on gun laws. So, she is a target of big labor and conservationists." While Chenoweth was labeled as a "hard-liner" and portrayed as extreme, her Democratic opponent Dan Williams drew no labeling from Brokaw, nor was he depicted as being beholden to special interests, despite the thousands of dollars big labor and liberal environmentalists spent on his behalf.
Return of the Gorbasm
NBC's Tom Brokaw has put Mikhail Gorbachev in his personal pantheon of heroes. On the PBS talk show Charlie Rose May 2, Brokaw paid homage: "I think Gorbachev is a great man in the 20th century because he forced his country to look at the hypocrisy and the fraudulence of communism and to begin slowly to make a turn away from it. He can still light up any room that he walks into." Brokaw refused to call Ronald Reagan a great man: "You can look at the economics of Reaganism, for example, or some of the bombast of his foreign policy, and find all manner of flaws in there."
Five months later, on MSNBC's InterNight October 29, Brokaw interviewed Gorbachev, proclaiming: "It's likely that your view of Mikhail Gorbachev depends on your point of view. From the perspective of the West, the former President of the Soviet Union of course was a courageous, far-seeing prophet whose reforms set in motion the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship and the end of the Cold War." At interview's end, Brokaw gushed: "Perhaps one day we'll see you again in political office in Russia. We know that you've devoted your life to peace and to changing your country and those of us who have gotten to know you count ourselves among the privileged."
Willie Horton Stalks Cyberspace
For eight years reporters regularly insisted Republicans used racial issues, as symbolized by the Willie Horton ad, to divide America in order to win the 1988 presidential campaign. But this year, raising Willie Horton suddenly had become a symbol of toughness for one politician. In a VP debate preview piece posted October 8 on the CNN website AllPolitics.com, reporters Bob Franken and Marc Watts applauded the use of Willie Horton by Al Gore in 1988: "Gore can also fire off the tough question. In 1988, as a Senator, he first raised what became known as the `Willie Horton issue' with Michael Dukakis during a primary debate." A dimmer view was advanced by CNN in a February 1992 special on race and the presidential campaigns. CNN reporter Ken Bode sounded off about the pro-George Bush independent expenditure ads featuring Willie Horton: "David Duke's exploitation of white working class fears about blacks echoes a theme from the 1988 election. This is the Maryland State Penitentiary. Inside resides the most politically notorious convict in America. William Horton, Jr., the focal point of a major national campaign designed to exploit white fear of black crime....The Horton case illustrates the readiness of political leaders to exploit the racial divide."
Peter's Slippery Science
Scientific studies usually get a respectful hearing -- unless reporters disagree with the results. Take Peter Jennings on the October 11 World News Tonight: "There was a study released at Penn State University today that you may hear a lot about this weekend. It purports to show a connection between women who have had abortions and the risk of developing breast cancer. And if you see it around, remember this. It is not original research, but an analysis of 23 earlier studies. And the National Cancer Institute says those individual studies were actually inconclusive, and because of that, various other scientists say today the Penn State report is flawed." Some criticism of the study attacked the author, Joel Brind, who is personally opposed to abortion.
But in the past Jennings has had no such doubts about the validity of meta-analysis, a method of research which draws conclusions by combining data from other studies. In a syndicated column, Reason magazine Science Editor Michael Fumento pointed out that a 1991 report, by Dr. Stanton Glantz, an anti-smoking activist and founder of the American Nonsmoker's Rights Foundation, found a "30 percent increased risk," the same factor of increase as found in the recent breast cancer study. On January 9, 1991 Jennings had no disclaimers for the secondhand smoke study: "A new warning today about the dangers of passive smoking, breathing someone else's cigarette smoke. A report in the American Heart Association journal Circulation says passive smoking kills an estimated 53,000 people every year."
Civil Rights or Social Programs?
Opening an October 20 New York Times story reporter Steven Holmes declared: "In his nearly four years in office, President Clinton has amassed a civil rights record rivaling that of any President in the last 30 years." His proof? Clinton "stoutly defended the government's affirmative action role."
But the newspaper's style manual apparently contains a broad definition of the phrase "civil rights." Holmes laid out what he considered to be Clinton's 1992 campaign promises concerning civil rights: "Work to pass the Motor Voter bill" and "support statehood for the District of Columbia." Plus two items with no relation to discrimination or voting: "Require every employer to spend 1.5 percent of payroll for continuing education and training," and "expand the Earned Income Tax Credit." Expanding the definition let Holmes give Clinton credit for two "civil rights achievements" that passed, Motor Voter and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas had a change of heart on the credibility of Paula Jones. Prompted by former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Stuart Taylor's November article in The American Lawyer, on the November 3 Inside Washington, Thomas explained: "There are two friends of Paula Jones that she spoke to right after the alleged incident....Taylor has gone back and talked to them and they paint a pretty bad tale." Back on May 7, 1994 Thomas disparaged Jones as "some sleazy woman with big hair."
Taylor found that "the evidence supporting Paula Jones's allegations of predatory, if not depraved, behavior by Bill Clinton is far stronger than the evidence supporting Anita Hill's allegations of far less serious conduct by Clarence Thomas." In the three weeks after the article appeared it didn't get a sentence in Newsweek or the other newsweeklies. Other than a brief citation as an example of media bias by ABC's Jeff Greenfield on the October 31 World News Tonight, it drew not a second on the networks.
Only One House?
Clinton has saved America's cities from the evil Reagan years, ABC News argued before the election. Over video of a building being torn down, on the October 14 World News Tonight ABC's Dean Reynolds asserted from Detroit: "Twenty five housing developments have started here since the Clinton Administration took office." Following a soundbite from Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, Reynolds charged, without rebuttal, "A decade ago during the Reagan era, according to the Mayor, only one new house was built in the entire city."
Whatever You Say, Mr. Clinton
Shortly after the election Clinton's aides told reporters that the voters wanted an end to congressional investigations. They didn't have to convince reporters of anything. They already agreed. NBC's Tom Brokaw noted on election night: "There is also a theory, however, that if the Republicans begin to engage once again in a lot of investigations that it will not do well for them four years from now. Because the country in all the exit polling that we're seeing so far is saying, `Hey let's get on with the business of solving the real problems that we have out there.'"
Over on CBS, Dan Rather echoed Brokaw, asking Senator Trent Lott: "True or false, that part of the Republican agenda is now to try to paralyze the White House with so-called ethics inquiries?" The next morning, NBC Today substitute co-host Matt Lauer asked RNC Chairman Haley Barbour: "Exit polls show us that the economy was still the number one issue on people's mind last night. And although character and trust play a role, people choose candidates based on their handling of the issues. With that in mind, what do you say to people now who look to Republicans in Congress and say, `Hey, move forward on key legislation. Don't get bogged down on investigations into the Clinton White House?'"
When Sen. Al D'Amato announced he would back off his Whitewater probe in the Senate, reporter Jim Miklaszewski concluded on the November 7 NBC Nightly News: "White House officials are under no illusions and still expect Republicans to vigorously pursue investigations on other fronts. But they're also encouraged that D'Amato's announcement may signal an end to any high-profile political witch hunts." Tom Brokaw returned to his theme on the November 7 Don Imus radio show, but added a new twist: it's in the Republican leaders' self-interest to halt the investigations. He claimed "A lot of these new Republican leaders, Trent Lott and others, have their own presidential aspirations four years from now. They'll want to get things done because I think that's the underlying message from the country here -- solve the problems. And yes there are some real problems within the administration that need to be investigated, but there are agencies and ways of doing that without tying up Congress in these expensive hearings."
A post-election Pew Research Center poll of voters determined that while thirty percent said Congress had "gone too far" in investigating Clinton, the majority did not: 31 percent thought Congress had not gone far enough and 35 percent indicated that "it has handled the matter about right." If only the media were that evenly split.
Slow Growth Hailed in '96
But Four Years Ago...
In late October 1992 the government announced the 3rd quarter GDP jumped up to 2.7 percent. Four years later, on October 30, the 3rd quarter number fell to just 2.2 percent. But what was bad news for Bush escaped such scorn this year with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. Indeed, NBC's Tom Brokaw positively spun this year's drop: "The economy was slow, but steady going in the last quarter. Many economists were encouraged by that because it means inflation is under control and interest rates will stay low." On the CBS Evening News Ray Brady noted: "There's one irony here. On election day 1992 the economy was starting to pick up, but voters hadn't felt it yet. Remember that expression, `It's the economy stupid'? And George Bush went down to defeat. On election day 1996 the economy seems to be slowing, but not enough so that most voters will be feeling it." Why hadn't voters in 1992 "felt it"?
Maybe because Brady and his colleagues put a negative spin on 1992 economic news? On October 27, 1992, CBS reporter Susan Spencer filed from the Bush campaign: "He crowed today at upbeat news of a third quarter growth rate of 2.7 percent, though some economists warned that may not hold." She was correct, but not in the direction she thought. It was later revised upward to 3.9 percent. On September 4, 1992 anchor Connie Chung led the show by explaining: "The nation's unemployment rate is down slightly for the second month in a row. But the latest decline is a result of a summer jobs program for teenagers. That program is about to end, and as Ray Brady reports, the picture ahead is bleak." Brady concluded: "After hitting a high of 7.8 percent for June, then dipping a tenth of a point again last month, most economists now predict next month's jobless rate could hit 7.8 percent."
One month later, the rate fell from 7.6 to 7.5 percent. On the October 2, 1992 CBS Evening News Brady skipped his mistake and offered a new reason to dismiss the good news: "Those unemployment lines did become a bit shorter last month, but economists say that's largely because many Americans simply stopped looking for work, so they're no longer counted as unemployed." CBS wasn't the only culprit. On ABC's World News Tonight October 30 Peter Jennings gave equal weight to both sides: "President Clinton...noted that many economists say a cooling off is necessary to keep inflation down and therefore, he thinks, the numbers were good news. Senator Dole on the other hand was in Tennessee earlier today, along with Mrs. Dole. He says the numbers are cause for concern. He went on to say if Mr. Clinton is re-elected there could be a recession."
But four years ago Jennings insisted the 2.7 percent GDP is "more than economists had projected, but in many cases, less than meets the eye." Bob Jamieson then reported that "many economists say the report is not proof the economy is taking a sharp turn for the better." The next day, October 28, 1992, Jennings warned: "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." All this matches the Center for Media and Public Affairs finding that "In September, fully 91 percent of sources said the economy was healthy," but "in September 1992, 98 percent of all sources on the [ABC, CBS and NBC] evening news criticized the state of the economy
The GOP Shutdown?
The networks had a ready answer for why Bob Dole lost, suggesting it happened because the public bought the Democratic spin that House Republicans were responsible for the government shutdown. Of course, the media kept repeating that Democratic spin in its own reporting, neglecting to mention that President Clinton refused to sign any budget resolution to keep the government operating. It started before the election. On the October 18 World News Tonight, ABC's Cokie Roberts relayed without challenge: "With the help of millions of dollars from organized labor, Democratic challengers constantly remind voters that these freshmen supported Newt Gingrich and that together they shut down the government."
In a roundtable on the November 3 This Week with David Brinkley, ABC's Sam Donaldson asked fellow panel member George Will: "Are you going to shut down the government again? Did that strategy work?" (Donaldson repeated himself on election night, saying Dole's loss wasn't his fault because Gingrich "helped engineer a shutdown" that "scared the country.") Looking back at the 1996 campaign on the November 4 This Morning, CBS's Bill Plante contemplated: "You think the campaign began here, at the Democrats' made for TV convention? No way. It really began with this year's State of the Union address. The President already knew he'd have no opponent in New Hampshire and the Republicans had just stumbled badly by shutting down the government."
The bias continued on election night. CNN's Bernard Shaw declared: "The Republican Party actually helped William Jefferson Clinton in that comeback, especially when they voted to shut down the Congress [sic]. The American people said they Republicans went too far. We did not send you to Washington to shut down the federal government." On the morning after the election, CBS This Morning anchor Troy Roberts theorized: "Often abrasive, Gingrich never mastered the fine art of compromise. Less than a year after he rode into Washington in triumph, he was on the defensive. His gambit to shut down the government over the budget backfired. Seizing the moment, President Clinton quickly became the voice of centrist reason."
Ross Stands Alone
With the revelations of questionable contributions to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party, one would assume the media would be all over the story. Not so. But ABC's Brian Ross stood apart in October for focusing on Democratic fundraising. On the October 22 World News Tonight, Ross first put Jorge Cabrera, a twice convicted drug dealer who was invited to the White House after giving $20,000 to the DNC, onto network TV: "As to how Cabrera got inside the White House, the Democratic Party said today it did not know of his criminal record and he had been referred to them as a prominent member of the Cuban-American community in Monroe County, Florida. Tom Cash, the former top drug agent in Miami, says the only thing prominent about Cabrera is his criminal record." Two days later Ross filed the first broadcast network piece detailing John Huang's flight: "A federal judge ordered Democratic Party lawyers into court and told them to produce John Huang to testify in a civil lawsuit alleging favoritism at the Commerce Department for big Democratic contributors." Ross showed how Huang could not be found and explained how he "was suspended by the Democratic Party this week as a fundraiser when some of his contributions were found to have been illegally given by people who were not U. S. citizens."
The network evening shows largely ignored Democratic financial scandal news, but two Sunday shows picked up on them. On the October 13 Meet the Press host Tim Russert put VP Al Gore off balance with his continual barrage of questions: "But isn't character a fair issue to bring up? Why can't Republicans say, `Listen Bill Clinton promised, quote, the most ethical administration in history, and it hasn't been that. Filegate, Travelgate, Whitewater.'" And, "But what about the appearance, Mr. Vice President, of a gentleman, John Huang, working for a Lippo Company, then joining the Commerce Department, where he works on their behalf, lobbies on their behalf; then goes over to the DNC and raises money for them?" Russert even noted "there's a perception the President is dangling pardons out there in order to silence people." CNN's Frank Sesno pressed White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta on the October 27 Late Edition, questioning him about Ron Brown allegedly "selling seats" on his trade missions. Sesno brought up how Huang "raises $4 to $5 milion from Asian-Americans, some of it raised illegally. Money that came from South Korean business had to be returned. A quarter of a million dollars, $400,000 from these Indonesian gardeners who since have gone away....Where's the outrage from the White House?"
Media Highlight Brinkley
But What About Them?
David Brinkley's election night comments that President Clinton is "a bore" and that his acceptance speech delivered "goddamned nonsense" generated wide newspaper coverage. Brinkley apologized to Clinton during a This Week interview, but other reporters have never apologized or been condemned for comments about conservatives. NBC's Bryant Gumbel called Pat Buchanan "Mr. Puke-anan" on the Feb. 20 Today. In 1994 he asked House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt: "You called Gingrich and his ilk, your words, `trickle-down terrorists who base their agenda on division, exclusion and fear.' Do you think middle-class Americans are in need of protection from that group?" On David Letterman in 1987, Sam Donaldson advised how to measure President Reagan's success in an upcoming press conference: "I think he is going to have to pass two or three tests. The first is, will he get there, stand in front of the podium, and not drool." Just after the 1994 election Donaldson asked Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich on This Week: "A lot of people are afraid of you. They think you're a bomb-thrower. Worse, you're an intolerant bigot. Speak to them." On a January, 1995 Sunday Morning John Leonard declared: "From the pronunciamentos out of Washington, you'd think the new Congress were a slash-and-burn Khmer Rouge." NPR/ABC reporter Nina Totenberg issued a death wish on Inside Washington in 1995 after Sen. Jesse Helms said too much is spent on AIDS research: "I think he ought to be worried about what's going on in the Good Lord's mind, because if there is retributive justice, he'll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will get it."
Janet Cooke Award: Money is the Root of All Media Evils
Earlier this year, journalists bashing journalists became a fad. Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows' new book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine Democracy led a new, liberal attack on the media: too stardom-obsessed, too enamored of power, too wealthy from lecture fees, too distant from the common people -- even too conservative on economics. On October 22, Frontline aired a documentary titled "Why Americans Hate the Press," a co-production with the far-left Center for Investigative Reporting. Correspondent and producer Stephen Talbot never really attempted to answer how people feel about the press in the hour-long program. Instead, he centered his program around Fallows arguing for the "sedate high church" of journalism, as opposed to the reporters who've lost touch while cashing in on Sunday morning "food fight" fame.
This thesis originated from Fallows -- and Bill Clinton. As Bob Woodward explained on Frontline: "Clinton makes that point in my book, that he believes that the Washington press corps is so out of touch that it is absolutely inconceivable that reporters will understand the issues that people are really dealing with in their lives, and Clinton feels a profound alienation from the Washington culture here, and I happen to agree with him."
For probing the press from the left without balancing the show with press criticism from the right, Frontline earned the Janet Cooke Award. Among the questions raised by a viewing of the program:
- Where were the conservatives? One thing that makes many Americans, and tens of millions of conservatives, hate the press is its liberal bias, but it went absolutely unmentioned. Questions about bias surfaced in Talbot's interviews with several of the talking heads (presented in full on the PBS website), but they never made the show. With the exception of Fred Barnes (who didn't comment on bias), not a single conservative appeared. Instead, PBS presented a left-wing stable of media scolds. First and foremost came Fallows, echoed by Washington Post reporter/columnist David Broder and media reporter Howard Kurtz, and even far-left critics Christopher Hitchens and Mark Hertsgaard, whose book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency argued the press was incredibly soft on Ronald Reagan. Curiously, instead of investigating the press in its daily work on print and television, Talbot began the show with Fallows attacking The McLaughlin Group, a PBS program, and its commercial imitators, even interspersing them with footage of professional wrestling. Said Fallows: "That is something I would like to see done away with." Broder argued: "What bothers me is the notion that journalists believe, or some journalists believe, that they can have their cake and eat it, too, that you can have all of the special privileges, access, and extraordinary freedom that you have because you are a journalist in a society that protects journalism to a greater degree than any other country in the world, and at the same time, you can be a policy advocate, you can be a public performer on the lecture circuit or on television. I think that's greedy." Kurtz added: "It's certainly true that the more journalists have become part of the affluent upper middle class, they have started to identify more with the elite in our society rather than the people who plunk down their quarters at the news stands for newspapers. I think that's a real problem."
- Where was the evidence? Talbot decried the influences on reporters who make large sums in speaking fees from corporations, but never provided a single example of content altered by them. As Fred Barnes suggested, "I haven't ever had anybody point out to me where that's happened." PBS didn't either. Fallows complained that corporations and trade associations expect a "subtle immunization," that before "doing you in," a reporter will say: "Oh, gee, I know old Joe from the tobacco lobby, maybe I should call him, see what he has to say." But isn't it the job of any decent reporter to include the business side of a dispute?
- What about nonprofit groups? Talbot touted ABC's July 1994 decision to ban reporter speaking conflicts: "To avoid these potential and embarrassing conflicts of interest, ABC imposed a new policy banning speeches to lobbying groups by its reporters." But the rule doesn't apply to nonprofit advocacy groups. For example, in May 1994, ABC's Carole Simpson hosted a fundraiser for the liberal NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Why is it a conflict of interest to speak to the tobacco lobby but not to raise money for liberal lobbies like the NAACP? ABC told us its policy covered "groups with a political purpose," which they felt didn't include the NAACP. PBS didn't bring this up.
- What does the revolving door prove? Talbot decried the revolving door between journalism and politics, focusing on famous revolvers like Tim Russert and David Gergen. But he failed to mention what the revolving door proves. For years, MediaWatch has documented how almost four times as many liberals and Democrats have revolved into the media as have conservatives or Republicans, which should have raised a question about whether liberal bias results.
- Isn't this hypocrisy? Except for Woodward, who Talbot interviewed and then counted on Hertsgaard to bash as an insider, Talbot never challenged his stable of liberal critics. Fallows insisted he despises buckraking revolving-door journalism, but keeps David Gergen at U.S. News. Broder deplored reporters as "policy advocates," but for many years has been a reporter and a columnist. Kurtz proclaimed reporters sympathize with politicians rather than the public, yet Kurtz has regularly complained about Bill Clinton's supposed maltreatment at the hands of reporters, talk show hosts, and comedians. When MediaWatch called the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco for comment, Talbot was in Italy. CIR executive Sharon Tiller, listed as a producer on the Frontline program, did not return phone calls. Perhaps the most interesting sub-theme of the show is how a PBS program could point out media buckrakers like Cokie Roberts (of NPR), Steve Roberts (a PBS Washington Week in Review regular), and David Gergen (of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer), but didn't suggest that PBS is a breeding ground for buckraking -- that the network spawned out of a contempt for commercialism is now awash in profiteering opportunities for those who are chosen to grace its airwaves. The worse hypocrisy of all belongs to Frontline itself. It deplored reporters being too close to power, but after years of leveling discredited allegations at the Reagan and Bush administrations, it hasn't done a single investigative program on the Clintons in four years.