MediaWatch: November 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 11

NewsBites: Cuddly Killer

Cuddly Killer. Sure, we all know the public side to Jiang Zemin: he can force abortions on his population, torture Christians for their beliefs and crush democratic movements before lunch. But did we ever get to know his cuddly, sensitive side? During Jiang’s recent trip to America, a few reporters got to know him better. On October 26, New York Times reporter Seth Faison insisted the Chinese despot’s "penchant for unexpectedly displaying his artistic talents — Mr. Jiang also likes to play piano and recite poetry — points to an unpredictable, wacky side as well."

The next day, The Washington Post’s Steven Mufson wrote in a profile: "He reads novels by Mark Twain as well as Leo Tolstoy. He plays Chinese folk tunes on a Chinese string instrument called an erhu and American show tunes on the piano. He sang ‘Love Me Tender’ with Phillipine President Fidel Ramos and warbles Chinese opera for guests. He likes American films of the late 1940s and early 1950s." On the Slate Web site, Scott Shuger put this journalistic practice of humanizing communist leaders in perspective: "Homework assignment: find a single front-page piece in the entire history of the [New York Times] emphasizing Hitler’s fondness for animals and children."

The Raw Deal. The CBS Sunday interview show Face the Nation touts its "Real Deal" segment as a look behind the big story in Washington. But in recent weeks, the "Real Deal" has turned into a raw deal for congressional Republicans. Of the six segments run from September 1 to November 9, five took on Republican politicians or policies.

For example: on the October 26 show, host Gloria Borger called the GOP’s IRS reform plan a fake: "Experts say that if the burden of proof shifts to the agency, it will be forced to require even more information from taxpayers. That’s certain to make dealing with the IRS even more annoying. They predict it will result in a loss of revenue and create a whole new class of tax cheaters. The Real Deal here, Bob [Schieffer], is that the new fix may be a fake."

On November 2, Borger insisted Rep. Dan Burton’s check as to whether the White House coffee tapes were altered was a boring waste of time, and "Senate Republicans even hired Paul Ginsburg, a well-respected technical expert, to dissect those videotapes. Ginsburg spent weeks comparing the raw footage of the coffees to the composite greatest-hits version handed over to the Congress. Committee sources say that Ginsburg will report next week there was no smoking gun or altered tape for that matter. And Ginsburg tells us that the tapes were like watching the cocktail hour at a wedding: not very illuminating, unless you’re the bride or groom."

Will the NRA Fail? Network reporters played up the battle in Washington state over a ballot initiative cracking down on gun rights by demanding owners take courses and manufacturers include locks. On the October 16 NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw began: "Here in the state of Washington, the front lines have been drawn in the deadly battle over gun control. It started in the grass roots as anger exploded over the hundreds of children in this state killed or hurt by guns. It’s now a full-blown political war."

ABC’s World News Tonight promoted the Washington "war" on November 2. Anchor Carole Simpson announced: "As ABC’s Judy Muller reports, the vote could have important repercussions for the National Rifle Association and the nation." Muller added: "More than 1 million of Washington’s 5 million residents own a handgun. If this measure wins in this gun friendly state it could spell trouble for the NRA elsewhere."

When 71 percent of Washington voters rejected the measure, network producers anticipating an embarrassing loss to the NRA were caught with their guard down. What certainly would have been a lead story if the measure passed on an otherwise Republican day became an afterthought on the networks. On the November 5 Nightly News NBC’s Gwen Ifill blamed the NRA’s cash advantage for the defeat: "In Washington state the National Rifle Association spent $2 million to derail a measure that would have forced gunmakers to put safety trigger locks on guns for sale in the state and require new gun owners to take a safety test in order to get a license." The ABC morning and evening shows only offered brief sentences simply stating the measure failed.

Redneckville? When Republicans made a clean sweep of the November 4 elections the media portrayed it as a vote for the status quo. ABC’s World News Tonight ran one full story, but instead of focusing on the anti-tax sentiment felt by the voters, ABC highlighted the one liberal result of the day. Anchor Peter Jennings declared: "And in Houston voters chose to keep in place an affirmative action program that steers city contracts to companies owned by women and minorities. The Houston decision seems to buck a trend developing in the country to reverse course on affirmative action."

ABC’s Dean Reynolds opened with a pro-quota spin: "It has been the goal here in Houston to award about 20 percent of all city contracts to firms owned by women and minorities. 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 noted how the initiative won: "But Houston Mayor Bob Lanier got the city council to re-phrase the language in the proposition making it clear that a yes vote would end the city’s affirmative action program." He ended his report by disparaging the anti-discrimination 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.’"

No Licking Whitey’s Boots! Thousands of black women converged on October 25 for a "Million Woman March," and the networks painted a harmonious picture. The next day on Good Morning America, ABC’s Bill Redeker declared: "People power, that celebrated a common goal, unity and the desire to collectively make life in their community better, safer." On Today, NBC’s Susan Campos declared: "Keynote speaker Winnie Mandela underscored the theme of the Million Woman March with a strongly worded call to power. She told the mostly black gathering in Philadelphia that women have a shared responsibility to save the world from those, she said, who want to destroy it. The rally was aimed at building political, economic, and social unity among black women."

While many at the "Million Woman March" were inspired by that ideal, the theme of unity wasn’t advocated by everyone at the podium. As National Public Radio reporter Eric Westervelt pointed out in the November 17 New Republic, Ava Muhammed from the Nation of Islam "told the crowd that black women must not sleep with white men, lest they become ‘traitors to the cause of liberation. We have thousands of long-tongued Uncle Toms lookin’ for a boot to lick...and who’ll sell our soul for a job and to have lunch with white people!’" Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) "warned of white plots to destroy blacks," such as the CIA importing crack into Los Angeles.

Winnie Mandela also didn’t exactly embody the themes of peace and unity: in her own country of South Africa, she was convicted in the 1988 kidnapping of Soweto child activist Stompie Seipei and is under investigation for her involvement in his murder. With the exception of an oblique reference to controversial speakers Waters and Mandela by NBC’s Jodi Applegate, the big three networks ignored any hint of controversy.

Clinton’s "Correction." When the stock market took a sharp dive in October, the networks repeated the optimistic proclamations of the Clinton administration, a stark contrast with the commentary offered on "Black Monday" in 1987, which reporters declared was the natural culmination of Reagan’s failed economic policies. As pointed out by James W. Michaels in the November 3 Forbes, back in 1987 this is how Time described the crash: "What crashed was more than just the market. It was the Reagan Illusion...he stayed a term too long...his dream of painless prosperity has been punctured." In the November 3, 1997 Time, the headline read "Catching the Asian Flu," and concluded: "Increasingly, when Asia sneezes, as it did last week in Hong Kong, America will catch cold."

The same difference in approaches plagued television news. In an October 20, 1987 commentary NBC’s John Chancellor opined: "Everybody knew these chickens were coming home to roost...The party was nice while it lasted, but this was the week when the bill arrived." The next night, Chancellor continued his assault: "Ronald Reagan said a tax increase ‘over my dead body’ and that was popular with the voters. In 1984 Fritz Mondale said he’d raise taxes and carried only Minnesota and the District of Columbia. So, without enough money coming in, government had to borrow to pay its way...which raises an interesting question, which would have been better: a stock market disaster or a tax increase which might have prevented the disaster?"

In an October 22, 1987 report, CBS economics correspondent Ray Brady warned: "Wall Street’s been talking about the optimistic statements issued by President Hoover during the 1929 stock crash and comparing them to President Reagan’s upbeat messages this week." Reporter Bill Plante warned "some in financial circles are afraid that President Reagan will repeat his pledge of no new taxes tonight and further upset the markets."

What a difference a decade makes — on October 27, 1997, CBS anchor Dan Rather proclaimed: "The market closed a half hour early after prices plummeted. The Dow lost 554 points, the biggest one day point drop ever closing at 7715. Over on the NASDAQ...the index plunged 115 points...President Clinton is urging calm and reason, saying the U.S. economy remains very strong."

North Korea’s Decades of Bad Luck. Prime Time Live host Diane Sawyer traveled to North Korea to tape an emotional piece on children starving in that nation. But instead of blaming the communists’ policies, in her October 8 story Sawyer blamed someone else: Mother Nature. Sawyer did, however, note the regime’s restrictions on reporters and on free speech: "You dare not express opposition if you dare think it. Nor dare ask the question: Why do perhaps as many as five million North Koreans face malnutrition or starvation this winter?"

Sawyer continued: "There’s the propaganda about the North Korean harvests, abundant with granaries overflowing, though Prime Time commissioned a study using satellite images and found huge areas of farmland damaged by flood and drought and overall productivity at rock bottom, a result of the country’s failing agriculture system." But instead of seeing through the regime’s propaganda she bought into it: blaming uncontrollable natural occurrences. Sawyer failed to connect the nation’s "failing agriculture system" to the repressive policies of the isolated nation which refuses to let anyone leave.

Two weeks later, a producer read a history book before writing the intro for the October 23 Nightline. Anchor Chris Wallace began: "It is part of communism’s tragic legacy that three of this century’s worst famines all took place under communist regimes. Millions died in Stalin’s Russia in the ‘30s. The worst famine ever, more than 30 million dead, came in Mao’s China some 35 years ago. And now, in North Korea, it is happening again. The most telling indication of just how desperate the situation is may be that it has forced this proud and repressive regime to open up, to let some outsiders in so they can tell the rest of the world how much North Korea needs help."