In This Issue
Censoring the Case for "Censorship"; Study Bites; NewsBites: Mad Moldavians; Revolving Door: Advocating Adams; Networks Ignore Two Congressional Embarassments; More Statistical Games; Moyers' Boy Alter; Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Threlked Flunks Economics
Censoring the Case for "Censorship"
Network news executives, editors, and reporters were livid early this year when they were not granted full, immediate access to the front lines of the Gulf War, declaring themselves "the conveyors of truth" and arguing for the right to air graphic pictures of dead soldiers. Walter Cronkite defined that attitude in a January 24 interview with the Chicago Tribune: "It ought to be almost compulsory to sit in front of the television set and have to view the horror they're enduring...If we start seeing, live, on the air, people dying in combat, it's going to have one terrible effect."
But Cronkite, with his fondness for People for the American Way and other liberal "anti-censorship" groups, has not criticized his own colleagues for their coverage of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The same networks that lobbied to show dead soldiers declined to show graphic images of sex that were funded by taxpayers, or play the lyrics of a controversial rap music group.
To evaluate the networks' treatment of the "censorship" debate, MediaWatch analysts watched every news story from June 1, 1989 to September 30, 1991 on the NEA or the rap group 2 Live Crew. Analysts viewed ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's PrimeNews (until late 1990) and then CNN's Evening News. In every one of the 47 stories on the NEA and 29 about 2 Live Crew, the networks failed to show the most controversial works or play the most controversial lyrics, even as some downplayed their shock value. [This article includes sexually explicit language.]
Mapplethorpe. In covering the photography of homosexual activist Robert Mapplethorpe, each network described (at least once) the nature of Mapplethorpe's controversial photos -- the ones that featured homoerotic and sado-masochistic themes or nude children. But all of them refused to show or describe the worst publicly- funded pictures: Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip inserted in his rectum, or a picture of one man urinating in another man's mouth. Only two networks, ABC and CNN, told viewers there were pictures they wouldn't be able to show.
On September 29, 1989, CNN reporter Mary Tillotson stated the networks' problem succinctly: "The problem with reporting the debate about the propriety of public funding for the arts is that the photographs at the heart of the dispute are clearly not appropriate for television." In eight of CNN's 18 stories on the NEA, Mapplethorpe's pictures were partially covered by black boxes. In its seven stories on the NEA, NBC showed Mapplethorpe's pictures in only three, and it covered up the pictures with black boxes in two. All of the networks routinely cropped out the controversial parts without telling viewers what they had hidden or cut out.
On July 26, 1989, ABC reporter Beth Nissen also noted that Mapplethorpe's photo portfolio included "a few which cannot be shown on television, [which] are images of sadomasochism." Nissen implied that art too obscene for broadcast television was comparable to past greats: "The art of Picasso, Van Gogh, and even Monet was once considered shocking. Today's disturbing works will likewise be judged by time." Seconds earlier, Nissen argued that the NEA's controversial art has not found its place with the greats, but has already been forgotten: "In its 24 years, the Endowment has given more than 85,000 grants. Only 20 of those have enraged or offended anyone, and most of those have long since been forgotten."
2 Live Crew. The networks followed the same ignore-the-facts practice in the controversy over the rap music group 2 Live Crew. In 29 stories surrounding the Florida ban on sales of the group's music, only three quoted the lyrics at the very center of the controversy. NBC (in six stories) and ABC (in two) refused to quote the lyrics. (NBC did quote some rap lyrics, in a January 29, 1990 story -- not included in this study -- on the group Public Enemy and its anti-Semitism.) In only one of its six stories, on June 12, 1990 did CBS air some 2 Live Crew lyrics. Viewers could read on screen: "I ---- all the girls and make them cry. I'm like a dog in heat, I freak without warning. I have an appetite for sex 'cause me so horny."
In its 15 stories, CNN aired the lyrics twice. The first time, on February 22, 1990, they came muffled and without transcription. On October 4, 1990, reporter Jack Poorman put these lyrics on the screen: "Girls always askin' why I f--k so much/Just say what's wrong baby doll, with a quick nut/'Cause you're the one and you shouldn't be mad/I won't tell your mama if you don't tell your dad/I know he'll be disgusted when he sees your p---y busted/Won't your momma be so mad If she knew I got that a--/I'm a freak in heat, a god without warning/My appetite is sex 'cause me so horny." Poorman concluded that 2 Live Crew "have never denied their lyrics are adult."
But these lyrics aren't the ones which actually caused the Florida record-banning controversy, lyrics that aren't "adult," but celebrate violence to women: "To have her walkin' funny we try to abuse it/A big stinking pussy can't do it all/So we try real hard to bust the [vaginal] walls," and "I'll break you down and dick you long/Bust your pussy then break your backbone." The same networks that trumpet your right to know figure you'll hear about this somewhere else.
Network censors were also sensitive about the cover to the group's album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. When they dared to show the album cover, which features women in thong bikinis with their mostly-bare behinds facing the camera, they covered the buttocks with graphics on at least five occasions.
The networks cannot have it both ways, implicitly or explicitly declaring their advocacy against "censorship" and then censoring the most controversial parts of publicly funded art or violent rap music. If they are willing to show us grotesque images of death, they shouldn't be afraid of showing us the homoerotic "art" we paid for, or the "hate speech" of rap groups. Instead, those Americans who get their news from the networks were cheated out of a complete understanding of the "censorship" controversy.
Downplaying the shock value of NEA-supported "art," even omitting important facts, happened more than once:
- On July 13, 1990, ABC reporter John Martin's last sound-bite came from a smirking "performance artist," Holly Hughes: "If I were really making pornography, I wouldn't need to apply to the NEA because I would be making a lot of money." ABC didn't tell viewers that Hughes' stage act included a scene where she places her hand up her vagina, saying that she saw "Jesus between Mother's hips."
This March, Human Events reported that Hughes had received a $15,000 NEA grant for No Trace of the Blonde, a lesbian stage act "for up to five performers with two pubescent girls, black and white, about 12 years old, as the main characters." ABC ignored this, too.
- On July 26, 1990, Peter Jennings reported "a new attack" on "The Dinner Table," which Jennings said was "exhibited to great acclaim in other parts of the world." ABC aired a few fleeting pictures of plates on the dinner table that had vaginas sculpted into the center. But Jennings never explained the subject matter.
- When CBS reporter Rita Braver covered Todd Haynes' NEA-funded film Poison this March 29, she failed to tell viewers about the film's homosexual rape scenes: "In fact, most of the film's sex scenes are not graphic; leave much to the imagination." Daily Variety had a different analysis: "One prisoner stalks another in an episode spiked with multiple glimpses of rear-entry intercourse and one of genital fondling." Braver, who reported that anti-NEA activist Donald Wildmon hadn't seen the movie, made sure the rest of us didn't see or know much about it, either.
NewsBites: Mad Moldavians
MAD MOLDAVIANS. After decades of telling viewers the Russian people were satisfied with communism, reporters were proven wrong. Now, network reporters are saying that people in the republics don't want independence. NBC News reporter Jim Maceda, in a September 23 Nightly News segment, declared: "Grapes -- at this time of year, gold for Moldavian farmers. In the south, the harvest is good, yet people here are worried. Like many others throughout the republics, they fear independence." Why then did Moldavia's 282-member parliament vote unanimously to declare it?
GLASS HOUSES. New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd turned the controversy over the Senate's handling of Anita Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas into a page one feminist forum about the Senate's sexism. Dowd loaded her October 8 story with outraged feminists -- Ann Lewis, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Pat Schroeder, reporter Susan Milligan, Rep. Barbara Boxer, Judith Lichtman, law professors Katherine Bartlett and Susan Deller Ross. The only Republican quoted was Sen. Arlen Specter -- who Dowd said "many women" were angry with for his support of Thomas. Dowd failed to quote any of the "many women" for Thomas.
But when Kitty Kelley wrote a book asserting that Nancy Reagan had a lesbian affair, performed oral sex acts on various men, and cheated on her husband, Dowd wrote a gossipy page one piece on Kelley's book without any comment from the woman demeaned. Dowd then defended Kelley in the May 13 New Republic: "Of course the book is tawdry. Of course, the book is, in some spots, loosely sourced, and over the top...Of course, there are mistakes in it...The point, however is that Kelley's portrait is not essentially untrue." Dowd's motto: women should be given a forum when their reputations are in question -- unless they're Nancy Reagan.
UNEQUAL TIME. NBC had a funny definition of balance in a September 7 Nightly News report on Clarence Thomas. Reporter Jamie Gangel gave eight seconds to black Republican businessman Joshua Smith, who said: "And I think in so many cases when you look at successful people they are a product of their own vision."
But Gangel then gave Thomas opponents 69 seconds to attack him: 24 seconds for recent college graduate Shaun Haley and a whopping 45 seconds to Roger Wilkins, a Senior Fellow with the far-left Institute for Policy Studies. Wilkins asserted: "I think that not only is black skin not enough, I think that in this instance the black skin is destructive, because white people, conservative white people for years have picked, tried to pick black spokesmen who agree with them, in order to validate their own racism. And Clarence Thomas is exactly in that mode."
UNEQUAL TIME II. NBC played the same game on the September 20 Nightly News. Reporting on the Kennedy-Danforth compromise civil rights bill, Andrea Mitchell allowed President Bush to label it a quota bill, but then she gave air time to four proponents who criticized Bush. The bill's supporters: Senator Ted Kennedy, Republican-basher Kevin Phillips and Senators Arlen Specter and John Danforth, whom she introduced with the usual media cop-out for not offering the conservative view, "Even some Republicans..." NBC's lucky there aren't equal-time rules.
BOOMING BREZHNEV YEARS. Now that their hero Gorbachev has fallen from favor, reporters are reaching back to Brezhnev to prove that communism could work. In the September 23 issue of Time, Associate Editor George Church wrote, "Inefficient as the old communist economy was, it did provide jobs of a sort for everybody and a steady, if meager, supply of basic goods at low, subsidized prices; Soviet citizens for more than 70 years were conditioned to expect that from their government. Says a Moscow worker: 'We had everything during [Leonid] Brezhnev's times. There was sausage in the stores. We could buy vodka. Things were normal.'"
USA Today reporter Kevin Maney went even further: "But for a long time communism worked OK. Soviet people consistently say their economic life was better 20 years ago when communism was in full bloom under Leonid Brezhnev."
UP THE ACADEMY. Panicked forecasts about global warming are still being widely covered, while calmer reports are ignored. Take for example two reports issued by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In April, an NAS panel asserted that global warming is happening, and recommended immediate action. The report made news in The New York Times, USA Today, AP, UPI, CNN, Gannett News Service, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Newsweek, and two issues of Time magazine. The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post put it on page 1.
But on September 6, another NAS panel declared in a strikingly non-alarmist tone that the economy could adapt and even benefit from a gradual warming. This time, only AP, the Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times (in two stories) covered the findings. The Washington Post didn't run the report as a news story, but did carry an op-ed by Post environmental reporter William Booth on September 22.
The three broadcast networks covered neither report, but ABC's Ned Potter did find frightening fodder for an "American Agenda" segment on World News Tonight September 18: "The EPA, which rarely sounds alarmist, says the ozone problem is twice as bad as anyone expected...12 million Americans may get skin cancer in the next 50 years. Cataracts and immune disorders will increase. There could even be a threat to the food supply if crops and ocean life are killed by ultraviolet rays."
CANONIZING CASTRO. In an otherwise capable job of reporting the obvious in a two-part series on the decline of Castro's Cuba, Washington Post reporter Lee Hockstader reverted a few times to the same old tourist-brochure language: "The government points out quite rightly that Cuba's standard of living is better than in many other countries of Latin America....Government officials frequently trumpet the revolution's achievements of lowering infant mortality or increasing daily calorie consumption."
The next day, Hockstader claimed: "For 32 years -- nearly half of his life -- Castro has not so much governed Cuba as reinvented it in his own larger-than-life image, and for much of that time enjoyed the consent and even the adulation of his people -- at least those who remained in the country. But today...popular discontent with Castro's government has reached enormous, if unmeasurable, proportions." Notice the discontent was unmeasurable, but the adulation was not.
In any case, evidence indicates the Cuban people may not have been as happy with Castro as Hockstader proposed. The human rights group Freedom House says that "With the possible exception of South Africa, Indonesia, and China, Cuba under Castro has had more political prisoners per capita for longer periods than any other country."
JUST THE FACTS, PLEASE. A September 16 Time article, "Why do Blacks Die Young?", was long on demagoguery but short on detail. Staff writer Christine Gorman claimed, "The gap between white and black [life spans] has remained stubbornly wide, and it increased sharply during the Reagan years, when many social programs that helped minorities were slashed."
But Gorman made this damning charge without backing it up with no proof -- no program names, no budget number, nothing. Perhaps because they are nowhere to be found. Federal budget numbers reveal that between 1980 and 1990, major social program budgets grew at or above the rate of inflation. But facts might have detracted from the media's favorite Reagan-era premise.
OMNIPOTENT OSHA? That's what journalists yearned for in the wake of the fatal North Carolina chicken plant fire. Time and U.S. News & World Report stumped for more inspectors to patrol the workplace, although neither specified just how many would be needed to adequately protect America's work force. Time Associate Editor Richard Lacayo tied increasing danger in the workplace to Reagan. "By almost every measure, America's regulatory safeguards have grown threadbare," Lacayo claimed, "OSHA was stretched to the breaking point by Ronald Reagan."
But later, Lacayo stepped on his own premise, admitting, "work- related fatalities have dropped from 12,500 ten years ago to 10,500 last year." In fact, the workplace is now safer and, according to U.S. News, inspections are "more thorough," decreasing the demand for inspectors.
SAME SONG, SECOND VERSE. "Spend more money" has always been the liberal's solution to any of society's problems, and when federal aid to cities came into question, NBC's Bryant Gumbel was caught singing the same old song.
On the September 3 Today, Gumbel blamed the exodus from the cities on a lack of federal aid: "But don't you find that the problems are only going to get worse if people keep running from the cities? I mean, there'll then be no reason for the government to ever invest any monies in the cities, which is part of the problem right now. I mean, the problems are, the problems seem to be getting exacerbated only because there's no money coming in to them and the people who are in a position to help keep running out of the cities." But according to the Cato Institute's Stephen Moore, federal aid to states and cities has risen steadily from $108 billion in 1987 to $159 billion in 1991. Gumbel forgot to mention ever-rising municipal taxes as a reason for leaving.
MORALS EQUALS IGNORANCE? Yes, according to Time reporter Nancy Gibbs' September 2 article about the rise of teen AIDS cases. Gibbs quickly sided with AIDS activists over the "ignorance" of the Catholic Church. "The two sides disagree not only about morality but also about what approach would be most effective. 'We don't say, 'Smoke carefully.' We say 'Don't smoke,' argues Monsignor John Woolsy...'A huge campaign could work to stop kids from having sex. We don't water down principles.'"
But Gibbs claimed with today's oversexed teens, teaching good morals is useless and can be deadly. "AIDS activists and health- care workers have seen firsthand the devastation that ignorance can yield....there is plenty of evidence that teens need no encouragement."
PC PROTESTERS. Last month, MediaWatch reported that when Operation Rescue blocked access to a Wichita abortion clinic, CBS News reporter Scott Pelley tracked down and quoted someone worried about police overtime costs during the protests. CBS News reporter Bruce Morton also bemoaned Operation Rescue's tactics.
But when radical gay activists turned violent after California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a "gay rights" bill, bashing in windows, setting fires, and throwing oranges at Wilson during a speech, the networks reacted quite differently. Neither CBS' Richard Roth, ABC's Judy Muller nor NBC's George Lewis quoted a single critic of the protesters' tactics in their October 1 segments, nor did they report the costs of the damage. We're still waiting for a Bruce Morton commentary on the protesters' tactics. Apparently damaging property and threatening violence are acceptable forms of civil disobedience if done for the right cause.
MIDWESTERN VALUES? When Pete du Pont ran for President in 1988 he had six years in Congress and eight years as Governor of Delaware under his belt. In a December 1, 1987 CBS Evening News segment, reporter Bob Faw still asserted: "politically, du Pont has to get recognized as something more than a man who is worth $6 million or who once had a date with Jane Fonda." Faw concluded, "He keeps raising his lance to joust with others, even though they're convinced all Pete du Pont is doing is tilting at windmills."
So when Senator Robert Kerrey (D-NE), who has served only one term as Governor of Nebraska and three years in the Senate, announced his candidacy for President, did CBS News suggest he was just another millionaire first-term Senator who once lived with Debra Winger? Not exactly. On September 19 reporter Eric Engberg gushed that Kerrey, "who won the nation's highest military award after losing part of a leg in Vietnam, brings a message tailored to the generation that was shaped by that war and retains a distrust for conventional politicians...he practices the politics of biography to articulate his views, using events from his own life, like nine months in the hospital and the midwestern values handed down by his father."
RATHER RAGS HELMS. "My best friends still call me 'Rags,'" Dan Rather began I Remember, a book of childhood recollections. In a brief digression, Rather revealed he has absolutely no understanding of why he's considered "a symbol" of the "effete eastern media" by Senator Jesse Helms.
Rather arrogantly insisted Helms just doesn't want to learn the truth. "My job is to be accurate and fair, an honest broker of information. Period. It is a job that automatically puts me down in places Senator Helms dislikes. In the early 1960s I was the point man of CBS News on many of the most controversial civil rights stories. During the Watergate scandals, it was my job as White House correspondent to ask President Nixon questions that he didn't want to be asked. These are 'crimes' that many big- money political contributors don't forgive or forget, and Senator Helms likes to remind them of me because he gets money from them."
Revolving Door: Advocating Adams
Advocating Adams. As liberal Senator Brock Adams (D-WA) gears up for his 1992 election campaign, the former Carter Administration Secretary of Transportation has brought aboard a 26-year CBS News veteran to guide his press relations. In September Peter Herford, Director of the University of Chicago's William Benton Fellowships in Broadcast Journalism program since he left CBS in 1988, became Director of Communications for the Democrat.
Herford's career spanned the rise and fall of CBS News. He was a writer for the Evening News when CBS made Walter Cronkite the anchor in 1963. A year later he moved to Chicago as Bureau Chief, heading to the Paris bureau after a year and then to Vietnam for two years as Saigon Bureau Chief. After stops in Bonn and Rome, in 1969 he became a 60 Minutes producer. From 1972 to 1985 Herford served as Vice President for affiliate relations. He spent his last three years with the network as Producer of Sunday Morning.
Times Retirement. Barbara Gamarekian, a 25-year veteran of The New York Times Washington bureau, retired at the end of August. National Journal reported that during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations she worked in the White House press office. In 1966 she joined the Times as office manager, soon rising to reporter.
White House Whirl. Last February Nightline Executive Producer Dorrance Smith joined the Bush Administration as Assistant to the President for Media Affairs. One of his former colleagues has now followed him. Scott Sforza, a Nightline production coordinator for the past two years and an editorial assistant for two years before, has become Smith's deputy....Chase Untermeyer, White House Director of Personnel since the Bush Administration took office has jumped to the Voice of America as its Director. From 1972 to 1974 Untermeyer was a Houston Chronicle reporter.
Geraldo Girl. Prime Time Live reportorial producer Sheila Hershow has come aboard Geraldo Rivera's new half hour tabloid show, Now It Can Be Told. Hershow, an investigator for the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Government Activities and Transportation chaired by liberal U.S. Representative Cardiss Collins (D-IL) from 1987-89, will do investigative reporting out of Washington. Before jumping to Capitol Hill politics, Hershow put in three years with CNN's investigative unit.
Both Sides Now. The Sunbelt Institute, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress from 17 southern and southwestern states, has named Deborah Matthews its Deputy Director. Matthews worked as a CNN assignment editor in 1980, handling the same duties for Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB-TV before becoming an Atlanta Constitution and Journal reporter in 1988. Press Secretary to U.S. Representative Mike Andrews (D-TX) in 1989 and to Senator Wyche Fowler (D-GA) in 1989-90, Matthews then handled communications for the Senate Special Committee on Aging headed by Pennsylvania Republican John Heinz until his death this past spring.
Networks Ignore Two Congressional Embarassments
CAPITOL HILL SCANDAL? NAAH
Washington's press corps continues to apply differing standards in political reporting: a tough one for the White House, and a lax one for Congress. As ABC's Brit Hume explained in the July 9 Washington Times: "Compared to the adversarial posturing reporters do when they're covering the President, the atmosphere is incredibly chummy and cozy....The idea that you would seriously challenge any member of Congress to defend his or her position on any issue, and then follow up on the questions, is almost unheard of."
The network evening news shows proved that assumption in failing to do even one story on the congressional check-bouncing scandal until October 3, two entire weeks after it broke in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. Three newspapers network producers see -- The Washington Post, The New York Times and USA Today -- each did several stories, but the network reporters on Capitol Hill blithely focused on other subjects (like unemployment benefits) without a word on check bouncing.
Compare this to the networks' response to the John Sununu story. The Washington Post released its investigation of Sununu on April 21. NBC did a story that night, ABC and CBS the next day. Over the following two weeks, the networks ran a combined total of 15 stories on Sununu. Amazingly, this isn't the first hint of check bouncing without much interest shown by the networks. In February 1990, the GAO released a report which found the bank had cashed $232,000 in bad checks during the previous twelve months.
Another blatant double standard arose in coverage of the "Managua Surprise," revelations that Democratic members of Congress may have passed U.S. secrets to the Sandinistas and advised the Managua regime on how to block Contra aid legislation. The New York Times ran the first story on September 15. Most other newspapers mentioned it on only two occasions: on September 20, after former CIA official Alan Fiers' testimony about the disclosure, and on October 4, after Senator David Boren announced he saw no wrongdoing.
But the networks, which have aired at least 27 evening news stories on the "October Surprise," have done absolutely nothing on this revelation. The CBS Evening News, which devotes more time to Iran-Contra than the other networks, did find time on October 1 for a story on Noriega running guns to the Contras. The Washington Post's laxity is fascinating given its nearly encyclopedic coverage of the Iran-Contra affair. Now that it's clear why Reagan officials were reluctant to tell all to Congress, the media have dropped the ball.
More Statistical Games
FISCAL UNFITNESS. On September 13, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe both served as bulletin boards for Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) and their newest attempt to prove that the rich paid less of the tax burden in the 1980s. In a story headlined "15 Years of Cuts Said to Enrich the Rich," Post reporter Tom Kenworthy suggested "The study is the latest of a growing pile of analyses of federal fiscal policy during the 1980s." Kenworthy failed to note that the study was not original research, but another reworking of the same politically loaded Congressional Budget Office statistics that other liberal groups have used as the basis of their reports. A steady stream of liberal studies which all use the same source is not exactly a "growing pile" of research.
Both papers mentioned that the CTJ figures covered the years 1977-1992, but neither made the obvious point that there is no tax or income data for 1991 or 1992 yet! Conservatives could have provided IRS data showing the income tax burden of the top one percent increased from 17.6 percent of taxes collected in 1981 to 27.5 in 1988, while the bottom 50 percent's burden dropped from 7.5 to 5.7 percent. But the Post simply excluded any critical opinion, and the Globe only allowed that "The study was faulted by conservatives as too simplistic." The Post also described CTJ as "nonpartisan," but five paragraphs later reported that Dick Gephardt appeared at the group's press conference to criticize President Bush.
FISCAL UNFITNESS II. The Post and the Globe also uncritically reported an economic study by the liberal Joint Center for Political Studies (JCPS) comparing poverty in the U.S. and Europe. Post reporter Paul Taylor passed on their conclusions in the lead paragraph: "The United States stood in 'ignominious isolation' in its failure to lift its least well-off citizens out of poverty...not only was the poverty rate here higher in the 1980s than in the six other countries studied, but also that poverty in the United States was deeper and of longer duration."
But later in the story, Taylor added that the study "defined poverty in each as 50 percent of the median income for all households with heads age 20 to 55." That means that if U.S. median income is higher than the other countries (it is), then its poverty standard is also higher. So people in the same income bracket would be poor here, but not in the European countries. Taylor not only failed to explain this, but he failed to quote any critic who could have explained it.
Moyers' Boy Alter
NEWSWEEK KISSES UP
Writer Andrew Ferguson skewered PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers in a recent New Republic cover story. Ferguson detailed the dirty work done by "television's conscience" during his service to Lyndon Johnson, and pointed out how he makes millions merchandising his public TV appearances. Moyers' uncommon response, paying $9,000 for two pages of ad space, caused a story in Newsweek.
Media writer Jonathan Alter applauded how Moyers "attempts (often successfully) to parry practically every blow of the hatchet." The caption described Moyers as "Victim of a New Republic hatchet job." Alter called the Ferguson article "a vicious innuendo- filled cover story." He also dismissed Moyers' hypocrisy, that he can both do LBJ's dirty work and then be credible in pious documentaries on Watergate and Iran-Contra: "For The New Republic to suggest that this somehow discredits Moyers' thoughtful work as a journalist is absurd." Alter hoped viewers would not forget "Moyers' enormous contributions to television."
But according to Peter Boyer's book Who Killed CBS?, Alter has a reputation for going all soft over Moyers. When Moyers resigned from CBS in 1985, The New York Times and Alter "were particularly interested in getting Moyers's feelings about CBS News, knowing that they would make for good copy." But Moyers picked Alter because the Times, "would feel obliged to include a response from [CBS] management." Can we trust Boyer's account? Well, in the book's back-cover blurbs, Alter called it "The definitive story of how cynicism and pettiness nearly destroyed a great news organization."
Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Threlked Flunks Economics
Every fall, the Census Bureau releases an enormous report on wealth and poverty in America. For the last decade, the Census figures have shown an encouraging increase in wealth for all income levels. But when the bureau released this year's poverty rate report on September 26 the news was bad, so it led the CBS Evening News. (For the past three years, CBS didn't once report the Census figures before story number 11.) For exaggerating bad news through statistical manipulation and unrefutably false claims, CBS once again wins the Janet Cooke Award.
The Census Bureau reported an increase in the poverty rate from 12.8 to 13.5 percent as the number of people defined as poor rose to 33 million. Reporter Richard Threlkeld began with a flourish: "The Census figures confirm what's so evident throughout America in this recession. There are more poor people now than ever."
Wrong. "That's moronic," Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector told MediaWatch, pointing out that by the Census Bureau's count, the number of poor people stood at 48.4 million in 1950, 39.5 million in 1959, 36 million in 1964 before the "War on Poverty," and 35 million in 1983, the height of a recession. At the end of World War II, a third of Americans lived in poverty.
MediaWatch was unable to reach Threlkeld at CBS, but when asked about the source of Threlkeld's claim, a CBS Evening News producer suggested: "If you pick up The New York Times, you can probably get the whole text of the report." In fact, the September 27 Times published a graph showing the higher 1983 poverty number.
When presented with Threlkeld's error, the CBS producer treated the story as if it was already ancient history: "Old things like that, you're not going to go back and make some sort of correction for a story we did two weeks ago that said this, well this is not the fact. That's just not going to happen....I'm sure he's correct based on some interpretation. He's not around, you're not going to find out, and I'm not going to call you back."
Threlkeld's report only briefly explained the Census Bureau's definition of poverty, which excludes assets and government benefits. On CNN's PrimeNews the same night, reporter Deborah Potter offered a more complete look at the figures. She interviewed Kate O'Beirne of the Heritage Foundation, and gave a thorough, balanced explanation of the Census Bureau's definition: "The Census Bureau doesn't count government benefits like food stamps or assets like homes and cars when calculating income. If it did, the poverty rate might be considerably lower. But the report didn't include homeless people either, which would add to the poverty rate."
Threlkeld made no attempt to explain the long-standing debate over the Census definition of poverty, and only aired a soundbite of Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who Potter also interviewed. Neither reporter explained how Census figures show that the poor actually spend $1.94 for every $1 the Census counts as income, meaning those in poverty have more money than the Census figures indicate.
Reagamnesia. Threlkeld maintained: "It's not just the poor who've been hurt by this recession. It's most of the rest of us. Income per person fell $428 from 1989 to 1990, the first time that's gone down in eight years." Threlkeld also mentioned that the number of poor increased for the first time in eight years. But while the media hold Ronald Reagan responsible for any negative 1980s economic legacies, Threlkeld did not suggest the possibility that the Bush Administration's departure from Reaganomics caused the slowdown which drove the new increase in poverty. The largest decline in median family income on record came in 1980, the last year of Jimmy Carter, when income dropped a whopping $1,916.
The Rich. Threlkeld continued: "And over the last 20 years, the rich have been getting richer at the expense of the middle class: three percent more of the nation's income for the wealthiest 20 percent, three percent less for the 60 percent of Americans in the middle."
Very clever. First, what Threlkeld didn't report: The Census found the rich actually lost income last year. The top fifth lost 5 percent from 1989 to 1990, while the bottom fifth lost 1 percent. The share of income claimed by the top fifth also declined last year, while the bottom fifth's share has stayed the same for five years in a row.
Second, the rich didn't gain "at the expense of" the middle class. Census data shows that the 60 percent in the middle also grew in wealth over the last twenty years. The economy isn't a caricature of static analysis where the omnipotent President took three percent from the middle class and gave it to the rich. In fact, the mobility of households between high and low incomes is dramatic. In response to the Census figures, Chris Frenze, a minority staff economist with the Joint Economic Committee, pointed out the effects of social mobility: "In just one year, about one third of Americans move to a different quintile; over the same time, about one quarter of those in the top quintile fall to lower quintiles."
Safety Net. After Threlkeld's report, Dan Rather asked "What are the real consequences of this?" Threlkeld responded: "For one thing, I think an increased strain on state and local government resources, already strapped as you know, and it will be harder for the poor to get help. The social safety net is the weakest it's been for any recession in the last 40 years."
Wrong. Spending on the entitlement programs that compose the safety net has increased throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. According to Rector, a composite of 75 federal means-tested programs (including state and local spending) has increased from $126 billion in 1975 to $184 billion in 1988 in constant 1988 dollars.
As MediaWatch has found before, some network reporting on social problems has not only been emotionally loaded and politically slanted, but statistically misleading or just plain wrong. Dan Rather introduced Threlkeld's report with the assurance: "These are unpleasant facts. They are facts." Could it be that CBS, like the boy who cried wolf, is having trouble getting people to believe its economic reports?