MediaWatch: September 1992

Vol. Six No. 9

Janet Cooke Award: ABC: Can Quayle's Council

In the last four years, network reporters have been increasingly critical of thirty-second attack ads on political campaigns -- deriding them as cheap, superficial, emotionally overwrought and short on facts. But this is too often the networks' own formula. ABC reporter Ned Potter's "American Agenda" stories on Dan Quayle's Competitiveness Council August 4 and 5 are a perfect example, earning Potter the September Janet Cooke Award.

Potter loaded all his complaints into a quick scatter-shot litany: "It has killed a plan to increase recycling of municipal waste. It proposed that half the nation's wetlands be opened to developers. It delayed aircraft noise control rules. And environmentalists claim it is weakening or delaying 50 parts of the Clean Air Act, legislation the President himself originally supported."

Misleading. If Potter had allowed any opposing spokesmen, they could have pointed out, for example, that the recycling rule, proposed to stop municipal incinerators, was estimated to cause no improvement in air quality at a cost of $100 million, a proposal so outrageous the Democrat-dominated National Governors Association opposed it. Second, the wetlands claim is completely misleading -- a 1989 EPA wetlands manual doubled the amount of "protected" wetlands to include private property that were only marginally "wet," so reducing "protected" wetlands by half is returning them to their original status.

Potter continued: "The Clean Air law orders factories to cut their pollution to specific levels. It says if they need to exceed those levels for any reason there must be public notice and a hearing so people who live near the factory can object.... [But] the Council on Competitiveness stepped in, using its power to strike the requirement from the EPA's rules....The bottom line is that thousands of factories may cut costs but could add 490,000 pounds of pollution to the air without warning anyone."

Wrong. The Competitiveness Council has no authority to strike EPA rules. EPA chief William Reilly has publicly declared that the council only advises him, and he makes the final decision. Additionally, public notice requirements don't only apply to factories. When the EPA ruled that utilities don't have to go through a public notice procedure (which can delay projects for years), EPA also clearly stated that the rules in no way authorized pollution increases that would cause violation of clean air standards in any city or environmentally sensitive areas like national parks. Often, the exclusions deal with the implementation of new pollution control equipment. Why would environmentalists try to hold that up? Potter didn't ask.

In his second report, Potter mourned the Council's effect on the EPA: "Officials say the Council does more than get specific regulations changed. They say its very presence makes regulators flinch. For example, [EPA] chief William Reilly has lost several battles over the Clean Air Act. And senior EPA officials, who asked us not to use their names, said the effect of the Quayle council on their day-to-day work has been devastating. One official said the council 'intimidates the overall process.' Another said the council 'has a chilling effect. So much that whole areas of environmental protection are dropped because you know the council will not let them through.'"

Misleading. ABC, which twice suggested the Competitiveness Council had "tremendous impact," didn't tell viewers that the council has eight staffers, while the federal regulatory agencies have more than 120,000. As for the "chilling effect" the council has on EPA, Potter brought on no one to make the argument: should EPA, an executive branch agency, have no oversight from the executive branch? Quayle's council authorization is the same executive order which established then-Vice President Bush's Task Force on Regulatory Reform. Even Bill Clinton has declared the need for such a council in his administration.

Potter's first report also charged: "Critics say the unaccountable to Congress or the public and its actions may be illegal...Trimming regulations would be one thing, but critics say doing it in secret is another."

Misleading. Critics, especially Democrats in Congress, have been trying to force the council into "sunshine" rules requiring staffers to list all incoming and outgoing phone calls and the subject of those calls. But when Special Counsel Peter Fleming investigated the Senate Judiciary Committee's Anita Hill leak, the media responded much like Nina Totenberg, who felt that citing of contacts by lobbying groups with senators or their aides would "chill democratic liaisons."

Potter allowed no one to make the ironic point that these are provisions the Congress rejects for itself and that no regulatory agency like the EPA has ever faced. He also missed the point that by reviewing the mostly unpublicized workings of the regulatory agencies, the Competitiveness Council is actually increasing the public accountability of federal regulators. He never cited a stupid regulation stopped by the White House, like the one requiring decontamination of construction helmets at an estimated cost of $60 million, although no one has been contaminated by one.

Potter refused to return repeated calls from MediaWatch over a week-long period to discuss his stories. On September 8, a voice sounding very much like Potter's came on the line and said: "Hello...Who is this?" After identifying ourselves as MediaWatch, the Potter-like voice said: "Hang on, I'll try to find him." Then, an ABC receptionist came back on the line and said: "Umm, he's not in the building. No one here's seen him in a long time." The same receptionist told us two hours earlier: "He's out to lunch."

Claiming that political campaign ads are filled with distortions, the networks have appointed themselves guardians of accuracy with "ad watch" patrols. But before they proclaim themselves the enemies of distortion, the networks should watch their own news stories first.