In This Issue
Criminal Gaps in Crime Bill Coverage; NewsBites: the Case of the Missing 500,000; Revolving Door: Maureen's Minutes; Big Money Hijacks Democracy?; Law and Order Phobia; A Healthy Solution; Reporters Side with Bill
Criminal Gaps in Crime Bill Coverage
President Clinton's crime bill presented reporters with a large target for their renowned cynicism. Supporters claimed the bill contained funds to hire 100,000 new police and social spending essential for "crime prevention" programs. Crime bill backers maintained that conservative opposition to social spending was a veiled attempt to defeat the bill's assault weapons ban. Opponents argued the social spending was excessive, that the money allocated to pay 100,000 new policemen was insufficient, and that the assault weapons ban would not inhibit violent crime.
To determine if the media gave equal time to both sides' arguments, MediaWatch analysts examined the 82 crime bill stories which aired on four network evening shows (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's World News) during the month of August. Crime bill supporters and their arguments dominated coverage, even though most stories (58 of 82, or 71 percent) focused on the bill's political fortunes, not specific provisions of the bill.
Among talking heads aired, crime bill supporters outnumbered opponents by nearly a 2-1 margin, 192 to 97. CNN's coverage proved the most one-sided, with 42 talking heads for the crime bill (70 percent), and just 18 (30 percent) opposed. On NBC, 43 of 62 (69 percent) favored the bill, while on ABC, 70 of 105 (67 percent) backed the Democratic plan. The least slanted was CBS, where crime bill proponents appeared in 37 of 62 soundbites (60 percent).
Prevention Or Pork? Stories referring to the bill's "crime prevention" provisions surpassed stories on "pork-barrel" spending by almost a 4 to 1 ratio, 19 to 5. On August 13. ABC's Michele Norris informed viewers the bill contained "crime prevention programs like midnight basketball." Another 10 stories mentioned both sides, usually without explaining where the money went. NBC's Lisa Myers declared on August 25: "What Republicans called pork was actually $6.1 billion for crime prevention programs."
Rep. Jack Brooks' $10 million grant to Lamar University was cited most often (five times) as a specific example of pork, and was removed from the final bill, but reporters ignored the bill's duplication of existing programs. Nor did a single story publicize items like the creation of a task force to study `non-indigenous plant and animal species' and their introduction to Hawaii, which remained in the final bill, according to the House Judiciary Committee's Minority Counsel.
Three of the four stories on a specific program to receive crime bill funding explored the midnight basketball program, but the stories glossed over the most questionable parts of the program. CNN's Christine Negroni asserted on August 20: "President Bush touted its crime prevention possibilities, because basketball is just part of the program. There are rules, educational requirements, and workshops where participants get help and advice....for inner-city players, the game is a crucial part of their newly structured lives."
Only ABC's Lisa Stark mentioned that many midnight leagues are funded privately, and none pointed out that Bush had praised the leagues as a privately funded "Point of Light," not as a federal mandate. The stories also omitted complaints about bureaucratic rules for the leagues, like the requirement that half of players must live in public housing and a certain percent must reside in areas with at least two percent HIV infection.
100,000 Cops? The Heritage Foundation discovered: "The funds provided in the bill can keep at most just 20,000 permanent cops on the street over the next six years." But 7 of 10 stories simply passed on the White House claim of 100,000 cops. CBS's Rita Braver claimed on August 11 that "the bill would have added 100,000 new cops to the streets." CNN anchor Linden Soles insisted that night it funded "100,000 new local police."
Just three stories mentioned the figure was in dispute, most notably Jim Stewart's August 23 report on how Kansas City leaders found "the crime bill itself only has enough cash in it to put new cops on the streets for three years...not enough time to recruit and train a rookie."
Whose Fault? Though nearly one-fourth of House Democrats and most of the Black Caucus voted against the crime bill two separate times, reporters blamed the bill's troubles on the National Rifle Association and Republicans over Democrats and the Black Caucus by a better than 6 to 1 ratio. In 32 stories where blame was assessed, 19 (59 percent) attributed setbacks to the GOP or the NRA, 10 stories (31 percent) to both sides, and just three (9 percent) faulted liberal opponents.
NBC portrayed the NRA and GOP as culpable in five of eight stories. Andrea Mitchell accused 11 Republicans who voted for the assault weapons ban previously of "hav[ing] caved in to pressure from the gun lobby and Republican leaders, and have said they'll vote against the bill...Members on both sides told NBC News the issue is really guns and politics."
On August 15, CBS's Scott Pelley alleged "the proposed ban on assault weapons did more than anything else to cut down the crime bill," while ABC reporter Cokie Roberts opined on August 19 that "Some Republicans still hope to deprive the Democratic President of a victory on crime." In contrast, NBC's Mitchell described how liberal Rep. Charles Rangel had a principled motive: "Ministers back home helped him overcome his moral objections to the death penalty."
NBC's Tom Pettit blamed Congress for letting people die on August 21: "Meetings on semi-automatic weapons went on. At about the same time, there was a shootout in New York City, 45 shots from a semi-automatic pistol, one dead, one wounded. Back at the Capitol, Representatives were still debating attack weapons."
Only ABC's Tom Foreman wondered if the gun ban would reduce crime. He found "there is no comprehensive nationwide data to show how often assault weapons are used illegally, although it's believed to be less than one percent." His story aired the day after the crime bill passed.
NewsBites: The Case of the Missing 500,000
The Case of the Missing 500,000
Reporters seldom show skepticism towards Hillary Clinton's statements. On August 16, ABC's John Cochran reported: "The First Lady and other supporters of universal coverage tried to push a bogged-down Senate into action. Noting the Senate began debate last Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton said more than 500,000 Americans have lost their coverage since then." The same evening, CBS reporter Bob Schieffer relayed that "Mrs. Clinton and a lobby group reminded Congress that every minute the debate goes on, someone loses health insurance." The Today show also cited the figures.
But NBC Nightly News viewers learned the real story. Hillary's claim, gleaned from the liberal group Families USA, only gave part of the story. The next night, NBC's Lisa Myers explained: "The author of the study on which Mrs. Clinton's claim was based estimates that about as many people gained health insurance last week as lost it." ABC, CBS, and Today failed to correct their stories.
Howard's My Hero
Retiring Senator Howard Metzenbaum received a warm send-off in the August 1 Newsweek. Jolie Solomon's fond farewell described him as a "self-made millionaire who fights for the union maid and a mince-no-words man whose sense of humor and integrity has made ideological foes such as Orrin Hatch and Alan Simpson into friends."
Indeed, Solomon gave readers no reason to doubt the integrity of this "renaissance liberal." But the 1994 Almanac of American Politics by Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa noted: "Metzenbaum himself in 1983 accepted a $250,000 `finders fee' for making a phone call putting a prospective buyer in touch with the owner of Washington's Hay-Adams hotel, returning the money only after the transaction was revealed." The authors also noted a conflict of interest involving Joel Hyatt, Metzenbaum's son-in-law and heir apparent to his Senate seat: "He lobbied the Senate Finance Chairman on a tax break for companies that pay for employees' legal services while his son-in-law Joel Hyatt heads the nation's largest legal services firm."
Solomon also claimed he "challenges the equation that an anti-business liberal is a big spender. By reading the fine print of every bill to root out hidden tax breaks, colleagues say, he has saved billions for taxpayers." However, the National Taxpayers Union didn't find Metzenbaum's record much of a "challenge." They gave him a grade of "F" for 1993, putting the Ohioan in the "Big Spender" category.
USA Today reporter Mark Memmott has a history of championing Bill Clinton's economic policies and trashing the `80s. Last November 3, he predicted a growing economy: "Many of the major economic problems that built up in the 1980s are finally becoming less daunting." So it was hardly surprising when Memmott claimed in an August 8 article: "President Clinton got back at all those who doubted his deficit program would do the economy any good." His evidence? "A year ago, it was expected the 1994 federal deficit would total $305 billion. Now, it easily could come in under $220 billion. It looks to be headed below $200 billion in '95."
Memmott didn't mention how Clinton's "deficit reduction" was calculated. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the 1994 deficit at $259 billion, not $305 billion as Memmott wrote. An August study by the Joint Economic Committee attributed the $50 to $60 billion in "deficit reduction" to "a swing in deposit insurance outlays related to liquidation of S&L assets, and better than projected economic growth pushing up revenues and restraining some outlay growth."
Let's Call The Whole Thing Off
ABC World News Tonight reporter Tom Foreman continued his self-appointed role as truth monitor of health care reform, moving from last month's Janet Cooke Award- winning attack on conservative TV ads to correcting talk shows: "In cities and towns across the country, radio talk shows are waging a rhetorical war on health care reform....what is missing from these discussions too often is the truth."
First, Foreman's August 16 story "corrected" conservative Gary Bauer's charge that government spending would rise, asserting: "Lewin-VHI, a private consulting firm...says overall health spending will likely rise only about four percent." But Foreman didn't really correct Bauer, since government spending is projected to increase no matter what happens overall. Then Foreman contested that "the cost of universal coverage as imagined by the Democrats will balloon beyond anyone's wildest dreams, like Medicaid and Medicare did." He quoted Rush Limbaugh: "[Medicare's] running 10 times the cost projections that Congress said it would." Foreman responded: "Medicare is actually about seven times over projections." But on September 29, 1993, NBC's Lisa Myers asserted: "When LBJ proposed [Medicare], he claimed it would cost $8 billion in 1990. The actual cost was $98 billion."
Foreman did critique two liberal claims, but concluded oddly that politics doesn't need conflict: "Most often, it is talk of conflict, not compromise. And for both sides in the health care debate, that may be worse than no talk at all."
Worse Than Cuba?
NBC Sports anchors Ahmad Rashad and Bob Costas dove into the realm of health reform when they hosted the "Health Care Olympics" for Michael Moore's TV Nation on August 8. The sports team traced the progress of patients with injured legs through hospitals in Cuba, Canada, and the U.S. The three systems were rated on access, delivery, and cost.
After the patients were admitted, Rashad hailed Canada: "Long waits are typically more characteristic of Canada with rationing of services due to limited resources but...the patient... practically sailed through the check-in process." Rashad critiqued the U.S., where the wait was one hour less: "The U.S. really struggled with access to medical care but that's one area Americans always have been in trouble because of the 39 million citizens who are uninsured." The Cuban was admitted directly to surgery.
NBC claimed Cuba cost the patient nothing, in Canada just $15, and in America $450.70, as if such costs were not incurred elsewhere. Canada took the gold for "over twenty years of universal access." Rashad awarded Cuba the silver: "Cuba had some pretty great moments and wins points for such a comprehensive medical system...until they find a way out of economic isolation, it's going to be hard to sustain the quality of the system." And the bronze? "Unfortunately, it may take a while for the United States to make its way through the insurance obstacle course and who knows what could happen with reform...it came in third," announced Rashad. But if free health care in Cuba is so superior, why aren't Americans rafting their way?
Silly Old Anti-Communism
The Cold War might be over, but some journalists still miss the McCarthy era. How else to explain Ralph Blumenthal's July 29 New York Times article on the FBI investigation into composer Leonard Bernstein, describing the '50s as a time of "blacklisting and redbaiting, when cold war fears drove political passions." The FBI "obsessively documented" the composer's ties to groups "listed as subversive or communist." The word "listed" implies room for doubt, when several of the groups were in fact communist fronts, including the American Youth for Democracy, the formal successor to the Young Communist League.
CBS Sunday Morning host Charles Osgood cited the Times story two days later, conceding Bernstein was "a liberal, and lent his name indiscriminately to any cause that seemed to him to be worthwhile," including the Black Panthers. If Osgood had read past the headline of the story, he might have noted Bernstein's personal representative Margaret Carson, who told the Times: "His closest political self-definition was that he was a socialist."
Osgood maintained a tone of haughty indignation: "It is a milepost, I think, to be reminded how irrationally suspicious and fearful we once were." The "irrationally suspicious" times look less so after the July 17 Washington Post reported how Mao Zedong "was in some way responsible for at least 40 million deaths and perhaps 80 million," and Stalin for "30 million and 40 million." But Osgood mocked the FBI: "What did the FBI think maestro Bernstein was going to do, leak symphonic secrets to the Russians? Perhaps that was not a baton he held in his hand all those years. Perhaps it was a signaling device of some kind."
Victim of His Own Good
In a July 31 New York Times Magazine article hated by the White House, staff writer Michael Kelly portrayed Bill Clinton as a man unable to tell the difference between truth and fiction. Yet rather than condemn Clinton, Kelly painted him as a victim of his own desire to do good: "What makes this sad, even tragic, rather than merely sordid, is that Bill Clinton's predicament owes itself directly to Bill Clinton's promise. The President's problems did not come about because he was a cheap political hack. They came about because he was not. For what has happened to Clinton has happened because he wanted, more than anything in life, to get where he is today, and because he wanted this, at least in part, in order to do good -- and because the great goal of doing good gave him license to indulge in the everyday acts of minor corruption and compromise and falsity that the business of politics demands. Bill Clinton was perceptive enough to master politics -- but not perceptive enough to see what politics was doing to him."
Kelly rationalized the 1969 letter requesting a military deferment, saying it showed Clinton "at a crossroads...the writer of the letter is obviously and passionately concerned with doing and being good. But the letter also captures, with shattering clarity, a young man learning to rationalize acts of deception and compromise as necessary in the pursuit of that good -- which Clinton now regarded as inseparable from his own political advancement."
Natural Born Killers
CNN did another story worrying about violence at abortion clinics on the August 18 World News -- but, as usual, CNN ignored the 1.6 million incidents of violence going on inside clinics each year. Reporter Pat Neal described the "danger" pervading abortionist Randall Whitney's day. In the 20-plus years since abortion became legal, three people have been shot and killed outside clinics, so a doctor is more likely to die in a car accident than be shot outside his office.
Neal hailed the doctor's bravery: "Whitney is the only physician performing abortions in Brevard County. A county with fervent protesters, a clinic dedicated to providing choices, and federal marshals to watch it all...As the day ends, Dr. Whitney's concerns for his safety remains, as do his concerns for his clinic's future, and the future of women who believe abortion should be their choice."
Alicia Shepard found more lame excuses for delaying Paula Jones' story in the July/August American Journalism Review. When Jones spoke out in February, "We didn't run a story that night...because she was making charges that could not be verified," said CBS News Washington Bureau Chief Barbara Cochran. "Her making a claim particularly of such a serious nature when she had not sought the legal remedies available to her was just not appropriate to make a story out of it." CBS had no qualms leading the news with Anita Hill five nights in a row.
Washington Post reporter Lloyd Grove told AJR "There's no way to assess [the charges] on the basis of a dog and pony show...I just walked away with no firm belief one way or the other about its veracity." But if Grove had "no firm belief," why did he write in the Post that Jones' charges were "yet another ascension of Mount Bimbo"?
Revolving Door: Maureen's Minutes
National Journal reported that some shuffling in the office of Senator Byron Dorgan has created a new space for Maureen O'Leary, a former Associate Producer for 60 Minutes. Now a staff assistant for communications in the office of the liberal North Dakota Democrat, O'Leary told MediaWatch she worked for the news magazine out of the Washington bureau for three years starting in mid-1990, after some time as a production assistant in ABC's D.C. bureau.
For the last few months of his term, retiring Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum has a new Chief of Staff: Nancy Coffey, his Press Secretary since 1986. Before traveling to the Hill, Roll Call reported she was news manager at WRC-TV, a NBC-owned station in Washington, D.C. Coffey spent the late '70s and early '80s toiling for Group W, Westinghouse Broadcasting. Her assignments included News Director at KDKA in Pittsburgh, Executive Editor at all-news WINS in New York, and Washington correspondent for all the Group W radio stations.
East Moves West
ABC has selected an East Coast-based veteran of Democratic politics as its new West Coast public relations chief. Mark Johnson, Press Secretary to Jim Wright when he resigned from the House Speakership in 1989, took over in early September as Vice President for Network Communications for the ABC Television Network Group, which includes the entertainment and children's programming divisions.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, he'll also assist the New York-based news division. Johnson will report to Sherrie Rollins, Senior VP for communications who ran the White House public liaison operation for President Bush. During the 1987-88 presidential campaign, Johnson directed press relations for current House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt's Democratic run. Earlier, he handled press for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its then-Chairman, Tony Coelho, who is currently serving as an "adviser" to the Democratic Party.
Bouncing Back in Beantown
After five years as Good Morning America's consumer reporter, Paula Lyons has landed at WBZ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Boston. In the 1970s she worked for Kevin White, Boston's Democratic Mayor, as Press Secretary and Deputy Director of the Office of Federal Relations.... Christopher Lydon, an unsuccessful 1993 Democratic candidate for the Boston mayoralty, began hosting a new talk show on September 5. A Washington correspondent for The New York Times from 1968 to 1977, Lydon's show airs from 10 to noon daily on WBUR, Boston University's public radio station.
Two Veterans on The Hill
The forthcoming Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill has hired another revolver, this time as a writer. Joining former Walter Mondale Press Secretary and Knight-Ridder Washington reporter Al Eisele will be Jamie Stiehm, an assignment editor for CBS News in London in 1987-88. Later in 1988 she became a field organizer in the San Jose area for the Michael Dukakis campaign, and in late 1992 she slid east to join the staff of Senator Joseph Lieberman as a speechwriter for the Connecticut Democrat.
Big Money Hijacks Democracy?
As health care reached the Senate floor on August 8, Nightline host Chris Wallace asked: "Has big money hijacked health care reform....will members of Congress respond to the interests of voters or the influence of big money?" In search of an answer, the media focused on only one side of the money equation, those fighting Clintoncare, while ignoring those who lobbied on behalf of the President and First Lady's plan.
ABC reporter Jackie Judd acknowledged "There were groups friendly to the President, like labor unions and senior citizens organizations," but overlooked the impact of monies they spent. Judd reported only: "The National Federation of Independent Business has spent $45 million in the last year to defeat the employer mandate....The tobacco industry, a powerful lobbyist in Washington....has contributed more than $800,000 to members who sat on the three key House committees dealing with health care."
Judd saved her best for this year's media scapegoat: "And then who could forget Harry and Louise....The ad campaign cost the Health Insurance Association of America a record-breaking $14 million."
On the August 10 Inside Politics, CNN correspondent Brooks Jackson targeted the business community. Jackson warned viewers: "Business lobbyists are now discussing the possibility of a `super lobby,' a coalition of big business and small business conducting a massive, nationwide grassroots campaign aimed at killing health care legislation in this Congress."
But USA Today columnist Tony Snow wrote on August 15 that as backers of Clinton-style reform, "Unions have spent $29.9 million on direct and indirect political gifts" since 1991, "nearly twice as much as any other type of group with a direct interest in medical reform, and more than all the nation's insurance companies, health care providers, administrators and medical trade associations combined." That doesn't include the $12 million spent by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to promote government-run health care.
And what about the financial interests Clinton allies have in the outcome? Snow disclosed the American Association of Retired Persons "received $85.9 million last year from U.S. taxpayers in the form of grants for employment programs," and the National Coalition of Senior Citizens "reported $71.6 million in income on its 1993 federal income tax forms, 96 percent -- $68.8 million -- of which came from Washington."
Snow concluded: "The real culprit isn't Harry and Louise. If anything, it's Hooked on Phonics: Citizens have read the fine print, and they don't like what they've seen."
Law and Order Phobia
While Congress debated the crime bill, NBC News continued portraying tough-on-crime proposals as expensive failures. On Dateline NBC August 23, Brian Ross followed up on criminals he profiled in a piece for the NBC Nightly News 17 years ago. Ross explained that in 1976, "In Waterloo, Iowa, criminals were being given a second chance....And in New Orleans, the District Attorney was getting tough on career criminals and Clarence Williams was sent to prison for life after being caught with a stolen television set."
Fast forwarding to the present, Ross continued: "We found Clarence Williams not serving life in prison, but back on the streets of New Orleans. A court set him free on a technicality six years after he went to prison." Williams had been convicted three times since his last prison stint. Ross asked longtime New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick, "Is there any evidence getting tough works, that it cuts down on crime?" Connick answered: "Not as long as you have people at the other end of the system undoing what prosecutors and police are doing."
Instead of exploring how Williams was released, Ross judged the policy to be a failure: "Neither Louisiana, nor any other state for that matter, has enough prisons for all the people who could be considered career criminals. The talk of getting tough on crime has been an empty threat."
Traveling to Iowa, Ross found something to admire. "In New Orleans, Mark Fairbanks could have gone to prison for life. In Waterloo, he was let out of prison to work at the John Deere tractor factory by day, and by night, to participate in some experimental group therapy." Ross praised the counseling program because it "costs taxpayers a lot less than prison, with an astonishing success rate for those in the program: 70 percent... commit no further crimes for at least 5 years." He later called it "one of the few success stories in the criminal justice system."
But wouldn't those locked in prison have a 100 percent success rate for not committing new crimes? It certainly held true for Clarence Williams. Did the reason one was judged a success while the other a failure have more to do with the predilection of the judges than with the actual merits of the policies?
A Healthy Solution
Bucking the horror story trend of health care reporting, the August 15 NBC Nightly News "America Close-Up" segment focused on how one company is actually succeeding in its fight to provide affordable health insurance to its workers.
Irving R. Levine looked at Forbes magazine, where President Malcolm Forbes Jr. explained that health insurance costs were soaring because "everyone felt that someone else was paying for it. So there was no direct link with a person's behavior." So, Levine reported, "three years ago Forbes came up with a plan, offering employees personal profits to cut health insurance costs." Medical Savings Accounts (MSA) are a concept that's incorporated into several free-market oriented health reform bills currently before Congress. Employees pay small medical bills out of pocket through their MSA, thereby reducing the number of insurance claims filed. Levine explained, "At the start of the year, Forbes sets aside $1,300 for each employee, it's a year-end bonus if the worker files no [health] insurance claims. When a worker does file a claim the amount is deducted from the worker's bonus."
Levine noted, "The plan has resulted in big savings for Forbes. Because of the drop in the number of claims, the Cigna Insurance Company has reduced Forbes' premiums. The savings amounted to $426,000, more than covering the $300,000 paid out in health care bonuses." Giving a peek into how the threat of government regulation can actually hinder health reform, Levine cautioned: "Other companies are interested, but are waiting to make sure that Congress, in voting on health care, doesn't rule out such plans, even though at Forbes, everyone agrees it's a plan only with winners."
Reporters Side with Bill
When White House correspondents from the TV networks convened on CNN's Larry King Live on August 18 to discuss press coverage of President Clinton, three out of the four agreed Clinton was getting a raw deal. Why? CNN's Wolf Blitzer fingered the usual suspects: "I think they basically hate him, the elements of the extreme far right....They just don't like his position on gut issues as far as the far right in concerned."
ABC's maverick Brit Hume suggested most reporters basically side with Clinton's philosophy of governing: "There exists still a rather widespread feeling among reporters in this town that this President has set out to do the right thing, which they didn't feel about Ronald Reagan or George Bush, and that if he is able to accomplish even a fraction of this, there will be a tremendous round of applause from the media in this town."
CBS's Rita Braver disagreed: "I think most reporters think that there are problems in this country, such as the fact that more Americans are losing health care everyday, and the fact that crime continues to be a problem. And they're sympathetic to somebody figuring out a way to solve these problems. That doesn't necessarily mean they sign on to how he's going to do it."
Hume replied: "But to some, to many reporters, and it's why they're drawn to covering government, life is a series of problems to be solved by government. And all I'm saying about that is that, for an activist President, that sentiment redounds to his benefit."
NBC's Andrea Mitchell proved Hume's assessment: "He doesn't get credit for a lot of the good, positive things he's done. Somehow he's the opposite of Ronald Reagan. The message is not getting through... The economy is in better shape...He should be getting some credit for the economy."
Indeed, on Larry King Live August 3, Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson had argued: "I think we make too much of polls...the economy's doing well, he's accomplished a lot." Ted Koppel opened the August 16 Nightline: "He is receiving little or no credit for his accomplishments. He has after all, cut the deficit, slashed about a quarter of a million jobs out of the federal bureaucracy, presided over a strong economy with low inflation, and one would think, some points at least for boldness of vision on welfare and health care reform."
But how does Clinton's treatment compare to Reagan? As Ted J. Smith documented in his study The Vanishing Economy, as the economy boomed from 1982 to 1987, the number of TV economic stories dropped by two-thirds, and the negative tone intensified, from 4.9 negative stories per positive story in 1982-83 to 7 to 1 in 1986-87.
Janet Cooke Award: The Ken Starr Conspiracy
Both sides of the political aisle have warned of conspiracy in the Whitewater investigation. Conservatives charge the White House and its allies are covering up for the Clintons; liberals suggest that Clinton's enemies are using Whitewater to destroy the Clinton presidency. For promoting a one-sided story of conservative conspiracy around the appointment of new independent counsel Kenneth Starr, CBS Evening News earned the Janet Cooke Award.
On August 8, Dan Rather announced: "There is growing controversy tonight about whether the newly named independent counsel in the Whitewater case is independent, or a Republican partisan allied with a get-Clinton movement. Among the questions about Kenneth Starr are these: the involvement of anti-Clinton activists in pushing for Starr's appointment to replace Robert Fiske. Also, Starr's public stand actively supporting a woman's current lawsuit against the President. This is a potentially important and explosive story...Rita Braver has the latest."
Braver's story did include Starr supporter Terry Eastland, but mostly stuck to the liberal script, with soundbites from Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett and liberal Sen. Howard Metzenbaum: "Democrats are raising questions about Starr, a former federal judge, because of how he was picked. Under the new independent counsel law, Chief Justice William Rehnquist chose fellow conservative David Sentelle to head the three-judge panel that selects independent counsels. Sentelle himself was appointed by President Reagan with sponsorship from Senate conservative Jesse Helms, and Sentelle was lobbied to replace Robert Fiske by constant Clinton critic Floyd Brown, and congressional conservatives."
But for this Republican plot to work, the Independent Counsel Act had to be reauthorized. That bill -- which placed Rehnquist in charge, who picked Sentelle for the three-judge panel, who picked Starr -- was supported 246-2 by Democrats in the House. By contrast, seven of the ten Republicans who signed a letter to the three-judge panel opposing Fiske voted against the bill which made Starr's appointment possible.
Four days later, Rather returned to the "explosive" story: "Questions abound about how and why Republican Kenneth Starr suddenly came to be the new independent counsel in the Whitewater case replacing Republican Robert Fiske. New disclosures are fueling questions about whether or not Starr is an ambitious Republican partisan backed by ideologically motivated anti-Clinton activists and judges from the Reagan, Bush, and Nixon years. Correspondent Eric Engberg has tonight's CBS Evening News `Reality Check.'"
Engberg's story included no Clinton critics, but aired three Democrats questioning Starr's integrity. He began: "Kenneth Starr's history of partisan Republican activity is not the only thing troubling Democrats. The way Starr got the job, which bears the footprints of every Republican President from Nixon to Bush, is also becoming a hot issue. Independent counsels are chosen by a panel of three federal appeals court judges. By law the panel is selected by Chief Justice Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee to the Supreme Court named Chief Justice by President Reagan. Rehnquist chose Judge David Sentelle of the D.C. Court of Appeals, a Reagan appointee, to head the three judge panel. Sentelle is from North Carolina where he was an active worker in the Republican organization run by Senator Jesse Helms, who is among Mr. Clinton's fiercest critics. Sentelle owes his job on the federal bench to Helms, who urged the Reagan White House to appoint him. Sentelle's two most famous rulings overturned the Iran-Contra convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter."
Engberg elaborated: "The Sentelle panel last week decided to replace independent counsel Robert Fiske with Kenneth Starr, saying a change was needed to insure the appearance of a truly independent investigation. Nothing wrong with Fiske, the judge said, just a perception problem. Time out." Engberg countered with Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) charging that Starr was less independent than Fiske.
Neither Braver nor Engberg described GOP complaints about the inconsistencies in Fiske's report on the Vince Foster suicide or appearance of a conflict of interest. Republicans cited his law firm's representation of International Paper Company, which sold land to Whitewater Development; his professional relationship with former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum; and his representation of firms involved with the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, a player in the Whitewater mess.
Engberg continued: "The appearance problem got worse today when The Washington Post revealed that Judge Sentelle had lunched at the Capitol with his old patron Helms and Senator Lauch Faircloth, leader of the Republican dump-Fiske movement. The lunch partners say the subject of the independent counsel didn't come up." Engberg aired Rep. David Bonior (D.-Mich.) saying Sentelle and the senators shouldn't have had lunch.
"In Ken Starr, the White House faces a prosecutor who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations and is often mentioned as a GOP Supreme Court nominee," Engberg declared, supported by a soundbite from Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Engberg added: "Starr has given more than $6,000 to Republican candidates in the last year, one of whom has built his entire campaign around Whitewater...Another Republican, Virginia congressional candidate Kyle McSlarrow, lists Starr as a co-chairman. Former Attorney General Ed Meese and William Barr were also co-chairmen...Senator Levin, whose commitee oversees the independent counsel law, today asked Sentelle to get a list of all of Starr's political activities and consider whether to ask him to withdraw."
Since Engberg was recovering from surgery, MediaWatch talked to producer Virginia Mosley, who explained: "It wasn't a story on the independent counsel law and how it came about, it was a story trying to explain why...to most people, why Fiske was replaced by Ken Starr was a confusing story. If we had ten minutes, we could have done the whole nine yards. This wasn't a `Starr is appointed today' story. It was an attempt to explain how this very complicated process works."
Engberg's story wasn't complicated enough to answer the question: If Starr was so partisan, why did he make Janet Reno's short list before she chose Fiske? As for Sentelle's partisanship, CBS didn't talk to Mark Levin, a lawyer for Ed Meese. In the September 1 Washington Times, Levin wrote that Sentelle upheld Lawrence Walsh's right to deny Meese access to parts of his final report. Wrote Levin: "If Judge Sentelle and the panel deserve criticism, it is for supporting Walsh's extra-constitutional conduct...To believe Judge Sentelle is not impartial in administering his legal duties is to believe a contemptible lie."