In This Issue
The "Nonpartisan" Kyoto Cheerleaders; NewsBites: Weather Trumps Washington; Revolving Door: Turner's Clinton Man; TV Downplays Clinton Donor Who Lied His Way Into Arlington Cemetary; Democratic Slurs Not News; One Overlooked Tornado; Institutions Ask Why Credibility Down; Janet Cooke Award: Ted Koppel v. The "Flat Earth Society"
The "Nonpartisan" Kyoto Cheerleaders
The "environmentalist" agenda is easily classified as liberal: regulation reigns at the center of their proposals. At the recent climate conference in Kyoto, Japan, environmental groups proposed the U.S. cut its emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels, a drastic, government-supervised suppression of American energy output.
But news reports drain the ideology out of the debate, casting it as "environmentalists" vs. industry instead of liberals vs. conservatives. In 1990, a MediaWatch study of labeling in three major newspapers from 1987 to 1989 found that in 2,903 news stories featuring ten "green" groups, analysts found only 29 ideological labels, or less than one percent. (Subtract 22 labels in 83 stories for the radical group Earth First, and the total was seven labels in 2,820 stories).
To update that research, MediaWatch analysts used the Nexis news data retrieval system to locate every news story in 1995 and 1996 on ten liberal environmental groups, and compared that to conservative groups in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. The story remains the same: in 1,089 news stories, liberal environmental groups were described as liberal in only five stories (or 0.5 percent).
By contrast, the largest "free-market environmentalist" think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute drew eight "conservative" labels in 29 stories (28 percent). In most of the stories in which they weren’t labeled, they were described as "anti-regulatory," "pro-business," or "promoting private solutions over government action." Only the radical-left group Earth First, whose literature may have inspired the Unabomber’s selection of bombing targets, rivaled to CEI’s labeling percentage, with nine "radical" labels in 25 stories (36 percent).
Not only do reporters leave out any description of ideology motivating "green" groups, they fail to describe them as partisan activists in Washington seeking to overrule and overthrow Republicans. Reporters used advocacy labels (such as "activist," "advocate," and "lobbyist") in only 78 of 1,089 stories (7 percent). Among the liberal groups getting the "nonpartisan" treatment:
The Environmental Defense Fund, a very active proponent in the global-warming fight, was never called "liberal" in 121 news stories, and only carried advocacy labels in six articles. The New York Times did call them "mainstream" in a June 25, 1996 story on a intra-liberal debate on dolphin safety. A February 19, 1996 Washington Post story noted 37 "environmental, medical, religious and consumer groups, led by the Environmental Defense Fund urged oil companies not to use a manganese-based gasoline additive."
The Environmental Working Group is a network TV favorite, with its regular studies declaring the nation’s drinking water unsafe. Its Web site touts the group’s Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) for information on the "anti- environmental lobby," including a campaign by the "radical right" to "defund the left." But EWG inspired no liberal labels in 46 stories, and were only labeled as advocates in seven pieces.
Greenpeace is perhaps the best-known environmental group, due to its radical tactics, like interrupting nuclear tests and hanging banners from smokestacks. But in 178 articles, it never once attracted a liberal label — but The New York Times did include them in the "mainstream" faction on dolphin safety. Reporters tagged Greenpeace with advocacy labels in only 22 stories. A June 23, 1995 USA Today story did call Greenpeace "one of many groups fighting the GOP on several fronts."
The nonpartisan approach is most inaccurate with the League of Conservation Voters, which spent $1.5 million in 1996 on ads, mass mailings, and door-to-door campaigns against GOP candidates. But reporters gave it only one liberal label and ten advocacy labels in 62 stories. The January 27, 1996 Washington Post broke the mold in a story on the LCV helping to elect Sen. Ron Wyden with the headline "Candidate’s Backers Hope to Make Oregon a Liberal Proving Ground."
The National Audubon Society successfully buries its liberal agenda beneath its bird-watching activities, drawing no ideological labels and only three advocacy labels in 64 news stories. A 1994 fund-raising letter scared donors by claiming they could "project with some accuracy the eventual end of the natural world as we know it."
The Web site of the National Wildlife Federation claims "Unless worldwide action is taken, we may be witness to the fastest warming of the climate since the last ice age." But NWF acquired no liberal labels and one advocacy label in 31 stories.
The Natural Resources Defense Council ran ads in 1996 claiming Republicans aimed to "block programs to protect our drinking water from deadly parasites, arsenic, and radioactivity." In 211 news stories, analysts found one liberal label and 14 advocacy labels. That one label was indirect: on April 2, 1995, Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz noted the Sierra Club and the NRDC aired ads "assailing the GOP for attempting to weaken environmental laws. Other liberal groups are joining the fray."
The Sierra Club spent $7.5 million to defeat GOP candidates in 1996, including ads calling Republicans "eco-thugs." Nevertheless, in 325 stories, the Sierra Club collected only three liberal labels (all in the Washington Post) and only 14 advocacy labels. They were also in the New York Times "mainstream" coalition in one story. In five New York Times stories and three Washington Post stories, reporters did underline their affinity for Democrats with terms like "almost always supports Democrats," "sympathetic to Democratic candidates," and "a potent force in Democratic primaries."
The World Resources Institute’s founder, James Gustave Speth, is now the most powerful American official of the U.N. environment program. No labels of any kind were forthcoming in 27 news stories — unless you count The New York Times describing them in two articles as an "independent" monitor.
The Worldwatch Institute releases an annual "State of the World" report that Ted Turner has handed out to his CNN employees. They attracted no liberal labels in 24 stories, and only one advocacy reference. On January 14, 1996, the Washington Post didn’t use a liberal label for a liberal proposal: "Environmental activist Lester Brown calls for a new tax on polluters in the annual environmental almanac released yesterday by the Worldwatch Institute, the think tank he heads."
Balance in environmental journalism requires at least two obvious remedies: liberal groups should be described as liberal more often, and their conservative counterparts ought to be consulted in more than a small fraction of the stories in which liberal groups and their research are promoted.
NewsBites: Weather Trumps Washington
Weather Trumps Washington. On December 11 a grand jury indicted former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros on 18 counts of lying to the FBI about payments he made to a former mistress, Linda Jones. Cisneros is the second Clinton cabinet member indicted this year. But you wouldn’t know much about it from watching TV.
Of the three broadcast networks, only NBC offered an evening story, as well as two brief updates the next morning. ABC gave it 18 seconds on the 11th, CBS nine seconds a night later. Both ignored it in the morning. More important to Dan Rather, two minutes on "The huge Pacific weather machine, whipping up the waves, is also giving a gentle lift to the tender wings of the Monarch butterfly. CBS’s John Blackstone has the story and pictures that will make you flutter with delight."
Matt Attacks. On the April 8, 1991 Today, Bryant Gumbel gushed over Kitty Kelley’s salacious book on Nancy Reagan that charged, among other things, an affair with Frank Sinatra. Gumbel praised Kelley’s "courage" and "credibility." Fast forward six years and change the target to liberal icon John F. Kennedy and we see a different tack from a Today show host. Seymour Hersh, a hero to liberals in the ‘60s and ‘70s as the New York Times reporter who broke the My Lai massacre story, ran into a hostile Matt Lauer on November 10 and 11. Lauer greeted Hersh harshly: "The book, The Dark Side of Camelot, is out today, but the controversy began earlier this fall when a collection of Hersh’s source documents on some of the most titillating topics proved to be fakes. Seymour Hersh, good morning...You handle the legacy of JFK with about as much tenderness as a steamroller. What was your goal with the book?"
Lauer praised Hersh’s past work, when he was taking on conservatives, but raised the questions of Kennedy backers: "I know you’ve done some wonderful works in the past, but they think that possibly you’ve been twisting the words of sources. Some of your sources in this book have now come out and said you twisted their words. As a matter of fact, one gentleman, Jerry Bruno, a former Kennedy advance man, says after being interviewed by you and reading the final product that you should have called this book The Dark Side of Seymour Hersh."
Money-Grubbing Clinton-Haters? When questions were raised about big insurance companies footing the bill for President Clinton’s legal defense in the sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones, ABC and Time were in the vast majority of media outlets that ignored it. Recently, a double standard was exposed when these outlets made a big deal out of who is paying the bills for Jones.
On the November 12 World News Tonight, Peter Jennings suggested they were just evening out the publicity: "Paula Corbin Jones faced a round of questioning from the President’s lawyers on her claim that she was sexually harassed by Mr. Clinton in 1991. The President’s defense is being handled by a major Washington attorney, Bob Bennett, been in the news a lot. ABC’s Jackie Judd reports tonight on the people providing the most support for Paula Jones."
Judd profiled Jones as she arrived in Little Rock "flanked by her representatives and backed by organizations associated with conservative causes." Judd played up the right-wing puppet angle: "The Rutherford Institute in Virginia has signed on to finance the lawsuit. It’s known for defending religious rights activists and abortion protesters. It recently mailed 60,000 fundraising letters appealing for money, quote, ‘to keep fighting for the truth.’"
Judd went on to Jones’ spokeswoman, "some say her Svengali, self- described conservative feminist Susan Carpenter McMillan." Judd asked: "Is this about getting Bill Clinton?" After a soundbite of McMillan, Judd declared: "The President’s supporters see some value in Jones being backed by conservative activists. They say it proves that this is not about sexual harassment but about politics and damaging President Clinton."
In the November 24 issue, Time White House reporter Jay Branegan profiled John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute: "Clinton’s embarrassment is a spectacle many conservative groups are relishing." Like ABC, Branegan spun the fundraising angle: "He [Whitehead] says some of his traditional donors are ‘horrified’ that he’s involved in such a seamy public episode. All the same, after taking up the case, he rushed out a fundraising letter."
Connerly the Cat’s Paw. When 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace profiled Ward Connerly, he was astonished a black man would dare hold conservative beliefs. In the November 9 piece Wallace allowed Connerly, who led California’s ballot initiative to do away with quotas in government hiring, contracting, and college admissions, to fully respond to each charge. But he accused Connerly of what he thought every self-respecting black man would hate most: being a tool of Whitey. Wallace asked, "Do you ever feel like you’re being used by white conservatives to lead this thing, that you’re the cat’s paw?"
After Connerly asserted that he believed he furthers the idea of equality by opposing racial preferences, Wallace related that Connerly’s "critics" believed him to be a race traitor: "One of your critics says: ‘For someone to stand within the ranks and say, ‘I’m not black,’ but use it to destroy his own people, that’s the kind we label a traitor.’ That’s how you’re perceived by many people in the black community." To bolster his charge, Wallace interviewed Elizabeth Stansbury, Connerly’s cousin and a quota activist. Stansbury charged that Connerly, who grew up poor in the care of his grandmother, was treated like a "little prince" by their family and that Connerly’s rags-to-riches story was false. Finally, an incredulous Wallace lectured Connerly: "I get the feeling that you’re looking at things through rose- colored glasses. I can see black folks across the country looking at him now and saying ‘What world does this Connerly guy think we’re living in?’"
Bitter Bryant. CBS’s Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel may be doing poorly in the TV ratings, but it’s doing very well in the liberal bias ratings, especially when Bryant Gumbel discusses racial matters. On the November 19 show Gumbel asked guest Oprah Winfrey: "You talked about the responsibility of being an African-American woman, and being the descendants of slaves. Conservatives are quick to point to you, and people like you...as an indication that ours is a color-blind society. Where do you come down on what is now the popular whipping boy in politics, affirmative action?"
After a profile of University of Texas Law School professor Lino Graglia on the December 3 edition, Gumbel tried to keep his cool when discussing the anti-quotas professor with correspondent Bernie Goldberg: "Bernie, let me see if I can address this in a civil tone and begin by assuming that Professor Graglia is an intelligent man. When he looks at scores as a barometer of intelligence, how does he just ignore factors of income, access, opportunity, all of which he surely knows impact education?"
Goldberg tried to explain how poor white children are the big losers in the quota game because they don’t have the advantages rich white children have nor can they rely on a racially-based quota to admit them to a university like blacks and Hispanics. An exasperated Gumbel shot back: "Hard to believe that he thinks a white student doesn’t enjoy more advantages in this society than a student of color. That’s hard to believe."
Later in the same show, Gumbel used actor Will Smith to make the point that to him, America is still an unrepentantly racist place: "Smith’s rap sounds similar to that of other young black men. Unfortunately, so do some of his all too real run-ins with cops. Do you think it would surprise people to learn that you still get stopped by cops for being nothing more than a young black guy driving an expensive car?"
O’Leary Amnesia. Lost in all the fuss over Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision not to recommend an independent counsel to look into the fundraising practices of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, was her decision to let former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary off the hook. Reno decided not to recommend an independent counsel over Johnny Chung’s allegation he gained a meeting for five Chinese officials after an Energy Department official suggested he donate $25,000 to O’Leary’s favorite charity, Africare.
The story first broke in a Tom Brokaw interview with Chung on August 19. So did the networks send out their crack investigative "journalists" to get to the bottom of the story? No. Excluding brief mentions on the following Sunday’s morning shows, here’s how the networks covered the story:
The day after the Chung interview, NBC’s Today uttered not a syllable about their own scoop. Later that night the Nightly News aired a follow-up report on the Chung allegations. Over the next week, NBC ran one story on the Nightly News and two on Today. The story then died on NBC until September 19, when the Nightly News did one story reporting on Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision to look into the possibility of asking for the appointment of an independent counsel. This was the last time NBC would mention Chung’s allegations.
A month after the Chung interview on NBC, CBS broke the story that Attorney General Janet Reno was being urged to appoint an independent counsel by lawyers at the Department of Justice. In their first story on Chung’s allegations, Dan Rather reminded viewers: "It is important to note that O’Leary denies any wrongdoing." CBS then forgot about the story until December 2, when they reported Reno had decided not to ask for an independent counsel.
At least you can count on the all-news networks to develop and investigate the story thoroughly, right? Wrong. Between the August 19 interview and the December 2 decision, CNN’s The World Today did just two stories on Chung. Inside Politics also only mentioned the story twice over nearly four months. PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and ABC have yet to run one story on the investigation.
Strike Good, Scandal Bad. On November 17, federal election officer Kenneth Conboy disqualified Teamsters Union president Ron Carey from running again for re-election after he diverted more than $700,000 in union funds for his own election in December 1996. The scandal threatens not only Carey, but top Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe (who was told of the illegal schemes), the AFL-CIO (whose Secretary-Treasurer, Richard Trumka, took the Fifth), and liberal groups who joined the illegal fundraising conspiracy. Big news? Not if you work at the networks. That night, CBS and NBC provided only briefs. ABC aired one story in which John Martin relayed the sad note: "One analyst called the day a disastrous setback for the union and the nation."
This wasn’t the first time the networks skipped over the Teamster scandal. This summer, the three broadcast networks aired 71 full stories and 17 anchor briefs on Carey’s Teamsters strike against the United Parcel Service, but only six full stories and four anchor briefs on Carey’s post-election decline and fall.
The Big Three morning shows aired 94 full segments on the UPS strike, but only three through mid-December on the Teamsters scandal. The strike led the morning shows 20 times. Within that sample, the morning shows aired 26 interview segments on the strike to just two on the Carey scandal. ABC’s Good Morning America carried almost all of that; NBC’s Today aired one anchor brief in three months, and CBS This Morning aired nothing. Clearly, the UPS strike has more news appeal to a broader audience than Teamster corruption does. But the prominence the Teamsters gained through the burst of strike coverage ought to make their current struggles more prominent than the near-blackout so far.
Revolving Door: Turner's Clinton Man
Turner’s Clinton Man
Ted Turner chose a liberal Democrat to run the foundation he created to oversee distribution of his $1 billion gift to the United Nations: Tim Wirth, Undersecretary of State, will assume the position of President of Turner’s freshly-created United Nations Foundation. Wirth previously served as a Congressman and Senator from Colorado, earning a very liberal reputation.
At the State Department Wirth had been in charge of the administration’s environmental efforts. The Washington Times noted on November 20 that Wirth had pushed the administration from the left. Reporter Patrice Hill explained: "Wirth became a lightning rod for conservative opposition to the global warming treaty in Congress because of his moves calling on the United States and other industrialized nations to adopt legally binding reductions in carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gasses while exempting developing countries....Wirth prompted criticism by privately asking congressional delegates to the UN-sponsored negotiations not to criticize the administration’s position in Kyoto."
Heading North, South & East
Two White House speechwriters have departed, one to take a media slot and the other to become an ambassador, while a newspaper veteran assumed a diplomatic post.
David Shipley, who joined the Clinton speechwriting staff in 1995 after stints as a New York Times editorial writer and Executive Editor of the New Republic, is traveling north. Shipley, who has been writing recently for the First Lady, left in mid-December to, as the November 26 Washington Post reported, "work on a series of special issues for the New York Times Sunday magazine."
In November the Senate approved the nomination of Carolyn Curiel as U.S. Ambassador to Belize. An editor at the New York Times and Washington Post before jumping to TV in 1992 as a Nightline producer, she joined the Clinton team in 1993.
On the foreign mission front, last summer Bob Healy, a former Executive Editor and in the early ‘80s the Washington Bureau Chief for The Boston Globe, hopped a plane for Dublin, Ireland. The Washington Post reported that he’s "working in a senior job in the embassy on the U.S. Information Agency payroll."
In a December 1990 Globe column Healy complained: "Bush was saddled with a lot of the supply-side voodooism of the Reagan era ....Reagan was not the President of morning in America: he was President of the free lunch. He gave us growth, but the cost was borrowed money, more than a trillion dollars of debt."
The Christian Coalition tapped David Aikman, a Time correspondent until a few years ago, as Senior Consulting Editor of the group’s magazine, the Christian American. At Time, Aikman reported from Asia, served as bureau chief in West Berlin and covered foreign affairs out of Washington....
U.S. News & World Report has brought aboard Michael Gerson as a Senior Editor to cover non-profits and philanthropy. Gerson, who has been Policy Director for Senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.), was hired by Assistant Managing Editor Steve Waldman, National Journal reported. Before jumping to U.S. News, Waldman had worked as top policy adviser to the chief of Clinton’s AmeriCorps program.
TV Downplays Clinton Donor Who Lied His Way Into Arlington Cemetary
Addicted to Scandal? Hardly
The charge in Insight magazine that Bill Clinton may have granted "dozens" of waivers for burials at Arlington Cemetery to big donors soon imploded, but media disinterest in the whole matter left it to a conservative columnist to dig up evidence that one Clinton crony lied in order to be buried there.
Three days after the story broke on talk radio, Time’s Margaret Carlson complained on the Nov. 22 CNN Capital Gang: "Republicans succeeded in spreading this despicable lie because the press is as addicted to scandal as they are."
Not quite. The Big Three networks passed up the story in those first days, with the exception of an 18-second brief on ABC’s Good Morning America and a 17-second item on the CBS Evening News in which Dan Rather relayed the White House denial of "a deliberate political smear."
But within days, the Los Angeles Times reported that House investigators were focusing on M. Larry Lawrence, a $10 million Democratic donor who served as Clinton’s Ambassador to Switzerland. He had been granted a waiver for burial in Arlington after he died in 1996. Conservative columnist Arianna Huffington tracked down a former Lawrence aide who recalled that he asked her to research Merchant Marine ships that served during World War II, suggesting a quest for details he could recite as a life experience.
On December 4, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Terry Everett announced a search of records found no evidence Lawrence ever served on the Merchant Marine ship on which he claimed he’d been wounded.
So that made it a big story? No. ABC’s World News Tonight was the only broadcast network evening show to report the revelation that night. NBC Nightly News followed the next night. CBS, busy with El Nino features, took three more days to mention Lawrence, taking 22 seconds to report that his body would be disinterred but not explaining why. Rather called it "all part of the fallout from unsubstantiated accusations that the Clinton camp was selling burial rights."
Nightline devoted two shows to the matter, but treated it as an embarrassing new low in political attacks. ABC’s Michel McQueen ended her December 5 piece by asserting that Lawrence may have been eligible for burial "because he died while serving as an ambassador, but in the rancorous atmosphere of 1990s Washington, the facts may be almost beside the point." But as the Los Angeles Times discovered, "of six ambassadors granted burial at Arlington ...three died violently in the line of duty while two had records far more distinguished than that of the sixth — M. Larry Lawrence."
Still, Koppel’s first query: "Is this a scandal or is this just Washington at its worst?"
Democratic Slurs Not News
Gaffe Patrol on Break
Being a Democrat means never having to say you’re sorry — even if you impugn a branch of the armed forces, implicate the House Speaker in the death of a fellow Congressman, or equate Republicans with Nazis.
The Weekly Standard reported that after Democratic Congressman Walter Capps died October 28 of a heart attack, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) sent a sarcastic "Dear Colleague" letter complaining about Gingrich’s hectic legislative schedule. To make his point, Farr attached a newspaper article headlined: "Farr: Hectic pace helped kill lawmaker." No news show, not even CNN’s Inside Politics, covered Farr’s far-out charge.
The gaffe patrol was also silent when Assistant Secretary of the Army Sara Lister resigned after referring to the Marines as "extremists" and "a little dangerous." She can hardly blame her ouster on the media spotlight — the only network coverage of her remarks, printed in The Washington Times, came in a brief on the November 13 World News Tonight. Even when she resigned the next day, only World News Tonight noted her departure with a Jackie Judd report that spun the focus from Lister’s insulting comments to a defeat for women in the military: "As head of Army personnel, Lister was a strong advocate for women in the military, even allowing them to go into combat. Her supporters say that is what the firestorm is really about."
It seems nothing a Democrat says can raise an eyebrow. During House fundraising hearings on December 10 independent counsel Donald Smaltz recalled his presidency of the Young Democrats. The omission of his years in the GOP enraged Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.): "You remind me of the late and unlamented Secretary- General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, who also had a lapse in memory. He conveniently forgot several years when he was a Nazi." Only CNN’s Inside Politics aired it.
Lantos defended and expanded his comments three days later in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The more I think about it, the more I think I was totally proper and correct....If you for 30 years are a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and someone says, ‘What are your views about racial issues,’ and you say, ‘When I was 15 I had a black friend with whom I played basketball’...you are not being truthful." Still, no media reaction.
One Overlooked Tornado
With all the talk about the destructive forces of El Nino, it is surprising another weather-related story was overlooked by all the network evening shows but one — except that it involves evidence the President may have lied to the Whitewater grand jury. Last spring, a tornado aided in the discovery of a trove of Whitewater documents in a damaged Mercury Marquis, including a check made out to Bill Clinton for $27,600 from James McDougal’s failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.
NBC Nightly News was the only one of the four network evening shows to report it. On November 10, Fred Francis reported: "Before junking [the car] mechanic Johnny Lawhorn pried open the trunk and found a cashier’s check for $27,600 payable to Bill Clinton. Adding to the mystery, Bill Clinton has testified that he never borrowed money from his Whitewater partner. But the amount of the check corresponds exactly to the amount of a Whitewater loan repayment. So why was it made out to Bill Clinton? That’s what the Whitewater grand jury wants to know."
ABC, CBS, and PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer all ignored it. Except for a 17-second Ann Curry news update on the November 6 Today show and a brief mention by Mark Knoller on CBS Saturday Morning two days later, the network morning programs didn’t touch it. CNN’s Bob Franken and Wolf Blitzer covered the story on Inside Politics, but it never made it onto CNN’s evening newscast, The World Today.
Three days after the story broke, NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert interviewed the President one on one during the 50th anniversary edition of Meet the Press, and although he asked Clinton about his golf handicap, he forgot about the check. At least his network beat the competition on a very uncompetitive story.
Institutions Ask Why Credibility Down
Denying the Obvious: Bias
Last summer the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and the Freedom Forum launched $1 million plus projects to determine why the press is losing credibility. They could save a lot of money if journalists would concede that liberal bias exists. Instead, as polls point to bias as a hindrance to credibility, much of the media remain in denial.
The latest example: A Fox News survey asked "What do you believe is the media’s worst problem?" The most popular reply, "bias" at 44 percent. After announcing the result on the Nov. 9 Fox News Sunday, host Tony Snow turned to Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson who conceded previous bias but rejected it now: "I don’t think that there’s a bias in the media now the way there used to be." Alerted to the many surveys documenting liberal views of reporters, Isaacson declared: "I’m not sure I really believe those polls."
Isaacson complained about how "we get blasted from both sides." A bewildered Brit Hume of Fox News replied: "Walter, do you really think the newsrooms of America are equally divided between conservatives and liberals?" Isaacson insisted: "I think that our newsroom at Time and the people who write there are open minded and are not Democrats and liberals as the popular perception is."
The October Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, featured a story by former New York Times reporter John Wicklein who rejected the relevance of liberal views held by reporters since journalists "express a strong professional desire to be fair and honest in their reporting."
Unwittingly demonstrating the prism through which reporters miss bias, Wicklein insisted: "I’ve yet to find a paper in which I could discern a deliberate liberal — or conservative — slant to news stories. Instead, I’ve found reporters and editors working hard to play it straight." Indeed, Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie dismissed the public as ignorant, telling Wicklein: "I think people confuse reporting that exposes problems and seeks solutions as liberal bias."
But there may be hope. ASNE’s magazine ran a February cover story titled "The Myth of the Liberal Slant." The September American Editor, however, featured Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page editor Ross Mackenzie’s piece titled "Liberalism’s Role in Our Collapsing Credibility." Up front, ASNE President Sandy Rowe, of the Oregonian, noted that reporters "dismiss the critics as cranky conservatives" but, she suggested, "we cannot improve our credibility with the majority of our public unless we are willing to examine bias through their lens, not ours." If only more journalists would take up her challenge.
Janet Cooke Award: Ted Koppel v. The "Flat Earth Society"
On February 24, 1994, ABC’s Ted Koppel devoted a Nightline to Al Gore — not to studying Gore, but to Gore’s opposition research on scientists skeptical of global warming and their alleged funding sources.
He concluded: "There is some irony in the fact that Vice President Gore, one of the most scientifically literate men to sit in the White House in this century, that he is resorting to political means to achieve what should ultimately be resolved on a purely scientific basis...The measure of good science is neither the politics of the scientist nor the people with whom the scientist associates. It is the immersion of hypotheses into the acid of truth. That’s the hard way to do it, but it’s the only way that works."
That’s a nice point, but Koppel has continued to base environmental programs not on science, but on the credibility of global warming skeptics. On December 9, Koppel devoted Nightline to another "ad watch" questioning the accuracy of ads run by business groups. For implying that warming skeptics were deliberate liars and comparable to the "Flat Earth Society," Nightline earned the Janet Cooke Award. The show began:
Koppel: "At the Kyoto summit on global warming, the fate of the Earth is being described in apocalyptic terms."
Al Gore: "More record floods and droughts, crop failures and famines."
Ross Gelbspan: "A slight warming could trigger an explosion of crop-destroying and disease-spreading insects."
Koppel: "But back in Washington, a $13 million ad campaign warns of an apocalypse of a different sort."
Woman in ad: "A proposed United Nations climate treaty could put me out of business by raising the cost of gasoline, natural gas, and electricity by 25 to 50 percent."
Carl Pope, Sierra Club: "Their ads are lies, and they know their ads are lies."
Koppel: "But have they worked?"
Ben Goddard, ad maker: "I think the campaign has worked very well."
Koppel: "Tonight, the ad campaign aimed at movers and shakers but designed to affect your future."
After leaving the impression that the ad makers intentionally lied, Koppel then joked that global warming might not be amusing like the Letterman or Leno shows, but what about the prospect of gas rationing, the loss of 650,000 jobs, or a treaty that will cost the American economy $350 billion a year? "I’d love to have your company, but I’m not sure we can vouch for the accuracy of any of those doomsday predictions."
He declared the ad campaign seems to charge "the Clinton administration is on the verge of giving away the farm at the global warming conference currently under way in Kyoto, Japan. It is not the conference that has seized our attention tonight, nor for that matter what may or may not be achieved there. It’s the Chicken Little, sky-is-falling approach being adopted by both sides in the debate."
Despite Koppel’s feigned balance, ABC reporter Chris Bury’s set- up piece focused its heat only on warming skeptics: "The people running the ads call themselves the Global Climate Information Project, special interests from car manufacturers to oil companies to coal miners. Their $13 million dollar commercial campaign glosses over the science of the global warming debate to focus on two things: fairness and fear." Bury noted the ad’s energy-cost estimates came from a study by Charles River Associates that was paid for by auto and utility companies: "Ross Gelbspan, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, says the model is an extreme scenario." But Candace Crandall of the Science and Environmental Policy Project told MediaWatch: "The Pulitzer Prize board does not list him as a winner for any year or at any newspaper. We contacted Ross Gelbspan by phone and asked if he could fax a copy of his Pulitzer Prize citation. He admitted he has none."
Bury noted only six percent of Americans remembered seeing the ads, "but the ads were never really aimed at the American public." Pope charged industries were threatening politicians with putting up ads against them in the 1998 elections. Bury noted the Sierra Club "has tried to fight back with ads like this, but its ad budget is a measly $100,000." He did not note that the supposedly cash-poor Sierra Club spent an estimated $7.5 million in the 1996 elections to defeat Republican candidates.
Koppel’s interview segment gave a larger megaphone to warming skeptics, matching liberal Environmental Defense Fund activist Michael Oppenheimer with skeptic Karen Kerrigan of the Small Business Survival Committee. But while Koppel posed very vague questions to Oppenheimer, he asked some tough questions of Kerrigan.
For example, he asked whether she believed the ads’ estimates since "it seems all speculative and there is no agreement yet." He raised a liberal point in suggesting "fairness" would mean the U.S. should bear much of the burden: "One of the interesting notions that is raised by critics of U.S. policy as it has been in the past is that we represent one-twentieth of the world’s population and we’re using one-quarter of the world’s fossil fuel ...Should there be such a thing, Ms. Kerrigan, as a certain amount of global fairness?"
Kerrigan told MediaWatch the show was not what she was led to expect: "We were told we were going to look at both sides’ ad campaigns. Both would be asked to comment on the other. So either we would rip at each other’s campaigns or each explain what we were trying to do." But Kerrigan said once she heard the show’s introduction, "I knew ‘I’m starting in a major hole.’"
But Koppel displayed his bias most distinctly by lashing out at Kerrigan’s claim that many scientists were skeptical of warming: "I was just going to make the observation that there are still some people who believe in the Flat Earth Society, too, but that doesn’t mean they’re right." Kerrigan told MediaWatch: "It was a major insult."
Citizens for a Sound Economy recently commissioned a poll of state climatologists found that, by a 44 to 17 percent margin, they believe "recent global warming is a largely natural phenomenon." Nine out of ten agreed that "scientific evidence indicates variations in global temperatures are likely to be naturally occurring and cyclical over very long periods of time." Only 19 percent said "weather events over the last 25 years have been more severe or frequent than other periods" in their states’ history, and less than a third of that small percentage attributed such weather to global warming.
ABC directed MediaWatch to Nightline spokesperson Sue Lin Chang, who promised she would find out who was that night’s senior producer. She did not call back. The networks present themselves as objective referees of public debates. But on this issue, Koppel’s show suggested that the fate of the planet is too important for a scientific debate, and skeptics would best serve the public by shutting up.