In This Issue
Study: Skewing Ronald Reagan's Legacy; NewsBites: The Evening News Gurus; Revolving Door: No Longer Speaking for the Speaker; Abortion Distortion; The Real Scoop On Koop; Underwriting the Urban League; Overtown Overtures; Reporters Blast Reagan; Janet Cooke Award: Reagan Bashing: ABC News
Study: Skewing Ronald Reagan's Legacy
As the baton passed from Ronald Reagan to George Bush, TV news reporters were passing judgment on the Reagan years. A MediaWatch Study reveals these network assessments reflected the liberal view of Reagan's legacy. Echoing liberals, network reporters conceded Reagan's popularity, praised his communications skills and applauded his relations with the Soviets. They also blamed Reagan, not congressional spending, for the budget deficit, and they held Reagan, not the Democratic-controlled city governments, responsible for urban problems such as homelessness.
At the same time, they ignored or tried to discredit those aspects of the Reagan legacy most celebrated by conservatives: the rebuilding of the American economy (especially ending the inflationary spiral), the reform of the federal courts through conservative appointments, the implementation of the Reagan doctrine and buildup of the military.
MediaWatch analyzed all seven ABC, CBS and NBC stories reviewing Reagan's years in office. These included one on ABC's World News Tonight, two aired by the CBS Evening News, and one on NBC Nightly News and Sam Donaldson's recap of the Reagan years, aired by ABC as an introduction to David Brinkley's December 22 interview with the President as well as retrospectives on CBS' Sunday Morning and NBC's Sunday Today.
The improved economy was counted as an achievement for Reagan six times, but he got blamed for its supposed shortcomings on 16 occasions, almost three times more often. In addition, the administration received blamed for the deficit another 11 times. Reporters gave short shrift to aspects of the Reagan years conservatives admire. A stronger defense was portrayed neutrally on three occasions, just once as an admirable achievement. Only two reports bothered to include mention of the dramatic change in the makeup of the federal bench.
ABC: Sam Donaldson portrayed the improved economy as more of an accident than anything planned. He impugned Reagan for neglecting the homeless and for policies toward blacks that "seemed particularly onerous, particularly when it came to his conservative appointments to the Supreme Court." In foreign affairs Donaldson noted the Grenada invasion, but he credited changes in Soviet behavior to "something" that "happened: a new Soviet leader named Gorbachev," not the U.S. military build-up.
The night after Reagan's January 11 farewell address Richard Threlkeld gave the President credit for one policy achievement, "peace abroad." As for the economic recovery Threlkeld undercut the accomplishment, telling viewers "things are not nearly as prosperous as the President makes them sound," charging that "on average, more new jobs were created every year under Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan."
CBS: Terence Smith spent 13 minutes on the January 8 Sunday Morning analyzing impact. Two of his three sources were Washington Post columnist Haynes Johnson, who told viewers Reagan has "mortgaged the country's future," and "historian" Bill Leuchtenberg, who announced that "even the situation with respect to unemployment...the situation there has been improved...because of the large increase in dead-end jobs." Smith did not identify either as liberals. Smith traveled to a state unemployment office where "the reviews were uniformly harsh" and charged that "the number of Americans living beneath the poverty line reached new heights during the Reagan era," though conceding "poor families benefitted from sharply reduced inflation." Smith also interviewed Pat Buchanan, clearly identifying him as a "conservative supporter," but didn't let Buchanan counter any of the earlier economic doom and gloom. In fact, Johnson and Leuchtenberg got a full three minutes of air time in ten appearances, while Buchanan, in four appearances, got just over a minute to defend Reagan.
NBC: On January 20, the day Reagan left office, John Chancellor signaled it "is clearly time for a change." To Chancellor, during eight years of Reagan, "the country's competitors got richer and the United States got poorer."
On Sunday Today January 16 Garrick Utley praised Reagan how he "changed his thinking about the Soviet Union, and our world is a safer place for it." Turning to domestic affairs, Utley charged "when Ronald Reagan came to Washington, he in effect told the nation that it could take a vacation from troubling problems, that it was all right not to worry about the poor, about race, the homeless, or debt."
NewsBites: The Evening News Gurus
The Evening News Gurus. On January 23 Dan Rather told bewildered viewers: "A couple of late reports on the Reagan economy today sent up warning flags for the incoming Bush Administration. The government said that retail sales in 1988 rose at the sharpest rate in four years. And another report indicated you, the consumer, may be paying more for what you buy this year."
What? A healthy increase in retail sales is bad news? Yes, reported correspondent Richard Schlesinger who explained that store sales news combined with a slight rise in the producer price index last year means "some economists believe the wholesale price figures released today could mean inflation this year will run at more than seven percent."
How reliable is the CBS warning? Well, in January, 1988 Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer declared: "Everybody seems to think the economy is going to be a big problem" in the upcoming year.
NBC's Lucky Strikes Again. If you watched Lucky Severson's portrait of Texas life, you would never believe that George Bush won the state's vote by an overwhelming margin. NBC's Today show has been airing an occasional feature called 'Cross country,' a series that takes a lighthearted look at American life. On January 10, NBC reporter Lucky Severson drove around Texas in a rickety old pickup truck. His guide in this journey: "A Texan who knows his way around, Jim Hightower."
During the presidential primary season, Hightower had endorsed Jesse Jackson. Nonetheless, the Texas Agricultural Commissioner asserted, "Bush's problem is that he's just not much in touch with where the real America is." After reciting a litany of Texas economic problems, Severson described a trip to a saloon, but noted it was cut short when "we asked one of the patrons about George Bush." The supposedly typical Texan sneered, "He's from some wimp goddamn place up there called Mennepuck, Maine." Severson echoed Higtower's claim that half of Texas is fed up with hard times, concluding Bush "better pay attention" when in Washington.
Third World Blame. "UNICEF estimates that half a million children in 16 of the poorest nations are dying every year, dying of starvation and disease," ABC's Richard Threlkeld announced as viewers saw scenes of Ethiopia. Why? According to Threlkeld, "because their governments are spending so much money paying off what they owe to the rich nations in interest on development loans."
What about the disastrous effects of Marxist and socialist economic policies adopted by the regimes ruling these nations? That explanation never occurred to Threlkeld. Instead he blamed the U.S. for their misery, concluding his December 20 story: "UNICEF thinks that rich nations and their banks must lift at least half of the burden of their debt off the poor nations in the next five years. If not, says UNICEF, by the year 2000, eleven million children will die every year, needlessly, because the Third World won't have enough money left to keep them alive."
Ultra-Wright Conservatives. Although House Speaker Jim Wright is the subject of a House ethics committee investigation, Bob Schieffer thinks it's "ultra-conservatives" who should have their standards examined. On December 20 Evans and Novak reported that Democrats claimed to have reached agreement with Republican Congressman Pashayan to vote their way. Since the committee is divided evenly among Republicans and Democrats, Pashayan's defection would seal a victory for Wright for all the evidence was even heard.
Issuing the most extreme labeling possible, Dan Rather introduced the January 26 Evening News story by warning that "hard right lobbyists are trying to influence the vote." Even though Peter Flaherty of the Conservative Campaign Fund explained, "Pashayan's office refused to deny those reports," of Democratic dealmaking, Schieffer never pursued these rumors. Instead, he focused on the direct mail campaigns by, what Schieffer called, "ultra-conservative" groups including the National Right to Work Committee, whose efforts were portrayed as highly unusual and "jury tampering." Where was Schieffer when People for the American Way (PAW) campaigned for the ouster of Edwin Meese?
President 9 1/2. It was an easy mistake to make during the busiest three days of his life. The day before his inauguration, George Bush informed the American people that his speech would be short and sweet. One reason: ninth President William Henry Harrison gave a long-winded inaugural address and died of pneumonia one month later. But Bush confused William Henry Harrison with his grandson, 23rd President Benjamin Harrison.
But by Inauguration Day, nobody cared much about this except for NBC's John Cochran, who viewed the insignificant mistake as a deeply-rooted character flaw of the new President: "But certain times with George Bush there seems to be an irrelevancy or he gets something wrong. We pointed out yesterday he referred to Benjamin Harrison dying of pneumonia after a chilly inauguration day, and of course it was William Tyler Harrison who died."
William Tyler Harrison? Actually it was William Henry Harrison. Nobody cares much about this insignificant mistake either, except for MediaWatch which is concerned that at certain times with John Cochran there seems to be an irrelevancy or he gets something wrong.
Budget Busting Bluster. On January 9 President Reagan submitted his last budget proposal to Congress. As if on cue, the networks went into a frenzy to discredit it. On the CBS Evening News Dan Rather announced: "It contains more for guns, less for butter, and it is out of balance and will add to the deficit." Still, Rather added sarcastically, "President-elect Bush called it, and I quote, 'an excellent budget.'" Sam Donaldson, on ABC's World News Tonight, charged: "No matter what Mr. Bush proposes now, it may seem mild compared to this budget, which so many on Capitol Hill say has set a standard not to meet but to run from."
About the same time, B.J. Cutler, Editor in Chief of Scripps Howard Newspapers, noted the Reagan budget simply proposed to curb "handouts to rich farmers" and "limiting Medicare to a nine percent rise." Cutler wondered, "will such sensible steps be taken? Of course not." He predicted "merry recipients will rise up" and "the TV networks will do their bit, finding one old woman somewhere who would be discomforted and thus discrediting all spending restraint with the word 'heartless.'"
How accurate was Cutler's prophecy? NBC's Tom Brokaw asked Andrea Mitchell whether Bush would make cuts or raise taxes to adjust the Reagan budget. Mitchell responded: "His aides are saying that he will come down in favor of cuts in social programs despite all the talk of a 'kinder and gentler' America." That's as close as the networks came. But that's probably less for lack of intent than because budget constraints at the networks inhibit them from finding old women to complain.
When In Doubt, Blame Reagan. NBC and CBS agree: Ronald Reagan is to blame for the homeless. Back on December 19 NBC anchor Tom Brokaw complained "that the federal government is in a position to do a lot more, but is not." Robert Hager charged "the Reagan Administration has virtually ignored the law" requiring the government "to make any temporarily vacant federal building available for shelter space."
Almost exactly a month later, on January 20, CBS anchor Dan rather declared that "few stronger challenges await President Bush's vision of America than the agonizing problem of the nation's homeless."
CBS sent reporter Phil Jones to Minneapolis where he found "shelters are becoming a way of life for many, the low income housing of the 1980's." Thanks to the Reagan Administration which "virtually got out of the low income housing business, slashing federal support for housing by 80 percent."
Instead of seeing more money as the solution, what about proposals offered by conservatives, but successfully fought by so-called "homeless advocates." A few of these include reinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, repealing rent control laws which artificially suppress the supply of low cost apartments, or providing vouchers so people can avoid crime ridden projects while stimulating the private housing industry. Neither Hager or Jones explained the options, satisfied just to blame Reagan.
Frontlines's Liberal Reagan Line. Bush's victory baffled liberal historian Garry Wills, at least judging by a recent article he wrote for Time magazine. Wills is equally unable to comprehend why anyone voted for Reagan.
Narrating the January 18 Frontline on PBS which he also wrote, "The Real Life of Ronald Reagan," Wills complained: "In 1984 he would win again. It did not seem to matter that the deficit was growing; homeless families were in the street; and real wages were declining. Reagan's campaign team turned the whole first term into a movie featuring Americans with restored faith. In 1984," a disappointed Wills continued, "Reagan had persuaded the majority of Americans that it was morning again in America."
Glasnostalgia. Many still question the veracity of Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to reform Soviet society, but at least two network reporters regard the "initiatives" of the Soviet leader as done deals.
Take CBS This Morning "Political Columnist" Chris Matthews, he's convinced. The former aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill described the Soviet Union this way on January 3: "I mean, this is for real what Gorbachev is doing in creating free speech in the Soviet Union, allowing people to vote against candidates for office, opening up economic opportunities and free markets. I think it's what we've been asking for forty years and it's happening!"
Ten days later, NBC's Tom Brokaw seemed convinced too, speaking of "the newly independent Soviet press." Free speech? Multiple candidate elections? Free markets? An independent press? Sounds like democracy has come to the Soviet Union. Well, not everyone would agree with Brokaw and Matthews -- but at least Mikhail Gorbachev would.
Boettcher Wrong. The United States charged that West German firms were involved in the construction of a Libyan chemical weapons plant. On January 5 NBC's Mike Boettcher concluded his report with support for West Germany and a denunciation of the United States: "West Germany's tough response to the American criticism reflects the new realities of a changing nation....The West German government is making it clear it no longer can afford to, nor wants to continue playing, the role of America's submissive partner."
On January 13, Tom Brokaw reported that West Germany was "beginning to acknowledge that West German companies helped Libya construct a plant" and that "these are major embarrassments since the West Germans were so quick to forcefully reject U.S. claims." Boettcher wasn't embarrassed by his remarks a week earlier: "While the West German federal government groped for answers, a local prosecutor is going to court to find out for himself. Yet another embarrassment for a government which already has been forced to reverse itself."
Chemical Reaction. Not long after the Libyan chemical plant controversy arose, an international conference on chemical weapons began in Paris. As usual, the Soviets made an earth-shattering announcement -- at least in the eyes of many in the media.
On January 8, NBC's Garrick Utley declared: "Mikhail Gorbachev has developed the knack of pulling surprises, of grabbing the international spotlight and winning public favor. Today, he did it again through one of his top aides in Paris. There, at the international conference on chemical weapons, the Soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze announced his country will begin to destroy its stockpile of those weapons." The next day, CNN's Gene Randall was one of the few to report what the Soviet announcement really amounted to: "But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Moscow's commitment would affect only a small part of the Soviet Union's stockpile of chemical weapons. Some American observers feel that Soviet Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze's announcement was political, otherwise empty of meaning."
Conventional Misconceptions. Less than two weeks after the Soviet chemical weapons declaration, ABC News highlighted yet another "dramatic" Soviet announcement. On January 19, ABC's Peter Jennings reported: "We have a report tonight which represents a real challenge for George Bush. Once again, the Soviets have taken the initiative in foreign policy. They've announced plans to reduce further their nuclear weapons in Europe."
This time it was CBS News that put the Soviet move in perspective. Tom Fenton noted that the Soviets are "clearly aiming at the growing number of Germans who want their government to say 'no' to nuclear weapons. He went on to explain: "The U.S. wants to replace 88 aging short range nuclear missiles...to counter the overwhelming Soviet advantage in tanks and troops.... The other major West European allies back the American plan for new missiles, so the potential is there for a serious split within NATO. That thought may not have been far from [Soviet Foreign Minister] Shevardnadze's mind today when he made the announcement."
But ABC clearly didn't see it that way. In fact, four days earlier Kathleen deLaski labeled Western allies as the real hindrance to arms agreements. Reporting on upcoming conventional weapons talks this year, deLaski declared that "analysts say this time an agreement is possible because of one man: Mikhail Gorbachev." She went on to caution however: "But some question whether the U.S. and its allies are ready to be as serious about conventional arms reductions."
Revolving Door: No Longer Speaking for the Speaker
No Longer Speaking for the Speaker. Charmayne Marsh, Press Secretary to House Speaker Jim Wright for the past eight years, resigned at the end of last year. Marsh began her journalism career in 1966 as a UPI Washington reporter moving on to Washington bureau positions with Reuters and the Dallas Morning News. Her departure, however, does not leave Wright without experienced media hands. Chief Press Officer George Mair once worked for CBS News and Wilson Morris, Information Director for the Wright controlled House Democratic Steering Committee, reported for The Washington Post from 1972 to 1978.
From Carter to Nightline. A few months ago ABC News promoted Deborah Leff, a Nightline producer in Washington, to Senior Producer in London for the show. Leff worked as a trial attorney for the Department of Justice from 1977 to 1979 before Carter named her Director of Public Affairs for the Federal Trade Commission where she served until 1981.
Bingaman's Man. Veteran broadcast news producer Charles Woolsey, most recently Executive Producer of News at KOB-TV, the NBC affiliate in Albuquerque, has just become Director of Communications for Senator Jeff Bingaman, a liberal Democrat representing New Mexico. Beginning in 1968, Woolsey held a variety of Washington-based field producer positions with NBC and ABC News. He ended his network career in 1983 as Special Projects Producer for Good Morning America and World News Tonight. That year he became Assistant News Director at WTTG-TV in Washington, jumping to competing WRC-TV two years later where he remained until heading West in 1986.
Time's Cover Writer. "The Silver Fox," Barbara Bush, graced the January 23 Time cover. Senior Writer Margaret Carlson penned the inside profile piece on the new First Lady. In his "From the Publisher" column Robert Miller noted that in 1974, "under the inspiration of consumer advocate Ralph Nader," Carlson wrote a book on car repair. But Miller didn't tell readers Carlson was a Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Carter years.
Back on the Hill. In 1966 Wes Pippert became a Congressional fellow in the office of U.S. Representative Morris Udall, a liberal Democrat. Now, 23 years later and after 30 years of reporting everywhere from Bismarck, North Dakota to Jerusalem for UPI, he's back on Capitol Hill. This time, however, he's working for Republican Paul Henry. Pippert is putting in a six month stint handling public affairs and policy development for the Michigan moderate.
Bush Brigade. A couple of Bush Administration members already in place bring media experience to their new roles. White House Personnel Director Chase Untermeyer was a Houston Chronicle political reporter from 1972 to 1974....The Office of the First Lady has appointed Jean Becker, a USA Today reporter since 1985, as one of two Deputy Press Secretaries.
The January 9 decision by the Supreme Court to rule on a Missouri abortion law and the January 23 March for Life marking the 16th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade provided ample opportunity for national news outlets to weigh in on the divisive issue. A survey of the four networks, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal at the time of the two developments confirmed the results of last month's MediaWatch Study.
Reporters used the term "anti-abortion" 42 times, but "pro-life" just six times. Identifying the other side, they used "pro-choice" 29 times but never once tagged abortion proponents "pro-abortion." USA Today reporter Judy Keen's labeling mirrored the media's general pattern. She opened her January 24 article this way: "As anti-abortion activists marched on Washington Monday, pro-choice advocates prepared for grass-roots battle."
On PrimeNews the night before, CNN's Candy Crowley referred to "anti-abortion activists" who hope the Supreme Court's Missouri decision "will be the beginning of the end to abortion," but cautioned: "pro-choice advocates fear it will mean a return to back alley abortions." CNN proved to be the most unfair, issuing nine "pro-choice" tags and the same number of "anti-abortion" ones. ABC's Richard Threlkeld stood out as impartial: on two occasions he dubbed each side their label of choice.
Despite the fact pro-life spokesmen were quoted more often (52%) than pro-choice ones (48%) overall, several reports were lop-sided in favor of abortion proponents. On Jan. 22, CNN's Cynthia Tournquist gave the least balanced story, giving pro-choicers two times more airtime as well as calling supporters of abortion "pro-choice" three times and opponents "anti-abortion" twice.
But even if they refrained from the "anti-abortion" label and offered abortion opponents equal time to defend their cause, some reporters did all they could to discredit the pro-life cause. On Jan. 9, CBS' Richard Roth referred to pro-life forces as "a strong and vocal minority [which] has insisted its voice be heard."
After giving time to a former Roe vs. Wade attorney to express her discontent, Roth concluded: "Her point is it wasn't just abortion decided 16 years ago, it was the launching of what amounted to an abortion revolution."
The Real Scoop On Koop
On January 9 Surgeon General C. Everett Koop filed a report with the President on the health effects of abortion. Here's what the network anchors told viewers that night: ABC's Peter Jennings said "a new report by the Surgeon General concludes that abortion causes little if any physical or emotional harm to women." Dan Rather of CBS announced that "Surgeon General C. Everett Koop...reportedly concluded that a woman who has an abortion suffers little if any physical or emotional harm from the experience." NBC's Tom Brokaw declared that "Koop reports he has not found conclusive evidence that abortions have harmful psychological effects on the women who have them," but Koop "found that there is a whole segment of the population that says, quote, 'the best thing that happened to me was my abortion.'"
In a letter to Reagan, the Surgeon General explained that "scientific studies do not provide conclusive data about the health effects of abortion on women." In claiming Koop "concluded" anything, Jennings and Rather obviously missed the mark. But Brokaw's remarks distorted Koop's statement that "anecdotal reports abound on both sides," on whether abortion is a traumatic experience. Only CNN's Mary Alice Williams accurately reported, "what is known about the psychological effects of abortion cannot support either side of the national debate about it." Perhaps anticipating network coverage, in his letter to Reagan Koop predicted that "many who might read this letter would not understand it because I have not arrived at conclusions they can accept."
Underwriting the Urban League
On January 24 the National Urban League released its annual report on "The State of Black America." ABC, CNN, and NBC considered it worthy of prominent coverage. According to CNN's Bernard Shaw, the annual analysis proved, "the Reagan Administration made no progress to date in narrowing the economic gap" and "blacks were three times as likely as whites to be poor, and two and a half times likely to be jobless."
ABC's Bettina Gregory offered a harsher assessment: "The study concludes racial inequality actually increased during the Reagan years...This group blames all this on fewer jobs for unskilled workers and cuts in federal programs to help the poor....They say white America enjoyed a year of prosperity while black Americans were driven into poverty and despair." CNN did have Jeff Levine's January 15 report on black achievements to offset the Urban League study. But ABC and NBC didn't deem the positive side newsworthy.
How did other reporters explain what happened in Overtown that week? On January 18 NBC's Ed Rabel absolved the rioters: "Black leaders condemn the looting and arson, but a feeling permeates these poor neighborhoods that such violent activity results from years of frustration and uneven treatment."
Rabel’s rationalization continued: "Latins, able to speak Spanish and willing to work long hours at low wages in a Miami that is largely Hispanic now have overwhelmed blacks in the job market. Blacks continue to find themselves in the back of the bus."
But ABC's John Quinones saw the situation quite differently -- condemning it as criminal: "The violence is no longer just a civil rights protest, it's outright vandalism -- and many of the merchants in these communities are demanding tougher police action, like curfews and protection from the National Guard ...What began as a racial protest has erupted into a costly struggle on the streets and the black community stands to lose the most."
Reporters Blast Reagan
Here are a few examples of what some star reporters really think of Reagan, culled from recent interview shows:
- "I predict historians are going to be totally baffled by how the American people fell in love with this man and followed him the way we did." – CBS News reporter Lesley Stahl on NBC’s Later with Bob Costas, January 11.
- "I think there’s a question mark on the domestic policy: I think he left an uncaring society. . .a government that was not as concerned." – UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas on CBS News Nightwatch, December 30.
- "[Reagan’s] obsession with freedom abroad was not matched by any sense of justice at home for millions of Americans, and it is his lack of appreciation for the issues of equality, his failure to lead the nation toward healing in that area, is indeed also a part of his legacy and an unfortunate part." – Oakland Tribune Publisher Robert Maynard on ABC’s This week with David Brinkley, January 15.
- "But Lee, blacks have looked at the past eight years and seen this administration retreat from civil rights, retreat from affirmative action, make South Africa no priority, continue to see a greater disparity economically between blacks and whites, foster a spirit of racism that hasn’t been seen in 20 plus years. What make you think blacks are going to say, okay these [Republicans] are going to break with what used to be?" – Question from Bryant Gumbel to RNC Chairman Lee Atwater on NBC’s Today, January 19
Janet Cooke Award: Reagan Bashing: ABC News
Just days before the inauguration of George Bush, residents of the primarily black section of Miami named Overtown began rioting over the shooting death of a black motorcyclist by white police officers. Some in the media took the Overtown issue to an extreme, charging the riots were a consequence of the disregard for the poor and underclass. ABC's Richard Threlkeld went one step further. He found the real villain to be Ronald Reagan and his administration's policies, and for that receives the February Janet Cooke Award.
On January 20 Threlkeld was in Miami to learn, in Peter Jennings words, "how the new President's remarks might play in a place like Overtown." Jennings noted that "in his speech today, President Bush tried to reach beyond the crowd of well wishers to another America where the problems of poverty and crime and homelessness are still unresolved." True enough, Overtown qualifies as such a place; but Threlkeld's examination of the black area quickly became a condemnation of Reagan's overall civil rights and economic policies. Threlkeld used sweeping rhetorical judgments without any attempt at balance.
Threlkeld's first words set the tone for his entire report: "There wasn't much of an inaugural audience today in Overtown, which like much of black America has not felt part of the life of this nation for a long time." Why is that so? Threlkeld alleged: "After eight years of what many see as the Reagan Administration's benign neglect of the poor and studied indifference to civil rights, a lot of those who lived through this week in Overtown seemed to think the best thing about George Bush is that he is not Ronald Reagan."
After putting on several citizens to support the assertion, Threlkeld concluded: "There is an Overtown in every big city in America -- pockets of misery made even meaner and more desperate the past eight years." As for Bush's inaugural address, he added: "In this place, the response to the promise of a new President of an offered hand is 'show me.' Overtown's already shown this week there's a price to be paid when the Overtowns of America are too long overlooked."
If Threlkeld had been interested he could have easily located many blacks who have benefitted from Reagan's policies. As Wall Street Journal editorial writer Joseph Perkins recently pointed out in a Policy Review article, "most debates about the state of black Americans focus on negative indicators" and "this emphasis offers a very skewed picture of black progress."
Census Bureau statistics show that the Reagan years have been a boom time for the vast majority of black Americans. Median black family income has increased by more than nine percent in constant dollars since 1981. (During the Carter Presidency, black family income dropped by more than five percent). From 1985 to 1987, middle class black families saw their real incomes jump by approximately ten percent per year. In this decade alone, the pool of upwardly mobile blacks has grown by more than a third. It was trend even evident to CNN's Jeff Levine who stated on January 15: "There are signs of an emerging black bourgeoisie. For the first time, the majority of blacks can call themselves middle class."
As for black unemployment, Labor Department figures show that it has dropped by 25 percent during the Reagan years. That translates into more than two million new jobs. While the black poverty rate increased somewhat at the beginning of Reagan's term, Census statistics find it has begun to fall considerably and is now below the 1981 level, when Carter's policies were still in effect.
But Threlkeld failed to offer anyone airtime to describe these trends. He spoke of a "studied indifference to civil rights," but neglected to mention the strives toward equality that blacks have made in the work place. Perkins noted that black professional and managerial classes have burgeoned in the 1980s, as has black college enrollment.
The CNN story by Levine featured many middle class blacks "climbing the corporate ladder" who have "overcome the burden of racial discrimination." ABC's Mike Von Fremd, reporting from Alabama, found: "Today, when you watch Montgomery's children together in school, look at its streets, or eat in its restaurants, you see a community that has achieved at least part of Dr. King's dream."
When reached by MediaWatch, Threlkeld defended his story: "We have a difference of opinion. The research we've done over the years is to the contrary. Not just blacks, but the poorest fifth have done worse under Reagan. Public opinion polls show time and again that the vast majority are victims of benign neglect." But Threlkeld would not provide any statistics to prove his point, nor was he willing to discuss official Labor or Census numbers: "If we want to get into a contest over statistics...you'll have to drop me a letter and through our research department we'll do it."
He contended that his report was meant to examine only Overtown and little else: "Of course there is a large black middle class But indicators show that things are manifestly worse in places like Overtown....Our point was being in Overtown." Despite the substance of his story, Threlkeld tried to deny he cast blame: "I don't necessarily blame Ronald Reagan or Reagan's administration ....[The report] says a lot of [blacks in Overtown] blame him."
But why cover Overtown and not cover the stable black middle class that has grown by leaps and bounds this decade? Threlkeld agreed that the news media "ought to cover every aspect," but saw no need to expand his effort: "This was a piece we thought would be interesting to do because it dominated that week." What about a separate piece focusing on a middle class black neighborhood to get reaction from them on Bush's inauguration? He didn't see any need: "But there weren't riots there." Apparently when ABC News wants to learn how blacks fared under Reagan and what they think of the new President, the only appropriate place to survey is a poor, riot-stricken area. Need we say more?