In This Issue
Study: No Singles Standard For Sleaze; NewsBites: Newsroom Liberals; Revolving Door: Hoosier Time; PBS: Only Liberals Allowed; Boos for UPI; Rather Unfair; Neutering Newt; Janet Cooke Award: TIME: Atwater Assault
Study: No Singles Standard For Sleaze
When Attorney General Ed Meese resigned last year, he was found innocent of wrongdoing but the media still portrayed him as an example of what news accounts called the "ethical insensitivity" of the Republican administration. But less than a year later, when Speaker of the House Jim Wright resigned rather than face action by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, reporters assumed a new emphasis, growing concerned that an "ethics war" was damaging the political process. Meese was "the crown jewel of the sleaze factor;" Wright a "casualty of the ethics thunderstorm."
That's the double standard MediaWatch analysts documented by studying how the media covered Meese and Wright when each resigned from office. First, coverage of Meese's resignation focused on his personal ethics problems, while reports of Wright's resignation focused on the fate of the House in the midst of "mindless cannibalism." Second, the media used differing terminologies to report the controversies of Meese and Wright, focusing on the "sleaze factor" for Meese and "ethics war" for Wright. To measure these trends, analysts investigated print reports in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and viewed broadcasts of ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN PrimeNews and NBC Nightly News.
1. THEMES. To study the dominant themes underlying both episodes, MediaWatch compared stories within the first four days of Meese's resignation announcement on July 5, 1988 and the release of special prosecutor James McKay's report on July 18. For Wright, we surveyed the first four days after his May 31 speech to the House.
a) Continuing ethical/legal problems. Although special prosecutor James McKay failed to indict Meese, 12 of 25 print stories (48%) and four out of nine network segments (44%) predicted further difficulties for Meese, most notably an investigation by the Justice Department'sOffice of Professional Responsibility. Despite possible Justice Department investigations against Wright, however, only two of nine network stories (22%) and two of 25 print stories (8%) speculated on further troubles. Not one newspaper account touched on further ethical problems for the Speaker, focusing instead on stories like the Los Angeles Times' "'Liberated' Wright Explains Why He Resigned."
b) Partisan atmosphere. The tenor of the Wright coverage was stringently critical of the "partisan bloodbath" that led to Wright's resignation. 21 out of 30 print stories (70%) and 7 of 12 broadcast reports (58%) described some form of "partisan rancor" on Capitol Hill when Wright quit. As Michael Oreskes led off coverage in The New York Times June 1: "The House to which Speaker Jim Wright announced today his plan to resign is a House beset with fear, one in which every rumor, every phone call from a reporter, every partisan spat could be the beginning of the end of a career." Although the investigation by the House ethics committee took more than a year to complete, the Los Angeles Times headlined a June 2 story "Rush to Judge Politicians Held Damaging to Nation." Out of this atmosphere, ABC's Jim Wooten could sympathetically report of Wright: "And if his moving speech today does not restore those decencies he so wistfully remembered today, then perhaps history remembered that at least he tried." But Meese got no such treatment. In 25 print stories, only one New York Times story (or 4 percent of articles) mentioned in passing that "old-line conservatives" thought partisanship might have been involved. None of the nine evening news stories raised the issue.
Headlines and subtitles were also a signal of the double standard. When Meese protested McKay's report, the Newsweek headline read "Meese Plays the Martyr." When Wright resigned, Time asked "Have We Gone Too Far?" Los Angeles Times subtitles were just as pronounced: in one Meese story, the Times used "'Became a Caricature'," "Other Failures," and "'Personal Obtuseness'." In Wright articles, subtitles included "Embraced by Colleagues," "'Hounded from Office'," and "Atmosphere of Mistrust."
2. TERMS. A comparison of ethics terminology illustrates how the media presented the debate to the Democrats' advantage on both occasions. "Sleaze factor" was used to describe Republican appointees accused of impropriety, whether they were eventually found guilty or not. But the martial metaphors of an "ethics war" over Speaker Wright implicitly charged Republicans with dirty pool and excused the Democratic corruption by portraying them as the victims of a "partisan bloodbath."
In 1988, reporters from newspapers and magazines made unattributed reference to the "sleaze factor" 56 times, mostly as a description of the Reagan Administration's "legacy of easy ethical virtue," as The New York Times put it. To media minds, the term related only to Republican ethics controversies. Thus, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's deflated ploy to charge lobbyists $10,000 for breakfast "might blunt" or "make it tougher to exploit" the Democrats' use of the "sleaze factor" instead of being an example of the "sleaze factor." In spite of all the ethics coverage, reporters used the term only 6 times so far in 1989.
But in the aftermath of the Wright resignation, print reporters made unattributed use of a thesaurus of "ethics war" terminology (including "ethics purge," "ethics reign of terror," and "ethics epidemic") 37 times, often in headlines. Newsweek made "Ethics Wars" a section heading for all its Wright stories in its June 12 edition.
In contrast, conservative phrase coiners were stiffed. Only three print news stories in 1989 mentioned Newt Gingrich's pet phrase "corrupt liberal welfare state," and when they did it came with criticism: The Washington Post's Myra McPherson wrote "Newtisms have indeed appalled members on both sides of the aisle." In fact, print stories that included the words "corrupt" or "corruption" with unattributed reference to the Democrats, have appeared only 16 times so far this year, and most of them showed up in sentences like "Democrats tired of being lumped together as corrupt and venal will support Wright as a demonstration of their own self-worth." This sentence by Tom Kenworthy appeared in the only Washington Post news story to use the word "corrupt" anywhere near the name of Jim Wright since the beginning of May.
Impartiality in ethics coverage requires that scandals involving liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans be covered in a balanced fashion, with a single standard. Circumstances may differ, but to tar the accused conservative Republican in one case and then assail the conservative Republican accuser in the next is proof positive of a double standard.
NewsBites: Newsroom Liberals
NEWSROOM LIBERALS. Every few years a pollster asks reporters about their political views. Every time the answer is the same: most are liberal. A just completed American Society of Newspaper Editors survey of 1,200 reporters and editors at 72 newspapers across the country is the latest example. Nearly three times as many identified themselves as "Democrat or liberal" or "independent, but lean to Democrat/ liberal" (62 percent) as "Republican or conservative" or "independent, but lean Republican/conservative" (22 percent).
MANGLING MAGGIE. ABC's Barrie Dunsmore thinks "Thatcher's ultra- hard line is no longer so much in fashion at home or abroad." Dunsmore's June 1 World News Tonight story included clips of interviews with 7 people, all of whom criticized Thatcher. "On European issues," Dunsmore claimed, "Thatcher is opposed to everything from cancer warnings on cigarette packs to strict pollution controls on cars to teaching two foreign languages in schools." Gerald Kauffman, an "Opposition Spokesman," naturally supported Dunsmore's assertions, characterizing Thatcher as "shrill, obstinate, inflexible, unsympathetic."
To demonstrate her unpopularity in Europe, Dunsmore spoke to a French woman who said "She's not very European." Sounding like a Labor Party advertisement, Dunsmore reported that "the satirists have always made fun of her lack of compassion...Now the people on the street are saying it." One man declared "she's a very uncaring person," followed by another who agreed "she lacks compassion." Dunsmore admitted Thatcher "remains popular with the middle class Conservatives who elected her," but he concluded his diatribe against Thatcher, "the 'Iron Lady' is beginning to show signs of metal fatigue."
TEARS FOR TEENS. On June 20, NBC Nightly News commentator John Chancellor intoned: "We can and should agonize about the dead students in Beijing, but we've got a bigger problem right here at home." What's the "bigger problem," according to Chancellor? A Carnegie council report that says middle-school students are in "impersonal factories that don't meet the educational or emotional needs of teenagers."
So here's the news from the world according to Chancellor. While Chinese parents are mourning their children gunned down, run over by tanks, or executed in show trials, American parents should despair all the more. Their poor kids have to go to "impersonal factories" that don't meet their "emotional needs."
RIPPING REAGAN. Writing in the June 12 issue, Time's D.C. Bureau Chief Strobe Talbott mourned Jimmy Carter's Salt II agreement as the last strategic arms treaty and praised President Bush's recent arms control proposal for "restor[ing] a degree of credibility and seriousness to the American conduct of arms control that has been missing for a decade." A photograph accompanying the article showed pictures of Carter and Bush squeezing out Reagan with a caption reading "Restoring a degree of credibility." Denouncing Reagan and his "cadre of ideologues," Talbott charged that the threat to peace is not Gorbachev, but "the American right wing, which is ever vigilant against backsliding into the bad old days of detente."
PETER'S PUFFERY. When I.F. Stone, Marxist author, journalist, and publisher of I.F. Stone's Weekly died on June 18, his passing drew attention from all four network news shows. The next night Peter Jennings took time to pay special tribute to Stone's career at the end of World News Tonight. Although Stone had called himself "half a Jeffersonian, half a Marxist," and had supported every leftist cause from Stalin to the Sandinistas, Jennings declared: "He generally found something useful to say...For many people, it's a rich experience to read or re-read Stone's views on America's place in the world, on freedom, on the way government works, and sometimes corrupts."
Jennings found Stone's novel definition of what journalism "was all about" particularly meaningful and recited it approvingly: "To defend the weak against the strong, to fight for justice, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind in the hope of someday bringing about a world in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden, instead of killing each other over them." So much for objective journalism.
TWO VIEWS ON INTERVIEWS. "The Chinese may have sunk to new lows," reported anchor Susan Spencer on the June 17 Evening News. How? By "using pictures stolen off a satellite feed as evidence of a crime." Chinese students were American TV news sources one day, convicted criminals the next. "Stealing TV pictures off satellites may be the most sophisticated manipulation of the press so far," Spencer charged.
Concern about "manipulation of the press" is new to CBS News. Three years ago, CBS made a deal with the Nicaraguan Interior Ministry. According to a November 4, 1986 UPI story, the network agreed in advance to provide the Sandinistas with a copy of a 60 Minutes interview. The subject was American pilot Eugene Hasenfus, shot down during a Contra resupply mission. The communist regime used that videotape as evidence to convict Hasenfus.
AMNESTY YOU AIN'T. In a June 3 report, CBS West 57th correspondent Steve Kroft described Guatemala as "the most brutal of all Central American countries," "one of the most brutal in the world," with "an army that has been described as the most brutal in Central America." Kroft, soon to move up to 60 Minutes, asserted that "Guatemala, a loyal U.S. ally in the fight against communism, also has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere." Whatever happened to Nicaragua?
Not only did Kroft's sense of comparison suffer, but so did his mathematics. Kroft claimed 1,000 people had been murdered for political reasons in the last year. In phone interviews with MediaWatch, human rights groups generally cited a figure under 500 for 1988, but noted it can be very difficult to measure whether deaths occurred for political reasons. Anne Manuel of the left-leaning Americas Watch told MediaWatch the West 57th team was in close contact with her group during preparation of the segment, but said "I remember watching that and wondering 'where did he get that figure?'"
ECONOMY OVER TROUBLED WATERS. The doomsayers in the media are specialists at finding the dark side of good news, and Lou Waters of CNN raised that practice to an art in a recent report on the unemployment rate. On Friday, June 2, the government announced a dip in the May rate to 5.2 percent. But Waters stressed that "the number of new jobs sputtered to a three year low." Although the economy added 101,000 new jobs in May, Waters described that performance as "anemic," since "that's well below the monthly average of 275,000, and the worst the country has seen since March of 1986."
TED COMES DOWN FROM THE MOUNT. The spiritual leader of the largest cable TV empire in the country, Ted Turner, has issued his political creed. According to the May 26 Washington Times, at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society's May 9 "Newsmaker" luncheon, Turner delineated the principles from which his TBS and TNT political productions emanate.
Known as the "Ted Commandments," Turner promises "to treat all persons everywhere with dignity, respect and friendliness. That worked with the Soviets for me." Respect thy mother and father? Well, not quite: "This is controversial for a man that has five children, but I had them 20 years ago, before I realized that they were the population problem. I promise to have no more than two children, or no more than my nation suggests."
Turner believes we should preserve this overcrowded world by using "as little toxic chemicals, pesticides and other poisons as possible, and to work for their reduction by others." Not only is Turner against killing, but he "rejects the use of military force, and backs United Nations arbitration of international disputes." To curb the harmful effects of any possible war, the cable mogul wants to see the "elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction." Not forgetting the importance of recycling for our endangered planet, Turner pledged to "use as little non-renewable resources as possible."
LESS THAN HIGH ON SDI. On May 13, the Los Angeles Times showed their distaste for SDI enthusiasts, presenting a story headlined "New 'Star Wars' Chief: The Right Man for the Job--at the Right Time." The story focused on Air Force Lt. Gen. George L. Monahan and the man he replaced, Reagan SDI head Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson. Times Pentagon correspondent John Broder described Abrahamson as "a 'Star Wars' zealot and missionary who sold--some say oversold--the program as a talisman against nuclear holocaust. Monahan, by contrast, modestly describes himself as merely a 'program manager' who says that his job is not to be a promoter for 'Star Wars' but to run a 'sanity check' on the costly and controversial program."
E&P: LABEL US LIBERAL, TOO. The May MediaWatch study documenting the tendency of media foundations to earmark the vast majority of their political grants to liberal groups merited a story in the June 3 edition of Editor & Publisher. But a week later, an editorial in the magazine for newspaper executives proclaimed "We do resent...on the part of all the media--both print and broadcasting--efforts of that organization to pigeonhole media and media personalities as being 'liberal' or 'left-wing' and attaching a stigma to it." (Of course, the point of the study was not to attach any "stigma" to liberal groups, but to point out that media company political donations are flagrantly imbalanced.)
The editorial also attacked MediaWatch Publisher L. Brent Bozell III. "When he labels the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Audubon Society, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU Foundation, and others like these, as having a liberal bias to be deplored, then include us in the list--we'll accept the liberal stigma too."
Revolving Door: Hoosier Time
Hoosier Time. Democratic political activist Ken Bode, NBC's Chief Political Correspondent for the past several election cycles, picked up his last paycheck from the network in June. He's moving to Greencastle, Indiana for the slower pace of academic life as Director of the Center for Contemporary Media at DePauw University. Bode is not completely abandoning television: He'll serve as moderator of a new quarterly TV series, American Survival, produced by the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. Bode was a top level strategist for liberal Democrat Morris Udall's 1976 presidential bid. In 1972, according to The Washington Post, he wrote the McGovern Commission delegate reform rules.
From Carter to the Times. Leon Sigal, a Special Assistant to the Director of the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs at the State Department between 1979 and 1981, has joined The New York Times editorial board. As an editorial writer Sigal now works for Jack Rosenthal, Editor of the editorial page and a State Departtment official under President Johnson. A government professor at Wesleyan University before and after his government stint, Sigal has written two Brookings Institution books on arms control since leaving the Carter Administration.
Switching Sides. The Washington Bureau Chief of The Milwaukee Journal, John (Jack) Kole, has left the paper's D.C. office after more than 25 years. In June he jumped into politics as Senior Writer and press aide for liberal Congressman David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat he spent much of his career covering.
Matthews in the Morning. For the past year or so Chris Matthews, Chief of Staff to former House Speaker Tip O'Neill from 1981 to 1986, has served as "political columnist" for CBS This Morning. The network must like what he has to say. In May Matthews signed a one year contract to contribute a news story, interview or commentary every Monday.
Gunning for Lugar. Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana has named David Shapiro his new Press Secretary. For the past six years Shapiro has been an off-air national security affairs reporter for the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS.
Columbia Journalism Review's View. Just after becoming Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) late last year, Joan Konnor assured readers she does not think the media are biased in any way. "I believe," Bill Moyers' former producer at PBS wrote, that reporters "have no theologies, no 'isms'" and there is "no time for fixed religions, no dogma." In early March Konnor selected a new Editor: Suzanne Braun Levine, a founder, Managing Editor and later Editor of the liberal Ms. magazine. So much for any articles in CJR, the nation's largest magazine of media criticism, about liberal media bias.
PBS: Only Liberals Allowed
Frontline, the weekly PBS public affairs show, often serves as a mouthpiece for trendy liberal causes. Two Frontline shows last year highlighted the far left Christic Institute's conspiracy theories about CIA and Contra drug running in Central America. PBS regularly provides Bill Moyers with specials and series that serve as a platform for his liberal views. Programs with a non- liberal perspective, however, are not so readily accepted. Just take a look at two shows turned down recently.
French historian Jacques Rupnik offered Frontline a six-part series on Eastern Europe he produced. The Other Europe avoids the glasnost hype surrounding most coverage of Eastern Europe, offering a more realistic look at the changing situation in the Warsaw Pact. Originally broadcast in Britain, the series will soon be shown in 12 European countries, including Hungary. Americans may never see The Other Europe. After six months of inaction, Frontline's Executive Producer, David Fanning, rejected the series as out of date.
In a conversation with MediaWatch, Rupnik countered Fanning by citing Frontline's Summer 1988 re-broadcast of the "Comrades" series on life in the Soviet Union, complaining that the series was produced before Gorbachev had come to power and reflected a "Brezhnevite" view of Soviet agriculture. Rupnik agreed with New Republic Publisher Martin Peretz, whose June 5 story characterized Fanning as a "leftist ideologue" who "especially didn't like Rupnik's views, which are unfashionably disapproving of the Soviets."
Soviets at the Crossroads, a five-part documentary on the victims of Soviet expansionism produced by Stoneaway Productions and South Carolina Educational Television, met a similar fate. The Southern Education Communications Association made the series available to all PBS stations. Only seven PBS affiliates in the top 5 markets contacted by MediaWatch planned to carry the series. Among the stations not airing it: the major PBS affiliates in Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington. On the other hand, Days of Rage, a pro-Palestinian documentary, will be carried by all 15 stations.
As if not already liberal enough, PBS chose to dig up old Bill Moyers productions. Under the title, Bill Moyers: A Second Look, during May, June and early July PBS aired 13 old CBS and PBS programs by Moyers. On June 20 PBS broadcast "People Like Us," a 1982 CBS Reports piece on the "victims" of Reaganomics. This one- sided, anti-Reagan diatribe caused an uproar when first seen.
Following the re-broadcast, Moyers insisted: "The documentary has held up as both true and sadly prophetic. While Congress restored some of the cuts made in those first Reagan budgets, in the years since, the poor and the working poor have born the brunt of the cost of the Reagan Revolution. The hardest-hit programs have been welfare, housing and other anti-poverty measures. Even programs that were not cut have failed to keep up with inflation. Meanwhile, rich people got big tax breaks. And the middle class kept most of their subsidies intact. As a result, the Reagan years brought on a wider gap between rich and poor."
Shows like "People Like Us" have led PBS to give Moyers $2.2 million, the largest grant in the 1989-1991 budget, to produce five more documentaries. According to PBS Vice President Barry Chase, "Moyers and public television are a nice marriage, and we need to keep it going."
Boos for UPI
How can an innocuous editor's re-write of an article change a story's spin -- and create a very different news report? Here's an example.
When Vice President Dan Quayle delivered the West Point commencement address on May 24, UPI reporter Michael O'Malley filed a story. His report included this sentence: "A slight wave of boos and hisses from the Corps of Cadets greeted Quayle when he was introduced at the 191st Commencement Ceremonies."
UPI's national desk changed the story to read that Quayle, "dogged during last year's campaign by suggestions that he was a draft dodger, was booed by West Point cadets...The boos and hisses arose from the corps of cadets, West Point's under-graduates, when the Vice President was introduced with a mention of his Vietnam-era service in the Indiana National Guard." The UPI angle gained credibility when CNN and CBS afternoon news briefs picked up the report of Quayle's humiliation and NBC Nightly News ran the story.
But the boos never actually occurred. In fact, O'Malley was the only reporter on the scene to report such a reaction. An outraged Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer, Superintendent of the Academy, wrote UPI President Paul Steinle. "From my vantage point overlooking not only the entire corps of cadets and the other 15,000 or so who attended the ceremony I heard no boos and no hisses," he charged, "to say that Vice President Quayle was 'booed and hissed' by the corps of cadets appears to be, purely and simply, an outright fabrication."
In response, Steinle apologized for the report, admitting that "clearly, UPI overstated the reaction." But Steinle ignored one of Palmer's suggestions: "A member of the United States Corps of Cadets who is found to have lied is subject to dismissal. No less stringent a standard should obtain among those who inform the American people than among those who are sworn to defend them." MediaWatch thanks retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham of High Frontier for alerting us to this item.
In the midst of media-driven controversy over the RNC memo, CBS News anchor Dan Rather delivered a spurious shot at the GOP. In the June 11 "Presidential Portrait," a minute long prime-time public service series, Rather blamed the Republican Party for the death of President Andrew Jackson’s wife. Rather explained "the victim of the political mudslinging" in the 1828 race "was the Democratic candidate’s wife, Rachel, who was slandered as an adulteress." Jackson went on to "a sweeping victory, but the strain of the campaign was too much for Rachel. She died of heart failure." Rather concluded: "Rachel’s husband never forgave his Republican opponents."
Rather neglected to explain there was no connection between opponent John Quincy Adams’ National Republican Party of 1828 and the modern Republican Party formed 26 years later.
Less than two weeks after House Speaker Jim Wright resigned, The Washington Post came to the aid of House Democrats by running a disparaging "Style" section profile of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. The June 12 story was little more than a 5,000 word repetition of every derogatory charge ever made against Gingrich, the man Democrats in Congress fear the most.
"Many are troubled by Gingrich's scorched-earth policy as he boasts that more Democratic heads will roll," Post staff writer Myra MacPherson charged. "David Obey dismisses him as a 'poor imitation of Joe McCarthy' for impugning the 'patriotism' of his colleagues." MacPherson found that "Republicans also express dismay," including "Iowa moderate Jim Leach," who is "disturbed by Gingrich's 'very divisive statements.'" Just about everyone Gingrich has ever met seems to think little of him. Gingrich's "smears" caused a "former colleague of Gingrich's at West Georgia College to mutter that 'Newt doesn't take the low road--he takes the tunnel.'"
As for his political views, MacPherson described Gingrich as "a politician who knows that contradictions between voting records and words, between reality and a hyped version of reality, scarcely matter in the world of the 15 second sound bite." She cited a speech in which Gingrich "railed at the 'cynical compassion of the left, which shows it cares about the homeless by sleeping on a grate under TV lights,'" yet "Gingrich voted against bills to help the homeless."
MacPherson called Gingrich a "spiritual adviser" to the Conservative Opportunity Society PAC which sent out a fundraising letter reading: "Liberals in Congress abandoned the cause of freedom, leaving Russian gunships to mop up the young men and woman of the Nicaraguan resistance." A "peculiar claim," MacPherson thought.
Proceeding to his divorce, MacPherson quoted the minister who counseled the couple: "You're looking at an amoral person. That's what you're looking at."
But the Post is not so critical of all congressional leaders. "Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) spent his last day in the House yesterday doing what he always did best: adroitly shaping a message," reporter Tom Kenworthy began a June 16 story. Kenworthy praised the liberal Democrat for how he "has managed to cut the cord with his usual surgical precision, jauntily heading into a new life with what he said is enthusiasm and no regrets."
Janet Cooke Award: TIME: Atwater Assault
"What one does in Washington behind closed doors generally stays out of the paper. But the persistent rumor that one of the potential 1988 presidential candidates has a homosexual past is testing the unacknowledged code of silence among reporters." -- Margaret Carlson in Esquire, November 1985.
"An effective smear has at its core an outrageous charge that would be devastating if true. The author must be both coy and cowardly: he must make the charge stick while retaining deniability." -- Margaret Carlson, "How to Spread a Smear," Time, June 19, 1989.
Who better to cover a story about a smear, Time editors must have thought when they assigned Margaret Carlson to the story about malicious rumors regarding House Speaker Thomas Foley's alleged homosexuality.
But Time's June 19 article never did examine the true sources of the rumors. Instead, Carlson and editors openly broadsided the Republican Party, even calling for the firing of RNC Chairman Lee Atwater. For its frenzied partisan attacks, Time magazine earns the July Janet Cooke Award.
The uproar centered around a memo circulated by the RNC's Mark Goodin to GOP leaders. "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet" compared Foley's liberal voting record to self-proclaimed gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Democrats labeled it a smear of Foley's character. Goodin was forced to resign with Democrats aiming next at Atwater.
Despite what the Democrats claimed, neither Goodin nor the RNC had any smear tactic in mind. Dan Casey, Executive Director of the American Conservative Union, explained to MediaWatch that the RNC originally planned to compare Foley's record to that of Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey. The RNC decided to use Frank instead after conservatives pointed out that Frank's liberal voting record was far better known than the more obscure Markey's.
So where did the rumors about Foley being gay originate? As Hodding Carter, former Assistant Secretary of State under President Carter, stated on the June 11 This Week with David Brinkley: "The story, the innuendo, the smear on Tom Foley as everybody in our business knows didn't start with Lee Atwater. It started with some Democrats and it started as an attempt to make sure that nothing bad happened to the Speaker of the House...Jim Wright."
Carlson took a different angle, beginning her piece: "'Have you no decency sir?' That was the question Army counsel Joseph Welch asked Joseph McCarthy 35 years ago when the Senator ruined the lives of those who did not agree with him by impugning their character and patriotism. The same question could be posed to RNC Chairman Lee Atwater, his communications director Mark Goodin, and Congressman Newt Gingrich."
Furthering the Democratic scenario, Carlson continued: "Acting directly or through subordinates, this trio last week worked to spread a long-standing unsubstantiated rumor designed to humiliate new House Speaker Thomas Foley." Without mentioning that Democrats began the rumor, Carlson went on to say that "For days, an aide to...Gingrich had been calling more than a dozen reporters trying to get the homosexuality rumor into print."
Focusing next on Atwater, she added: "Although Goodin, Atwater's friend of a decade, took the fall, the tactic bore the unmistakable Atwater stamp. As Bush's 1988 campaign manager, Atwater specialized in character assassination."
Time abandoned all pretense of balance in a bolded summary box surrounded by Carlson's main article: "From his early campaigns in South Carolina through the 1988 presidential election Lee Atwater has displayed a talent for smearing opponents and then either apologizing or suffering memory lapses about his role." The insert box titled "'Sorry' Is Not Enough" demanded: "If Bush really wants to prove himself a political environmentalist in search of a kinder, gentler America, he should sack Atwater."
In an interview with MediaWatch, Carlson defended both her 1985 Esquire article and what she wrote on Atwater.
MediaWatch: "You spread a smear in 1985 in Esquire. Isn't it hypocritical to come back now and write this?"
Carlson: "I don't think I was spreading a rumor about Jack Kemp. I wasn't thinking of Jack Kemp. There were at least fifteen candidates at the time who might run for President. It was an analytic piece about the press and how they deal with this issue of homosexuality in public life. We [in Esquire] had the decency not to mention anyone by name. Atwater didn't have the decency not to name Tom Foley. One politician trying to smear another by name, a direct hit, is very different."
MediaWatch: "Isn't your recent article just another example of how Time has come into blatant editorialization lately?"
Carlson: "I think the facts are put into some sort of context and that analysis sometimes turns into opinion. I think there is more characterization of the facts than there used to be."
MediaWatch: "Sounds like opinion to me."
Carlson: "I already admitted there's a fine line. You're right, one person's characterization of the facts is another's opinion. But it's not an editorial, it is not taking a position [like] 'I'm for flag burning or I'm against flag burning!'"
MediaWatch: "Yet you are for or against Atwater and you come out very definitively against him."
Carlson: "[Against] the incident."
MediaWatch: "Against Atwater too."
Carlson: "Well, yes. That's true, that's true."
If the rumor really was started by Democratic opponents of Foley, why didn't Time pick up on that issue? "I'm not protecting Democrats -- I know your point here," she assured, "We didn't have it at the time -- honestly. If we did, believe me, we would have published it." But consider what Time's competitor, U.S. News & World Report, relayed that same week: "This is a story about a bad rumor and its sorry consequences. Democrats probably started it. Republicans gleefully fanned it. And the press ultimately gave it full-blown legitimacy..."
The article blamed the RNC and the GOP for lending full credence to the smear, but U.S. News pointed out the role of Democrats, including Congressman Jack Murtha (D-Penn.), and their "cloakroom chitchat" in initiating the rumor. How did Carlson account for the U.S. News spin and its different facts? Grudgingly she admitted: "I guess they just outreported us."
Still, the most blatant bias came in the box, which Carlson declined to discuss. So who, then, is writing these inserts anyway? Senior Editor Robert "Terry" Zintl confessed that it is usually not the writer of the article: "That was written by Larry Barrett," the National Political Correspondent. More to the point, Zintl admitted the inserts are editorials: "We do these boxes to be provocative, to make a little editorial point. They are supposed to have a point or opinion to them. The magazine has gotten more opinionated on certain subjects. That's the function these boxes play."
So, there you have it. Time is now officially a magazine of opinion. Carlson had free reign to attack Atwater, Gingrich, and the Republican Party. But to get the complete look at how Time writers view the world, read the insert boxes. It seems any Time writer can freely express political views. Move over National Review and The New Republic -- your competition has arrived.