In This Issue
Clinton Scandals? News You Can Lose; NewsBites; Mrs. Clinton, You're Our Best Landmark!; Public Realizes Liberal Bias; Revolving Door
Clinton Scandals? News You Can Lose
In 1996, Atlantic Monthly writer James Fallows released his fifth book, titled Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. He quickly became a media critic the media could love, appearing for interviews on ABC’s Good Morning America and serving as the main source in a PBS Frontline shaped almost entirely on his book’s theories. His take on scandals sounded conveniently close to Clintonspeak:
"For the national press, scandals have become the main obstacle to keeping news in perspective. Real and alleged scandals, involving figures from Bill Clinton to Michael Jackson, have come to serve as a distraction machine, systematically diverting attention to a spectacle whenever the political system threatens to deal with an important but dull-seeming question affecting the way people actually live."
Months after the book’s arrival, Fallows’ boss, real estate/magazine magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, elevated Fallows to the editorship of U.S. News & World Report, only to fire him at the end of June this year. In his 22 months at the helm, Fallows practiced what he preached: until Monica Lewinsky changed the rules, scandal was nearly absent from the magazine, and when it did appear, it carried an exculpatory tone.
To document the scandal coverage in U.S. News & World Report over Fallows’ tenure, media analysts surveyed issues of U.S. News and counted the number of pages (photos included) devoted to Clinton scandal news, compared to other magazine fare. Since news magazine pages are divided into three columns, space is often divided in thirds. Editorials were included. Like the rest of the media’s scandal coverage, Fallows’s tenure can be divided into two segments, pre-Monica and post-Monica. In the 68 issues from September 23, 1996 (the first issue with Fallows’ name in it) through January 1998, the magazine ran a total of 44.6 pages on the fundraising scandal, averaging less than two-thirds of a page per issue. From February 1998 through Fallows’ last issue, dated July 6, U.S. News ran 100 pages of Monicagate and Missilegate news in 23 issues, or more than four pages an issue.
Head to Head. But U.S. News regularly printed much less than its competitors. From October 1996 through July 1997, analysts compared it to Clinton scandal coverage in Time and Newsweek. In the ten issues from October 21 to December 23, Newsweek devoted 15.3 pages to the fundraising scandal, and Time printed 13. Both gave the charges a cover story. U.S. News offered only 1.3 pages (and never gave it a cover story). Its first coverage was a one-page November 18 post-election column by David Gergen offering Clinton advice, which he didn’t take: "Prohibit anyone in his entourage — except for his attorneys — from talking about Kenneth Starr...Appoint a Republican as Attorney General...Clinton must talk to the country in an open, contrite manner about the ethical clouds that hang over him."
From January through July of 1997, Time ran 52.2 pages of fundraising scandal coverage, Newsweek 43.3, and U.S. News 22.3. So U.S. News printed fewer than half as many pages of scandal coverage as Time or Newsweek. More than half of Time and Newsweek’s coverage came in March, when Newsweek ran 27 pages, Time had 21.5 — and U.S. News printed just 5.8.
Analysts found in issues dated from August 1997 through January 1998, U.S. News only ran another 21 scandal pages. In other words, the magazine printed fewer pages on scandal in six months than it devoted to "News You Can Use" in several individual issues, such as these in 1997: "Best Mutual Funds" (22.5 pages), "Best Graduate Schools" (28.5), "Best Hospitals" (27), "Best Colleges" (29) or "Mysteries of Science" (40). When they touched on scandal, it often served to downplay them or exculpate Democratic offenses. For example:
April 14, 1997: In a classic example of how U.S. News veered off scandal news to make its own political points, a team of reporters moved quickly from the week’s new findings on Clinton abuses to underline donor scandals such as: the FCC’s granting of free high-definition frequencies, a ban on generic-drug competition on some drugs, the failure to stop credit-card late fees caused by slow postal delivery, and the higher cost of cable TV under a new telecommunications law.
July 21, 1997: In a piece titled "Is the latest Red Peril actually a red herring?" David Kaplan and Julian Barnes wrote: "FBI investigators believe that most of the $2 million the Chinese allegedly spent or budgeted to increase their influence went to legal activities like lobbying and bringing senators to Beijing on expensive junkets." Paul Glastris followed up with more than two pages on how "the ship of state is more likely to be tugged by U.S. ethnic groups than by foreign money." Gloria Borger’s column on John Huang was headlined "A useful punching bag."
September 1, 1997: The headline read: "The Canadian menace? Countries other than China dominate foreign lobbying." Julian Barnes introduced a two-page chart: "Sen. Fred Thompson, who resumes his campaign finance hearings this week, has alleged a Chinese conspiracy to illegally influence U.S. policy. But nearly 100 nations pay some 1,500 lobbyists and public-relations consultants to influence the U.S. government legally. Even if China’s alleged illegal contributions — which in July the FBI put at less than $100,000 — were added to the total it spent on legal lobbying ($327,000), China still wouldn’t make the U.S. News list of top 10 lobbying nations."
When Johnny Chung pleaded guilty to making foreign donations, the March 16, 1998 U.S. News claimed: "Virtually every company in China is state-owned. While the government uses a few as fronts, most are purely commercial." Since May, they’ve ignored his tale of funneling money from a Chinese general into the DNC.
May 11, 1998: The tone of coverage is suggested by headlines like "The Survivalist/How does Hillary Clinton cope with the barrage of sex scandal charges? By launching a national campaign to make people be nicer." And: "Feeling ‘like Paul Revere’/William Ginsburg: defending, liberty, a client — and himself."
June 8, 1998: Two months after the New York Times broke Missilegate, U.S. News ran the headline: "Red Scare? The sensational rhetoric over the China scandal obscures a basic question: Is China friend or foe?" The reporters hit all the Clintonite defense lines systematically: both parties took money from satellite companies, other countries will give China technology if we don’t, satellite companies didn’t intend to help China, U.S. demand for satellite launches make closing off China an unattractive prospect. Gloria Borger used a column titled "Commies! Treason! Yippee!" to bash Republicans and predict Rep. Chris Cox’s hearings into Missilegate would be a failure if they didn’t build a case for campaign reform bills.
June 29, 1998: In a cover story on "The Other Tapes," Elise Ackerman wrote of early Tripp-Lewinsky tapes U.S. News heard: "The tapes cast some doubt on one of Starr’s key charges against Clinton: that he and his friend Vernon Jordan got Lewinsky a job in New York as an enticement for her to lie in a deposition for the Paula Jones lawsuit against the President. In these conversations, Lewinsky... was already talking about having the President get her a different job — two months before she was subpoenaed in the Paula Jones case."
In a September 15, 1997 essay after Princess Diana’s death, Fallows preached: "The press’s tools for changing public opinion are nearly identical to politicians.’ And if Senators or Presidents are expected to surmount the immediate demands of the political market — which threatens to put them out of work, not just cut into profits — then the same standard should apply to the press. What people care about is at least partly shaped by what the press serves up. This market, like the one for political ideas, works both ways."
Readers of U.S. News must not care about scandal, since the magazine has hated to report on it.
When do judges get an ideological label? At CBS, only when they rebuke the Clinton Administration, and not Ken Starr’s office.
After a judge dismissed tax evasion charges brought against Clinton crony Webster Hubbell on June 26, Dan Rather announced on the CBS Evening News: "In Washington a federal judge today bluntly described special prosecutor Ken Starr’s tactics as, and I quote, ‘really scary.’...U.S. District Judge James Robertson’s comment came when Starr’s team argued that it was proper to indict Hubbell again on tax charges based on documents Hubbell supplied under a grant of immunity." Not once did Rather suggest Judge Robertson’s ideological leanings or mention that he is a Clinton appointee.
Two weeks later, on July 16, when an Appeals Court again denied the existence of a "protective function privilege" for the Secret Service, correspondent Scott Pelley felt it necessary to tag a judge involved in the matter. "In a blistering statement, one Appeals Court judge essentially accused the White House of obstructing Starr’s investigation. Judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative appointed by President Reagan, called the administration’s position a ‘constitutional absurdity.’"
On the July 5 Sunday Today, viewers were treated to the lighter, softer, more romantic side of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. MSNBC’s Chris Jansing interviewed the author of a book that overlooked the brutal acts of the Cuban despot, instead focusing on the image of a more cuddly Castro.
Jansing opened the segment: "To many in this country, Fidel Castro is little more than an aging communist leader who periodically shakes a harmless fist toward our shores. But the man behind that beard is so much more. Now a new book tells a different side of Fidel Castro and his native Cuba through the eyes of three very special women in his life. The book is called Havana Dreams. And its author is Wendy Gimbel."
To highlight the kinder, gentler Castro, Jansing read a love letter in the book: "I want to read a little bit from one of the letters that he wrote. It says, ‘I remember you and love you very much. Some things are eternal and cannot be erased like my memories of you which will accompany me to my grave.’"
Jansing wondered if this book would change perceptions of the Cuban tyrant: "Do you think this book will give people a look at a whole different side of Fidel Castro?" Jansing empathized for Castro’s time in jail, "When he was in prison do you think that these letters were crucial to getting him through that period?" She concluded, "Well it is a remarkable story. I want to congratulate you. This morning the New York Times called the book ‘both breathtaking and shimmering.’"
Thai businesswoman Pauline Kanchanalak, one of the major Asian players in the DNC campaign finance scandal on July 13, became the fourth major figure to be indicted in the ongoing Justice Department investigation, following Maria Hsia, Johnny Chung, and Charlie Trie. The Washington Post reported that she and her sister-in-law were indicted on 24 counts, for allegedly steering $679,000 in illegal foreign campaign contributions to Democrats. Kanchanalak had such pull that the White House recommended her for a spot on a trade policy advisory committee that required a security clearance, even though she wasn’t a U.S. citizen.
News of the Kanchanalak indictment took up just 36 seconds of evening news time. NBC Nightly News completely ignored it, while ABC and CBS each devoted 18 seconds to the story. Dan Rather insisted Kanchanalak "and another woman were formally charged with funneling almost $700,000 in illegal donations from abroad, mostly to the Democratic Party." Mostly? The Post article detailed how all her efforts were devoted to Democrats.
Though she was invited to the White House more than two dozen times, and one of the White House "coffee tapes" showed her sitting next to Clinton, both networks skipped the embarrassing video of the President with Kanchanalak at his side.
Mrs. Clinton, You're Our Best Landmark!
Maria Shriver Leads Today’s Biased Buscapade with Hillary
Maria Shriver is a good Democrat. She’s joked about her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger: "When you marry someone, you marry them for sickness and health. [Republican politics] are Arnold’s sickness." But is she a good reporter? Maria’s current malady is her tendency to collapse into flattery in interviews with the First Lady, including Hillary Clinton’s recent bus tour of national landmarks.
On July 14, NBC’s Today show offered Mrs. Clinton an uninterrupted 16-minute broadcast from Thomas Edison’s lab. Viewers may have benefited from the Edison lesson, but the First Lady was the intended beneficiary of Shriver’s apple-polishing questions. Shriver committed a faux pas in a treacly tribute to the hard-working President. As the First Lady showed the cot where Edison napped, Shriver quipped: "You ever wanted to put one of those in the Oval Office?"
Shriver also insisted: "I know the way you prepare when you go out to tackle something. So no doubt you probably read everything ever written about Thomas Edison, and since we’re here in his library, what’s the most interesting thing you came across in all your reading?" Shriver didn’t ask adversarial questions, such as: Is this designed to divert attention from the Clinton scandals? Or: if these landmarks have been deteriorating, where’ve you been for the last six years?
Two days later, while replacing Katie Couric as Today co-host, Shriver presented a taped Hillary interview from the tour bus. Instead of focusing on museums, she lathered the First Lady with soccer-mom suckups, marveling at her personal strength: "Four states, ten or eleven stops. Four days. This is a real commitment for you. What do you get out of that? It is exhausting it seems to me." And: "Do you feel physically, emotionally, spiritually different when you get out of Washington, get on the road?" (For more quotes, see Notable Quotables inside.)
Shriver has used a different approach in covering
Republicans. At the 1992 Democratic convention, Elizabeth
Glaser, who contracted AIDS through a transfusion and transmitted it to
her children, declared that her daughter didn’t survive the
Reagan administration. Shriver met her after the speech to
underline that attack: "You place responsibility for the death
of your daughter squarely at the feet of the Reagan
administration. Do you believe they’re responsible for that?"
NBC’s employment of Maria Shriver has never signaled simply the
appearance of liberal bias. It's the definition of liberal
Public Realizes Liberal Bias
Two recent polls have documented that more news consumers detect a liberal than a conservative bias in the national media:
"More Americans perceive bias of one stripe or another than believe the various media are fair and impartial — the ratio being about 55 percent to 45 percent across all media," Frank Newport and Lydia Saad observed in summarizing a Gallup Poll commissioned by the American Journalism Review. "While conservatives tend to see liberal bias and liberals tend to see conservative bias," they noted in the July/August edition of the magazine, "this tendency is much stronger among the conservatives surveyed." More persuasive as to the direction of the bias, the authors noticed that "the large group of moderates in America tend to perceive somewhat more of a liberal bias than a conservative bias."
Specifically, the overall numbers showed that of 1,009 people surveyed who had an opinion, twice as many perceived liberal bias on "national network TV news" than conservative bias: 38 percent versus just 19 percent. The poll found nearly identical numbers with "weekly news magazines," as 39 percent discerned a liberal slant and just 19 percent identified a conservative tilt. "National cable TV news" fared a little better with a liberal vs. conservative bias ratio of 33 to 20 percent.
Asked to give a pollster a one word description of the national news media, 61 said "biased," making it the most frequent response heard in a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll released in June. Which way? "Conservative" did not make the top ten answers listed by Pew in its report, but "liberal" came in seventh place with 21 offering it as their one word description.
Plenty have jumped from politics to the media, but two former network correspondents are now trying to win elected office. Naturally, both are running as Democrats.
Pennsylvania primary voters on May 19 picked Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky as the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor. A reporter for NBC-owned WRC-TV in Washington until 1990, during the ‘80s, her stories appeared on Today. In 1992 she captured a U.S. House seat in suburban Philadelphia. She lost in 1994 after delivering the deciding vote for Clinton’s 1993 budget.
The Clintons, the AP reported May 18, "have not forgotten" her as "First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was the guest of honor at a $5,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner for her." Since Mezvinsky’s 1994 loss she has served as head of the Women’s Campaign Fund which, AP noted, helps "female candidates who favor abortion rights."
Over the border in Northwest New Jersey’s 5th congressional district Mike Schneider is the Democratic candidate to face incumbent U.S. Rep. Marge Roukema, a moderate Republican. A network veteran best known as the news reader on ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Schneider told the Bergen Record he thought he could pick up the votes of the conservative who lost to Roukema in the primary. Asked why conservatives would back him, Schneider took the liberal dodge: "‘What is a conservative?’ he asked. ‘What is a liberal? What is a moderate these days? I’m not sure anybody can really explain it except for politicians who try to wrap themselves in those labels when they find it convenient.’"
Covering the 1992 Democratic convention for ABC Schneider defined Clinton’s platform as conservative: "When it comes to business and economic affairs, this is a very mainstream, if not in some cases almost conservative platform."
Martha’s Clinton Living
CBS News not only isn’t embarrassed that one of its stars hosted a fundraiser for President Clinton, it publicized the event. Do-it-yourself maven Martha Stewart may not cover politics, but she is a regular on CBS’s This Morning. On the June 13 Saturday Morning, Mark Knoller showed a clip of Clinton at a fundraiser saying: "Let me first thank Martha Stewart for having us here." She credited the assembled Democrats: "I’m so happy that you could show your generosity of spirit and pocketbook."
Knoller set the mood: "She whipped up a festive lunch, very much in the Martha Stewart style. Take a look at the program, tastefully bordered in red and white checkerboard. Not only did it present the luncheon menu of oven-cured tomatoes, peachwood-smoked salmon, and shortcakes with strawberries, you get the recipes for each dish, as well. Seems like a reasonable bonus for $5,000 a plate."