In This Issue
Matthew Shepard's Mudbath Memorial; NewsBites; Shut Up Before Your Words Kill Again!; Is Sex the Only Scandal?; Only FNC Corrects Hit on Starr
Matthew Shepard's Mudbath Memorial
The vicious pistol-whipping of gay college student Matthew Shepard and the vivid imagery of its aftermath insured the attention of the national media. (Newsweek wrote the killers "left him tied like a fallen scarecrow — or a savior — to the bottom of a cross-hatched fence.") Liberal gay activist groups were quick to use the tragedy for political gain. First came a flurry of stories on the need for "hate crime" legislation. Then came guilt by association: the gay left charged Shepard had been killed not by two men, but by a climate — by conservative arguments that homosexuality was wrong and could be cured.
When conservatives have connected social outrages to an opponent’s beliefs or rhetoric, the media quickly denounced the conservative, tried to refute the argument, or both. But in the wake of Shepard’s death, several media outlets were guilty of a double standard, promoting without skepticism on the left what they denounced on the right.
NBC. On October 12, Today co-host Katie Couric asked Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer: "Some gay rights activists have said that some conservative political organizations like the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and Focus on Family are contributing to this anti-homosexual atmosphere by having an ad campaign saying if you are a homosexual you can change your orientation. That prompts people to say, if I meet someone who’s homosexual, I’m going to take action and try to convince them or try to harm them. Do you believe that such groups are contributing to this climate?"
Today repeated the charge the next day. Reporter David Gregory declared: "Gay rights groups rushed to condemn the killing, portraying Shepard as a casualty of a new cultural war against gays and lesbians. A war declared this summer by a coalition of religious-right groups, including the Christian Coalition, which funded advertisements in major newspapers and commercials on TV promoting a campaign to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality...And the campaign followed the divisive comments of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who said in an interview that homosexuals should be helped like alcoholics, sex addicts, and kleptomaniacs. Have the ads fostered a climate of anti-gay hate that leads to incidents like the killing of Matthew Shepard?" Couric interviewed gay-left activist Elizabeth Birch, but didn’t question whether her tone was uncivil, or even a "stretch."
Compare that to NBC’s tsk-tsking of Newt Gingrich. In a hostile November 15, 1994 Dateline profile, Tom Brokaw announced: "When Democrats tried to reform lobbyists recently, he called their efforts Stalinist." Brokaw asked Gingrich: "Stalin is the man who, after all, created the Gulag, who killed hundreds of millions of people, one of the great tyrants of the 20th century. Don’t you see how people react to you?" After reeling off other Gingrich statements he felt were inappropriate, Brokaw asked: "I get the impression that you’re so pugnacious that what you say is hard for you to reel it back right away."
On May 7, 1995, Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked Gingrich: "When you were asked after the bombing whether it was appropriate to link your anti-government/bureaucratic language creating the climate of the bombing, you said that was grotesque. In retrospect, do you think your comments about Woody Allen sleeping with his companion’s daughter, or Susan Smith driving her car into the water, which you linked to the Democratic Party, is also grotesque?" He added: "When you suggest that Woody Allen sleeping with the daughter of his companion is covered under the Democratic Party platform, that's a stretch." Russert demanded: "You suggested that the Democratic Party is the enemy of normal Americans. Shouldn’t that rhetoric be lowered?"
Time. In the October 19 issue, Time Assistant Managing Editor Howard Chua-Eoan connected the dots: "The brutal assault came at a time when the U.S. is buzzing with a dissonant debate over sexual orientation. It is a controversy fueled by reports of increased violence against homosexuals and a new campaign by religious conservatives touting the power of faith to overcome what they proclaim to be a sinful sensuality."
In the October 26 issue, Time underlined guilt by association again with a graphic headlined "Can Politics Cause Hate? Gay activists linked recent conservative pronouncements (like ads saying gays can be ‘cured’) to the Shepard murder, saying such talk nurtures bigotry."
But Time didn’t take the same approach to the left. In April 1996, when Ted Kaczynski was identified as the Unabomber, ABC’s Brian Ross reported the FBI found his name in connection with the radical-left group Earth First. Would Time note the connection? No. Time claimed no one recalled the Unabomber having contact "with the leftists he would later excoriate in his manifesto." Time reporter Elaine Shannon praised Kaczynski on C-SPAN, noting "he wasn’t a hypocrite, he lived as he wrote. His manifesto and there are a lot of things in it that I would agree with and a lot of other people would, that industrialization and pollution are terrible things, but he carried it to an extreme."
Newsweek. In an October 26 essay titled "Trickle-Down Hate," Jonathan Alter suggested: "At first, it seems unfair to link the anti-gay remarks of political leaders to a heinous crime they don’t condone...But just as white racists created a climate for lynching blacks, just as hate radio created a climate for militias, so the constant degrading of homosexuals is exacting a toll in blood." In his unbylined "Conventional Wisdom Watch" feature, Alter gave the Christian Right a down arrow: "Old: In touch with moral America. New: Paves way for gay-lynchers."
In the July 10, 1995 issue, Alter had a different take on the validity of less-than-modern ideas when the Unabomber demanded the publication of his manifesto in major newspapers. Alter found him to be a "twisted neo-Luddite," but not all bad, and perhaps the papers ought to excerpt the good parts: "The [New York]Times described the statement as ‘closely reasoned,’ which is a better review than many authors receive in the paper. Whoever he is, this man is clearly expressing an anger at the modern world that is not only well-articulated but representative of the anxieties of lots of other people."
Newsweek also distanced the Unabomber from the left in 1996, quoting a source claiming Kaczynski was "‘disgusted with the widespread drug use and liberal politics’ at Berkeley. Maybe so: the Unabomer [sic] manifesto is harshly critical of leftism."
Walt’s Love Boat
Walter Cronkite refuses to discuss the details of his chat with Bill Clinton when he had the President on his boat in Martha’s Vineyard. He isn’t so reticent with his disgust for Ken Starr.
On October 13, Cronkite told CBS This Morning’s Mark McEwen that unless "peccadilloes got in the way of performing the job" we should ignore it since "I don’t think we should be digging into other people’s private lives." Despite Monica’s favors occurring in work areas and during official phone calls, Cronkite maintained it met his "private affair" standard.
Hours later at a luncheon with reporters, Cronkite called Starr’s investigation "more divisive" to the country than Vietnam, Peter Johnson reported in the October 14 USA Today. After accusing Starr of "considerable excessive zeal," Johnson relayed that Cronkite "says he’d ‘like to get Kenneth Starr out on the boat,’ presumably to give him a piece of his mind."
In a fawning October 22 World News Tonight piece, Dean Reynolds portrayed Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) as an idealistic iconoclast for his fight for "campaign finance reform." While grousing about how Feingold was a casualty of outside soft money interests, Reynolds neglected to tell viewers that the AFL-CIO and the League of Conservation Voters have run ads against his Republican opponent Mark Neumann and that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would the next day launch ads attacking Neumann as "too extreme." (The ads ran for a few days until Feingold requested that the Committee pull the ads from local stations.)
An indignant Reynolds averred that Feingold’s troubles stemmed only from his decision to support campaign finance reform. Reynolds insisted that it was GOP-funded anti-Feingold commercials, not Feingold’s record, that was causing his support to erode: "The reality on the ground is that he’s being outspent with the very kind of money he’s tried in the Senate to regulate. And with his self-imposed spending limit, Feingold lacks the funds to adequately rebut the attacks suggesting he favors things like late-term abortions or flag burning."
If the viewer had not grasped Reynolds’ point of view by now, there was the not so subtle suggestion of Feingold’s political martyrdom. After a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal stated "What he preached may be his own fire and brimstone. It really could damn him to the Hell of losing a re-election race," Reynolds sighed: "That would say a lot about the way campaigns are run and whether fighting to change that way is political death."
Hawks Shut Out
After the House and Senate passed the latest budget bill on October 21 and 22 none of the broadcast networks mentioned that some fiscally restrained Democrats and Republicans voted against the legislation, instead examining silly pork projects. A week before, NBC and CNN raised conservative criticism of the bill, but ABC and CBS viewers never learned that conservatives opposed the deal.
ABC’s Linda Douglass on the October 15 World News Tonight advanced the pork line and concluded by hitting both parties, but without citing conservative criticism, saying spending came from the surplus, "the one the Democrats wanted to save only for Social Security and Republicans tried to dip into for a tax cut."
That night CNN’s Jonathan Karl at least briefly raised the conservative stance on the budget. Leading into a soundbite from Representative David McIntosh of Indiana, Karl relayed: "Even before the deal was announced conservative Republicans complained their leaders caved into the White House, citing nearly $20 billion in so-called emergency spending not covered by last year’s balanced budget agreement."
Over on NBC Nightly News David Bloom relayed how the White House is "euphoric" over the budget deal and "triumphant Democrats were not shy about proclaiming victory." Bloom noted, "Republican leaders insisted both sides deserved credit. But Democrats were less magnanimous, pointing to the $1.1 billion dollars for 100,000 new teachers." Bloom continued,"The White House boasted that Republicans had turned quote, ‘Democrats for a day’ and conservatives agreed."
Shut Up Before Your Words Kill Again!
Violence Tied to Pro-Life Advocates, But Not to Green Groups
The murder of Buffalo abortionist Barnett Slepian topped all the evening news shows on October 26, and ABC and CBS didn’t wither from blaming the pro-life movement for inciting the violence with its rhetoric. That didn’t happen to liberal environmentalists when all the networks devoted full stories four days earlier to the "Earth Liberation Front" burning buildings in Colorado.
Dan Rather announced Slepian "was just the latest abortion provider to be targeted by a violent, sometimes murderous, section of the pro-life movement." ABC’s John Miller noted: "Activists on the most radical end of the pro-life camp make no apologies for the sniper."
CBS reporter Richard Schlesinger suggested the whole movement was to blame: "Abortion rights activists now believe some leaders of the mainstream anti-abortion movement are inciting supporters on the fringe to violence." Schlesinger underlined the election: "It might be hard for voters to remember that the vast majority of anti-abortion protests are peaceful so soon after a doctor was shot to death in his own home."
Connecting the abortion procedure itself to death was anathema: "What they’ve got to stop doing is saying these people are murderers," abortion advocate Kelli Conlin told CBS. ABC’s Bill Redeker even put a priest on the defensive: "Today a Catholic priest defended the provocative mock cemetery marking hundreds of abortions performed in New York state this year."
But the arson of ski resort buildings in Colorado was reported differently. ABC’s Tom Foreman did not place the "Earth Liberation Front" on "the most radical end of the environmentalist camp." He declared "militant environmental groups such as Earth First say it’s fair game to attack property" and suggested sympathetically: "many environmentalists in Vail...are afraid their cause will be tainted by the violence."
On CBS, Bob McNamara didn’t go out to find that "property rights activists now believe leaders of mainstream environmental groups are inciting supporters to violence." He read a press release: "Urging a skier boycott of Vail, the group threatened more trouble, saying ‘putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated.’"
But perhaps the best measure of the media’s ideology on
these stories is the overall trend: while the networks have
devoted more than 500 news stories since 1993 to violence and
threats against abortion clinics, only a handful of stories have
touched on hundreds of cases of organized eco-terrorism in the West.
Is Sex the Only Scandal?
In a front-page story for the October 19 New York Times, reporters Jeff Gerth and Eric Schmitt followed up on the controversial sale of missile technology to China with a story on how Clinton’s decision to relax export rules, made after he met high-tech executives who later contributed to the DNC, "enabled Chinese companies to obtain a wide range of sophisticated technology, some of which has already been diverted to military uses."
So did the networks jump at the chance to cover a story involving something other than Monica Lewinsky? No. After spending months lamenting their obsession with sex scandals, the networks did not devote a single word that night, the following morning or rest of the week to the substantive issue of China diverting U.S. technology for military use. While all the networks focused on Clinton’s role in negotiating a new Middle East peace accord, none have aired a single story on the missile technology diversion story since early June.
Gerth and Schmitt reported: "The President delivered, personally presiding over what industry executives and government officials agree was one of the most sweeping relaxations of export restrictions in American history....the new rules helped Clinton fulfill his vision of a centrist Democratic Party with close ties to American business. Grateful high-technology companies showered the Democratic Party with campaign contributions, cementing a new financial base for a party that has historically struggled to raise money from corporate America."
Gerth and Schmitt also reported that "critics, including Republicans in Congress and some former Clinton administration officials, argue that the high-technology exports had a serious side effect, strengthening countries like China, which some view as a potential adversary....House and Senate committees are examining whether China took advantage of the looser rules on exports to enhance its military and to obtain technology that it passed on to rogue states, including North Korea." Like so many other angles of the fundraising scandal, the networks have ignored ongoing congressional investigations.
Even the Times seemed uninterested in their own scoop: It was absent from the front page of their Web site on the day it was published. So much for the media shucking the sex scandal to focus on "real issues."
Only FNC Corrects Hit on Starr
No Prying About Limo Talk
In July, Ken Starr’s subpoena of Larry Cockell, the head of the President’s Secret Service detail, drew the ire of many TV reporters and legal analysts, who accused Starr of using him and other agents to circumvent attorney-client privilege between Clinton and his lawyers. Three months later, only David Shuster on FNC’s Fox Report corrected the error, discovering it in evidence released by the House Judiciary Committee.
Dan Rather’s opening to the July 17 CBS Evening News typified the media reaction: "At least three active-duty Secret Service employees were forced today to appear before special prosecutor Ken Starr’s grand jury to give testimony. This happened after Chief Justice William Rehnquist cleared the way for Starr’s unprecedented push to make the Secret Service tell him at least some of what it knows about the President’s personal life."
A day later on ABC’s World News Tonight, Mike von Fremd got specific: "The White House fears that Ken Starr wants to know what Cockell overheard during this limousine ride, when the President was with his attorney immediately after giving his deposition in the Paula Jones case." Not one TV story on either night included Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly’s assurance from the July 18 Washington Post: "We have never intended to question Secret Service agents about privileged conversations they may have overheard between the President and his private lawyers."
But on the October 15 FNC Fox Report, Shuster explained how grand jury transcripts and subpoenaed records revealed that Starr’s team didn’t even know Cockell was Clinton’s top protector. He was only called in because of his role as a supervisor, to explain Secret Service procedures. Shuster also found prosecutors never asked Cockell about what he overheard in the limo on the way back from the Jones deposition. Shuster reported: "Restricted by grand jury rules of secrecy, prosecutors were powerless as the Clinton team went into battle mode," and the media presumption about Starr’s motives "was driven in part by some speculation at the White House, speculation that...the White House liked to see out there because it was highly critical of Ken Starr."