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Still Liberal, Still Biased

How Big Media Helped the Left and Hurt the Right in 2003


Journalists Mourn CBS’s “Censorship” of The Reagans: With their heavy emphasis on popular entertainment, the broadcast network morning shows — NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America, and CBS’s The Early Show — often bear more resemblance to Access Hollywood than the evening news. But when the New York Times revealed October 21 that the script of CBS’s then-upcoming mini-series The Reagans was loaded with cheap shots against the ailing former President and his caretaker wife, none of the morning shows found that show-biz controversy worth reporting, and none of the shows acknowledged the copious complaints from Reagan’s allies that accumulated over the next two weeks.

The morning shows delayed their reporting until November 4, when CBS’s owner Viacom announced the movie was being moved to the pay cable network Showtime. As the morning hosts told the story, however, the controversy was not the mean-spirited content of the movie or the appropriateness of its timing. They seemed far more appalled by the idea that a network had agreed with the complaints of Ronald Reagan’s family, friends, and supporters.

But this liberal spin was undermined when the movie finally aired on Showtime on November 30. Just as conservatives had feared, it denigrated Ronald Reagan as a vapid dolt who was manipulated by his wife and scheming advisors, while Nancy was portrayed as mean and neurotic. The film gave short shrift to President Reagan’s many accomplishments, while the Iran-contra scandal and AIDS epidemic got top billing.

“Upon seeing the finished product, I felt the movie was quite biased against the Reagans,” CBS Chairman Les Moonves, a liberal, told a Yale University audience on November 5.

In the immediate aftermath of Viacom’s decision, disgruntled journalists portrayed it as a free-speech controversy, not a matter of political bias and poor taste. On ABC’s Good Morning America November 5, co-host Charles Gibson asked Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael: “Your dad comes, came from the Hollywood community, and he knows what the issues of artistic freedom are. How do you think he’d react?”

Recalling past movies about Presidents, Gibson inquired: “Is a different standard being applied?” Then, referring to a widely-reported quote from the original script that wrongly implied that Reagan was a hateful homophobe, Gibson rationalized: “A lot of people feel, for instance, that your dad was slow to recognize the AIDS crisis, that it had festered for quite a period of time before he addressed it. So if you fictionalize that, is that necessarily wrong?”

November_textbox1That same day on the Early Show, CBS’s Harry Smith mimicked using a TV remote control as he suggested to Michael Reagan that those who complained were just thin-skinned: “Why the vehemence, why the anger? I mean, we live in a, hang on, we live in this multi-channel, digital universe of hundreds and hundreds of choices. All you have to do is go like this, if you don’t like it, you just go like that.”

Smith also gave air time to some whining from Barbra Streisand, as he asked Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson: “Barbra Streisand said today marks a sad day for artistic freedom. Do you think CBS allowed themselves to be bullied by this?”

The drumbeat continued the next day on Today, as Katie Couric framed the debate this way: “Is Ronald Reagan untouchable?”

“While he was in office, he was known as the Teflon President, Ronald Reagan,” Couric pronounced at the start of the program. “Now that CBS has pulled a controversial miniseries about him, some are wondering if the former President is totally off-limits to criticism these days.” In a later interview, she challenged former Reagan aide Ed Rollins: “Does it bother you at all, that, that one group in America or many Americans...can basically exert this kind of political pressure and create an environment where, perhaps, free speech is not exercised?”

The anger that The Reagans had been taken off CBS’s schedule was not confined to morning television. On CNBC November 4, future NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams blamed “mostly Republican pressure groups” for the movie’s cancellation, asking former Reagan aide Mike Deaver whether CBS’s decision was “dangerous.” He asked New York magazine’s media critic Michael Wolff, “Do you believe what has happened here with this mini-series on CBS amounts to extortion?”

“Certainly capitulation,” Wolff agreed, warning: “There is no group as well-organized as the right wing in America at this point in time.”

A November 5 New York Times editorial accused Reagan supporters of creating a “Soviet-style chill.” The Times, with a sudden concern for communist-like oppression, worried, “His supporters credit him with forcing down the Iron Curtain, so it is odd that some of them have helped create the Soviet-style chill embedded in the idea that we, as a nation, will not allow critical portrayals of one of our own recent leaders.”

Philadelphia Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray voiced her disgust to the Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes in a quote that appeared November 4. Referring to CBS’s May mini-series on the Nazi dictator who killed millions, Gray grumbled, “If Hitler had more friends, CBS wouldn’t have aired [its Hitler mini-series] either.”

“Gutless CBS,” read the headline over an online piece by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter who complained: “It’s a big victory for the ‘Elephant Echo Chamber,’ the unholy trinity of conservative talk radio, conservative Internet sites and the Republican National Committee.”

USA Today’s Robert Bianco argued: “If nothing else, this act of creative sabotage should put to rest the idea that the media are liberal.” But if the media were not liberal, CBS would never have produced such a derogatory biography of Ronald Reagan. It’s more logical to argue that CBS’s cancellation is the exception which proves the rule.

Indeed, the Chicago Tribune’s Vincent J. Schodolski, John Cook and Frank James reported the day after the decision: “A CBS executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the liberal political views of most CBS executives blinded them to the possibility that Reagan supporters might latch on to the movie as a political issue. ‘I don’t think most people saw it coming,’ the executive said. ‘It’s part of the bubble that we live in.’”

A bubble that apparently includes Bianco, Alter, the New York Times and a host of network journalists.

When the re-edited version of the movie finally aired on Showtime, its anti-Reagan agenda was evident to all but the most ardent leftists. (See box.) Showtime hosted a panel discussion about the movie on December 1, during which two former liberal reporters, Marvin Kalb and Lou Cannon, denounced the unfair and inaccurate portrayal.

Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, who penned several biographies of Ronald Reagan, argued that “it’s hard to imagine a cartoon that could be that bad....Remember the famous debate where Lloyd Bentsen says to Dan Quayle, you know, ‘I know John F. Kennedy and you’re no John F. Kennedy’? Well, I do know Ronald Reagan. This isn’t Ronald Reagan.”

bush120503"Turkeygate" - Reporters Mar Bush's Baghdad Trip: Faced with a traditionally slow news day on Thanksgiving, President Bush surprised everyone but the Secret Service and a small press pool by showing up in Baghdad to celebrate the holiday with the troops in Iraq. Like Bush’s plane landing in May, the immediate reaction was electric and positive, which the media elite then felt compelled to drown out with Democratic attack lines.

By Friday morning, the three network morning shows were sharpening their knives for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, demanding to know about the trip’s political motivations and implications. They began with how the secret trip was accomplished, but then turned tougher. ABC’s Charles Gibson insisted: “Dr. Rice, there’s obviously great symbolism to this trip. Because it is important for a Commander-in-Chief to come and see his troops. But so is there symbolism that the things are so unstable that he had to sneak in, in darkness, that, that he never left the airport, that could only stay two and a half hours.”

Gibson followed up: “I guess I’m asking, isn’t there symbolism in the fact that it points up that not much has changed in eight months?”

November_textbox2CBS’s Harry Smith stated as fact that there was no connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, and implied there are no terrorists in the world who want to kill Americans other than the ones who attacked on 9/11, as he challenged Rice: “Certainly the soldiers that were interviewed said it was a major morale boost, to have the President, have the Commander-in-Chief there. But you brought something up, an interesting point, why they’re there. The President said during his remarks to the troops, he said: ‘You’re defeating terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to face them in our own country.’ Now, there’s no connection between Iraq and 9/11. Why does the President persist in tying those two together?”

Over on NBC’s Today, Matt Lauer suggested dark motives: “Let’s talk about some criticism that’s been leveled at President Bush as of late, Dr. Rice. And that is that because he did not attend any of the funerals of the fallen soldiers in Iraq, some family members felt he was not showing compassion or a connection to the suffering that they have felt as a result of this war. Was this trip an effort to blunt that criticism?”

In the week that followed, some network reporters tried to turn the trip into a controversial moment. Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan was hounded about inconsistencies in the early versions of how the trip happened and which planes had made contact with Air Force One. NBC’s Norah O’Donnell suggested “Do you think, though, that this third revision of this story now, takes some shine off the President’s surprise visit to the troops?”

CBS’s John Roberts added: “What are the legalities of filing a fraudulent flight plan?”

As with May’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, CNN's Aaron Brown was one of the most enthusiastic pseudo-scandal manufacturers. When Washington Post reporter Mike Allen wrote that the turkey that President Bush held up for cameras was a roasted display turkey that was not eaten, Brown invited Allen to discuss the less-than-Earth-shaking matter on CNN.

Leading off two segments lasting eight minutes, Brown joked: “The troops didn’t get a taste of it, and so tonight we ask: does this constitute, get ready, Turkeygate?” Brown pressed former Bush aide Mary Matalin: “Do you worry that, when the White House at one point said, well, when the President flew to the aircraft carrier, he had to fly in a jet, and then later had to retract that, that it raises questions about the veracity of the White House itself, not just the President?”