Still Liberal, Still Biased

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


Saddam Captured, But Reporters Still Gloomy: Americans woke up on Sunday, December 14 to the shocking news that Saddam Hussein had been captured alive, found in a tiny “spider hole” with a few candy bars. Iraqis waved red flags in the streets and celebrated. It was a great moment of achievement for the military, but not a great moment for the media.

In their perpetual attempt to see only problems, even in the midst of a dramatic solution, ABC News quickly identified the headaches to come. At 8:10 in the morning, little more than an hour after Saddam’s capture was announced, ABC’s Terry Moran was finding the dark clouds, with no silver linings:

December_textbox“What happens to Saddam Hussein now becomes an international political problem for this administration in two ways: First, Saddam Hussein was at the heart of Iraqi politics for 30 years really. He was President since 1979, but really in power before then. And for about 15 of those years the United States had an interesting relationship, to say the least, with the Iraqi government. Secretary Rumsfeld was over in Baghdad meeting with Saddam Hussein years ago. There are allegations that the United States provided weapons to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war. And all that could spill out in a big show trial.” Moran’s line of impending U.S. embarrassment was repeated on ABC’s Good Morning America and Nightline.

This talk of the U.S. relationship with Iraq in the 1980s “spilling out” is a very odd formulation, since ABC — and the other networks — worked very hard in 1992 to blame the Reagan and Bush administrations for building Saddam up, leading to the first Gulf War. On October 28, 1992, six days before the presidential election, ABC Nightline host Ted Koppel declared that 18 months of ABC’s searching had revealed a series of “legal and illegal technology transfers” to Iraq.

Koppel began by underlining the massive legwork the major media had done to expose the Bush administration: “It’s a story that Nightline has revisited repeatedly over the past year and a half. The Los Angeles Times reported today that they have done more than 100 stories on the subject, over 90,000 words. This week’s New Yorker did a massive report. New York Times columnist William Safire has been relentless in pursuing the issue.”

Nightline aired at least eight shows on the Reagan-Bush tilt toward Iraq. ABC was quite involved in “spilling” on this story. Stuart Taylor, a legal analyst now with Newsweek, denounced these stories in 1994, finding “there wasn’t much beef in this gigantic scandalburger...This edifice of innuendo was erected on a foundation of factual errors and distortions that spread like a contagion.”

But the oddest denial of the capture’s meaning came on ABC’s prime-time special on Saddam’s capture. In Baghdad, reporter Martin Seemungal relayed how many Iraqis were joyful, but others were muted: “They feel cheated. They’re essentially saying that it would have been much better, they would have been happier to see him fight because it would have justified the fear that they had for him for these so many years.”

Without explaining his personal contact with Iraqis during the day, Jennings asserted: “On the other hand Martin, as people have suggested to us today, there’s not a good deal for Iraqis to be happy about at the moment. Life is still very chaotic, beset by violence in many cases, huge shortages. In some respects, Iraqis keep telling us life is not as stable for them as it was when Saddam Hussein was in power. Is that a factor today?”

To Jennings, “stability” under a tyrant who tortured and killed opponents was more desirable than the hard work of overcoming him.

Another strange moment came that night on CBS, when 60 Minutes star Lesley Stahl interviewed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Stahl worried about the hospitality Saddam would receive: “Let me raise the whole question, for lack of a better term, torture. Let’s say he’s not forthcoming. Would we deprive him of sleep, would we make it very cold where he is, or very hot? Are there any restrictions on the way we treat him to get him to cooperate more than he has been?”

When Rumsfeld insisted we would we follow the Geneva Conventions, that wasn’t good enough for Stahl who pressed: “Sleep deprivation, that kind of thing. You’re ruling it completely out, is that what you’re telling us?”

The next morning, Reuters correspondent Joseph Logan opened a dispatch from Baghdad: “Joy at the capture of Saddam Hussein gave way to resentment toward Washington Monday as Iraqis confronted afresh the bloodshed, shortages and soaring prices of life under U.S. occupation.”

Talking Heads Celebrate “Reform” but Demand Even More: In covering the Supreme Court’s December 10 ruling upholding the McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform” law, network stories matched the liberal agenda of campaign regulation advocates. Instead of showing any concern for the diminution of free speech rights, the networks presumed there’s too much money in political campaigns, and ignored how the media remain exempt from the speech restrictions which regulate everyone else.

Indicating how some journalists may wish for still more restraints on other people’s free speech, a number of reporters rued how “special interest money” will still be a factor in campaigns despite the law and court ruling.

ABC and CBS failed to even mention the limits on political ads 60 days before an election, a limitation which protects incumbents from speech they don’t like.

While CBS, NBC and CNN at least cited dissenting Justice Scalia’s free speech concerns, ABC didn’t mention the views of the minority. Instead, World News Tonight held itself to a short item read by anchor Peter Jennings, who approvingly cited the Court’s warning: “The majority warned that the law is not a cure all, saying that ‘money, like water will always find an outlet.’ And ABC’s John Cochran reports the big money is already flowing and outside groups are preparing to spend large amounts of money to influence the next campaign.”

The spin was the same on CBS. “The Supreme Court rules on campaign finance reform. The controversial law stands, but we’ll show you the loophole where big special interest money can still get through,” Dan Rather warned in teasing the December 10 CBS Evening News.

Wyatt Andrews warned: “Anyone who thinks this ruling ends soft money in politics is wrong. Political groups called 527s, tax-exempt groups not aligned with the political parties, are already organizing in droves to, guess what, raise unlimited soft money, mostly for ads. One left-leaning 527,, is using soft money for this anti-Bush ad in four states. And this....anti-Dean ad is sponsored by a right-leaning 527, the Club for Growth, again with soft money. Despite the Court’s ruling, unlimited cash will still flow into politics. It just won’t be channeled through the parties.”

NBC’s Tom Brokaw opened his December 10 newscast by making the case for the so-called “reform” bill that five Justices had approved. “Many worry,” Brokaw argued, that American politics “has been corrupted by the massive amounts of money pouring into campaigns, the single-minded pursuit of money by politicians and the advantages all of that money brings to the wealthy and the special interests, especially so-called soft money which was unregulated.”

Naturally, Brokaw did not worry about the “special interests” NBC News is able to promote or denigrate, but how the rules benefit President Bush did worry him: “This ruling doesn’t remove the place of money from campaigns — far from it. In fact, many believe it will only help President Bush who has the built-in advantage of the White House for fundraising and the sky’s the limit because he chose not to accept the restrictions that come with federal matching funds for the campaign.”

On CNN’s Inside Politics, anchor Judy Woodruff celebrated with Senator Russ Feingold and then pressed him on whether McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on free speech were stringent enough: “Already you have these independent third-party groups, so-called 527 committees, that are out there raising money, putting money into this presidential campaign, both on the left and on the right, in effect, you know, making what the court decided today, you could argue, meaningless because money is finding its way back into these campaigns in an unregulated way.”

Over the past several presidential campaigns, network reporters in particular have sought to counter candidate advertising, attempting to negate its effect with “Ad Watches” and other editorial devices. At the same time, journalists became open cheerleaders for the types of campaign regulation embraced by McCain-Feingold, which restricts candidates, political parties, and other interest groups but not the media.

Reporters like Woodruff regularly describe the freedom to participate in the political process by giving money, forming groups and sponsoring their own advertising as some kind of “loophole” begging to be closed by new laws. Perhaps journalists’ itch to “reform” the political process won’t be completely satisfied until the media elite again dominate the political debate, as they did before conservative media watchdogs like the Media Research Center documented how their supposedly objective “news” was just so much liberal bias.