A Summer of Skewed News

The Liberal Tilt in TV’s Economic Reporting

Regulations: Four Out of Five Networks Agree

The big story at the beginning of the summer was the fiscal health of corporate America. As major companies such as Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom became embroiled in accounting scandals, network reporters seemed to have just one suggestion: more government regulations. If the President refused to embrace new rules, journalists suggested, it wasn’t because he was a principled conservative, but a slave to big business. 

Greenspantextbox“This is a President who has made no bones about the fact that he is not a great fan of regulation, he talks about cooperation, not regulation. Does he have a credibility problem?” CNN’s Aaron Brown wondered on the July 8 edition of NewsNight. That same evening, CBS’s Wyatt Andrews pushed Bush even harder, branding him the “President who, for most of his term, has been ‘partner-in-chief’ with big business.” He didn’t mean that as a compliment.

After CBS’s Andrews branded the Bush administration a tool of big business, CBS validated their own spin with a poll, reported by John Roberts on the July 17 Evening News: “While people are split over whether Mr. Bush is more interested in protecting large corporations or ordinary Americans, there is no question they feel his staff comes down on the side of corporations.”

When it came to the legislative reaction to this year’s accounting scandals, in a span of less than four hours, ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC’s reporters all repeated the exact same liberal spin, favorably contrasting the newly-passed Senate bill with the “weaker” House-passed law. On the July 15 World News Tonight, ABC’s Linda Douglass worried about the effect lobbyists would have on the final bill: “The question now, Peter, is what will happen to this,” she told anchor Jennings. “Will it become law? The House passed a much weaker version, and the lobbyists are swarming over Capitol Hill to try to get the House to water down what the Senate has done.” 

That same night, the CBS Evening News’s Bob Orr parroted Douglass: “The Senate version must be reconciled with the weaker House package. And with some Republicans and the accounting lobby already promising a fight, it’s unclear at the moment how tough the final reforms will be.” 

NBC’s Tom Brokaw applauded the Senate vote even as he repeated the same spin of his network counterparts: “Late tonight the Senate passed, 97 to nothing, a bill aimed at shoring up investor confidence by creating harsh new penalties and jail terms for corporate fraud....The Senate version now must be squared with a different, weaker measure that’s already been passed by the House of Representatives.” 

LauertextboxOn NewsNight, CNN’s Brown echoed that the “conference committee [is] set to go to work tomorrow. These things go on pretty much in secret, we will see what comes out of it, but the betting is it will look more like the Senate bill more than the far weaker bill that passed the Republican-controlled House.” Not just “weaker,” but “far weaker” — in case any viewer missed the point. That night on ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, there was no debate, zero, about whether the Senate may have gone too far in its regulatory zeal, even though at least one well-respected business correspondent thought that was a real concern (see box).

Only the Fox News Channel managed to report the same development without adjectives or editorially worrying that lobbyists might “water down” a tough Senate bill. On Special Report with Brit Hume, White House reporter Jim Angle quoted a remark from Democratic Senator Joseph Biden (“Maybe the President should stop making speeches for a couple of days. He’s spoken twice, and the market went down while speaking 500 points”), then added straightforward information about the Senate vote: “People, Biden said, are looking for real things to happen, and that may soon be the case as the Senate passes its bill against corporate fraud, then sits down with the House to negotiate a compromise.”

TextBox1In a telling footnote, after the House and Senate informally settled on a version of the bill, ABC’s Douglass acknowledged on the July 24 World News Tonight that longer prison terms may not stop corporate crime. After running through the longer penalties for such things as shredding documents and a 25-year prison sentence for a “scheme to defraud,” Douglass belatedly admitted: “Still, experts say just the threat of more jail time won’t stop corporate crime.”

She then ran a sound bite from Columbia Law School Professor John Coffee, who dismissed the congressional action that was widely celebrated just nine days earlier. “It’s an election year answer to crime,” Coffee retorted. “It sounds good, but it won’t affect the sentences really imposed or what prosecutors actually do.” It’s hard to give ABC credit for finally investigating and publicizing this point of view, since the network didn’t present out this contrarian point of view until after the congressional debate was a done deal.