MediaWatch: April 1988

In This Issue

Study: Ducking Jackson's Left-Wing Views; NewsBites: April Fools;Revolving Door; Honduran Diversion; Janet Cooke Award: TBS:"Portrait of the Soviet Union"

Study: Ducking Jackson's Left-Wing Views

From his embrace of Yasir Arafat and communist dictators like Fidel Castro, to his desire for a unilateral U.S. nuclear freeze, Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson holds radical views that place him well to the left of liberal candidates like Michael Dukakis. But a MediaWatch Study has determined the evening newscasts of the four networks rarely reported Jackson's extremist positions. When it came to Republican Pat Robertson, however, the same TV reporters considered many of his beliefs "controversial" enough to report.

To conduct the Study, analysts examined ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN PrimeNews and NBC Nightly News stories beginning the week before each candidate became a formidable force. For Robertson, the Study ran from the week before his "surprise" finish ahead of George Bush in Iowa through his poor showing in the New Hampshire primary. For Jackson, the study began a week before his strong Super Tuesday showing and continued to the end of March, as Jackson battled Mike Dukakis for front-runner status. After eliminating "horserace" stories, MediaWatch identified 13 pieces on Robertson and 37 on Jackson that entirely or predominantly focused on either candidate.

Jackson has expressed plenty of radical ideas that place him well outside the American political spectrum. These include: praising PLO terrorist leader Yasir Arafat as "educated, urbane and reasonable," calling Zionism a "poisonous weed," and standing arm in arm with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro chanting "Long live Fidel Castro, long live Che Guevara." Only 24 percent of all stories in the month of March mentioned any controversy related to Jackson's candidacy. Just three stories, or 8 percent, contained reference to Jackson's pro-PLO stand. Viewers may never have learned of his Arafat sympathies if not for candidate Al Gore. Two stories near the end of the month included brief clips of Gore denouncing Jackson's desire to radically alter U.S. Middle East policy.

Only 14 percent of the stories alluded in even the most obscure way to his Castro connection. Two of these five consisted of brief film clips of Jackson standing with Castro. On March 2, ABC's Rebecca Chase made passing reference to how "Jackson has practiced a form of foreign policy by photo opportunity." The same day, NBC's Bob Kur didn't see it as a negative either, referring to Jackson "meeting with world leaders." At the end of March, NBC's Ken Bode gave time to conservative Democrat Ben Wattenberg to express concern about the Castro alliance. CBS once showed Gore complaining. Only one time in any of the 37 stories did a reporter utter the name "Castro." During a March 11 interview, Tom Brokaw asked Jackson about his visit to Cuba, but let Jackson's answer go unchallenged: "Positions I have been taking in foreign policy, in Latin America, in the Middle East, are now mainstream American political thought in foreign policy."

Jackson's close ties to Muslim leader Louis Farakkhan and "Hymietown" remark caused quite a bit of controversy in 1984, but this year the networks have practically forgotten them. Just seven stories (19 percent) mentioned either topic. This year he's announced policies that go far left of anything proposed by even liberal Democrats. For instance, he has called for unilateral disarmament, saying he wants to cut defense spending by 25 percent and end production of every nuclear weapons system, from the Midgetman missile to Stealth bomber. Only three stories (8 percent) noted his desire to radically alter American defenses, but none portrayed his cuts as anything extreme. The toughest scrutiny came from CBS' Bob Schieffer: "Jackson talks of cutting as much as $30 billion his first year from the defense budget, which would mean more than just trimming fat."

What did network coverage concentrate on? Emphasizing how he has moderated his views and broadened his base. Over half the stories dismissed concerns about Jackson's extreme and controversial views. For example, without critical comment, NBC's Dennis Murphy devoted an entire story to how Jackson is trying to "prove he is a mainstream, electable candidate." ABC's Peter Jennings told viewers on March 2: "It's eminently clear that the Jesse Jackson of '88 is a much different man than the Jackson that first ran in '84." Just two weeks later Jackson reaffirmed his desire to open relations with Cuba, saying on the March 17 Nightline: "I think in the case of Fidel Castro we would be wise to work out ways to expand our influence into Cuba."

Just over 43 percent of the reports contained statements characterizing the campaign as having a positive impact on his constituency, for instance, CNN's reference to his "promise of hope to the less fortunate." On March 15, Bruce Morton of CBS delivered this glowing assessment: "Jesse Jackson toured Chicago and brought tears and excitement wherever he went. Watch him as he walks to the Robert Taylor project, home of some of this city's poorest people. They gave him what they had, they gave him love."

Since Pat Robertson's Republican opponents refrained from criticizing his beliefs, just as Jackson's Democratic opponents did until the very end of March, you might think the media would have given them equal scrutiny. But MediaWatch discovered just the opposite. In 13 stories that appeared on Robertson, ten (77 percent) negatively portrayed past Robertson statements that network reporters considered controversial. Four reports reminded viewers of Robertson's past religious life, including his faith healing, claims he talks directly to God, and "speaking in tongues." NBC's Chris Wallace was so concerned about Robertson's past that he dug up a video tape in which Robertson said only Christians and Jews be allowed to hold government office. Wallace declared on February 9: "Robertson may be restricted on reaching out by years of controversial statements." Unlike Jackson, who never renounced his chant with Castro, Robertson has apologized for the remark. Wallace made no mention of the fact.

While they ignored Jackson's recent Nightline comment on his desire to improve relations with Cuba, the media were quick to jump on Robertson for any statement liberals found controversial. Seven stories focused on his comments about Soviet missiles in Cuba, that Planned Parenthood is attempting to create a "master race," and that he opposes sanctions on South Africa. Jackson received almost twice as much positive coverage as Robertson; a mere 3 stories (23 percent) referred positively to Robertson's strong appeal among Christians. An even smaller 15 percent of the stories talked about his campaign appealing beyond its base, to Catholics, Democrats, and blue collar workers.

Fear of being charged with racism partially explain why reporters refrained from producing stories that might hurt the Jackson campaign. One unnamed network correspondent admitted to The Washington Post: "It's absolutely clear to me that if Jesse were a white man, he'd probably be getting kicked around rather royally by the press." But another factor is at work. Many reporters do not see Jackson as outside the mainstream. To many in Big Media, it is Robertson who espouses radical views and they feel obligated to alert the American public.

NewsBites: April Fools

April Fools. The March unemployment rate fell by another tenth of a percent to 5.6 percent, the lowest level in almost nine years. Great news, right? Not to ABC and NBC. They tried to explain away the figure announced on April 1.

On ABC's World News Tonight Sam Donaldson warned that "the steady drop in unemployment over the last year is probably nearing an end." NBC Nightly News anchor Connie Chung dug up another way to discount the news, complaining that "this low unemployment rate is not entirely good news. Fewer people are looking for work." Will they ever be satisfied?

TIME to Raise Taxes. "Any attempt to close the deficit strictly through spending cuts would be unworkable and unwise," therefore, "substantial tax increases" are needed. An excerpt from a Mike Dukakis speech? No, it's the solution offered by Time magazine in a February 29 "special report" on how to balance the budget. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have offered plans that refrain from raising taxes by cutting spending and adopting Grace Commission reforms. Time obviously had no intention of presenting such views since they only consulted liberal "experts" from the Urban Institute, Brookings Institution, the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities and the Center's Defense Budget Project, an anti-defense spending group.

Recommending further defense cuts, Time charged: "The U.S. is building more weapons systems than are necessary to ensure the national defense." What about other spending? The magazine claimed: "Most non-defense programs have already been slashed relentlessly during the Reagan years."

But the facts prove differently. Reagan failed to follow through on campaign promises to eliminate the Departments of Energy and Education and spending on virtually every entitlement program has soared well above the inflation rate. Spending on Medicaid and Medicare, for instance, is 70 percent higher now than in 1980.

Haunted Housing. When the Commerce Department announced new home sales fell nine percent, the news so alarmed CBS that it led the Evening News. On March 2 Ray Brady warned viewers: "Today's figures are not just bad news simply for homebuyers. Housing's a giant industry, and when it slows down so do other industries supplying everything from plumbing to furniture. And that could be trouble for the entire economy."

A month later housing sales jumped over 20 percent. Brady and CBS completely ignored the report. Dan Rather did mention a rise in the leading economic indicators, finally conceding that "analysts called today's report a sign that the nation will avoid a recession," but then looking to the future, added after a dramatic pause, "this year."

Going After Meese, Piece By Piece. When two top Justice Department officials resigned, citing concerns about the appearance of impropriety on the part of Attorney General Ed Meese, some TV network reporters used the development as another opportunity to pass judgment on Meese. Even after the special prosecutor disclosed he had not found any evidence of indictable activity, the reporters couldn't admit they were wrong. "There's a building fear," ABC's Dennis Troute warned the day of the resignations, "that the ongoing Wedtech investigation will turn up incriminating evidence." The next day NBC Nightly News commentator John Chancellor claimed "the final months of the Reagan presidency are being dishonored by Ed Meese's continuing troubles" and urged him "to resign now, before the law works its way through his tangled affairs."

On April 1, "recent media reports" prompted independent counsel James McKay to announce he had no plans to indict Meese. But that didn't satisfy Troute. He predicted the investigation "may yet produce evidence of ethical violations by Meese that fall short of criminality." NBC's Carl Stern also refused to give Meese a fair break, declaring that "one expert said professional standards require that Meese step aside, at least temporarily," and "one Senator," liberal Carl Levin, "conducted a lengthy investigation of Meese's finances and said Meese was too ethically sloppy to stay at all."

Wyatt's Wavering Views. As the CBS News Moscow correspondent, Wyatt Andrews tended to display healthy skepticism toward Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. On many issues, including human rights, arms control and Afghanistan, Andrews usually saw what many ignored. At the December Reagan-Gorbachev summit, while many touted pre-summit reunification of divided families as a genuine improvement in Soviet human rights, Andrews saw through the Kremlin charade, declaring on December 3: "By now, this is all a predictable pre-summit process. Joyful reunions one day. Little rejections the next. And no fundamental change on the Soviet side."

But since recently being reassigned to the State Department, Andrews has become far less skeptical. Because the Soviets have, for the last three years, repeatedly broken promises to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. demanded stringent verification at the latest round of peace talks. Questioning the firm stand, Andrews concluded on March 31: "The irony is that after eight years of demanding that the Soviets simply leave Afghanistan, a simple yes answer hasn't been enough."

Not Much Light Put on Wright. "Wright Aide Tried His Own Arms Deal" read the March 28 front page Washington Times headline over an Associated Press story revealing how Richard Pena, a top aide to House Speaker Jim Wright, "tried to sell weapons to the Nicaraguan resistance through Lt. Colonel Oliver North's private network." Another Iran-Contra "revelation" for the major media outlets to jump on? Not this time. ABC, CBS and NBC could not find time for the development on their evening newscasts. Just CNN considered it newsworthy, though only for a brief mention by anchor David French. The Washington Post chose to ignore the March 27 AP wire story. But, apparently embarrassed by the prominence The Washington Times gave the news, Post editors changed their minds, and on March 29 ran their version, buried in the middle of page 12. The New York Times did not run the story at all.

Rather Enraged at Reagan. On March 25 President Reagan said those indicted in the Iran-Contra affair "are going to be found innocent because I don't think they were guilty of any law-breaking or any crime." That night the network TV stars could hardly contain their indignation. An outraged Dan Rather gave this less than even-handed assessment:

"President Reagan suddenly threw himself back into the middle of the weapons for Iran criminal case today, raising questions about potentially damaging presidential interference in the judicial process. Before Oliver North and three other key defendants have even gone on trial, Mr. Reagan declared that they are not guilty and will be found innocent of charges they defrauded the United States government and stole millions of taxpayer dollars."

On NBC Nightly News Andrea Mitchell claimed "the President plunged into legal controversy by praising Oliver North as a hero." Unable to find anyone who agreed with Reagan, she turned to Arthur Liman, chief counsel to the Senate Iran committee, who explained how "wrong" Reagan was, followed by Sen. Alan Cranston, who long ago convicted North. Cranston complained that Reagan's remarks "contributed to a prejudicial climate."

Boring Boettcher's Mozambique Monotone. Few media outlets consider the ongoing civil war in Mozambique between the Marxist FRELIMO regime and the RENAMO resistance important enough to warrant even occasional coverage. But NBC Nightly News regularly provides Mike Boettcher with an opportunity to inform the American public about the struggle. Unfortunately all he offers is the same one-sided views month after month.

On March 27, Boettcher repeated the Marxist government's unsubstantiated claim that 400 people were killed by RENAMO in the village of Homoine last July. Boettcher declared that "their reputation as marauders who have massacred and looted" has kept the Reagan Administration from giving them military aid." Boettcher's reports regularly parallel the Marxist government's propaganda aimed at discrediting the democratic resistance by blaming them for civilian hardship. Just seven weeks earlier, on February 4, Boettcher reported: "But the havens the refugees have sought have become targets for anti-government rebels who steal food supplies and destroy what they can....[The refugees] have run for so long from those rebels that their bodies are little more than skeletons." On January 9, Boettcher reported much the same: "Roads and rail lines that lead to them [villagers] are controlled by anti-government rebels who have attacked food convoys."

While Boettcher traveled to Marxist areas, CNN's Gary Strieker went to neighboring Malawi and discovered something very different. His March 30 report on refugees fleeing the civil war included complaints of ill-treatment by the rebels, but found the Marxist regime responsible for the atrocities. "The refugees," Strieker reported, "describe how [FRELIMO] government soldiers brutalize and kill civilians after the rebels run away."

Revolving Door

Douglas Waller, Legislative Director for liberal Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) until 1985, and Legislative Assistant to Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) for the past three years, joins the Washington bureau of Newsweek as a foreign affairs reporter.

So far he's contributed articles urging the U.S. to cease making plutonium for nuclear weapons because of current over supply and criticizing the Reagan Administration's Nicaragua policy.

Michael Kinsley, Editor of the New Republic and fill-in liberal debater on Crossfire and McLaughlin Group, has gained another outlet for his views. He's started contributing opinion pieces for Time magazine's "Essay" page.

National Public Radio's (NPR) evening news show All Things Considered (ATC) has yet to replace conservative commentator Cal Thomas. In January, ATC Executive Producer Neal Conan dropped Thomas, calling him "too predictable" and "stylistically anachronistic."

Thomas offered the only regular conservative response to the daily commentary of liberal former CBS News reporter Daniel Schorr. NPR President Douglas Bennet, Director of the Agency for International Development in the Carter Administration, has assured complaining listeners in a form letter that the federally supported network "relies on a wide spectrum of commentators."

In a mid-March column, Thomas wrote that in reality the current "stable of NPR commentators, analysts and even reporters would get a 100 percent liberal rating from the Americans for Democratic Action if these people were in Congress and not on the air." Thomas suggested the program change its name to: "Not Quite All Things Considered." In the past Thomas has criticized the efforts of conservatives who track liberal media bias, downplaying the depth of the problem. Maybe he has a different view now.

Honduran Diversion

On March 15 the Sandinistas invaded neighboring Hondurasin an attempt to destroy Contra base camps before any cease fire talks. But some network reporters excused the Sandinista action, preferring to portray the U.S. as the real villain.

The next night ABC's Peter Jennings told viewers: "When the Contras retreated over the border with Honduras, the Nicaraguans followed. The White House calls that 'an invasion.'" What else it could be considered, Jennings did not explain.

A day later Reagan dispatched troops to defend Honduras from the assault. Dan Rather opened the CBS Evening News by presenting the case of liberal Democrats. Rather reported the action "raised protest and questions" such as whether Reagan "is trying to stampede Congress into spending more money for aid to the Contras, and whether he is perhaps trying to distract attention away from the criminal indictments against some of his former top aides." The same night, only ABC's Brit Hume realized "not all Democrats share that cynical view" as Senators Nunn and Boren expressed support for the deployment.

By March 21 some reporters began portraying Honduras as another ally abused by the U.S. Although "the so-called 'Sandinista invasion of Honduras'" might help the Contras get more aid, CNN's Lucia Newman complained that "as in the past, the Hondurans are unlikely to benefit." Newman failed to mention that since 1983 Honduras has received $550 million in economic and food aid.

Three days later, ABC's Beth Nissen told an even more one-sided story. "More and more Hondurans say there is a cost to having" U.S. forces, "a cost to Honduran sovereignty" and "self-esteem." Now, she cautioned, "a new generation of Hondurans is learning to be wary of the U.S." since a history book at one school has "a carefully updated chapter on Yankee imperialism." As troops departed on March 28 ABC's Gary Shepard found "several hundred Hondurans gathered in a demonstration of support for the GI's." They were probably among the 81 percent of Hondurans who backed the U.S. Contra policy in a 1987 Gallup Poll, all of whom Nissen somehow missed.

Janet Cooke Award: TBS: "Portrait of the Soviet Union

"When first contact was made with the Soviets to discuss Ted Turner's idea to produce a documentary series, it was never imagined that he would be awakening a sleeping giant. It was never imagined that he would be initiating the most revealing and comprehensive look ever inside the Soviet Union." With this self-indulgent, glowing review of its own work, Atlanta cable superstation WTBS opened the late March seven hour-long series, "Portrait of the Soviet Union." But, Washington Post media critic Tom Shales realized exactly how shallow the series was. His March 19 review summed up the show: "It's more like a post card from Binky and Biff at Camp Whitewash."

Little more could be expected from liberal television guru Turner, whose affinity for Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union is well-known. Among other things, Turner created the Better World Society and started his "famed" Goodwill Games which have done much to improve Mikhail Gorbachev's image around the world. To Turner, "Portrait" was yet another vehicle to convince Americans that they have nothing to fear from the Soviet Union. In a Washington Post TV Week article on the show, he proudly boasted: "It's exactly what I hoped it would be. We're friends with them. I've been hunting and fishing with their leaders and had dinner with them in Moscow. They are very nice people. You know, if I go looking for a friend, that's what I find. You smile and they smile back. You find what you go looking for."

Sadly, the American public never got a truly insightful look into Soviet society. They got a glossy pro-communist travelogue instead. In a promotional clip Turner summed up the series before it even aired, making this witty, but outlandish claim: "Beach resorts, cowboys, rock concerts, independent business -- life in the U.S.? Nope! Life in the Soviet Union!" After 3.5 million dollars and two and one half years, "Portrait" found no political dissent, or persecution, or oppression. After 50,000 miles of travel and 45 miles of film, "Portrait" found only happy and content Soviet citizens "bound together by a dream...of a socialist nation marching toward the first communist state." TBS bragged of unprecedented access and of no Soviet interference. But there was no need to interfere since the Kremlin couldn't have done a better job itself.

Indeed, "Portrait" legitimized some of the greatest myths of the communist system. Narrator Roy Scheider declared: "Once the Kremlin was the home of czars. Now, it belongs to the people." While Siberia evokes thoughts of barbaric gulags and prisoners of conscience, "Portrait" saw the tundra region as a land of opportunity for loyal youth brigades: "It used to be a one-way ticket to exile, it's now a chance for young Soviets to do something for their country."

The series was divided into seven parts, but all had a common theme -- uninhibited national groups, liberated from backwardness, living together in a socialist utopia. In the ethnic Russian republic, Scheider spoke of a Russian people that voluntarily "submerged their ethnic identity in the interest of forging the new Soviet state." While ethnic unrest and opposition to communist attempts to obliterate Moslem religion has reached explosive levels in the republics of Central Asia, "Portrait" claimed that "there seems to be little racial tension....(and) the republics of Central Asia have generally welcomed the progress." Ethnic unrest in the Caucas republics was never mentioned either. Despite months of rioting between Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis over territory, Scheider again painted the rosiest of pictures: "Armenians have at last found stability under the Soviet wing." In the Baltic republics, "Portrait" pushed the same theme. Scheider noted "as independent countries, they cease to exist. As peoples, they are as strong as ever." But why do the Baltic nations cease to exist and why do many in the Baltic region abhor Soviet control? Because of the 1942 Soviet invasion of the independent Baltic states, another fact that Turner's broadcast failed to mention.

This year marks the millennium of Christianity in Russia and many journalists have noted that religious persecution and barriers to worship are still common. "Portrait," as usual, had something different in mind, claiming "the Church, for so long a misfit in an atheist state, seems to be gaining a new recognition." Scheider gleefully added: "Atheist though the state may be, freedom to worship as you please is enshrined in the Soviet constitution."

"Portrait's" true political message was clear during the concluding hour, titled "Country of the Revolution." Scheider began by praising the 1917 Marxist-Leninist coup: "Freedom from the oppression of all czars was now, finally, a reality ...The great experiment in social engineering was about to begin. To make it work, the party needed to mold a new kind of citizen, one who would embody all the virtues of the socialist ethic....the citizen who would submerge his individuality into that of the team effort." How does "Portrait" describe the Soviet Union's ultimate goal of communism? Unable to divorce romantic theory from 70 years of evil reality, Turner's team of writers labeled it "a highly developed people giving freely all they can to a society and in return taking back all they need."

While the show admitted that this wonderful goal has not yet been reached, it managed to offer a stunning appraisal of the revolution's success thus far: "The revolution has given [the] young the chance to succeed in a wider world -- the kind of opportunities their grandparents fought for them to have." To TBS the future is even brighter, due to "new and enlightened leader" Gorbachev who is "not afraid to reinterpret the words of Marx and Lenin in light of a changing world."

Gorbachev's radical reforms also mean that the outside world can now "understand and cease to fear." Why? Because, "the early aim to spread the socialist revolution worldwide" is over. Scheider assured viewers "the Soviets say these are things of the past. Times have changed." To imply this, as "Portrait" did, stands in the face of official Soviet policy. During the 70th anniversary of the Marxist revolution last year, Gorbachev reaffirmed his country's expansionist desires: "In October of 1917, we parted with the Old World, rejecting it once and for all. We are moving toward a New World, the World of Communism. We shall never turn off that road."

While Turner's political predisposition made "Portrait" an imbalanced presentation, ignorance and gullibility may have played an equally critical role. Even after 28 trips and 11 months in the Soviet Union, Executive Producer Ira Miskin was still ignorant of many basic historical and social facts. When discussing the show with MediaWatch, Miskin demonstrated only a sketchy understanding of the Soviet people. His knowledge of the persecution of the Lithuanian Church and the ethnic and religious turmoil in Central Asia was all but non-existent.

How did Miskin and producers gather their facts and impressions? As Miskin said, "we went by what we saw." But what about the dissidents and disgruntled citizens that were never featured? Miskin, unable to garner specifics, could only say: "It was not part of the mandate of what we wanted to do and film there. We did not go in to report what is already known in the news." Turner Broadcasting's educational arm, Turner Educational Services, in cooperation with Encyclopedia Britannica, have announced ambitious plans to market the series to secondary schools throughout the nation. "Portrait of the Soviet Union" might just be one of the most dangerously misleading programs to ever reach the American public.