MediaWatch: January 1988

In This Issue

Study: Gorbymania; NewsBites: It's All In Who Says It; Revolving Door: James Greenfield; Janet Cooke Award: Bill Moyers and His PBS Series



Study: Gorbymania With A Twist

If you tuned in news coverage of the December Reagan-Gorbachev summit expecting to hear the Soviet line on detente, glasnost, Afghanistan, and the moral equivalence of the two powers, the networks certainly did not let you down.

But if you also expected that same line on the Strategic Defense Initiatives (SDI) and Soviet human rights violations, ABC, CBS, and NBC offered a pleasant surprise. So proves a Media Research Center (MRC) study of 47 evening newscasts between November 23, two weeks before the Soviet chieftain's arrival, and December 10 the night of his departure.

The most surprising discoveries: First, even after eight years after a brutal and bloody Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and repeated false claims they intend to withdraw, the media still viewed the Soviet line as credible, giving it as much time and legitimacy as the U.S. view and second, in a turn around from Geneva and Reykjavik, MRC analysts found summit news reports firmly supportive of SDI.

MRC researchers viewed and timed every story on the summit that appeared on ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News for the two and a half week period. All ideas expressed, including reporters' statements and comments from political leaders and experts, were placed into one of nine "issues" categories totaling 285 minutes or 74.9 percent of summit air time.

A tenth category, "non-issue/fluff," contained all parts of stories that were largely non-political in nature (i.e. summit schedule, Washington hotels and police preparing for the summit, the Raisa Gorbachev-Nancy Reagan meetings, summary montages, etc.) and amounted to 95 minutes and 51 seconds or 25.1 percent of the entire coverage. Of all summit coverage, 37.1 percent concerned arms issues: INF START, SDI, or past treaty violations. Another 25.5 percent of the coverage concerned detente, glasnost, or the moral equivalence of the superpowers. Only 12.2 percent focused on human rights in the Soviet Union or regional conflicts around the world.

INF (93:36; 24.6%) and START (27:20; 7.2%). Overall, 39.4% promoted the INF treaty, while 24.8% opposed the agreement. Analysts considered the other 35.9% to be informational. A diverse selection of people were featured promoting the treaty, including substantial time given to Reagan and Gorbachev. Those usually featured opposing the treaty were Republican presidential candidates. CBS anchor Dan Rather was one of the few newsmen who exhibited a healthy bit of skepticism toward the agreement, noting on Nov. 30: "Both sides are trying to accentuate the positive, but negotiators from both sides know that the enormous Russian army may well benefit plenty."

Despite decades of Soviet cheating on previous accords, only 4.5 minutes of the INF coverage, (1.2% of total summit news), concerned past Soviet treaty violations. Incredibly, 51% of treaty story time excused past treaty infringements and believed they should have no bearing on signing the INF treaty. ABC's Sam Donaldson made his opinion known on Dec. 2, complaining: "The White House deliberately threw a damper on things by sending Congress a report on Soviet of past treaties, a report which could have been delayed." Only 14% of the coverage viewed past violations as consequential to INF. Cover-critics opposing a strategic agreement by more than five to one.

Are the Powers Morally Equal? (46:46; 12.3%). Yes, according to the networks since over 59% portrayed the Soviet leader or his regime as morally equal to the U.S. in world affairs. Only 21.6% portrayed Gorbachev and his system as less credible or moral than Reagan and the U.S. As part of their campaign to promote moral equality, the media spent an exorbitant amount of time praising the sincerity of Gorbachev. On Nov. 27, NBC's Sandy Gilmour delivered this glowing portrait: "Unlike his stone-faced predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev is congenial, confident, charismatic -- a gifted politician, tough infighter, a superb salesman, who wants to change his country's dark and gloomy image ...Gorbachev seems to be genuinely liked here." ABC's Walter Rodgers offered the most fervent endorsement of moral equivalence. In a Dec. 9 story, summed up Gorbachev's view: "Gorbachev revealed another basic difference he has with President Reagan and many Americans on human rights." Rodgers then put on Gorbachev to say that the United States has no moral right to pressure the Soviets on the issue. Apparently Rodgers agreed since he offered no criticism of Gorbachev's assertion.

The Validity of Glasnost and Perestroika (33:14; 8.7%). The study confirmed most in the media have little doubt that Gorbachev is sincere is his campaign to "reform" Soviet social and economic life. Of air time devoted to glasnost and Perestroika, researchers identified 56.4% as promoting the policies as genuine. NBC was clearly the most enthusiastic, promoting glasnost as legitimate 80% of the time. CBS was far more skeptical, promoting the policy only 15.3% of the time. NBC's Gilmour gleefully pushed Gorbachev's programs, calling Perestroika "the most radical economic and social reforms in Soviet history." Gilmour's Nov. 27 report continued: "All that and more openness are the drastic changes sought by this life-long communist...Gorbachev may be the right man at the right time." Only 12% of the views aired by the networks characterized glasnost as superficial or ungenuine.

Calls for Detente (17:24; 4.6%). When it came to future relations with the Soviet Union, 13 minutes or 75% of the time was devoted to offering the views of people encouraging a new detente frame-work similar to the 1970s. 14.7% saw a return to detente as a threat to U.S. national security. Promotion of detente ranged from a high of 93% for ABC to a low of 49% for CBS, with NBC at 89%.

Human Rights (26:50; 7.0%). Almost 75% of air time devoted to human rights called to mind Soviet evils like restrictions on Jewish emigration. Only 21% could be described as excusing Soviet behavior, characterizing the situation as improving day by day. In contrast, coverage during the Geneva summit was evenly split on the issue. ABC's Rodgers was one of the few willing to give the Soviets credit. On the occasion of the reunification of some Soviet families, Rodgers gushed on Nov. 25: "For these Soviets, Mr. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost translates into a homecoming." But Wyatt Andrews of CBS saw through the charade of pre-summit releases, explaining on Dec. 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 that would make international travel and both of these emotional scenes unnecessary."

SDI: A Media Turnaround (20:37; 5.4%). In another reversal from the Reykjavik and Geneva summits, 39.7% of SDI news coverage promoted deployment, research, or funding. Only 15.1% of coverage was anti-SDI. At the 1985 Geneva summit, MediaWatch editors found that only 10.7% of the coverage was pro-SDI, while 38.4% was anti-SDI. The only difference between the two summits: Gorbachev decided not to make SDI an issue this time.

Afghanistan (17:53; 4.7%). Despite the ongoing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the American media still gives an amazing level of credibility to the Soviet propaganda line. 40% of the coverage endorsed the Soviet position that the Red Army must remain until a "political" solution is reached. Not once did the networks portray the Soviets as the aggressors or recount their 1979 invasion. Sadly, the Free World's position that there is no excuse for continued occupation only received 40% of the time.

ABC News failed to air any reports from the frontlines of the war while NBC aired just one and CBS three. When asked why the situation in Afghanistan was not deemed important enough for at least one feature story, ABC press representative Karen Reynolds dismissed the concern: "It was just an editorial judgement."

The few lengthy stories by Mark Phillips of CBS and NBC's Peter Kent avoided the most fundamental issues. Instead of asking why the Soviets have made no effort to scale down their occupation and pull out, both correspondents preferred to paint the Soviets as more victim than villain. As Kent reported on Dec. 9: "The Soviets seem to be hunkering down, in effect, until they can work a deal to extract themselves from their own Vietnam." Phillips assessed the situation from the Soviet angle. On Dec. 3 he reported: "A Soviet withdrawal, [the Afghan President] now says, can take place in a 12 month period once the mujahideen stop fighting and the United States stops supporting them."

Other Regional Conflicts (1:51; 0.5%). Except for vague, passing references to Nicaragua, Cambodia and Angola, totaling a piddling 0.5% of all coverage, the networks ignored Soviet aggression in other parts of the world.


A Communist By Any Other Name. During summit week the nation's two most influential papers never once used a negative term like "dictator" to describe Gorbachev. Between December 6 and 11 The New York Times and Washington Post ran 242 news stories mentioning Gorbachev: 124 stories did not label him; 101 simply called him the "Soviet leader" and 16 referred to him as "General Secretary." On one occasion the Post tagged him "Communist Party Leader."

Flowers for Detente. Not all the demonstrators surrounding the summiteers got the coverage they deserved. The Dec. 5 evening newscasts of CBS, CNN and NBC led with scenes of children in Washington taking flowers to the Soviet embassy and the White House; only the Soviets, the networks noted, accepted them. However, when children maimed by Soviet toy bombs in Afghanistan demonstrated four days later, they were ignored not only by the Soviets, but also by NBC and ABC. Dan Rather put the story fourth on the Evening News; CNN balanced its earlier lead by putting the Afghans at the top of PrimeNews.

Flip the Lever, Mr. Murphy. As Murphy goes, so goes ABC News? Thomas Murphy, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Capital Cities ABC Inc. was so ecstatic upon meeting Gorbachev that he reportedly told him: "If I were a Soviet citizen, I'd vote for you."

NewsBites: It's All In Who Says It

Staff writer Jacob Lamar Jr. lashed out at what he called Jack Kemp's call for "unrealistically stringent verification procedures" in a December 14 Time magazine article.

As for Pat Robertson, Lamar's supposedly opinion-free "news" article included this disparaging assessment: "Robertson's conditions for signing an arms accord seemed even more fanciful: he glibly recommended 'a rollback, a decolonization, if you will, of the Soviet empire."'

That's quite a different media reaction than greeted President John F. Kennedy's now famous, and widely considered inspirational, words along the same line: "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty." Where was Time then?

THE SCROOGE OF CBS. The day after Thanksgiving marks the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season. But CBS and ABC told viewers completely different stories about what the day meant to the upcoming busiest retail sales season. On the November 27 CBS Evening News, reporter Ray Brady once again earned his doom and gloom, or in this case "Scrooge," reputation by ominously warning: "There's a shadow hanging over the holidays, the shadow of the stock market crash." After a bit of searching Brady found a supposedly typical "New York shopper" who backed up his premise, claiming "the stock market crash has effected my habits, in the way that I'm being much more conservative this year." (Interestingly, on the same day CNN's Greg LaMotte reported "the majority of shoppers we spoke with said the stock market crash" will "have little or no effect on what or how much they buy.") Later Brady quoted a "new survey" showing "the average American family will spend about $380 on Christmas gifts this year, about the same as last year." Naturally, Brady felt compelled to bring on a "consumer analyst" to dismiss the seemingly good news as not so good because it meant sales would not increase.

Over on World News Tonight, Boston Herald columnist and ABC reporter Bill O'Reilly arrived at the opposite conclusion using the same facts. O'Reilly gave the $380 per family figure a little Christmas cheer spin, explaining, "since American households are increasing, sales projections are up. That's what store owners like to hear as they look for signals that people will buy." As for the seasonal outlook, an upbeat O'Reilly concluded: "Late today Bloomingdales and Macy's both reported an increase in sales over this day last year, an early, hopeful sign that the Christmas buying season might just be jolly after all."

Official figures to tell who was right are not yet out, but it just goes to show how easily reporters can take the same basic facts, and lead viewers to totally different conclusions by simply adding a little directional spin.

BROADCAST'S BROAD WITH A SENSITIVE BRA. Many believe the new movie Broadcast News, set in the Washington bureau of a TV network, is modeled after CBS. Susan Zirinsky should know. She's a Senior Producer of the CBS Evening News in Washington who took a leave from the network to help produce the film.

As Tom Shales recounted in a December 13 Washington Post Magazine story, Zirinsky was "dazzled" by the performance of Jack Nicholson playing a "Rather-like anchorman." She told Shales: "When he came on the set and started acting, I could feel it in my bra. That's how great it was." Too bad Rather didn't put in a cameo appearance.

THE BOESKY TWIST. When a New York court convicted Ivan Boesky on December 18 of charges stemming from his illegal "insider" stock trading, the three networks and CNN made it their lead item. But only the CBS Evening News devoted an entire story to portraying

Boesky as the natural consequence of conservative values that became dominant during the 1980's. CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer offered Reagan's 1983 comment that he wanted to make sure the U.S. "remains a country where someone can always get rich" as symbolic of misplaced values this decade. To corroborate his premise, Schieffer interviewed liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who placed the blame on Reagan's conservative economic policies: "What happened to Boesky is a predictable result of an era which assigns moral priority to the pursuit of self-interest and where the machinery of regulation in the public interest is systematically weakened and discredited."

Agreeing with that assessment, Schieffer looked forward to life after Reagan, concluding his report: "Mopping up after the new gilded age and people like Boesky may well be the most important task the next President faces."

CBS FAILS TO GIVE MIRANDA RIGHT. A top level official of the Sandinista regime defects to the United States. He discloses that Nicaragua has no intention of abiding by the Central American peace agreement. He reveals Sandinista plans to train communist guerrillas from El Salvador, double the size of its military force and acquire advanced Soviet MiG-21 jet fighters, anti-aircraft missiles and artillery. The story is then confirmed publicly by Sandinista Defense Minister Humberto Ortega.

You might think the media would consider this remarkable development worthy of a major story, especially since it contradicted the "peace" overtures for the region Gorbachev made during the summit. At least ABC, CNN and NBC thought so. But not CBS. The network ignored the charges leveled by Major Roger Miranda, a former top aide to Humberto Ortega, which first appeared in a page one Washington Post story on December 13.

That night, after Miranda held a press conference, ABC's World News Sunday led with the story. On Monday, ABC's John McWethy delivered a lengthy report. NBC carried a football game on Sunday, but in a similar Monday, December 14 Nightly News piece Anne Garrels, like Anthony Collings on CNN PrimeNews, told about Sandinista plans to kidnap American citizens in neighboring nations in case of a U.S. invasion.

The first peep from CBS did not occur until Tuesday, December 15 when Evening News anchor Dan Rather barely acknowledged the major development, blithely saying Reagan did not "confront Gorbachev with the latest information from a defector about planned future aid" to Nicaragua. That was it. Censorship doesn't get any better than this.

FACTS DON'T STALL STAHL'S STORY. On November 13, CBS reporter Lesley Stahl devoted an entire Evening News story to advocating a tax increase. "To cut the deficit, why not raise income taxes just a little?" Stahl asked. "A two percent rate hike," she proposed, "would bring in more than $27 billion." A bit later she complained that "the system can't agree on any taxes, even a gas tax now when prices are low. A ten cent a gallon increase would raise ten billion dollars and discourage foreign consumption." Stahl ended the story by claiming most people are on her side, declaring: "The American people may be ready for sacrifice, but their elected officials are not ready to call for it."

But, Stahl's Washington bureau colleague, Bob Schieffer, arrived at just the opposite conclusion. On November 19 he did a story on the deficit, but reluctantly concluded a tax increase is not the answer because: "Taxes are still as unpopular as ever today." So who had it right? Schieffer did. A CBS News/New York Times poll released November 30 found that 60 percent of Americans are against paying any more in federal taxes. Stahl is apparently not one to let facts get in the way of a good story.

GLASNOST ANYONE? This is how Mikhail Gorbachev begins the U.S. edition of his new tome, "Perestroika":

"The purpose of this book is to talk without intermediaries to the citizens of the whole world about things that, without exception, concern us all. I have written this book because I believe in their common sense. I am convinced that they, like me, worry about the future of our planet."

But the Hungarian edition of the same book begins this way:

"In our work and worries, we are motivated by those Leninist ideals and noble endeavors and goals which mobilized the workers of Russia seven decades ago to fight for the new and happy world of socialism. Perestroika is a continuation of the October Revolution."

MediaWatch rests its case and thanks The New Republic's December 21 edition for bringing out this enlightening information.

WALKING ON THE LEFT SIDE. "A hip, cool, political satire," is how New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby appraised "Walker," a film that as even Canby reported, "was produced with the complete cooperation of the Sandinista government" of Nicaragua. Director Alex Cox takes the real life story of William Walker, an American adventurer who briefly ruled Nicaragua in the 1850's, and uses it as a convenient plot from which to rail against U.S. "interventionism" today. Indeed, the newspaper ad for the film is none too subtle, proclaiming: "Before Rambo...Before Oliver North...Walker, a true story." To make sure theater-goers get the connection to current events, Cox adds a few anachronisms to the 19th century scenes, like a modern helicopter rescuing Walker's men.

The heavy-handed left-wing political message turned off even a reviewer usually excited by such film themes. Rita Kempley of The Washington Post, who considered "Platoon" to be "the finest film of 1987," labeled "Walker" a "bungled, gratuitously gory political diatribe." But some others, like Time magazine's Richard Schickel approved. In the December 7 issue he wrote: "At all times one is glad to see the spirit of youthful subversion alive, applied to a sober subject." Neither Schickel or Kempley bothered to mention the Sandinistas' enthusiastic cooperation in producing the movie for Yankee audiences. Nor did they or Canby inform readers the film ends by rolling "special thanks" credits to Minister of the Interior, Tomas Borge, the man in charge of the Sandinista secret police. While this was enough to turn off most people, since "Walker" died after just a few weeks in theaters, it did not bother Canby. He concluded his review by issuing this endorsement of the film's anti-U.S. policy message:

'"Walker' is witty, rather than laugh-out loud funny. Without being solemn, it's deadly serious. It's also provocative enough to reach beyond -- if not preach to -- those already converted. 'Walker' is something very rare in American movies these days. It has nerve."

Revolving Door

James Greenfield, Assistant Managing Editor, New York Times, adds Editor, New York Times Magazine to his duties in recent appointment. Greenfield was chief diplomatic correspondent for Time magazine, becoming Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs under President Kennedy before promotion to Assistant Secretary of State by President Johnson in 1964. From 1969 to 1977 he served as foreign news editor for the paper of record.

Patricia O'Brien, Press Secretary to Mike Dukakis campaign since April, resigned in Thanksgiving weekend shake-up of campaign. She had been hired by campaign manager John Sasso who was later forced to leave after acknowledging role in Biden tape controversy.

The November 26 Boston Herald reported that the former Knight-Ridder national correspondent "became friendly" with Sasso while covering the 1984 Ferraro campaign which he managed.

Anne Edwards, who joined National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington in March, 1987, promoted to Senior Editor. She directed the Carter White House television office. In 1980 she joined CBS News as a Washington bureau assignment editor, leaving in 1984 to handle press advance work and scheduling for the Mondale-Ferraro presidential effort.

Jeanne Edmunds, deputy to CBS Face the Nation Executive Producer Karen Sughrue, left the show in late November to "pursue independent projects." After working in Democratic politics in Texas, she moved to Washington with the Carter transition team. Soon tiring of politics, she became a guest booker for Mutual's Larry King Show, later doing the same for the CBS Morning News as an Associate Producer.

When named Producer of the Sunday interview program in 1986 she replaced Mary Fifield, Press Secretary in mid-70s for Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

Christopher Matthews, top aide to Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill for seven years until O'Neill's retirement a year ago, named Washington Bureau Chief for San Francisco Examiner. He's also started writing a column for the King Features syndicate and will contribute commentaries on the 1988 campaign to the Mutual Broadcasting System. Before joining O'Neill in 1982 Matthews was a speechwriter for President Carter.

Douglas Bennet, President and Chief Executive Officer of NPR, unanimously re-elected by Board of Directors to another one-year term. During his political career Bennet worked for Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, Democratic Senator Tom Eagleton and headed the Agency for International Development under Carter.

WTTG-TV, channel 5 in Washington, launched a weekly "Point-Counterpoint" debate on the 10 O'Clock News. Newsweek correspondent Eleanor Clift serves as the liberal in the Tuesday night debates with conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas.

Janet Cooke Award: Bill Moyers and His PBS Series

Bill Moyers, now with PBS, is at it again. And his new three part series, "God and Politics" has earned him the January "Janet Cooke Award." In the series, Moyers took a look at the growing fundamentalist movement. In Part One, "The Kingdom Divided," which aired December 9, Moyers offered both a confusing and slanted picture of the union of political and religious action in Nicaragua. Seeming to offer a balanced look at the fundamentalist and liberation theology movements, Moyers blatantly mis-represented Sandinista commitment to religious freedom.

In a Good Morning America interview, Moyers claimed: "We really can't judge the Sandinista revolution by the Marxist revolution in Russia or any other communist movement. This is a movement that is fueled with Christian passion and Christian commitment." Not once in the PBS show did Moyers speak with a member of the Catholic Church hierarchy in Nicaragua, nor did he ever mention the grievous actions of the totalitarian government against religious freedom: imprisonment of priests opposed to the government, and the censorship of all Catholic radio stations and newspapers.

Pablo Antonio Vega, an exiled Roman Catholic bishop from Nicaragua, described any Sandinista religion campaign as "deceptive," explaining to MediaWatch: "The communists simply want to profit from the religiosity of the people, and submit the people to their regime." Contacted by MediaWatch, the Producer/ Director of the program, Elena Mannes, refused to comment on specifics, declaring: "I really don't want to comment on particular issues and I've said before the broadcast speaks for itself."

The second show, "Battle for the Bible," centered on Moyers' one-sided look at the recent conservative genesis of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest U.S. Protestant denomination. Dismissing any idea that the Baptists may have wanted a conservative leadership, he concluded: "By 1987, the fundamentalists controlled the denomination's superstructure. Their biblical agenda and the social agenda of the New Right had become indistinguishable." Moyers went to great lengths to attack SBC resolutions on abortion and school prayer, as well as to condemn ties to conservative politics. Of Judge Paul Pressler, a SBC leader, Moyers asked: "But aren't you a member of the Council for National Policy?...Shouldn't people out there know about your political connections?" Moyers' conclusion clearly showed his disdain: "[the SBC can now] enroll God in partisan politics and make one party the sole party of truth....Of all people, Baptists must know that making biblical doctrine the test of political opinion is democratic heresy."

Interestingly, Moyers failed to mention that one of his chief sources on the show, liberal minister James Dunn, is a former director of People for the American Way, a liberal lobby. What about liberal religious groups and their involvement? He had plenty of criticism for the SBC's endorsement of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court, but had nothing to say about liberal church groups like the National Council of Churches and the Progressive Baptist Association, both of which opposed Bork. When asked about this obvious double standard, Executive Producer Joan Konner avoided MediaWatch's questions, claiming: "We at some point would love the opportunity to examine all these issues further....That doesn't mean we are actively seeking to do the other side of the story."

Pressler called Moyers' presentation a "very inaccurate, narrow, and limited viewpoint of what is going on in the SBC." But indeed, all this comes as little surprise. As a CBS analyst during the 1984 GOP Convention Moyers spent most of his time disparaging conservatives, referring to them as "the fringe exotic radicals" with an "authoritarian" goal. Incredibly, the December 7 USA Today quotes CBS News President Howard Stringer as yearning for Moyers to return since he's such "a great resource to have in an election year." That reveals a lot about CBS News concern for accuracy and fairness.