In This Issue
Medicare: The Story with 1,060 Errors; NewsBites: Humorless Howard; Revolving Door: Chancellor's Last Spin; Slow Out of the Gate on Filegate; Families First Favored; Coia and the Mafia; Double Standard on Rumor; Janet Cooke Award: Poor Joan of Arc Can't Get Private Help
Medicare: The Story with 1,060 Errors
No subject inspires more daily journalistic fabrication than the federal budget. For the last 15 years, as federal spending mushroomed, journalists told a story echoing liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, of a squalid public sector starved of its necessary funds. No program benefited more from the statist illusions of baseline budgeting than Medicare, which reportedly suffered "deep cuts" as it expanded -- 72 percent in the Bush years, for example.
In the last 18 months, reporters have made Medicare "cuts" an essential part of its method of underlining the "extremism" of the Republican Congress. The GOP's balanced-budget plan called for a $270 billion reduction in projected Medicare increases over seven years (with spending per recipient scheduled to increase from $4,800 to $7,100), but "cuts" remained the most popular paradigm of reporting.
To determine the accuracy of Medicare coverage, MediaWatch analysts reviewed 1,134 news stories in three newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today) and three news magazines (Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report) from January 1, 1995 to June 30, 1996. Employing the Nexis news data retrieval system to secure every news mention of "Medicare" within 10 words of "cut," "reduce," "slash," "scale back," and "savings," analysts found 1,060 examples of journalists describing Medicare "cuts."
Analysts counted multiple references within stories, but only references to overall Medicare spending growth, and did not include references to specifics, such as smaller reimbursements to doctors and hospitals. Also omitted were references to "saving" Medicare, which do not refer to spending. Analysts did include descriptions that did not match the search terms ("gut," "trim," "shrink," "chop," "slice," "curtail").
Other less harsh and inaccurate terms were also used. References to "savings" were most common, with 439 mentions. "Cuts in the growth" of Medicare spending drew 347 uses, and "cuts in projected spending" appeared 115 times. But the 901 uses of these terms were outnumbered by the 1,060 uses of "cut" variants. In this sample of stories inaccurate terminology drew more than half (54 percent) of journalistic declarations of Medicare's up-or-down fiscal fate.
Even the more accurate terms were garbled reactions to the dominant baseline-budgeting news paradigm. After all, how informative is the term "savings" when spending will increase by seven percent instead of ten percent? "Cuts in growth" and "cuts in projected spending" are interesting synonyms for a seven percent increase, especially when these terms were modified to sound harsher by reporters: "unreasonably large savings," "deep cuts in projected spending," "massive reductions in growth." To break it down by publication:
In 39 stories, Newsweek contained 24 mentions of "cuts," and only 11 more accurate terms: five of "savings," five of "cuts in growth," and one "cut in projected spending." The January 8, 1996 "Corporate Killers" cover story warned: "Congress's budget debate -- and possible cuts in programs like Medicare and Medicaid -- feeds fears that the social safety net is about to be savaged."
Out of 63 stories, Time employed 49 descriptions of "cuts," to 20 uses of "cuts in growth," nine of "savings," and two of "cuts in projected spending." The May 15, 1995 "The Week" news summary read: "The President's strategists were not about to offer Republicans a hand with their balanced-budget/tax-cut promises by agreeing to deep slashes in Medicare." Richard Lacayo wrote on February 12, 1996 that a flat tax "could mean either a higher deficit or even heavier spending cuts in such places as Medicare."
U.S. News & World Report's 69 stories included 47 "cut" terms to 55 of the more accurate terms -- the only source to tip slightly in accuracy's direction. The stories featured 29 references to "cuts in growth," 21 to "savings," and five to "cuts in projected spending." A March 13, 1995 budget story reported: "Among big-ticket programs, Medicare, the health care program for the elderly, and Medicaid, for the poor, both came in for major cuts."
The New York Times filed 508 stories matching the search terms, with 386 references to "cuts." Reports of "savings" came on 144 occasions, "cuts in growth" on 112, and "cuts in projected spending" on 76. On May 11, 1995, reporter David Sanger wrote: "But when it came to the details, they balked at many of the most extreme cuts, from the deepest slashes in Medicare to the elimination of the Commerce Department."
On October 27, the Times reported a controversy over its poll question: "If you had to choose, would you prefer balancing the budget or preventing Medicare from being significantly cut?" Not only did media outlets err in news stories, then they erred in their polls and in the news stories reporting the poll results.
In 256 stories, USA Today carried 157 mentions of "cuts," compared to 63 of "savings," 56 of "cuts in growth," and 12 of "cuts in projected spending." Reporter William M. Welch suggested on May 10, 1995 the Republican budget would "make huge cuts in Medicare and Medicaid." Despite the 157 boo-boos, USA Today actually printed a correction on September 6, 1995: "In its Thursday edition, USA Today incorrectly states that Republicans have proposed reducing Medicare spending by $270 billion. Under the Republican reform proposal to ensure that the program remains solvent, Medicare spending over the next seven years increases."
The Washington Post led the survey with 397 uses of "cuts" and its variants in 370 stories, contrasted by 197 references to "savings," 125 to "cuts in growth," and 19 to "cuts in projected spending." An October 22, 1995 headline charged: "Critics Say Huge Medicare Cut Will Not Heal System as GOP Predicts." But the emblematic Post error came in reporter Howard Kurtz's attempt to correct a Clinton ad on February 7, 1996: "What the ads don't say is that Clinton has also proposed to cut Medicare spending, albeit less than the GOP." Kurtz's story, as well as the sample as a whole, suggests print reporters are hardly the most reliable judges of accuracy, even on the most basic budgetary truths.
NewsBites: Humorless Howard
To read Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, one might think Bill Clinton was some poor fat kid getting ridiculed on the playground. In a June 4 story he claimed Clinton "has drawn a phenomenal amount of personal ridicule" from comedians, "Unflattering images -- of a philandering, draft-dodging, pot-smoking, cheeseburger-chomp-ing, self-indulgent finagler -- reverberate through the media." And "Republicans have concluded that barbed humor can be a particularly sharp weapon." Unfortunately, Kurtz did not quantify his feelings by consulting experts. On June 24, the Center for Media and Public Affairs released the results of its study detailing jokes told by David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien. Since the end of the primaries, "the latenight comics have told twice as many jokes about Dole as they have about Clinton."
Richer Under Clinton.
The June 20 New York Times headline declared: "Income Disparity Between Poorest and Richest Rises." Reporter Steven Holmes relayed a Census Bureau finding that "during the first two years" of Clinton, "the share of national income earned by the top 5 percent of householdsgrew at a faster rate than during the eight years of the Reagan administration, which was often characterized as favoring the rich." Where were the networks? On March 5, 1992, when the Times ran a similar piece, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather announced: "In America in the 1980s, what former President Reagan and those who support him call the Reagan Revolution put more money in the pockets of the rich. We already knew that. But a new study indicates that those who did best of all by far were the very richest of the rich." This time CBS was silent, as were ABC and CNN. The news made the June 20 NBC Nightly News, but anchor Brian Williams didn't blame Clinton, but corporate America: "Much of the blame for the income gap has been laid on vast changes in the job market, a job market that keeps shrinking. A while back corporate f pumping the story up."
The Invisible McDougals.
Two recent morning show interviewers demonstrated the convictions of the President's Whitewater business partners on multiple felony counts hasn't changed the media's tune. On the June 5 Good Morning America, ABC's Elizabeth Vargas interviewed Michael Chertoff, Republican Counsel to the Whitewater investigation. She inquired: "It would seem very natural that Hillary Clinton's fingerprints would be on her own billing records. Is this at all significant?" Throughout the interview Vargas sounded like a White House flack: "But, Mr. Chertoff, Mrs. Clinton freely admits she examined those documents back in 1992. How do you know these prints aren't several years old?"
CBS This Morning substitute host Erin Moriarty spent three straight days using the White House spin to challenge guests on June 18-20. Questioning Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), Democratic activist Lynn Cutler, and David Maraniss of The Washington Post, Moriarty asked nothing but pro-Clinton questions. She asked Molinari: "But let's be honest here. I mean, this is an election year. How much of this, as the White House of course says, is just a matter of the Republicans piling on in a presidential election year?" She asked Maraniss: "We're talking about transactions that occurred a decade ago. I mean, can't some of this just be simply forgetfulness?" The next day, Moriarty tried to dismiss Filegate in a question to Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.): "Are you concerned that this will mean a number of redundant investigations into the same matter?"
Schneider's Wishful Thinking.On the June 14 Inside Politics, CNN polling analyst Bill Schneider trumpeted, as the death knell of conservative activism, Virginia Sen. John Warner's decisive win over Jim Miller in a GOP primary: "This week the voters struck a resounding blow against political correctness -- not political correctness of the left, political correctness of the right." Schneider reported Warner took "moderate positions on abortion and gun control" and "refused to support radical right nominees of his own party, like Oliver North in 1994 and former Moral Majority official Mike Farris in 1993."
According to Schneider, activists representing term limits, gun owners and Christian conservatives were rejected by even the Republican faithful in Virginia. "Warner didn't just beat Miller, he wiped the floor with him. Warner won everywhere, even in solidly Republican areas...the Republican mainstream turned out to vote against him [Miller]."
Schneider charged conservatives were on a losing streak. "This represents the third defeat in a row for the right wing in Virginia. They couldn't win general elections in 1993 and 1994." He forgot the GOP made big gains in the state legislature in 1995 and elected conservative Gov. George Allen in 1993. Schneider also failed to mention the actual tone of Warner's TV ads. Some attacked Miller from the right, while others pitched Warner as a conservative: "Committed to common sense conservative principles like lower taxes, less regulation, and a balanced budget."
It's Our Land of Hackdom Now.
An article in the June 3 Newsweek by Mark Hosenball and Daniel Klaidman showed the Willie Horton defense is already being deployed in Campaign '96. Titled "Desperately Seeking the Next `Willie Horton,' the piece detailed what Newsweek called "part of a concerted Republican effort to build a `Hall of Shame' for prosecutors and judges deemed soft on crime...A loose network of former Republican prosecutors is searching for liberal jurists and lawyers, the kind who might, say, turn loose another Willie Horton."
Specifically, Newsweek tried to short-circuit Republican criticism of Janet Napolitano, a Clinton-appointed U.S. Attorney who had been one of Anita Hill's lawyers. Napolitano's office refused to grant a search warrant to postal inspectors investigating a child porn ring because she had a "`philosophical disagreement' with the sting operation because it targeted homosexual males." Oddly, while Hosenball and Klaidman decried this injection of politics into criminal justice, they cheered on that the "Justice [Department] is learning how to fight back. Using the lexicon of the campaign, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick has told aides she wants a `rapid response' to counter charges `in the same news cycle.' Gorelick is even setting up a campaign-like `war room' in her office. In a campaign year, Justice can't afford to be totally blind."
This contrasted with Newsweek's attitude in 1992 that "Clinton, for a change, should pick an Attorney General who is above politics." In that November 23, 1992 article Newsweek's David Kaplan criticized the Justice Department under Ed Meese for being too political: "Meese ran a Justice Department that was the Land of Hackdom -- little more than an agency to service the needs of President Reagan and, occasionally, of the A.G. himself. [Meese's] four-year reign was the archetype of politics over conscience, ideology over law."
Hyping the Hippie.
When Timothy Leary died on May 31, the media lauded him as a barefoot, smiling hippie who spent his life dispensing wisdom and encouraging people to open their minds. CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson related that "the last words of the man who spent a lifetime asking questions [were] `Why not?'
Newsweek's David Gates gave a much more complete portrait of Leary's life. Gates reported June 10 that by the end of the '60s, Leary "found it `inconceivable' that turned-on parents wouldn't share acid with kids as young as 7." In 1970, he broke out of prison with the help of the ultra-violent leftist Weather Underground, fleeing to the Black Panther's "exile" camp in Algeria. Gates reported that Leary suggested it was a "`sacred act' to shoot cops." After being captured in Afghanistan, Leary informed on drug buddies to curry favor for a lighter sentence.
Brokaw's Bias Drained Out.
Why are the media perceived as biased and what are the greatest threats to honest information? NBC's Tom Brokaw offered novel answers during a June 11 National Press Club appearance aired on C-SPAN. On bias, Brokaw explained: "We're out there on the cutting edge of change on a daily basis. That's what news is all about....The people...who are the recipients of that news, kind of like the status quo for the most part. They're comfortable. They've learned to deal with it and they don't want to adapt to the change. Therefore they have to learn to blame someone in some regard and they think therefore since we brought them the news of the change that somehow we are biased of favor of the change." He insisted: "We've worked very hard to drain the bias out of what we do."
He dismissed talk radio, saying "I think that people pretty soon get bored with it...I think that you'll find that a lot of these acts and a lot of these towns around the country will begin to dry up because it's so Johnny One Note and it's not very enlightening." While "they can still stir up an issue from time to time," to Brokaw that's not a good thing, it's instead "the price of free speech."
Talk radio is not the only non-mainstream media source that disturbed the NBC anchor: "If you don't go on the net and look at the political web sites, then you're missing something, because that's an unfiltered access to people out there, and there's some outrageous stuff that is going out on the Internet right now -- claims that are being made by these special interest groups, all the way across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right." It seems that in Brokaw's world, free speech is a threat if he or his colleagues can't control it.
Revolving Door: Chancellor's Last Spin
On July 12 NBC News veteran John Chancellor, who anchored NBC Nightly News from 1970 to 1982, passed away at age 68. For two years during the Johnson administration, Chancellor served as Director of the Voice of America. His death generated a series of tributes to his fairness and impartiality from his media colleagues.
On the July 13 NBC Nightly News, for instance, anchor Brian Williams observed of the man who delivered commentary until his 1993 retirement: "He was a role model for all who care about truth, justice and fairness. John Chancellor died last night of cancer, two days short of his 69th birthday. He helped define what TV news should be." Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz recalled that Chancellor "called himself a man of the `extreme center.'"
"He dealt in facts," asserted former NBC News President Michael Gartner in a July 16 USA Today column. "For his last ten years at NBC, he delivered 90-second commentaries three nights a week....At dinner one night, I remarked that he got more facts into 90 seconds than we could get into the rest of Nightly News in 21 minutes." Here's a look at some of those "fact"-based commentaries:
April 17, 1990: "The overall tax burden for Americans, federal, state, and local, is actually quite low....The fact is Americans could pay more taxes and the country wouldn't go down the tube. Taxpayers don't believe this because they are being conned by the politicians...The truth is that the United States needs higher taxes and can afford them. Some political leaders are now starting to say that, but until more say it, the country will remain in trouble."
November 20, 1990: "Some say Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by spending so much on defense that the Kremlin went bankrupt trying to keep up. That won't wash. During Reagan's presidency the United States itself became a bankrupt country."
August 21, 1991, on the Soviet Union: "It's short of soap, so there are lice in hospitals. It's short of pantyhose, so women's legs go bare. It's short snowsuits, so babies stay home in winter....The problem isn't communism; nobody even talked about communism this week. The problem is shortages."
April 30, 1992, after the riots in Los Angeles: "It's not a big surprise that the jury in suburban Simi Valley sided with the white policemen. Just as it's no surprise that the blacks in downtown Los Angeles rioted and people died....Politicians have fanned these flames with code words about `welfare queens,' `equal opportunity,' and `quotas.' Language designed to turn whites against blacks. With two-party politics that favored the rich and hurt everyone else."
March 12, 1992, a year after the Gulf War: "Greenpeace, the public interest organization, believes that the Iraqi death toll, civilian and military, before and after the war, may be as high as 198,000. Allied military dead are counted in the low hundreds. The disparity is huge and somewhat embarrassing. And that's commentary for this evening, Tom." Election night, 1992, looking back at the Republican convention: "I think that the convention -- and certainly all the polling data indicates this -- offended a lot of women, offended a lot of people in the country who thought it was too religious and too hard-edged."
Slow Out of the Gate on Filegate
After some initial reluctance, the networks eventually picked up the news that the White House had improperly obtained FBI files. But instead of launching their own investigations, they selectively ran revelations uncovered by others.
The White House admitted on June 7 collecting FBI reports on 338 GOP officials. ABC, CBS and CNN failed to mention the revelation that night. NBC's Tom Brokaw did a brief item. ABC aired its first story the next day after Bob Dole raised the Watergate comparison. Over on NBC, anchor Brian Williams painted Dole as the bad guy: "The politics of Campaign '96 are getting very ugly, very early. Today, Bob Dole accused the White House of using the FBI to wage war against its political enemies."
Three days later only ABC reported that FBI procdures were violated and the next day, June 12, ABC and NBC didn't bother noting that President Clinton apologized. On June 13 the networks were silent though the Senate announced hearings would be held, the FBI began an overhaul of procedures, and the New York Post reported that Anthony Marceca, who got the files, had ties to Democratic politicians.
On June 14 FBI Director Louis Freeh charged the White House with "egregious violations of privacy." All four did stories, but the day after this critical report that contradict-ed the White House claims, only CBS touched the subject.
"There's no question that the press initially blew this story," Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz declared on the June 16 Fox News Sunday. Why? There was a "feeling that...a political snooping operation was not the kind of thing they expected from the Clinton White House, whereas if hundreds of files had been obtained by Ed Meese in the Reagan administration on Democrats, I think this story would have rocketed to the front page." But that failed to prod his colleagues. No network noted that day's Washington Post report that, in contradiction to White House claims, the Secret Service said they did not produce the list.
Instead, CBS painted the Clintons as victims. When the Senate issued its June 18 report on its Travel Office investigation, Dan Rather intoned: "The more than year-long investigation ended almost the way it began: A Republican offensive targeted First Lady Hillary Clinton. Democrats claim that it's an all-out election-year political smear-attack." Weeks later abuses of pow-er still failed to raise concern. The July 6 Los Angeles Times reported that Marceca "learn-ed from his own background file the names of two women who made critical comments about him to the FBI. After seeing the file, Marceca sued the two women for defamation." Network coverage? Zilch.
Families First Favored
NBC doesn't know what to think about the Contract with America's political appeal, but in 1994 they denounced its content while providing a more favorable forum this year for the Democratic platform.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt appeared on the June 24 Today to discuss his Families First agenda. Katie Couric asked: "Speaker Gingrich and company's Contract with America was ultimately rejected by the majority of Americans and few people believe it was really behind the GOP sweep of the congressional elections in 1994, so why are Democrats trying the same approach?"
But 45 minutes later reporter Joe Johns had a different view: "The new Democratic agenda echoes a successful GOP strategy. In 1994, Republicans unveiled the Contract with America, which framed their national agenda in the weeks before the elections."
Whatever its public appeal, NBC panned the Contract when the Republicans unveiled it on September 27, 1994. Anchor Tom Brokaw announced: "GOP congressional candidates were summoned to Washington and given a battle plan. However, as NBC's Lisa Myers tells us tonight, it is long on promises but short on sound premises."
Myers lambasted it with five condemnations. After saying it called for tax cuts and a balanced budget, Myers charged that "an independent budget expert called it standard political bunk." She let a Democrat tag it "a big fraud" and then she stated the plan "fell hundreds of billions of dollars short of balancing the budget." Myers allowed Gingrich to defend the term limits plank, but only to use his response ("I don't think you're going to say to everybody who's been here 12 years, `You know, this is your last term'") as a foil for her closing sentence: "And politicians wonder why voters are cynical."
The networks went much easier on the Democrats. On the June 23 CBS Evening News John Roberts relayed, without any critical comment: "The Families First agenda includes higher paychecks, welfare reform, college tuition tax credits, better health care, retirement security and safer neighborhoods." A Nightly News piece by NBC's Johns was balanced, saying only the proposal was "short on specifics" without attacking any of the planks. Gingrich would have appreciated similar treatment.
Coia and the Mafia
Both Newsweek and Time have filed stories detailing the interesting relationship between President Clinton and Arthur Coia, head of the Laborers International Union of North America. The Justice Department's suspension of a federal takeover of the union coincided with generous donations to Clinton from both Coia and the union.
Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman were first on the story in the May 20 issue, noting the union has given more than $3 million to the Democrats since 1991. The June 24 Time story by reporter George Church suggested the relationship seemed to pay off for Coia: "After three months of negotiations, however, the Justice Department persuaded the union to sign a consent decree acknowledging Mob influence and conceding to court-appointed officers. But the department agreed to hold off filing the decree...The deal left Coia on the job even though the original complaint described him as `associated with and controlled and influenced by organized-crime figures.' Those are documentable facts...Did Justice make a deal because of Coia's White House connections?" Church added: "The unprecedented agreement dismayed some investigators in the field, who had spent years building the case against the union."
Church also noted: "Though there is no evidence of a White House-engineered fix, the laborers' lavish donations to the Democratic Party and Coia's frequent appearances at the White House -- as well as deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes' past life as a lawyer for the Laborers -- may hand the Republicans a campaign issue."
Double Standard on Rumor
Under intense questioning on the June 30 This Week with David Brinkley, former FBI agent turned author Gary Aldrich backed down on the most sensational charge in his book Unlimited Access -- that Bill Clinton sneaks out of the White House for trysts. Reporters denounced Aldrich, and ABC's Nightline, Dateline NBC, and CNN's Larry King Live canceled interviews with him, echoing the White House line that guests meet a "bare threshhold of credibility." This is not a standard the networks have applied in the past.
Kitty Kelley appeared in three consecutive morning interviews on NBC's Today show (April 8-10, 1991) and also on CBS This Morning (April 11). Time and Newsweek both put her book on their covers. The New York Times put her unproven charges on page one, without any attempt to prove her allegations, including the fanciful charge that Nancy Reagan had a torrid affair with Frank Sinatra in the White House. Bryant Gumbel began NBC's three days of interviews arguing that "Best-selling author Kitty Kelley has proven her courage and her credibility with her no-holds-barred biographies."
Anita Hill drew more than 60 evening news stories in October 1991 on the networks before the Senate even began hearings, which featured the live airing of Hill's unsubstantiated allegations that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas talked about the size of his penis and loved discussing films showing humans having sex with animals. On October 7, 1991, Dan Rather asked Hill questions like: "Why do you believe this man, Judge Thomas, that you have worked closely with for a long time, has not spoken directly to what you consider to be the substance of this charge?" Joseph and Susan Trento claimed, based solely on the guesswork of the late Ambassador Louis Fields, that George Bush had an affair with State Department aide Jennifer Fitzgerald. On August 11, 1992, CNN's Mary Tillotson was the first to ask Bush about the charge. Dateline NBC anchor Stone Phillips asked the President in prime time. ABC's Good Morning America and CBS This Morning invited the Trentos on for interviews.
Newt Gingrich's enemies have insisted that Gingrich showed up at the hospital bed of his cancer-stricken first wife Jackie with a notebook to discuss divorce terms. That unsubstantiated story has been told by Tom Brokaw on Dateline NBC, CNN's Judy Woodruff, and then-CBS star Connie Chung.
Gary Sick's 2,200-word April 15, 1991 New York Times op-ed jump-started the discredited "October Surprise" theory that held the 1980 Reagan campaign conspired to delay the release of the Iranian hostages. Sick was booked on Nightline (where Ted Koppel called him "serious, knowledgeable Gary Sick") and Larry King Live, and the charges drew 27 evening news stories in 1991.
Janet Cooke Award: Poor Joan of Arc Can't Get Private Help
Reporter Bob Woodward promoted his new book The Choice with a colorful anecdote of Hillary Clinton, under the guidance of psychic Jean Houston, speaking in the White House solarium to Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. Woodward reported the friendship clicked when Houston said Hillary "was reversing thousands of years of expectation, and was there upfront, probably more than virtually any woman in human history -- apart from Joan of Arc."
Reporters at Newsweek and ABC sympathized with the First Lady in covering Woodward's psychic scoop. For employing a very different approach than their coverage of Nancy Reagan's use of an astrologer, Newsweek and ABC earned the Janet Cooke Award.
Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas acknowledged the Nancy Reagan parallels of Hillary's psychic friends, but countered critics and comedians July 1: "A long-time searcher for spiritual meaning, Mrs. Clinton had conjured conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt long before she met Dr. Houston. Mrs Clinton is not even the first First Lady to dabble in psychics or mediums: the wives of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding all tried, in one way or another, to communicate beyond the grave. Unlike Nancy Reagan, Hillary never tried to use psychic powers to influence her husband."
Thomas added: "To many women, Hillary Clinton is not a cold-eyed conspirator, but a martyr." He quoted Mrs. Clinton's fans at a Boston fundraiser for the Clinton campaign saying Hillary's "being bashed by the press" because "a lot of people don't like a strong woman." Thomas concluded that to these voters, "Hillary looks just the way she does to her philosopher friend, Dr. Houston -- as a Joan of Arc figure, persecuted for her righteous crusade."
If it seems hardly noteworthy for liberal Hillary to be popular in Massachusetts, the June 21 Boston Herald's account of the fundraiser presented a less than popular figure. Reporter Joe Sciacca quoted a Democratic operative: "They couldn't give tickets away. A lot of people got [free tickets]. Even the applause lines were off. A lot of people are getting concerned." Thomas told MediaWatch: "Our reporter Martha Brant was there and saw it first-hand. They certainly were enthusiastic Hillary-lovers at this lunch...I don't think the point's negated if they had difficulty selling tickets."
This is not the spin Newsweek gave the Nancy Reagan story, revealed in former chief of staff Don Regan's book For the Record. In the May 16, 1988 issue, George Hackett and Eleanor Clift did allow Mrs. Reagan's press secretary, Elaine Crispen, to ask: "If she could get a little comfort and consolation from astrology, why not?" But they also forwarded other spins: "Scientists showed less tolerance for the President's participation in what they consider medieval superstition. `How can you control a science budget of billions of dollars when you believe in nonsense of this magnitude?,' says James Kaler, professor of astronomy at the University of Illinois." Hackett and Clift added: "Criticism also rumbled from fundamentalists, who liken astrology to Satan worship. `This is the last straw for a lot of religious people who treated Reagan as their political savior,' said conservative columnist and former Moral Majority vice president Cal Thomas."
Newsweek failed to try these lines of attack on Mrs. Clinton's Methodist commitments. (It could have been done: Washington Times reporter Julia Duin did interview several disappointed Methodist theologians and evangelicals -- and some Methodist defenders -- on June 25). But that might have clashed with Newsweek religion reporter Kenneth Woodward's October 31, 1994 verdict that "Hillary Rodham Clinton is as pious as she is political. Methodism, for her, is not just a church but an extended family of faith that defines her horizons." He called the Clinton era . Sam Donaldson reports the White House will not take the Regan book lying down."
Donaldson was straightforward instead of sympathetic, airing both critics and supporters: "This new, unflattering portrait of the First Family is producing new, often humorous, unfavorable public reaction which political opponents are clearly savoring.... Reagan loyalists are incensed....Reporters like Helen Thomas are just glad to be informed." Donaldson ended: "Presidents and their wives look to their place in history and to the Reagans, Regan's book doesn't help." Both outlets were reasonably fair (if a little jokey) with the Reagans, but any damaging tidbit on the Clintons, no matter how trivial, seems to inspire an entirely different approach: damage control. Remember when reporters used to provoke damage control, not practice it?