MediaWatch: March 1988

In This Issue

Study: It's All Meese and No Wright; NewsBites; Today's Cuba; Revolving Door; Janet Cooke Award: Peter Jennings: ABC News

Study: It's All Meese and No Wright

Almost since the day he took office back in February, 1985 liberals in Congress have been hurling charges of improper conduct toward Attorney General Ed Meese. With the disclosure of the Iraqi pipeline memo in late January, his opponents received plenty of help from the media in their quest to raise a cloud of suspicion. Over the past year equally serious questions have also been raised about the ethical conduct of the most powerful Democrat in the nation, House Speaker Jim Wright, including influence peddling and campaign money laundering. But, a MediaWatch Study has found that while major media outlets jump on any rumor of misconduct by the Attorney General, they virtually ignore questions about Wright's behavior.

Using the Nexis news data retrieval system, MediaWatch determined The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report, during just January and February of this year, ran a total of 103 news stories focused on Meese's ethics. Another 73 made passing reference. The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and ABC's World News Tonight ran 26 reports. In all of last year and the first two months of 1988, however, the print publications carried a mere six stories focused on Wright's ethical problems while 23 others made passing reference. The print media covered Meese 17 times more often than Wright in one-seventh the time. Incredibly, in the 14 months ending in February the networks never aired a story on Wright's problems.

Nearly 46 percent of the 103 Meese stories in the newspapers and magazines dealt with old controversies, including how he supposedly used his influence to obtain a federal contract for Wedtech, and possible conflict of interest concerning stock he owned in telephone companies. So far, nothing has been proven illegal. On January 28 the Los Angeles Times claimed Meese may have acted improperly by not reporting that a memo from a friend made reference to a plan to "bribe" Israeli officials who opposed the oil pipeline from Iraq to Jordan. While vague, the media pounced on the story, looking for a way to turn the development into a scandal. During the following month, the print media outlets ran 56 stories exclusively on Meese's role with the pipeline, accounting for 54 percent of the Meese articles. Another 33 pipeline stories concentrated on other players, but made a passing reference to the Attorney General.

A few weeks later, ABC's Dennis Troute reported that a key player in the pipeline project said the memo "shows no technical violations of the law by the Attorney General," but Troute still didn't hesitate to pick up the anti-Meese agenda, concluding on February 12: "His critics will point to it as another example of what they call 'a blind spot to ethical concerns' on the part of Mr. Meese." When Meese released the memo on February 22 in order to clear his name, NBC reporter James Polk declared: "This is still likely to loom as the most embarrassing crisis yet for the beleaguered Attorney General."

While some of the allegations of wrong-doing against Wright date back to 1979, several new questions arose in 1987. These included: 1) His profiting from a business relationship with a Ft. Worth developer he helped get federal money. 2) His intervening with federal officials to prevent the closing of a debt-ridden Texas savings and loan owned by a big Democratic contributor. 3) Charges Wright laundered campaign contributions for his personal use through a publisher who reportedly paid Wright $54,000 in book royalties while the company received $68,000 in 1986 campaign funds, a year he ran unopposed and paid just $100 in campaign staff salaries.

These questions prompted U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) to call for an investigation. Virtually every media outlet ignored Gingrich's February 19 press conference which generated just a two paragraph story in the Los Angeles Times and a passing reference in an unrelated Post story. But the record of the networks is even more atrocious. Newsweek on June 29 and the Post on September 24, considered the allegations serious enough to merit lengthy stories. But the networks didn't pick up these pieces as they often did when it came to Meese. The only mention occurred during a January 25, 1988 NBC profile. Wright told reporter Bob Kur he never did anything worth investigating.

What might account for this disparity? At least some of the reason is institutional: the national media, especially the TV networks, consider the Executive to be the most significant of the three branches of government. That's why, for instance, ABC viewers see a lot more of White House reporter Sam Donaldson than Capitol Hill correspondent Brit Hume. As Hume explained to MediaWatch, that short shrift naturally "leads the media to become soft on Congress, its leaders especially." But, as one of the few solid conservatives left in the cabinet, it's hard to avoid concluding a more important reason is that reporters don't mind emphasizing anything that makes the Meese look bad.


Bye-Bye Babbitt. The night of the Iowa caucuses CBS News political correspondent Bruce Morton told viewers: "There's always one candidate, I guess, whom reporters like. Reporters liked Morris Udall the year he ran for President." This year, he concluded, "reporters like Bruce Babbitt a lot."

A few weeks later, when Babbitt and conservative Republican Pete du Pont dropped out of the race, ABC's World News Tonight helped prove Morton's point. On February 18 anchor Peter Jennings spent 24 seconds telling about du Pont's decision before he introduced a nearly four minute long story by Richard Threlkeld on the Babbitt campaign's last days.

Jennings paid homage to the former Arizona Governor for having "the courage to say that as President he would probably have to raise taxes," and lamented the fact Babbitt "never recovered from his courage."

Jennings' Hostage Break. The CBS Evening News, CNN PrimeNews and NBC Nightly News all broadcast video of U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel William Higgins stating the demands of his terrorist kidnappers. But, even though ABC's World News This Morning and Good Morning America had already shown the tape earlier on February 22, World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings refused to play along, explaining, "the hostage holders clearly intend to use the media to put pressure on others."

Could this positive development become a new policy? Unfortunately not. Asked by MediaWatch, ABC News press representative Laura Wessner responded: "No, we will still decide on a case by case basis."

Surprise, Surprise. Is there a liberal mindset among the Eastern media elite? The results of a recent survey help provide the answer. The Washington Journalism Review (WJR) "Best in the Business" reader poll has received plenty of publicity, especially since ABC News is airing a promotion touting Sam Donaldson, Peter Jennings and Nightline as winners.

But the "least favorite" winners have received little attention. In the print media category, George Will won, followed by Robert Novak and William F. Buckley. All conservatives. But that's not much of a surprise given WJR's readers are mainly Washington and New York based reporters, producers and media executives. Who do they consider the "best" newspaper reporter? Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

Freedom in the Donaldson Vein. Sam Donaldson has discovered a "freedom fighter" group he can tolerate, in fact one that he even supports. This may come as a surprise to those used to hearing Donaldson's frequent criticism of the Contras. For instance, on the February 7 This Week with David Brinkley he saw nothing wrong with abandoning the Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters, declaring: "I think the House was right to turn down aid to the Contras."

So what is the group he wants to assist? A hint: the group battles a government in Africa. No, it's not the democratic resistance movements in Angola or Mozambique, but the communist-backed, terrorist African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Donaldson asked Reagan at his February 24 news conference: "Have you considered sending aid to the freedom fighters, the ANC, or any other organization against this oppression, just as you send aid to other freedom fighters around the world?"

Misleading Economic Indicators. "Alarm bells were going off again today about an economic recession in this country," NBC anchor Tom Brokaw announced on February 2. The source of Brokaw's concern? The Index of Leading Economic Indicators fell 0.2 percent in December, the third monthly drop and a sign of an impending recession according to some economists. A month later, on March 1, the Commerce Department revised the figure to reflect an actual jump of 0.3 percent for December. But Brokaw ignored the correction which shot down his earlier assertion.

Brokaw's not the only one emphasizing negative economic news. On February 17 government agencies reported housing starts fell while industrial productivity rose. ABC's Peter Jennings only mentioned the housing decline. The March 2 CBS Evening News led with the news new home sales were down. A dire story by reporter Ray Brady warned viewers the dip means "trouble for the entire economy." Of the four networks, only CNN's Bernard Shaw gave viewers a more complete explanation, reporting: "economists are saying housing downturns are not uncommon at this time of year and they are predicting much better numbers by Spring."

NBC's Slight to Human Rights. On February 10 the State Department released its 1987 "Country Reports on Human Rights." A department official described North Korea and Cuba as the "most repressive states in the world, closely resembling George Orwell's nightmare state as depicted in his novel, '1984.'" That night, the CBS Evening News and CNN PrimeNews mentioned these conclusions. CNN's Mary Alice Williams also referred to Nicaragua's "significant human rights abuses" and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. NBC Nightly News ignored the authoritative study. But a week later NBC did find time to air a lengthy report on abuses by a U.S. ally described by another human rights study. On February 19 NBC's Ed Rabel charged that "the U.S. government knows Honduras is using death squads to kill civilians suspected of being leftists."

Headline Writing for Human Rights. The day after the release of the State Department's report, The Washington Times gave the story a straight forward headline based on what the report found: "North Korea, Cuba Worst Abusers of Human Rights." The Washington Post chose to overlook the worst oppressors and, instead, put a positive spin on the conditions in another communist nation. The headline read: "Soviet Rights Improved By 'Glasnost,' U.S. Says; Repression Eased Under Gorbachev Policy."

Grenading Urgent Fury. Once again, the PBS public affairs series Frontline has lashed out against Reagan's foreign policy goals. Last year Frontline focused on what it termed "America's war" on Nicaragua. The show's main question: "How the U.S. claimed the right to intervene against the sovereign government it didn't like?" This year, Frontline looked at "Operation Fury," the 1983 U.S. military plan to rescue American students in Grenada. To present the case, PBS turned to crusading liberal reporter Seymour Hersh. Hersh spent much of the time explaining how military incompetence endangered the very people the U.S. went to save, but his main point was political, characterizing the invasion as irrationally driven by Reagan's conservative ideology.

Hersh argued that the students were not "really in imminent danger," despite the communist regime's shoot to kill curfew and frequent threats to hold Americans hostage. Carter's ambassador to Grenada, Sally Shelton-Colby, served as Hersh's main source. She claimed the government had "a great, deep, and sincere interest in making things better for Grenadans." Hersh misleadingly describes the situation as "a war of words between Ronald Reagan and the revolutionary government of Grenada." The program failed to document key points. First, that neighboring Caribbean nations felt threatened by Grenada and requested assistance. Second, documents seized after the liberation proved that just 30 days after the communist takeover in 1979, massive Soviet armaments began arriving from Cuba. Third, while both Hersh and Shelton-Colby claimed the Point Salines airfield was strictly for tourism, the same documents prove that the strategically-located island would someday be used as a Soviet and Cuban military installation.

A Provocative Passage? The Soviet Union claims its territory extends 12 miles out to sea, but the U.S. recognizes the three mile limit established by international law. When two U.S. Navy ships sailed closer than 12 miles to the Soviet's Black Sea coast on February 12, Soviet ships forced the U.S. vessels to turn away by bumping into them. But at least one TV network reporter saw the U.S. as the antagonist. NBC's Fred Francis charged the U.S. was deliberately "taunting the Soviet bear" and countered the Navy's explanation they were simply exercising the right of "innocent passage" by stating: "the mission was hardly innocent" since the ship's "were collecting intelligence along the Soviet shore." CNN's Carl Rochelle gave viewers a more balanced picture, pointing out that intelligence gathering is "something the Soviets regularly do to the United States, which has only a three mile limit."

A bit later in his Nightly News story Francis asserted that "many analysts say the U.S. policy is provocative" and warned: "instead of bumping the American warships, next time the Soviets may fire missiles." However, when the Soviets test-fired ballistic missiles near Hawaii last October, leading the U.S. to issue a strong protest, NBC didn't consider the act "provocative" enough to mention on the Nightly News.

Faw and Order. Worried about the treatment of violent criminals, CBS sent reporter Bob Faw to study the situation inside the federal maximum security prison in Marion, Illinois. Without mentioning the crimes committed by those incarcerated, Faw's February 1 Evening News story focused on the prison's "barbaric design," including a 23-hour a day lockdown policy, and strict rules for behavior that prisoners call unfair. "Everything that Marion controls now will explode later," Faw concluded after interviewing several inmates who complained of alienation and critics who warned the "slow torture" is "creating violent people."

In building sympathy for the men, Faw neglected to mention that most are repeat offenders who have disrupted other prisons. Indeed, 38 percent have killed or tried to kill. In a letter of protest to CBS News obtained by MediaWatch, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director J. Michael Quinlan explained that of the inmates Faw interviewed one had planned a sniper-assisted escape and another had helped kill a correctional officer. Quinlan called the violence-creating assertion "patently false" since the "inmates are far more dangerous," before entering Marion "than the Alcatraz population ever was."

MediaWatch Launches Radio Report and Second Newsletter. In late December MediaWatch began a weekly radio commentary narrated by Publisher L. Brent Bozell III. Distributed by Radio America, a Washington based radio syndicate service, early returns show the MediaWatch Radio Report is carried by over 100 stations nationwide.

The Media Research Center started publishing Notable Quotables in mid-February. A bi-weekly report from MediaWatch, the two page newsletter lists the latest examples of media bias in an easy to scan, brief paragraph format. Each issue offers readers quotes from TV network reporters and demonstrates the political slant of newspapers by comparing headlines on current issues. For a free copy, write to the address at the bottom of page 8.

Conservatives Prefer Shaw. Attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) consider CNN PrimeNews anchor Bernard Shaw to be the "Most Objective Anchorman." In the First Annual CPAC Media Poll conducted by MediaWatch at the mid-February convention in Washington, D.C., Shaw edged out ABC's Peter Jennings for the honor. Poll respondents overwhelmingly picked Dan Rather as the "Most Biased TV Anchorman" and 76 percent decided the CBS Evening News is the "Most Biased Network News Show." With 43 percent, the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour barely beat out PrimeNews which 42 percent favored as the "Most Balanced Network News Show."

About two-thirds predictably chose Sam Donaldson as the "Reporter Most Hostile to Conservatives." His closest competitor: Lesley Stahl of CBS with 11 percent. The poll determined conservative activists believe ABC's Brit Hume is the "Most Fair and Balanced Political Reporter." Hume got more than twice as many votes as the second place finisher, CNN's Frederick Allen. Respondents also identified CNN's Crossfire as the "Most Informative TV Talk Show."

Today's Cuba

"There is, in Cuba, government intrusion into everyone's life, from the moment he is born until the day he dies. The reasoning is that the government wants to better the lives of its citizens and keep them from exploiting or hurting one another." This quote from NBC News reporter Ed Rabel typified the view conveyed by Sunday Today's February 28 broadcast from communist Cuba.

Co-host Maria Shriver and an NBC crew traveled to Cuba ostensibly to interview Cuban leader Fidel Castro who wanted his rebuttal of drug smuggling charges against him to reach a U.S. TV audience, but another development at the time also highlighted Cuba. Just a few weeks before, the State Department released its "Country Reports on Human Rights," naming Cuba one of the two worst oppressors.

But Sunday Today's look into both these charges was anything but probing. In fact, Today's conciliatory approach allowed Castro to spew lies about his drug connections and the wonderful achievements of the Cuban revolution.

The show began with excerpts from Shriver's Castro interview. Seven of the 13 questions she asked dealt with the recent drug allegations brought out by former Panamanian official Jose Blandon. All that Shriver got Castro to say was that Blandon was lying. Demonstrating how ill-prepared she was, at no time did Shriver confront Castro with the long-standing drug connection that dates back to 1982 U.S. indictments of four senior Castro aides.

On human rights, Shriver managed only slight reference to "high numbers of political prisoners who have told of suffering in Cuba's prisons," which Castro dismissed, saying "all that is a lie." Shriver seemed satisfied as she failed to confront Castro with political prisoner figures that approach 15,000, according to the Cuban Human Rights Committee, an internal group led by Marxist opposition leader Ricardo Bofill. Shriver was well aware of the situation since, as MediaWatch has learned, Today producers received extensive briefings by Amnesty International just before the trip. What did Shriver spend time on? The Cuban missile crisis, Soviet leader Khrushchev, and the assassination of her uncle, President Kennedy.

Showing who really controlled the visit, viewers then saw highlights of Castro's guided tour of Havana, complete with adoring crowds cheering him. Shriver, who tagged along, occasionally tried to let viewers know that life in Cuba is really not as rosy as Castro's selective tour showed, but still ended up relaying an image of Castro as popular reformer and a man of "incredible stamina." Dismissing the injustices in Cuba that the U.S. human rights report detailed, including repression of religion and no freedom to choose an occupation, Shriver mimicked her host's propaganda line: "The level of public services was remarkable: free education, medicine, and heavily subsidized housing."

Reporter Ed Rabel continued the non-adversarial approach when he accompanied a regime-chosen family on a Sunday outing, saying Cuban officials consider them "a triumph over racial and economic discrimination, an affirmation that Fidel Castro's revolution works." Rabel characterized Cubans as pleased with the life Castro has brought:

"The worker's earn about five dollars a day....It doesn't sound like much, but consider this: at a government daycare center, pre-school children of the workers are taken care of for a small fee...their health care needs are looked after, they're fed three times a day, and they appear happy and healthy. Older children...go to boarding school through the week. [They] are on a course...that will take them all the way through the university completely free of charge."

While Rabel allowed a little time for some Cuban dissidents to speak and a later story from Miami summarized Cuban-American sentiment toward Castro, Rabel's conclusion about life in Cuba demonstrated how gullible NBC had become. Said Rabel: "This year Cuba celebrates its 30th anniversary of the revolution....On a sunny day in the park in the city of Havana, it is difficult to see anything that is sinister."

After repeated phone calls, MediaWatch reached Senior Producer Penelope Fleming, who accompanied Shriver and Rabel to Cuba. She declined comment on two occasions, explaining she was in the middle of a "crisis" and unable to discuss the show. However, as Mario Portuondo, a concerned Cuban American National Foundation official told MediaWatch: "The program served only to confirm the existence of a double standard." Can you imagine NBC letting a less than perfect pro-U.S. leader off so easily?

Revolving Door

A presidential campaign connection MediaWatch missed: former Chicago Tribune political reporter David Axelrod has been serving as media adviser to liberal Democratic presidential candidate Paul Simon. Axelrod left the paper's presidential primary beat in 1984 to become Manager of Simon's successful U.S. Senate race.

Peggy Simpson, an Associated Press political reporter in the 1970's and most recently a Washington based economics reporter for the Hearst newspapers, named Washington Bureau Chief of Ms. magazine.

She'll be joined by Ann Lewis, an adviser to the Jesse Jackson campaign and former Executive Director of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, who will write a regular column on national affairs. Making the early March announcement, Anne Summers, Editor of the magazine created by Gloria Steinem, asserted: "Since Ms. is no longer tax-exempt, we are able to express political opinions and take a stand on issues that was not possible before."

Roger Wilkins, a Senior Fellow with the far-left Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), is Chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Board which will announce its awards recipients in late March. Wilkins was appointed to a one-year term in April of last year after serving on the board since 1979.

Wilkins worked as a Senior Adviser to the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign in 1984. Under President Johnson, he served as an Assistant Attorney General. He has also sat on the editorial advisory boards of The New York Times and Washington Post.

Last month MediaWatch relayed the findings of a book uncovering the numerous ties between IPS and the media, "Covert Cadre: Inside the Institute for Policy Studies." Author S. Steven Powell wrote that Brian Ross of NBC News taught a course on investigative journalism at an IPS sponsored seminar. Ross called MediaWatch to deny he ever taught any such course and "never even heard of IPS before." Contacted by MediaWatch, Powell explained that Ross' name appeared on an IPS brochure listing participants in previous seminars.

Janet Cooke Award: Peter Jennings: ABC News

Mid-February marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. No doubt her radical feminist ideas have had a significant impact, but many argue her extreme women's liberation ideology has caused more harm than good. Friedan's views go far beyond the mainstream desire of women to have equal access to the workforce. However, most news stories marking the anniversary considered only Friedan's point of view and agenda.

For the most unbalanced assessment of Friedan's impact, the March Janet Cooke Award goes to ABC's World News Tonight and anchor Peter Jennings for the February 19, Person of the Week. ABC clearly set out to paint Friedan in a positive light without featuring the concerns of millions of pro-life, family oriented women. Jennings began by declaring: "As a result of the book...many young women today have a degree of equality that was simply not imagined in the 1950's." Jennings continued his glowing assessment of Friedan: "And women have come a long way since she just sat down and wrote what so many women were thinking but afraid to say." The lengthy report featured three generations of women in one family, all of whom feel liberated because of Friedan's work.

Jennings failed to mention many of the negative effects her views have had on modern society. As Phyllis Schlafly of the conservative women's group Eagle Forum points out, Friedan "had a significant role in bringing easy divorce laws to all 50 states, in the legalization of abortion which has killed over 20 million, and the fight for lesbian rights in the mid-'70's." As Schlafly concluded: "She preached a doctrine of liberation from marriage, husband and children. The movement she started failed in its primary legislative goal, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)."

The ERA defeat might reflect the fact that most women and men in the country do not endorse Friedan's radical views, but Jennings still saw her as champion of all women. He concluded his segment by endorsing her radical goals: "And so we choose Betty Friedan because she had the ability and the sensitivity to articulate the needs of women, which means that she did us all a favor." When asked about the obvious imbalance, ABC News Press Representative Laura Wessner responded, "You can't deny she has made a difference for the better for many women." But why weren't critics of Friedan offered airtime? She explained: "Our selection is someone who has made an enormous change. We can do that with a piece." Refusing to acknowledge the imbalance, Wessner maintained that general standards of objectivity and balance "do apply to Person of the Week segments."

Asked about Jennings endorsement of Friedan's accomplishments, Wessner declared: "I don't see anything wrong with what Peter said!" Asked again whether it is proper for an anchor to back such controversial views, Wessner shot back: "This becomes really obnoxious, I don't spend 20 minutes with anyone else but you. Your persistence is unbelievable. I don't think it was an unbalanced story. I don't know what else we have to discuss. We don't have a problem with it."

In fact, ABC had plenty of opportunity to balance the piece with a critics views, but chose not to. Rebecca Hagelin, Director of Communications for Concerned Women of America (CWA), informed MediaWatch that CWA President Beverly LaHaye was interviewed for the Person of the Week segment. When LaHaye did not appear, Hagelin contacted ABC News producer Pam Ridder who claimed that LaHaye's comments had to be edited out at the last minute. ABC could certainly have edited some of Friedan's extensive comments rather than LaHaye's, but apparently ABC does not consider the views of non left-wing feminists legitimate enough to air. As Rebecca Hagelin pointed out: "It was ABC's feminist ideology at work. It's typical to portray feminists as heroines representative of all women."