MediaWatch: March 1997

In This Issue

Loving the Lincoln Bedroom Angle; NewsBites: Biased Bias Poll; Revolving Door: Clinton's Slumber Party; Partial-Truth Abortion Coverage; N.Y., L.A. Shootings: Tragedy...; Focusing on Freeloaders; Repetitive Stress on CBS; Janet Cooke Award: Martha Makes Nice, Not News

Loving the Lincoln Bedroom Angle

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward broke the story March 2 of "solicitor-in-chief" Al Gore dialing for dollars in the White House. It drew major coverage -- but not from all. That evening's ABC World News Sunday, as well as the next morning's Today show on NBC, completely ignored Woodward. This illustrates the pattern of reporting on the DNC fundraising scandal. Newspaper scoops emerge nearly every day, but many were overlooked by one network, or all of them. Anyone watching only one network missed key parts of the emerging story.

MediaWatch analysts reviewed all February fundraising scandal stories on the evening shows of ABC, CBS, CNN (The World Today), and NBC, as well as the morning shows of ABC, CBS, and NBC. The February 25 discovery of Bill Clinton ordering the invitation of major donors to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom caused a major increase in intensity: the networks aired as many stories in the last four days of February as they had in the first 24. The gritty complexities of election law were, for the networks, much less attractive than a sexy angle expected to "resonate" with viewers.

On the evening shows, the networks aired 50 full reports and 13 anchor briefs, but 25 of the reports and three of the briefs came in the last four days. The eight network shows that led with the fundraising story were all in the last four days. For a majority of days in February, ABC (16 days), CBS (18 days), and NBC (19 days) aired no story on the fundraising beat. Even CNN had 12 days with no fundraising story.

The morning shows did less: 18 full reports, 11 interview segments, and 19 anchor briefs. Again, almost half of the coverage -- eight full reports, five interviews, and 11 anchor briefs -- came after the Lincoln Bedroom story broke. Six morning shows led with the Lincoln Bedroom story, but only two shows led off with the fundraising story in the previous 25 days. Not counting the absence of Saturday morning shows on ABC and CBS, ABC (on 15 days), CBS (16 days) and NBC (19 days) aired nothing new on the fundraising story. A look at daily scoops shows spotty network interest:

  • February 6: The Boston Globe reported "President Clinton renewed controversial aid flights to Cuba last October on the same day a campaign donor pressed President Clinton to resume the flights and offered to arrange a $5 million contribution to the President's campaign." ABC's World News Tonight noted top aide Harold Ickes' memo to the donor, but only CBS aired the Cuba angle.

  • February 7: The Globe reported Arnold Hiatt, the DNC's largest individual donor, gave $500,000 to Democratic Party after discussing suggestions with Ickes about how to donate the money. The Los Angeles Times reported that of the four Asian businessmen Clinton dined with at a July 30 meeting which eventually raised $500,000, two could not legally donate to U.S. campaigns. A front-page USA Today story reported internal White House documents showed the White House Office Data Base was used for political purposes from its inception in 1994. The Wall Street Journal recounted the payoff for two Boston businessmen who attended a White House coffee, getting an exclusive energy efficiency loan program from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. None got any coverage.

  • February 12: Contradicting Clinton's claims about coffees, spokesman Mike McCurry said: "I think the President would have wondered why he was doing all those coffees if he hadn't had some follow-up." Only CNN's Wolf Blitzer noted the contradiction.

  • February 16: The Washington Post reported that following a Hillary Clinton visit to Guam in September 1996, island residents raised $900,000 for the Democrats and in December, a Clinton official circulated a report backing a bill allowing Guam to control its immigration and labor laws. On Meet the Press, Rep. Dan Burton announced 20 additional subpoenas on Chinese interest in the U.S. elections. Liberal New York Post columnist Jack Newfield quoted a Clinton adviser claiming Clinton's "incredibly intense" demands for fundraising "caused people to start cutting corners." The Guam story was mentioned only on ABC's World News Sunday and NBC's Today. Burton's subpoenas only aired on CNN, CBSThis Morning and Today. Newfield's article came up on NBC's Meet the Press and ABC's This Week, but it made no other TV show.

  • February 19: In a front-page story, USA Today's Tom Squiteri wrote: "Top finance officials in the Democratic Party quietly decided last July to limit John Huang's fundraising and to end appearances by President Clinton at Asian-American events organized by Huang." Squiteri noted this didn't match statements last fall that officials had no idea of Huang's improprieties. Network coverage? Zero.

  • February 20: The Washington Post reported that Asian-American business association chief Rawlein Soberano was asked by Huang to funnel more than $250,000 through his group for a kickback of $45,000. Inside, Bob Woodward reported a twice-convicted felon who met with Clinton at a 1995 White House coffee attended four subsequent DNC fundraisers with Clinton. The Wall Street Journalshowed how a Miami businessman met twice with the National Security Council's Latin America specialist to urge Clinton to back Paraguay's President in a coup attempt. "The day the unsuccessful coup attempt began," the DNC "received $100,000 from Mr. Jimenez." Only ABC's morning and evening shows mentioned Soberano. (NBC got around to it March 3.) The other two stories: skipped by all.

  • February 22: The New York Times reported "The Manhattan District Attorney said yesterday he had given federal prosecutors evidence that a Venezuelan banking family might have illegally funneled campaign contributions to the Democratic Party during the 1992 elections." Network coverage? Zero.

  • February 23: The Washington Post reported DNC Chairman Don Fowler tried to routinely put large donors in touch with the White House or cabinet officials to have their needs met. Network coverage? Zero.

  • February 25: . The Los Angeles Times reported that while the Clintons kept a public distance from former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, "a trusted White House aide" Marsha Scott has acted as a "confidential go-between," raising the question of White House attempts to keep Hubbell from testifying fully. Network coverage? Nothing.

  • February 28: The Wall Street Journal reported Clinton made angry calls at 1 a.m. to Democratic leaders urging them to fight the naming of an independent counsel. CBS and NBC evening shows mentioned it in passing. ABC and CNN did not.

NewsBites: Biased Bias Poll

A March 2 Parade magazine cover story reported that 52 percent of the public "think the news is too biased." In which direction? Paradedidn't say in its summary of the Roper Center survey conducted in conjunction with the Freedom Forum's opening of its "Newseum," a museum of media history.

But buried in the full survey results on the Newseum web site was a sentence on how "majorities also say they have at least some concern" for three deficiencies. The third: "That journalists favor the liberal point of view (53%)." Why the Freedom Forum and Parade didn't highlight this last finding becomes clear once you look at the five options from which those polled could select when asked "How much of the time is news reporting improperly influenced by..." The choices: "Media desire to make profits," "Interests of corporate media owners," "Advertisers," "Big business," and "Elected officials."

Cronkite's Christians

Walter Cronkite signed a direct-mail fundraising letter for The Interfaith Alliance (TIA), a group established in 1984 to counter "religious political extremists." Associated Press reporter Kevin Galvin explained that in the letter sent in late February, Cronkite "singled out the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed for `wrapping their harsh right wing views in the banner of religious faith.'"

Cronkite told Galvin by telephone: "My principal thrust here is to try to help establish that they do not speak for what I believe is the majority of Christians in the country." Galvin reported that in the letter Cronkite praised TIA for being "as diverse as America" and "standing up to the Christian Coalition." The letter urged recipients to give $50 to $500 and asked: "Will you take a stand? Will you help TIA in saying `No' to religion as a political cover? `No' to Pat Robertson, `No' to Ralph Reed, `No' to Jerry Falwell?"

Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz began a March 7 story: "Walter Cronkite is coming out of the ideological closet." Actually, it's not the first time he's lent his name to liberal fundraisers. In 1988, for instance, he addressed a People for the American Way banquet. As quoted in the December 5, 1988 Newsweek,Cronkite thundered: "I know liberalism isn't dead in the country. It simply has, temporarily we hope, lost its voice...We know that the real threat to democracy is the half of the nation in poverty. We know that no one should tell a woman she has to bear an unwanted child...God Almighty, we've got to shout these truths in which we believe from the housetops."

Billy Who?

Billy Dale was fired from the White House travel office in 1993 amidst embezzlement charges to make room for Clinton's Arkansas cronies. When a jury acquitted him on November 16, 1995, demonstrating the Clintons had accused him unjustly, the networks ignored it. When he then sought repayment for his nearly half a million dollars in legal bills, the President promised to sign the bill. On May 2, 1996, The Washington Times reported Senate Democrats moved in secret to block legislation reimbursing Dale. The networks ignored that,too. So it was no surprise that when Bill Clinton signed a bill authorizing repayment and the government finally wired Dale's attorneys some $410,000 for his legal fees on February 13, the networks again pretended the story did not exist.

What Correction?

On February 15, an Arkansas newspaper splashed a story across its front page that the Whitewater investigation was in trouble. The story spread quickly. That night, anchor Paula Zahn relayed the article's allegations to viewers of the CBS Evening News: "Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr has reportedly hit a snag in his Whitewater investigation. According to a report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Starr has conducted four mock trials. In each the jury acquitted both President and Mrs. Clinton. Word is Starr will now rework his probe into the Clintons' real estate dealings." All the networks except ABC broadcast the story -- a total of six more times over the next few days. Six days later, the Democrat-Gazette printed a front-page correction headlined "Starr Staged No Mock Trial, Source Concedes." CBS and NBC didn't tell viewers. Only CNN bothered to correct the story.

Eternal Entitlements.

When new rules went into effect limiting to three months in three years the time able-bodied people without children can receive food stamps, CBS warned of impending disaster. On the February 22 CBS Evening News Sharyl Attkisson intoned: "People who help those on welfare see trouble ahead." Attkisson aired the fears of Chapman Todd at the Washington D.C. Central Kitchen: "You see a lot of people who fit that category but really have no marketable skills." Attkisson added: "29 states and the District of Columbia have applied for special waivers to delay this first step in welfare reform. New York is among them, even though its Republican Governor strongly supports the need for drastic change." Attkisson aired a soundbite from Gov. George Pataki but then led into a soundbite from liberal Congressman Charles Rangel. Attkisson foreshadowed: "Critics warn this is just a small preview of the tremendous headaches ahead as broader welfare reforms take hold."

Two weeks later on the March 9 Evening News, Zahn wondered if Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer's supposedly successful downtown revitalization would be affected by welfare reform. "Given the fact that cities and states are going to have to absorb more of the welfare burden, could that potentially derail some of the progress you have made in downtown Detroit?" Zahn's been in a panic since Clinton agreed to welfare reform. Last August 1 she ominoulsly intoned: "There is already is a great deal of fear and anxiety all over the country over the impact it will have."

Pentagon-Bashing Syndrome

In the March Reason, science writer Michael Fumento lambasted the media's shoddy Gulf War Syndrome coverage. Several studies, such as an October 1996 Institute of Medicine report, found there was "no available evidence in human or animal studies to date that exposure to nerve agents at low levels...results in any chronic or long-term adverse health effects." The networks didn't cover it, but Fumento found that "incredible accounts of such symptoms as skin-blistering semen and glowing vomit are taken as gospel."

Fumento explained the grab-bag nature of "Gulf War Syndrome," a laundry list of self-diagnosed symptoms including "hair loss, graying hair, weight gain, weight loss." The wackiest symptoms came from Private Brian Martin, who told a congressional panel that he vomited "[glow-in-the-dark] Chemlite-looking fluids every time I ran." But such statements didn't hurt his credibility with Ed Bradley, who used him as a main source for his August 25 60 Minutes story on possible troop exposure to nerve gas at Khamisiyah, Iraq. The glowing vomit was left out.

Martin told Bradley that when the bunker at Khamisiyah exploded and chemical alarms went off, the soldiers not only didn't put on their protective gear, they didn't even have access to them. Bradley said Sgt. Dan Topalski "put his suit on right away. Others did not. He is the only man in the group who is not sick." But Fumento talked to the five other vets who appeared in the 60 Minutes segment, and they said every soldier at Khamisiyah was fully suited, and one vet told Fumento that he made that clear to Bradley. Recently on the February 20 CBS Evening News, reporter David Martin repeated the error: "The troops did not bother to put on their chemical protection gear."

Welcome to the Greenhouse

Bitter Cold. Heat waves. Torrential rain. Dusty drought. Melting ice caps. These disparate conditions mean one thing to reporters: global warming. Whenever the weather's quirky, the media drag out global warming scare stories. On February 6, Dan Rather introduced a CBS Evening News piece on biting winter weather in the Great Plains: "In tonight's Eye on America, a hard news report about the wild weather including dangerous and in some cases deadly climate extremes and changing patterns...This video, fresh from Antarctica, shows deep cracks in the ice shelf. You can see how deep and how big at ground level. You can also see the melting that some environmentalists say is a danger sign of global warming."

On the February 26 Dateline NBC, prompted by Midwest flooding, science reporter Robert Bazell warned: "What's happening to the weather? Is something going wrong with the weather? Are we changing the weather? The problem, and most of the world's experts now agree there is a problem, is simply this: we burn things....We are in fact a civilization built on burning. As those gases build up in our skies, they begin to trap and hold in more of the Sun's heat, the way a greenhouse does. The result, say most scientists, a gradual warming of the planet." Competitive Enterprise Institute President Fred Smith, in the CEI Update, disgreed that warming is occurring and refuted the dire prognosis if it were: "The balance of evidence suggests that a warmer world will be a cloudier world, with most of the warming occurring at night, moderating nighttime lows. Also, the increased cloudiness will be greatest in the summer, least in the winter, further reducing temperature variations across the seasons. In effect, the most likely impact of warming -- should it occur -- would be a more benign climate, not a more hostile one."

The BBA Blame Game

In the 104th Congress, the balanced budget amendment failed by one vote. When Republicans added two seats to their Senate majority in 1996, it would seem that the amendment would have no trouble passing, especially since four freshmen Democrats supported the amendment during the campaign. When Senators Tim Johnson and Robert Torricelli announced their opposition to the amendment, ABC didn't find a story of dishonest Democrats or misled voters, but a story of ineffective Republicans.

On the February 26 World News Tonight, ABC's John Cochran began: "Republicans knew from the start they needed the votes of at least three of the four freshmen Democrats who during the election campaign said they supported a constitutional amendment to outlaw budget deficits." Cochran ended the piece: "Torricelli's decision leaves Republicans still unable to produce on two of the big promises of their Contract with America. Two weeks ago the House rejected term limits, and now the balanced budget amendment seems doomed." Cochran failed to mention that both Senators had voted for a similar amendment when they were in the House.

Deng Heap

People might not expect the death of a communist dictator to bring tributes. But on the February 19 Nightline, Ted Koppel lauded Deng Xiaoping as the Great Normalizer following Mao's murderous reign: "Tens of million of Chinese lives were ruined by that. Deng Xiaoping's legacy by contrast is stability. Yes, he ordered the army to crush the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and yes, dissidents have been ruthlessly repressed throughout China. But the Chinese people have endured so much worse over the past 40 years that Deng is likely to go down in history as the great normalizer, which may prove to be of more lasting value to the most populous country in the world than all the rest of it."

In the March 3 Time, Senior Editor Howard Chua-Eoan and Senior Writer James Walsh were juggling the "greatness" of the two mass murderers: "And finally, there was the most troublesome shadow of all, Mao Zedong, Deng's friend and foe, his rival for the soul of a country so ancient it has had a the misfortune both to forget its history many times over and over and to repeat it again and again. Only history will decide who was the greater."

To Newsweek's Bill Powell, the killings in Tiananmen Square weren't the negative for the people of China, capitalism was: "For all of China's economic success, much of the vast country is still either desperately poor or suffering from the excesses of runaway capitalism or both."

McNamara didn't try to disprove Rather's contention that global warming is behind the harsh weather in the Great Plains. Back on the August 1 Evening News anchor Paula Zahn had ominously intoned: "The new, landmark welfare overhaul President Clinton promised to sign won't be law for a while yet, but They got two, but Johnson of South Dakota decided to vote against it, citing concerns about the threat to Social Security trust fund. That left Torricelli. And to keep him from joining the Republicans, President Clinton promised last night to establish a special commission to study his budget concerns."

It was the same story in the print media. USA Today "Politics" columnist Walter Shapiro painted Torricelli and Johnson as heroes. Shapiro wrote that Torricelli has been portrayed as a "poll-directed, publicity-driven modern politician," but "Here was Torricelli defying such facile media labels with an unpopular vote against a gaudily wrapped package of constitutional mischief." He concluded: "Two freshmen Senators, so different in style and temperament, deserve plaudits for sticking their necks out to block a constitutional calamity. Despite my cynical doubts, sometimes the system works."During the Whitewater hearings in the summer of 1995, Schieffer remarked on CBS Sunday Morning that for his fourteen thousandth vote, Senator Robert Byrd "made a little speech and he said, you know the one thing that I regret about Washington these days is how mean-spirited and partisan it has become. This has always been a very partisan place, but I must say, I agree with Senator Byrd. I think somehow there's a new mean-spiritedness in our politics and I think Washington was a lot better place when people were a little more amicable in how they conducted their business."Guilty verdicts in the trials of Jim and Susan McDougal, former business partners of President Clinton, and Arkansas governor, Jim Guy Tucker A federal judge in Little Rock threw out Starr's indictment of Arkansas' Democratic governor, Jim Guy Tucker, on fraud charges.This is the age of negative advertising, this is a time when members of Congress really don't even like each other very much anymore.

Revolving Door: Clinton's Slumber Party

The names of several media executives were sprinkled among the 831 names made public of overnight White House guests in Clinton's first term: CNN founder Ted Turner, CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves, and Rick Kaplan, a long-time ABC News executive recently in charge of specials in ABC's entertainment division. New-ly ensconced ABC News President David Westin is bringing Kaplan back to the news division.

Moonves maxed out to the Clinton-Gore campaign, contrubuting $1,000. He pitched in another $5,000 to the Democratic National Committee last year, Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz relayed February 27.

Kurtz noted that Kaplan was the Executive Producer of World News Tonight when he "stayed at the White House with his wife in the summer of 1993." So, is there anything wrong with accepting an invitation from Clinton, whom Kaplan calls a longtime "friend"? Not as long as you keep it secret, Kaplan suggested in the March 3 Electronic Media: "It's nobody's business." Kurtz summarized Kaplan's view: "Kaplan said his visit did not create an appearance problem because it was never made public until now. He said his ties to Clinton had no impact on his work." He assured Kurtz: "The idea that you could suddenly decide to gild the lily or twist the news, it's a non-starter."

Kaplan is more than just a one-night guest. While Executive Producer of Prime Time Live in 1992 he provided Clinton campaign strategy when the Gennifer Flowers story broke. "Clinton called Kaplan for advice," Los Angeles Times reporter Tom Rosenstiel recounted in his campaign book Strange Bedfellows. On the way to the airport, Clinton made another call to Kaplan and the "night ended for Kaplan at 4am, when Clinton called one last time." Two months later as Clinton's campaign floundered in New York, aides suggested an appearance on the Don Imus show. "The appearance was clinched," CNN producer Matthew Saal recalled in the January 1993 Washington Monthly, "when Rick Kaplan...called the radio show host to see if he could get the pair together. The answer was yes."

ABC Morning, Clinton Night

The March 3 U.S. News & World Report carried a story on Clinton's fundraising illustrated by a two-page photo of Clinton addressing a February 18 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser in New York City. Attendees paid "either $10,000 in direct contributions or $25,000 in soft money," The Washington Timesreported. C-SPAN's Brian Lamb made an interesting discovery while looking closely at the photo: the name tag of one man read "Arthur Miller." He's Good Morning America's legal editor.

Disney's Democrat

Late February stories on discontent among Walt Disney Company stock holders revealed that a liberal Democratic politician sits on the board of the company which owns ABC: former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. The February 24 Wall Street Journal reported that "Disney paid Mr. Mitchell $50,000 for his consulting on international business matters in fiscal 1996. His Washington law firm was paid an additional $122,764." Mitchell, the only member of the board with overt political links, must fit in well. Disney shoveled $1,063,050 in soft money to Democrats in 1995-96, but just $296,450 to Republicans according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Partial-Truth Abortion Coverage

Ron Fitzsimmons, director of the National Coalition of Abortion Pro- viders, reignited the abortion debate February 26. He said he'd "lied through his teeth" when he insisted partial-birth abortion was rare and used only on deformed fetuses. He now admits up to 5,000 a year are done, many when baby and mother are healthy.

That night, NBC's Tom Brokaw still claimed: "What anti-abortionists call partial-birth abortions -- that's a provocative and mostly inaccurate statement." On CBS, Dan Rather noted the "deceitful twist" and said that in politics, "truth can be the first casualty." Rather should know.

Between November 1, 1995 through the end of 1996, the networks ran 97 stories (22 full stories, 75 anchor briefs) on the partial-birth debate, tracing it through Congress, Clinton's veto, and Congress's failure to override. Almost one-third (28) contained disinformation.

The deceit started the morning before the bill passed the House. Matt Lauer said on the November 1, 1995 Today it would ban one "rare abortion procedure." That night, Tom Brokaw claimed it would make the "little-used late term procedure" a felony. Lauer claimed the procedure was "rare" or "little-used" five times in thirteen stories between November 1 and December 8, 1995.

On March 28, 1996 the day after House passage, CBS This Morninganchor Troy Roberts stated "about 500" were done annually, twice claiming it was "often chosen by mothers who discover serious birth defects in the fetus."

On the September 26 CBS This Morning, Family Research Council's Gary Bauer cited a Bergen Record report on how 1,500 such abortions were performed annually in New Jersey alone, host Jane Robelot retorted: "The statistics we hear from both sides of the issue is more like 600 a year, nationwide. Where are your statistics coming from?" Despite the New Jersey report, that night Dan Rather returned to calling the procedure "rarely used."

Although the networks treated Fitzsimmons' admission as a revelation, they had the abortion doctors' own words years earlier. Dr. Martin Haskell told the American Medical News in 1993 that 80 percent of partial birth abortions he performed were "purely elective."

Only Ed Bradley (on the June 2, 1996 60 Minutes) mentioned Haskell's comment, and only ABC's Dr. Tim Johnson (on the September 19, 1996 World News Tonight) pointed out "no one knows how many...are done each year...Nor does anyone know how many are done on healthy fetuses versus those with severe birth defects." Otherwise Rather and other network reporters spent 13 months dutifully endorsing abortion advocates' claims.

But the following report by Lisa Myers went on to describe one such procedure until the title "Partial Birth Abortion": "The fetus is pulled partially out of the birth canal feet first, then the skull is punctured and the brain suctioned out."

N.Y., L.A. Shootings: Tragedy...

...Or Big Opportunity?

In the wake of the Empire State Building and Los Angeles bank robbery shootings, some networks were quick to pull the trigger of blame on weak gun control laws.

CBS aired a total of 10 stories on the Empire State shooting, three of which offered pro-gun control solutions. On the February 24 CBS Evening News Dan Rather focused more blame on Florida's gun control policy than the killer. Rather announced: "He killed one person and wounded six others before taking his own life, all with a semi-automatic handgun that could not have been easier to buy. That, as correspondent John Roberts reports tonight, is bringing new calls for tougher handgun control laws."

Roberts reported how Ali Abu Kamal bought his weapon at a Florida gun shop after using a hotel address and waiting three days to pass a background check. Roberts noted: "Whether Kamal had intended to shoot up the observation deck of the Empire State building, or just take his own life, no one yet knows. But it has prompted angry calls for a national handgun licensing system."

CBS went to Dennis Henigan of Handgun Control Inc. and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for what were hardly "new" gun-control quotes but offered no time to the gun-rights side. On the February 27 CBS This Morning, Mark McEwen interviewed brothers and friends of wounded victim Matthew Gross and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who pushed stricter laws. Gun rights groups were left out.

NBC aired a total of 14 stories on the Empire State shooting. Four times they aired a gun-control soundbite from Mayor Giuliani, as well as one in-studio interview. Not once was Giuliani balanced with an opposing guest or soundbite. On the March 2 Today, co-host Jodi Applegate interviewed the Gross brothers who advocated gun control. Once again the pro-gun rights side was ignored.

The LA firefight brought reruns. On the March 1 CBS Evening NewsPaula Zahn introduced John Blackstone's story: "And in Los Angeles today the sound of yesterday's gun fire has been replaced with volleys of praise for the police and more calls for gun control." Blackstone echoed Zahn: "From Los Angeles to Washington, the shootout has raised new calls for a ban on assault weapons."

Focusing on Freeloaders

Is everyone trying to get something for nothing? In a February 24 ABC News special Freeloaders: The People Who Want and Get Something for Nothing, reporter John Stossel put people to the test.

Stossel showed how panhandlers who say they'll work for food really won't. But he also highlighted those at the top of society. He opened a segment on taxpayer-paid stadiums: "Wouldn't you like to have your very own stadium without having to pay the $150 million or so that it costs? Well, sorry, you're probably not rich enough to get a gift like that. It's reserved for the multimillionaires who own athletic teams. You poorer people, however, you do get the right to pay for it." Stossel confronted Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls and White Sox:

"You're a freeloader. You're taking money from poor taxpayers to make you, a rich guy, richer."

He then examined corporate freeloaders: "But America's biggest freeloaders aren't street people or poor people who collect welfare. No, the big freeloaders are rich people -- people well connected enough to use the power of government to freeload." Stossel profiled the biggest of them all, Dwayne Andreas, chairman of Archer Daniels Midland. Stossel looked at special deals that benefit ADM -- sugar price fixing and the ethanol tax break. "What does sugar cost? Today's Wall Street Journal says the world price is about 11 cents per pound. But American producers are not permitted to pay the world price. Here, if say, Coke or Pepsi want to buy sugar for their soda they have to pay 22 cents a pound. That's the government-required price. It's kept artificially high to protect sugar growers. As a result, these 18 cents a pound to use corn sweetener instead, and ADM makes corn sweetener. As long as sugar stays expensive, ADM makes a killing....This also means that American consumers pay billions more to buy things that have sugar in them."

Repetitive Stress on CBS

If you think you hear the same phrases over and over again on CBS you aren't imagining it. Two trends:
First, since the GOP took control of Congress, Bob Schieffer has been shocked at the political divisions on Capitol Hill. Again and again he termed it the worst ever.

Before a congressional vote on Medicare reform, Schieffer complained on the October 18, 1995 CBS Evening News: "After months of some of the bitterest partisan fighting that anybody can remember around here, the House is set to vote tomorrow on the Republican plan to overhaul Medicare." During the coverage leading up to President Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address, Schieffer insisted that "this is the most divided Congress that we've had in many years around here...It's the most partisan session of Congress we've seen in a long time."

Expounding on the investigations surrounding Whitewater on the June 18, 1996 Evening News, Schieffer suggested that "this probe was something of a milestone: the first major congressional investigation, in recent memory, where Republicans and Democrats could agree on nothing, a sign of how partisan the whole thing has become."

This year, Schieffer commented on the January 12 Sunday Morningabout the battle over the Newt Gingrich ethics flap: "I have never seen the partisanship running as high as it was. We've had just a complete meltdown in the House."

Second, Schieffer may be stuck on divisiveness, but Dan Rather has a fetish about identifying Ken Starr as a "Republican." He has applied the term to the Whitewater Independent Counsel 27 times in the past two and a half years. It started right after Starr was named: "There is growing controversy tonight about whether the newly named Independent Counsel in the Whitewater case is independent or a Republican partisan allied with a get-Clinton movement," Rather asserted on August 9, 1994. He chimed in again on September 5, 1995: "A legal setback late today for Kenneth Starr, the Republican independent counsel in the Whitewater case." When Starr gained convictions on May 28, 1996, Rather didn't let up: "The Republican Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, won a big one today. "

On February 21, Rather once again applied his favorite label: "The Republican special prosecutor in the Whitewater case announced a sudden change in plans this afternoon. Kenneth Starr reversed orbit. He cancelled plans to quit and take another job in California."

Janet Cooke Award: Martha Makes Nice, Not News

Who's Shooting the Messenger Now?

The White House insists: it doesn't matter whether a story is true or false, only who's telling it. On January 6, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Micah Morrison revealed the White House counsel's office report "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce," a 331-page packet of photocopied articles and media food-chain theorizing.

Prepared at taxpayer expense in 1995, White House aides constructed an elaborate conspiracy theory of right-wing operatives landing anti-Clinton stories in the mainstream press. Clinton aides hoped to shame fellow liberals in the press, arguing that seeking to demystify White House scandals is to serve as a tool of the "far right."

None of the White House reporters handed the packet in 1995 noted it publicly. While the Washington Times and Washington Postfollowed up the Journal with front-page articles, the networks ignored the packet story. Perhaps since the packet was mostly reproductions of articles and transcripts from sources like The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and CBS's 60 Minutes, it seemed too close to home to be scandalous. The February 23 New York Times Magazine echoed the White House approach in a cover story entitled "Clinton Crazy." For focusing on the personal quirks of anti-Clinton "crazies" and "fanatics" rather than investigating the merits of any one allegation, the Times earned the Janet Cooke Award.

The cover announced "The Clinton Haters," with the subhead: "No President has been put at the center of more conspiracy theories, nor been the object of more virulent accusations. What is it about Bill Clinton -- and the nation he leads?" Philip Weiss, a self-described "liberal Democrat" novelist who freelances for the Times, made no attempt to prove that thesis, in the face of charges that Lyndon Johnson ordered the death of John Kennedy, or that Ronald Reagan postponed the return of the Iranian hostages, or sat by as his CIA sold crack to California school children.

The article began by asserting: "They accuse him of drug smuggling, covering up the murders of some and ordering the murders of others. They build Web sites, peddle videos, blanket talk radio. They may have something to say -- but it's more about America than about its President." Weiss focused on the scandal promoters instead of the scandals, stitching a patchwork of character studies, an answer to the question "what makes the crazies tick?"

Weiss touched on many different scandal stories from Arkansas, including the deaths of Vincent Foster, former Clinton bodyguard Gary Parks, the wife of state trooper Danny Ferguson, and teenager Kevin Ives. In some instances, Weiss appeared sympathetic, as in the Ives case: "Here one can glimpse how a legitimate question gets spun into a conspiracy." But none of these stories merited more than a few paragraphs, giving the reader no grasp of why these stories are worth following.

Was this objective? Weiss told MediaWatch: "No, it's highly narrative, it has a very subjective component. I'm a very subjective writer." He added: "The Times was far less interested in these stories than in the personalities...they were not interested in the substantive issues." Weiss declared victory just getting the stories mentioned: "The Times is a very conservative institution. Whatever its ideological bearings, its sensibility makes it very reluctant to publish sexual allegations against Clinton. Here were a set of stories that had never gotten in the Times, and I felt a sense of achievement in getting these stories in there, without discrediting them."

But Weiss blurred together serious, truthful journalism and unsubtantiated accusations into one indistinguishable mass of "crazy" activity. Larry Nichols, a disgruntled former Arkansas state official, and Pat Matrisciana, producer of unreliable videos like The Clinton Chronicles, were lumped in with investigative reporter Chris Ruddy and the Wall Street Journal editorial page:
"The number of influential Clinton crazies is probably no more than a hundred, but their audience is in the tens of millions. The percolation of questions about the Foster case from Web sites to newsletters to talk radio to newspapers like The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal motivated the White House counsel's office to draft its report on conspiracies just before the Senate Whitewater hearings in the summer of 1995."

Weiss continued: "On a central point the Clinton administration and the Clinton haters are in perfect agreement: because of new forms of communication -- talk radio, newsletters, the Internet, mail-order videos -- a significant portion of the population has developed an understanding of Bill Clinton as a debased, even criminal politician." Later in his piece, Weiss added: "I wasn't faring all that better with other Clinton crazies. The Wall Street Journal attacked me twice on its editorial page as a White House dupe." When asked about calling the Journal editorial page "crazies," Weiss replied: "I think they're assholes, and they're paranoid."

How did Weiss expect his article, laced with words like "crazies," "fanatics," and "haters," to create sympathy for the subjects? Weiss protested to MediaWatch: "I was very careful to use the word haters, but when someone compares Clinton to Hitler, that level of virulence seems to justify it." But Foster buff Hugh Sprunt, who Weiss found "very compelling," appeared on the cover over the words "The Clinton Haters." Weiss replied: "I didn't write the headlines." As for the 11 uses of "crazies," Weiss said: "I really wanted to convey these stories in what I felt was a sympathetic light. At the same time, I would feel the need, like the Timesfelt, to distance myself from these people. So I chose this word.

Friends argued that it served to discredit every one of these people."

The New York Times has reserved its classifications of emotional instability for figures on the right. A Nexis search finds no use in the last 20 years for the terms "Reagan haters," "Reagan crazies," "left-wing attack machine," or "October Surprise fanatics." But it was the Times who had former Carter official Gary Sick jump-start the October Surprise conspiracy on its op-ed page in 1991; and used its front page to publicize Kitty Kelley's book Nancy Reagan, printing wild rumors about the First Lady's sex life; and publicized the lawsuit by convicted bomber Brett Kimberlin claiming he was mistreated by prison officials because he (falsely) told reporters he sold drugs to Dan Quayle. They were deemed important sources with important stories to tell, not tragic symptoms of a sick America.

Weiss recommended a look at his March 17 article in The New York Observer newspaper. He had a very different take, laying out the forensic mysteries of the Foster death, and praising Ruddy's and Sprunt's spadework. He decried the lack of Foster coverage, saying "No one in the media can think for himself or herself." Apparently, Weiss only fails to think for himself on the Clinton scandals when the Times is paying the bill.

All of Weiss's proclaimed sympathy with his subjects, the Times failed to provide the public with a useful investigation. But it did provide a welcome addition to the White House spin controllers' packet of Xeroxed hit pieces.