CyberAlert -- 08/21/1997 -- Zilch on O'Leary; Editors Wonder About Lost Credibility

Zilch on O'Leary; Editors Wonder About Lost Credibility

  1. No other shows picked up on NBC's revelation about Hazel O'Leary, not even NBC's own Today show.
  2. The American Society of Newspaper Editors launched a project to learn why they are losing public trust. Some know that liberal bias is the problem, but more disparage that thought.
  3. Letterman's "Top Ten Things Elvis Would Say if He Came Back Today."

1) None of network morning shows on Wednesday morning mentioned the revelation in NBC's interview with Johnny Chung that he was directed by an Energy Department aide to donate $25,000 to Secretary Hazel O'Leary's favorite charity in order to arrange a meeting with her. Though AP moved a story Tuesday night and Wednesday's USA Today featured a story on the charge, not even NBC's Today uttered a syllable about the interview excerpted on Tuesday's Nightly News and Today. ABC's Good Morning America, MRC news analyst Gene Eliasen reported, found time for a story on how McDonald's may drop the type of burger they debuted last year, and during the 7am half hour for an interview with a Colorado reporter about JonBenet Ramsey.

Tuesday's CNN World Today, which airs at 10pm ET, also skipped the O'Leary disclosure. But CNN aired a full report from Brooks Jackson on how documents given to CNN show that back in 1992 the Christian Coalition coordinated efforts with the 1992 Bush campaign, such as discussing the distribution of voter guides. A 501 (c) 3 non-profit group cannot participate in partisan activities or coordinate with a campaign.

Wednesday night (August 20) neither ABC's World News Tonight or the CBS Evening News alerted viewers to the allegation that the Clinton administration sold access. On the NBC Nightly News Tom Brokaw announced a 28 second update:

"Potential trouble tonight for former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary following our interview last night with Democratic donor Johnny Chung. The department's inspector general will look at Chung's claim that O'Leary met with a Chinese businessman only after Chung gave money to the Secretary's favorite charity. Tonight, for her part, O'Leary says she met with that businessman twice as part of her job and she flatly denies ever demanding a contribution in exchange for the meeting."

Brokaw next led into a soundbite from Chung by emphasizing how what conservatives have suggested is off-base: "In that interview with Chung I questioned him about suspicions that he was acting on behalf of the Chinese government as a front man, and he emphatically denied those allegations."

2) Newsweek Washington reporter Howard Fineman recently admitted that the media tilt left, but most of his colleagues refuse to concede the obvious and so are baffled about why they are losing credibility. On CNBC's August 18 Hardball, MRC news analyst Geoffrey Dickens noticed, Fineman observed:

"Is the overall national media somewhat liberal in its tendencies, especially in the mid-range of reporters and editors? I would say so. It's based in New York, it's based in Washington with a little side-league in Atlanta and a couple of other places. I don't think there's much doubt. I think everybody needs to be a wary consumer. That's of Fox, that's of CNN, that's of Newsweek. We are in an age of labeling. There's labeling on the food, there's gotta be labeling on the media."

Fineman's comment to substitute host John Kasich reminded me of a column last week on how the association of newspaper editors is trying to figure out why they are losing public trust. But many in the media refuse to acknowledge liberal bias or even if they realize it they want to find other explanations for the problem.

"What's Behind Journalism's Credibility Problem?" read the headline over the August 11 column by Boston Globe Ombudsman Mark Jurkowitz. He revealed a new project underway by a leading industry group:

"Does something called the 'Journalism Credibility Project' sound like an oxymoron? That's just a little ombudsmanly occupational humor. But if the American Society of Newspaper Editors is true to its word, the 'Journalism Credibility Project' may be the industry's most serious effort at large-scale ombudsmanship. Over the next three years, the society will spend more than $1 million trying to find out why people don't love and trust newspapers anymore.

"The society's President, Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of The (Portland) Oregonian, became convinced of journalism's credibility problem 'because of negative poll after negative poll coming out' and 'the amount of negative press in the press about the press.'...

"During the project, the editors will do some predictable things like convening think tanks and evaluating research. They will also embark on more-adventurous undertakings like two large public surveys and experiments in which eight newspapers...will examine the causes of and solutions to credibility problems in their communities."

But Jurkowitz noted that some editors already realize a major source of the problem: "The participants reflect a seriousness of purpose that may bode well. For one thing, they finally seem prepared to address the corrosive and widespread public perception of media bias, liberal and otherwise. 'People perceive bias, and they perceive it across the board,' says [Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph Editor Steven] Smith. 'I have finally been persuaded that the issue of bias is probably real,' adds Rowe."

So why spend a million dollars? Well, many in the media establishment disparage the notion of bias. When the ASNE released the results of a poll earlier this year of 1,037 journalists which found they are overwhelmingly liberal, a think tank head dismissed the natural implications. The poll documented:

"In 1996 only 15 percent of the newsroom labeled itself conservative/Republican or leaning in that direction, down from 22 percent in 1988" when the ASNE last conducted a comprehensive survey. Those identifying themselves as independent jumped from 17 to 24 percent while the percent calling themselves "liberal/Democrat" or "lean" that way held steady, down one point to 61 percent.

The January-February edition of ASNE's magazine, The American Editor, included a preview of the results as a sidebar to the cover story headlined "The Myth of the Liberal Slant." Everette Dennis, Senior VP of the Freedom Forum, charged: "There is no convincing evidence that journalists infect their stories -- intentionally or otherwise -- with their own political prejudices." Then he dismissed evidence to the contrary: "While a few studies suggest such a link, most are the handiwork of right-leaning groups and critics whose research methods can't withstand scrutiny." Dennis failed to cite any shortcoming in a study by the MRC or any other group.

Dennis insisted that ignorance fuels public perception of bias, as he told editors they "need to explain these realities to the public: that the press is guided more by professionalism than by politics, that partisan viruses are often inoculated by the realities of the marketplace, that journalists do, in fact, police each other's behavior." And if that doesn't convince people, he urged more aggressive denial: "The credibility of the media is not suffering because of a liberal bias; it's suffering, in large part, because of the continuing charge of bias that has gone unanswered for too long."

I'm not sure that even a million bucks will bring Dennis around. But he's not alone. Two other examples of denial that I didn't have room for when they occurred, so I'll squeeze in here:

-- On July 27 CNN's Reliable Sources brought on Bob Novak to discuss why conservative politicians condemn conservative journalists who stray from the party line. Novak explained:

"I can understand the problem with conservative politicians. They have a mainstream media that poses as being objective when they're all tilted to the left. The people who are actually covering the news are way over, we all know that, that's one of the common little secrets in Washington. So they have a few right-wing commentators, columnists and they expect us to always be in their corner. Newt Gingrich has said the problem with the right-wing journalists is they are so used to tackling the ball carrier that even when we, that is the new Republican majority is carrying the ball, they still tackle the guy on their own team."

That was too much for Ellen Hume, chief of the PBS Democracy Project: "Scholar after scholar has disputed, in studying the actual content of the press, what you've just blithely handed out. that it's this left wing media. That's a charge from the '50s that's not the current press. Tom Patterson, no the bias is a bias against politicians of all kinds, not a bias for one side or other."

-- The McLaughlin Group devoted the entire July 4th weekend show to discussing media bias. Here are some of Eleanor Clift's more colorful comments, as transcribed by now-departed MRC intern Jessica Anderson:

Clift: "I don't think voting for Clinton makes you a liberal. I mean, Bill Clinton isn't even a liberal, and second, if you're liberal, does that mean you can't be fair? What hypocrisy that we sit around and talk about the press like it's some sort of 'they.' It's us. Are we too liberal? N-o."

Clift: "The bias is in favor of bad news and you go after whoever is in power, and the name of the game is kill the king, which is why Bill Clinton does not get a free ride. And secondly, all this show is about liberal reporters. Let's go into the board rooms, let's go into the publishing places. Let's..."

Fred Barnes: "They don't report the stories. Oh, c'mon!"

Clift: "Oh, c'mon, they make the final decisions! Rupert Murdoch is funding your magazine! Rupert Murdoch just bought a big cable, a Christian cable network."

Barnes: "So? What's your point?"

Clift: "My point is that Rupert Murdoch, Time-Warner, Disney -- they're the ones that make the decisions, not street reporters!"

Rating the objectivity of the Washington press corps on 1-10 scale, 1 being zero objectivity, 10 being metaphysical objectivity, Clift insisted: "It's an eight. The bias is for bad news and scandal, and this show is more representative of the conservative drift in journalism today than this caricature you all are drawing."

This is already too long, so I'll wait until the next CyberAlert to pass along the results of a poll that went unnoticed but which discovered that even liberals see liberal bias in the media.

3) From the August 18 Late Show with David Letterman, the "Top Ten Things Elvis Would Say if He Came Back Today." Copyright 1997 by Worldwide Pants Inc.

10. I've been dead 20 years, and I still look better than Keith Richards.
9. What do you know? The Jets still suck.
8. I'm hungry -- is there are any food stuck in my sideburns?
7. I can't believe I missed the McRib Sandwich!
6. Who's this 'Richard Simmons,' and why's he keep trying to hug me?
5. I've been dead 20 years, you moron -- of course I want fries with that!
4. Heaven was great until that freaky bastard Tiny Tim showed up.
3. That Letterman punk's on the TV -- where's my revolver?
2. I haven't been dead -- I've been starring in a series on CBS.
1. Lisa Marie married who?

Okay, the list has nothing to do with politics or the media, but I thought it was humorous. I'm going on vacation to California and will not leave until I see Shamoo, so there probably won't be more than two CyberAlerts between now and Labor Day.

-- Brent Baker