CyberAlert -- 09/02/1997 -- Espy Blackout; CNN's President Must Pay; O'Leary Ignored

Espy Blackout; CNN's President Must Pay; O'Leary Ignored

  1. The networks spent nearly three years ignoring or complaining about the cost of the Espy probe.
  2. A judge reduced the punitive damages but upheld the Food Lion decision, so the new President of CNN must still pay an award.
  3. The August 27 Media Reality Check fax report: charges against Hazel O'Leary ignored and a revelation about a proposed White House payoff to a trooper skipped.
  4. Letterman's "Top Ten Things Overheard During the Clinton/Kennedy Sailing Trip."

1) On August 27 a federal grand jury indicted former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy on 39 felony charges. But as pointed out in a press release last week distributed by the Media Research Center, the television networks had long ago abandoned the Espy story. In the press release, MediaWatch Associate Editor Tim Graham reported that when Espy resigned, in October of 1994, CBS News reporter Bill Plante relayed: "White House officials hope now that with Espy's resignation, this story will simply be over."

The White House got its wish as the television network newscasts and morning news shows blacked the story out for almost three years. "Since Espy resigned on October 3, 1994, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and CNN ran a grand total of just two full stories and five anchor briefs on the scandal swirling around him," Graham explained.

Thanks to MRC online manager Joe Alfonsi, you can read the entire press release, put together by Keith Appell, on the MRC's home page. Address at top of this CyberAlert.

While on Espy, a few other interesting notes about the lack of coverage:

In addition to the two full stories cited above, on the March 31, 1997 World News Tonight ABC's John Martin narrated a "Your Money" segment on the cost of independent counsels. Prompted by a GAO report, Martin showcased the Espy investigation as a big waste of money. He began:

"They are legal lions conducting monumental investigations. Leon Jaworski looking into Watergate. Lawrence Walsh looking into Iran-Contra. Kenneth Starr looking into Whitewater. But today's GAO report shows that many cases are far from monumental and the time and money spent on them are far from inconsequential. Example, the investigation of whether former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy repaid corporate favors worth perhaps a few thousand dollars." Martin emphasized that without any real results the independent counsel had already spent $6.6 million.

Martin might have had a better appreciation of the independent counsel's work had ABC bothered to report some earlier convictions. As detailed by MRC news analyst Gene Eliasen for an April MediaWatch newsbite, "Martin failed to note that a federal jury convicted a California agribusiness company of illegally showering Espy with nearly $6,000 in gifts this past March, and a lobbyist for Tyson Foods was convicted of lying to investigators who were looking into allegations that Tyson had given gifts to Espy, his girlfriend and another high-ranking department official."

On Thursday, August 28, the day after the Espy indictments, CBS This Morning didn't report it. Not one word. But, MRC news analyst Steve Kaminski observed, the alleged news show did find time to broadcast interviews on which microsoda is best and on a teacher in Maine who has a large number of twins in her elementary school class.

The August 27 World News Tonight and August 28 Good Morning America carried full stories on Espy. But, the MRC's Gene Eliasen reported, both stories emphasized how the investigation cost taxpayers $9 million. Similarly, CNN's World Today story led with the cost angle, noted MRC news analyst Clay Waters.

2) A federal judge ruled last Friday that Rick Kaplan, now President of CNN, must pay $7,500 to Food Lion for his role as Executive Producer of ABC's Prime Time Live when it ran the infamous undercover story on the grocery chain. I don't know how much play this decision received in your Saturday paper, but neither the Boston Herald or Boston Globe ran a story on it so I'll assume that a lot of papers skipped it.

In a front page story, the August 30 New York Times reported that judge N. Carlton Tilley of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina "ruled yesterday that Capital Cities, ABC and two ABC employees should have to pay the Food Lion supermarket chain only $315,000 in punitive damages." The judge decided that the $5.5 million awarded by the jury in January was "excessive in comparison with the $1,402 that the jury awarded for actual damages suffered by Food Lion" for the cost of training the fraudulent staffers from ABC.

In addition to reducing the award to Capital Cities, which owned ABC at the time the piece was broadcast, and the ABC Television Network, the judge also lessened but did not drop the penalty on Kaplan and producer Ira Rosen, who is still with ABC. They must each pay $7,500, down from the original $35,000 each.

Though the judge reduced the punitive damages, he rejected ABC's request to reverse the jury ruling completely. ABC News, the New York Times explained, claimed "that under the free speech clause of the First Amendment, punitive damages may be awarded only if the news report was false and broadcast with a reckless disregard for the truth." The judge countered: "Despite the many protections necessary for the proper operation of the press, it would be a peculiar rule indeed which immunized illegal activity, undertaken with a consciousness of wrongdoing, from punishment and deterrence."

But in a statement, ABC News made clear it still doesn't think it did anything wrong and remains proud of its story: "By going undercover and telling a vital story about Food Lion's unsanitary food-handling practices we were following a great tradition of American journalism."

Jury foreman Gregory Mack, the AP reported, "was furious over the judge's decision." He told the AP: "That's a joke...You're looking a situation where we're barely punishing the network."

For background on the Food Lion story and media reaction, see the January 23 and January 27 editions of CyberAlert as well as the page 8 article in the February MediaWatch:

3) Here's an edited version of the August 27 edition of the MRC's Media Reality Check fax report written by Tim Graham. To see the entire report, go to the MRC home page. Address at the top of this CyberAlert. All issues at:

Topics include how the other networks ignored the charge against Hazel O'Leary, a charge that even George Stephanopoulos called "very serious;" instead of investigating, the networks forwarded White House denials of charges that the Democrats funneled money into the Teamster election; and the networks skipped a revelation about a proposed White House payoff to a trooper but played up allegations about a Clinton enemy offering money for scandalous information.

Wednesday, August 27, 1997 | Vol. One, No. 12 | Media Inquiries: Keith Appell (703) 683-5004
Media Reality Check
A Weekly Report on Major News Stories Distorted or Ignored

From Teamsters to Troopers to Chung, Some Democratic Scandal Angles Are Taking a Vacation

No News Here at Martha's Vineyard

Bill Bill Clinton may be resting, but the reporters in his entourage seem restless. On Tuesday's This Morning, CBS reporter Bill Plante suggested: "It's August and there's not much news anywhere, let alone here on Martha's Vineyard. Things are so slow that the press corps covered the President's golf scores as though they were part of a congressional investigation into, well, campaign fundraising." Back in Washington, however, new developments in the Clinton scandals are still seeping out slowly with little sense of media urgency:

Hazel's Chung Change. Often the slowest network off the mark on the fundraising scandal, NBC actually broke news last Tuesday with Johnny Chung's declaration that he was asked to donate $25,000 to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's favorite charity (Africare) as the price of admission to a meeting.

In a half-page item this week, Newsweek suggests Chung's accusation could trigger an independent counsel, since cabinet officials are "covered" under the law. But none of the other networks (of for that matter NBC's Today show) featured a story on the O'Leary charge. Tuesday's CNN newscast The World Today did air a full report from Brooks Jackson on the Federal Election Commission's investigation of the Christian Coalition. The FEC is seeking to prove the Coalition coordinated efforts with the 1992 Bush campaign, such as discussing the distribution of voter guides.

On ABC's This Week, former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos claimed the Chung allegations were "very serious" and qualified as a trigger for an independent counsel. But ABC did nothing, even as Good Morning America found time for a story on how McDonald's may drop the Arch Deluxe burger and another interview about the JonBenet Ramsey murder.

Why no O'Leary coverage? It helps to remember that the number of stories each network has done in the last three years on the independent-counsel examinations of former Clinton cabinet secretaries Mike Espy and Henry Cisneros can be counted on one hand.

Teamster Funny Money. On Friday, federally appointed election monitor Barbara Zack Quindel overturned the December 1996 election of Teamster President Ron Carey for "extraordinary" misconduct through "a complex network of schemes to funnel employer and [union] funds into the Carey campaign." The networks each aired a story, but didn't question the watchdog's timing: In a prepared statement, Quindel said she reached her decision before the UPS strike began August 4, but delayed an announcement to avoid making it a factor in the strike.

The DNC Connection. On Saturday morning, The Washington Post added that the Justice Department is investi-gating whether officials at the Democratic National Committee improperly directed contributions to Carey's campaign. When the story was covered, it came wrapped in Democratic denials. On Saturday's CBS Evening News, Plante told substitute anchor Sharyl Attkisson: "The Democratic National Committee did say it doesn't believe that any commitments were made or any plan implemented. And the White House special counsel says that to the Administration's best knowledge, no one there was involved in any such deal."

On CNN's The World Today, Jeanne Meserve led the show's lone anchor brief on the story with the White House denial: "A White House official tells CNN he has no knowledge of a [DNC] plan to help Teamsters President Ron Carey in his election last year. White House lawyer Lanny Davis says he has no idea why a senior Clinton aide's name is mentioned in notes describing such a plan."

Reporters put Ronald Reagan in what could be called an Iran-Contra vise: the President was either plotting malfeasance or was an out-of-the-loop dolt who was unfit to control a malfeasant White House. In the Clinton era, reporters simply forward denials without assessing how realistic they are in light of Clinton's micro-management of the campaign's finances, including the creation of the White House Office Data Base.

Carey Plays Dumb. TV reporters haven't made much of Carey's declarations of ignorance, either. The Washington Times reported Carey personally authorized four checks totaling $735,000, some of whose proceeds made their way back into the Carey campaign. Quindel's report singled out Carey's campaign manager Jere Nash, but Carey even claimed he didn't know his own campaign manager was working half-time for the Clinton-Gore campaign. Nash's indictment in July drew no network coverage until last weekend.

Citizen Inaction. Carey also claimed he didn't remember signing a check for $475,000 to the liberal group Citizen Action, which indirectly funneled $75,000 into the Carey campaign. Quindel called Carey's claims "surprising" considering it was "by far the largest single contribution made by the [union] during the 1996 public elections." The national media have still largely ignored Citizen Action -- even though election monitor Quindel is married to a member of the board of the Wisconsin branch of Citizen Action. Last Friday, Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly wrote an entire story on Citizen Action's latest critique of big corporations' campaign donations -- without any mention of the group's Teamster dealings.

Troopers for Sale? Also on Friday, The Washington Times reported that former Arkansas state trooper L.D. Brown sent a letter to independent counsel Kenneth Starr saying he's prepared to testify that a man approached him in London on June 16 and offered him $100,000 and a job to influence his testimony in the Whitewater investigation. Brown has told prosecutors he overheard Clinton asking Whitewater figure David Hale for financial help. The Brown story was ignored by the rest of the national media, broadcast and print.

On Friday, former trooper Roger Perry appeared on CNN's Burden of Proof program to discuss former trooper Danny Ferguson's stories to him about Paula Jones. Perry said Ferguson told him he'd been offered a federal job at the time Perry cooperated on Troopergate investigations by The American Spectator and the Los Angeles Times. Perry added that Ferguson even traveled to Seattle to meet with Clinton. But illegal jobs-for-silence offers still have not interested the news media.

When do the troopers get in the news? When they retract their stories. On July 15, NBC's Dateline aired a long feature on trooper Ronald Anderson, one of the troopers who spoke to the Spectator in 1993. Reporter Chris Hansen asked Anderson: "These allegations painted Bill Clinton as being reckless, being involved in multiple affairs, as being sexually out of control. Did any of this really happen?"Anderson answered: "Not in my presence it didn't." Hansen underlined: "And Anderson spent a lot of time in Clinton's presence. He helped protect the governor for nearly eight years, often around the clock."

Job offers were newsworthy -- when made by Clinton's adversaries. Hansen (who wrongly called the Spectator "an ultraconservative newspaper" in a promotional segment on Today) claimed lawyer Cliff Jackson, who promoted the troopers' stories to the media, "promised to find the troopers high-paying jobs if they got fired for telling their stories." Hansen asked Anderson: "What did it say to you that Cliff Jackson was willing to promise you jobs in exchange for going public with these stories about Bill Clinton?" Hansen did note Jackson, who wouldn't talk to NBC, had said he only promised to try to get the troopers new jobs if they were fired for talking.

Hansen concluded his interview: "When you boil all this down, is this just about Little Rock politics? Cliff Jackson taking on Bill Clinton and some guys who thought they could make some big-time money by telling their story?" Anderson replied: "That's it rolled up in a nutshell." A story that could yield multiple abuses of power was reduced to nothing more than a personal grudge match. -- Tim Graham

4) Summer vacation season is now over, but Bill Clinton is just starting his third week of vacation on Martha's Vineyard where he sailed one day with Ted Kennedy. From the August 21 Late Show with David Letterman, here's the "Top Ten Things Overheard During the Clinton/Kennedy Sailing Trip." Copyright 1997 by Worldwide Pants, Inc.

10. "No, Bill, I'm not seasick -- I always throw up this time of day"
9. "Isn't there a way to catch fish that are already fried?"
8. "We're listing to the left -- get Ted's head back to the center of the boat"
7. "Who wants another Chivas and salt water?"
6. "The main sail just ripped -- Senator, can we borrow your pants?"
5. "This time I'll be Captain Steubing and you can be Gopher"
4. "If you're outside U.S. waters, it's technically not adultery"
3. "That's not a doughnut, Mr. President -- it's a life preserver"
2. "Isn't a case of Jim Beam a bit much for a 30-minute boat ride?"
1. "Ship ahoy, Captain Tubby!"

I'll be back from vacation on Wednesday, so daily reports should soon resume.

-- Brent Baker