CyberAlert -- 11/06/1997 -- Election Spinning; Clinton Got Best Press on Fundraising

Election Spinning; Clinton Got Best Press on Fundraising

  1. Clinton "tough" on Saddam Hussein said Tom Brokaw, but Dan Rather led by insisting Clinton made a "concession."
  2. Election coverage: Houston avoided "Redneckville" tag by keeping set-asides. So says ABC. Anti-tax or pro-status quo? Ann Compton wanted it both ways. Today attacked a black Republican for supporting welfare reform after being raised in public housing.
  3. Two studies show lack of network interest in fundraising. Bill Clinton and John Huang get more positive press than Fred Thompson.

1) The CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News led Wednesday with the unfolding Iraq story, but with conflicting spins on Clinton's actions. Tom Brokaw began: "The delicate game of talking tough, but taking no military action, not yet, against Saddam Hussein continues tonight..." On CBS Dan Rather painted Clinton as a bit less tough: "President Clinton and the new Secretary General of the United Nations have made a concession to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Reconnaissance flights to determine what Saddam is up to with his weapons of mass destruction, have been suspended."

A piece from Sam Donaldson on how an internal Treasury Department Inspector General report "found widespread IRS abuses," topped ABC's Wold News Tonight. Donaldson noted how Acting IRS Commissioner Michael Dolan acted surprised at the September hearings to hear stories about IRS intimidation, but "in fact, five years ago the IG report cited widespread evidence of retaliation and intimidation of IRS employees by their superiors. And the official who had signed off back then on the IG's findings was none other than Michael Dolan...."

2) A vote for the status quo is how the networks evaluated the election results as Good Morning America simultaneously portrayed the vote as spurred by anti-tax sentiments and an endorsement of Clinton's economic policies. The idea that a black son of a welfare mother could be elected as a Republican baffled Today news reader Ann Curry. In the evening, ABC ran a hopeful story on the one liberal result of the day: Houston's vote to keep its contract set-aside policy.

Here are some noteworthy aspects of November 5 coverage of the elections:

ABC's World News Tonight. Peter Jennings ran down the results of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races as well as Rudy Giuliani's victory in New York City. Cokie Roberts then explained how incumbents did well because of the good economy. She added this insight: "It's also good for Republicans to keep in mind that they always do well when they get on the side of the little guy on taxes. They run into trouble when they look like the party of the rich. They do well when they look like the party of the middle class."

And who makes them "look like the party of the rich"?

Next, Jennings listed the initiative results: Oregon kept law on assisted suicide, Washington rejected tighter gun control laws and a law to ban discrimination against workers because they are gay. But ABC only did a full story on the one liberal vote of the day, arguably the least representative since it involved just one urban population, not a state: "And in Houston voters chose to keep in place an affirmative action program that steers city contracts to companies owned by women or minorities. The Houston decision seems to buck a trend developing in the country to reverse course on affirmative action..."

Dean Reynolds picked up the spin of the pro-affirmative action forces, crediting them with revealing the sneaky move opponents tried to pull off:

"It has been the goal here in Houston to award about 20 percent of all city contracts to firms owned by women and minorities. The city says that number is only a goal, not a rigid quota. But opponents of the policy, spurred by the success of the anti-affirmative action campaign in California said the policy was biased and the time to end it had come. They sponsored Proposition A and tried to make it sound as if it were a way to end discrimination without ever mentioning the words affirmative action. But Houston Mayor Bob Lanier got the city council to re-phrase the language in the proposition making it clear that a yes vote would end the city's affirmative action program..."

That made it less popular with Houston's minority population, but, Reynolds added, the business community also threw its weight and money behind saving the policy. Mayor Lanier explained they thought dropping the policy "would be bad for business." Reynolds concluded with this denigration of the conservative, anti-discrimination view:

"Mayor Lanier said the choice for Houston was clear: people here had to decide whether they wanted to be viewed as a cosmopolitan, diverse, international city or, as he put it, 'Redneckville.' Dean Reynolds, ABC News, Houston."

NBC Nightly News. Back on October 16, MRC news analyst Geoffrey Dickens and the NRA's PR firm reminded me, Tom Brokaw introduced a story: "In the state of Washington, the front lines have been drawn in the deadly battle over gun control. It started in the grass roots as anger exploded over the hundreds of children in this state killed or hurt by guns."

With the measure defeated, on Wednesday night NBC didn't credit individual citizens standing up for their rights but blamed the NRA. In the midst of a rundown of ballot initiatives, Gwen Ifill asserted: "In Washington state the National Rifle Association spent two million dollars to derail a measure that would have forced gun makers to put safety trigger locks on guns for sale in the state and require new gun owners to take a safety test in order to get a license."

Somehow I bet if the vote went the other way we'd have seen a big story on the little guys overcoming a discredited, extremist NRA.

ABC's Good Morning America. During the 8am news Ann Compton first asserted that voter anger drove the election: "New Jersey really provided the only squeaker election. Republican Governor Christine Whitman's narrow victory reflected what may be voter unhappiness about some local tax issues. In Virginia, Republican James Gilmore also won with a hotly divisive tax proposal to scrap local taxes on cars."

But as MRC analyst Gene Eliasen documented, she concluded by claiming the vote reflected satisfaction with the status quo: "Well, the President's coattails aren't very long but in off year elections they aren't necessarily always, but it does come at a time when the President's own personal popularity has remained at a fairly high level. It also comes at a time when the Democrats suggest that the Clinton economy is just so good that the incumbents won and people voted for the status quo, Kevin."

NBC's Today. Also during the 8am news, anchor Ann Curry interviewed Paul Harris, the first black Republican elected to the Virginia House of Delegates since the 1870s. After noting that most blacks voted for his white opponent, MRC news analyst Geoffrey Dickens noticed that Curry demanded:

"You were raised, sir, in a subsidized housing project by a single mother and yet you support welfare reform and oppose affirmative action. How do you square those two sides?"

Harris explained that Republicans "believe that if you get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other good things will happen and that every American ought to be treated with equal dignity and respect."

3) A House subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday on the Al Gore/Peter Knight/Molten Metals favors for money controversy. CNN's Inside Politics ran a piece on it by Brooks Jackson, but none of the broadcast network evening shows aired a word about it. See the October 20 CyberAlert for details on how the networks also ignored this story when reported by the Washington Post and Time magazine.

On Thursday Dan Burton's House committee is scheduled to meet, but don't count on much coverage. When the committee met last month neither ABC or NBC bothered to mention it. Two recently released studies documented lack of network interest in the Senate hearings.

Study #1:

The Center for Media and Public Affairs last week released a study of how the three networks handled the Senate hearings on the days the committee met. Among the most interesting findings, as summarized in the September/October issue of the CMPA's Media Monitor newsletter and typed up by MRC intern Rebecca Hinnershitz:

"During the 35 days when hearings were in session, the broadcast network evening news shows carried only 56 stories with 105 minutes air time on these events, an average of one minute per network per night. In July there were nearly twice as many stories on serial killer Andrew Cunanan (67) as there were on the hearings (37). The second round of hearings produced fewer than one fourth as many stories (19) as the death of Princess Diana (88)."

"We noted every positive and negative evaluation about all individuals involved in the controversy. It would be a misnomer to equate many of these evaluations with good press and bad press, since positive evaluations frequently consisted of assertions of innocence in response to charges of impropriety. Nonetheless, this measures each individual's success or failure in getting the media to carry his/her side of the story.

"No one was more successful in this endeavor than Bill Clinton. Just as we found in our 1994 report on the Whitewater controversy, the President fared better than either his political opponents or other members of his own administration in getting his side of the story out over the airwaves. Three out of every four evaluations of Mr. Clinton were favorable or supportive of his behavior, a far higher positive proportion than any other individual received. For example, ABC's John Donovan (7/9) called Mr. Clinton a 'man on a roll...even the charges raised about his party's fundraising tactics don't seem to stick.'"

In fact, Clinton received the least negative press (at 25 percent) of the eight people measured. He rated far better than Fred Thompson who got 79 percent negative versus just 21 percent positive press. Even John Huang did slightly better than Thompson: 69 percent negative and 31 percent positive. And Charlie Trie fared only a little worse than Thompson, as 17 percent of network assessments of the fugitive were positive. Al Gore went 50-50 and Hazel O'Leary garnered 36 percent positive press, 15 points better than Thompson.

"Democrats on the whole fared better than Republicans in defending their motives and behavior over the airwaves. Overall, members of the Clinton administration received nearly balanced coverage (46% positive to 54% negative)..."

"By contrast, evaluations of Republicans were 70 percent negative overall, and Republicans in Congress fared even worse -- 74 percent negative. Example: 'Even with the public disgust over this kind of cynicism in fundraising, Republicans have been unwilling to bring any campaign finance reform bill to the floor.' -- Peter Jennings, ABC 9/18."

Study #2:

The October MediaWatch features a study, put together by MRC news analyst Steve Kaminski, titled: "Frenzy Over Princess Diana's Death Buries Senate Fundraising Hearing Coverage: Celebrity Culture Sinks Politics Again."

The study determined:
"In July, MediaWatch noted how compelling details of the Senate fundraising hearings were buried by the media frenzy over the murder of designer Gianni Versace, with a Versace-to-hearings ratio of 7 to 1 on the network morning shows.

"At the end of August, Britain's Princess Diana died in a car crash. While the death of the most photographed woman in the world is news, it is certainly not as important as a fundraising imbroglio implicating President Clinton and Vice President Gore, the two most powerful men in the world.

"Or is it? MediaWatch analysts examined fundraising scandal stories in August and September on the Big Three morning shows and evening shows, plus CNN's The World Today. The networks broadcast 686 stories on Diana between August 31 and the end of September compared to just 113 stories about the fundraising scandal. That's a ratio of more than 6 to 1. Isolating the morning shows, collectively they aired 407 stories on Princess Diana's death, while devoting just 36 to the scandal. That's an astonishing ratio of 10 to 1.

"In August, the networks combined for a paltry total of 16 full stories and five anchor briefs on the evening shows, and five full stories and two briefs in the morning. In the evening, ABC aired only one fundraising story in the whole month. CBS was next with four full stories and one brief, followed by NBC Nightly News with five full stories (mostly about Johnny Chung) and two anchor briefs. CNN The World Today ran the most coverage with six full stories and two anchor briefs....

"Like most other months this year, most networks skipped fundraising stories on a majority of their broadcasts. In September's 30 days, with the Thompson hearings in their most dramatic stage, the morning shows were all guilty (CBS 28 days with no story, NBC 24, ABC 22). In the evening, CBS, ABC (both 20 nights off) and NBC (19) took more than half the month off, while only CNN (12) didn't."

To read the rest of the study, which offers more numbers and a rundown of newspaper revelations and hearing developments skipped in August and September by the networks, go to the MRC Web site where MRC Web manager Joe Alfonsi has put it at the top of our newly designed home page: Or, go directly to:

Tomorrow: Will Sunday's episode of Fox's X-Files confirm last Sunday's plot development that tales of UFO sightings are all part of a huge Defense Department conspiracy to generate support for unnecessary Cold War military spending?

-- Brent Baker