MediaWatch: July 1988

Vol. Two No. 7

NewsBites: Rabel's Nicaraguan Fable

Rabel's Nicaraguan Fable. When the Sandinista regime expelled the U.S. Ambassador, jailed political opponents, and closed down La Prensa and Radio Catolica, NBC's Ed Rabel still managed to portray the Sandinistas sympathetically.

On July 12, he concluded his Nightly News story: "For months the Sandinistas have been trying to influence favorably U.S. public opinion by being flexible, permitting democracy. But now the Sandinistas simply say flexibility is not working and they will adopt a harder line."

The same night, ABC's Beth Nissen agreed the United States is to blame for Sandinista actions: "The U.S. has historically been used as a scapegoat here, but for many Nicaraguans the U.S. is a genuine enemy. American support for the Contras has lead to reflexive distrust, has engendered hatred."

Not Very Rosy For Bush. "It turns out our rosy forecast wasn't rosy enough. The economy is doing even better than we expected," Beryl Sprinkel, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers declared in revising the 1988 growth forecast upward from 2.4 to 3 percent. Good news for George Bush? Not to NBC.

Substitute anchor Garrick Utley opened the June 23 Nightly News by mentioning the new high growth, low inflation forecast and then ominously added: "But behind that is a disturbing figure. The federal deficit is deeper than the law allows, and NBC News has learned that automatic cuts in government spending across the board look likely."

White House reporter Andrea Mitchell followed with a detailed story which tacked on an anti-Bush spin, declaring: "Since many domestic programs cannot be cut, the savings would have to come from popular new programs, such as AIDS research and drug prevention. If that happens, the biggest loser could be George Bush."

Rating Reagan. The people who conduct The Washington Post/ABC News poll set out to determine how Americans rate President Reagan's performance in office. Those polled were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements about Reagan. Here's a sampling: "President Reagan was unfair to the poor," "He was a rich man's President," "He had a negative view on women's rights," "He was unfair to blacks," "He didn't know what he was doing," "He was unfair to the middle class," and "He was unfair to old people."

What about some conservative agenda statements? They could have asked: "Reagan helped the poor and elderly by cutting inflation," or "He created economic opportunity for blacks," or "He helped return Constitutional values to the judiciary." But they didn't.

Instead, the "favorable" statements were mainly non-ideological assertions, including: "He kept his campaign promises" and "He stuck to his principles." Incredibly, the poll still found "most Americans now say the country is better off because of the Reagan presidency."

Faulty Kal Parallel. As the July 4th holiday weekend drew to a close, the investigation had just begun into what led the U.S. Navy to accidentally shoot down a civilian Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf. But that didn't deter CBS News from making specious comparisons to the Soviet shoot down of KAL-007 in 1983.

On July 4 reporter Robert Schakne took the Soviets at their word, stating as fact: "The Soviets mistook the Korean Airlines 747 for an American Air Force reconnaissance plane on a spying mission over secret Siberian bases." Those more skeptical of Soviet honesty suggest that after tracking the plane for two hours the Soviets either knew what they were shooting down, or didn't care. But Schakne failed to present that view. Nor did he mention that the Soviets closed off the crash area so the truth could never be learned.

Schakne conceded "there was one important difference," that the U.S. had four minutes to make a decision in a war zone. Still, he concluded by equating the two incidents: "There are differences, but it's hard to escape the parallels. Both sides shot without clearly identifying the targets, and both sides blamed the civilian plane for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Too Soviet A Portrait. Ted Turner's seven-hour documentary series "Portrait of the Soviet Union," which MediaWatch analyzed in April, has begun to receive criticism from the most unlikely of places -- the Soviet government itself. While Turner has defended his series as accurate, Soviet higher-ups felt that it would be too much for even the Soviet people to stomach. According to a June 1 Financial Times article, when the Soviets aired "Portrait" it was introduced with the disclaimer "that the film gave an excessively glamorous portrait of the country and failed to reflect the ferocious self-criticism currently underway." Even the Soviets don't agree with Turner's glasnost.

Little TIME for Wright. On June 9 the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct agreed the evidence against House Speaker Jim Wright warranted an official investigation. The June 20 Newsweek devoted a two-page spread to the Speaker's ethical problems. U.S.News & World Report gave the story three-fourths of a page. But Time buried the development, offering only a three paragraph item in the "American Notes" section. A week later, Senior Writer George Church came to Wright's defense, asserting:

"The GOP response will be to rebut Meese with Wright...This line, however, assumes not only that both men are equally guilty or innocent, but also that the charges against them are equally grave. And they are not. The accusations against Wright, though serious, are not quite so weighty as those against Meese, and Wright has by far the better defense."

Don't Confuse Me With the Facts. Last month, MediaWatch's Janet Cooke Award described a landmark lawsuit brought by the left-wing Christic Institute. Their theory received prominent coverage over the past few years, culminating with two PBS Frontline programs mimicking Christic claims that a secret team of current and former government figures teamed up in assassinations, gun running and drug smuggling in support of the Contras.

On June 23 Miami Federal District Judge James Lawrence King unceremoniously dismissed the suit, saying he could find absolutely no substance to any of the claims against the 29 defendants, including Contra leader Adolfo Calero, retired General John Singlaub, General Richard Secord, Robert Owen, and former CIA deputy director Ted Shackley. On July 15, liberal Sen. John Kerry, a promoter of Contra drug smuggling theories, said that he did not believe the recent Senate testimony of convicted money launderer Ramon Milian-Rodriguez. He was a prime source for both the Christic case and Frontline.

Despite both developments, Frontline is still unwavering in defending their programs. Declared Senior Producer Mike Sullivan: "My position hasn't changed very much. I think our witnesses were credible and we thought we presented credible information."

Walters' Fonda Fonda. Remember Jane Fonda's propaganda trip to Hanoi in 1972? Remember how she giggled delightedly while perched atop a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun used to shoot down American pilots? Well, the past is finally catching up with the latter-day queen of video workouts. Vietnam veterans have mobilized to stop Fonda from shooting a film in Connecticut. To head off the protests, Fonda asked ABC's Barbara Walters to give her a chance to explain on 20/20.

Walters soft-peddled the controversy now surrounding Fonda. Her first question: "Why do you think it is that when so many people protested the war, and so many did go to North Vietnam, why are your actions today still being criticized?" Maybe because Fonda did not just protest the war like millions of Americans, but enthusiastically supported the cause of the communist enemy. She called the Viet Cong "the conscience of the world," and proclaimed: "If you understood would pray on your knees that we would someday be communist." Walters never raised any of these issues.

Even after 20/20 aired a Vietnam era film clip of Fonda calling all U.S. servicemen war criminals, Walters left this explanation unchallenged: "We helped end the war. And what that meant was that the POWs came home sooner, that the killing stopped sooner, so I feel that we played a part in bringing them home." But when returning POWs recounted episodes of torture, Fonda called them "liars." When that issue came up, Walters again allowed Fonda to give a meek excuse -- that her statements were fueled by her anger and "patriotism." Fonda has never recanted her support for the communist regime. Still, Walters praised her, telling viewers: "She is sincerely trying to heal those wounds. She didn't have to say what she said tonight." That wasn't much.