MediaWatch: July 1988

Vol. Two No. 7

Janet Cooke Award: CBS' American Profile: Mourning in America

For the vast majority of Americans, the Reagan years have meant prosperity. More Americans than ever are working, disposable in-come continues to increase as the U.S. completes its ten straight month of economic growth. The double digit inflation of the Carter years, which trapped low and fixed income families, has been more than halved. Indeed, Reagan's policies promoting opportunity and limited government gave many the chance to move up the economic ladder of success.

But television viewers did not get that impression from watching the CBS Evening News series, "American Profile," a five part look at the social and economic future. Instead of looking ahead, the series gave viewers a negative and distorted review of the Reagan years. For that reason, CBS Evening News receives the July Janet Cooke Award.

The July 8-14 weekday series included reports on America's changing values, working women and day care, the elderly, and economic polarization. Senior Political Producer Brian Healy told MediaWatch "American Profile" was "not meant to be a score card on Ronald Reagan." Healy insisted: "Anytime I thought I saw a suggestion of that, I excised it." But each story did have the Reagan record as its opening focus. Case in point: in his introduction to the July 11 segment, Rather noted that "this presidential election will be a vote on visions we all shaped during the eight years of the Reagan presidency."

Two Bruce Morton reports proved to be the most one-sided. Morton's thesis: "the rich are getting richer...while the poor and middle class are getting poorer." Further, he asserts that average income has been stagnant since 1976. But Morton misled viewers. According to economist Warren Brookes, the gap between rich and poor has remained constant. Average income rose 8.7% in constant dollars during the Reagan years, only now making up for the 6.4% decline in the '70s. Minorities made even greater strides.

Morton found gloom wherever he turned: "But you don't have to drive very find closed plants, worries about what kinds of jobs will be available...Skilled, well-paid? Or service, minimum wage?" But you'd probably have to drive pretty far, considering unemployment rests at 5.3 percent. Morton also ignored government figures that show only 8.3% of all the new jobs are low paying. His answer to these supposed problems? A return to Robert Kennedy-style liberalism. Morton hoped: "The emotions stirred by the anniversary of his murder may be another sign of the changing national conscience."

All five stories relied on liberal spokesmen, ranging from former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, to historian Arthur Schlessinger, to Dukakis adviser Robert Reich. CBS also relied on the left-wing Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). Why didn't they speak with any conservative groups to add balance? Healy readily admitted they relied on liberal sources, but that didn't concern him as those comments "did not have a political cast to them." But many sources did say things of political consequence. Barbara Jordan claimed on July 8: "The country has changed. I believe we are ready to begin to care for each other again." Even Healy would admit there is a "cast" to that. So how else did liberal spokesmen shape the reports? Bob Faw's report on day care offered only a spending option, what one source called a "Marshall Plan for the family." Viewers missed the conservative alternative: taking the tax burden off one-income families by granting larger tax deductions for children.

By taking time to discuss the series with MediaWatch, Healy showed an all too rare willingness hear the complaints of conservatives concerned about liberal media bias. MediaWatch challenged Healy to air a report about the economic legacy of Reagan from the conservative perspective. Healy responded: "I expect to. I expect that as we approach the (Republican) convention we will use conservatives with more frequency."