CyberAlert -- 12/03/1999 -- Cochran's Gore Dinner Date; Hillary "Whispers"; FNC Up, CNN & Gumbel Down

Cochran's Gore Dinner Date; Hillary "Whispers"; FNC Up, CNN & Gumbel Down

1) ABC reporter John Cochran's dinner date with Tipper and Al Gore stirred controversy but he insisted it was a "working dinner." ABC fired Bob Zelnick for writing a book about Gore. Cochran claimed he has a "fair and tough" record, but the MRC documented his history of liberal reporting. Al Gore called Cochran "a friend."

2) Scolding Bush from the left, Newsweek's Howard Fineman found two faults in Bush's Meet the Press answers: praising Antonin Scalia and ruling out a meeting with Log Cabin Republicans.

3) Dan Rather ominously warned about a "whispering campaign" aimed at Hillary Clinton in which her opponents "are spreading the words 'ineffective' and 'blunders' about the First Lady's campaigning."

4) CNN and MSNBC prime time viewership has plummeted from a year ago while the Fox News Channel's prime time is up. CBS's The Early Show is still being watched by fewer than tuned in This Morning.


cyberno1.gif (1096 bytes) ABC News reporter John Cochran invited Al and Tipper Gore over for dinner at his home Thursday night. But did the dinner, as USA Today suggested in breaking the story Thursday morning, raise "some ethics questions at ABC News"? The paper reported that the "word around ABC News is that Cochran notified executives of the dinner party after the Gores...had accepted the invitation." Only then, to avoid an ethical problem, did ABC News decide to transform it from a personal to official event and offer "to foot the bill for the dinner."

Or, as Cochran maintained to the MRC's, was it designed as a perfectly appropriate "working dinner"?

Whichever it really turned out or was planned to be, as the MRC pointed out in a press release and fax report during the day, it raises a double standard at ABC News which had fired reporter Bob Zelnick last year for writing a book about Al Gore published by the conservative Regnery company. At the time, ABC News President David Westin told Zelnick "we cannot have a Washington correspondent writing a book about one of our national leaders whom that correspondent will undoubtedly have to cover."

For more on Zelnick's departure, go to an article in the March 1998 MediaWatch:

In defending himself to Cochran insisted: "I think I've got a pretty good track record for being fair and tough." In fact, as the MRC demonstrated in the fax report, Cochran has a long trail of liberal advocacy in his reporting at both NBC News and ABC News.

Below are excerpts from stories and reports released Thursday about this still unfolding controversy, including USA Today's original story, two pieces highlighting ABC's defense, and a MRC fax report listing Cochran's record of liberal comments. Plus, while Cochran denied that he is a "friend" of the Gore's, in a FNC story Thursday night Al Gore referred to John Cochran as "a friend."

-- Thursday's USA Today broke the news that ABC News reporter John Cochran had invited Al and Tipper Gore over for dinner. Peter Johnson wrote:

A dinner party tonight at the Washington, D.C., home of ABC News correspondent John Cochran and his wife, Barbara, has raised some ethics questions at ABC News.

The guests of honor are Vice President Gore and wife Tipper. Cochran, who covers the White House, is expected to be ABC's lead reporter on Gore's presidential campaign.

Politicians and the reporters who cover them socialize casually all the time in Washington. But there are certain unspoken guidelines. One is to avoid being too close -- or giving the appearance of chumminess -- with a politician, especially during a race.

In campaigns, reporters and candidates "will find themselves together at dinner parties all the time," says Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., school for journalists. "What changes in this case is the intimate relationship that is suggested by the fact that the reporter is inviting the candidate to his home. This is unnecessary muddying of the waters."

Word around ABC News is that Cochran notified executives of the dinner party after the Gores -- who are longtime friends of the Cochrans -- had accepted the invitation. At that point, ABC News decided to foot the bill for the dinner. Woods called ABC's sponsorship "just stacking more bodies into the bed."

Cochran couldn't be reached. ABC News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said the "working dinner...will not compromise our coverage of the presidential race in any way."

Murphy would not discuss how ABC came to sponsor the dinner. No other ABC correspondents have hosted dinners for candidates, she said. Reporters from The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN will attend tonight. "It's one in a series of conversations we're having with presidential candidates. We intend to have other similar dinners."

END Excerpt

-- Early in the afternoon reporter Jim Burns reached Cochran, who denied he is a friend of the Gore family and maintained "It is not a party for them. It is a 'working dinner' with them." He also claimed that he's had Republican leaders over for dinner in the past. Here's an excerpt of the story:

ABC News White House Correspondent John Cochran denied a report in Thursday's USA Today that said he is hosting a "dinner party" tonight for Vice President Gore and his wife at the reporter's home and added that he is not "friends" with the couple.

Cochran told, "It is not a party for them. It is a 'working dinner' with them. There was a report that I am a friend of the Gore's. I am not a friend of the Gore's, never have been. I have not seen the Gores in a social setting since some time last year"

According to Cochran he did check with ABC News before committing to having the "working dinner" and received management's permission. "I thought it would be a good idea to invite them to a dinner. I think it is a good idea that the better that you know the candidate, the better your coverage is, I think," said Cochran.

"It may be an old fashioned idea but I've been in this business now over 25 years in political reporting and I think I've got a pretty good track record for being fair and tough. I've already covered some stories on Gore this year. I think anybody who saw those stories would certainly say they were not soft pieces on Gore. They were quite critical," Cochran told

When asked how he managed to entice ABC to foot the bill for the dinner Cochran said, "It's a business dinner." He went on to say, "If you take somebody out to dinner at a restaurant, your company pays for it. This whole thing about the tab, people entertain sources all the time, their company pays for it."

Cochran said he understands that ABC News plans to have more dinners and invite the other candidates but does not know the specifics since he is only covering Gore. "My company [ABC News], I know, has plans for [other dinners] but you'd have to speak with them because I'm not covering the other candidates. I feel I need to know more about the candidate I'm covering."

"However," Cochran went on to say, "I have hosted working dinners in my house, at which [Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott was present. [I have also hosted Arizona Senator] John McCain. I've certainly had Republicans in my house before."....

END Excerpt

To read the full story, go to:\Politics\archive\199912\POL19991202e.html

-- Late in the afternoon's Jim Burns filed an updated story in which an ABC News spokeswoman conceded that "given the attention" that the Gore dinner generated, ABC "would think long and hard before we would do another one at another person's home." Here's an excerpt of the story:

A spokeswoman for ABC News said the company does not view a "working dinner" Thursday night hosted by one of its reporters with Vice President Al Gore as a "conflict" but concedes it is unlikely it will sponsor another dinner again.

Eileen Murphy, spokesperson for ABC News, told that Thursday evening's working dinner hosted by its White House correspondent John Cochran is "in no way conflict our reporting" of the Gore presidential campaign.

She went on to say, "I think given the attention that this particular one [the Gore working dinner] has gotten, we would think long and hard before we would do another one at another person's home. I don't know that anybody would be willing to do it because of the attention that this one has gotten."

Murphy defended the practice and said the network's use of working dinners with politicians is "great" and added that ABC reporters will continue to meet with presidential candidates in some format. "We've done similar things in this campaign season," Murphy told, "with Senator (John) McCain. We have gone down to Austin, Texas and visited with (Governor) George Bush. We intend to do an editorial meeting with Bill Bradley. That is what this is. It is a working dinner with the Vice President, who is a candidate for president" Murphy went on to say, "We didn't do a dinner with George W. Bush but we did go down to Austin and spent about two and a half hours with him. We intend to invite him (Bush) here to New York to do another one of these as we move along in the [campaign] cycle."....

In 1987 the Radio and Television News Directors Association, the largest organization devoted to electronic journalism, adopted a code of ethics which it required all members to accept. In Section 2 of the code, it states that journalists must, "Strive to conduct themselves in a manner that protects them from conflicts of interest, real or perceived. They will decline gifts or favors which would influence or appear to influence their judgments."

Barbara Cochran, wife of John Cochran and President of RTNDA, told that the dinner with Gore in not an ethical violation. "It's a news organization that's the host, not the other way around. So there's no gift or favor coming in the direction of any of the news people involved. This is a part of your job. It is to get to know the people you cover."

END Excerpt

To read the entire story, go to:\Politics\archive\199912\POL19991202h.html

-- Picking up on Cochran's insistence to, as cited two excerpts above, that "I think I've got a pretty good track record for being fair and tough," late in the day the MRC's Tim Graham checked the record and found a trail of liberal advocacy from Cochran's time at ABC News and before that with NBC News.

Here's a reprint of the December 2 Media Reality Check fax report:

ABC Caters to Gore at Casa Cochran: ABC Fired Zelnick Over Gore Book Deal, But It Pays for Cochran's Dinner Party With Al and Tipper

ABC News fired veteran reporter Bob Zelnick in 1998 because he refused to break a contract with Regnery, the publisher of his Al Gore biography. When The New Yorker noted that Zelnick reported a story on Gary Aldrich, a fellow Regnery author, ABC News President David Westin wrote to Zelnick his story "held up to ridicule that our reporting is influenced by views you/we have formed about the individual involved."

But USA Today reported today that ABC reporter John Cochran is hosting a dinner party for Al and Tipper Gore tonight at his home. Was Cochran fired? No, ABC is picking up the tab. If Cochran's dinner doesn't say he's a liberal, his work does:

-- Appalling Reagan Years. "Conventional wisdom here in Washington has it that you and your department are too busy dealing with what's leftover from the Reagan Administration, those scandals, to do the rest of your work. For example, there's the HUD scandal, there's the Pentagon procurement fraud. Do you ever go to work and get angry and frustrated and think about the mess that you inherited?... Are you just appalled by what happened during the Reagan years?" -- Then-NBC White House reporter Cochran to Attorney General Richard Thornburgh on Meet the Press, August 20, 1989.

-- Duke Loves Bush: "Civil rights leaders say Bush's [hiring quota bill] veto will play well with whites who support former Klansman David Duke, but not with black voters." -- Cochran, October 17, 1990 Nightly News.

-- Scrooge Buchanan: "If street people were asked today who Scrooge is, some might name Republican presidential contender Pat Buchanan, who said last night that the homeless should be restricted to certain areas and that pan handlers should be locked up if they ignore warnings to stop." -- Cochran, December 24, 1991 Nightly News.

-- Racist Welfare Reform: "Some of these [family values] issues have racial overtones, such as Bush's support for welfare reforms which penalize single mothers who continue having children." -- Cochran live from the GOP convention, August 19, 1992.

-- Conservative Clinton: On the October 2, 1994 This Week, ABC reporter Cochran claimed Clinton could say as an "Eisenhower Democrat" that "The Republicans are making promises that are going to bust the budget. I, a responsible, middle-of-the- road, conservative type, can tell you it's not going to work."

-- The GOP Mafia: "Going into the homestretch, the campaign is taking on faint overtones of the old protection racket with [House] Republicans increasingly sounding like the Capone gang, offering protection against Bugsy Clinton and his mob." -- Cochran, October 27, 1996 This Week.

-- Mrs. Cochran's In Sync: On September 23, 1994, then-CBS Washington Bureau Chief Barbara Cochran told C-SPAN: "There's no question it was the Reagan tax cuts that led to the deficit."

END reprint

Space did not permit relaying in the fax report two other good examples of Cochran's liberal reporting, so here they are as a CyberAlert bonus:

> Why the Public Blames the GOP. Cochran on the June 6, 1997 World News Tonight reporting on GOP budgeting priorities:
Cochran: "Flood victims in Grand Forks do not understand why Republican leaders refuse to pass an aid bill without strings attached."
Tomi Lundby, flood victim: "The river took our home, our possessions, our neighbors, our neighborhood and we still have our spirit. But the government is taking our spirit and our strength. And that's what's going to kill us."
Cochran: "Doug Sprehe is a life-long conservative Republican." Doug Sprehe: "I believed in these guys and I voted for some of them and I'm beginning to lose my faith in the conservative party."
Cochran: "...People whose homes and businesses were destroyed say GOP leaders should realize that what they really need is money to rebuild."

> Medicare: Not Enough Spending. Cochran on ABC's World News Tonight on June 29, 1999 the day Clinton announced his proposal to have Medicare cover prescriptions:
"For many older people the Clinton plan is welcomed, but it would hardly solve the problems of those who have huge drug bills every month. That would include the Mitchells, who live in Florida. 68-year-old Willie has kidney problems, heart problems, and diabetes. The Mitchells' combined income each month from Social Security is only $1,200. Last month Willie's drug bill alone was more than $1,000. To make it through each month he cuts back on food and on medications, cutting his pills into quarters .....Under the Clinton plan Willie would only get $83 a month, not enough....His doctor urged him to go to Mexico where drugs are cheaper. But as a war veteran who paid taxes all his life, Willie can't understand why his own government can't help more."

-- Cochran told he does not consider himself to be a Gore "friend," but in a soundbite run in a Special Report with Brit Hume story on FNC Thursday night Gore claimed the opposite:
"A friend invited me to come over for dinner and Tipper and I said okay, we'll do that and we look forward to it and [shrugging] you know, I [starts laughing] you know, whatever people think is the controversy they'll have to decide for themselves."

In the story on the controversy FNC's Eric Burns stood up for Cochran: "I have known John Cochran very well for 15 years. He is a fair and honorable man on and off the air. But there's a larger issue here than just one reporter and one dinner party and one guest of honor...." That's how journalists have moved from independent outsiders to being insiders.

Later, in the roundtable segment, The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes dismissed the controversy: "I know John Cochran very well. I know Barbara his wife even more. We worked together at the Washington Star, going back many, many years. They're both lovely people and I see nothing wrong with it. If truth be told, you know, I am hosting a dinner for a political figure next Wednesday night, and Mort's going to be there."

My bottom line: If there was nothing wrong with Cochran having a presidential candidate, whom he is covering, over to dinner at his house, why were some ABC News insiders upset enough to complain to USA Today's Peter Johnson?


cyberno2.gif (1451 bytes) Scolding Bush's interview performance from the left. Catching up on a comment from last week caught by MRC analyst Mark Drake, Newsweek's Howard Fineman found two "unforced errors" in George W. Bush's answers to Tim Russert on the November 21 Meet the Press -- and both were instances where Bush positioned himself on the right: praising Justice Antonin Scalia and ruling out a meeting with Log Cabin Republicans.

Last Tuesday, November 23, on radio's Imus in the Morning show simulcast on MSNBC, Fineman argued:
"I thought he made some unforced errors politically. I don't think he had to say that Antonin Scalia was his favorite Supreme Court Justice. I mean it's not like Bush was really under great pressure from Gary Bauer. You know it just didn't make any sense for him to do that. Nor do I think he had to, you know, rule out meeting with the Log Cabin Republicans. Again, because he's not under a lot pressure from the right. And I think those may have been two unschooled, unrehearsed moments and, you know, I think he messed them up."

As he pushed Bush from the left Fineman seemed befuddled why a candidate would express any conservative views if not pressured to do so from the right.


cyberno3.gif (1438 bytes) John McCain isn't the only victim of a "whispering campaign" according to Dan Rather. Last week, the day before Hillary Clinton said she does "intend" to run for a New York Senate seat, Rather impugned Hillary Clinton's opponents for supposedly employing a "whispering campaign" to push her out of the race. Rather ominously intoned that they were "spreading the words 'ineffective' and 'blunders' about the First Lady's campaigning," as if that's some kind of unmentionable secret.

On the November 22 CBS Evening News, after a story about McCain, Rather warned:
"Fair or unfair, another whispering campaign is underway in New York. Aimed at First Lady Hillary Clinton and her hopes of winning a Senate seat. Republicans supporting Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and some Democrats are spreading the words 'ineffective' and 'blunders' about the First Lady's campaigning. CBS News has been told that partly because of this Mrs. Clinton is now considering moving up her official announcement as a candidate, now scheduled for February. Mrs. Clinton's supporters are telling her, she needs to do this to counter talk that she is considering pulling out of the race."


cyberno4.gif (1375 bytes) Ratings rundown: CNN's prime time viewership has plummeted 44 percent from a year ago and MSNBC has also fallen while the Fox News Channel's prime time is attracting more viewers, thanks in part to gaining carriage by more cable systems, especially The O'Reilly Factor. Plus, for another week CBS's The Early Show underperformed compared to the audience attracted by the show it replaced.

-- Washington Post television reporter Lisa de Moraes disclosed on December 2:

CNN did not have plenty to be thankful for last month, having plunged 44 percent in prime time vs. November '98. CNN wasn't the only cable news network to experience that sense of weightlessness November-to-November, but its decline was by far the steepest.

When it landed, CNN was still the leader of the pack, with an average of 561,000 viewers last month in prime time -- where most of the viewer and ad action is. But last November CNN was pulling in 1 million watchers. And CNN's lead against its closest competitor, CNBC, was cut from about 490,000 viewers to just 128,000.

CNBC had dropped 15 percent in prime time, from 511,000 viewers to 433,000.

Fox News Channel was the only one of the pack in the black; up from 202,000 to 248,000 viewers. That puts it ahead of MSNBC in prime time for the seventh month this year. MSNBC averaged 197,000 prime-time sets of eyeballs, vs. 248,000 last November.

CNN's prime-time flagship show "Larry King Live" was down about as much as the network was overall in prime time. But King can still crush his competitors; CNBC, for instance, averaged just 455,000 viewers opposite King's audience of 1 million.

It can be argued that CNN's bad news is actually its good news because it shows that CNN is still the cable news network of choice in times of crisis. November '98 was a crisis-riddled month what with the U.S. bombing of Iraq, Ken Starr's impeachment testimony and John Glenn's return to outer space. By comparison November '99 was calm.

At least CNN was saying as much when asked for comment. The network might also have mentioned that fledgling Fox News Channel has added 7.7 million TV homes since last November and MSNBC has added 7.1 million.

END Excerpt

-- O'Reilly Rules. USA Today's Peter Johnson noted in his December 2 "Inside TV" column: "While ratings for Bill O'Reilly's cable talk-show competitors are down significantly from this time last year, ratings for Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor are up 50%. An average of 300,000 households tuned in weeknights to see his chatfest in November."

-- As reported in the November 22 CyberAlert, in its second week CBS's The Early Show attracted 12 percent fewer viewers than This Morning did a year earlier. The audience isn't growing, as USA Today noted Tuesday that in its third week ratings for The Early Show "were unchanged from the second week -- below the season average of predecessor This Morning."

But CBS doesn't concede that maybe Bryant Gumbel is turning people away as USA Today's Peter Johnson relayed: "CBS chief Leslie Moonves says he's 'feeling very good' about the new program, which he says needs 'fine tuning. They're all doing a fine job.'"

When you've been in third place for 24 years I guess you have low expectations. -- Brent Baker


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