MediaWatch: December 1996

Vol. Ten No. 12

NewsBites: Berating Burton

Berating Burton. In the December 9 issue, Time reporter James Carney profiled the new head of the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). Carney claimed: "On the other side of Capitol Hill, the President's chief inquisitor on such issues as the Democratic fund-raising scandal will be a man who has never pretended to be impartial."

Time underlined their spin with the headline: "In the House, a Zealot Talks Softly." So who does Time think is a zealot? Could a liberal be one? Not really. A Nexis search of Time since January 1992 looking for the word "zealot" found 39 references to the word, 37 of which were used to describe a conservative or right-wing point of view. In most cases, "zealot" was used to describe the Christian right or pro-life movements, such as references to "religious zealots," "anti-choice zealots," "Gingrichian zealotry," "capitalist zealots," and one reference claiming that "Not long ago, America's Christian right was dismissed as a group of pasty-faced zealots."

Missing Militias. Every network has reported numerous stories on the "right-wing" militia movement, from the Freemen to more obscure outlets like Arizona's Viper Militia and the Phineas Priesthood. But when it comes to left-wing militias, it's a very different story. Dan Rather reported on the November 12 CBS Evening News: "Police in Brooklyn discovered a huge cache of arms in a quiet apartment complex. They seized 25 lbs. of gunpowder, 45 weapons including submachine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Police also found a web of tunnels linking the apartments. Tonight, police said 38 people are in custody and the group was part of an organization calling itself the Provisional Party of Communism." Other network coverage of a story right in their own backyard? None.

Two days later on the Evening News, reporter Art Rascon offered this story on one cause of riots in St. Petersburg, Florida: "Police now say they know who was responsible for the rioting. This man: Omali Ushelton, the founder of the National Uhuru Movement. He admitted encouraging racial unrest just before going underground earlier this week...The Uhurus are a loosely organized, small but potent group with chapters nationwide. Its leader has not only incited riots in this city, he has also called for the assassination of the mayor and the police chief.

That has only caused hostility and division within the black community." Other network coverage of this story? None.

Can't Afford a Movie? When a congressionally appointed panel reported that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) overstated inflation, leading to excessive entitlement payments, the networks automatically took the victims angle -- not of the taxpayers who forked over hyperinflated payments for decades, but for the beneficiaries. On the December 4 World News Tonight, ABC's Peter Jennings opened: "We begin tonight with money. Maybe a little less for you, depending on who you are, and certainly a little more for Uncle Sam." Reporter Lisa Stark noted: "One-third of the federal budget is tied to the CPI, so cutting the official inflation measurement 1.1 percent would lower all government payments based on the cost of living, saving the government a trillion dollars over the next 12 years. But cutting those payments would affect 60 million Americans, including seniors who stand to lose an average of $100 a year in Social Security." Only in Washington (and in newsrooms) could a smaller-than-projected increase be a loss or a "cut."

Dan Rather had the same spin on that night's CBS Evening News: "A plan officially proposed in Washington today could affect the incomes of millions of Americans, especially those older or at the lower end of the economic scale." Reporter Ray Brady illustrated: "Take the average Social Security check: It will rise from $724 to $745 a month in January, but it would rise to just $737, a difference of eight dollars if the congressional commission has its way." Brady spoke to a woman at a senior center who illustrated how this would affect her: "For many people who come here, eight dollars a month is a big loss. That may be the only eight dollars they have to ever go to the movies."

Another Favorite Victim. CBS White House reporter Rita Braver mourned Hillary Rodham Clinton's domestic woes as the First Lady traveled through Asia. On the November 25 Evening News, Braver noted sympathetically: "But throughout this Pacific journey she has taken a higher profile than she has at home of late. And she seems more comfortable overseas, where her popularity has not been diminished by problems like Whitewater."

Casting the First Lady as a trailblazer for the oppressed souls of past First Ladies, Braver added: "Perhaps Mrs. Clinton best expressed her own awkward situation when she told an Australian audience that the only way for a First Lady to escape criticism is never to express opinions or ideas." The notion that it's those ideas rather than her gender that make the First Lady worth discussing didn't surface in Braver's story -- as it hasn't in many others.

Hillary Clinton: Icon, Saint. Newsweek Washington bureau Chief Evan Thomas pulled together numerous reports from the magazine's correspondents to provide a fresh, behind-the-scenes look at major players in the Presidential and congressional campaigns for its Campaign `96 wrap-up in the November 18 issue. But when it came to Hillary Clinton, Thomas had nothing to offer but the same old suck-up schtick Newsweek has offered since her arrival on the national scene in 1992.

Thomas lovingly wrote that "The Chicago convention promised to be a moment of liberation for Hillary Clinton. It has been a bumpy year for her -- in many ways a bumpy four years. In the world beyond the Beltway, she was something of an icon, even a saint, for many women; thousands flocked to see her in her travels in America and abroad, teetering on folding chairs in crowded halls just to catch a glimpse. But back home in Washington, she felt trapped inside her caricature as a pushy Yuppie overachiever who would bend the rules and sacrifice her friends to have her way.

Her split image `beflummoxed' her, an aide said, though she herself seemed at times to make it worse with her lawyerly caginess under fire."

In an article about Whitewater and the campaign, Thomas ruminated: "Was she really hiding something? Or was she just embarassed to be seen having tried to make a fast buck? In 1992, the Clintons had campaigned against the excesses of the `80s, the get-rich-quick schemes of the Reagan era. It would hardly do for Mrs. Clinton, advocate of the rights of poor children, to look like a greedy Yuppie who tried to use her husband's office to cash in on land deals and cattle futures. Or maybe Mrs. Clinton really believed what she said: that her private finances were none of the press's business."

Hearty Heil Kesslers. Food and Drug Adminstration chief David Kessler's surprise resignation clearly disappointed his fans at the networks. While conservatives derided Kessler for an overzealous regulatory overreach in areas like tobacco and food product regulations, NBC's Robert Hager gave a big thumbs-up on the November 25 Nightly News: "Kessler was controversial from the start, loved going after the big guys, set the tone immediately six years ago by telling Procter & Gamble to get the word 'fresh' off its frozen orange juice. When the company ignored him, Kessler began seizing the product...And he was bipartisan too, appointed by the Republican Bush, kept on by the Democrat Clinton."

Hager aired a soundbite from Newt Gingrich criticizing Kessler for being too slow in approving drugs but offered no examples of how Kessler's agency may have overreached. "But all this was prelude to his landmark decision to go after big tobacco, some of the nation's wealthiest corporations. Call cigarettes a drug, he said, and regulate them." Hager oozed Kessler was "leaving history to judge the difference he may have made in American health."

Hager was not alone in admiring Kessler's cause of saving Americans from themselves. CNN's Jeff Levine bemoaned Kessler's loss on The World Today: "When David Kessler was sworn in as commissioner six years ago, his agency was plagued by scandal and low morale. Now Kessler says he's quitting after setting the US Food and Drug Administration on a new course...It was clear from the beginning that under David Kessler it would not be business as usual. Whether it was seizing orange juice that didn't live up to its freshness claim or requiring food to carry labels informing consumers of nutritional content or pulling silicone gel-filled breast implants off the market until they could be proven safe, Kessler was not afraid to act when he thought it was in the public interest."

Neither reporter noted how Kessler seized Fresh Choice orange juice for being misleading though the cartons were labeled "from concentrate." Nor did they note how he refused to reverse his ban on silicone breast implants even after studies proved they were not dangerous.

Last Digs at Dornan. The defeat of conservative Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) by Democrat Loretta Sanchez generated stories on all the networks portraying the result as a shocker in the "conservative" 46th District. On the November 13 CBS Evening News, Bob Schieffer reported: "It's a win all the sweeter for Democrats coming as it does in heavily conservative Orange County at the expense of Congress's leading Clinton-basher."

On ABC's Good Morning America the next morning, reporter Carol Lin asserted: "For the last 12 years this heavily Republican district has been represented by Bob Dornan's conservative opposition to abortion, communism and gay rights. And his unrelenting support of the military and bombastic attacks against President Clinton." On NBC's Today that same morning, co-host Katie Couric interviewed Sanchez: "As you know your district, which includes Orange County, is considered a bastion of Republican conservatism. How do you think a Democrat was able to get elected?" Couric did note that "the Democrats have steadily been making gains through the years in your district, isn't that right?" But then she wondered about a larger message: "You like the message that this sends out to the rest of the country about Orange County. What kind of message do you think it sends?"

Only CNN's Bernard Shaw offered a reality check on the November 14 Inside Politics: "It long has been considered a bastion of white conservative Republicans, but Census figures show nearly half of the voters in Dornan's Orange County Congressional District are Hispanic, a group that leans Democratic." None of the networks news stories mentions that, far from being the inevitable product of a conservative district, Bob Dornan defeated an incumbent Democrat for his seat in 1984.

Gullible Brooks? "One of the more bizarre episodes of the campaign may have gotten a little less bizarre today," CNN's Brooks Jackson announced on the December 6 Inside Politics. A Buddhist nun, who had once told The Wall Street Journal that the $5,000 she gave at a temple fundraiser attended by Al Gore had come from a donor who didn't want to be identified, changed her story. Jackson reported that she told the FEC "the money was hers all along." Why the initial story? She didn't know how to handle a call from a reporter "and told what she hoped...was a harmless lie."

The December 2 Wall Street Journal suggested another explanation, reporting that after the Journal's story last summer Democratic lawyer Peter Kelly contacted the nun. She "then left her temple for a retreat overseas, from which she did not return until after the election. She now won't talk to reporters, referring all calls to Mr. Kelly."