MediaWatch: January 1991

Vol. Five No. 1

Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Civil Wrongs

In the current lexicon, "civil rights" no longer describes the promise of equal treatment before the law; instead, it applies only to special treatment of some races. Education Department official Michael Williams created a firestorm December 12 with a ruling that, under the current "civil rights" laws, race-based scholarships awarded by governments or colleges are discriminatory and therefore illegal.

Reporters didn't simply describe the firestorm, they played a large part in fueling it. Most spent more time analyzing the political opposition to the decision -- roasting Williams and the vacillating Bush Administration -- than explaining the decision's legal rationale. For its one-sided reporting of the ruling, CBS News earned the Janet Cooke Award.

Williams didn't call for a ban on race-based scholarships out of spite: the "Civil Rights Restoration Act," passed by liberal Democrats over Ronald Reagan's veto in 1988, mandated that federal aid would be denied to any college that discriminated on the basis of race in any program. Thus, minority activists and college officials were objecting to a law they lobbied hard for only two years ago.

On the night following the announcement, reporter Eric Engberg's CBS Evening News story focused only on critics, who "said the new policy will devastate the chances for minority students to get a college degree," such as NAACP chief Benjamin Hooks, Notre Dame's Theodore Hesburgh, and a financial aid officer. CBS also featured potential victims: "Tony going to Columbia University on a minority scholarship. Without it, he says, he'd be in a bind." Engberg concluded: "The American Council on Education, the umbrella group for colleges, vowed to fight today's ruling. Officials said they would tell member colleges the Department of Education is dead wrong on the law." No conservative was allowed to challenge these statements.

Following Engberg, Chief Political Correspondent Bruce Morton did air a soundbite of former Reagan official Terry Eastland saying: "It is an unjustified use of race. They count by race, they divide by race, they reward by race. They're bad for everyone involved, though." But Morton dismissed the view: "That's a philosophical point. But with the country in recession, with people worried about their jobs, the quota issue taps both racial resentment and economic fear. David Duke used Louisiana."

Morton repeatedly confused the concepts of civil rights, quotas and "affirmative action" without ever defining their meanings. "Democrats [say] 'We're not for quotas, we're for affirmative action, and the Bush Administration has endorsed that in a lot of federal programs. The quota issue is a Republican attempt to blame somebody else for the recession they've created.'"

A few hours later, America Tonight began with this alarmist synopsis: "Across America tonight -- A blow to civil rights as minority scholarships are ruled illegal." CBS wrongly implied minority scholarships as a whole were "ruled illegal." Williams' ruling clearly did not include scholarships from private sources, only those from government or college treasuries. It also did not exclude scholarships awarded to minorities based on merit or financial need -- only those based solely on race. To top it all off, notice the abuse of the term "civil rights": Do minority students now have a right to taxpayer money for college?

Lesley Stahl interviewed liberal U. of Wisconsin Chancellor Donna Shalala and former Reagan official William Bradford Reynolds. Although Reynolds carefully reviewed the legal rationale behind the decision, Stahl ignored the legal debate and sank to demagoguery: "I want to ask you one fast final question: Are you sure this is not politics? Someone said to me today 'This is Willie Horton goes to college.'"

Over the next week, the Evening News ran two more stories by Engberg, which included three more opponents of the ruling. He did interview one black conservative, Alan Keyes, but only in the capacity usually reserved for conservatives to criticize the President's vacillation. Another black conservative, David Bernstein of the Madison Center for Educational Affairs, told MediaWatch that CBS This Morning producer Christine McHenry interviewed a student from his group late in the controversy, but the interview never aired.  

CBS Evening News producer Bill Skane told MediaWatch that getting interviews from anyone in the immediate aftermath of the ruling was difficult: "Everybody we got was a hard get that day, because of the timing involved, and when we decided to do it, among other things. It wasn't until 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Everybody was hard to find...I think by the second or third day of it, Eric had more that he could do." That hardly excuses putting on just one supporter versus seven opponents over a week long period. Even if CBS could not find any sources to support the ruling on the first day, professionalism dictated two possible courses of action. One, not air soundbites from either side; or two, summarize the conservative position. Engberg did neither.