MediaWatch: March 1993

Vol. Seven No. 3

Janet Cooke Award: What if the "Wrong" Ad is right?

Last year, Bush ads contended that Bill Clinton would raise taxes on the middle class. Reporters pledged to monitoring campaign accuracy called them "wrong" or "misleading." But once Clinton took office, he called for a tax hike on the middle class. That raises a question that "ad watch" advocates didn't consider: What happens when the "wrong" candidate turns out to be right? For their misleading "Ad Watch" features, all four news networks earned the February Janet Cooke Award.

On October 1, the Bush team released an ad with specific estimates of how much in new taxes middle-class Americans "could" pay under a President Clinton. All four networks called the ad misleading. But take a look at the five assumptions for the ad, as reported October 2 by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post:

"That Clinton will raise just $1 billion, not $45 billion by improving tax collection from foreign companies operating in this country." Budget director Leon Panetta concedes it will be hard to get $3 billion.

"That Clinton will not enact the $60 billion in tax relief he has promised for families earning less than $90,000." That's been abandoned.

"That Clinton's plan to raise $150 billion in new revenue over four years will fall short, forcing him to raise taxes on individuals with taxable incomes about $36,000." That has been proposed, with the Social Security and energy tax hikes.

"That Clinton has proposed $58 billion in `phony' spending cuts." Among those cuts: $9.8 billion in savings over four years from enacting the line-item veto, which also has been abandoned.

"That Clinton's health care plan will cost $117 billion more than what he says." Actually, the Bush campaign claimed that Clinton would have to raise taxes $117 billion to pay for his health plan. This isn't true yet, but reporters now estimate taxes will have to be raised at least $30 billion a year, or $120 billion over four years. To find out what the networks might do now to remedy their accuracy patrols, MediaWatch asked reporters for their response:

ABC. On October 2, Jeff Greenfield attacked ads from both campaigns, but said of the Bush ad: "The numbers don't come from Clinton's plan at all. They come from the Bush campaign's very questionable assumptions about Clinton's plan." On Nightline, Greenfield called the ad "very misleading, to say the least," which suggested Bush was lying.

Greenfield told MediaWatch that the MRC was "sloppy" in characterizing his reporting as "wrong," claiming the Bush campaign said its numbers came from the assumption that taxpayers over $36,000 would pay a new top rate of 36 percent.

"The Bush campaign ad that I was criticizing was specifically aimed at their use of apparently accurate numbers based on an assumption that even Clinton's [current] tax plan comes nowhere near doing. Clinton is not raising middle class tax rates anywhere near a marginal rate of 36 percent," Greenfield argued. "Did Clinton mislead the middle class? Absolutely. Did many of us point that out, both in print and on the air? Absolutely. Was the Bush campaign commercial therefore accurate in accusing Clinton of planning a marginal tax rate of 36 percent on the middle class? No way. Lesson: Intellectual dishonesty is not the province of the left or right in campaigns. It is endemic."

CBS. On October 5, reporter Eric Engberg asserted: "The tax figures jump from the screen with fact-like exactness. They were provided not by Clinton, but by the Bush staff, which admits they are based on assumptions. They assume Clinton will fail to get his [campaign] program through Congress, that his proposal to tax the wealthy won't raise enough money, and that he will then tax the middle class, which he says he won't." Engberg asked: "The stacking up of assumptions like this, there's a word we use for that." Cracked Steven Colford of Advertising Age: "I think it's lying."

When asked if CBS would air a story on how Bush's "lying" is coming true, producer Randy Wolfe responded "I don't know...We've done several very tough `Reality Checks' on President-elect Clinton and President Clinton. But you all always ignore those, just as you did during the campaign." MediaWatch did not find one critique of Clinton ads from September 1 to October 5, but Engberg took on Clinton radio ads on October 19.

CNN. On Oct. 2, reporter Brooks Jackson took a different angle on the specific-numbers ad, critiquing the Bush ad on its health care tax assumptions: "Clinton says his proposed controls on health costs will save enough to pay for gradually extending health insurance to all 35 million uninsured Americans. No taxes required."

Jackson then pronounced "A nonpartisan group that did study both the Bush and Clinton health plans sides with Clinton." Jackson's "nonpartisan" expert was Ron Pollack of Families USA, a left-wing group.

Jackson was surprised when MediaWatch called Families USA partisan: "You think of them as partisan? Well, I hadn't heard anybody say that before. They certainly favor governmental action in the health arena." But the February 6 Washington Post reported the group "hired eight field representatives to wage a health care reform campaign of its own in 60 `swing' congressional districts where support for Clinton's general not considered firm." Can they be honestly labeled "nonpartisan"? Jackson explained: "It was my first contact with the group, and I think as a legal matter, they're nonpartisan," since they're tax-exempt. Jackson insisted: "I don't claim to be perfect, but I sure try to be fair."

NBC. Like Greenfield, Lisa Myers critiqued both campaigns on October 2, but called the Bush ad "...misleading. In fact, Clinton has proposed cutting taxes for the sort of people in this ad. The tax increase that the ad claims could result under Clinton is based on leaps of logic about how he'd pay for his promises." But last August 30, a Clinton ad claimed: "Those making over $200,000 will pay more. The rest of us get a break." Only CNN critiqued the ad. Why didn't the other networks? Myers told MediaWatch: "Well, we can't read the guy's mind. It was a reasonable assumption [Clinton would raise taxes]. But based on his program, what Bill Clinton said was reasonable...We tried to deal with the ads that were most clearly over the line in some respect."

In 1992, reporters called the Republicans inaccurate for predicting that Clinton would raise taxes. Before 1996, they should watch the tax returns of the people in the Bush ad who "could" pay more under Clinton. If their tax burdens meet or exceed the Bush commercial, all the networks should admit it was they who misled the voters, not the Bush campaign.