MediaWatch: March 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 3

NewsBites: Biased Bias Poll

A March 2 Parade magazine cover story reported that 52 percent of the public "think the news is too biased." In which direction? Paradedidn't say in its summary of the Roper Center survey conducted in conjunction with the Freedom Forum's opening of its "Newseum," a museum of media history.

But buried in the full survey results on the Newseum web site was a sentence on how "majorities also say they have at least some concern" for three deficiencies. The third: "That journalists favor the liberal point of view (53%)." Why the Freedom Forum and Parade didn't highlight this last finding becomes clear once you look at the five options from which those polled could select when asked "How much of the time is news reporting improperly influenced by..." The choices: "Media desire to make profits," "Interests of corporate media owners," "Advertisers," "Big business," and "Elected officials."

Cronkite's Christians

Walter Cronkite signed a direct-mail fundraising letter for The Interfaith Alliance (TIA), a group established in 1984 to counter "religious political extremists." Associated Press reporter Kevin Galvin explained that in the letter sent in late February, Cronkite "singled out the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed for `wrapping their harsh right wing views in the banner of religious faith.'"

Cronkite told Galvin by telephone: "My principal thrust here is to try to help establish that they do not speak for what I believe is the majority of Christians in the country." Galvin reported that in the letter Cronkite praised TIA for being "as diverse as America" and "standing up to the Christian Coalition." The letter urged recipients to give $50 to $500 and asked: "Will you take a stand? Will you help TIA in saying `No' to religion as a political cover? `No' to Pat Robertson, `No' to Ralph Reed, `No' to Jerry Falwell?"

Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz began a March 7 story: "Walter Cronkite is coming out of the ideological closet." Actually, it's not the first time he's lent his name to liberal fundraisers. In 1988, for instance, he addressed a People for the American Way banquet. As quoted in the December 5, 1988 Newsweek,Cronkite thundered: "I know liberalism isn't dead in the country. It simply has, temporarily we hope, lost its voice...We know that the real threat to democracy is the half of the nation in poverty. We know that no one should tell a woman she has to bear an unwanted child...God Almighty, we've got to shout these truths in which we believe from the housetops."

Billy Who?

Billy Dale was fired from the White House travel office in 1993 amidst embezzlement charges to make room for Clinton's Arkansas cronies. When a jury acquitted him on November 16, 1995, demonstrating the Clintons had accused him unjustly, the networks ignored it. When he then sought repayment for his nearly half a million dollars in legal bills, the President promised to sign the bill. On May 2, 1996, The Washington Times reported Senate Democrats moved in secret to block legislation reimbursing Dale. The networks ignored that,too. So it was no surprise that when Bill Clinton signed a bill authorizing repayment and the government finally wired Dale's attorneys some $410,000 for his legal fees on February 13, the networks again pretended the story did not exist.

What Correction?

On February 15, an Arkansas newspaper splashed a story across its front page that the Whitewater investigation was in trouble. The story spread quickly. That night, anchor Paula Zahn relayed the article's allegations to viewers of the CBS Evening News: "Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr has reportedly hit a snag in his Whitewater investigation. According to a report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Starr has conducted four mock trials. In each the jury acquitted both President and Mrs. Clinton. Word is Starr will now rework his probe into the Clintons' real estate dealings." All the networks except ABC broadcast the story -- a total of six more times over the next few days. Six days later, the Democrat-Gazette printed a front-page correction headlined "Starr Staged No Mock Trial, Source Concedes." CBS and NBC didn't tell viewers. Only CNN bothered to correct the story.

Eternal Entitlements.

When new rules went into effect limiting to three months in three years the time able-bodied people without children can receive food stamps, CBS warned of impending disaster. On the February 22 CBS Evening News Sharyl Attkisson intoned: "People who help those on welfare see trouble ahead." Attkisson aired the fears of Chapman Todd at the Washington D.C. Central Kitchen: "You see a lot of people who fit that category but really have no marketable skills." Attkisson added: "29 states and the District of Columbia have applied for special waivers to delay this first step in welfare reform. New York is among them, even though its Republican Governor strongly supports the need for drastic change." Attkisson aired a soundbite from Gov. George Pataki but then led into a soundbite from liberal Congressman Charles Rangel. Attkisson foreshadowed: "Critics warn this is just a small preview of the tremendous headaches ahead as broader welfare reforms take hold."

Two weeks later on the March 9 Evening News, Zahn wondered if Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer's supposedly successful downtown revitalization would be affected by welfare reform. "Given the fact that cities and states are going to have to absorb more of the welfare burden, could that potentially derail some of the progress you have made in downtown Detroit?" Zahn's been in a panic since Clinton agreed to welfare reform. Last August 1 she ominoulsly intoned: "There is already is a great deal of fear and anxiety all over the country over the impact it will have."

Pentagon-Bashing Syndrome

In the March Reason, science writer Michael Fumento lambasted the media's shoddy Gulf War Syndrome coverage. Several studies, such as an October 1996 Institute of Medicine report, found there was "no available evidence in human or animal studies to date that exposure to nerve agents at low levels...results in any chronic or long-term adverse health effects." The networks didn't cover it, but Fumento found that "incredible accounts of such symptoms as skin-blistering semen and glowing vomit are taken as gospel."

Fumento explained the grab-bag nature of "Gulf War Syndrome," a laundry list of self-diagnosed symptoms including "hair loss, graying hair, weight gain, weight loss." The wackiest symptoms came from Private Brian Martin, who told a congressional panel that he vomited "[glow-in-the-dark] Chemlite-looking fluids every time I ran." But such statements didn't hurt his credibility with Ed Bradley, who used him as a main source for his August 25 60 Minutes story on possible troop exposure to nerve gas at Khamisiyah, Iraq. The glowing vomit was left out.

Martin told Bradley that when the bunker at Khamisiyah exploded and chemical alarms went off, the soldiers not only didn't put on their protective gear, they didn't even have access to them. Bradley said Sgt. Dan Topalski "put his suit on right away. Others did not. He is the only man in the group who is not sick." But Fumento talked to the five other vets who appeared in the 60 Minutes segment, and they said every soldier at Khamisiyah was fully suited, and one vet told Fumento that he made that clear to Bradley. Recently on the February 20 CBS Evening News, reporter David Martin repeated the error: "The troops did not bother to put on their chemical protection gear."

Welcome to the Greenhouse

Bitter Cold. Heat waves. Torrential rain. Dusty drought. Melting ice caps. These disparate conditions mean one thing to reporters: global warming. Whenever the weather's quirky, the media drag out global warming scare stories. On February 6, Dan Rather introduced a CBS Evening News piece on biting winter weather in the Great Plains: "In tonight's Eye on America, a hard news report about the wild weather including dangerous and in some cases deadly climate extremes and changing patterns...This video, fresh from Antarctica, shows deep cracks in the ice shelf. You can see how deep and how big at ground level. You can also see the melting that some environmentalists say is a danger sign of global warming."

On the February 26 Dateline NBC, prompted by Midwest flooding, science reporter Robert Bazell warned: "What's happening to the weather? Is something going wrong with the weather? Are we changing the weather? The problem, and most of the world's experts now agree there is a problem, is simply this: we burn things....We are in fact a civilization built on burning. As those gases build up in our skies, they begin to trap and hold in more of the Sun's heat, the way a greenhouse does. The result, say most scientists, a gradual warming of the planet." Competitive Enterprise Institute President Fred Smith, in the CEI Update, disgreed that warming is occurring and refuted the dire prognosis if it were: "The balance of evidence suggests that a warmer world will be a cloudier world, with most of the warming occurring at night, moderating nighttime lows. Also, the increased cloudiness will be greatest in the summer, least in the winter, further reducing temperature variations across the seasons. In effect, the most likely impact of warming -- should it occur -- would be a more benign climate, not a more hostile one."

The BBA Blame Game

In the 104th Congress, the balanced budget amendment failed by one vote. When Republicans added two seats to their Senate majority in 1996, it would seem that the amendment would have no trouble passing, especially since four freshmen Democrats supported the amendment during the campaign. When Senators Tim Johnson and Robert Torricelli announced their opposition to the amendment, ABC didn't find a story of dishonest Democrats or misled voters, but a story of ineffective Republicans.

On the February 26 World News Tonight, ABC's John Cochran began: "Republicans knew from the start they needed the votes of at least three of the four freshmen Democrats who during the election campaign said they supported a constitutional amendment to outlaw budget deficits." Cochran ended the piece: "Torricelli's decision leaves Republicans still unable to produce on two of the big promises of their Contract with America. Two weeks ago the House rejected term limits, and now the balanced budget amendment seems doomed." Cochran failed to mention that both Senators had voted for a similar amendment when they were in the House.

Deng Heap

People might not expect the death of a communist dictator to bring tributes. But on the February 19 Nightline, Ted Koppel lauded Deng Xiaoping as the Great Normalizer following Mao's murderous reign: "Tens of million of Chinese lives were ruined by that. Deng Xiaoping's legacy by contrast is stability. Yes, he ordered the army to crush the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and yes, dissidents have been ruthlessly repressed throughout China. But the Chinese people have endured so much worse over the past 40 years that Deng is likely to go down in history as the great normalizer, which may prove to be of more lasting value to the most populous country in the world than all the rest of it."

In the March 3 Time, Senior Editor Howard Chua-Eoan and Senior Writer James Walsh were juggling the "greatness" of the two mass murderers: "And finally, there was the most troublesome shadow of all, Mao Zedong, Deng's friend and foe, his rival for the soul of a country so ancient it has had a the misfortune both to forget its history many times over and over and to repeat it again and again. Only history will decide who was the greater."

To Newsweek's Bill Powell, the killings in Tiananmen Square weren't the negative for the people of China, capitalism was: "For all of China's economic success, much of the vast country is still either desperately poor or suffering from the excesses of runaway capitalism or both."

McNamara didn't try to disprove Rather's contention that global warming is behind the harsh weather in the Great Plains. Back on the August 1 Evening News anchor Paula Zahn had ominously intoned: "The new, landmark welfare overhaul President Clinton promised to sign won't be law for a while yet, but They got two, but Johnson of South Dakota decided to vote against it, citing concerns about the threat to Social Security trust fund. That left Torricelli. And to keep him from joining the Republicans, President Clinton promised last night to establish a special commission to study his budget concerns."

It was the same story in the print media. USA Today "Politics" columnist Walter Shapiro painted Torricelli and Johnson as heroes. Shapiro wrote that Torricelli has been portrayed as a "poll-directed, publicity-driven modern politician," but "Here was Torricelli defying such facile media labels with an unpopular vote against a gaudily wrapped package of constitutional mischief." He concluded: "Two freshmen Senators, so different in style and temperament, deserve plaudits for sticking their necks out to block a constitutional calamity. Despite my cynical doubts, sometimes the system works."During the Whitewater hearings in the summer of 1995, Schieffer remarked on CBS Sunday Morning that for his fourteen thousandth vote, Senator Robert Byrd "made a little speech and he said, you know the one thing that I regret about Washington these days is how mean-spirited and partisan it has become. This has always been a very partisan place, but I must say, I agree with Senator Byrd. I think somehow there's a new mean-spiritedness in our politics and I think Washington was a lot better place when people were a little more amicable in how they conducted their business."Guilty verdicts in the trials of Jim and Susan McDougal, former business partners of President Clinton, and Arkansas governor, Jim Guy Tucker A federal judge in Little Rock threw out Starr's indictment of Arkansas' Democratic governor, Jim Guy Tucker, on fraud charges.This is the age of negative advertising, this is a time when members of Congress really don't even like each other very much anymore.