MediaWatch: May 1991

Vol. Five No. 5

NewsBites: Maniacal TIME

Time magazine's obsession with maligning Ronald Reagan is growing ridiculous. The television advertisement offering "The Most Important People of the 20th Century" video as a subscription premium begins: "Who would you choose? A President, a Prime Minister, a national hero or a maniacal villain?" At the word "President" the ad shows John Kennedy; at "Prime Minister" a picture of Winston Churchill; and at "national hero" a movie clip of John Wayne. For "maniacal villain" Adolf Hitler appears, followed by a smiling Ronald Reagan.


After the Soviets shot down KAL-007 in 1983, the media gave widespread attention to numerous theories absolving the Soviets of blame. Even five years after the incident, on the July 4, 1988 CBS Evening News, the late reporter Robert Schakne asserted: "The Soviets mistook the Korean Airlines 747 for an American Air Force reconnaissance plane on a spying mission over secret Siberian bases."

A new interview with the Soviet pilot who fired the fatal shots proves this and other "blame America" theories were wrong. As recounted by author James Oberg in an April 23 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Lt. Colonel Gennadi Osipovich told Izvestia he knew the plane was not a RC-135, and that "he was instructed to lie about the encounter: to claim that he had radioed it on an emergency channel although he had not, that the target plane's lights were off although he had seen them on, and that he had fired tracers although his cannon had not such shells." Osipovich told Seoul's MPC television he knew he was firing at a commercial plane, the Associated Press reported April 28.

How did the rest of the media react to revelations the U.S. government had told the truth all along? The Washington Post, which devoted a lengthy 1986 story to charges the plane was on a spying mission, gave it a few paragraphs in its "Around the World" column. The New York Times, news weeklies and the networks, however, have so far refused to correct the historical record.

The television networks frequently report there are millions of homeless people. Two recent examples: "All across the country Americans are becoming increasingly less tolerant of homeless people, now estimated to number as many as two million," ABC's Carole Simpson announced on March 30. "In New York there are an estimated 70,000 homeless people, three million across America. A problem that got a lot worse during the boom times of the '80s," reporter Harold Dow claimed on the March 26 CBS Evening News.

But when the Census Bureau found just 230,000, ABC, CBS and NBC were silent. Only CNN reported the April 12 finding from the 1990 count, conducted by 15,000 census workers. The bureau conceded it might have missed some people, but in order to reach Dow's claim it would have to had missed more than nine of ten.

Publication of Lou Cannon's new book, President Reagan: Role of a Lifetime, provided two media heavyweights with an opportunity to do some more Reagan bashing. NBC News President Michael Gartner reviewed the book in the April 21 Washington Post: "Cannon starts off by proclaiming that Reagan is not a dunce, a point that can be questioned by the very fact that it has to be made, a point we all want to believe but a point that Cannon tends to undercut every few pages...Not a dunce, maybe, but not a diplomat, either. Or a politician. Or a manager. Or a policymaker. Or a learner." Gartner argued: "Still the nation needed more than inspiration in the 1980s. It needed leadership -- moral leadership, intellectual leadership, political leadership. It needed a manager, not a cheerleader. It needed a statesman, not a star. It needed answers, not anecdotes. It needed ideas as wells as ideals. And Ronald Reagan wasn't up to that task."

Laurence Barrett, Time's Deputy Washington Bureau Chief, was no less gracious on April 15: "What the country did not need was the surfeit of feel-good illusions Reagan sold so successfully. Every politician peddles hope in bright ribbons. The saddest and scariest conclusion one takes from this book is that Reagan fully believed his spiels even at their most outlandish. That gut sincerity and his actor's skills let him ring up record sales in the '80s. Paying the bills is America's hellish task in the '90s and perhaps beyond."

The media have a responsibility to confirm allegations about public figures before reporting them. But that's not what happened when it came to Kitty Kelley's Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography. The April 7 New York Times carried a long front-page story by Maureen Dowd which did not challenge one Kelley claim. Dowd defended the book in the May 13 New Republic: "Of course, the book is tawdry. Of course the book is, in some spots, loosely sourced and over the top....Of course, there are mistakes in it...The point, however, is that Kelley's portrait is not essentially untrue." Dowd was only disappointed that Kelley did not write more on the First Lady's "tempering" of the President's "more Neanderthal tendencies."

Newsweek media critic Jonathan Alter, who by his very position should know better, embarrassed himself by defending Kelley's professionalism in the April 22 issue: "In a narrow sense, Kelley is an effective reporter." Later he added: "Despite her wretched excesses, Kelley has the core of the story right," and "however twisted, the bulk of Kelley's stories seem to at least be based on real events." Alter preferred assaulting the Reagans' reputation: "If even a small fraction of the material amassed and borrowed here turns out to be true, Ronald Reagan and his wife had to be the most hypocritical people ever to live in the White House."

The networks weren't much better. NBC interviewed Kelley for three days in a row on Today. CBS reporter Mark Phillips typified the media's smirking abandonment of duty at the end of his April 8 Evening News report: "Is the stuff in the book true or just vindictive tales? Who knows? Who cares?"

While reporters were eating up Kitty Kelley's allegations about the Reagans, Time reacted a bit differently to Senator Ted Kennedy's Palm Beach troubles. The April 29 issue carried a three-page spread praising the Democrat. Senior Editor Lance Morrow wrote: "He is a lightning rod with strange electricities still firing in the air around him -- passions that are not always his responsibility but may emanate from psychic disturbances in the country itself. America does not have a completely healthy relationship with the Kennedys."

Morrow continued his toast to Kennedy: "Once, long ago, he was the Prince Hal of American politics: high-spirited, youthful, heedless. He never evolved, like Prince Hal, into the ideal king. Instead he did something that was in its way just as impressive. He became one of the great lawmakers of the century, a Senate leader whose liberal mark upon American government has been prominent and permanent...The public that knows Kennedy by his misadventures alone may vastly underrate him."

Morrow spent much of the article countering suggestions that the Democrat is an alcoholic, noting: "Kennedy is a hardworking and successful U.S. Senator with a busy schedule and a heavy load of intellectual labor that he apparently performs well. His mind is nimble and sharp, except when he has been drinking a lot." Sort of a Catch-22.

Frontline is promoting yet another left-wing conspiracy theory -- this time, that the 1980 Reagan campaign bought off the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages. After six months of taxpayer-subsidized searching and a meandering hour of unsubstantiated claims about meetings in Paris, the PBS audience learned only that "conclusive proof is elusive." But this investigation has gone on longer than six months: the show's main conspiracy theorist, ex-Newsweek and AP reporter Robert Parry, has spent six years trying to prove the Reagan Administration guilty of some wrongdoing.

Mark Hosenball, a producer for NBC's Expose, attacked Parry's thesis in the April 21 Washington Post (and earlier in The New Republic of June 13, 1988). Hosenball specifically punctured Parry source Richard Brenneke, reporting that congressional investigator Jack Blum deemed him an unreliable witness. Blum recently told the Village Voice that Brenneke should have been jailed for perjury. But in the April 27 Post, Parry responded: "Blum also concluded that much of what Brenneke said was true." Parry did not tell Post readers that in the midst of devoting almost five minutes of Frontline time to Brenneke's testimony, he and co-writer Robert Ross told viewers that his "credibility remains in question."

The New York Times learned nothing from the Tiananmen Square massacre. In an April 14 article, reporter Nicholas Kristof praised Chinese communism: "In recent decades, China has engineered a remarkable health-care revolution, one that has increased the odds that her infant will be alive in the latter half of the next century. While the communists have yet to deliver on promises to provide Chinese with lives that are prosperous and free, they have achieved the remarkable feat of offering their people lives that are long and healthy."

Kristof quoted University of North Carolina professor Gail Henderson: "There's no question that in a time when people are despondent about what's happening in China, the health-care system really is a shining light from the Maoist era that continues to shine to this day. It's a model for the developing world." Notably absent from the story: mention of China's forced abortion policy.

Meanwhile, the Times gave Chinese capitalism a much dimmer view. In an April 21 article, Kristof's wife, reporter Cheryl WuDunn, asserted: "It is an open secret that here in Shenzhen, a special economic zone just across the border from Hong Kong, economic progress has brought with it the seedy side of the free market: prostitution, corruption, smuggling and even drug trafficking. Shenzhen is China's best-known boomtown, and it is renowned throughout the country for its economic growth, high salaries, modern fashions, and adherence to 'bourgeois' morals, if any. To many people in the rest of China, Shenzhen is a lawless place."

Some media outlets continue the misleading policy of reporting budget "cuts" that are really just reductions in the rate of spending growth. On April 18, The Boston Globe ran an Associated Press dispatch by Alan Fram: "The House yesterday approved a Democratic-written $1.46 trillion 1992 budget that rejects President Bush's plan to slash Medicare and other benefit programs." On the same day, Washington Post reporter Tom Kenworthy wrote that Bush's proposal "included such politically painful aspects as a five-year, $25 billion cut in the Medicare program. The Bush budget ...included a total of $46.6 billion in reductions in Medicare and other entitlement programs over five years."

Neither reporter told readers that the $100 billion-plus Medicare budget is automatically scheduled to increase up to 15 percent per year, and that "slashing" $25 billion over five years would have left a spending increase of more than $50 billion. And what about the other $21 billion in "entitlement" cuts? They're also cuts in increases, but they're not all social programs. Under this budget's definition "entitlement" programs include outdated boondoggles like the Rural Electrification Administration. The same media that preaches about the deficit continues to keep an accurate picture of spending growth out of the news columns.

It's hard to imagine a reporter advising the government to hand out bullet-proof vests to children as the cure to inner city violence. In an April 16 story for World News Tonight, reporter Joe Bergantino portrayed the distribution of condoms in schools as the way to stop the spread of pregnancy and sexual disease among teens. Bergantino bemoaned a national "epidemic" of teen pregnancy. However, the national teen birthrate has been dropping since 1957, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Bergantino declared that "Two studies, including one conducted by the Center for Population Options (CPO) involving six different schools, have concluded condom availability does not encourage sex." Later, Bergantino cited three other studies to make the case for condoms. ABC spokesman Arnot Walker told MediaWatch two of those studies appeared in Family Planning Perspectives, published by the Planned Parenthood-affiliated Alan Guttmacher Institute. Of course, asking CPO or the Guttmacher Institute about the hazards of condoms is like asking the Tobacco Institute about the hazards of smoking.

To celebrate Earth Day during the week of April 22, the networks repeated last year's imbalance on a much smaller scale, tilting the guest list toward the left-wing environmentalists and shutting the free-market environmentalists out completely. On the NBC Nightly News, reporter Bill Lagattuta did a story including leftist luminaries Tom Hayden, Gaylord Nelson, and Gene Karpinski from Ralph Nader's U.S. Public Interest Research Group. CNN reporter Greg Lefevre followed the Turner pattern of environmental bias by selecting David Weir of the Center for Investigative Reporting and Randy Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network.

The morning shows were even worse. NBC led the way by airing another three-part "Assignment Earth" series on Today by Paul Ehrlich, the discredited Famine 1975! devotee. Good Morning America interviewed anti-technology activist Jeremy Rifkin, and in a bow to science, CBS This Morning selected someone with more scientific credibility than Ehrlich and Rifkin combined: rock star Grace Slic.