MediaWatch: November 1988

Vol. Two No. 10

Networks Come to the Aid of Dukakis

Mad at the Ads

In the final weeks of the campaign the television networks focused attention on the "dirty" campaign led by "divisive" and "negative" Bush commercials. Reporters debated why Dukakis let the charges "go unanswered" for so long, but when Dukakis labeled Bush campaign assertions he's soft on defense and crime "garbage," several network correspondents moved quickly to help the Democratic candidate discredit the ads.

On October 19 ABC rushed Richard Threlkeld onto World News Tonight to correct all the alleged errors in an anti-Dukakis spot best known as the "tank" ad. Over video of a tie-clad Dukakis riding in a tank, the Bush ad began: "Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed." Threlkeld countered: "In fact, he supports a range of new weapons, including the Trident II missile." The commercial continued: "He opposed four missile systems, including the Pershing Two missile deployment." Not so, "Dukakis opposes not four systems, but two, as expensive and impractical, and never opposed Pershing Two," Threlkeld charged. "Dukakis opposed the Stealth bomber," the announcer asserted. "In fact," Threlkeld insisted, "Dukakis has supported the Stealth bomber."

So who was telling the truth? A week later NBC's Lisa Myers referred to a Bush press conference where "the campaign provided quotations from Dukakis to show he once opposed all those weapon systems as the ad states." Did ABC balance the Threlkeld story by citing this documentation? No, viewers received just this vague reference from reporter Brit Hume: "The Bush campaign sent out a team Bush spokesmen to display what they claimed was documentation for all of Bush's TV ads."

The Bush campaign also provided evidence to back up their prison furlough ads. But that had little effect. Within days CBS Evening News was back to portraying the Dukakis program and Willie Horton's release as typical. On the November third reporter James Hittori declared: "In Texas, George Bush's adopted home state, 5,000 inmates, including hundreds convicted of murder and manslaughter, have received furloughs over the past two years under a Republican Governor." Like virtually every other network story on the policy, CBS ignored the fact Dukakis fought against changing the provision that made the unique Massachusetts program a campaign issue: It was the only state to furlough first degree murderers sentenced to life without possibility of parole.