MediaWatch: November 1988

Vol. Two No. 10

Janet Cooke Award: Bush Bashing: CBS News

George Bush has been on the receiving end of plenty of disparaging stories. CBS News correspondent Bob Faw, however, earns the November Janet Cooke Award for a particularly one-sided and misleading Evening News piece which parroted the Dukakis campaign line on Bush's inexperience and inability to lead.

"George Bush has talked up the many jobs he's held in government as one reason he'd be good at the top job as President," Dan Rather told viewers on September 25, cautioning, "Bob Faw has been checking the facts on Bush's resume." Faw began with eight month old Bob Dole primary campaign commercial which stated: "They call them footprints, these marks of achievement. Isn't it interesting that George Bush has never left a single footprint behind."

Faw picked up on the theme: "Bush's detractors say it's still true. While Bush showed up for work, he really didn't get that much done, scarcely made an impression at all." To support his claim, Faw brought on two prominent Democrats, Senator Howell Heflin and Carter CIA Director Stansfield Turner. Heflin sarcastically asserted that Bush has left footprints -- "tippy-toe" ones. Turner, who Faw failed to label a Democrat, characterized Bush as "a lightweight" and a man who "had not absorbed any of those details." Faw quoted a Washington Post survey of 200 "Bush associates" which concluded that Bush was "a nice guy who was often detached, who rarely tried to master the subject matter."

Only one minute, or 29 percent, of the three and one half minute report touched on Bush's accomplishments. Senator Phil Gramm and Nixon confidant Leonard Garment were given just ten seconds together to support Bush. Liberal Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker got two ten second segments, one of which echoed Faw's anti-Bush theme. After listing the positions held by Bush: Vice President, U.N. Ambassador, CIA Director, Ambassador to China and Republican National Committee Chairman, Faw brought on Duke University professor James David Barber to present what Faw portrayed as an objective view. Barber said: "Another person, I think, in those jobs, would have defined them as a chance for major leadership of policy innovation, that Bush did not." Barber asked: "Is that plausible, that he's been a secret Superman with the shirt underneath his regular shirt, and now it's going to be revealed?" Barber answered his own question: "Don't put your faith in the idea that there's going to be a new Bush."

Who is Barber? Faw labeled him a "noted scholar of the presidency." Indeed, he has written extensively on the presidency, but even New York Times columnist R.W. Apple describes him as a "liberal presidential scholar." Barber has also played a prominent role in the "neoliberal" movement, attending a strategy session of prominent politicos in late 1983 designed to "match their evolving ideas with a constituency they feel is waiting to a mobilized," according to the New York Times.

In a March 9, 1987 Time interview, Barber charged that "Reagan has been guilty of misleading people," that he displays "indifference to the facts in significant areas of public policy," while his "rhetoric is far removed from reality." Barber admitted to MediaWatch that he is a registered Democrat, but denied there is ever any political motivation behind his television appearance or his writing: "I'm not coming on there as some sort of idealogue, but as a scholar."

Throughout the report Faw concurred with Barber and Bush's detractors. In between Barber soundbites, Faw observed: "No one doubts that Bush was a good soldier. The doubts are whether a good follower is necessarily a good leader."

His conclusion was just as powerful. With the use of an anonymous source. Faw dismissed everything Bush defenders said on the air: "His critics counter that what Bush did or didn't do in previous jobs speak louder than any words. 'We keep dreaming that someone who's 64 can change character,' said one, 'and we keep getting fooled.'" When MediaWatch spoke with Faw, he defended his characterization of Barber as a scholar: "I don't know anyone in America who would dispute the fact that he is a distinguished scholar of the presidency." Pressed about whether it was accurate to present Barber as objective given his liberal views and associations, Faw refused to yield: "To say that Barber is partisan is really reaching. If you're going to use that argument I guess you can't put anyone on the air."

Faw denied the piece mimicked the Democratic line or that he had any partisan intentions in reporting on Bush. Faw noted that Lesley Stahl did a piece earlier in the week that "tore apart" the Dukakis record in Massachusetts. That's not entirely true. Stahl tried to find out why the Governor was so unpopular in his won state. She found people upset about policies he implemented and resentment over his presidential run. In contrast to Faw's attack, she did not dig up partisan attacks on his character and fitness for office.

It seems Faw's litmus test for balance is simply that he put on Republican sources at times in the piece: "What we did was try to speak with a number of people who have either positive or negative things to say about the job that he did and that's exactly what the media ought to do. If I had gone on there to give just my opinion, brought up one side and not the other, which you're going to say we did so I don't know why we are having this conversation, but in any event it was what we thought was a balanced piece...It gave the chance for someone sitting at home to perhaps scratch his head and say "humph" and think about it."

Faw was right. We are going to say it: Faw promoted his own negative opinions about Bush. It's evident in the amount of time he gave to Bush detractors and his commentary throughout. A viewer couldn't help but come away scratching his head and having a negative impression of George Bush. Most indicative of how Faw really saw Bush and his record was his use of an anonymous source in his conclusion. Asked why he didn't name the person, Faw reached for this excuse: "I didn't think the people would recognize the name and at the time I didn't have the two or three seconds to name him."