MediaWatch: October 1996

Vol. Ten No. 10

NewsBites: Extreme Agreement

Extreme Agreement. Tagging Republican House freshmen as extremists is Democratic mantra. And, it's an assessment endorsed by CBS News. On the October 10 Evening News, Bob Schieffer examined the Ohio re-match between GOP rookie Frank Cremeans and the man he beat in 1994, Democrat Ted Strickland.

Schieffer found a GOP official who thought Newt Gingrich had gone "too far" and asked him a question that incorporated the Democratic spin on last year's budget showdown: "Where did he make his mistake? In shutting down the government?"

Strickland insisted that "people want moderation and when extremes are presented, whether they be from the left or the right, I think people have a tendency to turn away from that." Schieffer then concluded by endorsing the "extreme" assessment: "Obvious perhaps, but as Fall comes to the heartland and the election draws near, dozens of Republican freshmen are running scared, wondering if it's a lesson they learned in time."

Crediting Clinton. For the media, bad news is usually good news. Right? Well, not when the good news helps Bill Clinton. On June 30, The New York Times reported that "the share of national income earned by the top five percent of households grew at a faster rate than during the eight years of the Reagan administration, which was often characterized as favoring the rich." ABC's World News Tonight ran no story. But on September 26, when the Census Bureau reported that median income had risen as poverty fell, who got the credit? Bill Clinton.

Reporter Barry Serafin reported that median income grew 2.7 percent, but remained lower than 1989. Serafin started his story: "The number of Americans living in poverty fell. There were 36.4 million people below the poverty level, 1.6 million fewer than the year before. The poverty rate for African-Americans dropped to its lowest level since 1959, 29.3 percent. What does it add up to?"

Following a soundbite from Clinton, Serafin continued: "Citing the income gains, the President declared that the country is on the right track. He heralded progress on narrowing the gap between the richest and poorest Americans." Serafin used a single expert source for his story, a professor from MIT. Whom did the professor credit? Clinton and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Serafin closed the story: "All in all the new numbers added to a very good day for Bill Clinton." Thanks to ABC.

Gore: Too Important to Criticize. If you are powerful enough to get between a microphone and Clinton then you're personal hypocrisy doesn't matter. At least that's what a CBS story portrayed.

During the Democratic convention in Chicago Vice President Al Gore was widely praised by reporters for his emotional attack of tobacco by highlighting his sister's death from lung cancer in 1984. On CBS Bob Schieffer called it "a barnburner." However, reporters failed to recognize that in 1988, four years after his sister died, Gore made an enthusiastic appeal to voters in tobacco states by stressing his own efforts in growing tobacco.

The October 3 CBS Evening News included a profile of Gore by Rita Braver. For the first time, CBS viewers heard about Gore's hypocrisy, but Braver excused him."He's in on every key White House meeting and decision. Just last month in his role as environmental guru, Gore convinced the President to create a controversial national monument in Utah. Of late, Republicans have attacked him for making a convention speech about his sister's death from lung cancer caused by smoking...While for several years after her death he let tobacco be grown on land he owned." But instead of seeing this as a character flaw, Braver relayed Gore's spin about how he "dismisses that attack as politics, an attempt to sully a man so close to the President he feels free to interrupt him." Viewers then saw video of Gore stepping in front of Clinton at a microphone.

Media to Dole: Just Stay Home. Is it wrong for a presidential candidate to address an ideological political organization? Only if it's a conservative one.

When Bob Dole spoke September 14 to the Christian Coalition, on the NBC Nightly News David Bloom was concerned: "Dole decided only this morning to speak to the Christian Coalition despite worries inside his campaign that a bow to the religious right might send the wrong message to moderate, swing voters... Clinton's campaign spokesman said in a statement: 'Watching Bob Dole arm in arm with Pat Robertson speaks volumes to the extreme agenda being pursued by the Dole-Kemp-Gingrich team.' A top Clinton campaign official was all smiles, saying, 'if you see Dole, tell him thanks for me.'"

But although Clinton was not criticized for refusing to speak at the same Coalition meeting, NBC cast in racial terms Dole's July 10 decision to decline the NAACP's speaking invitation. Back then reporter Jim Miklaszewski claimed the group considered it "an insult to African-American voters...By not showing up here, Bob Dole may reinforce those racial divides along party lines and fuel the anxiety among some Republicans that in this presidential campaign, Bob Dole may not be up to the challenge."

Christian Contradiction. Following David Bloom's piece chastising Dole's Christian Coalition speech, Brian Williams claimed the Coalition was "no longer the lone voice for conservative Christians." What new group of conservative Christians had NBC discovered?

Bob Abernethy described a group "uncomfortable" with the Coalition's "partisanship and with what seems to many critics its divisiveness and its neglect of the poor." Abernethy described the new group's agenda as a "new kind of political action that defends the poor and brings people together." But at their convention, they "heard from children right's advocate Marian Wright Edelman," and Christian Marxist Jim Wallis.

The group, Call To Renewal, hardly fits Williams' "conservative" label. Yet Abernethy didn't apply a single liberal label, even though "children's advocate" Edelman's speech garnered applause for this line: "Let's guarantee a job. Let's guarantee health care and children care. Let's turn this welfare repeal into real welfare reform."

Abernethy simply described Wallis as "Reverend," but in the past Wallis has voiced hope that "more Christians will view the world through Marxist eyes." By failing to disclose Call To Renewal's ideological agenda, Abernethy committed sin by omission.

Media Flew the Koop. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop endorsed the Clinton health care scheme early on, making him a ubiquitous presence on the networks. Koop made news again when he criticized Bob Dole for suggesting nicotine is not addictive. He appeared on Good Morning America and was featured in stories on other networks castigating Dole. In the infamous July interview in which Dole and Katie Couric sparred over liberal bias, Couric cited Koop: "C. Everett Koop is pretty nonpartisan wouldn't you say? He criticized you quite severely for your comments. You're saying the liberal media had a problem but even Dr. Koop had a problem."

But when Koop criticized President Clinton for vetoing in April the partial-birth abortion ban passed by Congress, he fell into TV's memory hole. The former Surgeon General did not appear on any network to talk about his condemnation of the President. The lesson? When a nationally known figure announces he is for a liberal proposal, he is much in demand by the media. When the same figure comes out in support of a conservative cause, the media silence is overwhelming.

Dole Behind: Blame Conservatives. Conservatives argue that Bob Dole's lack of identity with issues that excite conservatives explained why he failed to early on secure his Republican base. But more than a month before the election, ABC's Dean Reynolds instead assigned Dole's low standing in the polls to his being "too conservative." For the September 23 World News Tonight Reynolds traveled to Lansing, Michigan where he found that "many of the voters we spoke with blame Gingrich for last year's government shutdown, for a mean-spirited attitude generally, and for attempts to trim Medicare specifically." Then while interviewing a "lifelong Republican" Reynolds asked, "Your party, did it move too far to the right?"

Reynolds next talked with Republican women in a restaurant who opposed Dole on abortion. Of the eight talking heads aired from Lansing, seven were anti-Dole and only one offered "lukewarm" support for Dole.

Speedy Judgments. When the Republican Congress obliterated the 55 mph national speed limit last year reporters warned of the coming carnage on the nation's highways. "As Congress moves toward allowing states to raise the limit," CBS' Bob Orr sounded the alarm in a June 20, 1995 piece, "safety regulators warn highway fatalities will climbDoctors say if only lawmakers could see what goes on each day in trauma rooms, they would keep the lid on speed." On November 28, 1995, the day President Clinton signed the bill to raise the speed limit, Bob McNamara intoned on the CBS Evening News: "Raising the speed limit may be popular with the public, but there could be a deadly downsideSoon, politicians here may find out that sometimes giving the public what it wants could be a fatal mistake."

Now the statistics are in: Many states have actually seen their traffic fatalities decline. In the August 26 USA Today, Carol J. Castaneda reported that newspaper's review of states that increased their speed: "Three states reported decreases ranging from 4 percent to 28 percent within a five- to eight-month period after limits were raised. Fatalities remained relatively the same in four states." Six states saw increases, but in "California and several other states [that saw increases], it was unclear whether fatalities occurred on highways where the speed limit was raised."

Grand Canyon Gap. On September 18, 1991, when President Bush visited the Grand Canyon, ABC and NBC used it as an opportunity to review his record on the environment. On World News Tonight, anchor Peter Jennings announced that Bush "promised that he would be the environmental President and today he went to the Grand Canyon. It was a trip critics charged was nothing more than grand standing." Reporter Ann Compton opened her story: "This morning there was only a slight haze drifting through the Grand Canyon, so the South Rim was a picture perfect spot for President Bush to claim an environmental victory, but on many days smog from a nearby power plant makes it impossible to see across to the Canyon walls just two miles away." Who did Compton use for a soundbite? Then Senator Al Gore.

What a difference a President makes. When President Clinton and Vice President Gore visited the Grand Canyon exactly five years later to designate 1.7 million acres in Southern Utah as a national monument, no network used this photo op as a chance to tear apart Clinton's environmental record, quite the contrary. On the CBS Evening News, reporter Rita Braver started her story: "With Al `Earthman' Gore by his side, the President signed a bill designating 1.7 million acres of land 70 miles away in Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument." ABC's Sam Donaldson was no different: "Dressed in appropriate western attire, boots and blue blazers, the top guns of the Democratic team came to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to make points as conservationists."