MediaWatch: October 1996

Vol. Ten No. 10

Janet Cooke Award: Clinton Doesn't Get Enough Credit

Civility was not the rule at PBS when Frontline asserted the Reagan administration had funneled drugs into American cities to fund the Contras, that Reagan's CIA attempted to kill Contra leader Eden Pastora, or that the 1980 Reagan campaign conspired to delay the release of the Iranian hostages. Congressional investigations later unraveled these conspiracy theories with no apologies from PBS.

But now that Bill Clinton is President, PBS has funded -- without any rebuttal -- Hedrick Smith's four-hour documentary on how Washington works, The People and the Power Game. For devoting his first hour on September 3 to his claim that Bill Clinton has been abused by an uncivil news media, Smith earned the Janet Cooke Award.

Smith began: "By focusing on scandal and conflict over substance, and by our increasingly negative tone, the media has distorted the nation's agenda and lost touch with the public we claim to serve."

But Smith made only two brief asides about coverage of conservatives: how reporters drilled Steve Forbes with personal or tactical questions on Meet the Press, while average people asked questions of substance; and Newt Gingrich complaining about the "childhood games" reporters played at his press conferences. Smith introduced Gingrich: "A politician on the make knows that the sure way to command press attention is with sensationalism and extremist polemics. Newt Gingrich, as a junior Congressman, built his power on media fireworks."

The rest of the hour brought example after example of scandalous Clinton coverage, from the supposed $200 haircut with Cristophe on Air Force One, to New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd: "President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted, and didn't get a degree."

Gennifer Flowers. Smith decried the networks "going with a questionable story that almost felled a future President." Smith never investigated the substance of the Flowers story, choosing instead to force anchors to defend themselves for even touching it. But Smith's version was at variance with the actual record.

He reported ABC's Jim Wooten asked Clinton about the Star's Flowers story on Thursday, January 23, but decided not to air a story. ABC's local affiliates did -- as did Nightline, which booked three guests decrying the story as tabloid trash. Smith claimed: "By the next day, ABC's World News Tonight, lagging behind its own affiliates, decided to broadcast the story." Smith asked Peter Jennings: "In this instance, you tried it [to check the story out] on the first day, and on the basis of that standard, you didn't run it...With not much different facts the second day, you did run it." Replied Jennings: "Yeah. I think that's a fair and slightly painful characterization for me. But the truth of the matter is that by the second day, we were pretty much swept along by events."

Smith then interviewed Dan Rather: "I said `Gosh, I don't have the stomach for doing that. And the first day, even the second day, we said `Nah, not for me.' I mean, frankly, I don't care, and I don't think most viewers care. And then somebody came in and said `Look at this. Last night, one of our major competitors, they went with it, they went with it strong,' and that bridges over from the sleazy press into the mainstream."

But any look at the tapes of ABC's World News Tonight demon-strates that they aired no story on January 24, the day after Nightline, but waited until the 27th -- after the Clintons had appeared in an exclusive post-Super Bowl interview on 60 Minutes. And for Rather's version of events -- that a competitor "went with it strong" -- seems strange since he waited until 60 Minutes did the story. Only NBC's Lisa Myers made passing reference to the Flowers story before that.

Brit Hume. Smith claimed: "The once-cozy relationship between the President and the White House press corps has dissolved into permanent combat...Increasingly, critics argue, the balance is out of whack, and the traditional skepticism of the White House press corps has slid into cynicism, where a President's thoughtful deliberation is seen as indecision and compromise as backsliding."

What kind of cynical question did Smith have in mind? When Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court after long considering Stephen Breyer, ABC's Brit Hume asked Clinton: "We may have created an impression, perhaps unfair, of a certain zig-zag in the decision making process here. I wonder if you could walk us through it and perhaps disabuse of any notions we might have along these lines. Thank you."

Eric Engberg. The CBS reporter may have been criticized by colleague Bernard Goldberg for attacking Steve Forbes' flat tax, but Smith was only concerned about Clinton: "Critics contend that Engberg's Reality Checks have gone beyond investigative journalism and become saturated with opinion, almost always negative...Just seven days after Clinton's inauguration, for example, Engberg was on the air with a Reality Check declaring the infant administration a failure."

But Engberg's actual report never came close to "declaring the infant administration a failure." Engberg noted Clinton had not followed through on promises to have plans on the economy and energy available "on the first day" of his presidency. Engberg also brought up news reports that the White House was considering a gas tax, recalling Clinton ruled out raising taxes on the middle class in 1992. Engberg concluded: "Overall, the first week showed the President willing to jump into controversies that can slice away some of his early support. The promise to focus on the economy like a laser seemed to come unstuck in the Washington centrifuge."

CBS's State of the Union. Smith declared: "CBS and others in the Washington media were criticized for relying on inside-the- Beltway punditry in their coverage of Clinton's State of the Union address." The program quoted Joe Klein saying: "It was a very, very long speech. This guy loves to give long speeches." He left out Klein's next sentence: "But it was also a very effective one."

Smith rebutted Klein: "But polls showed the public loved it." Where would Smith have learned that polls showed the public loved it? CBS aired its instant poll results showing that 85 percent "approve of the President's proposals," that 74 percent "now have a clear idea what President Clinton stands for" and 56 percent said Clinton "better understands the major problems facing the country today" than the GOP. Rather signed off by repeating all the pro-Clinton poll results.

Taxpayers fund public broadcasting to be offered an alternative to the commercial networks. Smith's program shows taxpayers aren't getting an alternative, but are paying for PBS to scold the media on how they're not liberal enough.