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CyberAlert -- 02/03/1997 -- Database Discovered

MRC Alert: Database Discovered; Stahl Denies Bias; CNN's Spins

1. The White House database makes the network evening news -- seven months after it was uncovered by The Washington Times.

2. A fugitive and man convicted of securities fraud attended White House coffees, but the networks don't tell viewers about them.

3. Time magazine brings aboard a reporter who once disparaged conservatives as "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command."

4. Dan Rather describes current 2.5 percent GDP as "ideal," not quite the spin the media took toward a higher rate in 1992.

5. Liberal bias? Lesley Stahl blames viewers: "It's just if what you're watching doesn't please you then you think we're biased."

6. One CNN reporter said HUD nominee Andrew Cuomo received "breathless" praise from Senators. Another insisted that he was "grilled."

7. "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" Dan Rather's story not as unbelievable as assumed.

1) "Secret System Computerizes Personal Data," declared a front page June 26, 1996 article in The Washington Times. Reporter Paul Rodriquez detailed how the White House Office Data Base (WHODB) tracked personal information on those who visited the Clintons, including their DNC donation records.
Network coverage? Not a word on ABC, CBS or NBC. Nor on CNN's 10pm ET The World Today. But, CNN's Inside Politics that day did carry a full story from Claire Shipmam.

Seven months later, the February 3 Time magazine, out January 27, ran a story headlined "A Secret Cash Link: A White House Operation that Tracked Donors Was Extensive, Top Secret and Pushed by the First Lady." On January 30 the Los Angeles Times reported on its front page that though the government-owned database could be legally used only for official purposes, "the White House staff frequently retrieved data on large political contributors and turned it over to the Democratic National Committee to help raise money for the President's re-election, interviews show."

Finally, seven months and four days after The Washington Times broke the story, the night the LA Times story appeared the database drew broadcast network attention, but only from two of the three networks.

The January 30 NBC Nightly News devoted its "Fleecing of America" segment to the database. Reporter Lisa Myers filed a tough report that highlighted some Hollywood celebrities:
"...White House documents obtained by NBC News show the database was conceived as a political tool, as a way to keep track of early supporters. Hollywood mogul David Geffen is listed as an early financial supporter, which means he gave money during the '92 primary, and as a Democratic National Committee trustee, which means he gave the party at least $100,000. He was invited to 16 White House functions. Diva Barbra Streisand also is listed as a DNC trustee. She was invited to nine events..."
Myers later noted: "A non-partisan expert on campaign ethics says the White House crossed the line."
Charles Lewis, Center for Public Integrity: "This is beyond the pale. Everyone knows this is improper. There's no way to put a happy spin on this."
Myers: "The White House tried to keep the database secret. An early memo to Hillary Clinton, who pushed the project hard, noted that precautions should be taken or the database would be open to public scrutiny and inquiry....The White House refuses to allow congressional investigators examine the database even though taxpayers paid for it. So for now we do know it's another fleecing of America. But we don't know which contributors slept upstairs in the Lincoln Bedroom because their names appeared downstairs and across the way in a secret computer."

On the CBS Evening News Dan Rather announced: "Questions keep coming about the way Democrats bankrolled the Clinton re-election campaign. Republicans have again attacked the White House for using a database containing 350,000 names. The Republicans say that this was a blatant fundraising operation and that taxpayers were stuck with a $1.7 million tab to create it. Correspondent Rita Braver reports why that could be a problem for President Clinton."

Of course, it would have been more of a problem if reported last June.

Braver concluded by noting Hillary Clinton's role, but gave her the last word: "....Now the documents we obtained showed that the First Lady personally pushed hard for this system. And at a meeting with a few reporters today on another subject, she confirmed that. She also insisted she only wanted something to track who came to official White House functions. Dan."

ABC's World News Tonight didn't air a piece, but did do a story on the Friday, January 31 Good Morning America. How about World News Tonight Friday night? No story, nor one Saturday or Sunday.

2) The database stories aired Thursday night, but CBS and NBC immediately dropped the subject. Not another word about the database on the CBS Evening News or NBC Nightly News through Sunday night.

It's not the only revelation the networks are failing to pursue. On January 30 the Associated Press reported that "a former banker who is a fugitive from Lebanon on embezzlement charges sipped coffee at the White House with President Clinton and other Democratic donors last April." Coverage: a story on CNN, but nothing on the broadcast network evening shows.

The Saturday, February 1 Washington Post revealed that "a New Jersey stock promoter, convicted of criminal securities fraud that benefitted a member of the Bonanno organized crime family, was among eight guests who accepted an invitation to join President Clinton and top Democratic Party leaders for an early morning coffee four days before Christmas in 1995."
CBS Evening News anchor Paula Zahn read a brief item on this revelation, but ABC's World News Saturday? No story. On Sunday's Meet the Press host Tim Russert noted that "The headline in The Washington Post today: 'White House Says Felon Not an Appropriate Guest.' I think this is going to give Senator Thompson an awful lot of ammunition." So how did NBC play this "ammunition"? No mention on Nightly News either Saturday or Sunday.

3) Michael Weisskopf wrote the Time magazine story on the database. Weisskopf recently jumped to Time from The Washington Post where he had become infamous for a paragraph in a 1993 news story he wrote. It won the "Dumbest Quote of the Year" Award in the MRC's Best Notable Quotables of 1993: The Sixth Annual Awards for the Year's Worst Reporting.

In a February 1, 1993 Washington Post story Weisskopf asserted: "Corporations pay public relations firms millions pf dollars to contrive the kind of grass-roots response that [Jerry] Falwell or Pat Robertson can galvanize in a televised sermon. Their followers are largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command."

4) Friday night (January 31) Dan Rather told CBS Evening News viewers:
"Encouraging news tonight about the U.S. economy. The government says the economy grew two and a half percent last year. That's considered an ideal, non-inflationary growth rate."

Not quite the gloomy spin CBS offered in 1992 when a higher GDP rate of 2.7 percent was announced. On October 27, 1992 Susan Spencer filed from the Bush campaign: "He crowed today at upbeat news of a third quarter growth rate of 2.7 percent, though some economists warned that may not hold." Spencer was correct, but not in the direction she thought: the GDP was later revised upward to 3.9 percent.

5) A caller to C-SPAN's Washington Journal on Friday morning asked Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes about liberal media bias in coverage of Bill Clinton. She responded by claiming the bias is not with reporters but with viewers. Here's her response, as transcribed by MRC news analyst Jim Forbes:

"I was about to say that if you want to talk about bias go ask President Clinton where the bias lies. As you know, the White House just issued this big huge study, they called it, of how the main line media is sucked in by the right wing conspiratorialists. My point is that everybody who watches television brings their own biases to it, and if what you're watching doesn't please you then you think we're biased.
"Everybody dislikes the messenger, everybody complains about us, right wing, left wing, Democrats, Republicans, they all pound on us, they all think we're unfair to them if we're telling them things they don't want to hear. And we do the best we can, we try to be fair, there are always issues where an individual reporter does have a point of view. If he or she is a good journalist and does his or her job the way they are supposed to then the piece will come out as balanced as is humanly possible and the individuals' leanings won't come through. I'm sure there are cases where a piece is slanted, but I think generally the effort and the end product, overall, is balanced with everybody being happy with the way things come out."

6) MRC news analyst Clay Waters noticed this contradictory reporting just hours apart on CNN. On the January 22 Inside Politics Candy Crowley reported:
Crowley: "And the hearing on Andrew Cuomo's nomination as Housing Secretary was practically breathless."
Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-MD): "This is a sterling choice by the President."
Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-NC): "You have, certainly have an impressive record and an impressive group of friends."
Crowley: "It should all be so easy."

Maybe it wasn't so easy. Six hours later CNN anchor Kathleen Kennedy announced on The World Today: "Senate confirmation for two of President Clinton's other Cabinet appointees may not be so easy. Housing Secretary nominee Andrew Cuomo was grilled for three hours on the state of Housing and Urban Development. The Department is under congressional fire for alleged inefficiency and wastefulness."

While on the contrast beat, compare these January 31 headlines.
The Washington Post -- "Saudis May Purchase U.S. F-16 Fighters: Bethesda's Lockheed Martin in Line for Multibillion-Dollar Deal."
The Washington Times -- "F-16 Sale to Saudis Isn't in the Works, White House Says."

7) "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" became a well-known phrase in media circles, and the title of a R.E.M. song, after Dan Rather claimed that's what a man on a Manhattan street yelled at him during a 1986 assault. The incident added to Rather's image as a man on the edge, just about to go nuts. Thursday's USA Today recalled that Rather's story of being mugged "was greeted with widespread incredulity." Well, it may well be that Rather's tale was actually true.
The Wednesday January 29 New York Daily News revealed that Rather looked at pictures of William Tager, a man now serving 25 years for shooting to death an NBC technician outside NBC's studios in 1994, and identified Tager as his assailant. A forensic psychiatrist, who examined Tager, first made the connection and alerted Rather.

Before you think that means Rather is perfectly rational, remember what he said election night: "In New Hampshire, closest Senate race in the country, this race between Dick Swett and Bob Smith is hot and tight as a too small bathing suit on a too long car ride back from the beach."

-- Brent Baker

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