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MediaWatch: April 1995

Vol. Nine No. 4

NewsBites: Poor, Poor Gorby

Returning to an old habit of glorification, the CBS Evening News bemoaned the obscurity in which former communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev now dwells. Bob Schieffer began: "On this date a decade ago, the Soviet Union gained a bold young leader who made us all learn the words perestroika and glasnost." Reporter Jonathan Sanders lamented: "Ten years after he began the revolution that brought down the Soviet Union, his entourage consists of a translator and a few Western journalists...Once he stood at world stage center, ending the arms race, finishing off the Cold War. Today Mikhail Gorbachev has been relegated to the periphery."

Sanders claimed: "At home, Gorbachev gave his people freedom from fear...And freedom of religion, for believers of all persuasions." He left out any mention of the brutal 1990 killings to prevent Lithuanian independence. Sanders allowed CBS consultant Stephen Cohen to proclaim: "Gorbachev's significance in the context of Russia is that he was the first Russian ruler ever to cross the Rubicon from dictatorship to democracy."

Shot with the Starting Gun.

When Republicans run for the presidency, network reporters lambaste them with extremist labels like "far right" and "ultraconservative." On February 19, NBC Today weekend co-host Giselle Fernandez introduced moderate Sen. Arlen Specter as the candidate "who casts himself as an alternative to the far right fringe." The next morning, on ABC's Good Morning America, Bob Zelnick noted that beside Dole and Gramm "other candidates include" Lugar, Specter, former Education Secretary Alexander, "and ultra-conservative columnist Pat Buchanan."

Dan Rather got into the act on the March 3 CBS Evening News: "While others in the GOP pack are running as Mr. Right, or Mr. Far Right, Senator Lugar is stressing his foreign policy expertise." On CNN's Larry King Live March 13, King asked Pat Buchanan: "Are you the majority?...That would be considered the far right, right?" Six days later, CNN World News reporter Gene Randall greeted Buchanan's presidential announcement with the title "champion of the far right."

Hearing Hypocrisy.

In 1994, when Democrats controlling the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on an assault weapons ban, ABC, CNN, and CBS replayed emotional testimony for the ban on their evening newscasts. Emphasizing the guns used, not the criminal, CNN's Linden Soles declared on the April 26, 1994 World News: "Relatives relayed horror stories of how assault weapons devastated their families." Soles relayed the Clinton position: "The Attorney General put it bluntly -- assault weapons are made to kill people and should not be available to civilians." Only ABC mentioned testimony against the ban.

This year, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary subcommittee on crime heard testimony on March 31 from those claiming guns had saved their lives. According to the April 1 Washington Times, the panel included "a grandmother from Waterford, Michigan, who used a handgun to wound an assailant who had shot and killed a clerk in her store...[and] a gun merchant, who defended himself with firearms during the 1992 Los Angeles riots." ABC and NBC ignored the self-defense testimony, CNN gave it an anchor-read brief on World News, featuring witnesses on both sides. CBS ran a clip of each side a week later in a story on the NRA expecting a "payback" for its donations.

Sesno Soft on Hillary.

Deviating from the confrontational nature of most Sunday talk shows, CNN's Frank Sesno dared not lay a glove on Hillary Clinton when she granted a rare hour-long live interview on the March 19 Late Edition. Sesno gave the First Lady free rein to accuse the Republicans of being extremists and targeting children, yet did not follow up her accusations with any tough questions. Mrs. Clinton quipped: "I wish we would have our debates on the issues and that everybody would be factual in their presentation of the information so that the American public could know what the debate was about." She added that her husband "tries to bring people together, not to divide them, and that's what the world needs right now." So why didn't Sesno at that point challenge her to the defend her earlier statement on the show about "extremists in the Republican Party who go too far"?

He also could have questioned her about divisive comments coming from the administration and other Democrats, including White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, who accused Republicans of trying to "literally take away meals from kids," and Representatives John Lewis and Charles Rangel comparing Republicans to Nazis. Interestingly, Sesno queried Mrs. Clinton about the baseball strike well before Whitewater, which wasn't mentioned until the very last minutes of the program.

Kurtz's Collapsing Canons.

"It is a time-tested journalistic ritual that in the heady aftermath of victory, the hot new pol enjoys a period of hagiography," wrote Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz in the February 26 Post Magazine. Kurtz suggested "14 rules of media behavior." Under Rule 2, "Politicians on the rise are invariably portrayed in glowing terms," Kurtz declared: "The pattern was particularly striking in Gingrich's case because the very same elements of a career that had drawn so much derision were now cast in a more admiring light...The unusual twist in Gingrich's case is that the gushing profiles took a bit longer than usual to develop."

How long? Kurtz recalled: "First there was a wave of stories with ominous headlines, like Newsweek's `How Normal is Newt?' and `The Gingrich That Stole Christmas' and Time's `Uncle Scrooge.'" He also noted that Sam Donaldson told Gingrich on ABC's This Week: "A lot of people are afraid of you. They think you're a bombthrower; worse, you're an intolerant bigot. Speak to them." In relating Gingrich's anger at a January Washington Post article, Kurtz wrote: "Gingrich got his licks in all right, but a not terribly surprising thing happened: The press made him the issue. `Newt Gets Nasty,' blared the cover of Newsweek. Inside, in a story headlined `Gingrich Goes Ballistic,' the piece began: `Was Newt Gingrich experiencing meltdown? Last Friday it looked and sounded that way.'" When can Gingrich expect the "glowing profiles"?

Bryant and Ted's Excellent Interview.

Many reporters complain there's too much partisanship in American politics, but they may be one of the causes. Bryant Gumbel's interview with Sen. Ted Kennedy on March 15 serves as a good example. Gumbel's questions were more partisan than Kennedy's answers. The Today co-host asked: "You've talked about the Republicans declaring war on working families and war on children. Are there enough moderate Republicans in the Senate to tone down some of the harshest cuts that are certain to come out of the House?"

Gumbel also queried: "Are you disappointed that the public seems to -- I don't know if care so little is the appropriate term -- but not seem to care as much as they have in the past?" Gumbel mused to Kennedy that minority Cabinet members seem to have ethics problems not because of their actions, but because of racism. "Do you think, Senator, they are being held to a higher standard in Washington than their white predecessors?"

Outrage or Not...

When is a slur not a slur? When it's done by a liberal Democrat. On March 21, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) took to the House floor against the Contract with America and paraphrased a famous statement against the Nazis during World War II: "They're coming for our children, they're coming for the poor, they're coming for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled." NBC's Jim Miklaszewski aired Lewis's remarks on the March 22 Today, then quoted Republican Clay Shaw calling them "an outrage." Miklaszewski suggested the point was up for discussion: "Outrage or not, Democratic attempts to paint Republicans as heartless budget cutters are beginning to hit home." The closest thing to network criticism of Lewis's remarks came from Miklaszewski and CBS's Bob Schieffer describing the debate as "nasty." On ABC's Good Morning America, Bob Zelnick called it "emotional."

Compare that to Dick Armey's January controversy over the name of Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), which got big coverage from CBS and ABC. It led the CBS Evening News January 27. Bob Schieffer called it a "slur." The same night, Catherine Crier on ABC's World News Tonight asked: "Was it a slip of the tongue or a sign of deep prejudice? ....Mr. Armey wields enormous power over all kinds of legislation, including laws that deal with discrimination and civil rights. What Mr. Armey says matters."

O'Brien for the Defense.

When House Republicans enacted legal reform as an element of the Contract, they also took on one of Washington's most powerful lobbies -- the trial lawyers. ABC's legal correspondent Tim O'Brien also sided with the lawyers, devoting three World News Tonight reports to debunking the Republican position. Introducing a March 9 story on huge punitive damage awards, Peter Jennings warned of "misinformation on this subject." O'Brien wondered: "Are the courts flooded with such potentially devastating suits, as some proponents of change claim?" He replied: "It is simply not true, according to the American Bar Association," an opponent of limiting damages. O'Brien labeled liberal advocacy groups like Public Citizen "consumer groups who insist the mere threat of punitive damage awards benefits the public."

O'Brien critiqued plans to make losers pay legal costs in certain suits on March 7: "According to the National Center for State Courts, there is no litigation explosion...making the loser pay the winner's legal expenses may reduce the number of lawsuits, but most consumer groups insist only the wealthy could sue."

On March 13, O'Brien featured a man who went to a Tampa hospital, "to have a severely infected foot amputated....[but] doctors amputated the wrong foot." O'Brien stated that the GOP would cap pain and suffering awards at $250,000, and concluded lawyers "say Congress should be working to make doctors more accountable for their mistakes, not less." But Manhattan Institute senior fellow Theodore Olson wrote in the March 27 Wall Street Journal that the amputee "was losing both legs...the question was in what order they would go." Hardly the malpractice horror story portrayed by ABC and the trial lawyers. 

Go Away, Mohair Muckrakers!

Remember ABC's Sam Donaldson yelling questions to President Reagan, grilling guests on This Week with David Brinkley, or ambushing evil doers on PrimeTime Live? When a March 16 Wall Street Journal story revealed that Donaldson received federal mohair subsidies for his New Mexico ranch, Donaldson got some of his own treatment. Journal reporter Bruce Ingersoll found that according to USDA data, Donaldson "is the third-largest recipient of wool and mohair payments in Lincoln County....Over the last two years, $97,000 in subsidy checks have gone to Mr. Donaldson's address in the Virginia suburbs of Washington."

Donaldson responded March 19 on This Week with David Brinkley, declaring: "This isn't a tax dodge for me. I operate that ranch within the system that exists, and it's a system that depends on farm subsidies, which if you watch this show, you know I've opposed, and opposed repeatedly. We need to reform them." But Donaldson didn't show his typical reformist zeal when New York Post reporters tried to reach him for comment. Donaldson told the Post: "To ask me to help cooperate in my own daily execution is not realistic." Upon learning a Post reporter with a camera had approached his ranch, he warned: "We are going to call the sheriff and have them arrested if they persist." A sheriff's deputy did confront the reporter. Just the sort of reaction Donaldson decried as a journalist.

CNN demonstrated that even labeling is considered name-calling -- when the label is denigrating to a Democrat. After his speech to the nation April 6, Newt Gingrich did an interview with CNN during which he called the Democratic leadership "a small, left-wing clique." That offended Bob Franken, who asked Gingrich: "Why would somebody want to sit down with you -- and this gets to basic Newt Gingrich -- why would someone want to sit down with you who you call names, you call left-wing, for instance...."

RACE AND THE GOP.

Are Republican calls to cut government hostile to blacks? Newsweek's Thomas Rosenstiel thought so, writing in the magazine's March 6 issue: "There are signs that significant numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans are becoming more conservative. But judging from the actions taken by House Republicans last week, the policies of Gingrich's party seem destined to drive minorities right back to the Democrats." Rosenstiel cited $17 billion in recissions the House passed "fell on the poor, a disproportinate number of whom are minorities... Democrats called the one-sided cuts 'unconscionable.'" Rosenstiel also suggested Phil Gramm's and other conservatives' calls to eliminate affirmative action programs are just cynical ploys for white votes: "Attacking affirmative action, they know, will please angry white male voters who abandoned the Democrats in the 1994 congressional elections."

On March 20, Time ran a similarly themed article by Jeffrey Birnbaum. Titled "Turning Back the Clock," Birnbaum saw Republican reforms as dangerous to blacks. "Coming on top of GOP efforts to balance the federal budget by cutting programs for the poor, the latest broadsides against affirmative action are being viewed as insiduous -- and potentially dangerous -- by the minority community."