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MediaWatch: April 1995

Vol. Nine No. 4

Janet Cooke Award: Emotional Anecdotes Over Evidence

The networks' occasional concern for the national debt or the rapid growth of entitlements never matches the intensity of network campaigning against spending cuts. As House Republicans passed a "recisions bill" reducing previously approved spending for fiscal 1995 by $17 billion (less than a tenth of the year's deficit), the networks went looking for pain, not the fiscal gain.

For asserting without much statistical evidence that Republican reductions would cause a dramatically growing homeless problem to worsen, NBC's Giselle Fernandez earned the April Janet Cooke Award. 

As anchor of the Sunday Nightly News on March 12, Fernandez told the story of four homeless children killed in a fire at a Philadelphia shelter: "The tragedy of that blaze sheds light on the fastest growing homeless population in the country, in our Focus tonight, women and children without a home and with nowhere to go. As Republicans and Democrats fight over a solution, we take a look at the feminization of homelessness."

Fernandez began her report: "They're crowding shelters in cities across the nation in alarming numbers. Single mothers with children." After airing a few soundbites of homeless mothers, Fernandez aired liberal advocate Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless: "It's just simply the most visible sign of very deep-rooted poverty in this country. If you're just looking at the family population, it's skyrocketed; and those families are typically headed by young women, without a husband, who are flooding the shelter system." Fernandez asserted: "Across the nation there are an estimated 20,000 homeless families. And social workers worry the crisis will only worsen if the new Congress keeps its promise and makes deep cuts in bedrock social programs and especially in public housing."

Fernandez did not give a source for her numbers, but the national office of Coalition for the Homeless has done no formal academic count of homelessness to back up Brosnahan's claims of a "skyrocketing" population of homeless families. While Fernandez claimed there were 20,000 homeless families in the country, Brosnahan's group claimed without proof in the February 23 Newsday that there are 20,000 homeless people in New York City alone, and that cuts will double that population.

NBC also failed to provide a statistical breakdown of the percentage of homeless people who are women with children. Even liberal groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which regularly reports dramatic growth in homelessness, found that 56 percent of the homeless were individual adult males, and individual adult females account for another 25 percent. This hardly suggests that families dominate the homeless population, although women with children, who naturally inspire more sympathy than individual men or women, assume a central place in homeless activists' publicity.

Fernandez continued: "Most blame a lack of jobs and affordable housing and child care for their plight. But there are no stereotypes. Becky McDaniel lives with her son in this California home for families. Like 40 percent of homeless women, she fled to a shelter to escape domestic violence." NBC cited no source for this claim either. Fernandez added: "Sister Kristin runs the St. Joseph's family shelter in New Jersey and works first-hand with homeless mothers and their children. If the cuts go through, she says, more families will be on the streets than ever before."

In the midst of nine soundbites of homeless people and liberal activists, Fernandez found time for only one conservative voice: "But Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, lobbying for the cuts this week as part of his Contract with America, says welfare reform is imperative -- not to hurt the children but to save them."

Fernandez immediately countered: "But Democrats say cuts will only further harm this most vulnerable population. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros says, in fact, they'll force 32,000 more families into shelters....And that frightens homeless mothers like Angela Draughn at the St. Joseph's Shelter in New Jersey. Every morning as she gets her kids ready for school, she worries that once she gets back on her feet, there won't be enough low-income housing to move into...As Washington debates heat up over deep cuts in social programs, mothers like Angela just keep trying to survive." Fernandez concluded: "Congress is scheduled to vote Thursday on $17 billion in budget cuts. Of that total, $7 billion would come from the federal Department of Housing."
But NBC left out any sense of federal spending on homelessness. The media reported last June that the Clinton administration planned to spend $2.1 billion in fiscal 1995 on homeless aid, three times the $555 million spent on homeless aid in the last year of the Bush administration. Can reducing this dramatic increase qualify as a "deep cut," as NBC suggested?

Fernandez also did not specify whether cuts in Housing and Urban Development funding were for homelessness. For example, $2.7 billion came out of rental assistance for poor families, and $1.1 billion came from funds for repairing damaged public housing projects. NBC also left out that the $7 billion cut was aimed at paying for $7 billion of disaster relief, mostly for Southern California earthquake victims. Those victims were not included in NBC's story. NBC weekend producers failed to return repeated phone calls.

NBC aired no conservative commenting on the estimates aired in NBC's report. Cassandra Moore, an adjunct fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who has worked on the federal government's Interagency Task Force on Homelessness, told MediaWatch: "Sensationalism is the hallmark of media coverage, which only makes is more difficult to deal rationally and solve the problem."

Heritage Foundation housing analyst Ron Utt told MediaWatch the actual structure of the housing budget can obscure the debate: "They never explain what the funding is -- is it authority or is it outlays? The consequence is you can make up whatever you want." Utt's argument is bolstered by a November/December 1990 American Enterprise article by John Cogan and Timothy Muris, which studied liberal claims that housing funds dried up in the Reagan years: "While budget authority for subsidized housing programs declined by nearly 77 percent (from 1981-1989), the number of subsidized units and the number of families living in those units increased by one-third."

Why do the networks report on homelessness without the most elementary documentation? What NBC delivered was not credible information, but unsupported perceptions -- style over substance. When a network prefers the methods of activists to the methodologies of statisticians, they can hardly be surprised when the idea that they are only honest brokers of information falls on deaf ears.