MediaWatch: February 1989

Vol. Three No. 2

NewsBites: The Evening News Gurus

The Evening News Gurus. On January 23 Dan Rather told bewildered viewers: "A couple of late reports on the Reagan economy today sent up warning flags for the incoming Bush Administration. The government said that retail sales in 1988 rose at the sharpest rate in four years. And another report indicated you, the consumer, may be paying more for what you buy this year."

What? A healthy increase in retail sales is bad news? Yes, reported correspondent Richard Schlesinger who explained that store sales news combined with a slight rise in the producer price index last year means "some economists believe the wholesale price figures released today could mean inflation this year will run at more than seven percent."

How reliable is the CBS warning? Well, in January, 1988 Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer declared: "Everybody seems to think the economy is going to be a big problem" in the upcoming year.

NBC's Lucky Strikes Again. If you watched Lucky Severson's portrait of Texas life, you would never believe that George Bush won the state's vote by an overwhelming margin. NBC's Today show has been airing an occasional feature called 'Cross country,' a series that takes a lighthearted look at American life. On January 10, NBC reporter Lucky Severson drove around Texas in a rickety old pickup truck. His guide in this journey: "A Texan who knows his way around, Jim Hightower."

During the presidential primary season, Hightower had endorsed Jesse Jackson. Nonetheless, the Texas Agricultural Commissioner asserted, "Bush's problem is that he's just not much in touch with where the real America is." After reciting a litany of Texas economic problems, Severson described a trip to a saloon, but noted it was cut short when "we asked one of the patrons about George Bush." The supposedly typical Texan sneered, "He's from some wimp goddamn place up there called Mennepuck, Maine." Severson echoed Higtower's claim that half of Texas is fed up with hard times, concluding Bush "better pay attention" when in Washington.

Third World Blame. "UNICEF estimates that half a million children in 16 of the poorest nations are dying every year, dying of starvation and disease," ABC's Richard Threlkeld announced as viewers saw scenes of Ethiopia. Why? According to Threlkeld, "because their governments are spending so much money paying off what they owe to the rich nations in interest on development loans."

What about the disastrous effects of Marxist and socialist economic policies adopted by the regimes ruling these nations? That explanation never occurred to Threlkeld. Instead he blamed the U.S. for their misery, concluding his December 20 story: "UNICEF thinks that rich nations and their banks must lift at least half of the burden of their debt off the poor nations in the next five years. If not, says UNICEF, by the year 2000, eleven million children will die every year, needlessly, because the Third World won't have enough money left to keep them alive."

Ultra-Wright Conservatives. Although House Speaker Jim Wright is the subject of a House ethics committee investigation, Bob Schieffer thinks it's "ultra-conservatives" who should have their standards examined. On December 20 Evans and Novak reported that Democrats claimed to have reached agreement with Republican Congressman Pashayan to vote their way. Since the committee is divided evenly among Republicans and Democrats, Pashayan's defection would seal a victory for Wright for all the evidence was even heard.

Issuing the most extreme labeling possible, Dan Rather introduced the January 26 Evening News story by warning that "hard right lobbyists are trying to influence the vote." Even though Peter Flaherty of the Conservative Campaign Fund explained, "Pashayan's office refused to deny those reports," of Democratic dealmaking, Schieffer never pursued these rumors. Instead, he focused on the direct mail campaigns by, what Schieffer called, "ultra-conservative" groups including the National Right to Work Committee, whose efforts were portrayed as highly unusual and "jury tampering." Where was Schieffer when People for the American Way (PAW) campaigned for the ouster of Edwin Meese?

President 9 1/2. It was an easy mistake to make during the busiest three days of his life. The day before his inauguration, George Bush informed the American people that his speech would be short and sweet. One reason: ninth President William Henry Harrison gave a long-winded inaugural address and died of pneumonia one month later. But Bush confused William Henry Harrison with his grandson, 23rd President Benjamin Harrison.

But by Inauguration Day, nobody cared much about this except for NBC's John Cochran, who viewed the insignificant mistake as a deeply-rooted character flaw of the new President: "But certain times with George Bush there seems to be an irrelevancy or he gets something wrong. We pointed out yesterday he referred to Benjamin Harrison dying of pneumonia after a chilly inauguration day, and of course it was William Tyler Harrison who died."

William Tyler Harrison? Actually it was William Henry Harrison. Nobody cares much about this insignificant mistake either, except for MediaWatch which is concerned that at certain times with John Cochran there seems to be an irrelevancy or he gets something wrong.

Budget Busting Bluster. On January 9 President Reagan submitted his last budget proposal to Congress. As if on cue, the networks went into a frenzy to discredit it. On the CBS Evening News Dan Rather announced: "It contains more for guns, less for butter, and it is out of balance and will add to the deficit." Still, Rather added sarcastically, "President-elect Bush called it, and I quote, 'an excellent budget.'" Sam Donaldson, on ABC's World News Tonight, charged: "No matter what Mr. Bush proposes now, it may seem mild compared to this budget, which so many on Capitol Hill say has set a standard not to meet but to run from."

About the same time, B.J. Cutler, Editor in Chief of Scripps Howard Newspapers, noted the Reagan budget simply proposed to curb "handouts to rich farmers" and "limiting Medicare to a nine percent rise." Cutler wondered, "will such sensible steps be taken? Of course not." He predicted "merry recipients will rise up" and "the TV networks will do their bit, finding one old woman somewhere who would be discomforted and thus discrediting all spending restraint with the word 'heartless.'"

How accurate was Cutler's prophecy? NBC's Tom Brokaw asked Andrea Mitchell whether Bush would make cuts or raise taxes to adjust the Reagan budget. Mitchell responded: "His aides are saying that he will come down in favor of cuts in social programs despite all the talk of a 'kinder and gentler' America." That's as close as the networks came. But that's probably less for lack of intent than because budget constraints at the networks inhibit them from finding old women to complain.

When In Doubt, Blame Reagan. NBC and CBS agree: Ronald Reagan is to blame for the homeless. Back on December 19 NBC anchor Tom Brokaw complained "that the federal government is in a position to do a lot more, but is not." Robert Hager charged "the Reagan Administration has virtually ignored the law" requiring the government "to make any temporarily vacant federal building available for shelter space."

Almost exactly a month later, on January 20, CBS anchor Dan rather declared that "few stronger challenges await President Bush's vision of America than the agonizing problem of the nation's homeless."

CBS sent reporter Phil Jones to Minneapolis where he found "shelters are becoming a way of life for many, the low income housing of the 1980's." Thanks to the Reagan Administration which "virtually got out of the low income housing business, slashing federal support for housing by 80 percent."

Instead of seeing more money as the solution, what about proposals offered by conservatives, but successfully fought by so-called "homeless advocates." A few of these include reinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, repealing rent control laws which artificially suppress the supply of low cost apartments, or providing vouchers so people can avoid crime ridden projects while stimulating the private housing industry. Neither Hager or Jones explained the options, satisfied just to blame Reagan.

Frontlines's Liberal Reagan Line. Bush's victory baffled liberal historian Garry Wills, at least judging by a recent article he wrote for Time magazine. Wills is equally unable to comprehend why anyone voted for Reagan.

Narrating the January 18 Frontline on PBS which he also wrote, "The Real Life of Ronald Reagan," Wills complained: "In 1984 he would win again. It did not seem to matter that the deficit was growing; homeless families were in the street; and real wages were declining. Reagan's campaign team turned the whole first term into a movie featuring Americans with restored faith. In 1984," a disappointed Wills continued, "Reagan had persuaded the majority of Americans that it was morning again in America."

Glasnostalgia. Many still question the veracity of Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to reform Soviet society, but at least two network reporters regard the "initiatives" of the Soviet leader as done deals.

Take CBS This Morning "Political Columnist" Chris Matthews, he's convinced. The former aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill described the Soviet Union this way on January 3: "I mean, this is for real what Gorbachev is doing in creating free speech in the Soviet Union, allowing people to vote against candidates for office, opening up economic opportunities and free markets. I think it's what we've been asking for forty years and it's happening!"

Ten days later, NBC's Tom Brokaw seemed convinced too, speaking of "the newly independent Soviet press." Free speech? Multiple candidate elections? Free markets? An independent press? Sounds like democracy has come to the Soviet Union. Well, not everyone would agree with Brokaw and Matthews -- but at least Mikhail Gorbachev would.

Boettcher Wrong. The United States charged that West German firms were involved in the construction of a Libyan chemical weapons plant. On January 5 NBC's Mike Boettcher concluded his report with support for West Germany and a denunciation of the United States: "West Germany's tough response to the American criticism reflects the new realities of a changing nation....The West German government is making it clear it no longer can afford to, nor wants to continue playing, the role of America's submissive partner."

On January 13, Tom Brokaw reported that West Germany was "beginning to acknowledge that West German companies helped Libya construct a plant" and that "these are major embarrassments since the West Germans were so quick to forcefully reject U.S. claims." Boettcher wasn't embarrassed by his remarks a week earlier: "While the West German federal government groped for answers, a local prosecutor is going to court to find out for himself. Yet another embarrassment for a government which already has been forced to reverse itself."

Chemical Reaction. Not long after the Libyan chemical plant controversy arose, an international conference on chemical weapons began in Paris. As usual, the Soviets made an earth-shattering announcement -- at least in the eyes of many in the media.

On January 8, NBC's Garrick Utley declared: "Mikhail Gorbachev has developed the knack of pulling surprises, of grabbing the international spotlight and winning public favor. Today, he did it again through one of his top aides in Paris. There, at the international conference on chemical weapons, the Soviet foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze announced his country will begin to destroy its stockpile of those weapons." The next day, CNN's Gene Randall was one of the few to report what the Soviet announcement really amounted to: "But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Moscow's commitment would affect only a small part of the Soviet Union's stockpile of chemical weapons. Some American observers feel that Soviet Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze's announcement was political, otherwise empty of meaning."

Conventional Misconceptions. Less than two weeks after the Soviet chemical weapons declaration, ABC News highlighted yet another "dramatic" Soviet announcement. On January 19, ABC's Peter Jennings reported: "We have a report tonight which represents a real challenge for George Bush. Once again, the Soviets have taken the initiative in foreign policy. They've announced plans to reduce further their nuclear weapons in Europe."

This time it was CBS News that put the Soviet move in perspective. Tom Fenton noted that the Soviets are "clearly aiming at the growing number of Germans who want their government to say 'no' to nuclear weapons. He went on to explain: "The U.S. wants to replace 88 aging short range nuclear counter the overwhelming Soviet advantage in tanks and troops.... The other major West European allies back the American plan for new missiles, so the potential is there for a serious split within NATO. That thought may not have been far from [Soviet Foreign Minister] Shevardnadze's mind today when he made the announcement."

But ABC clearly didn't see it that way. In fact, four days earlier Kathleen deLaski labeled Western allies as the real hindrance to arms agreements. Reporting on upcoming conventional weapons talks this year, deLaski declared that "analysts say this time an agreement is possible because of one man: Mikhail Gorbachev." She went on to caution however: "But some question whether the U.S. and its allies are ready to be as serious about conventional arms reductions."