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MediaWatch: October 1989

Vol. Three No. 10

Time Toes the Liberal Line

Last year Time Magazine led its October 17 issue with a letter from Managing editor Henry Muller telling readers of Time's plans "to better serve the needs of busy, curious, intelligent readers." Muller explained that "Time's responsibility more than ever is to deliver understanding beyond the sound bites and headlines." What exactly did that vague statement portend? A couple of months later Time publicist Brian Brown conceded to MediaWatch the new format meant the magazine would be "more provocative" and "opinionated."

That's putting it mildly: A review by MediaWatch analysts found that over the past year magazine reporters and editors have aggressively promoted a liberal political agenda in its news pages. Here are some examples:

Campaign Politics. Time began its crusade just as the election season came to an end, when liberal political analyst Garry Wills (identified as a "noted historian") filed a seven-page review of the presidential campaign for Time's Nov. 21 issue. He dismissed the conservative ideology of some Republicans (The Rev. Pat Robertson was a "laughing stock" who "staggered from one kookiness to the next") but lauded the Rev. Jesse Jackson ("Economists called Jackson's economic policies the best and most complete program being offered by any candidate") Dukakis lost because "On the Pledge he did not angrily grab the flag back and say it belongs to all Americans... On the ACLU he did not get indignant that the honor of good people was being impugned." As a result, "Bush won by default, and by fouls. His 'mandate' is to ignore the threats to our economy, sustain the Reagan heritage of let's pretend, and serve as figurehead for what America has become, a frightened empire hiding its problems from itself."

Time especially savaged Bush Campaign Manager and Republican party chief Lee Atwater. In the March 20 edition, Time referred to how he "downplayed his role in devising the crypto-racist Willie Horton ads that helped Bush win the White House." In a box titled "Sorry Is Not Enough" accompanying a June 19 report on the so-called "Foley memo," National Political Correspondent Larry Barrett delivered a broadside: "Atwater's fouling the civic atmosphere with vicious misinformation is bad enough; compounding that with White House hypocrisy is too much. If Bush really wants to prove himself a political environmentalist in search of a kinder, gentler America, he should sack Atwater."

The Environment. Since the election, Time has repeatedly promoted liberal solutions to real or imagined environmental problems. In its "Planet of the Year" issues (Jan. 2), editors called for, among other things, raising the gasoline tax by 50 cents per gallon; by ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty; making the environmental problem the "No. 1 agenda item" at the Paris Economic Summit; and an immediate restoration of aid to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. In "The Two Alaskas," (Apr. 17) Associate Editor Michael Lemonick decided "the time has come to get tough about conservation." The first stop should be "an immediate increase in the federal gasoline tax...The second obvious step is to raise the auto industry's fuel economy requirements." In a follow-up report, ("Fishing for Leadership," May 22) Washington reporter Dick Thompson displayed impatience with Bush: "Several signals, include Bush's slow response to the Alaska oil spill and his refusal even to consider an increase in the gasoline tax, have raised concern that he is not the kind of forceful, decisive leader the country needs to deal with the growing environmental crisis."

On September 18, Lemonick suggested Americans could "go far" in assuaging the developing world by "atoning for their environmental sins." His recommendations: "Further stiffening of fuel-economy standards for new American cars, for example, would send a strong signal. So would an increase in federal gasoline taxes to bring U.S. fuel prices closer to those in Brazil and the rest of the world."

Taxes and Spending. Time's insistence on a gas tax increase was not an isolated recommendation, but reflected the magazine's across the board liberal ideas on spending and tax policy. Senior Writer Walter Shapiro dismissed Bush's budget proposal to Congress as "an incoherent philosophy that might be dubbed Reaganomics with a human face," clearly assuming Reaganomics was bad policy. "The borrow and spend policies that Ronald Reagan presided over have bequeathed to his chosen successor a downsized presidency devoid of the resources to address long neglected domestic problems. Bush's campaign strategists -- with the candidate's active complicity -- burdened the President with an obdurate stance on taxes," Shapiro complained in the February 20 story in which he also denigrated Bush's capital gains tax cut proposal as "another miracle grow elixir."

"If the President comes out strongly for the mission" to Mars, Time declared July 24, "Congress should be able to find a way to find a way to fund it. One option: to siphon the money from Star Wars and other questionable defense programs."

Foreign Policy. Time's pronouncements on foreign policy would make the Institute for Policy Studies proud. In a lengthy report on Central America ("No Winners, Only Losers," Nov. 21) Associate Editor Jill Smolowe bluntly rejected Reagan Administration policies in Nicaragua as "wishful thinking" wrought by "ideological zeal." Since "the Contras are never going to topple the Sandinistas," Time proposed a new strategy: "Rather than try to undo the Sandinista revolution, the new administration in Washington should acknowledge the legitimacy of the Managua regime and resume direct negotiations that address U.S. security concerns...The U.S. might spearhead and international consortium of aid that would be applied to social reform and economic growth." Nine months later, Smolowe reported: "The [Central American] Presidents negotiated the dissolution of the Nicaraguan Contras, a force that to many Central Americans symbolized U.S. arrogance and interference during the 1980's."

In Time's May 15 cover story on U.S./Soviet relations ("Do-Nothing Detente") George Church blasted Bush, who "finally thinks he has a policy toward Moscow -- hang tough and see what happens -- but U.S. allies fear he is missing a historic chance for not wanting to embrace Gorbachev's offers. Bush seems almost recklessly timid, unwilling to respond with the imagination and articulation the situation requires." The pictures for the article told it all. With the caption "Instruments of War and Peace," the first photo showed a U.S.-made Lance missile; the second showed balloons and flowers in Moscow's Red Square on May Day.

In an accompanying article, then-Washington Bureau Chief Strobe Talbott announced Bush had "restored a degree of credibility and seriousness to the American conduct of arms control that has been missing for a decade." In contrast, Ronald Reagan and his "cadre of ideologues" promoted "obstinate policies," and spent their time "fantasizing about a perfect space-based defense." The accompanying picture for this article included full facial shots of Jimmy Carter and George Bush, with a partial shot of Reagan between them, being squeezed out of the bottom of the picture. The caption: "Restoring a degree of credibility."

A year ago Muller assured readers: "Time is above all a newsmagazine." It's hard to tell anymore.