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MediaWatch: October 1989

Vol. Three No. 10

Janet Cooke Award: Homeless Hype: CBS, CNN, NBC

Staging news events has become a fact of political life in Washington. You see it every day as advocacy groups clamor to get media attention by calling press conferences. You see it in the halls of Congress from Senators and Congressmen. The President routinely stages events to get out his political message.

The media usually respond by covering the event, but question the positions articulated. The diversity of views that comes from this "devil's advocate mentality" may not be a bad thing for the domestic policy debate -- unless the mentality breaks down.

And break down it did when a contingent of Hollywood celebrities and radical political advocates came to Washington for the October 7 Housing Now! march to demand greater federal funding for homeless Americans. Many media outlets abandoned the established norms of reporting to trumpet a panorama of factual distortions and at times outright lies. Cases in point -- the October Janet Cooke Award recipients: CBS This Morning, CNN's PrimeNews, and NBC's Today. The three programs allowed the propaganda of Housing Now! to go unchallenged.

On CBS This Morning the day before the march, co-host Kathleen Sullivan interviewed singer Dionne Warwick and march organizer Carol Fennelley. She asked: "Dionne, what is the best way to take care of the homeless?" and "Carol I understand that the purpose of this march specifically is the decry the housing situation... Let's say from the beginning of the Reagan Administration in 1980, how was the housing situation different than it is today?"

Fennelley responded to Sullivan's softball question: "Well, over the last eight years, 75 to 80 percent, depending upon whose figures you use, of the housing budget has been decreased or cut. And when you take that much out of any budget, you are bound to see dramatic and devastating effects, which is what we are seeing right now. It's estimated that by the year 2003, if current housing trends continue, there will be 18.7 million homeless people in our country."

NBC Today co-host Jane Pauley repeated the same myth in an interview with organizers Mitch Snyder and Barry Zigas: "March organizers say it will take $25 billion dollars to build housing for the homeless and for the working poor, money they say was taken out of the housing budget during the Reagan Administration."

On CNN's October 7 PrimeNews, Candy Crowley cited yet another distortion homeless advocates tout as fact almost daily. Reporting on the day's march, Crowley concluded: "Spring-like temperatures on a Fall day made for a carnival-like atmosphere, but an occasional chilly breeze forewarned that winter is on the way and three million Americans have no place to call home."

Anchor David French, in an interview with Snyder, not only championed the activists' statistics, but also the spirit of the march: "The last President, Mr. Reagan, who I guess helped you get the shelter, your fabulous shelter here two blocks from the Capitol, he still said that in effect many homeless persons are that way by choice, that many of them are retarded or otherwise on the street for reasons like that." French sighed, "That's the attitude you've been fighting, isn't it?"

Snyder responded: "Those are the stereotypes and the images that bear no relationship to reality...of millions of human being living and dying on the streets... The reality is you've got to have a lot of money in America today to afford a decent place to live, and increasing numbers of Americans can't, and all of that's a consequence of $25 billion dollars a year just sliced out of the housing budget."

The networks denied access to any Administration or think tank officials to counter Snyder. Sullivan briefly referred to a Heritage Foundation report on the homeless situation, but it was quickly dismissed. It is not as if there is a shortage of experts or information countering Housing Now! claims. On October 5, columnist Warren Brookes corrected march participants' hysterical claim of three million homeless. He cited four major studies from the National Academy of Sciences, the Urban Institute, the General Accounting Office, and Harvard's Richard Freeman. No study, as late as 1988, put the number higher than 650,000.

Brookes also refuted the radical activists' allegations that Reagan had cut $25 billion from the housing budget. Brookes noted "Budget Authority" to build future housing was cut because of the massive commitment the U.S. made in the 1970's -- over $250 billion worth. Most of those units actually came on line in the 1980's. From 1982 through 1988, Brookes notes, an average of 19,000 units came on line. That compares to just average of 15,000 during the Carter Years. Brookes took a look at actual federal budget outlays. Since 1980, "Housing Assistance" has risen 172 percent, from just under $6 billion to over $15 billion a year. Actual HUD spending increased from $12.7 billion in 1980 to $20.4 billion in 1989, nearly double the inflation rate.

Heritage Foundation experts could have explained that and more. They might have also pointed to rent control and urban redevelopment projects that have actually cut the supply of low-income housing. The liberal Urban Institute (UI) cited other reasons for homelessness: drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, and serious criminal behavior. A UI study found that 71 percent of the homeless are afflicted with one or more of these problems.

The week before the march, the Media Research Center (MRC) sent out a letter to major press outlets urging "an equal forum" for conservative-minded alternatives to the increased federal spending demanded by Housing Now! The letter suggested the names of several housing experts to interview. While the letter was sent to 28 producers and executives (including 7 at CBS News, 5 at CNN, and 6 at NBC), just one producer, from Mutual Broadcasting's Jim Bohannon Show, contacted the MRC for help in finding a way to balance their presentation of the issue.

Bohannon provided one of the few balanced discussion by major media outlets. (Another: An October 16 U.S. News and World Report article which explained that the disintegration of the private, unsubsidized rental market: actually caused the housing crunch. Associate Editor David Whitman also pointed out: (1) federal housing expenditures have actually risen, and (2) drug abuse, mental illness, and alcoholism are major factors in homelessness that advocates refuse to talk about.) It seems most in the media did not mind helping legitimize a left-wing disinformation campaign by serving as a willing conduit for a staged news event.