In This Issue
Study: Looking for the Liberal Label; Study Bites: Labeling; NewsBites: Gender Benders; Revolving Door: Week in Review View; Budget Busting; Frontline's Fabricated Facts; Janet Cooke Award: CBS & CNN: Easing the Soviets Out
Study: Looking for the Liberal Label
Washington political insiders may be able to identify the ideological orientation of any group mentioned in that morning's newspapers. But readers across the country who find their news in national magazines and in reports distributed by major newspapers rely on the labels applied by reporters. Labels enable the reader to consider the ideological views of newsmakers' opinions and weigh them with a grain of salt. By contrast, the absence of labels can give a perception of objectivity and reliability.
To learn whether reporters with major pring outlets apply ideological tags in a balanced manner, MediaWatch used Nexis news data retrieval system to survey every 1987 and 1988 news story mentioning three groups each on the right and the left. The MediaWatch Study included The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report. MediaWatch analysts counted only ideological tags attached by reporters.
The results show an astonishing contrast in the treatment of liberal and conservative organizations. Reporters labeled the conservative Heritage Foundation more than 35 times as often as the liberal Brookings Institution. The conservative Concerned Women of America got tagged almost 20 times more frequently than the liberal National Organization for Women. On judicial issues Ralph Neas, the liberal head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights attracted less than a tenth of the labels attached to the conservative Patrick McGuigan of the Free Congress Foundation.
In total, the MediaWatch Study found the three conservative groups were tagged an average of 58 percent of the time while the liberals were labeled merely two percent of the time. To put it another way, the liberal groups escaped identification in 49 of 50 mentions.
Think Tanks: Heritage and Brookings: Perhaps the national media's favorite source of expert opinion, the Brookings Institution was labeled just 10 times in 737 news stories (1.4%). Five of those labels came from 152 Los Angeles Times stories. The Washington Post applied a label merely 3 times in 200 stories (1.5%). In 270 of 271 mentions (99.6%), The New York Times failed to label Brookings. Time magazine applied a label once in 39 stories, while U.S. News (45) and Newsweek (30) never did.
By dramatic contrast, Heritage was accurately described as "conservative" or a similar term in 217 of 370 stories (58.6%). The Los Angeles Times attached a conservative label the most, 71 times in 79 stories (89.9%). Time was second with 13 labels in 19 stories (68.4%), followed by The New York Times (74 out of 126, or 58.7%), U.S. News and World Report (7 out of 14, or 50%), and the Post (51 out of 129, for 39.5%). Newsweek refrained from issuing a label in all three mentions of the think tank, but did describe Heritage as an "ideological guerrilla outfit" which could advance "politically outlandish proposals." Time writers Richard Hornik and Michael Duffy best demonstrated the double standard in a December 5, 1988 story: "Neither Bush nor the nation will risk serious damage if he ignores the recommendations of groups ranging from the archconservative Heritage Foundation to the Brookings Institution."
Women's Groups: National Organization for Women (NOW) and Concerned Women of America (CWA): The liberal NOW also escaped categorization, labeled a mere 10 times in 421 stories (2.4%). The Los Angeles Times issued six labels in 166 stories, five "liberal" and one "mainstream." In 124 stories, the New York Times never once placed a liberal label on NOW. Out of 100 stories in the Post, two included the term "liberal." Among magazines, Time used no labels in 10 stories, while Newsweek in 9 and U.S. News in 8 applied "liberal" once each.
On the other hand, CWA got labeled 25 times in just 61 news accounts (41%). The Los Angeles Times issued the lions share of labels, describing CWA as "conservative" five times, "right-wing" on four occasions, and "New Right" once. In six labels over 16 stories in The New York Times, three were "conservative," two were "strongly conservative," and one was "New Right." In 17 Post stories, all eight labels were "conservative." Though NOW claims 160,000 members CWA about 600,000, it's worth noting reporters mentioned the liberal group four times more often.
Judicial Experts: Patrick McGuigan and Ralph Neas: The Bork fight made McGuigan and Neas often-quoted sources, but reporters were far from balanced in adding ideological tags to each. Less than four percent of pieces referring to Neas, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) described him as "liberal." McGuigan of the Free Congress Foundation, however, was identified as conservative nearly 75% of the time.
The New York Times in 39 stories and the Post in 50 reports never called Neas "liberal." In fact, both papers referred to him as "Republican" on one occasion. The Los Angeles Times identified Neas as "liberal" just once in 23 stories. U.S. News called Neas "liberal" once in 5 stories, Time labeled the LCCR "liberal" once in four stories, and Newsweek avoided any labels whatsoever in 4 pieces.
Yet, in 42 stories mentioning McGuigan, either he or Free Congress was labeled conservative, 15 times more frequently than Neas or LCCR. The Los Angeles Times added a "conservative" label in all six mentions. U.S. News did the same, four times in four stories. The Post, which never saw a need to label Neas, labeled McGuigan 15 times in 19 stories. Newsweek's only mention referred to him as part of the "religious right."
This imbalance demonstrates that reporters are unable to issue ideological labels in a rational manner. If reporters call conservative groups "conservative" then it's only logical that they label liberal groups "liberal." Until they do, reporters will continue to distort the public's perception of sources quoted in "news" stories.
Study Bites: Labeling
MediaWatch also checked two other smaller groups and found similar results.
- The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a think tank considerably to the left of Brookings, was labeled only 17 times in 62 mentions (27.4%). In 31 stories, New York Times reporters attached a label to IPS five times; "liberal" accounted for four of them and "of liberal orientation" the fifth. In 23 stories, the Washington Post labeled IPS on merely five occasions.
Reporters felt compelled to issue a "conservative" label every time they mentioned the Center for Judicial Studies, another group that received attention during the Bork hearings. The Post went 4 for 4, U.S. News 2 for 2, The New York Times 4 for 4, and the Los Angeles Times 1 for 1.
- An interesting measure for think tank influence is the number of editorials and book reviews they get published in the major newspapers. Brookings has a wide lead in published editorials with 72, followed by IPS with 22 and Heritage with 16.
The Washington Post published articles with Brookings bylines 17 times, compared to 9 for IPS and 2 for Heritage. Of the 17 Brookings articles, the Post relied on 14 different authors. The New York Times also printed 17 Brookings produced articles from 14 authors, in addition to 6 from Heritage and 2 from IPS.
The Los Angeles Times relied on Brookings for 38 editorials and book reviews, IPS was second with 11 followed by eight for Heritage.
NewsBites: Gender Benders
Gender Benders. CBS News valiantly resists the testimony of their own polls in describing the popularity of Republican Presidents among women. On January 22 anchor Susan Spencer reported that the latest CBS/New York Times poll found that three out of five women believe President Bush cares about their needs.
Nonetheless CBS gave reporter James Hattori two minutes to air the views of "many women who feel disenfranchised by the Reagan years." Hattori charged that "Bush, like President Reagan before him, doesn't appeal to women as much as men. In fact, he attracted only half of all women voters last November," as if that were not enough. (The CBS/Times poll showed Bush won the women's vote, 50 to 49 percent.)
Past surveys by Hattori's own network's demonstrate the speciousness of his argument. According to CBS/Times poll figures, Reagan won the women's vote in 1980 (47 percent to 45 for Carter, 7 for Anderson) and won even more dramatically in 1984 (56 percent for Reagan to 44 for Mondale), even though Mondale selected a woman as his running mate.
Stahl's Towering Source. "Some of the President's own advisors say the Tower situation is being poorly managed at the White House," Lesley Stahl proclaimed during the February 8 CBS Evening News, "and they blame chief-of-staff John Sununu." Stahl's source, however, was a man who could hardly be considered an advisor to President Bush: Jody Powell, President Carter's Press Secretary.
Stahl immediately followed her accusation against Sununu with Powell, who explained, "One of the things you always want to do if you possibly can in a situation like this is keep the President out of the line of fire. President Bush, unfortunately, now seems to be in the line of fire."
Disdain for Capital Gains. NBC Nightly News examined Bush's proposed capital gains tax rate reduction on February 18. Here's how anchor Connie Chung introduced the story: "If you lower the tax rates for investors, everyone will prosper, or at least that's the philosophy that President Bush, and a lot of wealthy people espouse. This would be achieved in the form of lower capital gains taxes, and everyone would prosper, if it weren't for the fact that a lot of people believe it won't work." Who said NBC News is biased?
Ethics Police. "Ethical questions are muddling the central message of Mr. Bush's first thirteen days in office," CBS' Lesley Stahl charged on February 2. "This is an administration that started out with a President talking very seriously about ethics," ABC's Brit Hume announced the same day, "only to have three nominees about whom questions of ethics and propriety are immediately raised." President Bush emphasized the importance of ethics in government, and within days the networks were trying to embarrass the new administration.
Aside from Tower, who were the nominees the reporters saw as sources of embarrassment? Hume and Stahl made an issue of $67,000 in speaking fees new H.U.D Secretary Jack Kemp earned above congressional limits. Although Hume admitted Kemp solved the problem by returning the money, the story still presented Kemp as blemishing Bush.
Both also focused on HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan's request to remain on the payroll of Morehouse College. Sullivan, however, had only asked to be exempted from one of the administration's own internal guidelines, an action that can hardly be viewed as grossly improper.
The charge against Clayton Yeutter, Bush's Agriculture Secretary was even more trivial. Yeutter, Stahl claimed, had "apparently violated ethics rules when he was the guest of honor at a reception hosted by Philip Morris, the Tobacco Company."
A Rather Flawed China. When President Bush arrived in China on February 25, two network anchors could hardly contain themselves as they heaped praises on the Chinese regime. "Today's China," ABC's Carole Simson gushed, "is new, improved and a lot more American." Dan Rather declared: "This is a vastly different China. A huge portrait of Mao still hangs from the front gate of the Forbidden City. Mao's successors have kept the picture, but disregarded the policies." CBS' Bruce Morton discussed "new freedom in the arts," symbolized by an artist who "is showing a sculpture made of condoms in an avant-garde show the police first closed, then let re-open."
NBC's Tom Brokaw and CNN's Gene Randall, however, shed light on the real China by interviewing the communist regime's leading dissident, Fang Li Zhi. ABC and CBS didn't mention Fang until the next night when officials blocked him from attending a banquet for President Bush, providing them with an opportunity to embarrass Bush. According to Jacqueline Adams of CBS: "After tonight's incident, George Bush may wish he'd spent more time criticizing leaders here than courting them."
Strait Talk on Health Care? As part of its "American Agenda" series, ABC's World News Tonight looked at the problem of health care for uninsured Americans. Their suggested solution? Canadian-style socialized medicine, a "model" explained by reporter George Strait who left viewers confused. He said the Canadians have "a system that works." But then he told of shortages, closed city emergency rooms, and waiting lists "so long that those who can afford it go to the U.S. for treatment." Demand for health care, Straight noted, has sent "costs skyrocketing," but he later claimed "the Canadian system is being looked as a way of controlling costs in the U.S."
Despite the drawbacks, Strait asserted that "for the vast majority," of Canadians, "when it comes to routine care, there is no waiting and there are few complaints." Strait praised the Canadian solution: "It's a source of pride and comfort. They tolerate the flaws....because health care is seen as a social commitment in Canada, a commitment that America is not yet ready to make."
Far East Fetched Fears. In the midst of TV network focus on Japanese culture and society during Bush's trip to the nation, ABC's World News Tonight offered viewers a scary look at Japanese investment in the U.S. "America is in hock to the Japanese in a big way," reporter Richard Threlkeld warned on February 20. Citing the $50 billion in Treasury bonds bought by Japanese investors every year, he wondered: "Could our Japanese creditors someday subject America to a kind of economic blackmail?"
Threlkeld featured liberal Congressman Charles Schumer, who predicted: "If we keep spending more than we save, the Japanese will own us, and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves." Threlkeld added: "And then, when Japan says 'jump,' America will have to say, 'how high?'"
It's ABC News that's doing all the jumping -- to paranoid conclusions. Between 1982 and 1987 the leader in foreign purchases of U.S. corporate assets was Great Britain, which bought 40 percent, compared to a mere five percent purchased by Japan.
Unfair Flogging of the FBI. USA Today on TV began its January 30 broadcast with an alarming story about "the FBI and what it may know about you." The FBI keeps tabs on suspected subversive activity by both extremes of the political spectrum. But USA Today really wasn't concerned about the average U.S. citizen, just the most seemingly innocent left-wing activists who have been investigated.
From 1983-1985, the FBI opened over 700 terrorist files on those it suspected were connected to groups involved in terrorist activities, especially pro-Sandinista organizations. USA Today did its best to sanitize these leftist activists as "nuns, members of Congress, and college students."
Continuing to discredit FBI policy, USA Today featured two people who were interrogated by the FBI, including a professor who traveled to Nicaragua complained "we were telling people that our government was carrying on a war...that are killing civilians. That's all we said."
Magnus noted that the FBI "claims it only investigates people suspected of breaking a law," but countered: "these examples, if true, would certainly contradict that." Apparently, USA Today believes that working on behalf of a hostile foreign power should be above government suspicion.
Missing Seoul. "We stopped in Korea last weekend on our way to Japan," ABC anchor Peter Jennings reported on February 27. "We found that when it comes to the Korean-American relationship, there is room for improvement, to say the least," Jennings declared as he narrated a long report charging that rioting anti-American students "represent the leading edge of a more general discontent." He detailed supposed anti-Americanism, stating "many Koreans believe the U.S. is standing in the way of a reunified nation," and "other Koreans deeply resent what they believe is American interference in Korean affairs."
Citing the Kwan Ju incident, in which 200 civilians were killed by South Korean troops, Jennings claimed "a generation of Koreans has grown up holding the U.S. responsible....for the worst abuses of their government."
But if Jennings had bothered to talk with fewer anti-American sources, he might have produced a balanced story. Daryl Plunk, the Heritage Foundation's expert on Korea, says the U.S. troop presence is overwhelmingly supported, because Koreans still understand the communist threat from the North. "Overall," Plunk explained to MediaWatch, "Korea is an extremely pro-American society." When it comes to balanced coverage of a loyal American ally, ABC News has room for improvement, to say the least.
Louisiana Jones. When former KKK leader David Duke was elected to the Louisiana State Legislature, NBC's Kenley Jones went looking for a scapegoat to blame. "The Republican party has threatened to censure Duke because of his past association with the Klan and Nazi groups," Jones explained during the February 20 Nightly News, "but one independent political analyst says the Bush presidential campaign created a climate which helped elect Duke." To support his position, Jones brought on Joe Walker, an "independent political analyst", who claimed "they ran a campaign that emphasized heavily the Horton spot, you know, and there was clearly a racist overtone to that, I don't care what anybody says."
But just how independent is Walker? According to the Associated Press, the Democrats retained Joe Walker during the 1988 presidential campaign to conduct a poll for the Dukakis-Bentsen campaign in Louisiana.
Prime News for Soviet News. CNN achieved a broadcasting milestone on February 27. PrimeNews presented a story about the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan from Al Gurnov, a Soviet TV reporter. Gurnov roamed Moscow observing, "The war in Afghanistan is over, but at what price? Let's ask the people." Included among the Muscovites' comments was a soldier who dutifully spouted: "It was our internationalist duty...it was not an invasion, it was an effort to help protect the revolution launched by the people of Afghanistan." CNN is trying to offer viewers a better perspective on world affairs than provided by the other networks, but giving Soviet propagandists free air time?
Allied Rights. In its annual report on human rights released February 7, the State Department voiced muted criticism for U.S. ally Israel, including praise for its democratic government and "vigorous free press." Each network evening broadcast, however, highlighted the section on Israeli infringements of human rights in the hostile occupied territories. CBS ran two stories, one from the Arab perspective.
But the State Department report included as many pages for the Soviet Union as for Israel, plus reports on all of the East Bloc, Nicaragua, and Libya. On CBS Dan Rather noted State's faint praise for the Soviets' "remarkable moves toward freedom," neglecting to add that State also said there has been "no fundamental shift in Moscow's approach to human rights," and that "the KGB has been subjected to only a modicum of glasnost and perestroika."
ABC ignored the Soviet abuses completely. NBC mentioned the report and then offered a story on a tour of a Soviet mental hospital taken by Sandy Gilmour. But no one at NBC mentioned what CNN's Bernard Shaw alone noted: that the State Department reported "there are still some Soviet citizens imprisoned as psychiatric patients after political arrests." The next day Shaw noted Assistant Secretary of State Richard Schifter's concern for "the world's worst human rights violators, namely North Korea, Cuba, and Iran."
Rights Wrongs in Print. A quick read of the newspapers finds the same skew. Under the headline, "U.S. says Israel Abridges Rights in the Territories," The New York Times gave Israel 7 column inches. Beneath the subheading "Liberalization by Moscow," the Times filled four inches before mentioning "the Soviet Union still needed 'institutional guarantees'" of individual rights. The Washington Post's February 8 headline read "U.S. Asserts Israel Violates Palestinians' Rights." Twenty-one column inches went to detailing Israeli violations, one inch to the Soviets. Both papers slid bare mention of Nicaragua into their final paragraphs.
Wolf in Specialist's Clothing. Richard Barnet of Washington's radical-left Institute for Policy Studies made at least three network appearances recently, but viewers were never alerted to his radical views. When he appeared on ABC's Good Morning America on January 24 to discuss the nomination of John Tower, the screen read only "Defense Specialist, Institute for Policy Studies."
In an Afghanistan story on the January 30 CBS Evening News, only "Institute for Policy Studies" appeared under his name. About two weeks later on the February 14 Evening News, CBS again failed to add an ideological label as Barnet charged: "By giving them [the Afghan rebels] the weapons, we not only prolonged the war, but we created a political condition that made it less likely, much harder, to achieve a settlement."
Revolving Door: Week in Review View
Week in Review View. An early February shake-up of New York Times editors moved Erik Eckholm from science and health editing responsibilities to control of the "Week in Review" section. In 1979 and 1980 Eckholm served on the State Department policy planning staff. He helped formulate Carter Administration international oil and energy policy.
In the Morning Again. Bob Ferrante, Director of Communications for the Democratic National Committee from 1986 until the party released him just before its 1988 convention, has joined National Public Radio as Executive Producer of morning news. He'll oversee the weekday Morning Edition and Saturday and Sunday Weekend Edition. Ferrante's worked similar hours before. In 1983 he was Executive Producer of the CBS Morning News, becoming Senior Producer of the CBS election news unit the next year.
A Little Move. Christopher Little, Newsweek magazine President, has resigned after 16 months to be President of Cowles Magazines Inc,. publishers of Country Journal and Bow Hunter, among others. During the late 1960's Little was the top aide to U.S. Representative Bob Eckhardt, a Texas Democrat.
Not So New at The New Republic. After the departure of Charles Krauthammer The New Republic (TNR) offered two former staffers a return engagement. Hendrik Hertzberg, TNR Editor from 1981 to 1985 and Mickey Kaus, the magazine's West Coast reporter in the early 1980's, have become Senior Editors. Hertzberg was a Newsweek reporter in the 1960's and later wrote speeches for President Carter. Kaus, a Senior Writer at Newsweek since mid-1987, drafted speeches for Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings in 1983-84. In a 1988 Newsweek article Kaus boasted: "I was a long-haired Ivy League leftist in the late '60's, and I'm still basically proud of what I did then."
Bush Workers. Kristin Clark Taylor, a member of the USA Today editorial board and a Gannett business reporter between 1982 and 1987, is now Director of Media Relations at the White House....Loye Miller, a Newhouse news service White House and political reporter from 1979 to 1985 who previously worked for Knight Ridder, is now Director of Public Affairs for the Justice Department. He served as Press Secretary for Education's Bill Bennett until last Fall....Richard Burt, national security correspondent for The New York Times from 1977 to 1981, travels from Bonn, where he was Reagan's Ambassador to West Germany, to Geneva where he'll be chief strategic arms negotiator....Edwin Dale, a long time Times reporter who was Assistant Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) until he left in 1987 for a Commerce Department position, is back at OMB as Director of External Affairs.
Up from Today. Margie Lehrman, Washington Producer of Today since 1983, is the new Deputy Washington Bureau Chief under Tim Russert, a former aide to New York's liberal Governor Mario Cuomo. Lehrman worked as a press assistant to Republican Senator Robert Griffin of Michigan, before joining NBC News in 1979 as a researcher.
"Many in Congress and elsewhere doubt that President Bush can deliver on his campaign promises for vastly improved quality of life programs, at the same time reducing the huge federal deficit and stick to his no new taxes pledge," Dan Rather told viewers on February 9, just hours before Bush delivered his budget address to Congress. Sure enough, over the next week the media did its best to make Rather's case.
The morning after Bush's speech, the figure for inflation at the wholesale level increased, leading a couple of large banks to raise their prime interest rate. "All this undermines the rosy economic scenario that President Bush presented last night, a scenario based on low inflation and declining interest rates," NBC's Mike Jensen warned on Nightly News. "President Bush sees more people and companies earning more money and paying more taxes without an increase in the tax rate," Jensen continued. "But," NBC's business correspondent countered, "most experts say that's not likely to happen."
Jensen laid out a scenario that ended in a tax hike: "Inflation will force Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve to push interest rates higher. Loan rates would go up. That would slow down housing...and then the economy as a whole. And with that, the government would collect less money in taxes and the budget deficit would grow. It would take new taxes to reduce it." CNN's Frank Sesno relayed the same figure that alarmed Jensen, but noted "some economists say it's a fluke and underlying inflationary pressure remains moderate."
Simultaneously, CBS started the drumbeat for more social spending. "Since 1981," Bob McNamara lamented, "budget cuts have taken school lunches away from two million children and nutrition experts today fear that if President Bush's budget doesn't add up, food assistance to children will be cut again." The next day CBS' Wyatt Andrews reported Bush proposed spending "a billion dollars, in total, for the homeless," but "the director of this home says that's nothing compared to the $30 billion the government used to spend on actual housing." Neither gave anyone from the administration a chance to respond.
What's the root cause of this supposed spending restraint problem? The February 20 Time magazine reiterated the position held by many reporters: "The Bush campaign strategists--with the candidate's active complicity--burdened the new President with an obdurate stance on taxes."
Frontline's Fabricated Facts
In May 1986 the left-wing Christic Institute brought a $24 million suit against a group of Contra leaders, U.S. military officers and members of government agencies, alleging they participated in assassinations, terrorism, drug smuggling and gun running in Central America. The suit's damage to the public image of the Contras was amplified by April 19 and May 17 PBS Frontline shows last year which explained the Christic theory and thereby helped legitimize their allegations. The programs earned the June 1988 Janet Cooke Award.
Leslie Cockburn, a former CBS News producer who put together the May 17 program, champions Christic Institute lawyer Daniel Sheehan in her book, Out of Control: The Story of the Reagan Administration's Secret War in Nicaragua, the Illegal Arms Pipeline, and the Contra Drug Connection. Even when Federal District Court Judge James King threw out the groundless suit in June 1988, Frontline Senior Producer Mike Sullivan defended the shows as presenting "credible information."
On February 3, Judge King awarded General John Singlaub, Contra leader Adolfo Calero, General Richard Secord and 11 other defendants $1 million in attorney fees and court costs. King decided the Christic suit was "based upon unsubstantiated rumor and speculation." King accused Sheehan of "abuse of the judicial process." Sheehan, the judge added, "must have known prior to suing that they had no competent evidence to substantiate the theories alleged in their complaint."
Will Frontline now make amends by running a show revealing the lies and deceit of the Christic Institute? Frontline has received a letter from MediaWatch requesting just such an enlightening examination.
Janet Cooke Award: CBS & CNN: Easing the Soviets Out
On February 15, the Soviet Union finally ended their nine-year occupation of Afghanistan. But in the course of almost a decade the Afghan people learned a bitter lesson -- the price of freedom can be very high. It was a victory for the mujahideen freedom fighters and Western military support, but since the 1979 invasion 1.25 million people, mostly innocent civilians, have died. The Soviet presence caused more than five million Afghans to flee their homeland: two million others live within the boundaries as internal refugees, with virtually no means of support or subsistence. In short, more than half of the pre-war population has been either killed or displaced by the decade's events.
The recent State Department Report on Human Rights documents frequent cases of political killing, disappearances, torture, cruel and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention over the nine year occupation.
As for the future, it will take years to rebuild. War has savaged the country's infrastructure. More than half of the country's 20,000 villages and communities have been destroyed, many falling victim to the retreating Soviet army's scorched earth policy. Afghanistan's roads, irrigation system, and medical facilities have been gutted. Those that fled the war are reluctant to return: ten to 30 million mines laid by the Soviets and the Afghan regime are sure to maim tens of thousands more even after the war has officially ended.
But the bitter lesson that Afghans learned was not the lesson two TV networks relayed. Coverage of the atrocities and brutal nature of the occupation escaped most CBS Evening News and CNN PrimeNews stories in the weeks leading up to the pullout. Instead, CBS and CNN spent much of their airtime looking upon the Soviet occupation uncritically while impugning the freedom fighters. For this they earn the March Janet Cooke Award.
While the Soviets had engaged in weeks of saturation bombing and offenses against civilian villages before their pullout, just four of 14 CBS stories made any reference to these offenses. But plenty of time was given to supposed "rebel" indiscretions. On January 31 reporter Barry Petersen ignored Marxist atrocities, offering instead scenes of the mujahideen executing government recruits. His conclusion: "Afghan soldiers will face a situation as brutal as any the Soviets are leaving behind....Many fear this is just a taste of what is to come once the Soviets are gone."
How did Petersen view the mujahideen's efforts and American support? On February 14, Petersen didn't see the struggle as a fight for freedom but as one more battle in the "Great Game" that conquering nations have played in Afghanistan: "The Americans have given millions of dollars in sophisticated weapons to the mujahideen, an easy way for America to make the Soviets bleed that may now backfire. For any government to succeed here it must be...fiercely independent, unwilling to follow the lead of any other country. That may be all that American' millions will ultimately buy."
The same pattern held for CNN. Of 38 stories or anchor reads, only seven made any reference to Soviet atrocities. Moscow Bureau Chief Steve Hurst produced ten reports on the Soviet withdrawal that aired on PrimeNews. Hurst made three passing references to Soviet bombing and abuses. His February 3 report did document mujahideen claims that the Soviets have dropped exploding toys meant specifically to maim young children.
But most of his reporting time was devoted to how "the rebels keep up their harassing attacks," including how "rebel" ambushes and blockades of supply convoys bound for Kabul are causing hardship for the Afghan people, and "rebel" rocket attacks that are hurting civilians in Kabul.
In two pieces he even lent legitimacy to the Soviet invasion. On January 27 he reported that the invasion was "instigated partly out of fear of this kind of fundamentalism on the Soviet borders with its own Moslem republics."
On February 9 Hurst worried that the fall of the Marxist regime would be detrimental to women's rights. Ignoring the repression of the past eight years, he concluded: "The army has controlled this beautifully rugged landscape with the help of women right from the revolution. It's the women of this country who have the most to lose if this Marxist revolution fails -- if the government falls to the fundamentalist Moslem rebels. A woman's place in such a society would be back under the head to toe covering of the shaderi, cooking and bearing children."
Reached in Moscow by MediaWatch, Hurst stood by his story, defending it as a legitimate point of view to express: "All I said was...that these women who support the Marxists and are opposed to the fundamentalist society are the people who have a great deal to lose."
Part of CNN's imbalance stems from where they broadcast. All of Hurst's reports originated from communist-controlled territory. Jonathan Mann reported twice from Pakistan on a conference to form an interim government and once on the refugee problem, but did not accompany the rebels in the field. CBS did much the same. Hurst told MediaWatch that he spent over three weeks trying to get into the mujahideen countryside and admitted "if I had been in the rebel-controlled areas obviously my pictures and my reports would have been entirely different."
"I believe the stories about atrocities committed by the Soviets," declared Hurst, "But I was not where the Soviet atrocities happened...How can you expect me to report something I don't see?" Were Hurst's stories balanced? He argued:"I do not think I was biased. I do feel access I had prevented me from seeing what was going on on the other side. However, I made reference whenever I could to what I knew was going on on the other side."
But ABC and NBC did manage to gain access to mujahideen areas and as a result their coverage was thorough and significantly more balanced. NBC's Rick Davis filed seven reports from non-Soviet areas and presented a humane, just view of the mujahideen. That was not the characterization of the "rebels" from the Kabul regime, and it showed on CBS and CNN. Even worse, both networks failed to inform viewers their reporters were restricted to communist-controlled locations, which inevitably skewed their perspective.