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CyberAlert. Tracking Media Bias Since 1996
| January  27, 1997 (Vol. Two; No. 8) |


MRC Alert: All Guilty on Fundraising; Hume on Hell; Lyin on Food Lion?

1.  Networks finally find a Clinton fundraising scandal worth reporting, but Tom Brokaw says everyone is equally guilty.

2.  Bob Schieffer suggests Gingrich's town meeting comments broke his ethics deal; Steve Roberts tags them "silly"; but Fox's Brit Hume sees a double standard from "the Hounds of Hell" press corps.

3.  Reporters insist that ABC's Food Lion story represents a fine tradition of "muckraking," but National Review finds holes.

4.  AIDS deaths in New York City decline by 30 percent. Or is it 50 percent?

5.  Was a DC bomb aimed at an abortion-provider or bare-breasted Polynesians?

1) A week and a half ago VP Gore's office conceded that the Buddhist Temple event was indeed a fundraiser. CNN did a story, but not ABC, CBS or NBC. That same week, on January 16, some major newspapers carried stories contending Clinton changed policy to match donor's desires and that John Huang influenced Commerce Dept. policy. Nothing on ABC, CBS or NBC.
The Washington Times on January 23 and the Washington Post on January 24 reported that Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry admitted, contrary to earlier White House assurances, that senior adviser Bruce Lindsey knew in 1994 that the Lippo Group had paid $250,000 to Webster Hubbell. Lippo retained Hubbell after the former Associate Attorney General resigned. The suggestion has been raised that Lippo paid Hubbell in order to keep him from talking to the independent counsel. Network coverage: Zilch.

But on Friday, January 24, the White released documents detailing how over 100 "coffees" were held at the White House with various ethnic and business groups to raise money for the Democratic National Committee, all attended by Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore or Tipper Gore.
All the networks aired stories Friday night. Here's how Tom Brokaw opened NBC Nightly News:
"Good evening. Everyone in Washington agrees that the money game in that town is simply out of control for Republican and Democrat alike. And the more we learn, the greater the outrage. There's enough blame to go all the way around the country tonight. But the latest money trail, it turns out, is a four lane highway leading from the White House to almost every group in America. As NBC's Andrea Mitchell tells us now, the White House released the documentation, the Republicans are thrilled."

One of the meetings involved bank executives and the chief bank regulator. Appearing on Sunday's CNN Late Edition (January 26) Associate White House counsel Lanny Davis denied the bankers swayed administration policy. That prompted CNN reporter Brooks Jackson to ask Davis this very interesting question not posed by others in the media:
"One thing puzzles me. Now if the President invited these bankers to listen to them, with the implication that if they said something that got to him he might change policy and then he didn't change policy, was he wasting their time. Was this all a sham?"

2) On Sunday's (January 26) Face the Nation CBS host Bob Schieffer noted how Newt Gingrich complained about a harsher ethics standard held against conservatives. Schieffer then asked Senator John McCain:
"He apparently made an agreement, or did make with the ethics committee, that he would accept the punishment that they meted out and in exchange for that he would not contest it nor would he criticize it. He has now received his punishment. This morning we learn that he went before his hometown folks yesterday and basically said none of this was my fault. It was either the fault of my lawyers or there's a double standard for conservatives in Washington, no matter what they do they're going to be blamed for it. Is that good for the Republican cause?"

First, a minor memo to Bob: Watch TV. Gingrich's comments happened Saturday morning and were reported that night.

Second, as Bob Novak reported in his column last week, Gingrich "was the victim of a classic bait and switch scheme" by ethics committee members. Gingrich and the committee agreed that he would admit to two charges, "but the report of James Cole, House ethics committee special counsel, made public Jan. 17 was concluded by a much harsher bill of particulars against the Speaker. In floor speeches Tuesday, veteran partisan Democratic politicians Ben Cardin and Nancy Pelosi echoed Cole's report rather than what Gingrich had admitted. This is near total victory for foes who have plotted the Speaker's fall for two years."

On CNN's Late Edition Steve Roberts of the New York Daily News (and formerly with U.S. News) offered little sympathy for Gingrich. CNN showed a clip of Gingrich: "You can on the left do anything you want and nobody seems to notice. But if you are a conservative and you follow the law and you hire lawyers and you do what you can, if you make a single mistake you better plan to be pilloried because you're politically incorrect."
Roberts shot back: "Oh, please. That is my reaction. I mean he's the guy who drove Jim Wright out of office. Jim Wright was hounded out of office by Newt Gingrich. The press covered that. The press is covering all of Bill Clinton's problems....C'mon, that's silly."

The "press covered" Jim Wright? Eventually, at best. As the MRC's Tim Graham determined in providing research for a recent column by MRC Chairman L. Brent Bozell, the media were less than excited about Gingrich's concerns about Wright. Bozell explained: "On September 24, 1987, Washington Post reporter Charles Babcock broke the story of Speaker Jim Wright's book deal. Absolute television silence followed. On February 19, 1988 Newt Gingrich asked for an ethics investigation of Wright. He gained two paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times and a mention in the Washington Post. Network coverage: zero."

On CNN Reader's Digest's Michael Barone did note that Dick Gephardt's false statements about a real estate deal failed to generate much coverage. But on Fox News Sunday Brit Hume, newly installed as the network's Washington Managing Editor, took on his brethren. After the Washington Post's Juan Williams insisted Gingrich's violations would have put a regular person in jail, Hume countered:
"Speaking of double standards, there is an interesting question here. About this time last week we were all still interested in the case of Mr. McDermott, and the leaked tape, the illegally recorded and apparently illegally released tape. Even the media for a time were interested in that. What happened to that story? We never found out, we never got to the bottom of it. It just fell off the side of the table. Now does anyone seriously imagine here that if it were Newt Gingrich on that side, or some other prominent conservative Republican, that the Hounds of Hell in the Washington media would have dropped it because the case it came up in the context of was concluded? I doubt it very seriously."
Williams responded: "Certainly we're all aware and talking about it. I think you're being harsh."

Harsh. The ultimate media insult normally reserved for conservatives on the House.

And before it's totally out of date, I should mention the debate over the newsworthiness of what Gingrich said in the taped cellular call. In the January 20 Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz noted that the tape was given not only to the New York Times which ran with it, but also the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The Atlanta paper ran a short New York Times News Service item, but Kurtz relayed that Washington correspondent Jeanne Cummings "references to the tape were deleted from a separate story she wrote on Gingrich and the ethics committee...While Cummings was reported to be furious, the Atlanta editors defend their news judgment. 'Quite frankly, we didn't see it as being any kind of smoking gun,' said Carl Rauscher, the paper's national editor."
Not quite the impression given by the networks or other papers.

3) ABC's Prime Time Live is not conceding that they made any errors or exaggerations in their Food Lion story. As transcribed by MRC News analyst Eugene Eliasen, here's what Diane Sawyer told viewers January 22:
"Now to bring you up to date on a story you've heard about. In November of 1992, we broadcast a story on the Food Lion supermarket chain, in which we raised a number of serious questions about the way they handled and repackaged food. After that story aired, Food Lion sued us. Not over the accuracy of the report, but over the way we gathered some of the information, by working in their supermarkets undercover. Today a jury in North Carolina awarded punitive damages to Food Lion because of the techniques we used to bring those facts to light. Roone Arledge, President of ABC News, called the award unconscionable and said, quote, 'if large corporations were allowed to stop hard hitting investigative journalism, the American people would be the losers,' unquote. ABC will appeal the decision, and again, the truth of the broadcast was not at issue in this decision and ABC News stands behind the talented journalists who brought this important story to your attention."

A few hours later on Good Morning America on Thursday analyst Eliasen caught this re-assertion from co-host Charles Gibson:
"Right now, we're going to talk about ourselves. Yesterday, a jury ordered ABC News to pay five-and-a-half million dollars in damages to the Food Lion Supermarket chain. It came about because of a 1992 report on Prime Time Live. The show said that the food chain knowingly sold spoiled or contaminated food to their customers. The food chain didn't contest the report itself but argued that ABC had used improper methods, that producers had disguised themselves in order to get a story."

Time magazine Managing Editor Walter Isaacson asserted: "It has a chilling effect for a couple reasons. First of all, it reminds us that people are pretty fed up with the press in this country and the media and some of the tactics. I don't think this was just about ABC or this case, I think people have sensed that the press has gone a bit too far, become like jackals in pursuing some of the tabloid stories. It's a shame it happened in this case cause this was a very valuable, important story that ABC did and the truth of the story was not contended in court."

The assertion that the accuracy of ABC's Food Lion story is beyond dispute continued on the weekend talk shows where commentators almost universally failed to tell viewers that Food Lion does contest the charges, or that a union suggested the story to ABC (Food Lion is non-union). For all we know, Food Lion may have been guilty of some bad food practices, but the media have refused to concede that maybe ABC tried to stage events for tape or explain that just because a company does not file a libel suit does not mean they find a story true. It is virtually impossible to win a libel suit even for a false story because of the requirement to prove malice/"a reckless disregard for the truth."

-- On the January 24 Washington Week in Review on PBS Alan Murray, Washington Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, explained:
"I have problems with journalists lying about who they are in order to get stories. But if Food Lion was bleaching meat and selling it to people, people want to know that. People watch these shows for a reason. Isn't that exactly what journalism is supposed to do for the public?"
Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post did note: "Well, I should say that Food Lion disputes that, although that was not at issue in the courtroom..."
Host Ken Bode then showed a clip of Food Lion's compilation of outtakes tape in which a Food Lion narrator charged ABC with creating false resumes. Bode then insisted that ABC followed a great tradition:
"Let me remind folks that Nellie Bligh (sp?) in the 19th Century went into, feigned madness and went into a New York insane asylum to demonstrate the brutal conditions of the madhouses of New York. And Upton Sinclair did a similar kind of thing in the slaughter houses of Chicago. This is not something that's very new..."
Kurtz responded with a rare mention of Food Lion's argument: "...And one thing that hasn't happened in the days of Nellie Bligh was that there were arguments made by Food Lion, they showed the jury outtakes, 45 hours of videotape that wasn't on the air. And they argue, ABC denies, that some of this was sort of staged, that the ABC producers tried to get permission to sell dated food and in one case when a colleague said 'no, no don't sell that chicken it's too old,' you could hear the ABC producer saying 'damn.' Now that's the kind of thing that has a powerful effect on a jury."
Bode replied: "That's true. I did see that in the tape, that is true."
But Bode failed to let viewers see that incriminating portion of the outtake tape.

-- On this past weekend's Inside Washington Evan Thomas of Newsweek asserted:
"It was pretty scary for the press because the story was basically right, it looked like Food Lion really did have some problems and ABC got in there and exposed them. Yes, they did some illegal stuff to get there and we can have a debate as we will about whether reporters are supposed to do that, but for the press it was a very scary verdict."
"Basically right" but no exploration of what was untrue.

NPR's Nina Totenberg defended ABC's methods: "I must say this is a time-honored way of getting at a story you can't get otherwise. It goes back to Nellie Bligh who pretended to be a crazy person in order to get into mental institutions and find out what was going on there, you know a hundred years ago. Muckraking journalism couldn't exist without this technique."

At the very end of the segment host Gordon Peterson noted that Food Lion says ABC left out footage which included an ABC staffer stating "we're going to get these guys." Deborah Mathis of the Gannett News Service found that troubling: "That is the part that bothers me most. When I hear about some things that actually sound like entrapment, not just being there and covering but actual entrapment by reporters, now that is flatly wrong. There can be no defense, in view, of that."

-- On the McLaughlin Group Newsweek's Eleanor Clift charged:
"The story was accurate and we shouldn't forget our tradition of muckraking in this country."

-- On Fox News Sunday Brit Hume stood up for Food Lion over ABC, his former employer. Noting the outtakes, Hume explained:
"Food Lion turns around and takes from that 45 hours a tape that was produced for the trial -- about 20 minutes or so worth -- and produces a video that makes ABC look every bit as bad in the news business as Food Lion looked in the food business. It's the first I can remember an organization under assault from the news media doing to the news media what it claimed the news media had done to it."
Washington Times Managing Editor Josette Shiner said the media should admit mistakes and Hume suggested ABC went beyond the evidence, but The Washington Post's Juan Williams retorted: "I think you guys are crazy," saying of ABC's piece: "That's good journalism."
Hume then told viewers: "They worked very closely with a labor union that is shut out of that food chain which obviously is an interested party."

So a mention on the talk shows of labor unions and of staged events, but what did they and the network news stories leave out? "ABC's Food Lyin'" is the headline over a fascinating February 10 National Review article by Thomas McArdle of Investor's Business Daily. Reviewing the outtakes and the case overall McArdle revealed:
-- "One of the producers, Susan Barnett, after several days of work as a deli clerk at a Myrtle Beach Food Lion, is obviously very frustrated at not being able to get a story. As she sees a Food Lion employee start to clean a meat slicer, she can't conceal her disappointment. Oh damn,' she says. Then as it sinks in, she says a long, drawn out Sh--.'"
-- Referring to producer Lynne Dale, McArdle wrote: "For some reason Mrs. Dale has left the store at 9:30am. The videotape is blacked out, but the audio can be heard clearly. 'I'm gonna lose my job,' she nervously tells one of the technicians. Right before the tape cuts off, the technician is heard telling her, 'Throw that tape away.' Food Lion is convinced that what Mrs. Dale had just been doing was removing a 10-inch wire from the water heater to make it impossible to clean the store's meat department that day." The plumber testified at the trial that the heater had been vandalized. Dale denied the charge.
-- "But if ABC had nothing to hide, why did it originally leave out key segments of the tapes when ordered to provide Food Lion with copies? Why did the copies provided by ABC, which owns the best in high-tech video equipment, seem to be copies of copies of copies, at least one segment re-recorded on used tape? Why were multiple 'cutting signatures' found on the tapes?
-- "The chain became a huge threat to the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) which targeted it for punitive action as far back as the early 1980s. Douglas Dority, the UFCW's international President, said of 'the non-union chains -- the Food Lions' during a 1990 conference, 'We must either reduce these chains' market share...or we must put them out of business. There is no other option.'" UFCW pushed the story on ABC.

Still, the January 23 USA Today quoted ABC producer Lynne Dale: "What frightens me most about all this is that Food Lion tried to punish us as journalists without ever challenging the truth of the broadcast."

4) Headline from the front page of the January 25 New York Times: "Deaths From AIDS Decline Sharply in New York City/ Access to Care is Cited/ 30% Drop in All Ethnic Groups and Both Sexes in 1996 -- New-Case Rate Is Same."
But the same day's Washington Post has even better news: "AIDS Toll Falls by Half in New York."

5) Finally, last Wednesday morning the local Washington, DC media as well as CNN and the other networks later in the day, were full of stories on an explosion near Planned Parenthood's DC office. MediaWatch Associate Editor Tim Graham alerted me to a humorous take on the coverage from Washington Post "Metro" columnist Steve Twomey:
"All morning, the radio had been pumping out breathless reports of an explosion near the clinic...My first conclusion upon arrival: People have a funny definition of 'near.' If you think 'near' includes a spot at the opposite end of the block, and on the other side of the street, then I suppose an explosive device went off 'near' Planned Parenthood. The site was much nearer to National Geographic, which suggests at least the possibility that somebody was objecting to photos of bare-breasted Polynesian women."

  -- Brent Baker





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