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CyberAlert. Tracking Media Bias Since 1996
| Wednesday September 13, 2000 (Vol. Five; No. 163) |

Networks Obsessed on "Rats"; Bush's Dyslexia; Tying in Willie Horton; Gore versus Bush GMA Contrast -- Extra Edition

1) The "rats" complaint by Gore elevated to news status by the New York Times topped ABC, CNN and MSNBC Tuesday night and earned full pieces on CBS and NBC. ABC seriously claimed that Gore was "taken aback" by it. CNN declared it "an effort to deceive the voters."

2) FNC reported the appearance of the word "rats" in the ad way back on August 28, but the New York Times only decided to make it front page news when the Gore campaign called them.

3) MSNBC anchor's first question to left-wing writer Gail Sheehy who claims Bush has dyslexia: "Calling it 'subblibimal' instead of subliminal. Is that dyslexia?" CNN and FNC also pointed out Bush's inept mispronunciation, but not ABC, CBS and NBC. (ABC did on GMA.)

4) Tying in Willie Horton. Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC claimed Lee Atwater coordinated that ad. Linking him to the "rats" ad, she asserted: "Atwater founded the company where Alex Castellanos is now creative director, so the tradition lives on."

5) Tuesday morning, all the shows focused on the "rats" ad. CBS's Bryant Gumbel claimed Republicans had "struck a new low." ABC's Charles Gibson claimed: "In all fairness, the Gore people didn't spot it. A voter out in Seattle called in."

6) Good Morning America treated Al Gore gently, even letting him suggest a "headline" for his economic plan. But six days later ABC demanded Bush respond to the charge that his tax cut "gives" more to the rich than Gore's prescription plan costs and raised the unsubstantiated charge that Bush has dyslexia.

7) Bill Clinton versus Bobby Knight in the "Top Ten Questions on the Indiana University Basketball Coach Application."


The Al Gore campaign can sure play the media, though it helps that the media want to be played on his behalf. As FNC's Brit Hume observed in opening Tuesday's Special Report with Brit Hume:
    "There are few news organizations capable of single-handedly injecting a story into the national bloodstream. The New York Times is one of them. So when the Times, alerted by aides to Al Gore, published a front page story about a single frame in a Republican TV ad containing the word 'rats,' something pointed out on this broadcast two weeks ago, George W. Bush had to spend much of his day explaining it." (More in item #2 below on how FNC long ago reported the same thing.)

    Indeed, the ABC, CNN and MSNBC evening shows all led with "rats" Tuesday night while CBS and NBC provided full stories after opening with the latest on the Firestone tire problems. (All the morning shows also focused up front on the "rats" controversy. See item #5 below for details.)

    For those trapped in a cave, to see the offending ad and frame of it, go to:

    Every story Tuesday night noted how the "rats" issue drowned out Bush's message of the day on Medicare, but no reporter acknowledged the media's role in making a choice to elevate a slightly amusing observation about something known for weeks into a major story. NBC's David Gregory referred to how Bush made "similar missteps last week," as if the media decision to take a complaint by Gore and turn it into the topic of the day was his "misstep."

    On CNN's The World Today, CNN political analyst Bill Schneider denounced Bush: "On one level this is just juvenile name calling, it's a fraternity prank. But it does raise some problems for Bush. The ad looks like an effort to deceive the voters. The Republican Party let it run even after they knew about it. Bush has got to make it clear that as President he will not tolerate any efforts to deceive or manipulate the voters."

    Then he should urge them to stop watching network TV news or reading the New York Times.

    ABC's Dean Reynolds played along with Gore's gimmick, solemnly intoning: "Vice President Gore, who quickly made himself available to reporters today, appeared to be taken aback." CBS's John Roberts impugned ad-maker Alex Castellanos: "The ad's producer, well known as a practitioner of the black art of negative advertising..." NBC's Claire Shipman took the whole matter quite seriously: "The Bush campaign says it's a meaningless flash, silly even. But explanations for how it got there are confused."

    While ABC suggested that "the myth of the subliminal ad is just that," NBC's Shipman found something more nefarious, insisting "this sort of word flash is not accidental and it can be effective." Professor Robert Goodstein of Georgetown University, who appeared on all three broadcast network evening shows, warned on NBC: "I think it's a word that contains a lot of emotions when you're talking about people's health."

    Here's a rundown of how the broadcast networks, on Tuesday night, September 12, handled the "rats" ad story.

    -- ABC's World News Tonight. Peter Jennings opened the show: "Good evening. Every day in a presidential campaign is different in some fashion. The candidate tries to get out the message. His opponent tries to knock him off stride. The media looks for the story of the day as well as the meaning of it all..."

    Dean Reynolds explained how Bush in Florida talked about Medicare, "but as the Governor tried to advance his compassionate message, he was distracted by repeated questions from the press about a curious Republican party ad attacking his opponent on health care."

    Reynolds showed a portion of the ad and then directed viewers, as transcribed by MRC analyst Brad Wilmouth: "You have to look very closely at this thirty-second commercial, which has been running for a couple of weeks nationally. Most people have to have the tape slowed down and told to look right there for just a thirtieth of a second, a blink of an eye, the word 'rats' shows up on the screen. But that was long enough for the Democrats who saw it to charge Bush with using subtle psychological warfare against them. Vice President Gore, who quickly made himself available to reporters today, appeared to be taken aback."
    Al Gore: "Well I've never seen anything like it. Not even in a product commercial have I ever seen anything like it. And I think it's just disappointing."
    Reynolds: "So instead of Bush's tax cuts or health care reforms dominating news reports, the ad flap got squarely in the way....The Governor said he was sure there was no intention to compare his opponents to rodents, and the ad's producer in Washington explained further."

    Following a clip of Alex Castellanos calling the word "unintentional" and the flap "silly," Reynolds continued: "As the campaign headed on to Missouri, another important state, the Governor's aides were insisting this was no story, and they were mocking reporters for pursuing it."

    Karen Hughes called the stories "cheesey" before Reynolds concluded: "For one very important day, the Bush campaign message was diluted and at times overshadowed. It's only one day, Peter, but there are just 56 of them left in this race."

    That means 56 more opportunities for the Gore campaign to control what the media focus on.

    Up next, ABC dismissed the effectiveness of subliminal advertising. Jennings explained: "If the word 'rat' was intentionally meant to appear in that political ad, one wonders what the Republican Party thought it might accomplish because, as ABC's Ned Potter reports, the myth of the subliminal ad is just that."

    Ned Potter recalled the old tale about how in 1957 New Jersey moviegoers mobbed concession stands after hidden words on screen urged "eat popcorn." Potter countered:
    "It's a classic story, but it's not true. It was eventually exposed as a hoax, and since then no experiment has been able to prove that people have anything more than the mildest emotional response to a subliminal ad."
    Bob Garfield, ABC News consultant: "There is no evidence, no evidence that I know of that subliminal seduction works, that you can embed messages and make people somehow register them and act in any given way."
    Potter: "Bob Garfield of Advertising Age says nevertheless it has become popular mythology that sales messages are filled with hidden messages, that advertisers hide something in the ice cubes in every liquor ad. But that's a big chance for them to take."
    Professor Ron Goodstein, Georgetown University: "If it's found out the backlash is so horrible compared to the positive effect that this might have."

    -- CBS Evening News. Dan Rather relayed how a CBS News/New York Times poll put Gore at 46 percent over Bush at 43 percent. Bob Schieffer observed a "growing preference for Gore's position on the issues." Specifically, by 62 to 41 percent the public thinks Gore is the "most likely" to make health care more affordable and by 61 to 47 percent the most likely to reduce prescription costs. While Bush leads on taxes and defense, Schieffer explained, only 6 percent see taxes as "most important" and just 3 percent say that about defense.

    Rather then intoned: "On another front, the Bush campaign today defended an attack ad that flashes the word 'rats' across the television screen while denouncing Gore's health care plan for seniors. CBS's John Roberts has the ad pictures in question and the bigger picture, including context and perspective."

    John Roberts asserted: "The presidential campaign got downright weird today. Messages about education and health care were overshadowed by accusations of hidden messages in a Republican ad."

    He too showed the ad and then a freeze frame: "But wait, slow the ad down, and what you'll see when they're discussing bureaucrats is the word 'rats' in big bold letters. Some called it a subliminal message."
    Al Gore: "I'm disappointed by this development. I've never seen anything quite like it."
    Roberts: "A hidden message in a campaign ad? Preposterous said the Texas Governor."
    Bush noted the word appears in one frame of 900 and you can't see it at normal speed.
    Roberts impugned Castellanos: "The ad's producer, well known as a practitioner of the black art of negative advertising, admitted he placed the word 'rats' there but not to run down Gore."
    Alex Castellanos: "It's just a little visual drumbeat designed to get you to look at the word bureaucrats..."

    Roberts scolded: "The bottom line is voters don't even like the appearance of being manipulated, says Ron Goodstein, who has studied subliminal advertising."
    Ron Goodstein, Georgetown University: "It doesn't matter if the advertisers intended it or not. If people react to it as if it was done on purpose, then it's gonna have the negative backlash that it's having."

    Roberts concluded Bush had been "pulled off message" but failed to note how the media made that decision for him: "Late today Republicans announced that the ad had run its course and suddenly pulled it off the air, but the Texas Governor had already been pulled off message, another bizarre distraction for a campaign looking to regain its focus and momentum."

    -- NBC Nightly News. Claire Shipman showed the ad and allowed Gore to maintain: "I find it a very disappointing development. I've never sen anything quite like it."

    Shipman then took the Gore campaign complaint gimmick quite seriously, trying to nail down who knew what, when: "The Bush campaign says it's a meaningless flash, silly even. But explanations for how it got there are confused. Last night, Alex Castellanos the veteran Republican ad man who made the commercial, says the reference is unintentional but today he suggests he put it there on purpose to emphasize the tail end of the word 'bureaucrats,' but he says he wasn't trying to call Al Gore a rat."
    Castellanos: "It doesn't matter, all it was was a drumbeat to get you to pay attention to the real thing, bureaucrats."

    Shipman ominously warned: "A marketing expert on the effects of so-called subliminal advertising says in his experience, this sort of word flash is not accidental and it can be effective."
    Professor Robert Goodstein, Georgetown University: "I think it was a curious selection of letters to take the last four letters in bureaucrats, in saying Gore's health plan is being developed by rats. I think it's a word that contains a lot of emotions when you're talking about people's health."

    Shipman concluded by admitting the stunt she was gullible enough to buy: "In public the Gore campaign is trying to stay away from this story, but behind the scenes aides are pushing it relentlessly, expressing shock, passing out background materials on subliminal advertising. As for the ad itself, Republicans say it was due to be pulled off the air today anyway."

    Next, David Gregory noted how the Bush campaign was "knocked off message" as Bush was "forced to answer" questions about the "rats" ad. Gregory argued: "Similar missteps last week and the debate over the debates consumed most of Bush's efforts to get his message out."

    Gregory surreally concluded: "Today Bush says all of this is just another example of Democrats making quote 'everything out of anything.' Maybe so, but some believe the problem for Bush is that it doesn't take much to throw him off his message or his game."

    Doesn't take much to throw Bush off? More like it doesn't take much for the Gore camp to be able to pull the media's strings.


The New York Times demonstrated how it's at the service of the Gore campaign. FNC reported the appearance of "rats" way back on August 28, but the New York Times only decided to make it front page news when the Gore campaign called.

    Brit Hume recalled on FNC Tuesday night: "When Fox News first pointed out that GOP ad with the single frame flashing the word 'rats' and showed it on the air back in late August, we called it to the attention of the New York Times. A Fox News spokesperson left a detailed message about it, and followed up with a second call the next day. We never got a call back. Two weeks later, when aides to Vice President Gore alerted the Times, the paper put it on the front page."

    Indeed, in the roundtable segment of the August 28 Special Report with Brit Hume, host Tony Snow observed:
    "Our crack crew noticed something very interesting about George W. Bush's campaign commercial -- I'm sorry, an RNC, not George W. Bush's ad on medical care. Take a look at this. This is really cool." Snow pointed out the word: "Is that subliminal or what? There's the subliminal man. We froze the frame there and what you have on the screen for just a minute about bureaucrats is rats."

    Bill Sammon of the Washington Times joked: "I wonder how PETA feels about this. Rats being used for political purposes?"

    FNC moved on to real news, but not the New York Times. Check out the oh so serious tone of Richard Berke's September 12 front page piece, headlined "Democrats See, and Smell, Rats in G.O.P. Ad." Go to:


ABC, CBS and NBC did not draw attention Tuesday night to George W. Bush's inability to pronounce the word "subliminal" and none mentioned the Vanity Fair article which claims he suffers from dyslexia, but the three cable news networks pointed out both. (On GMA earlier, ABC asked Bush about the dyslexia charge. See item #7 below.)

    Carl Cameron contended on FNC's Special Report with Brit Hume: "He may have jump started an old flap over his diction and manner with his mispronunciation of the word subliminal."
    Bush: "I want to make it clear to people that the idea of putting 'subblibinal' messages in ads is ridiculous."
    Cameron: "He garbled the word three more times in just nine minutes....Bush's slip ups occur regularly. In the latest Vanity Fair magazine, columnist Gail Sheehy cites experts who suggest Bush has the learning disability dyslexia, he says not so."

    On CNN's The World Today, Jonathan Karl noted how Bush "repeatedly mispronounced the word" subliminal.

    MSNBC News with Brian Williams substitute anchor Lester Holt's first question to left-wing writer Gail Sheehy, author of the Vanity Fair piece: "Calling it 'subblibimal' instead of subliminal. Is that dyslexia?"

    But on the up side, Bill Kristol cracked on FNC's Special Report with Brit Hume: "If George Bush is dyslexic, as Gail Sheehy in Vanity Fair thinks, well then he thinks that what the r-a-t-s spells is 'star.' So he's being nice to Al Gore."


Willie Horton II? NBC's Andrea Mitchell tried to connect the dots Tuesday night to show a link between the anti-Dukakis Willie Horton ad in 1988 and the "rats" ad.

    Wrapping up her The Mitchell Report on MSNBC just before 6:30pm ET, Mitchell recalled past political ads that were not so subtle and "hit you over the head with their negative message." She cited LBJ's anti-Goldwater ad with the countdown to a nuclear explosion, the anti-affirmative action ad on behalf of Jesse Helms and, "of course, Willie Horton."

    She played a clip of the Horton ad, then lectured: "They said it was produced independently of the Bush campaign, but connections to Bush's campaign genius, the late Lee Atwater, were later discovered. And in fact Atwater founded the company where Alex Castellanos is now creative director, so the tradition lives on."

    Huh? Tradition of what? Aggravating liberal reporters?

    If Mitchell really cared about fully informing her viewers of any ironic links between the Horton ad and the anti-Gore ad this year she could have pointed out that it was Al Gore who first raised the name "Willie Horton" in his primary challenge to Dukakis.


In 1964 Democrat Lyndon Johnson produced an ad which used an atomic explosion to suggest that the election of Barry Goldwater would mean the end of life on the planet, but in Bryant Gumbel's mind, Republicans "have struck a new low" in their ad with the word "rats" on screen for one-thirtieth of a second.

    NBC's Today, broadcast on tape this week from Sydney, is blowing off most news in order to concentrate on the Olympics, but still managed room for a live news segment on the ad. ABC's Good Morning America brought aboard two guests to analyze it and demanded that guest George W. Bush explain it (details about the Bush interview in item #6 below).

    -- ABC's Good Morning America, September 12. MRC analyst Jessica Anderson noticed that Charles Gibson asked George Stephanopoulos: "Do you think that was intentional?" He answered: "If it was it was awful stupid because it was going to get discovered. In these ads, the political people vet every single frame, so it's hard for me to imagine that someone at some level didn't know, but it feels much more like a sophomoric prank than a dirty trick."

    Gibson also preposterously claimed: "In all fairness, the Gore people didn't spot it. A voter out in Seattle called in and said, 'You ought to look at this thing more closely,' and the Gore people said, 'Oh.'"

    If the Gore campaign didn't have anything to do with it or care about it they wouldn't have fed the story to the New York Times.

    Gibson soon turned to another guest: "Let's take it from the advertising perspective, Bob Garfield. Do the advertising people, when they make these things, know frame by frame what's in there and could it have been unintentional?"
    Garfield, editor at large of Advertising Age: "It could have been unintentional, but it couldn't have gone on the air without them knowing it was there...."

    -- CBS's The Early Show. Bryant Gumbel introduced the show's top story: "By their very nature campaign ads are biased efforts to sell someone a point of view, but one Republican television ad attacking Al Gore now seems to have struck a new low. It carries hints of a hidden message and some would say they smell a rat."

    John Roberts showed the ad and then, as transcribed by MRC analyst Brian Boyd, repeated the historic canard reported as a "hoax" by ABC (see item #1 above): "Some inside the Gore campaign have suggested that this is an attempt to discredit the Vice President's prescription drug plan. But it certainly harkens back to the controversy of the 1950s when theater owners were accused of flashing the words 'Eat Popcorn' and 'Drink Coke' on theater screens to entice people to go to the concession stands. And again in 1973 during a Christmas advertising blitz when the words 'get it' were briefly flashed on the screen. For its part the Republican National Committee denies any suggestion of subliminal advertising and has, in fact, accused the Gore campaign of engaging in so much silliness. The Bush campaign even went so far as to say if you play the ad backwards it says 'Paul is dead.' But, however the word 'rats' got on the screen it has certainly done three things: it's given the Vice President a new headline, it's put the Bush campaign on the defensive; and cast a suspicious eye on any future George W. Bush ads."

    -- NBC's Today. News reader Ann Curry declared: "In presidential politics a new TV ad from the Bush campaign is causing controversy this morning. The Gore campaign says it smells a rat."

    Claire Shipman showed the offending frame and then, as transcribed by the MRC's Geoffrey Dickens, intoned:
    "The Republican ad man who created the commercial, Alex Castellanos, called the inclusion of rats, 'unintentional, and editing slip-up.' He suggests that it might have been an errant fragment from the word 'bureaucrats,' and joked that the Democrats have uncovered our quote, 'rodent strategy.' Castellanos, a veteran and top Republican ad man had one of his commercials questioning Gore's credibility pulled by the Bush team as too negative. It's not at all clear that 'rats,' was an attempt to send a subliminal negative message about Gore but experts say it is hard to imagine that a maker of an ad would not have scrutinized every frame..."


More evidence of why George Bush avoids the morning shows. Al Gore has appeared three times on Good Morning America since his convention, most recently last Wednesday, but George Bush made his first appearance Tuesday since before the Republican convention. MRC analyst Jessica Anderson noticed the stark difference in how ABC approached each.

    While Gore was pressed about his debate position, his prescription plan was not dissected and he was asked nothing about his running mate, such as about how he's simultaneously running for the Senate. And he got a softball asking for his "headline" for his economic plan. But six days later ABC obsessed about shortcomings in Bush's prescription plan, demanded Bush respond to the charge that his tax cut "gives" more to the rich than Gore's prescription plan costs, asked Bush to explain his running mate's poor voting record and raised the unsubstantiated charge about dyslexia.

    Sawyer began her September 12 interview of Bush by asking what he thinks of the FTC report on marketing of sex and violence to kids and if he agrees with Joe Lieberman that Friends is too racy for its early hour.

    Then she pounded away:
    -- "Let's turn to this ad. Front page of The New York Times, we told everybody about it earlier, 'Democrats see and smell rats in Republican ad.'...There is a frame which definitely shows you the word -- here it is coming up right now -- and the word is 'rats,' and advertising executives say nothing is by accident in an ad like this, subliminal ads do matter. Was this intentional?"
    -- "You're saying the first you've heard about it is right now on this TV show because your campaign has issued statements about it already?"
    -- "Your campaign said it sounds like happy hour at the Gore campaign lasted a little too long."
    -- "Would you like to see the ad pulled or changed?"
    -- "Let's talk about the difference because you have said you're going to turn to the private sector -- HMOs, insurance companies -- while the Gore campaign is turning to government spending and government bureaucrats."
    -- "But additional choices through insurance companies and HMOs -- and I just want to point out a headline in the Boston Globe this morning, which says that in Massachusetts, HMOs are hiking rates for the elderly, and we've seen all over the country that HMOs are pulling out of Medicare, saying they can't afford it. What can you do to stop that?"
    -- "I want to give you a chance to answer something Democratic strategist James Carville has said. He said that, in fact, your tax cuts would give more money back to the richest one percent of people in this country, the rich people in this country, than the entire Gore prescription drug plan would, even though he's outspending you about three to one on it."
    -- "Vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney did not vote in 14 of 16 local and state elections since he signed up in 1995 in Texas. Are you sorry about that, including the fact he didn't vote in the primary, when he could have voted for you?...But is that a good model for kids?"
    -- "Another small thing. Vanity Fair, Gail Sheehy article out today says that there is some theorizing that dyslexia runs in your family and wondering if you were ever tested for dyslexia."
    -- "What's the hardest lesson you've learned so far about a presidential campaign?"

    My answer: The media's pro-Gore bias.

    Just compare the above to how the show treated Gore when he last appeared on September 6. Charles Gibson pressed Gore four times about the debates and Bush's charge that he's not living up to his pledges to participate in network-hosted shows:
    "Let me start with the debate on debates, because the Bush people have put out a new ad. And I'm not gonna run it, but let me just quote from it. The ad says, 'When it was politically convenient, Gore said he'd debate anyplace, anywhere. Now that Governor Bush has accepted, Gore says, 'Unacceptable.' Is not the Governor to an extent calling your bluff, Mr. Vice President? You did say you'd debate anytime, anywhere. Now you're saying, 'We have to have the three debate commission debates first.'"

    After some follow-ups, Gibson went soft:
    "I do want to turn to this book that you're putting out today. You're putting out a book called The Prosperity for America's Families, which you've authored and your vice presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, have authored. I've just had a chance to read the introduction of it, and it's a 190-page book. But I must say -- and you're a former reporter -- tell me what the lead in this is. Tell me what's new in this."

    GMA then had some drivers who pulled over along the Pennsylvania Turnpike ask questions. The first asked it Social Security will be around for him and the second demanded: "I'd just like to ask Mr. Gore what he's going to do about the minimum wage. There's a lot of people here in Philadelphia that are working for that little bit of money and just can't survive on that. There's a lot of these jobs out here that are worth more than that, and yet they're making that little bit of money."


From the September 11 Late Show with David Letterman, the one political item in the "Top Ten Questions on the Indiana University Basketball Coach Application."

#2. "Which scenario results in getting fired: A) threatening a basketball player or B) having sex with a hefty intern?"

    To see the entire list, go to:
http://www.cbs.com/latenight/lateshow/topten/lists/20000911.shtml -- Brent Baker


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