Back to today's CyberAlert
September 26 edition of MediaNomics:
-- Oil Announcement Was Opportunity For Both Good
and Bad Journalism: ABC Bought the Gore
Spin; Russert Caught Richardson
-- CBS Evening News
Broadcasts Unbalanced Claims From Liberal Activists:
Distorted on Electrical Deregulation and Genetic Taco
Below is the text of the two articles in the latest
edition of MediaNomics from the MRC's Free Market Project (FMP), which
documents what the media tell Americans about free enterprise. Both were
researched and written by FMP Director Rich Noyes.
To read these online and to see the RealPlayer video
which accompanies the article about the CBS Evening News, go to:
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Now to the two MediaNomics stories:
>> Oil Release Announcement Was Opportunity
For Both Good and Bad Journalism
All three broadcast networks provided extensive
coverage of President Clinton's decision, announced on September 22, to
release 30 million barrels of oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum
Reserve, and all three of their evening newscasts dealt with the fact that
Clinton's action had political overtones. "When you
fiddle with oil prices, or attempt to fiddle with oil prices, in the
middle of a presidential campaign, you're going to get skepticism at the
very least," ABC's Peter Jennings explained that night on World
But while most reporters seemed to understand that
political motivations were in play (it
is the fall of an election year), some
seemed ill-equipped to deal with the factual questions that
underlay each side's arguments. "[Vice President Gore] was asked
the question today in his first press conference in more than two months
whether this crisis, if it is a crisis, really rises to the level of what
the strategic reserve was originally designed for," ABC's Terry
Moran related on September 22. "He said he helped write the strategic
reserve, that he was involved in the lawmaking there and that, in fact,
this is the kind of emergency that it was designed to address."
Moran seemed completely unaware that Gore was not,
as he implied, a member of Congress in
1975 when the Strategic Petroleum
Reserve (SPR) was authorized and initially funded. Gore was first elected
to serve in the House of Representatives in November, 1976. Instead, Moran
appeared to simply accept Gore's version "that he was involved in
the lawmaking" as evidence that the Vice President was an expert on
the original purpose of the SPR.
Contrast Moran's inexperience with NBC's Tim
Russert, who interviewed Bill Richardson, the Secretary of Energy, on the
September 24 edition of Meet the Press. Russert knew that the oil reserve
couldn't legally be tapped simply to lower prices; the relevant
provisions of the law focus on supply interruptions, emergency
situations or energy supply shortages. Richardson acknowledged as much at
his news conference on September 22, but Russert asked him again:
"So, this is not about price. It's about disruption
"This is about disruption of supply,"
Richardson agreed. "This is to increase the supply. We are not trying
to manipulate prices."
Then, Russert asked Richardson about comments made
by his two bosses: "You say it's about supply, not price. And, yet,
the Vice President and President seem to contradict that. They keep
emphasizing price." He showed videotape of Gore speaking on Thursday
("In the face of rising prices for gasoline and home heating oil, I
support oil releases from our national Strategic Petroleum Reserve")
and Clinton speaking on Saturday ("Families shouldn't have to drain
their wallets to drive their cars or heat their homes").
"Gore/Clinton keep saying it's about
price," Russert told Richardson who, faced with the fact that his
boss -- the man who actually authorized the oil's release -- had
stressed the price benefits to consumers, lamely responded that "all
of this is consistent." But Russert had effectively revealed to
viewers the fact that Richardson was mouthing a legalistic line about
"potential" shortages because such an argument was needed to
conform with the statutory rules on SPR withdrawals.
Next, Russert placed the amount of oil that would be
released to the market in its proper context. "The United States uses
20 million barrels a day," he told Richardson. "Yes," the
Secretary agreed. "You're releasing 20 million barrels total. That
would last 36 hours," Russert calculated. He could also have said
that the released oil would amount to less than one percent of the total
U.S. consumption from October 1 to March 31, when most Northerners would
be heating their homes.
Richardson did not dispute the figure, but insisted
that "the objective, Tim, is to produce, through refining capacity,
from 3 million to 5 million barrels more of distellate, of home heating
"But the refineries say they're working at
full capacity and this will make no difference," Russert responded.
"No, they're at 96 percent," Richardson
countered, adding, "we think the refiners can do this." Such a
conclusion apparently depends on what your definition of "full"
The refinery question reflects a key issue that's
been missing from much of the coverage. After all, Americans consume
refined products such as gasoline, heating oil or diesel fuel; crude oil
isn't worth much without available refinery capacity. As the economy has
grown over the past two decades, fuel consumption has naturally increased,
but there has not been a corresponding increase in refinery capacity,
which will eventually be necessary to meet the structural increases in
demand. But "no new [refinery] plants have been built since the 1970s
because of a spate of new rules," Investor's Business Daily
reported on September 22.
Russert concluded by heading straight for the bottom
line. "Will consumers still pay about 30 percent more in home heating
this winter," he asked. Richardson vaguely said that "we expect
prices slightly to go down."
"The Secretary of the Treasury said two cents a
gallon at most," Russert continued. "And this is why it's
being seen as a political ploy: you're only using 30 million barrels,
which is a day and a half's worth; it is not going to drop the price all
that much, unless you can guarantee this morning to consumers that their
home heating is not going to go up 30 percent."
"What everybody wants, Tim, is moderation in
oil prices," Richardson finally said. "The problem is increased
demand and an exceedingly high price of crude. If we moderate those
prices, if we improve the kevel of crude oil stocks in the world, in our
country, and home heating oil stocks in our country, the effect is a
positive one. The first one for us, to protect our consumers from a
possible dire winter."
By the conclusion of the interview, Russert had
effectively unmasked the decision to release oil as largely, if not
completely, rooted in political calculation. As an interviewer, Russert
had prepared himself for the interview by discovering the past law
governing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the average daily U.S. oil
consumption, current refinery usage, and projections of heating oil prices
Business reporters typically have such information
available, or know which analysts to call upon for expertise.
Consequently, most of the discussion of this issue on CNBC, CNNfn, and
other business news outlets has gotten it right from the very beginning.
On September 25, for example, CNNfn correspondent Greg Clarkin showed an
oil industry analyst, Fadel Gheit of Fahnestock & Co., who reminded
viewers that Clinton's action would mean little over the long run.
"It will give the politicians what they, what
they believe the public wants to hear, and that is lower oil prices,"
Gheit explained. "But it's a Band-Aid. It's a good solution in
the near term, but it really doesn't get us anywhere in the long
The smart money apparently agreed with Gheit, as
Clarkin noted that "brokerage houses told clients to buy oil stocks
on weakness, saying the new oil does little to change the tight supply and
Political journalists, though, are often put in the
position of covering market issues, such as the oil price increases,
without the resources typically available to full-time business
correspondents. Kudos to Tim Russert, for challenging Richardson with the
facts and offering viewers an informative look at the issues surrounding
the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
END reprint of first of two MediaNomics articles
>> CBS Evening News Broadcasts Unbalanced
Claims From Liberal Activists
When it comes to stories bashing business, it
appears that fairness and balance -- offering the chance for a business or
industry to defend itself against critics -- are no longer mandatory at
the CBS Evening News. Two recent stories -- one criticizing electricity
deregulation in California, and a second questioning
the safety of the food supply -- prove the point:
On September 13, the Evening News led with a package
of stories on the "energy crunch" crisis, beginning with a story
in which reporter John Blackstone panned the concept of de-regulation and
allowed sources to impugn electricity providers. He quoted a consumer
advocate, a protester, an industry critic, and a liberal Democratic
politician -- but no one from the industry under attack or experts who
held contrary positions.
"San Diego is the first city in the nation
where electricity has been freed from price controls," Blackstone
told viewers before showing a woman leading a protest: "There is
price gouging going on."
"Deregulation was supposed to bring prices
down," Blackstone continued, "but in California, the wholesale
cost of electricity at peak demand has soared from $25 a megawatt reaching
$250 a megawatt today." He then
allowed a Democratic politician, Rep. Bob Filner to lambaste utility
companies as crooks.
"This is not an, an issue about supply and
demand and markets not working. This is criminal activity by a bunch of
folks who decided to gouge us for anything they could get,"
grandstanded Filner, who in 1999 earned a zero rating from the American
Even after the incredible allegation of criminal
conduct, Blackstone did not allow any industry spokesman to offer an
opposing view, but piled on with another quote from an industry critic,
Nettie Hoge of the Utility Reform Network. Referring to the state's
power shortages, Ms. Hoge claimed, "that's a problem which allows
free market exploiters to come in and demand the highest price
possible." (In Ms. Hoge's lexicon, out-of-state or independent
electricity providers who step in and provide needed power when local
utilities face shortfalls are "free market exploiters.")
The CBS Evening News story was stunningly one-sided,
as source after source condemned the power companies who were given no
chance to respond. Perhaps sensing their unfairness, CBS followed-up six
days later (September 19) with another California power story, this time
including the perspective of power company sources and an industry analyst
who said that the issue was basic supply-and-demand, not greed or
"Energy analyst Mike Zenker says the demand for
energy in California has grown at close to double the national rate, but
no new power plants have been built in the state for a decade, "
explained Blackstone. On-camera, Zenker added that the supply shortages
mean "reliability and price levels are both going to be
called into question next year, no question about that."
While neither Zenker nor Blackstone said so
explicitly, that analysis directly refuted the charges leveled against the
industry in the previous story. Unfortunately for viewers, that bit of
balance was incredibly tardy -- it should have been included in the
September 13 story which broadcast the inflammatory charges in the first
place. And, of course, the second story was buried deep inside the
newscast, airing after the second commercial break.
Harvest of Panic?
The pattern of
one-sidedness was evident again on September 18, when the CBS Evening News
began with what seemed an alarming report from Wyatt Andrews about
dangerous food in American supermarkets.
"Food safety groups have been warning about it for years,"
anchor Dan Rather gravely noted, "genetically-altered foods not
approved for human consumption getting to your dinner table anyway."
That's not what they've been warning about,
actually. Most of the critics of genetically-modified (GM) foods oppose
even FDA-approved products, including corn that has been genetically
altered to be resistant to crop-destroying pests, claiming that government
testing is insufficient and that these crops may contain unknown dangers
for consumers. In fact, because modified corn, soy and potato has been
included in so many commercially-prepared foods, practically all Americans
have eaten the stuff for years, and there have been no reports of any
problems apart from food allergies. (For example, if a peanut gene is
spliced into another food, people who are allergic to peanuts will
probably be allergic to the resulting food product, too, and current FDA
rules require such products to be labeled so consumers can
Potential allergies are the problem in the case of
the taco shells. "The charge is
that Taco Bell taco shells sold in grocery
stores contain a gene-altered corn specifically banned from food because
of the risk of allergies in people," reporter Wyatt Andrews expanded.
"While there are no known reports of injury, this finding by a
coalition of environmental groups is the most serious evidence so far of
the potential danger in some gene-altered food."
Andrews then quoted Jane Rissler, a representative
of the left-wing Union of Concerned
Scientists, who declared "this is a possible allergen that is
illegally on the market." Andrews then showed Larry Bohlen from the
self-styled "Friends of the Earth," who was even more dramatic:
"We're saying that the FDA should exercise their authority and
seize the product." The only other on-air quote came from Anne
Haegert, the scientist hired by the environmentalists
to conduct the tests, who declared her results were proof "without
any doubt." None of these sources were labeled as liberal
Four days later, on Friday, September 22, Kraft had
completed its own testing and initiated a voluntary recall of the taco
shells. The CBS Evening News once again pushed the story all the way to
the top of its evening newscast. "The fear became reality
tonight," Rather sensationally claimed before telling viewers about
the recall. "All this adds new urgency to the debate over
genetically-altered foods and what your government is and isn't doing to
regulate them," he ominously added.
"The unprecedented recall is the first one
aimed at any genetically-modified food," Andrews echoed, before
quoted two anti-GM food activists (neither of whom was labeled as
liberal): Andrew Kimbrell, the lawyer who heads the Center for Food
Safety, and Rebecca Goldburg, a spokesperson for the Environmental Defense
Fund. As with his first story, no representatives of the company, or
industry spokesmen, were shown on-camera, although Andrews did summarize
Kraft's press release.
On both days, CBS made it seem as if public health
and safety were in immediate jeopardy, and reinforced the sense of urgency
by placing the stories at the top of the newscast. CBS also bolstered the credibility of the environmentalists by
quoting them so prominently and without any countering sources. Not only
does that bias the individual report, it also provides support for the
groups' overall campaign to use isolated instances such as the taco
shell story to discredit all genetically-modified foods in consumers'
Compare CBS's urgency to NBC Nightly News, which
didn't bother to even mention the taco shell story when it broke on
September 18, although Robert Hager reported on the recall on September
22. ABC's World News Tonight skipped the recall, but covered the story
on September 18. Unlike at CBS, the ABC correspondent followed the
accepted journalistic practice of quoting both sides. After quoting
Friends of the Earth's Bohlen, ABC's Barry Serafin announced that
"the biotech industry says before any action is taken,
the test results must be verified, noting that the lab in this case has
been wrong before." Serafin then showed Val Giddings, Vice President
of the Biotechnology Industry Association, who told viewers that
"these results have been alleged by a company that has a history of
finding things that aren't there."
The subtext of both of Andrews' pieces was
identical to the explicit message of activists such as Kimbrell, Goldburg,
Rissler and Bohlen: that all genetically-modified foods -- even those that
have been approved by the FDA for sale in grocery stores -- may contain
hidden dangers. The absolute absence of harm to people who have already
consumed GM corn is, in the activists' formulation, no proof that some
dangers may lurk unnoticed. The consumer fears spawned by the media's
uncritical repeating of this line is to blame for the reduction in sales
of modified seeds to farmers this spring -- although farmers recognize the
benefits, they're wary of producing crops which they may not be able to
By only showing sources who think this corn is
dangerous, Andrews was peddling panic, not journalism. In his introduction
to the September 18 story, Rather boasted that "Wyatt Andrews has
been investigating this story for days." If that's true, then his
failure to offer viewers a balanced report wasn't the by-product of
haste; it was premeditated. As in the case of John Blackstone's story on
electricity prices, there was another side to these business-bashing
stories -- and CBS withheld that story from its viewers.
They deserve better.
END reprint of second MediaNomics article.
-- Brent Baker
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