Media Reality Check
  Notable Quotables
  Press Releases
  Media Bias Videos
  30-Day Archive
  The Watchdog
  About the MRC
  MRC in the News
  Support the MRC
  Planned Giving
  What Others Say
  Take Action
  Gala and DisHonors
  Best of NQ Archive
MRC Resources
  Site Search
  Media Addresses
  Contact MRC
  Comic Commentary
  MRC Bookstore
  Job Openings
  News Division
  NewsBusters Blog
  Business & Media Institute
  Culture and Media Institute

Support the MRC


What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

Tell a friend about this site

Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Volume 8, Number 19

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 Conservative Union.

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 criminality.

"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 protect themselves.)

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 anti-industry activists.

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’ eyes.

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 sell.

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.

Rich Noyes


Home | News Division | Bozell Columns | CyberAlerts 
Media Reality Check | Notable Quotables | Contact the MRC | Subscribe

Founded in 1987, the MRC is a 501(c) (3) non-profit research and education foundation
 that does not support or oppose any political party or candidate for office.

Privacy Statement

Media Research Center
325 S. Patrick Street
Alexandria, VA 22314