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From the August 1988 MediaWatch

Janet Cooke Award

CBS News: Democratic Convention Coverage

The 1988 Democratic National Convention may have been a shining success for Michael Dukakis, but it was a dismal failure for the major networks. The four day affair drew the smallest combined audience share ever, 39 percent. The fewest number of people tuned into CBS, and for good reason.

Anchor Dan Rather began the first night of coverage by saying "CBS News has an experienced team of veteran correspondents here to sort out the substance from the hip, the hype, and the hoopla." In fact, after monitoring all ten hours of CBS coverage MediaWatch determined CBS was more interested in boosting the images and opinions of reporters past and present. For distorting the views of Dukakis and Jackson, for allowing reporters to insert their liberal personal opinions at will, and for showing the least amount of convention activity, CBS News earns the August Janet Cooke Award. (See the "Study" on page 6 for complete convention analysis.)

Of the four networks, CBS best promoted the Democrats and Dukakis as moderate. The network interviewed six times as many Senators, Congressmen, Governors, or Mayors from the liberal wing of the party as they did from the more moderate one. Besides allowing liberal politicians to dominate the airwaves, CBS reporters also pitched in. For instance, on Tuesday evening, Ed Bradley asserted that by voting down the minority plank on no first use of nuclear weapons, the Democrats and Dukakis "come out strong on defense, they follow traditional American policy, and the policy of our NATO allies." Bradley and other CBS correspondents never mentioned Dukakis' opposition to the MX, the Midgetman, new aircraft carriers, or SDI.

Meanwhile, Chief Political Correspondent Bruce Morton went beyond his role as reporter and predictably advocated new taxes. According to Morton, "there's more willingness to talk about and think about" it because "the national mood is also swinging a bit away from 'greed is good,' the line in the movie "Wall Street," back toward 'we've got to do something about the least advantaged in our society.'"

Jesse Jackson became the media's hero, but CBS was the most outrageous at portraying him as mainstream. Wednesday night Walter Cronkite claimed that Jackson "conducted a mainstream campaign." The same night, retired correspondent Eric Sevareid compared Jackson to Hubert Humphrey, claiming he has become the "conscience of the country." These conclusions were not so surprising considering Chief Political Correspondent Bruce Morton twice claimed: "Nobody almost is an old-fashioned liberal anymore in a sense of let's throw some money at a problem." Diane Sawyer found a liberal one night. She described Texas Treasurer Ann Richards as "a die-hard member of the liberal wing of the Texas party," only to be contradicted an hour later by Morton calling Richards a "mainstream lady."

CBS reporters and analysts spent so much time talking among themselves, that those who watched CBS saw the least amount of convention floor or podium activity. For instance, while Senator John Glenn delivered the Bentsen nomination speech, CBS viewers were forced to listen to Sevareid. He concluded his three minute analysis with this brilliant insight: the race comes down "to these two men, Bush and Dukakis." When Vice Presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen was being approved by acclamation, CBS went to commercials. Rather was, well, himself. Rather asked Dukakis' mother "What were his first words as a child?" and "Did he ever come home at night maybe having one too many beers?"

For those who wanted to watch straightforward convention coverage without a lot of misleading analysis from network stars, CBS was not the network to choose.


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