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From the September - October 1988 MediaWatch

Janet Cooke Award

Quayle Hunting: ABC News

"Did he or did he not at the height of the Vietnam War get the kind of help not available to many young men of his age in order to join the National Guard? Did he evade the draft to avoid Vietnam or did he fulfill his military service in an honorable way?" So asked Peter Jennings in opening ABC's World News Tonight on August 18, two days after Vice President Bush selected Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate. But the media already had their answer, and the rampage was on.

Though numerous network stories distorted Quayle's record in a number of areas, two ABC News stories receive the September Janet Cooke Award for being the least fair in covering the Vice Presidential nominee: Judd Rose on the August 18 Nightline and John Martin on the August 24 World News Tonight.

Ted Koppel launched the August 18 Nightline with more than just a factual account of the day's events: "Why did a hardline conservative and Vietnam hawk choose the National Guard over service in Vietnam? And did family connections make that choice possible?" Rose then dismissed Bush's masterful acceptance speech, declaring: "The convention and nomination were his, but it didn't matter. Once again George Bush was being overshadowed by someone else." A short time later, he reported -- erroneously -- that an ex-National Guardsman called the Guard on behalf of Quayle to get him "ahead of the waiting list."

Next, Rose allowed liberal Washington Post columnist Haynes Johnson to deliver the final blow to Quayle: "He's a person who presents himself as an ardent anti-communist, strong on defense, an expert in all these areas, strong defender of the Vietnam War who it appears got out of service in the war by favoritism, power, privilege, and political advantage." Rose gave time to Senators Bob Dole and John McCain to defend Quayle, but not to rebut Johnson's powerful image of an elitist draft-dodger.

In his conclusion Rose was already spelling doom for the two day old Republican ticket: "George Bush leaves New Orleans to the sounds of cheering, but it may have a hollow ring soon enough. History's shown when a candidate becomes an issue it can be damaging and even fatal to a campaign. Well Dan Quayle has become an issue and he's made Bush an issue too. This, after all, was Bush's first and biggest decision on his own. And the way it turned out has hardly enhanced his image as a leader."

Both Koppel and Jeff Greenfield continued the rampage. Greenfield characterized the debate over Quayle as one of "elitism." Koppel added: "Jeff Greenfield used the term elitism, let me use another term, how about 'hypocrisy.'"

Less than one week later, conclusive proof showed that the Indiana Guard was not operating at full force at the time and that Quayle in fact used no special privilege to enter the National Guard. But Judd Rose, in a conversation with MediaWatch defended his segment, claiming: "I don't think the facts have borne out yet. But that's a political judgment... There was a frenzied atmosphere that day. In that atmosphere sometimes things go into extremes. In my case, though, I don't think that was the case."

Asked whether the Quayle focus might be created by a media unsympathetic to the conservative cause, Rose excused himself but indicted some of his colleagues: "You say a lot of reporters are trying to crucify George Bush and conservatives. That may be true. But that's not this reporter."

After Quayle was vindicated on all counts, most media outlets called it quits. ABC's Richard Threlkeld even delivered a half hearted apology for the media's over-indulgence. On August 24, he admitted that reporting had been "inconsistent" and that "there were in fact vacancies in Quayle's National Guard unit when he joined and no waiting list, suggesting favoritism played no crucial part in Quayle's enlistment." Added Threlkeld: "Some of the reporting has involved things about Quayle that seem less than front page news: what about that weekend with some golfing buddies and the female lobbyist, how low were his grades in college, did he have to talk his way into law school, is all of this getting to be too much. Maybe so."

But just a few minutes earlier in profiling the Indiana Senator ABC's John Martin reported on everything Threlkeld labeled "less than front page news." Martin told MediaWatch that it was his job to find out "Who Dan Quayle is?" What kind of person did he find? Martin characterized Quayle as a "young man...of ease and pleasure" and someone who "with family help ...avoided jobs and situations he didn't like." Martin repeated the well worn and false media line on the Guard situation, asserting: "Faced with the probability of being drafted, he sought help from people in high places, starting with his grandfather's newspaper."

Even more significant, Martin distorted what at least one source told him, charging that former Indianapolis News Editor M. Stanton Evans was yet another of the many high placed family friends who helped Quayle get ahead in life, this time by landing him a job in the Indiana Attorney General's office. According to Evans, however, in the course of a ten minute interview he emphatically told ABC that at no time did Dan Quayle or his father ever ask him to pull any strings on their behalf.

But Martin carefully selected a ten second clip from Evans' statement that would -- intentionally -- give viewers the exact opposite message. Reinforcing his theme, he declared: "This wasn't unusual for Indiana, where political families can win favors."

Evans explained to MediaWatch: "It is very clear they picked what they could out of the interview to document a preconceived thesis of Dan Quayle as a child of privilege...It was a direct contradiction of ABC's own guidelines which say that editing...[must] reflect the spirit, tone, and reality of the interview....And that is just a basic rule of journalistic integrity."

Why didn't Martin take a few seconds to explain Evans' interpretation of the event in question? Apparently, because Martin simply disagreed. He told MediaWatch: "What did Stan Evans do as a favor. He sat down with him and advised him. Those are his [Evans'] words. He chose to say it's not a favor ...Dan Quayle was able to turn to him. To me that was evidence that he turned to people for help." Martin added: "[Evans] was upset that we didn't air his opinion. The relevant point is that the story never said Evans pulled strings." But that's just the picture he painted. How else could viewers interpret Martin's conclusion: "So now a young man who got a long way in life on the kindness and power of family and friends must now convince voters he is qualified to be Vice President, only a step away from the presidency."


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