Bias Comes Through in Labeling, Story Angles
The January 9 decision by the Supreme
Court to rule on a Missouri abortion law and the January 23 March for
Life marking the 16th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade provided ample
opportunity for national news outlets to weigh in on the divisive issue.
A survey of the four networks, The New York Times, The Washington
Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal at the time
of the two developments confirmed the results of last month's MediaWatch
Reporters used the term
"anti-abortion" 42 times, but "pro-life" just six
times. Identifying the other side, they used "pro-choice" 29
times but never once tagged abortion proponents
"pro-abortion." USA Today reporter Judy Keen's
labeling mirrored the media's general pattern. She opened her January 24
article this way: "As anti-abortion activists marched on Washington
Monday, pro-choice advocates prepared for grass-roots battle."
On PrimeNews the night before,
CNN's Candy Crowley referred to "anti-abortion activists" who
hope the Supreme Court's Missouri decision "will be the beginning
of the end to abortion," but cautioned: "pro-choice advocates
fear it will mean a return to back alley abortions." CNN proved to
be the most unfair, issuing nine "pro-choice" tags and the
same number of "anti-abortion" ones. ABC's Richard Threlkeld
stood out as impartial: on two occasions he dubbed each side their label
Despite the fact pro-life spokesmen were
quoted more often (52%) than pro-choice ones (48%) overall, several
reports were lop-sided in favor of abortion proponents. On Jan. 22,
CNN's Cynthia Tournquist gave the least balanced story, giving pro-choicers
two times more airtime as well as calling supporters of abortion
"pro-choice" three times and opponents
But even if they refrained from the
"anti-abortion" label and offered abortion opponents equal
time to defend their cause, some reporters did all they could to
discredit the pro-life cause. On Jan. 9, CBS' Richard Roth referred to
pro-life forces as "a strong and vocal minority [which] has
insisted its voice be heard."
After giving time to a former Roe vs.
Wade attorney to express her discontent, Roth concluded: "Her point
is it wasn't just abortion decided 16 years ago, it was the launching of
what amounted to an abortion revolution."
No Longer Speaking for the
Speaker. Charmayne Marsh,
Press Secretary to House Speaker Jim Wright for the past eight years,
resigned at the end of last year. Marsh began her journalism career in
1966 as a UPI Washington reporter moving on to Washington bureau
positions with Reuters and the Dallas Morning News. Her
departure, however, does not leave Wright without experienced media
hands. Chief Press Officer George Mair once worked for CBS News and
Wilson Morris, Information Director for the Wright controlled House
Democratic Steering Committee, reported for The Washington Post
from 1972 to 1978.
From Carter to Nightline.
A few months ago ABC News promoted Deborah Leff, a Nightline
producer in Washington, to Senior Producer in London for the show. Leff
worked as a trial attorney for the Department of Justice from 1977 to
1979 before Carter named her Director of Public Affairs for the Federal
Trade Commission where she served until 1981.
Bingaman's Man. Veteran
broadcast news producer Charles Woolsey, most recently Executive
Producer of News at KOB-TV, the NBC affiliate in Albuquerque, has just
become Director of Communications for Senator Jeff Bingaman, a liberal
Democrat representing New Mexico. Beginning in 1968, Woolsey held a
variety of Washington-based field producer positions with NBC and ABC
News. He ended his network career in 1983 as Special Projects Producer
for Good Morning America and World News Tonight. That
year he became Assistant News Director at WTTG-TV in Washington, jumping
to competing WRC-TV two years later where he remained until heading West
Time's Cover Writer.
"The Silver Fox," Barbara Bush, graced the January 23 Time
cover. Senior Writer Margaret Carlson penned the inside profile piece on
the new First Lady. In his "From the Publisher" column Robert
Miller noted that in 1974, "under the inspiration of consumer
advocate Ralph Nader," Carlson wrote a book on car repair. But
Miller didn't tell readers Carlson was a Special Assistant to the
Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Carter
Back on the Hill. In
1966 Wes Pippert became a Congressional fellow in the office of U.S.
Representative Morris Udall, a liberal Democrat. Now, 23 years later and
after 30 years of reporting everywhere from Bismarck, North Dakota to
Jerusalem for UPI, he's back on Capitol Hill. This time, however, he's
working for Republican Paul Henry. Pippert is putting in a six month
stint handling public affairs and policy development for the Michigan
Bush Brigade. A couple
of Bush Administration members already in place bring media experience
to their new roles. White House Personnel Director Chase Untermeyer was
a Houston Chronicle political reporter from 1972 to 1974....The
Office of the First Lady has appointed Jean Becker, a USA Today
reporter since 1985, as one of two Deputy Press Secretaries.
The Real Scoop on Koop
On January 9 Surgeon General C. Everett
Koop filed a report with the President on the health effects of
abortion. Here's what the network anchors told viewers that night: ABC's
Peter Jennings said "a new report by the Surgeon General concludes
that abortion causes little if any physical or emotional harm to
women." Dan Rather of CBS announced that "Surgeon General C.
Everett Koop...reportedly concluded that a woman who has an abortion
suffers little if any physical or emotional harm from the
experience." NBC's Tom Brokaw declared that "Koop reports he
has not found conclusive evidence that abortions have harmful
psychological effects on the women who have them," but Koop
"found that there is a whole segment of the population that says,
quote, 'the best thing that happened to me was my abortion.'"
In a letter to Reagan, the Surgeon
General explained that "scientific studies do not provide
conclusive data about the health effects of abortion on women." In
claiming Koop "concluded" anything, Jennings and Rather
obviously missed the mark. But Brokaw's remarks distorted Koop's
statement that "anecdotal reports abound on both sides," on
whether abortion is a traumatic experience. Only CNN's Mary Alice
Williams accurately reported, "what is known about the
psychological effects of abortion cannot support either side of the
national debate about it." Perhaps anticipating network coverage,
in his letter to Reagan Koop predicted that "many who might read
this letter would not understand it because I have not arrived at
conclusions they can accept."
Janet Cooke Award
Bashing: ABC News
Just days before the inauguration of
George Bush, residents of the primarily black section of Miami named
Overtown began rioting over the shooting death of a black motorcyclist
by white police officers. Some in the media took the Overtown issue to
an extreme, charging the riots were a consequence of the disregard for
the poor and underclass. ABC's Richard Threlkeld went one step further.
He found the real villain to be Ronald Reagan and his administration's
policies, and for that receives the February Janet Cooke Award.
On January 20 Threlkeld was in Miami to
learn, in Peter Jennings words, "how the new President's remarks
might play in a place like Overtown." Jennings noted that "in
his speech today, President Bush tried to reach beyond the crowd of well
wishers to another America where the problems of poverty and crime and
homelessness are still unresolved." True enough, Overtown qualifies
as such a place; but Threlkeld's examination of the black area quickly
became a condemnation of Reagan's overall civil rights and economic
policies. Threlkeld used sweeping rhetorical judgments without any
attempt at balance.
Threlkeld's first words set the tone for
his entire report: "There wasn't much of an inaugural audience
today in Overtown, which like much of black America has not felt part of
the life of this nation for a long time." Why is that so? Threlkeld
alleged: "After eight years of what many see as the Reagan
Administration's benign neglect of the poor and studied indifference to
civil rights, a lot of those who lived through this week in Overtown
seemed to think the best thing about George Bush is that he is not
After putting on several citizens to
support the assertion, Threlkeld concluded: "There is an Overtown
in every big city in America -- pockets of misery made even meaner and
more desperate the past eight years." As for Bush's inaugural
address, he added: "In this place, the response to the promise of a
new President of an offered hand is 'show me.' Overtown's already shown
this week there's a price to be paid when the Overtowns of America are
too long overlooked."
If Threlkeld had been interested he could
have easily located many blacks who have benefitted from Reagan's
policies. As Wall Street Journal editorial writer Joseph
Perkins recently pointed out in a Policy Review article,
"most debates about the state of black Americans focus on negative
indicators" and "this emphasis offers a very skewed picture of
Census Bureau statistics show that the
Reagan years have been a boom time for the vast majority of black
Americans. Median black family income has increased by more than nine
percent in constant dollars since 1981. (During the Carter Presidency,
black family income dropped by more than five percent). From 1985 to
1987, middle class black families saw their real incomes jump by
approximately ten percent per year. In this decade alone, the pool of
upwardly mobile blacks has grown by more than a third. It was trend even
evident to CNN's Jeff Levine who stated on January 15: "There are
signs of an emerging black bourgeoisie. For the first time, the majority
of blacks can call themselves middle class."
As for black unemployment, Labor
Department figures show that it has dropped by 25 percent during the
Reagan years. That translates into more than two million new jobs. While
the black poverty rate increased somewhat at the beginning of Reagan's
term, Census statistics find it has begun to fall considerably and is
now below the 1981 level, when Carter's policies were still in effect.
But Threlkeld failed to offer anyone
airtime to describe these trends. He spoke of a "studied
indifference to civil rights," but neglected to mention the strives
toward equality that blacks have made in the work place. Perkins noted
that black professional and managerial classes have burgeoned in the
1980s, as has black college enrollment.
The CNN story by Levine featured many
middle class blacks "climbing the corporate ladder" who have
"overcome the burden of racial discrimination." ABC's Mike Von
Fremd, reporting from Alabama, found: "Today, when you watch
Montgomery's children together in school, look at its streets, or eat in
its restaurants, you see a community that has achieved at least part of
Dr. King's dream."
When reached by MediaWatch,
Threlkeld defended his story: "We have a difference of opinion. The
research we've done over the years is to the contrary. Not just blacks,
but the poorest fifth have done worse under Reagan. Public opinion polls
show time and again that the vast majority are victims of benign
neglect." But Threlkeld would not provide any statistics to prove
his point, nor was he willing to discuss official Labor or Census
numbers: "If we want to get into a contest over statistics...you'll
have to drop me a letter and through our research department we'll do
He contended that his report was meant to
examine only Overtown and little else: "Of course there is a large
black middle class But indicators show that things are manifestly worse
in places like Overtown....Our point was being in Overtown."
Despite the substance of his story, Threlkeld tried to deny he cast
blame: "I don't necessarily blame Ronald Reagan or Reagan's
administration ....[The report] says a lot of [blacks in Overtown] blame
But why cover Overtown and not cover the
stable black middle class that has grown by leaps and bounds this
decade? Threlkeld agreed that the news media "ought to cover every
aspect," but saw no need to expand his effort: "This was a
piece we thought would be interesting to do because it dominated that
week." What about a separate piece focusing on a middle class black
neighborhood to get reaction from them on Bush's inauguration? He didn't
see any need: "But there weren't riots there." Apparently when
ABC News wants to learn how blacks fared under Reagan and what they
think of the new President, the only appropriate place to survey is a
poor, riot-stricken area. Need we say more?
The Evening News Gurus.
On January 23 Dan Rather told bewildered viewers: "A couple of late
reports on the Reagan economy today sent up warning flags for the
incoming Bush Administration. The government said that retail sales in
1988 rose at the sharpest rate in four years. And another report
indicated you, the consumer, may be paying more for what you buy this
What? A healthy increase in retail sales
is bad news? Yes, reported correspondent Richard Schlesinger who
explained that store sales news combined with a slight rise in the
producer price index last year means "some economists believe the
wholesale price figures released today could mean inflation this year
will run at more than seven percent."
How reliable is the CBS warning? Well, in
January, 1988 Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer declared:
"Everybody seems to think the economy is going to be a big
problem" in the upcoming year.
NBC's Lucky Strikes Again.
If you watched Lucky Severson's portrait of Texas life, you would never
believe that George Bush won the state's vote by an overwhelming margin.
NBC's Today show has been airing an occasional feature called
'Cross country,' a series that takes a lighthearted look at American
life. On January 10, NBC reporter Lucky Severson drove around Texas in a
rickety old pickup truck. His guide in this journey: "A Texan who
knows his way around, Jim Hightower."
During the presidential primary season,
Hightower had endorsed Jesse Jackson. Nonetheless, the Texas
Agricultural Commissioner asserted, "Bush's problem is that he's
just not much in touch with where the real America is." After
reciting a litany of Texas economic problems, Severson described a trip
to a saloon, but noted it was cut short when "we asked one of the
patrons about George Bush." The supposedly typical Texan sneered,
"He's from some wimp goddamn place up there called Mennepuck,
Maine." Severson echoed Higtower's claim that half of Texas is fed
up with hard times, concluding Bush "better pay attention"
when in Washington.
Third World Blame.
"UNICEF estimates that half a million children in 16 of the poorest
nations are dying every year, dying of starvation and disease,"
ABC's Richard Threlkeld announced as viewers saw scenes of Ethiopia.
Why? According to Threlkeld, "because their governments are
spending so much money paying off what they owe to the rich nations in
interest on development loans."
What about the disastrous effects of
Marxist and socialist economic policies adopted by the regimes ruling
these nations? That explanation never occurred to Threlkeld. Instead he
blamed the U.S. for their misery, concluding his December 20 story:
"UNICEF thinks that rich nations and their banks must lift at least
half of the burden of their debt off the poor nations in the next five
years. If not, says UNICEF, by the year 2000, eleven million children
will die every year, needlessly, because the Third World won't have
enough money left to keep them alive."
Although House Speaker Jim Wright is the subject of a House ethics
committee investigation, Bob Schieffer thinks it's
"ultra-conservatives" who should have their standards
examined. On December 20 Evans and Novak reported that
Democrats claimed to have reached agreement with Republican Congressman
Pashayan to vote their way. Since the committee is divided evenly among
Republicans and Democrats, Pashayan's defection would seal a victory for
Wright for all the evidence was even heard.
Issuing the most extreme labeling
possible, Dan Rather introduced the January 26 Evening News
story by warning that "hard right lobbyists are trying to influence
the vote." Even though Peter Flaherty of the Conservative Campaign
Fund explained, "Pashayan's office refused to deny those
reports," of Democratic dealmaking, Schieffer never pursued these
rumors. Instead, he focused on the direct mail campaigns by, what
Schieffer called, "ultra-conservative" groups including the
National Right to Work Committee, whose efforts were portrayed as highly
unusual and "jury tampering." Where was Schieffer when People
for the American Way (PAW) campaigned for the ouster of Edwin Meese?
President 9 1/2. It was
an easy mistake to make during the busiest three days of his life. The
day before his inauguration, George Bush informed the American people
that his speech would be short and sweet. One reason: ninth President
William Henry Harrison gave a long-winded inaugural address and died of
pneumonia one month later. But Bush confused William Henry Harrison with
his grandson, 23rd President Benjamin Harrison.
But by Inauguration Day, nobody cared
much about this except for NBC's John Cochran, who viewed the
insignificant mistake as a deeply-rooted character flaw of the new
President: "But certain times with George Bush there seems to be an
irrelevancy or he gets something wrong. We pointed out yesterday he
referred to Benjamin Harrison dying of pneumonia after a chilly
inauguration day, and of course it was William Tyler Harrison who
William Tyler Harrison? Actually it was
William Henry Harrison. Nobody cares much about this insignificant
mistake either, except for MediaWatch which is
concerned that at certain times with John Cochran there seems to be an
irrelevancy or he gets something wrong.
Budget Busting Bluster.
On January 9 President Reagan submitted his last budget proposal to
Congress. As if on cue, the networks went into a frenzy to discredit it.
On the CBS Evening News Dan Rather announced: "It contains
more for guns, less for butter, and it is out of balance and will add to
the deficit." Still, Rather added sarcastically,
"President-elect Bush called it, and I quote, 'an excellent
budget.'" Sam Donaldson, on ABC's World News Tonight,
charged: "No matter what Mr. Bush proposes now, it may seem mild
compared to this budget, which so many on Capitol Hill say has set a
standard not to meet but to run from."
About the same time, B.J. Cutler, Editor
in Chief of Scripps Howard Newspapers, noted the Reagan budget simply
proposed to curb "handouts to rich farmers" and "limiting
Medicare to a nine percent rise." Cutler wondered, "will such
sensible steps be taken? Of course not." He predicted "merry
recipients will rise up" and "the TV networks will do their
bit, finding one old woman somewhere who would be discomforted and thus
discrediting all spending restraint with the word 'heartless.'"
How accurate was Cutler's prophecy? NBC's
Tom Brokaw asked Andrea Mitchell whether Bush would make cuts or raise
taxes to adjust the Reagan budget. Mitchell responded: "His aides
are saying that he will come down in favor of cuts in social programs
despite all the talk of a 'kinder and gentler' America." That's as
close as the networks came. But that's probably less for lack of intent
than because budget constraints at the networks inhibit them from
finding old women to complain.
When In Doubt, Blame Reagan.
NBC and CBS agree: Ronald Reagan is to blame for the homeless. Back on
December 19 NBC anchor Tom Brokaw complained "that the federal
government is in a position to do a lot more, but is not." Robert
Hager charged "the Reagan Administration has virtually ignored the
law" requiring the government "to make any temporarily vacant
federal building available for shelter space."
Almost exactly a month later, on January
20, CBS anchor Dan rather declared that "few stronger challenges
await President Bush's vision of America than the agonizing problem of
the nation's homeless."
CBS sent reporter Phil Jones to
Minneapolis where he found "shelters are becoming a way of life for
many, the low income housing of the 1980's." Thanks to the Reagan
Administration which "virtually got out of the low income housing
business, slashing federal support for housing by 80 percent."
Instead of seeing more money as the
solution, what about proposals offered by conservatives, but
successfully fought by so-called "homeless advocates." A few
of these include reinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, repealing
rent control laws which artificially suppress the supply of low cost
apartments, or providing vouchers so people can avoid crime ridden
projects while stimulating the private housing industry. Neither Hager
or Jones explained the options, satisfied just to blame Reagan.
Reagan Line. Bush's victory baffled liberal historian Garry
Wills, at least judging by a recent article he wrote for Time
magazine. Wills is equally unable to comprehend why anyone voted for
Narrating the January 18 Frontline
on PBS which he also wrote, "The Real Life of Ronald Reagan,"
Wills complained: "In 1984 he would win again. It did not seem to
matter that the deficit was growing; homeless families were in the
street; and real wages were declining. Reagan's campaign team turned the
whole first term into a movie featuring Americans with restored faith.
In 1984," a disappointed Wills continued, "Reagan had
persuaded the majority of Americans that it was morning again in
still question the veracity of Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to reform
Soviet society, but at least two network reporters regard the
"initiatives" of the Soviet leader as done deals.
Take CBS This Morning
"Political Columnist" Chris Matthews, he's convinced. The
former aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill described the Soviet Union this
way on January 3: "I mean, this is for real what Gorbachev is doing
in creating free speech in the Soviet Union, allowing people to vote
against candidates for office, opening up economic opportunities and
free markets. I think it's what we've been asking for forty years and
Ten days later, NBC's Tom Brokaw seemed
convinced too, speaking of "the newly independent Soviet
press." Free speech? Multiple candidate elections? Free markets? An
independent press? Sounds like democracy has come to the Soviet Union.
Well, not everyone would agree with Brokaw and Matthews -- but at least
Mikhail Gorbachev would.
Boettcher Wrong. The
United States charged that West German firms were involved in the
construction of a Libyan chemical weapons plant. On January 5 NBC's Mike
Boettcher concluded his report with support for West Germany and a
denunciation of the United States: "West Germany's tough response
to the American criticism reflects the new realities of a changing
nation....The West German government is making it clear it no longer can
afford to, nor wants to continue playing, the role of America's
On January 13, Tom Brokaw reported that
West Germany was "beginning to acknowledge that West German
companies helped Libya construct a plant" and that "these are
major embarrassments since the West Germans were so quick to forcefully
reject U.S. claims." Boettcher wasn't embarrassed by his remarks a
week earlier: "While the West German federal government groped for
answers, a local prosecutor is going to court to find out for himself.
Yet another embarrassment for a government which already has been forced
to reverse itself."
Chemical Reaction. Not
long after the Libyan chemical plant controversy arose, an international
conference on chemical weapons began in Paris. As usual, the Soviets
made an earth-shattering announcement -- at least in the eyes of many in
On January 8, NBC's Garrick Utley
declared: "Mikhail Gorbachev has developed the knack of pulling
surprises, of grabbing the international spotlight and winning public
favor. Today, he did it again through one of his top aides in Paris.
There, at the international conference on chemical weapons, the Soviet
foreign minister Edward Shevardnadze announced his country will begin to
destroy its stockpile of those weapons." The next day, CNN's Gene
Randall was one of the few to report what the Soviet announcement really
amounted to: "But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said
Moscow's commitment would affect only a small part of the Soviet Union's
stockpile of chemical weapons. Some American observers feel that Soviet
Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze's announcement was political,
otherwise empty of meaning."
Less than two weeks after the Soviet chemical weapons declaration, ABC
News highlighted yet another "dramatic" Soviet announcement.
On January 19, ABC's Peter Jennings reported: "We have a report
tonight which represents a real challenge for George Bush. Once again,
the Soviets have taken the initiative in foreign policy. They've
announced plans to reduce further their nuclear weapons in Europe."
This time it was CBS News that put the
Soviet move in perspective. Tom Fenton noted that the Soviets are
"clearly aiming at the growing number of Germans who want their
government to say 'no' to nuclear weapons. He went on to explain:
"The U.S. wants to replace 88 aging short range nuclear
missiles...to counter the overwhelming Soviet advantage in tanks and
troops.... The other major West European allies back the American plan
for new missiles, so the potential is there for a serious split within
NATO. That thought may not have been far from [Soviet Foreign Minister]
Shevardnadze's mind today when he made the announcement."
But ABC clearly didn't see it that way.
In fact, four days earlier Kathleen deLaski labeled Western allies as
the real hindrance to arms agreements. Reporting on upcoming
conventional weapons talks this year, deLaski declared that
"analysts say this time an agreement is possible because of one
man: Mikhail Gorbachev." She went on to caution however: "But
some question whether the U.S. and its allies are ready to be as serious
about conventional arms reductions."
On January 24 the National Urban League
released its annual report on "The State of Black America."
ABC, CNN, and NBC considered it worthy of prominent coverage. According
to CNN's Bernard Shaw, the annual analysis proved, "the Reagan
Administration made no progress to date in narrowing the economic
gap" and "blacks were three times as likely as whites to be
poor, and two and a half times likely to be jobless."
ABC's Bettina Gregory offered a harsher
assessment: "The study concludes racial inequality actually
increased during the Reagan years...This group blames all this on fewer
jobs for unskilled workers and cuts in federal programs to help the
poor....They say white America enjoyed a year of prosperity while black
Americans were driven into poverty and despair." CNN did have Jeff
Levine's January 15 report on black achievements to offset the Urban
League study. But ABC and NBC didn't deem the positive side newsworthy.
How did other reporters explain what
happened in Overtown that week? On January 18 NBC's Ed Rabel absolved
the rioters: "Black leaders condemn the looting and arson, but a
feeling permeates these poor neighborhoods that such violent activity
results from years of frustration and uneven treatment."
Rabel’s rationalization continued:
"Latins, able to speak Spanish and willing to work long hours at
low wages in a Miami that is largely Hispanic now have overwhelmed
blacks in the job market. Blacks continue to find themselves in the back
of the bus."
But ABC's John Quinones saw the situation
quite differently -- condemning it as criminal: "The violence is no
longer just a civil rights protest, it's outright vandalism -- and many
of the merchants in these communities are demanding tougher police
action, like curfews and protection from the National Guard ...What
began as a racial protest has erupted into a costly struggle on the
streets and the black community stands to lose the most."
Reporters Blast Reagan
Here are a few examples of what some star
reporters really think of Reagan, culled from recent interview shows:
- "I predict historians are going
to be totally baffled by how the American people fell in love with
this man and followed him the way we did." – CBS News
reporter Lesley Stahl on NBC’s Later with Bob Costas,
- "I think there’s a question
mark on the domestic policy: I think he left an uncaring society. .
.a government that was not as concerned." – UPI White House
reporter Helen Thomas on CBS News Nightwatch, December 30.
- "[Reagan’s] obsession with
freedom abroad was not matched by any sense of justice at home for
millions of Americans, and it is his lack of appreciation for the
issues of equality, his failure to lead the nation toward healing in
that area, is indeed also a part of his legacy and an unfortunate
part." – Oakland Tribune Publisher Robert Maynard on
ABC’s This week with David Brinkley, January 15.
- "But Lee, blacks have looked at
the past eight years and seen this administration retreat from civil
rights, retreat from affirmative action, make South Africa no
priority, continue to see a greater disparity economically between
blacks and whites, foster a spirit of racism that hasn’t been seen
in 20 plus years. What make you think blacks are going to say, okay
these [Republicans] are going to break with what used to be?"
– Question from Bryant Gumbel to RNC Chairman Lee Atwater on
NBC’s Today, January 19.
As the baton passed from Ronald Reagan to
George Bush, TV news reporters were passing judgment on the Reagan
years. A MediaWatch Study reveals these
network assessments reflected the liberal view of Reagan's legacy.
Echoing liberals, network reporters conceded Reagan's popularity,
praised his communications skills and applauded his relations with the
Soviets. They also blamed Reagan, not congressional spending, for the
budget deficit, and they held Reagan, not the Democratic-controlled city
governments, responsible for urban problems such as homelessness.
At the same time, they ignored or tried
to discredit those aspects of the Reagan legacy most celebrated by
conservatives: the rebuilding of the American economy (especially ending
the inflationary spiral), the reform of the federal courts through
conservative appointments, the implementation of the Reagan doctrine and
buildup of the military.
analyzed all seven ABC, CBS and NBC stories reviewing Reagan's years in
office. These included one on ABC's World News Tonight, two
aired by the CBS Evening News, and one on NBC Nightly News
and Sam Donaldson's recap of the Reagan years, aired by ABC as an
introduction to David Brinkley's December 22 interview with the
President as well as retrospectives on CBS' Sunday Morning and
NBC's Sunday Today.
The improved economy was counted as an
achievement for Reagan six times, but he got blamed for its supposed
shortcomings on 16 occasions, almost three times more often. In
addition, the administration received blamed for the deficit another 11
times. Reporters gave short shrift to aspects of the Reagan years
conservatives admire. A stronger defense was portrayed neutrally on
three occasions, just once as an admirable achievement. Only two reports
bothered to include mention of the dramatic change in the makeup of the
ABC: Sam Donaldson
portrayed the improved economy as more of an accident than anything
planned. He impugned Reagan for neglecting the homeless and for policies
toward blacks that "seemed particularly onerous, particularly when
it came to his conservative appointments to the Supreme Court." In
foreign affairs Donaldson noted the Grenada invasion, but he credited
changes in Soviet behavior to "something" that "happened:
a new Soviet leader named Gorbachev," not the U.S. military
The night after Reagan's January 11
farewell address Richard Threlkeld gave the President credit for one
policy achievement, "peace abroad." As for the economic
recovery Threlkeld undercut the accomplishment, telling viewers
"things are not nearly as prosperous as the President makes them
sound," charging that "on average, more new jobs were created
every year under Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan."
CBS: Terence Smith spent
13 minutes on the January 8 Sunday Morning analyzing impact.
Two of his three sources were Washington Post columnist Haynes
Johnson, who told viewers Reagan has "mortgaged the country's
future," and "historian" Bill Leuchtenberg, who announced
that "even the situation with respect to unemployment...the
situation there has been improved...because of the large increase in
dead-end jobs." Smith did not identify either as liberals. Smith
traveled to a state unemployment office where "the reviews were
uniformly harsh" and charged that "the number of Americans
living beneath the poverty line reached new heights during the Reagan
era," though conceding "poor families benefitted from sharply
reduced inflation." Smith also interviewed Pat Buchanan, clearly
identifying him as a "conservative supporter," but didn't let
Buchanan counter any of the earlier economic doom and gloom. In fact,
Johnson and Leuchtenberg got a full three minutes of air time in ten
appearances, while Buchanan, in four appearances, got just over a minute
to defend Reagan.
NBC: On January 20, the
day Reagan left office, John Chancellor signaled it "is clearly
time for a change." To Chancellor, during eight years of Reagan,
"the country's competitors got richer and the United States got
On Sunday Today January 16
Garrick Utley praised Reagan how he "changed his thinking about the
Soviet Union, and our world is a safer place for it." Turning to
domestic affairs, Utley charged "when Ronald Reagan came to
Washington, he in effect told the nation that it could take a vacation
from troubling problems, that it was all right not to worry about the
poor, about race, the homeless, or debt."
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