Bill Moyers Gets Another Show, Conservatives Get Spiked
PBS: ONLY LIBERALS ALLOWED
Frontline, the weekly PBS public
affairs show, often serves as a mouthpiece for trendy liberal causes.
Two Frontline shows last year highlighted the far left Christic
Institute's conspiracy theories about CIA and Contra drug running in
Central America. PBS regularly provides Bill Moyers with specials and
series that serve as a platform for his liberal views. Programs with a
non- liberal perspective, however, are not so readily accepted. Just
take a look at two shows turned down recently.
French historian Jacques Rupnik offered Frontline
a six-part series on Eastern Europe he produced. The Other Europe
avoids the glasnost hype surrounding most coverage of Eastern Europe,
offering a more realistic look at the changing situation in the Warsaw
Pact. Originally broadcast in Britain, the series will soon be shown in
12 European countries, including Hungary. Americans may never see The
Other Europe. After six months of inaction, Frontline's
Executive Producer, David Fanning, rejected the series as out of date.
In a conversation with MediaWatch,
Rupnik countered Fanning by citing Frontline's Summer 1988
re-broadcast of the "Comrades" series on life in the Soviet
Union, complaining that the series was produced before Gorbachev had
come to power and reflected a "Brezhnevite" view of Soviet
agriculture. Rupnik agreed with New Republic Publisher Martin
Peretz, whose June 5 story characterized Fanning as a "leftist
ideologue" who "especially didn't like Rupnik's views, which
are unfashionably disapproving of the Soviets."
Soviets at the Crossroads, a
five-part documentary on the victims of Soviet expansionism produced by
Stoneaway Productions and South Carolina Educational Television, met a
similar fate. The Southern Education Communications Association made the
series available to all PBS stations. Only seven PBS affiliates in the
top 5 markets contacted by MediaWatch planned
to carry the series. Among the stations not airing it: the major PBS
affiliates in Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta and
Washington. On the other hand, Days of Rage, a pro-Palestinian
documentary, will be carried by all 15 stations.
As if not already liberal enough, PBS
chose to dig up old Bill Moyers productions. Under the title, Bill
Moyers: A Second Look, during May, June and early July PBS aired 13
old CBS and PBS programs by Moyers. On June 20 PBS broadcast
"People Like Us," a 1982 CBS Reports piece on the
"victims" of Reaganomics. This one- sided, anti-Reagan
diatribe caused an uproar when first seen.
Following the re-broadcast, Moyers
insisted: "The documentary has held up as both true and sadly
prophetic. While Congress restored some of the cuts made in those first
Reagan budgets, in the years since, the poor and the working poor have
born the brunt of the cost of the Reagan Revolution. The hardest-hit
programs have been welfare, housing and other anti-poverty measures.
Even programs that were not cut have failed to keep up with inflation.
Meanwhile, rich people got big tax breaks. And the middle class kept
most of their subsidies intact. As a result, the Reagan years brought on
a wider gap between rich and poor."
Shows like "People Like Us"
have led PBS to give Moyers $2.2 million, the largest grant in the
1989-1991 budget, to produce five more documentaries. According to PBS
Vice President Barry Chase, "Moyers and public television are a
nice marriage, and we need to keep it going."
Democratic political activist Ken Bode, NBC's Chief Political
Correspondent for the past several election cycles, picked up his last
paycheck from the network in June. He's moving to Greencastle, Indiana
for the slower pace of academic life as Director of the Center for
Contemporary Media at DePauw University. Bode is not completely
abandoning television: He'll serve as moderator of a new quarterly TV
series, American Survival, produced by the Hudson Institute in
Indianapolis. Bode was a top level strategist for liberal Democrat
Morris Udall's 1976 presidential bid. In 1972, according to The
Washington Post, he wrote the McGovern Commission delegate reform
From Carter to the Times.
Leon Sigal, a Special Assistant to the Director of the Bureau of
Politico-Military Affairs at the State Department between 1979 and 1981,
has joined The New York Times editorial board. As an editorial
writer Sigal now works for Jack Rosenthal, Editor of the editorial page
and a State Departtment official under President Johnson. A government
professor at Wesleyan University before and after his government stint,
Sigal has written two Brookings Institution books on arms control since
leaving the Carter Administration.
Switching Sides. The
Washington Bureau Chief of The Milwaukee Journal, John (Jack)
Kole, has left the paper's D.C. office after more than 25 years. In June
he jumped into politics as Senior Writer and press aide for liberal
Congressman David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat he spent much of his career
Matthews in the Morning.
For the past year or so Chris Matthews, Chief of Staff to former House
Speaker Tip O'Neill from 1981 to 1986, has served as "political
columnist" for CBS This Morning. The network must like
what he has to say. In May Matthews signed a one year contract to
contribute a news story, interview or commentary every Monday.
Gunning for Lugar.
Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana has named David Shapiro his
new Press Secretary. For the past six years Shapiro has been an off-air
national security affairs reporter for the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour
Columbia Journalism Review's
View. Just after becoming Publisher of the Columbia
Journalism Review (CJR) late last year, Joan Konnor assured readers
she does not think the media are biased in any way. "I
believe," Bill Moyers' former producer at PBS wrote, that reporters
"have no theologies, no 'isms'" and there is "no time for
fixed religions, no dogma." In early March Konnor selected a new
Editor: Suzanne Braun Levine, a founder, Managing Editor and later
Editor of the liberal Ms. magazine. So much for any articles in
CJR, the nation's largest magazine of media criticism, about liberal
Janet Cooke Award
"What one does in Washington
behind closed doors generally stays out of the paper. But the persistent
rumor that one of the potential 1988 presidential candidates has a
homosexual past is testing the unacknowledged code of silence among
reporters." -- Margaret Carlson in Esquire,
"An effective smear has at
its core an outrageous charge that would be devastating if true. The
author must be both coy and cowardly: he must make the charge stick
while retaining deniability." -- Margaret Carlson,
"How to Spread a Smear," Time, June 19, 1989.
Who better to cover a story about a
smear, Time editors must have thought when they assigned
Margaret Carlson to the story about malicious rumors regarding House
Speaker Thomas Foley's alleged homosexuality.
But Time's June 19 article never
did examine the true sources of the rumors. Instead, Carlson and editors
openly broadsided the Republican Party, even calling for the firing of
RNC Chairman Lee Atwater. For its frenzied partisan attacks, Time
magazine earns the July Janet Cooke Award.
The uproar centered around a memo
circulated by the RNC's Mark Goodin to GOP leaders. "Tom Foley: Out
of the Liberal Closet" compared Foley's liberal voting record to
self-proclaimed gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Democrats labeled
it a smear of Foley's character. Goodin was forced to resign with
Democrats aiming next at Atwater.
Despite what the Democrats claimed,
neither Goodin nor the RNC had any smear tactic in mind. Dan Casey,
Executive Director of the American Conservative Union, explained to MediaWatch
that the RNC originally planned to compare Foley's record to that of
Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey. The RNC decided to use Frank
instead after conservatives pointed out that Frank's liberal voting
record was far better known than the more obscure Markey's.
So where did the rumors about Foley being
gay originate? As Hodding Carter, former Assistant Secretary of State
under President Carter, stated on the June 11 This Week with David
Brinkley: "The story, the innuendo, the smear on Tom Foley as
everybody in our business knows didn't start with Lee Atwater. It
started with some Democrats and it started as an attempt to make sure
that nothing bad happened to the Speaker of the House...Jim
Carlson took a different angle, beginning
her piece: "'Have you no decency sir?' That was the question Army
counsel Joseph Welch asked Joseph McCarthy 35 years ago when the Senator
ruined the lives of those who did not agree with him by impugning their
character and patriotism. The same question could be posed to RNC
Chairman Lee Atwater, his communications director Mark Goodin, and
Congressman Newt Gingrich."
Furthering the Democratic scenario,
Carlson continued: "Acting directly or through subordinates, this
trio last week worked to spread a long-standing unsubstantiated rumor
designed to humiliate new House Speaker Thomas Foley." Without
mentioning that Democrats began the rumor, Carlson went on to say that
"For days, an aide to...Gingrich had been calling more than a dozen
reporters trying to get the homosexuality rumor into print."
Focusing next on Atwater, she added:
"Although Goodin, Atwater's friend of a decade, took the fall, the
tactic bore the unmistakable Atwater stamp. As Bush's 1988 campaign
manager, Atwater specialized in character assassination."
Time abandoned all pretense of
balance in a bolded summary box surrounded by Carlson's main article:
"From his early campaigns in South Carolina through the 1988
presidential election Lee Atwater has displayed a talent for smearing
opponents and then either apologizing or suffering memory lapses about
his role." The insert box titled "'Sorry' Is Not Enough"
demanded: "If Bush really wants to prove himself a political
environmentalist in search of a kinder, gentler America, he should sack
In an interview with MediaWatch,
Carlson defended both her 1985 Esquire article and what she
wrote on Atwater.
"You spread a smear in 1985 in Esquire. Isn't it
hypocritical to come back now and write this?"
Carlson: "I don't
think I was spreading a rumor about Jack Kemp. I wasn't thinking of Jack
Kemp. There were at least fifteen candidates at the time who might run
for President. It was an analytic piece about the press and how they
deal with this issue of homosexuality in public life. We [in Esquire]
had the decency not to mention anyone by name. Atwater didn't have the
decency not to name Tom Foley. One politician trying to smear another by
name, a direct hit, is very different."
"Isn't your recent article just another example of how Time has
come into blatant editorialization lately?"
Carlson: "I think
the facts are put into some sort of context and that analysis sometimes
turns into opinion. I think there is more characterization of the facts
than there used to be."
"Sounds like opinion to me."
Carlson: "I already
admitted there's a fine line. You're right, one person's
characterization of the facts is another's opinion. But it's not an
editorial, it is not taking a position [like] 'I'm for flag burning or
I'm against flag burning!'"
"Yet you are for or against Atwater and you come out very
definitively against him."
"Against Atwater too."
yes. That's true, that's true."
If the rumor really was started by
Democratic opponents of Foley, why didn't Time pick up on that
issue? "I'm not protecting Democrats -- I know your point
here," she assured, "We didn't have it at the time --
honestly. If we did, believe me, we would have published it." But
consider what Time's competitor, U.S. News & World
Report, relayed that same week: "This is a story about a bad
rumor and its sorry consequences. Democrats probably started it.
Republicans gleefully fanned it. And the press ultimately gave it
The article blamed the RNC and the GOP
for lending full credence to the smear, but U.S. News pointed
out the role of Democrats, including Congressman Jack Murtha (D-Penn.),
and their "cloakroom chitchat" in initiating the rumor. How
did Carlson account for the U.S. News spin and its different
facts? Grudgingly she admitted: "I guess they just outreported
Still, the most blatant bias came in the box,
which Carlson declined to discuss. So who, then, is writing these
inserts anyway? Senior Editor Robert "Terry" Zintl confessed
that it is usually not the writer of the article: "That was written
by Larry Barrett," the National Political Correspondent. More to
the point, Zintl admitted the inserts are editorials: "We do these
boxes to be provocative, to make a little editorial point. They are
supposed to have a point or opinion to them. The magazine has gotten
more opinionated on certain subjects. That's the function these boxes
So, there you have it. Time is
now officially a magazine of opinion. Carlson had free reign to attack
Atwater, Gingrich, and the Republican Party. But to get the complete
look at how Time writers view the world, read the insert boxes.
It seems any Time writer can freely express political views.
Move over National Review and The New Republic -- your
competition has arrived.
Every few years a pollster asks reporters about their political views.
Every time the answer is the same: most are liberal. A just completed
American Society of Newspaper Editors survey of 1,200 reporters and
editors at 72 newspapers across the country is the latest example.
Nearly three times as many identified themselves as "Democrat or
liberal" or "independent, but lean to Democrat/ liberal"
(62 percent) as "Republican or conservative" or
"independent, but lean Republican/conservative" (22 percent).
MANGLING MAGGIE. ABC's
Barrie Dunsmore thinks "Thatcher's ultra- hard line is no longer so
much in fashion at home or abroad." Dunsmore's June 1 World
News Tonight story included clips of interviews with 7 people, all
of whom criticized Thatcher. "On European issues," Dunsmore
claimed, "Thatcher is opposed to everything from cancer warnings on
cigarette packs to strict pollution controls on cars to teaching two
foreign languages in schools." Gerald Kauffman, an "Opposition
Spokesman," naturally supported Dunsmore's assertions,
characterizing Thatcher as "shrill, obstinate, inflexible,
To demonstrate her unpopularity in
Europe, Dunsmore spoke to a French woman who said "She's not very
European." Sounding like a Labor Party advertisement, Dunsmore
reported that "the satirists have always made fun of her lack of
compassion...Now the people on the street are saying it." One man
declared "she's a very uncaring person," followed by another
who agreed "she lacks compassion." Dunsmore admitted Thatcher
"remains popular with the middle class Conservatives who elected
her," but he concluded his diatribe against Thatcher, "the
'Iron Lady' is beginning to show signs of metal fatigue."
TEARS FOR TEENS. On June
20, NBC Nightly News commentator John Chancellor intoned:
"We can and should agonize about the dead students in Beijing, but
we've got a bigger problem right here at home." What's the
"bigger problem," according to Chancellor? A Carnegie council
report that says middle-school students are in "impersonal
factories that don't meet the educational or emotional needs of
So here's the news from the world
according to Chancellor. While Chinese parents are mourning their
children gunned down, run over by tanks, or executed in show trials,
American parents should despair all the more. Their poor kids have to go
to "impersonal factories" that don't meet their
RIPPING REAGAN. Writing
in the June 12 issue, Time's D.C. Bureau Chief Strobe Talbott
mourned Jimmy Carter's Salt II agreement as the last strategic arms
treaty and praised President Bush's recent arms control proposal for
"restor[ing] a degree of credibility and seriousness to the
American conduct of arms control that has been missing for a
decade." A photograph accompanying the article showed pictures of
Carter and Bush squeezing out Reagan with a caption reading
"Restoring a degree of credibility." Denouncing Reagan and his
"cadre of ideologues," Talbott charged that the threat to
peace is not Gorbachev, but "the American right wing, which is ever
vigilant against backsliding into the bad old days of detente."
PETER'S PUFFERY. When
I.F. Stone, Marxist author, journalist, and publisher of I.F.
Stone's Weekly died on June 18, his passing drew attention from all
four network news shows. The next night Peter Jennings took time to pay
special tribute to Stone's career at the end of World News Tonight.
Although Stone had called himself "half a Jeffersonian, half a
Marxist," and had supported every leftist cause from Stalin to the
Sandinistas, Jennings declared: "He generally found something
useful to say...For many people, it's a rich experience to read or
re-read Stone's views on America's place in the world, on freedom, on
the way government works, and sometimes corrupts."
Jennings found Stone's novel definition
of what journalism "was all about" particularly meaningful and
recited it approvingly: "To defend the weak against the strong, to
fight for justice, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible
hates and fears of mankind in the hope of someday bringing about a world
in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden, instead of
killing each other over them." So much for objective journalism.
TWO VIEWS ON INTERVIEWS.
"The Chinese may have sunk to new lows," reported anchor Susan
Spencer on the June 17 Evening News. How? By "using
pictures stolen off a satellite feed as evidence of a crime."
Chinese students were American TV news sources one day, convicted
criminals the next. "Stealing TV pictures off satellites may be the
most sophisticated manipulation of the press so far," Spencer
Concern about "manipulation of the
press" is new to CBS News. Three years ago, CBS made a deal with
the Nicaraguan Interior Ministry. According to a November 4, 1986 UPI
story, the network agreed in advance to provide the Sandinistas with a
copy of a 60 Minutes interview. The subject was American pilot
Eugene Hasenfus, shot down during a Contra resupply mission. The
communist regime used that videotape as evidence to convict Hasenfus.
AMNESTY YOU AIN'T. In a
June 3 report, CBS West 57th correspondent Steve Kroft
described Guatemala as "the most brutal of all Central American
countries," "one of the most brutal in the world," with
"an army that has been described as the most brutal in Central
America." Kroft, soon to move up to 60 Minutes, asserted
that "Guatemala, a loyal U.S. ally in the fight against communism,
also has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere."
Whatever happened to Nicaragua?
Not only did Kroft's sense of comparison
suffer, but so did his mathematics. Kroft claimed 1,000 people had been
murdered for political reasons in the last year. In phone interviews
with MediaWatch, human rights groups generally
cited a figure under 500 for 1988, but noted it can be very difficult to
measure whether deaths occurred for political reasons. Anne Manuel of
the left-leaning Americas Watch told MediaWatch
the West 57th team was in close contact with her group during
preparation of the segment, but said "I remember watching that and
wondering 'where did he get that figure?'"
ECONOMY OVER TROUBLED WATERS.
The doomsayers in the media are specialists at finding the dark side of
good news, and Lou Waters of CNN raised that practice to an art in a
recent report on the unemployment rate. On Friday, June 2, the
government announced a dip in the May rate to 5.2 percent. But Waters
stressed that "the number of new jobs sputtered to a three year
low." Although the economy added 101,000 new jobs in May, Waters
described that performance as "anemic," since "that's
well below the monthly average of 275,000, and the worst the country has
seen since March of 1986."
TED COMES DOWN FROM THE MOUNT. The
spiritual leader of the largest cable TV empire in the country, Ted
Turner, has issued his political creed. According to the May 26 Washington
Times, at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society's May 9
"Newsmaker" luncheon, Turner delineated the principles from
which his TBS and TNT political productions emanate.
Known as the "Ted
Commandments," Turner promises "to treat all persons
everywhere with dignity, respect and friendliness. That worked with the
Soviets for me." Respect thy mother and father? Well, not quite:
"This is controversial for a man that has five children, but I had
them 20 years ago, before I realized that they were the population
problem. I promise to have no more than two children, or no more than my
Turner believes we should preserve this
overcrowded world by using "as little toxic chemicals, pesticides
and other poisons as possible, and to work for their reduction by
others." Not only is Turner against killing, but he "rejects
the use of military force, and backs United Nations arbitration of
international disputes." To curb the harmful effects of any
possible war, the cable mogul wants to see the "elimination of all
nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction." Not
forgetting the importance of recycling for our endangered planet, Turner
pledged to "use as little non-renewable resources as
LESS THAN HIGH ON SDI.
On May 13, the Los Angeles Times showed their distaste for SDI
enthusiasts, presenting a story headlined "New 'Star Wars' Chief:
The Right Man for the Job--at the Right Time." The story focused on
Air Force Lt. Gen. George L. Monahan and the man he replaced, Reagan SDI
head Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson. Times Pentagon correspondent
John Broder described Abrahamson as "a 'Star Wars' zealot and
missionary who sold--some say oversold--the program as a talisman
against nuclear holocaust. Monahan, by contrast, modestly describes
himself as merely a 'program manager' who says that his job is not to be
a promoter for 'Star Wars' but to run a 'sanity check' on the costly and
E&P: LABEL US
LIBERAL, TOO. The May MediaWatch
study documenting the tendency of media foundations to earmark the vast
majority of their political grants to liberal groups merited a story in
the June 3 edition of Editor & Publisher. But a week later,
an editorial in the magazine for newspaper executives proclaimed
"We do resent...on the part of all the media--both print and
broadcasting--efforts of that organization to pigeonhole media and media
personalities as being 'liberal' or 'left-wing' and attaching a stigma
to it." (Of course, the point of the study was not to attach any
"stigma" to liberal groups, but to point out that media
company political donations are flagrantly imbalanced.)
The editorial also attacked MediaWatch
Publisher L. Brent Bozell III. "When he labels the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban Institute,
the World Wildlife Fund, the National Audubon Society, Planned
Parenthood, and the ACLU Foundation, and others like these, as having a
liberal bias to be deplored, then include us in the list--we'll accept
the liberal stigma too."
BOOS FOR UPI
How can an innocuous editor's re-write of
an article change a story's spin -- and create a very different news
report? Here's an example.
When Vice President Dan Quayle delivered
the West Point commencement address on May 24, UPI reporter Michael
O'Malley filed a story. His report included this sentence: "A
slight wave of boos and hisses from the Corps of Cadets greeted Quayle
when he was introduced at the 191st Commencement Ceremonies."
UPI's national desk changed the story to
read that Quayle, "dogged during last year's campaign by
suggestions that he was a draft dodger, was booed by West Point
cadets...The boos and hisses arose from the corps of cadets, West
Point's under-graduates, when the Vice President was introduced with a
mention of his Vietnam-era service in the Indiana National Guard."
The UPI angle gained credibility when CNN and CBS afternoon news briefs
picked up the report of Quayle's humiliation and NBC Nightly News
ran the story.
But the boos never actually occurred. In
fact, O'Malley was the only reporter on the scene to report such a
reaction. An outraged Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer, Superintendent of the
Academy, wrote UPI President Paul Steinle. "From my vantage point
overlooking not only the entire corps of cadets and the other 15,000 or
so who attended the ceremony I heard no boos and no hisses," he
charged, "to say that Vice President Quayle was 'booed and hissed'
by the corps of cadets appears to be, purely and simply, an outright
In response, Steinle apologized for the
report, admitting that "clearly, UPI overstated the reaction."
But Steinle ignored one of Palmer's suggestions: "A member of the
United States Corps of Cadets who is found to have lied is subject to
dismissal. No less stringent a standard should obtain among those who
inform the American people than among those who are sworn to defend
them." MediaWatch thanks retired Lt. Gen.
Daniel Graham of High Frontier for alerting us to this item.
In the midst of media-driven controversy
over the RNC memo, CBS News anchor Dan Rather delivered a spurious shot
at the GOP. In the June 11 "Presidential Portrait," a minute
long prime-time public service series, Rather blamed the Republican
Party for the death of President Andrew Jacksonís wife. Rather
explained "the victim of the political mudslinging" in the
1828 race "was the Democratic candidateís wife, Rachel, who was
slandered as an adulteress." Jackson went on to "a sweeping
victory, but the strain of the campaign was too much for Rachel. She
died of heart failure." Rather concluded: "Rachelís husband
never forgave his Republican opponents."
Rather neglected to explain there was no
connection between opponent John Quincy Adamsí National Republican
Party of 1828 and the modern Republican Party formed 26 years later.
Post Hatchet Job
Less than two weeks after House Speaker
Jim Wright resigned, The Washington Post came to the aid of
House Democrats by running a disparaging "Style" section
profile of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. The June 12 story was
little more than a 5,000 word repetition of every derogatory charge ever
made against Gingrich, the man Democrats in Congress fear the most.
"Many are troubled by Gingrich's
scorched-earth policy as he boasts that more Democratic heads will
roll," Post staff writer Myra MacPherson charged.
"David Obey dismisses him as a 'poor imitation of Joe McCarthy' for
impugning the 'patriotism' of his colleagues." MacPherson found
that "Republicans also express dismay," including "Iowa
moderate Jim Leach," who is "disturbed by Gingrich's 'very
divisive statements.'" Just about everyone Gingrich has ever met
seems to think little of him. Gingrich's "smears" caused a
"former colleague of Gingrich's at West Georgia College to mutter
that 'Newt doesn't take the low road--he takes the tunnel.'"
As for his political views, MacPherson
described Gingrich as "a politician who knows that contradictions
between voting records and words, between reality and a hyped version of
reality, scarcely matter in the world of the 15 second sound bite."
She cited a speech in which Gingrich "railed at the 'cynical
compassion of the left, which shows it cares about the homeless by
sleeping on a grate under TV lights,'" yet "Gingrich voted
against bills to help the homeless."
MacPherson called Gingrich a
"spiritual adviser" to the Conservative Opportunity Society
PAC which sent out a fundraising letter reading: "Liberals in
Congress abandoned the cause of freedom, leaving Russian gunships to mop
up the young men and woman of the Nicaraguan resistance." A
"peculiar claim," MacPherson thought.
Proceeding to his divorce, MacPherson
quoted the minister who counseled the couple: "You're looking at an
amoral person. That's what you're looking at."
But the Post is not so critical
of all congressional leaders. "Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) spent
his last day in the House yesterday doing what he always did best:
adroitly shaping a message," reporter Tom Kenworthy began a June 16
story. Kenworthy praised the liberal Democrat for how he "has
managed to cut the cord with his usual surgical precision, jauntily
heading into a new life with what he said is enthusiasm and no
NO SINGLE STANDARD
When Attorney General Ed Meese resigned
last year, he was found innocent of wrongdoing but the media still
portrayed him as an example of what news accounts called the
"ethical insensitivity" of the Republican administration. But
less than a year later, when Speaker of the House Jim Wright resigned
rather than face action by the House Committee on Standards of Official
Conduct, reporters assumed a new emphasis, growing concerned that an
"ethics war" was damaging the political process. Meese was
"the crown jewel of the sleaze factor;" Wright a
"casualty of the ethics thunderstorm."
That's the double standard MediaWatch
analysts documented by studying how the media covered Meese and Wright
when each resigned from office. First, coverage of Meese's resignation
focused on his personal ethics problems, while reports of Wright's
resignation focused on the fate of the House in the midst of
"mindless cannibalism." Second, the media used differing
terminologies to report the controversies of Meese and Wright, focusing
on the "sleaze factor" for Meese and "ethics war"
for Wright. To measure these trends, analysts investigated print reports
in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post,
Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and viewed
broadcasts of ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN
PrimeNews and NBC Nightly News.
1. THEMES. To study the
dominant themes underlying both episodes, MediaWatch compared
stories within the first four days of Meese's resignation announcement
on July 5, 1988 and the release of special prosecutor James McKay's
report on July 18. For Wright, we surveyed the first four days after his
May 31 speech to the House.
a) Continuing ethical/legal
problems. Although special prosecutor James McKay failed to
indict Meese, 12 of 25 print stories (48%) and four out of nine network
segments (44%) predicted further difficulties for Meese, most notably an
investigation by the Justice Department'sOffice of Professional
Responsibility. Despite possible Justice Department investigations
against Wright, however, only two of nine network stories (22%) and two
of 25 print stories (8%) speculated on further troubles. Not one
newspaper account touched on further ethical problems for the Speaker,
focusing instead on stories like the Los Angeles Times'
"'Liberated' Wright Explains Why He Resigned."
b) Partisan atmosphere.
The tenor of the Wright coverage was stringently critical of the
"partisan bloodbath" that led to Wright's resignation. 21 out
of 30 print stories (70%) and 7 of 12 broadcast reports (58%) described
some form of "partisan rancor" on Capitol Hill when Wright
quit. As Michael Oreskes led off coverage in The New York Times
June 1: "The House to which Speaker Jim Wright announced today his
plan to resign is a House beset with fear, one in which every rumor,
every phone call from a reporter, every partisan spat could be the
beginning of the end of a career." Although the investigation by
the House ethics committee took more than a year to complete, the Los
Angeles Times headlined a June 2 story "Rush to Judge
Politicians Held Damaging to Nation." Out of this atmosphere, ABC's
Jim Wooten could sympathetically report of Wright: "And if his
moving speech today does not restore those decencies he so wistfully
remembered today, then perhaps history remembered that at least he
tried." But Meese got no such treatment. In 25 print stories, only
one New York Times story (or 4 percent of articles) mentioned
in passing that "old-line conservatives" thought partisanship
might have been involved. None of the nine evening news stories raised
Headlines and subtitles were also a
signal of the double standard. When Meese protested McKay's report, the Newsweek
headline read "Meese Plays the Martyr." When Wright resigned, Time
asked "Have We Gone Too Far?" Los Angeles Times
subtitles were just as pronounced: in one Meese story, the Times
used "'Became a Caricature'," "Other Failures," and
"'Personal Obtuseness'." In Wright articles, subtitles
included "Embraced by Colleagues," "'Hounded from
Office'," and "Atmosphere of Mistrust."
2. TERMS. A comparison
of ethics terminology illustrates how the media presented the debate to
the Democrats' advantage on both occasions. "Sleaze factor"
was used to describe Republican appointees accused of impropriety,
whether they were eventually found guilty or not. But the martial
metaphors of an "ethics war" over Speaker Wright implicitly
charged Republicans with dirty pool and excused the Democratic
corruption by portraying them as the victims of a "partisan
In 1988, reporters from newspapers and
magazines made unattributed reference to the "sleaze factor"
56 times, mostly as a description of the Reagan Administration's
"legacy of easy ethical virtue," as The New York Times
put it. To media minds, the term related only to Republican ethics
controversies. Thus, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's deflated ploy to charge
lobbyists $10,000 for breakfast "might blunt" or "make it
tougher to exploit" the Democrats' use of the "sleaze
factor" instead of being an example of the "sleaze
factor." In spite of all the ethics coverage, reporters used the
term only 6 times so far in 1989.
But in the aftermath of the Wright
resignation, print reporters made unattributed use of a thesaurus of
"ethics war" terminology (including "ethics purge,"
"ethics reign of terror," and "ethics epidemic") 37
times, often in headlines. Newsweek made "Ethics
Wars" a section heading for all its Wright stories in its June 12
In contrast, conservative phrase coiners
were stiffed. Only three print news stories in 1989 mentioned Newt
Gingrich's pet phrase "corrupt liberal welfare state," and
when they did it came with criticism: The Washington Post's
Myra McPherson wrote "Newtisms have indeed appalled members on both
sides of the aisle." In fact, print stories that included the words
"corrupt" or "corruption" with unattributed
reference to the Democrats, have appeared only 16 times so far this
year, and most of them showed up in sentences like "Democrats tired
of being lumped together as corrupt and venal will support Wright as a
demonstration of their own self-worth." This sentence by Tom
Kenworthy appeared in the only Washington Post news story to
use the word "corrupt" anywhere near the name of Jim Wright
since the beginning of May.
Impartiality in ethics coverage requires
that scandals involving liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans
be covered in a balanced fashion, with a single standard. Circumstances
may differ, but to tar the accused conservative Republican in one case
and then assail the conservative Republican accuser in the next is proof
positive of a double standard.
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