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From the January 1990 MediaWatch

Yesterday's Wimp is Today's Imperialist

Page One


After months of picking on President Bush for failing to remove Panamanian dictator and drug kingpin Manuel Noriega, most reporters restrained themselves from criticizing Bush's decision to send troops. But some just couldn't hold back from questioning his newly "reckless" and "imperialist" actions.

During a CBS News special report the night after Bush's action, White House correspondent Wyatt Andrews was concerned that "Now, having launched one of the largest American invasion forces since the days of the Vietnam War, Mr. Bush is erasing his old image of being timid, but the new question now, almost overnight, is whether this President is exhibiting signs of being reckless."

While a CBS News-commissioned poll later found 92 percent of Panamanians favored the action, Boston Globe reporter Philip Bennett invoked Yankee imperialism in a December 21 front-page story: "For decades, Panamanians needed only to gaze at the highest point in their capital, to the giant American flag on a promontory called Ancon Hill, to be reminded of the political and military power that ruled their country with the authority of an old-time empire. Today, Panamanians need only to look at their own street corner. An invasion by more than 20,000 U.S. troops appears to have signaled a return to old-time politics, reminiscent of other U.S. military interventions in Latin America."

A frustrated Lucia Newman of CNN noted on the December 31 PrimeNews that "critics accuse the Panamanians of lacking nationalism," and that "There are those who question whether the new U.S.-backed government has any intention of being more than a pawn of the United States." U.S. troops, Newman cautioned, must leave quickly or "today's liberators might be seen as tomorrow's occupiers."

Dan Rather stole the show in a January 4 special on Noriega's capture, asking reporter Doug Tunnell, "there are those who have said...that the sudden appointment of Dane Hinton as the new U.S. Ambassador in Panama is to in effect make him the government of Panama, with his vast experience, including experience in El Salvador. Is that the read on the ground in Panama City?"

Rounding out the Yankee-bashing with a dose of moral equivalence, the January 5 USA Today said "other nations have taken similar if not identical action. Example: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan."


Revolving Door

Mountain News to Hill News. U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer, a liberal Democrat from Maryland, has hired Charles Seigel as his new Press Secretary. A reporter for Denver's Rocky Mountain News from 1980-83, Seigel previously held the same position in Delaware Lt. Governor S.B. Woo's unsuccessful 1988 Senate campaign and for the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services.

Fuller Fills Chicago Slot. James Squires, Editor of the Chicago Tribune since 1981, resigned suddenly in early December. His replacement as of January 1: Executive Editor Jack Fuller, a special assistant to Attorney General Edward Levi in 1975 and 1976. Fuller joined the Tribune as a reporter in 1973, moving a few blocks to the Tribune Washington bureau after leaving the Ford Administration. When bumped up to the Executive Editor slot in 1987, Fuller was Editor of the editorial page.

L.A.'s Progressive North. Mary Williams Walsh, Associate Editor of the far-left Progressive magazine from 1979 to 1982, began working in December as Toronto Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. Walsh spent most of the 1980's reporting from Mexico and later Asia for The Wall Street Journal.

Into Africa. President Bush's choice of Ambassador to Kenya, Smith Hempstone, Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Times (1984-1985), has arrived in Nairobi. In the 1960's he served as a foreign correspondent in Africa for the old Chicago Daily News. Hempstone was a reporter, Associate Editor and Editor of the editorial page for the Washington Star between 1967 and 1975.

Updating Resumes at Year End. The Liberal Side. Deborah Leff, a Nightline Senior Producer, has moved to World News Tonight where she holds the same title. During Carter's last years Leff was Director of Public Affairs for the Federal Trade Commission.... Max McCarthy, a former Democratic Congressman from New York who has been Washington Bureau Chief of the Buffalo News since 1978 has relinquished his position. McCarthy now writes just a weekly column....Wally Chalmers, who worked in the Morris Udall and Ted Kennedy presidential campaigns, as CBS News Political Editor in 1984 and as Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee from 1986 until mid-1988, has created a new job for himself. He's half of Hilton/Chalmers, a new corporate communications firm.

On the Conservative Side. John Buckley, Communications Director for the National Republican Congressional Committee since the beginning of 1989, has left to become Vice President of Robinson, Lake, Lerer and Montgomery, a political lobbying firm. After the Jack Kemp campaign in which he worked wound down in 1988, Buckley put in a few months as a consultant to CBS News....Rob Rehg, a Washington reporter for Hearst Newspapers, including the Albany Times Union and recently defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, has jumped to the offices of Congressman Bill Schuette. He's the Michigan Republican's Executive Director.


Janet Cooke Award


In his January 1 Letter to Readers, Time Managing Editor Henry Muller attempted to convince subscribers that the Man of the Year "is not our version of the Nobel Peace Prize nor an attempt at canonization." But by the end of the special Man of the Decade section, Time had beatified, canonized, and worshiped the Soviet leader -- "a hero" -- 20 times over. "Somehow, confining our choice to 1989 seemed inadequate, and thus we named Gorbachev 'Man of the Decade.'" Thus, Time wins this month's Janet Cooke Award.

The title said it all: "Gorbachev: The Unlikely Patron of Change." Senior Writer Lance Morrow summed up the decade: "The 1980's came to an end in what seemed like a magic act, performed on a world-historical stage. Trapdoors flew open, and whole regimes vanished....The magician who set loose these forces is a career functionary, faithful communist, charismatic politician, international celebrity and impresario of calculated disorder named Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev."

The Soviet leader may be "better" than his Stalinist predecessors. But is he "the force behind the most momentous events of the '80s"? Morrow, Senior Writer Bruce Nelan, Special Correspondent Michael Kramer, and Editor-At-Large Strobe Talbott had an array of reasons to justify the increasingly liberal newsweekly's choice.

Personal Style and Philosophy. Morrow described the Soviet leader as "the Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud of communism all wrapped in one," as "a sort of Zen genius of survival," and "simultaneously the communist Pope and the Soviet Martin Luther." Kramer outlined his achievements: "He has embraced Christian values of humanity ...and declared freedom of religion to be 'indispensible' for renewing the Soviet Union. Then, in early December, he became a respectful if not quite penitent pilgrim." All this, in Kramer's view, made Gorbachev a superstar: "As an international figure, Gorbachev is a world-class leader -- with no one else in his class."

But Gorbachev, an avowed atheist, has not accepted Christian values, but acquiesced to them. He still remains antagonistic to freedom of religion in the Ukraine, the Baltic states, and throughout his empire. If greater personal and religious freedom is noteworthy, credit the Soviet people, or the Vatican, or the Pope -- but not Gorbachev.

Democratic Initiatives. Nelan's article was aptly titled "The Year of the People," but early on he dismissed the theme. The subtitle read: "A Catalyst For Reform From Moscow To Bucharest, Gorbachev Has Transformed The World." He claimed: "What were long called, and accurately so, the satellites, the captive nations of Eastern Europe, are defecting en masse to the West. They are doing so because Gorbachev is letting them." But wasn't it really Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel who brought their countries to where they are today? Wasn't the spark of freedom in Romania ignited by the thousands of average citizens who took to the streets -- and died -- just a few weeks ago?

Turning to Soviet reforms, Nelan credited Gorbachev with "sweeping changes" in the realm of "free expression and democratization." One of the reforms was the "revamping of the legislative organs of the government....the Soviet people went to the polls to elect a new 2,250-seat Congress of People's Deputies." Nelan mentioned "Gorbachev draws the line at the formation of rival parties," that "in the absence of rival parties, some 85 percent of those elected to the Congress were party members," and that the Soviets have forcefully clamped down on ethnic groups desiring greater autonomy. Strangely, Time admitted its Man of the Decade refuses to give up his monopoly on power and has killed a number of his own people demonstrating for democracy.

Foreign Policy Outlook. Gorbachev won Time's esteemed award because they share the same foreign policy outlook. To both, the Soviet threat was a Western, right-wing delusion. Strobe Talbott viewed early Soviet expansion as a routine spoil of war: "Scenarios for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe have always had a touch of paranoid fantasy about them....Yes, Joseph Stalin 'conquered' Eastern Europe -- Exhibit A in the charge of Soviet expansion -- but he did so in the final battles of World War II, not as a prelude to World War III. The Red Army had filled the vacuum left by the collapsing Wehrmacht."

Today, in Talbott's mind, expansion is no longer in the Soviet vocabulary: "In its unrelenting hostility to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Viet Nam, the Bush Administration gives the impression of flying on an automatic pilot that was programmed back in the days when the Soviet Union was still in the business of exporting revolution."

Talbott's military theology matched Gorbachev's: "[He] is helping the West by showing that the Soviet threat isn't what it used to be -- and what's more, that it never was....The doves in the Great Debate of the past 40 years were right all along....Much of American policy now seems based on the conceit that...[Gorbachev] is both a consequence and a vindication of Western foresight, toughness, consistency, and solidarity."

Morrow summed it up in his introductory article. "Tanks vs. glasnost, the dead hand of the past vs. Gorbachev's vigorous, risky plunge into the future. Gorbachev is a hero for what he would not do....In that sense, as in so many others, the fallen Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu played the archvillain." But with Ceausescu gone, Gorbachev becomes proprietor of the reactionary stance. East European leaders have committed their nations to truly free elections. That is, all but one -- Mikhail Gorbachev. At best, then, he is rendered simply a reactive player in the changes; at worst, he may be insignificant.

Gorbachev: Man of the Decade? Gorbachev: Patron of Change? Hardly. The true Men and Women of the Decade were those millions who pushed on, despite those, like Gorbachev, who still clung to the old. The Decade's patrons of freedom in the democratic West -- Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Bush -- aided and contributed to their success. Perhaps in the '90s Gorbachev will join the ranks of freedom by promoting it, and earn the title Time's Man of the Decade as well. He certainly has not done so yet.

In a conversation with MediaWatch, Strobe Talbott, who supervised the entire project, acknowledged that Walesa and other opposition leaders were in the running for the award: "There were a number of contenders....There is considerable force in the argument that we could have gone in other directions." In the end, however, it was no surprise that Gorbachev won over Time editors' hearts. Talbott also claimed Gorbachev was introducing a pluralistic society, but admitted: "He hasn't gone as far as a number of East European countries have."



RACE RUCKUS. The invasion of Panama proved "the only people the United States are going to be prepared to use its military against are non-white: peoples of the Third World," charged former ABC News reporter Kenneth Walker on the December 24 McLaughlin Group. The number two man at the White House during Reagan's years also saw racism in Bush's actions toward China and Romania: "The only way you can explain the difference in the reaction is race. This man places more importance on white lives than non-white lives."

Walker didn't hesitate to suggest Reagan's policies were responsible for the recent wave of mail bombings in the South. "When President Reagan opens his campaign for President in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the birth place of the Ku Klux Klan where Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were killed, it seems to me that, along with his refusal to meet any recognized black leadership throughout his eight years in the White House, sent a signal out there that everything is up for grabs."

BRIT SAW BIAS. One reporter is willing to openly admit that the political views held by his colleagues affect news coverage. ABC White House correspondent Brit Hume, in an interview with the University of Virginia's student newspaper, The Virginia Advocate, cautiously conceded that "the impact of bias may be that you have a different perception of where the middle of the road is." Hume explained that "You often see Jesse Helms referred to as an ultra-conservative, but you rarely see anyone referred to as an ultra-liberal. I think that reflects the perception of where the middle of the road is; a perception that may be to the left of what it actually is. It leads to someone like Senator Edward Kennedy seeming like a middling-liberal when in the eyes of some he may be an ultra-liberal." Precisely. Hume's colleagues would do well to take note.

CRIMINAL LAMENT. CBS News dedicated a December 11 Evening News story to a new crime problem: America's rising incarceration rate. Reporter Bob McNamara characterized convicts as "prisoners taken in America's war on crime" who live in "the image of a human warehouse." McNamara reported a "peculiar consensus that get-tough is too tough and no answer to crime."

His sources? Prisoners and prison guards. McNamara claimed that guards "say the system is too harsh," and one inmate told McNamara prison provided "nothing to create the motivation and self-esteem to keep you out of trouble." Ignoring the responsibility of individuals for their actions, McNamara whined: "On the outside, theirs were lives of little opportunity and despair, where drugs and theft offered a way out... And inside or outside [prison], they still see public and political concern as cold as the concrete that keeps them."

GIL'S WILL. Gil Spencer, Editor of the New York Daily News since 1984, resigned last fall after Publisher James Hoge refused to endorse Democrat David Dinkins for Mayor. Editor & Publisher reported Spencer had a similar dispute just after he left the Philadelphia Daily News to sign on with the New York tabloid. Spencer wanted to endorse Walter Mondale, but the Daily News backed Reagan. After a few months off, Spencer's back at work. He's now Editor-in-Chief of the Denver Post.

KINZER KICKS CONTRAS. New York Times Central America correspondent Stephen Kinzer, currently on leave, recently told The Cape Cod Times the U.S. must shoulder a "great moral burden" for supporting the Contras. "The people [the Contras] who are posited as the alternatives to the Sandinistas...represent a narrow segment which was the most retrograde element of the old Somoza regime."

Kinzer, who served as an aide in Michael Dukakis' 1974 gubernatorial race, complained White House reporters are "not encouraged to insert observations," in their stories. Kinzer offered an example of the kind of "observation" he'd suggest: "President Reagan today denounced the Sandinistas for having converted Nicaragua into a 'totalitarian dungeon' -- another one of his wild exaggerations that ignores the abuses of Guatemalan colonels, Salvadoran death squad leaders and Argentine torturers, with whom he is so friendly."

Our thanks to the left-wing watchdog group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), for exposing Kinzer in its most recent newsletter. To FAIR, Kinzer's candor has somewhat redeemed his credibility as a fair and accurate reporter.

GANG GREEN. Leading scientists continue to question global warming hysteria, but ABC and Time nonetheless plow ahead with their demands to raise taxes to solve the dubious crisis. During the December 27 World News Tonight, reporter Ned Potter wasn't shy about pushing some "expert" environmentalist recommendations: "They say imposing a seven cent gas tax would coax a lot of drivers off the road," Potter declared, "That would reduce carbon emissions and the eight billion dollars raised could make mass transit work a lot better." To stop the use of coal, "the government may have to jack up the price from $50 a ton to $500."

In Time's December 18 issue, Eugene Linden demanded that "first, the federal gasoline tax should be increased substantially -- to at least 60 cents per gallon." But to Time, the issue isn't just money, it's capitalism itself, insisting that "the laissez-faire, free-market rules that allowed the industrial world to prosper must now be suspended."

Cooler heads ruled at U.S. News & World Report. As Betsy Carpenter explained in the December 25 issue, "there is good reason to believe that today's bogyman, global warming, may go the way of nuclear winter: Under scientific scrutiny, it may look much less menacing." Carpenter concluded that "if we want science to inform public policy, we will have to wait for the science."

NEWSWEEK'S FAMILY PLANS. Newsweek's special Fall/Winter issue on "The 21st Century Family" gave space to author Jonathan Kozol for a scathing denunciation of the Reagan era. He lauded all big- government federal programs, then criticized attempts to cut spending: "Rather than expand these programs, President Reagan kept them frozen or else cut them to the bone...federal housing funds were also slashed during these years."

After these cutbacks, Kozol claimed that "far from demonstrating more compassion, administration leaders have resorted to a stylized severity in speaking of poor children" when then- Education Secretary Bill Bennett called for "higher standards" in schools. He even criticized New Jersey high school principle Joe Clark, a tough disciplinarian, as a "pedagogic hero of the Reagan White House...(who) managed to raise reading scores by throwing out his low-achieving pupils." Kozol's recommendation: massive protests by poor people and shocked middle-class students causing "another decade of societal disruption."

Kozol was not alone in left-wing advocacy. A piece by Dr. Benjamin Spock, "America's most trusted family doctor," demanded: "The first thing government should be pressured into doing is taking the billions of dollars being squandered on nuclear and conventional arms and spending them on fulfilling the needs of families. The federal government should subsidize mothers or fathers (particularly single ones) who would prefer to stay home for the first three to five years of their child's lives."

NETWORKS PREFER PRO-CHOICE. Last January, we reported the results of our study on abortion labeling. Network reporters used the preferred "pro-choice" for abortion advocates, but "anti- abortion" for abortion foes instead of the preferred "pro-life." A recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) confirmed MediaWatch's findings.

Between last January 1 and August 31, ABC, CBS, and NBC "television reporters preferred 'pro-choice' over 'abortion rights' labels by a nearly three to one margin. But they rarely used 'pro-life' or 'right to life' to describe the other side -- only six percent of all labels, compared to 94 percent usage of 'anti-abortion'" CMPA reported. The same study found female reporters in both print and TV displayed a strong "pro-choice" bias. "In stories reported by females," CMPA found, "pro-choice outnumbered pro-life views by a two to one margin." The gender gap was greater for women reporting for print outlets, such as The New York Times and Washington Post. "Pro-choice views predominated nearly three to one in articles authored by women, but only 55 percent to 45 percent in those written by men," the study said.

ECONOMY SOARS, COVERAGE DIVES. "As the economy progressively improved," from 1982 to 1987, "the amount of economic coverage on national network television news progressively declined" and "grew more negative in tone," Professor Ted J. Smith III determined in a recent study for the Media Institute titled The Vanishing Economy. The Assistant Professor for Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University reviewed 13,915 ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News stories on the economy aired during three one year periods: July 1 to June 30, 1982-83, 1984-85 and 1986-87.

The ratio of negative to positive stories grew as economic indicators improved, from 4.9 to 1 in 1982-83 to 7.0 to 1 in 1986-87. When an economic indicator grew better, the networks began covering it less so they could focus more on unhealthy economic signs. For instance, as the unemployment rate fell from 10.6 percent to well under 6 percent by 1987, the number of stories on employment plunged by 79 percent while reports on the growing trade deficit soared 65 percent and on the homeless jumped by 167 percent.

Finding a political spin, Smith noted that "unlike economic problems, which were often attributed directly to Reagan Administration policies, economic gains" were seldom credited to Reagan. Instead, "they just happened."

MORTIFIED BY AMERICA. Paris-based Associated Press senior foreign correspondent Mort Rosenblum may have titled his new book describing his travels around the U.S., Back Home, but his views are similar to those of leftist Europeans for whom America is nothing more than Coca-Cola and the KKK. Never at a loss for something to whine about, he started by griping about Liberty Weekend ("The people up there with the Reagans on Governors Island were not descendants of Miles Standish or crippled Medal of Honor veterans...they were the ones who could pay") and ended fighting the cab driver ("a dangerously unbalanced moron") taking him to Dulles Airport.

Concerning Central America, Rosenblum ranted: "For years U.S. officials knew that our Central American policy relied heavily upon senior officers in Panama and Honduras who smuggled cocaine by the ton into the United States....CIA hirelings and the druglords washed each others money." He mused, "Suppose our Contras won. Would that be progress, installing a bickering junta of former Somocistas?" Anyone familiar with the leftist Christic Institute will recognize the rhetoric. After all, Rosenblum declared, "The Christic Institute, an artisanal shop of lawyers and investors...assembled a convincing dossier [on the Contras]."

Rosenblum expressed an even more alarming view of the Soviet Union, considering the fact he once worked as Editor-in-Chief of the International Herald Tribune, a paper jointly produced by The New York Times and Washington Post. "We cannot always stand up to comparison with the Soviet Union," he wrote, "Its system is plagued by long lines...But there are food and housing at the end of the lines. Health care, inferior to ours, is at least accessible to all. In America a man can earn twenty-five million dollars just for getting fired. But we fought hard not to force companies to give workers two months' notice before eliminating their jobs."


Page Five

"If Anyone Can Do It, Gorbachev Can"

NBC'S Gorby Love Letter. NBC Nightly News almost matched Time in a gushy year-end portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev. Viewers of Bob Abernethy's December 30 puff piece may have questioned the absence of chocolates under Abernethy's arm.

"Before Gorbachev, the Soviet Union was a police state, run on suspicion and fear," Abernethy began. "The world was divided, East vs. West, each provocatively armed, each obsessed with the other as the enemy. And then came Gorbachev, a loyal Party man, a survivor in the old system, but somehow able to think in new ways," from whence, "fear began to wither away."

Abernethy praised Gorbachev for holding "the first largely free elections here in 70 years, creating a new outspoken Congress of Peoples' Deputies." Yes, but they're free only so long as communists win a majority. In a November speech Abernethy seemed to have missed, Gorbachev declared the Soviet Union will remain a one-party state. Abernethy credited Gorbachev for almost everything. "This fall Eastern Europe responded to Gorbachev's policies," and "practicing what he preached, Gorbachev did not intervene."

Abernethy ended his portrait in high drama, dangling his hero over the abyss of a Soviet Union seething with domestic discord, and agitated at its inability to adapt to Gorbachev's modern vision. Abernethy hoped his hero will emerge unscathed: "Making this a truly modern country after years of tyranny is no easy task, but after all the other things he's done, here and throughout the world, one would have to conclude if anyone can do it, Gorbachev can."


Page FiveB

People Liked Communism?


As one country after another in Eastern Europe has overthrown communist dictatorship, the national media haven't hesitated to declare the end of communism. But when Ronald Reagan was calling communism a discredited theory lacking popular support, reporters dismissed it as right-wing fantasy.

Back then Eastern Europe didn't get much network attention, but those few stories failed to recognize popular discontent with communist tyranny. NBC's John Cochran hypothesized in October 1986 that there existed "an unspoken agreement between the Party and the people" in which "the people have accepted the supremacy of the Party." Cochran was echoing CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg, who in March 1986 claimed the Soviet people "have made a deal with their rulers. Take care of us from cradle to grave, and in return we will be satisfied."

Even as events unfolded this fall, Arthur Kent of NBC refused to see why protests grew in Czechoslovakia. On October 30 he predicted that "as long as it can keep food in the stores, the government, too, is not expecting a public outcry it can't survive." Kent theorized "the attitude of Czechs themselves prevents rapid change. Many Czechs admit that life here is comfortable enough that protest poses too great a risk."

In February 1986, Stuart Loory, then CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief, enthusiastically argued for Gorbachev's popularity. In a letter to The Wall Street Journal he asserted that "if suddenly a true, two-party or multiparty state were to be formed in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party would still win in a real free election. Except for certain pockets of resistance to the communist regime, the people have been truly converted." On June 17, 1987, Dan Rather insisted that, "despite what many Americans think, most Soviets do not yearn for capitalism or Western-style democracy."

Of course the Soviet Union has a long way to go to match Eastern Europe, but now CBS has a new excuse for why Western-style democracy can't succeed in the Soviet Bloc. In the wake of Ceausescu's overthrow, on January 1 reporter Bob Simon worried that Romania "has no liberal democratic tradition at all. People are used to being told what to do and what to think. These old habits may die harder than old leaders." Which democracies began as democracies?


Page Six

ABC's Unique View


ABC 20/20's John Stossel offered a refreshingly different perspective on the 1980's. Stossel began his December 29 segment: "It's been a startling ten years...We got technologies that made our lives easier, more convenient or faster." Stossel noted that "all those inventions were terrific things, yet you almost didn't have some of them."

Why not? "In Washington, D.C., we have a rather awesome regulatory system....every year, they churn out thousands of regulations designed to make life safer or fairer, to try to make capitalism less harsh. Sometimes they succeed, but often they create tangled webs of laws that stop progress. Looking back at the '80s, I was struck by how many good things happened only because government and other authorities let go a little."

Stossel examined several businesses which owe their existence to deregulation and which make life better, easier, or cheaper. Deregulation allowed air freight companies such as Federal Express, "to fly their own planes and that let them implement the new technologies that revolutionized the shipping business."

The breakup of AT&T and deregulation allowed for lower phone rates, not to mention owning your own phone or answering machine. Stossel noted how ridiculous some regulations were, such as not letting people pump their own gasoline because "Regulators said, 'People cannot be trusted to do that. They'll blow themselves up.'"

Deregulation of the airlines meant that "Today, more people fly for less money." Stossel explained, "Of course, now there are more worries about safety, yet it may surprise you that the Transportation Department says since deregulation, fatal accidents are actually down per 100,000 departures. So are complaints."

What about the critics of deregulation? "Whenever Big Brother lets go," Stossel observed, "people are always saying that awful things are going to happen." When the government stopped controlling the price of gasoline, for example, many people, including the late ABC anchor Frank Reynolds, predicted prices would shoot up.

In fact, Stossel confirmed, "The competition of a free market held costs down better than government controls had....It's something to think about next decade, next time a politician says, 'This is something we must control.' Free markets are chaotic and frightening and filled with risk, but there is no question that when governments let go a little, economies thrive."

After Stossel's piece, Hugh Downs observed that the Soviets are moving away from central planning, prompting Stossel to point out: "We keep passing more rules. Every week, we pass another hundred regulations, the feds do, local governments do even more."

"I have to admit I hadn't known about the good things that deregulation may have brought," Downs conceded. "They're not publicized," Stossel interjected. Exactly. For breaking the media blackout, Stossel deserves a round of applause.




"Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good," pronounced actor Michael Douglas as capitalist caricature "Gordon Gekko" in the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. Piecing the "Decade of Greed" together in a desperate frenzy of imitation, the networks liked Gekko's image so much that CBS used it four times, and ABC and NBC showed it twice in their end-of-the-decade reviews. "To many people, it's scenes like this from the movie Wall Street that says all there is to say about the 1980's," reporter Erin Moriarty claimed on CBS This Morning.

Tut-tutting over the Decade of Greed was a clever way of talking around a decade of record-setting prosperity. Reviewing the media's indictments of the decade, MediaWatch analysts found references to the recovery on a few occasions, but in the cascade of impressions, America's remarkable turnaround was buried by both indictments of our lack of compassion (despite the doubling of charitable giving) and worries over economic decline.

Madonna, one of the hottest musical sensations of the decade, was remembered often, but mainly for singing the greed anthem "Material Girl," which CBS called "a theme song for the decade." Madonna percolated through all three network histories as a soundtrack for the materialistic decade. U.S. News & World Report Senior Editor Donald Baer compared her to the President: "Ronald Reagan and Madonna. On the surface, he stood for the fundamental American values that she parodied. But underneath, they conveyed the same Horatio Alger myth: Self-image over reality. Say it or sing it enough, and any dream of yourself might come true, at least in the public's perception." Baer defined the '80s as a time when "the majority willingly suspended their disbelief and embraced Reagan, despite his manifold shortcomings."

Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" gave the '80s a thumbs down, giving the restrained summation: "Greedy Yuppies screwed homeless. Big party on deck of Titanic." When the Saturday Night with Connie Chung staff asked "a fair number of people from all different kinds of professions" what the decade added up to, "More than 95 percent of them," Chung announced with a straight face, "said simply, it was the Decade of Greed." Sure.

On NBC, Irving R. Levine did note the economy "flourished" and the financial markets had a "spectacular run," but then said "the Reagan presidency's military build-up and popular tax cuts pushed the country into staggering debt." Worrying that we will be left "woefully behind the competition as a result, " Levine concluded "the record of the '80s is not encouraging." During NBC's December 27 prime-time special The Eighties, Tom Brokaw announced that "Reagan, as commander-in-chief, was the military's best friend. He gave the Pentagon almost everything it wanted. That spending, combined with a broad tax cut, contributed to a trillion-dollar deficit." Over a video of homeless people, Brokaw asked "Social programs? They suffered under Reagan. But he refused to see the cause and effect."

"This was not a compassionate decade," chimed in Jack Smith on ABC's This Week with David Brinkley four days later. "The number of homeless mushroomed and more people sank into poverty, including nearly a quarter of the nation's children." On the December 26 ABC special co-produced with Time, Images of the '80s, Peter Jennings did admit the U.S. experienced "the longest and most sustained boom in the nation's history." He immediately followed with the obligatory Gekko clip and finished the sentence: "But it didn't always trickle down as they said it would."

"The full price we paid for following Reagan into the most profligate debt buildup ever conceived will not become clear for a while," predicted U.S. News Assistant Managing Editor Harrison Rainie, not so surprising a complaint coming from a former Chief of Staff to Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-NY). "By 'selling the sizzle' of Reagan, as his aide Michael Deaver put it, the administration spun the nation out of its torpor with such fantasies as supply-side economics, the nuclear weapons 'window of vulnerability,' and the Strategic Defense Initiative...The Soviets countered in 1985 with Gorbachev, who was fully Reagan's equal in the spin-doctoring game. He tried to lead another kind of revolution -- one designed for the oppositionist class against the privileged."

Praising Gorbachev while scorning Reagan was an integral ingredient of the hindsight formula. Boston Globe Washington reporter and columnist Tom Oliphant echoed Rainie: "A hundred years from now -- long after Ronald Reagan has been lumped with other ineffectual Dr. Feelgoods like William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge who swam with the tide of their times -- the last fourth of the 20th century will be remembered for the demise of imperial communism, and the Soviet Union's President will be remembered for both making and letting it happen."

Another interesting network tactic was bringing in the people who made the 1970's such a fabulous time to be alive. NBC handed over the environmental segment of The Eighties to its favorite dubious expert, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, an enthusiastic believer in disproven scenarios like Famine 1975! Without the slightest bit of embarrassment over 20 years of being overwhelmingly wrong, Ehrlich predicted the coming global warming "could starve somewhere between 40 and 400 million people to death twice a decade over the next couple of decades" and warned "what we're talking here, now, is a possible 50-50 chance of ending civilization." Jane Pauley concluded "the '80s were not good years for an increasingly crowded and fragile world."

CBS followed the same formula in its Saturday Night with Connie Chung story. Malcolm Forbes and Lee Atwater got a little time, but '70s gurus got much more. Anti-technology activist Jeremy Rifkin ("The Reagan years and the Reagan Administration was a massive regression, if you will") and "consumer advocate" Ralph Nader, who said: "We have record poverty in this country in the 1980's. We have millions of hungry, unsheltered children and infants in the 1980's. We have epidemics that we never had before in the 1980's. We have millions of people afraid to go out on their front porch because of the drug dealers. We have Reagan's America."

ABC's Jack Smith expressed a mysterious media consensus when he summarized the decade: "Although Americans felt better, the decade leaves them wondering how much of that was reality, how much illusion?" But who was dealing in reality and who in illusion? Who was finding "record poverty" in the midst of a historic recovery? If the media didn't find a decade of illusion, they did find a decade of disillusion, as the ideas they had long snickered over in their studios took over and made the decade. Their only responses were easy sermons picking on easy targets, media-manufactured Yuppie stereotypes repeated often enough to assume a reality all their own. Perhaps it was all that could be expected of a media establishment whose fondest depiction of the realities of the decade was itself an illusionary image created by a movie actor: "Greed, for the lack of better word..."


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