Networks Ignore Two Congressional Embarrassments
CAPITOL HILL SCANDAL? NAAH
Washington's press corps continues to
apply differing standards in political reporting: a tough one for the
White House, and a lax one for Congress. As ABC's Brit Hume explained in
the July 9 Washington Times: "Compared to the adversarial
posturing reporters do when they're covering the President, the
atmosphere is incredibly chummy and cozy....The idea that you would
seriously challenge any member of Congress to defend his or her position
on any issue, and then follow up on the questions, is almost unheard
The network evening news shows proved
that assumption in failing to do even one story on the congressional
check-bouncing scandal until October 3, two entire weeks after it broke
in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. Three newspapers
network producers see -- The Washington Post, The New York
Times and USA Today -- each did several stories, but the
network reporters on Capitol Hill blithely focused on other subjects
(like unemployment benefits) without a word on check bouncing.
Compare this to the networks' response to
the John Sununu story. The Washington Post released its
investigation of Sununu on April 21. NBC did a story that night, ABC and
CBS the next day. Over the following two weeks, the networks ran a
combined total of 15 stories on Sununu. Amazingly, this isn't the first
hint of check bouncing without much interest shown by the networks. In
February 1990, the GAO released a report which found the bank had cashed
$232,000 in bad checks during the previous twelve months.
Another blatant double standard arose in
coverage of the "Managua Surprise," revelations that
Democratic members of Congress may have passed U.S. secrets to the
Sandinistas and advised the Managua regime on how to block Contra aid
legislation. The New York Times ran the first story on
September 15. Most other newspapers mentioned it on only two occasions:
on September 20, after former CIA official Alan Fiers' testimony about
the disclosure, and on October 4, after Senator David Boren announced he
saw no wrongdoing.
But the networks, which have aired at
least 27 evening news stories on the "October Surprise," have
done absolutely nothing on this revelation. The CBS Evening News,
which devotes more time to Iran-Contra than the other networks, did find
time on October 1 for a story on Noriega running guns to the Contras. The
Washington Post's laxity is fascinating given its nearly
encyclopedic coverage of the Iran-Contra affair. Now that it's clear why
Reagan officials were reluctant to tell all to Congress, the media have
dropped the ball.
As liberal Senator Brock Adams (D-WA) gears up for his 1992 election
campaign, the former Carter Administration Secretary of Transportation
has brought aboard a 26-year CBS News veteran to guide his press
relations. In September Peter Herford, Director of the
University of Chicago's William Benton Fellowships in Broadcast
Journalism program since he left CBS in 1988, became Director of
Communications for the Democrat.
Herford's career spanned the rise and
fall of CBS News. He was a writer for the Evening News when CBS
made Walter Cronkite the anchor in 1963. A year later he moved to
Chicago as Bureau Chief, heading to the Paris bureau after a year and
then to Vietnam for two years as Saigon Bureau Chief. After stops in
Bonn and Rome, in 1969 he became a 60 Minutes producer. From
1972 to 1985 Herford served as Vice President for affiliate relations.
He spent his last three years with the network as Producer of Sunday
Barbara Gamarekian, a 25-year veteran of The New York Times
Washington bureau, retired at the end of August. National Journal
reported that during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations she worked
in the White House press office. In 1966 she joined the Times
as office manager, soon rising to reporter.
White House Whirl. Last
February Nightline Executive Producer Dorrance Smith joined the
Bush Administration as Assistant to the President for Media Affairs. One
of his former colleagues has now followed him. Scott Sforza,
a Nightline production coordinator for the past two years and
an editorial assistant for two years before, has become Smith's
deputy....Chase Untermeyer, White House Director of
Personnel since the Bush Administration took office has jumped to the
Voice of America as its Director. From 1972 to 1974 Untermeyer was a
Houston Chronicle reporter.
Geraldo Girl. Prime
Time Live reportorial producer Sheila Hershow has
come aboard Geraldo Rivera's new half hour tabloid show, Now It Can
Be Told. Hershow, an investigator for the House Government
Operations Subcommittee on Government Activities and Transportation
chaired by liberal U.S. Representative Cardiss Collins (D-IL) from
1987-89, will do investigative reporting out of Washington. Before
jumping to Capitol Hill politics, Hershow put in three years with CNN's
Both Sides Now. The
Sunbelt Institute, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress from 17
southern and southwestern states, has named Deborah Matthews
its Deputy Director. Matthews worked as a CNN assignment editor in 1980,
handling the same duties for Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB-TV before
becoming an Atlanta Constitution and Journal reporter
in 1988. Press Secretary to U.S. Representative Mike Andrews (D-TX) in
1989 and to Senator Wyche Fowler (D-GA) in 1989-90, Matthews then
handled communications for the Senate Special Committee on Aging headed
by Pennsylvania Republican John Heinz until his death this past spring.
THRELKELD FLUNKS ECONOMICS
Every fall, the Census Bureau releases an
enormous report on wealth and poverty in America. For the last decade,
the Census figures have shown an encouraging increase in wealth for all
income levels. But when the bureau released this year's poverty rate
report on September 26 the news was bad, so it led the CBS Evening
News. (For the past three years, CBS didn't once report the Census
figures before story number 11.) For exaggerating bad news through
statistical manipulation and unrefutably false claims, CBS once again
wins the Janet Cooke Award.
The Census Bureau reported an increase in
the poverty rate from 12.8 to 13.5 percent as the number of people
defined as poor rose to 33 million. Reporter Richard Threlkeld began
with a flourish: "The Census figures confirm what's so evident
throughout America in this recession. There are more poor people now
moronic," Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector told MediaWatch,
pointing out that by the Census Bureau's count, the number of poor
people stood at 48.4 million in 1950, 39.5 million in 1959, 36 million
in 1964 before the "War on Poverty," and 35 million in 1983,
the height of a recession. At the end of World War II, a third of
Americans lived in poverty.
unable to reach Threlkeld at CBS, but when asked about the source of
Threlkeld's claim, a CBS Evening News producer suggested:
"If you pick up The New York Times, you can probably get
the whole text of the report." In fact, the September 27 Times
published a graph showing the higher 1983 poverty number.
When presented with Threlkeld's error,
the CBS producer treated the story as if it was already ancient history:
"Old things like that, you're not going to go back and make some
sort of correction for a story we did two weeks ago that said this, well
this is not the fact. That's just not going to happen....I'm sure he's
correct based on some interpretation. He's not around, you're not going
to find out, and I'm not going to call you back."
Threlkeld's report only briefly explained
the Census Bureau's definition of poverty, which excludes assets and
government benefits. On CNN's PrimeNews the same night,
reporter Deborah Potter offered a more complete look at the figures. She
interviewed Kate O'Beirne of the Heritage Foundation, and gave a
thorough, balanced explanation of the Census Bureau's definition:
"The Census Bureau doesn't count government benefits like food
stamps or assets like homes and cars when calculating income. If it did,
the poverty rate might be considerably lower. But the report didn't
include homeless people either, which would add to the poverty
Threlkeld made no attempt to explain the
long-standing debate over the Census definition of poverty, and only
aired a soundbite of Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center for Budget
and Policy Priorities, who Potter also interviewed. Neither reporter
explained how Census figures show that the poor actually spend $1.94 for
every $1 the Census counts as income, meaning those in poverty have more
money than the Census figures indicate.
maintained: "It's not just the poor who've been hurt by this
recession. It's most of the rest of us. Income per person fell $428 from
1989 to 1990, the first time that's gone down in eight years."
Threlkeld also mentioned that the number of poor increased for the first
time in eight years. But while the media hold Ronald Reagan responsible
for any negative 1980s economic legacies, Threlkeld did not suggest the
possibility that the Bush Administration's departure from Reaganomics
caused the slowdown which drove the new increase in poverty. The largest
decline in median family income on record came in 1980, the last year of
Jimmy Carter, when income dropped a whopping $1,916.
The Rich. Threlkeld
continued: "And over the last 20 years, the rich have been getting
richer at the expense of the middle class: three percent more of the
nation's income for the wealthiest 20 percent, three percent less for
the 60 percent of Americans in the middle."
Very clever. First, what
Threlkeld didn't report: The Census found the rich actually lost income
last year. The top fifth lost 5 percent from 1989 to 1990, while the
bottom fifth lost 1 percent. The share of income claimed by the top
fifth also declined last year, while the bottom fifth's share has stayed
the same for five years in a row.
Second, the rich didn't gain "at the
expense of" the middle class. Census data shows that the 60 percent
in the middle also grew in wealth over the last twenty years. The
economy isn't a caricature of static analysis where the omnipotent
President took three percent from the middle class and gave it to the
rich. In fact, the mobility of households between high and low incomes
is dramatic. In response to the Census figures, Chris Frenze, a minority
staff economist with the Joint Economic Committee, pointed out the
effects of social mobility: "In just one year, about one third of
Americans move to a different quintile; over the same time, about one
quarter of those in the top quintile fall to lower quintiles."
Safety Net. After
Threlkeld's report, Dan Rather asked "What are the real
consequences of this?" Threlkeld responded: "For one thing, I
think an increased strain on state and local government resources,
already strapped as you know, and it will be harder for the poor to get
help. The social safety net is the weakest it's been for any recession
in the last 40 years."
Wrong. Spending on the
entitlement programs that compose the safety net has increased
throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. According to Rector, a
composite of 75 federal means-tested programs (including state and local
spending) has increased from $126 billion in 1975 to $184 billion in
1988 in constant 1988 dollars.
has found before, some network reporting on social problems has not only
been emotionally loaded and politically slanted, but statistically
misleading or just plain wrong. Dan Rather introduced Threlkeld's report
with the assurance: "These are unpleasant facts. They are
facts." Could it be that CBS, like the boy who cried wolf, is
having trouble getting people to believe its economic reports?
After decades of telling viewers the Russian people were satisfied with
communism, reporters were proven wrong. Now, network reporters are
saying that people in the republics don't want independence. NBC News
reporter Jim Maceda, in a September 23 Nightly News segment,
declared: "Grapes -- at this time of year, gold for Moldavian
farmers. In the south, the harvest is good, yet people here are worried.
Like many others throughout the republics, they fear independence."
Why then did Moldavia's 282-member parliament vote unanimously to
GLASS HOUSES. New
York Times reporter Maureen Dowd turned the controversy over the
Senate's handling of Anita Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas
into a page one feminist forum about the Senate's sexism. Dowd loaded
her October 8 story with outraged feminists -- Ann Lewis, Rep. Nancy
Pelosi, Pat Schroeder, reporter Susan Milligan, Rep. Barbara Boxer,
Judith Lichtman, law professors Katherine Bartlett and Susan Deller
Ross. The only Republican quoted was Sen. Arlen Specter -- who Dowd said
"many women" were angry with for his support of Thomas. Dowd
failed to quote any of the "many women" for Thomas.
But when Kitty Kelley wrote a book
asserting that Nancy Reagan had a lesbian affair, performed oral sex
acts on various men, and cheated on her husband, Dowd wrote a gossipy
page one piece on Kelley's book without any comment from the woman
demeaned. Dowd then defended Kelley in the May 13 New Republic:
"Of course the book is tawdry. Of course, the book is, in some
spots, loosely sourced, and over the top...Of course, there are mistakes
in it...The point, however is that Kelley's portrait is not essentially
untrue." Dowd's motto: women should be given a forum when their
reputations are in question -- unless they're Nancy Reagan.
UNEQUAL TIME. NBC had a
funny definition of balance in a September 7 Nightly News
report on Clarence Thomas. Reporter Jamie Gangel gave eight seconds to
black Republican businessman Joshua Smith, who said: "And I think
in so many cases when you look at successful people they are a product
of their own vision."
But Gangel then gave Thomas opponents 69
seconds to attack him: 24 seconds for recent college graduate Shaun
Haley and a whopping 45 seconds to Roger Wilkins, a Senior Fellow with
the far-left Institute for Policy Studies. Wilkins asserted: "I
think that not only is black skin not enough, I think that in this
instance the black skin is destructive, because white people,
conservative white people for years have picked, tried to pick black
spokesmen who agree with them, in order to validate their own racism.
And Clarence Thomas is exactly in that mode."
UNEQUAL TIME II. NBC
played the same game on the September 20 Nightly News.
Reporting on the Kennedy-Danforth compromise civil rights bill, Andrea
Mitchell allowed President Bush to label it a quota bill, but then she
gave air time to four proponents who criticized Bush. The bill's
supporters: Senator Ted Kennedy, Republican-basher Kevin Phillips and
Senators Arlen Specter and John Danforth, whom she introduced with the
usual media cop-out for not offering the conservative view, "Even
some Republicans..." NBC's lucky there aren't equal-time rules.
BOOMING BREZHNEV YEARS.
Now that their hero Gorbachev has fallen from favor, reporters are
reaching back to Brezhnev to prove that communism could work. In the
September 23 issue of Time, Associate Editor George Church
wrote, "Inefficient as the old communist economy was, it did
provide jobs of a sort for everybody and a steady, if meager, supply of
basic goods at low, subsidized prices; Soviet citizens for more than 70
years were conditioned to expect that from their government. Says a
Moscow worker: 'We had everything during [Leonid] Brezhnev's times.
There was sausage in the stores. We could buy vodka. Things were
USA Today reporter Kevin Maney
went even further: "But for a long time communism worked OK. Soviet
people consistently say their economic life was better 20 years ago when
communism was in full bloom under Leonid Brezhnev."
UP THE ACADEMY. Panicked
forecasts about global warming are still being widely covered, while
calmer reports are ignored. Take for example two reports issued by the
National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In April, an NAS panel asserted that
global warming is happening, and recommended immediate action. The
report made news in The New York Times, USA Today, AP, UPI,
CNN, Gannett News Service, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Newsweek,
and two issues of Time magazine. The Boston Globe, the
Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post put it on
But on September 6, another NAS panel
declared in a strikingly non-alarmist tone that the economy could adapt
and even benefit from a gradual warming. This time, only AP, the Chicago
Tribune, and The New York Times (in two stories) covered
the findings. The Washington Post didn't run the report as a
news story, but did carry an op-ed by Post environmental
reporter William Booth on September 22.
The three broadcast networks covered
neither report, but ABC's Ned Potter did find frightening fodder for an
"American Agenda" segment on World News Tonight
September 18: "The EPA, which rarely sounds alarmist, says the
ozone problem is twice as bad as anyone expected...12 million Americans
may get skin cancer in the next 50 years. Cataracts and immune disorders
will increase. There could even be a threat to the food supply if crops
and ocean life are killed by ultraviolet rays."
CANONIZING CASTRO. In an
otherwise capable job of reporting the obvious in a two-part series on
the decline of Castro's Cuba, Washington Post reporter Lee
Hockstader reverted a few times to the same old tourist-brochure
language: "The government points out quite rightly that Cuba's
standard of living is better than in many other countries of Latin
America....Government officials frequently trumpet the revolution's
achievements of lowering infant mortality or increasing daily calorie
The next day, Hockstader claimed:
"For 32 years -- nearly half of his life -- Castro has not so much
governed Cuba as reinvented it in his own larger-than-life image, and
for much of that time enjoyed the consent and even the adulation of his
people -- at least those who remained in the country. But
today...popular discontent with Castro's government has reached
enormous, if unmeasurable, proportions." Notice the discontent was
unmeasurable, but the adulation was not.
In any case, evidence indicates the Cuban
people may not have been as happy with Castro as Hockstader proposed.
The human rights group Freedom House says that "With the possible
exception of South Africa, Indonesia, and China, Cuba under Castro has
had more political prisoners per capita for longer periods than any
JUST THE FACTS, PLEASE.
A September 16 Time article, "Why do Blacks Die
Young?", was long on demagoguery but short on detail. Staff writer
Christine Gorman claimed, "The gap between white and black [life
spans] has remained stubbornly wide, and it increased sharply during the
Reagan years, when many social programs that helped minorities were
But Gorman made this damning charge
without backing it up with no proof -- no program names, no budget
number, nothing. Perhaps because they are nowhere to be found. Federal
budget numbers reveal that between 1980 and 1990, major social program
budgets grew at or above the rate of inflation. But facts might have
detracted from the media's favorite Reagan-era premise.
OMNIPOTENT OSHA? That's
what journalists yearned for in the wake of the fatal North Carolina
chicken plant fire. Time and U.S. News & World Report
stumped for more inspectors to patrol the workplace, although neither
specified just how many would be needed to adequately protect America's
work force. Time Associate Editor Richard Lacayo tied
increasing danger in the workplace to Reagan. "By almost every
measure, America's regulatory safeguards have grown threadbare,"
Lacayo claimed, "OSHA was stretched to the breaking point by Ronald
But later, Lacayo stepped on his own
premise, admitting, "work- related fatalities have dropped from
12,500 ten years ago to 10,500 last year." In fact, the workplace
is now safer and, according to U.S. News, inspections are
"more thorough," decreasing the demand for inspectors.
SAME SONG, SECOND VERSE.
"Spend more money" has always been the liberal's solution to
any of society's problems, and when federal aid to cities came into
question, NBC's Bryant Gumbel was caught singing the same old song.
On the September 3 Today, Gumbel
blamed the exodus from the cities on a lack of federal aid: "But
don't you find that the problems are only going to get worse if people
keep running from the cities? I mean, there'll then be no reason for the
government to ever invest any monies in the cities, which is part of the
problem right now. I mean, the problems are, the problems seem to be
getting exacerbated only because there's no money coming in to them and
the people who are in a position to help keep running out of the
cities." But according to the Cato Institute's Stephen Moore,
federal aid to states and cities has risen steadily from $108 billion in
1987 to $159 billion in 1991. Gumbel forgot to mention ever-rising
municipal taxes as a reason for leaving.
MORALS EQUALS IGNORANCE?
Yes, according to Time reporter Nancy Gibbs' September 2
article about the rise of teen AIDS cases. Gibbs quickly sided with AIDS
activists over the "ignorance" of the Catholic Church.
"The two sides disagree not only about morality but also about what
approach would be most effective. 'We don't say, 'Smoke carefully.' We
say 'Don't smoke,' argues Monsignor John Woolsy...'A huge campaign could
work to stop kids from having sex. We don't water down
But Gibbs claimed with today's oversexed
teens, teaching good morals is useless and can be deadly. "AIDS
activists and health- care workers have seen firsthand the devastation
that ignorance can yield....there is plenty of evidence that teens need
PC PROTESTERS. Last
month, MediaWatch reported that when Operation
Rescue blocked access to a Wichita abortion clinic, CBS News reporter
Scott Pelley tracked down and quoted someone worried about police
overtime costs during the protests. CBS News reporter Bruce Morton also
bemoaned Operation Rescue's tactics.
But when radical gay activists turned
violent after California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a "gay
rights" bill, bashing in windows, setting fires, and throwing
oranges at Wilson during a speech, the networks reacted quite
differently. Neither CBS' Richard Roth, ABC's Judy Muller nor NBC's
George Lewis quoted a single critic of the protesters' tactics in their
October 1 segments, nor did they report the costs of the damage. We're
still waiting for a Bruce Morton commentary on the protesters' tactics.
Apparently damaging property and threatening violence are acceptable
forms of civil disobedience if done for the right cause.
MIDWESTERN VALUES? When
Pete du Pont ran for President in 1988 he had six years in Congress and
eight years as Governor of Delaware under his belt. In a December 1,
1987 CBS Evening News segment, reporter Bob Faw still asserted:
"politically, du Pont has to get recognized as something more than
a man who is worth $6 million or who once had a date with Jane
Fonda." Faw concluded, "He keeps raising his lance to joust
with others, even though they're convinced all Pete du Pont is doing is
tilting at windmills."
So when Senator Robert Kerrey (D-NE), who
has served only one term as Governor of Nebraska and three years in the
Senate, announced his candidacy for President, did CBS News suggest he
was just another millionaire first-term Senator who once lived with
Debra Winger? Not exactly. On September 19 reporter Eric Engberg gushed
that Kerrey, "who won the nation's highest military award after
losing part of a leg in Vietnam, brings a message tailored to the
generation that was shaped by that war and retains a distrust for
conventional politicians...he practices the politics of biography to
articulate his views, using events from his own life, like nine months
in the hospital and the midwestern values handed down by his
RATHER RAGS HELMS.
"My best friends still call me 'Rags,'" Dan Rather began I
Remember, a book of childhood recollections. In a brief digression,
Rather revealed he has absolutely no understanding of why he's
considered "a symbol" of the "effete eastern media"
by Senator Jesse Helms.
Rather arrogantly insisted Helms just
doesn't want to learn the truth. "My job is to be accurate and
fair, an honest broker of information. Period. It is a job that
automatically puts me down in places Senator Helms dislikes. In the
early 1960s I was the point man of CBS News on many of the most
controversial civil rights stories. During the Watergate scandals, it
was my job as White House correspondent to ask President Nixon questions
that he didn't want to be asked. These are 'crimes' that many big- money
political contributors don't forgive or forget, and Senator Helms likes
to remind them of me because he gets money from them."
More Statistical Games
FISCAL UNFITNESS. On
September 13, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe
both served as bulletin boards for Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) and
their newest attempt to prove that the rich paid less of the tax burden
in the 1980s. In a story headlined "15 Years of Cuts Said to Enrich
the Rich," Post reporter Tom Kenworthy suggested "The
study is the latest of a growing pile of analyses of federal fiscal
policy during the 1980s." Kenworthy failed to note that the study
was not original research, but another reworking of the same politically
loaded Congressional Budget Office statistics that other liberal groups
have used as the basis of their reports. A steady stream of liberal
studies which all use the same source is not exactly a "growing
pile" of research.
Both papers mentioned that the CTJ
figures covered the years 1977-1992, but neither made the obvious point
that there is no tax or income data for 1991 or 1992 yet! Conservatives
could have provided IRS data showing the income tax burden of the top
one percent increased from 17.6 percent of taxes collected in 1981 to
27.5 in 1988, while the bottom 50 percent's burden dropped from 7.5 to
5.7 percent. But the Post simply excluded any critical opinion,
and the Globe only allowed that "The study was faulted by
conservatives as too simplistic." The Post also described
CTJ as "nonpartisan," but five paragraphs later reported that
Dick Gephardt appeared at the group's press conference to criticize
FISCAL UNFITNESS II. The
Post and the Globe also uncritically reported an
economic study by the liberal Joint Center for Political Studies (JCPS)
comparing poverty in the U.S. and Europe. Post reporter Paul
Taylor passed on their conclusions in the lead paragraph: "The
United States stood in 'ignominious isolation' in its failure to lift
its least well-off citizens out of poverty...not only was the poverty
rate here higher in the 1980s than in the six other countries studied,
but also that poverty in the United States was deeper and of longer
But later in the story, Taylor added that
the study "defined poverty in each as 50 percent of the median
income for all households with heads age 20 to 55." That means that
if U.S. median income is higher than the other countries (it is), then
its poverty standard is also higher. So people in the same income
bracket would be poor here, but not in the European countries. Taylor
not only failed to explain this, but he failed to quote any critic who
could have explained it.
Moyers' Boy Alter
NEWSWEEK KISSES UP
Writer Andrew Ferguson skewered PBS
omnipresence Bill Moyers in a recent New Republic cover story.
Ferguson detailed the dirty work done by "television's
conscience" during his service to Lyndon Johnson, and pointed out
how he makes millions merchandising his public TV appearances. Moyers'
uncommon response, paying $9,000 for two pages of ad space, caused a
story in Newsweek.
Media writer Jonathan Alter applauded how
Moyers "attempts (often successfully) to parry practically every
blow of the hatchet." The caption described Moyers as "Victim
of a New Republic hatchet job." Alter called the Ferguson
article "a vicious innuendo- filled cover story." He also
dismissed Moyers' hypocrisy, that he can both do LBJ's dirty work and
then be credible in pious documentaries on Watergate and Iran-Contra:
"For The New Republic to suggest that this somehow
discredits Moyers' thoughtful work as a journalist is absurd."
Alter hoped viewers would not forget "Moyers' enormous
contributions to television."
But according to Peter Boyer's book Who
Killed CBS?, Alter has a reputation for going all soft over Moyers.
When Moyers resigned from CBS in 1985, The New York Times and
Alter "were particularly interested in getting Moyers's feelings
about CBS News, knowing that they would make for good copy." But
Moyers picked Alter because the Times, "would feel obliged
to include a response from [CBS] management." Can we trust Boyer's
account? Well, in the book's back-cover blurbs, Alter called it
"The definitive story of how cynicism and pettiness nearly
destroyed a great news organization."
CENSORING THE CASE
Network news executives, editors, and
reporters were livid early this year when they were not granted full,
immediate access to the front lines of the Gulf War, declaring
themselves "the conveyors of truth" and arguing for the right
to air graphic pictures of dead soldiers. Walter Cronkite defined that
attitude in a January 24 interview with the Chicago Tribune:
"It ought to be almost compulsory to sit in front of the television
set and have to view the horror they're enduring...If we start seeing,
live, on the air, people dying in combat, it's going to have one
But Cronkite, with his fondness for
People for the American Way and other liberal
"anti-censorship" groups, has not criticized his own
colleagues for their coverage of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
The same networks that lobbied to show dead soldiers declined to show
graphic images of sex that were funded by taxpayers, or play the lyrics
of a controversial rap music group.
To evaluate the networks' treatment of
the "censorship" debate, MediaWatch analysts
watched every news story from June 1, 1989 to September 30, 1991 on the
NEA or the rap group 2 Live Crew. Analysts viewed ABC's World News
Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and CNN's PrimeNews
(until late 1990) and then CNN's Evening News. In every one of
the 47 stories on the NEA and 29 about 2 Live Crew, the networks failed
to show the most controversial works or play the most controversial
lyrics, even as some downplayed their shock value. [This article
includes sexually explicit language.]
covering the photography of homosexual activist Robert Mapplethorpe,
each network described (at least once) the nature of Mapplethorpe's
controversial photos -- the ones that featured homoerotic and sado-masochistic
themes or nude children. But all of them refused to show or describe the
worst publicly- funded pictures: Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip inserted
in his rectum, or a picture of one man urinating in another man's mouth.
Only two networks, ABC and CNN, told viewers there were pictures they
wouldn't be able to show.
On September 29, 1989, CNN reporter Mary
Tillotson stated the networks' problem succinctly: "The problem
with reporting the debate about the propriety of public funding for the
arts is that the photographs at the heart of the dispute are clearly not
appropriate for television." In eight of CNN's 18 stories on the
NEA, Mapplethorpe's pictures were partially covered by black boxes. In
its seven stories on the NEA, NBC showed Mapplethorpe's pictures in only
three, and it covered up the pictures with black boxes in two. All of
the networks routinely cropped out the controversial parts without
telling viewers what they had hidden or cut out.
On July 26, 1989, ABC reporter Beth
Nissen also noted that Mapplethorpe's photo portfolio included "a
few which cannot be shown on television, [which] are images of
sadomasochism." Nissen implied that art too obscene for broadcast
television was comparable to past greats: "The art of Picasso, Van
Gogh, and even Monet was once considered shocking. Today's disturbing
works will likewise be judged by time." Seconds earlier, Nissen
argued that the NEA's controversial art has not found its place with the
greats, but has already been forgotten: "In its 24 years, the
Endowment has given more than 85,000 grants. Only 20 of those have
enraged or offended anyone, and most of those have long since been
2 Live Crew. The
networks followed the same ignore-the-facts practice in the controversy
over the rap music group 2 Live Crew. In 29 stories surrounding the
Florida ban on sales of the group's music, only three quoted the lyrics
at the very center of the controversy. NBC (in six stories) and ABC (in
two) refused to quote the lyrics. (NBC did quote some rap lyrics, in a
January 29, 1990 story -- not included in this study -- on the group
Public Enemy and its anti-Semitism.) In only one of its six stories, on
June 12, 1990 did CBS air some 2 Live Crew lyrics. Viewers could read on
screen: "I ---- all the girls and make them cry. I'm like a dog in
heat, I freak without warning. I have an appetite for sex 'cause me so
In its 15 stories, CNN aired the lyrics
twice. The first time, on February 22, 1990, they came muffled and
without transcription. On October 4, 1990, reporter Jack Poorman put
these lyrics on the screen: "Girls always askin' why I f--k so
much/Just say what's wrong baby doll, with a quick nut/'Cause you're the
one and you shouldn't be mad/I won't tell your mama if you don't tell
your dad/I know he'll be disgusted when he sees your p---y busted/Won't
your momma be so mad If she knew I got that a--/I'm a freak in heat, a
god without warning/My appetite is sex 'cause me so horny." Poorman
concluded that 2 Live Crew "have never denied their lyrics are
But these lyrics aren't the ones which
actually caused the Florida record-banning controversy, lyrics that
aren't "adult," but celebrate violence to women: "To have
her walkin' funny we try to abuse it/A big stinking pussy can't do it
all/So we try real hard to bust the [vaginal] walls," and
"I'll break you down and dick you long/Bust your pussy then break
your backbone." The same networks that trumpet your right to know
figure you'll hear about this somewhere else.
Network censors were also sensitive about
the cover to the group's album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. When
they dared to show the album cover, which features women in thong
bikinis with their mostly-bare behinds facing the camera, they covered
the buttocks with graphics on at least five occasions.
The networks cannot have it both ways,
implicitly or explicitly declaring their advocacy against
"censorship" and then censoring the most controversial parts
of publicly funded art or violent rap music. If they are willing to show
us grotesque images of death, they shouldn't be afraid of showing us the
homoerotic "art" we paid for, or the "hate speech"
of rap groups. Instead, those Americans who get their news from the
networks were cheated out of a complete understanding of the
Downplaying the shock value of NEA-supported
"art," even omitting important facts, happened more than once:
- On July 13, 1990, ABC reporter John
Martin's last sound-bite came from a smirking "performance
artist," Holly Hughes: "If I were really making
pornography, I wouldn't need to apply to the NEA because I would be
making a lot of money." ABC didn't tell viewers that Hughes'
stage act included a scene where she places her hand up her vagina,
saying that she saw "Jesus between Mother's hips."
This March, Human Events
reported that Hughes had received a $15,000 NEA grant for No Trace
of the Blonde, a lesbian stage act "for up to five
performers with two pubescent girls, black and white, about 12 years
old, as the main characters." ABC ignored this, too.
- On July 26, 1990, Peter Jennings
reported "a new attack" on "The Dinner Table,"
which Jennings said was "exhibited to great acclaim in other
parts of the world." ABC aired a few fleeting pictures of
plates on the dinner table that had vaginas sculpted into the
center. But Jennings never explained the subject matter.
- When CBS reporter Rita Braver covered
Todd Haynes' NEA-funded film Poison this March 29, she
failed to tell viewers about the film's homosexual rape scenes:
"In fact, most of the film's sex scenes are not graphic; leave
much to the imagination." Daily Variety had a
different analysis: "One prisoner stalks another in an episode
spiked with multiple glimpses of rear-entry intercourse and one of
genital fondling." Braver, who reported that anti-NEA activist
Donald Wildmon hadn't seen the movie, made sure the rest of us
didn't see or know much about it, either.
Home | News Division
| Bozell Columns | CyberAlerts
Media Reality Check | Notable Quotables | Contact
the MRC | Subscribe