Nightline and Frontline Caught In Hoax
The credibility of investigative reports
touting an "October Surprise" scandal -- that in 1980, Reagan
campaign officials negotiated to delay the release of the Iranian
hostages until after the election -- has been destroyed by the November
11 Newsweek and the November 18 New Republic.
The exposÚs, by Stephen Emerson and
Jesse Furman in The New Republic and by a team led by John
Barry in Newsweek, reviewed the charges made by primary sources
of the "October Surprise" theory, including Richard Brenneke,
Houshang Lavi, Barbara Honegger, Ari Ben-Menashe, and Jamshid Hashemi,
and found them baseless.
Emerson and Furman reported that in the
last four years, ABC "ran a series of 'investigative' stories based
on new Brenneke accusations," citing a "confidential
source" (Brenneke) making allegations such as "the United
States, working with Israeli intelligence, secretly flew weapons to the
contras and used the planes on their way back to transport
drugs into the United States."
Despite stories like these, ABC issued no
public retraction when Frank Snepp, who according to The New
Republic, "reported Brenneke's allegations as truthful for ABC
News for several years," wrote in the Village Voice that
Brenneke's "October Surprise" claims were false. Yet knowing
that Brenneke and Ari Ben-Menashe were untrustworthy (Newsweek
reported that Ben-Menashe failed an ABC lie-detector test in November
1990), ABC left them out of the picture and based an entire one-hour
June 20 Nightline this year on the testimony of Jamshid Hashemi.
Emerson and Furman detailed how Hashemi's credibility problems were
"even worse than those of Brenneke and Ben-Menashe."
ABC's unwillingness to show skepticism
toward this conspiracy theory is also proven by the fact that Nightline
chose not to air conservative journalists such as Herbert Romerstein,
who correctly challenged the veracity of these sources earlier this year
in debunking a PBS Frontline documentary for Human Events.
On the Fox Morning News November
5, Emerson, a former U.S. News & World Report writer and
investigator for Sen. Frank Church, called the "October
Surprise" theory "probably one of the largest hoaxes and
fabrications in modern American journalism...I was amazed that in the
last five years, no one bothered to look at the statements of the
sources. I mean, each one totally contradicted the other. None of them
had any documentation whatsoever. So I still question why major American
institutions, journalistic institutions, accepted on face value the
statements of these fabricated sources."
Adding from Harvard Yard.
Last summer American University professor Lewis Wolfson completed a
report titled Through the Revolving Door: Blurring the Line Between
the Press and Government. During his research for Harvard's Joan
Shorenstein Barone Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy, Wolfson
uncovered five names previously unknown to MediaWatch:
Ed Goodpaster, Deputy
Washington Bureau Chief for the Baltimore Sun from 1982 to 1987
and National Editor since then, held the title of Associate Director of
the Office of Governmental and Public Affairs at the Agriculture
Department from 1978-80. Before joining the Carter Administration,
Goodpaster was Deputy National Editor at The Washington Post, a
position he assumed in 1974 after nine years as Deputy Washington Bureau
Chief for Time.
Lawrence O'Rourke has
been White House correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
since leaving the Carter Administration in 1981. During Carter's last
year in office, O'Rourke served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of
Education for Policy and Planning. Before jumping to the new agency,
O'Rourke reported White House news for The Bulletin, a now
defunct Philadelphia daily.
Veteran Time correspondent Jerrold
Schecter was the magazine's diplomatic correspondent when
tapped for the National Security Council's Press Secretary slot in 1977,
a position he held through 1980. In 1989 he and his wife wrote An
American Family Returns to Moscow, a book comparing life under
Gorbachev to the late 1960s when he served as Time Moscow
Bureau Chief. Earlier this year he translated Khrushchev Remembers:
The Glasnost Tapes.
Walter Pincus, a defense
reporter at The Washington Post, put in two 18-month stints as
an investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under
Democratic Chairman William Fulbright. Pincus told MediaWatch
he first worked for the committee in 1962, returning in 1969 when
Fulbright asked him to investigate the role of the military in foreign
policy. After three years as Executive Editor of The New Republic,
in 1975 he joined the Post. For several years he simultaneously
worked for CBS News, serving as a producer/writer for CBS Reports:
The Defense of the United States, a five-part 1981 series.
Wolfson's paper also identified a Reagan
connection. In 1981 Dean Fischer left his position as Time
Deputy Washington Bureau Chief to become Assistant Secretary of State
for Public Affairs under Alexander Haig. Back at Time as its
Cairo reporter since 1986, he joined a PR firm when Haig resigned in
came across a Carter alumnus whom Wolfson overlooked: Arch
Parsons, a Baltimore Sun Washington bureau reporter
since 1987. Parsons held three positions during Carter's first two
years: Director of Information for the Appalachian Mountain Commission;
Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at HUD; and finally Director of
Public Affairs for the Economic Development Administration at the
Department of Commerce. Parsons left government in 1978 for an assistant
editor slot at Newsday, followed by a stint at The
Washington Star until it folded in 1981.
SAVAGE ATTACK ON REHNQUIST
The furor over the Thomas nomination may
subside, but many legal reporters will probably continue to paint the
conservative Court with broad brush strokes of disdain. On September 29,
before the Thomas hearings ended, the Los Angeles Times Magazine
published a cover story on Chief Justice William Rehnquist by Times
Supreme Court reporter David Savage. For oversimplifying Rehnquist's
opinions into a frightening platform against civil rights and the
interests of minorities, Savage earned the November Janet Cooke Award.
The Times led off their scare
with the subheadline: "Bill Rehnquist was once considered an
extremist. Now his views almost always become the law of the land."
This didn't describe Rehnquist's views -- it just makes them sound
Like too many of the major media's
Supreme Court reporters, Savage wrote his story in a simplistic
shorthand that assigns liberals the white hats and conservatives the
black hats: liberals as the defenders of individual rights,
conservatives as the defenders of government power. Some examples:
"...vintage Rehnquist. He upheld the
powers of the government and dismissed any claims that it has special
responsibilities toward the poor."
"No other member of the court in
recent decades had been as faithful in backing the government. No other
justice so regularly turned thumbs down when individuals contended their
constitutional rights had been violated."
"Throughout its history, the
justices had erred, [Rehnquist] said, when they sought to protect
"Souter was a conservative picked
for the Court because the Bush Administration believed he could be
trusted to uphold the government most of the time."
Savage put the opposite spin on the
"Somehow, year after year, despite a
procession of new Republican appointees, Brennan managed to piece
together five- vote majorities to rule in favor of civil right and civil
"A champion of individual rights,
Brennan led the court's liberal wing..."
Thurgood Marshall was described as
"the retiring giant of civil-rights law."
Lewis Powell would "vote with the
liberals on civil rights and civil liberties."
Savage summarized: "Under Rehnquist,
the Supreme Court no longer sees itself as the defender of civil rights
and civil liberties, the champion of the individual. Gone is the court
majority that breathed new life into the Bill of Rights, dismantled
Southern segregation, disciplined police who violated the rights of
citizens, removed religion from the public schools, pushed a President
into resignation and swept aside the laws forbidding women to end their
But if Savage had quoted any
conservatives in his article (he did not), they could have composed an
opposing list of liberal infringements on individual rights. Savage
might have at least presented the issue with more subtlety: that often,
the Court must decide between a conflict of declared rights between
individuals, like the rights of criminals vs. the rights of crime
victims; the rights of employers vs. the rights of job applicants; or
the rights of homeowners vs. the rights of environmentalists to declare
other people's property wetlands.
But in describing the Supreme Court that
found parts of the New Deal unconstitutional, Savage downplayed the
importance of economic liberties: "For liberals such as Brennan and
the late William O. Douglas, the lesson to be drawn from the era of the
discredited nine old men was that the court must protect civil rights
and individual liberties, not economic and property rights." Savage
admitted in the next sentence: "Nothing in the Constitution or its
history necessarily endorses such a distinction, but that has been the
prevailing consensus since the 1940s."
In a lengthy and courteous interview with
MediaWatch, Savage agreed that constitutional
rights are not to be selectively enforce, and that economic rights are
civil rights: "I agree with that. That's a good point. You ought to
argue that with Rehnquist, though. I don't see much sign that this Court
cares about economic rights or economic liberties."
Former Justice Department spokesman Terry
Eastland told MediaWatch the problem isn't
just "result-oriented" judging, but result-oriented reporting
of judges. Rather than explain the many details of the precedents and
technicalities on which justices base their decisions, reporters
simplistically suggest evil intent, such as the court ruled
"against" minorities, or as Savage wrote, that Rehnquist
"fought against equal rights for women but for the rights of white
males who claimed to be victims of affirmative action."
Savage devoted 11 paragraphs to the
thesis of liberal law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who has fiercely
criticized the Bork and Thomas nominations in the press. Savage cited
Chemerinsky's 1989 Harvard Law Review article that "showed
that the chief justice almost never votes to strike down laws -- unless
the laws happen to benefit minorities or women."
One case in which Rehnquist and the Court
overturned precedent was the 1989 Wards Cove decision on
unintentional discrimination. Conservatives ruled in favor of the
original text of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which
explicitly prohibits racial preferences like quotas. To be consistent,
Savage would have to argue that the original Civil Rights Act is harmful
to blacks' individual rights. But Savage conceded to MediaWatch
that in cases like Wards Cove, the conservatives are ruling for
individual rights, not the liberals: "I don't have any disagreement
with that. I think that's probably correct."
Savage's story also simplified the
Court's treatment of religion: "With an unquestioned majority,
Rehnquist may move aggressively to throw out established doctrines of
constitutional law. For example, Rehnquist has long disputed Thomas
Jefferson's view that the Constitution demands a `separation of church
and state.'" Savage didn't explain that the phrase "separation
of church and state" appears nowhere in the Constitution, but comes
from an 1802 letter that has been transposed into constitutional law by
No matter how much legal reporters decry
the "dumbing down" of the Supreme Court, the President has a
long way to go to match the dumbing down of Supreme Court reporting.
Boiling down incredibly complex interpretations of the law into
understandable news copy is a tremendous challenge. But stories like
Savage's aren't balanced depictions of the Supreme Court's
deliberations; they're politically motivated caricature.
PLEASE TAX US.
Citizens Against Government Waste declared October 19 "Taxpayer
Action Day." NBC's reaction? Assert that taxes are just too low. As
Nightly News drew to a close, anchor Garrick Utley announced:
"American tax rates today are, relatively speaking, low. Repeat
low. About half the top rate in the rest of the industrialized world.
Our sales taxes are equally low. Fact: the United States is a tax
bargain, believe it or not."
Utley urged Americans to follow Europe by
becoming more reliant upon government: "The difference, of course,
is that in other countries people see their tax money coming back to
them to make life more agreeable and secure. In Western Europe, health
care for everyone. In Scandinavia, day care centers for mothers and
children." Too bad he didn't mention that Sweden just threw out its
BEHIND THE TIMES AT TIME.
Last year, MediaWatch pointed out that at Time,
which talks a good game about women's rights and promoting working
women, only 12 of the top 47 editorial jobs are held by women. In the
midst of self-righteous indignation at sexual harassment in Time's
pages, the New York Post reported that Time Deputy
Chief of Correspondents Joelle Attinger collected stories from female Time
staffers about sexual harassment.
But after receiving a number of reports
about one high-ranking Time employee, the piece was spiked. One
source told the Post "it was a silly idea to air our own
dirty laundry." The source said sexual harassment may have been
"rampant in the past. It's not so much a problem now." Rather,
"The real problem we have here is sex discrimination. There's a
pervasive atmosphere of discrimination here." Sounds like a topic
for Time's feminist essayist, Barbara Ehrenreich of the
Democratic Socialists of America.
DISTRIBUTING DUNCE CAPS.
This should win an award for the dumbest story of the year. In an
October 8 CBS Evening News story, reporter Bob McNamara used
public confusion about abortion laws as an argument against overturning Roe
v. Wade. "It could be the future in all fifty states if Roe
v. Wade is overturned," he surmised, "abortion, legal in
some places, illegal in others. A state of confusion that's already
happening....[Doctor] Jackson says that confusion over the law has
Some women, he warned, take desperate
measures to end pregnancies, like drinking cleaning fluids or quinine.
"In rural Utah...questions over whether abortion is legal have led
some women to try ending a pregnancy themselves," he claimed.
McNamara ended his story by putting the blame on legislatures for even
considering anti-abortion laws: "And if there are victims already
in this battle for the future of abortion, they are casualties mostly of
FAYE'S FREE RIDE. ABC
reporter Sylvia Chase offered the latest glorifying profile of Planned
Parenthood President Faye Wattleton on Prime Time Live
September 5. But unlike other media tributes, Chase brought up Margaret
Sanger: "In 1916 when Planned Parenthood was established, founder
Margaret Sanger was jailed for speaking about contraception. Today, Faye
Wattleton is worried that history is repeating itself."
But Chase ignored a more substantial
angle. Not once did Chase ask Wattleton how she, as a black woman, could
preside over a group founded by a woman who said birth control was
needed "to create a race of thoroughbreds." Sanger advised
Planned Parenthood to "hire three or four colored ministers,
preferably with social service backgrounds and engaging
personalities....We do not want word to go out that we want to
exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can
straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more
DESPERATELY SNEAKING SUSAN.
Susan Estrich popped up as an expert on sexual harassment in several
stories during the Thomas hearings. On the October 8 NBC Nightly
News, she was labeled a "law professor." In the October
28 Time, it was "University of Southern California law
professor." Only ABC, in appearances on Nightline and Good
Morning America, described her partisan credentials as 1988
Campaign Manager for Michael Dukakis.
TEAM TALBOTT. Time
Editor-at-Large Strobe Talbott, who in January of 1990 claimed Gorbachev
proved "the Soviet threat isn't what it used to be -- and what's
more, that it never was," is at it again. In an October 14 essay on
Robert Gates' CIA nomination, Talbott charged that in 1976, CIA Director
George Bush requested an outside "Team B" report on the
Soviets which was "a depiction of Soviet intentions and
capabilities that seemed extreme at the time and looks ludicrous in
Earlier in the essay, Talbott conclude
that "Gates' supporters on the committee -- all Republicans --
tried with more ingenuity than success to discredit the most damaging
testimony. Gates then put up a spirited, gutsy defense of his own,
earning respect from several Senators -- all Democrats -- who will still
probably vote against his confirmation." At the time Senator David
Boren (D-OK), the Intelligence Committee chairman, had already announced
his support for Gates, who ended winning the committee vote 11-4, with
four Democrats voting in favor. Perhaps Time needs a Team B
essayist for future predictions.
Is NBC reporter Lisa Myers objective? You make the call. In one of a
series of Nightly News reports on Democratic candidates, Myers
heralded Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton on October 3: "His
prescription -- an ambitious agenda to make government work and help the
forgotten middle class...A star since first elected Governor at age
thirty-two, Clinton is less driven by ideology than by what works...Name
a problem, Clinton probably has a solution."
Earlier, on the September 12 Today,
Myers claimed: "Clinton has racked up a fairly strong record in
eleven years as Governor. This year fellow Governors voted him the most
effective Governor in the nation. His claim to fame, education...Clinton
increased school attendance requirements, raised accreditation standards
and required teachers to pass competency tests, over the vehement
objections of the teacher's union. Then he raised taxes to pay for it
all, including higher salaries for teachers. It worked."
SCORCHED TAXPAYERS. One
reporter is actually blaming the Oakland fires on low taxes. In an
October 27 Philadelphia Inquirer story, Knight-Ridder reporter
David Johnston asked: "If $12,000 in overtime pay might have saved
Oakland's hills, is it time to rethink the tax revolt?"
"The idea that paying too much in
taxes can hurt, but that not paying enough can kill, has begun to seep
into the political consciousness here," Johnston observed before
charging the future fire "threat is magnified because many fire
departments are underfunded and underequipped." Why? "The
modern tax revolt began here in 1978, when Proposition 13 slashed
property taxes. Since then there have been severe cuts in local
The fact is California localities are
hardly strapped for cash. The California Taxpayers Association reported
last month that local discretionary levies, such as business license
fees and utility and hotel taxes, have soared 298 percent since Prop. 13
and property tax collections have grown faster than inflation every year
since 1982. The Los Angeles Times offered a better culprit:
incompetence. On November 1 the Times reported "officials
were slow in asking for aerial support" and "offers from state
firefighters were ignored."
TAKING AIM AT GUNS. The
Killeen, Texas mass murder tragedy prompted some opinionated assertions
from CBS News. On the October 16 Evening News, Dan Rather asked
reporter Richard Threlkeld, "Is Congress going to do anything to
limit these assault weapons, and if so, what?" Threlkeld answered,
"We hope so. Tomorrow, Congress will vote on the crime bill which
includes a feature to limit the sale, or manufacture, or importation of
some semi-automatic weapons." On October 23 Dan Rather led off a
story on the aftermath of Killeen with this bit of blame transference:
"The shootings in Killeen are the latest tragedy highlighting the
success of the gun lobby at fighting gun control."
SCAMMING SAM. With
sexual harassment the issue of the month, at least one male network
reporter was clearly nervous that he might fall out of liberal favor. On
This Week with David Brinkley October 13, ABC attack dog Sam
Donaldson got this surprise from Barbara Walters: "Sam, if I wanted
to, I could have such a list of sexual harassment against you." A
sheepish Sam replied: "I can tell you I've never done anything that
Judge Thomas is accused of, but have I walked through the news room kind
of uh-huh uh-huh? Sure." He later repented: "I think from now
on, though, I'm probably going to go uh-huh uh-huh [whispered]."
One who wasn't nervous, ironically, was
NBC commentator John Chancellor. On the October 8 Nightly News
he warned: "The biggest lesson of all is that these days women take
it very seriously when they're not taken seriously." He should
know. In her book Fighting For Air, former NBC reporter Liz
Trotta wrote that Chancellor once signed a petition to keep women out of
his social club because they would "break down the effortless,
unconstrained companionship among men." Trotta, who described
several run-ins with a chauvinistic Chancellor, was amused. "I
still believe that men have a perfect right to their own clubs, but it
was a tonic to watch Chancellor's liberal credentials up for
FACTS ON BLACKS. Despite
the polls showing strong black support for Clarence Thomas, NBC News
portrayed the opposite. On October 10, the night before the special
hearings, NBC reporter Deborah Roberts stated: "There is little
sympathy for Clarence Thomas' trouble. After all, many black leaders
here never embraced his nomination...Today, at all-black Morehouse
College, they debated Thomas' stand against affirmative action. In this
classroom, there will be no feeling of loss if he loses the
Really? What about the rest of the
country? On October 14, USA Today's poll reported 63 percent of
blacks supported confirmation for Thomas, while only 18 percent were
opposed. In the same poll, 47 percent of blacks believed Thomas was
telling the truth, compared to 20 percent who believed Anita Hill.
Likewise, a Los Angeles Times poll found 61 percent supported
Thomas and an ABC News-Washington Post poll found 70 percent
wanted Thomas confirmed.
BALANCE IS BORING. Who
says journalists should be balanced and fair in their reporting? Not Newsweek
media critic Jonathan Alter, who apparently prefers editorializing over
news reporting. In an October 28 column on the press coverage of the
Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill story, Alter wrote: "At The New York
Times, Maureen Dowd, framing the story while the competition slept,
scored a series of analytical scoops on the unfairness of the Senate to
women and to Anita Hill...But inside the Times and out,
just-the-facts-ma'am mossbacks grumbled that `editorials' were appearing
on the front page. Their bumper sticker should be: KEEP THE TIMES
STILL WAITING. On Nightline's
October 16 two-hour special on the Thomas hearings, MediaWatch
Publisher L. Brent Bozell asked Ted Koppel if he would allocate the same
zeal to investigating the Senate's leak of a confidential FBI report on
Anita Hill as he has to "October Surprise" charges. Koppel
responded: "I'll be happy to talk to you by phone tomorrow morning
if you'd like to." Despite two phone calls and one faxed letter,
Koppel has not responded.
THE COURT'S FUTURE.
The addition of Clarence Thomas is making reporters glum about the
Supreme Court's future. On the October 7 NBC Nightly News,
reporter Lisa Myers sounded the alarm: "Given the Court's
increasingly conservative makeup, it also could end the era in which the
Court has led the fight against racial injustice in this country."
CBS reporter Rita Braver framed the
issues from the liberal perspective on the October 15 Evening News:
"Ultraconservatives William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia usually
draw enough of the Court's other conservatives to form a majority. But
not always. The addition of Clarence Thomas, however, makes it even more
likely that in the near future the Supreme Court will ease requirements
for school desegregation, cut back on affirmative action programs and
other protections for minorities and women, get tougher with reporters
in freedom of speech cases, further crack down on the rights of accused
in criminal cases, and overturn the basic right to abortion."
Reporter or Campaign
BUSH BULL & HARKIN HYPE
It's not uncommon for reporters to become
flacks or operatives for liberal candidates, but usually they wait until
after they leave their network or paper. Not Boston Globe
reporter John Powers. For the October 6 Globe Magazine, Powers
wrote the cover story, "To: The Democratic Party, Re: Winning --
for a Change," a mean-spirited diatribe. He began with a series of
cheap shots: "The Republicans will cheat to hang on to the White
House, even if they think they have the election in the bag...The
Republicans will distort, too. Remember Willie Horton, Bush's [Boston]
Powers urged Democrats to "shake the
American people by the shoulders and tell them the truth. That life in
the USA isn't getting better for most of them. It's getting worse -- and
it's George Bush's fault." Later, he advised: "Whack away at
Bush every day, and make it personal. You know what drives him crazy.
The W word. As in wimp." More strategy from Powers:
"The country is going nowhere while
George Bush's friends are living off their windfalls from the `greed is
good' days. Make that your campaign centerpiece -- public distaste for
the '80s is real. Bush spent those years in the White House, worshiping
debt and calling it growth. Bush made Dukakis wear Willie Horton. You
can hang Mike Milken around his neck. Both felons, right? And who did
more harm to America?"
"You have to get people thinking
that the '90s are the '30s revisited -- and blame it on Republican
greed...You can make a strong case that the Republicans, who've been in
power for 18 of the last 22 years, have knocked the working man and
woman back into the 1950s."
"You don't have a Roosevelt or a
John F. Kennedy out there, but you do have the makings of a Harry Truman
in Tom Harkin, the Senator from Iowa....Harkin uttered the most
memorable political lin of the year at Wisconsin's June Democratic
convention, `George Bush and his fat-cat Republican friends say they are
building a Conservative Opportunity Society. I've got a one word reply:
Bullshit.' If Harkin will say that inside the sanitized fishbowl that
American politics has become, he'll say a lot more. Plain talk for hard
Powers found nothing wrong with a
reporter becoming a partisan advocate, telling MediaWatch that
readers expect opinions in the magazine. As for why the Globe
doesn't employ any conservatives who could offer a contrary view, he
sarcastically claimed that executives can't locate any
"literate" ones, suggesting that Globe Publisher Bill
Taylor cannot "find a conservative who can put a complete sentence
Media Money Leans Left
$ Against Thomas
Where did the liberal interest groups
besmirching Clarence Thomas get their money? Some of it came from media
companies and foundations. Most of the top dogs have given money to
NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund: ABC, CBS, NBC, General Electric,
Gannett Co., Hearst Corp., the New York Times Company and the Washington
Post Company. (NBC donated to NOW's legal fund as NOW was suing them for
The Philip L. Graham Fund, operated
mostly by heirs and employees of The Washington Post, gives
yearly to the Women's Legal Defense Fund. The Capital Cities/ABC
Foundation has given to a feminist group called the Women's Action
Alliance. Planned Parenthood is funded by the Times Mirror Foundation
(owners of the Los Angeles Times), the New York Times Company
Foundation, the Gannett Foundation, the Cowles Media Foundation, the
Cowles Media Foundation (owners of the Minneapolis Star Tribune),
and the Knight (as in Knight-Ridder) Foundation.
The NAACP, which ended up opposing
Thomas, has an impressive roster of media donors: the Times Mirror
Foundation, the New York Times Company Foundation, the Boston Globe
Foundation, Philip L. Graham Fund, General Electric Foundation, Gannett
Foundation, Knight Foundation, and the Hearst Foundations.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights
Under Law, which bragged of dragging down Robert Bork in its 1988 annual
report, is funded by the Philip L. Graham Fund and the Boston Globe
Foundation. People for the American Way is supported by CBS and the
Washington Post Company.
HARD & SOFT ON
Just when Judge Clarence Thomas looked to
be a shoo-in for Senate confirmation, someone with the Senate Judiciary
Committee leaked an affidavit from Anita Hill charging Thomas with
sexual harassment. If, as suspected, Democrats did the leaking, it could
clearly be characterized as hardball politics or playing dirty.
But when network television covered the
hearings live over the Columbus Day weekend, Democrats were not
subjected to tough questioning about their possible role in the leak, or
how committing this crime was a new low in playing dirty. Instead,
reporters accused the Republican committee members of playing hardball
politics, while criticizing the Democrats for not being tough enough on
Thomas, a MediaWatch Study has documented. The
study covered all ABC, CBS and NBC news broadcasts (both live coverage
and normal shows) between the start of the hearings at 10 AM EDT on
Friday, October 11 through the Wednesday, October 16 morning programs.
The study also covered all CNN and PBS live coverage, plus CNN's World
News. The amount of time devoted to live coverage varied: CNN and
PBS showed it all while CBS, which cut out for baseball Friday night and
for football on Saturday and Sunday, offered the least.
In total, the five networks' anchors,
reporters and affiliated analysts singled out the Republicans for
cynical or hardball tactics on 28 separate occasions. On another twelve
occasions, the network personalities complained that committee Democrats
went too easy on Thomas. (On two occasions, CBS vaguely blamed both
parties, calling the hearings "smear and counter-smear," for
example.) No anchor or reporter deplored the likelihood that the
Democrats leaked in an effort to stop Thomas at all costs. In fact, they
praised leaks (despite the damage they may cause) as an
"all-American institution," in the words of PBS anchor Paul
During a break in the hearings on October
12, Dan Rather asked: "Would you agree, or would you not agree,
that one person's leak is another person's public service?" On the
same day, Nina Totenberg insisted that "the history books are full
of important and historic events that were the result of news leaks....
[Watergate] would have just been a third-rate robbery if there hadn't
been a lot of leaks disclosing what it had all been about. So, news
leaks -- I don't want to be defensive about this -- but news leaks
aren't always bad."
When Senator Paul Simon appeared on Meet
the Press October 13, reporter Andrea Mitchell went on the attack,
but not about the leak: "Now you just mentioned that Anita Hill was
under attack for most of yesterday and you lamented that. But it was the
Democrats who failed to question Judge Thomas very aggressively about
some issues that might have been relevant. For instance, pornography.
One of his friends from Yale, Lovida Coleman, a very close friend, has
said that he liked to tell stories about pornographic films....Why was
that question not asked?"
During an October 14 Today
roundtable discussion, NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert
exemplified the attack on Republicans: "You had Senators accusing
people of perjury; Senator Simpson, `I have faxes, I have letters' --
the closest thing to McCarthy that we've seen. It was not a kinder,
gentler Republican panel." On Today the next morning,
Andrea Mitchell complained about Thomas: "The Democrats did not ask
him tough questions about the facts of her charge and they did, the
Republicans did a great job of hammering her. It's basically what
happened in the '88 campaign. The Republicans know how to fight
With the exception of two occasions on Nightline,
ABC refrained from making such judgments in all of its hearings
coverage. Ted Koppel mouthed the media line on October 15: "The
reality that Judge Thomas is tonight Justice Thomas can be attributed in
large measure to the fact that his supporters used some hardball tactics
of their own." In contrast, Koppel asserted the Democrats
"were largely ineffectual counter-punchers."
ONCE IN LOVE WITH NINA.
Nina Totenberg's media groupies continue to celebrate The Leak. On ABC's
Prime Time Live November 7, Diane Sawyer jawed that Totenberg
"inspire[s] respect." After reviewing Nina's feud with Alan
Simpson, Sawyer ended with a flourish: "Senator Simpson sent word
to us for this broadcast that he thinks Nina Totenberg is a fine
journalist who was just doing her job." Sawyer didn't mention that
Totenberg was charged with plagiarism by The Wall Street Journal.
Journal Washington Bureau Chief
Al Hunt responded to a loving October 10 profile by Washington Post
reporter Howard Kurtz. Instead of investigating her story, Kurtz simply
forwarded Totenberg's tale of leaving the National Observer in
the 1970s because of sexual harassment. A week later, Hunt claimed that
Totenberg did not leave, but was fired for plagiarizing the Post
in 1972. Totenberg's response: "What I did or didn't do almost 20
years ago isn't the issue." Kurtz has yet to report these charges,
despite his regular reporting on other incidents of plagiarism.
For those who wonder how Totenberg's
prodding of Anita Hill affected her PBS commentary during the hearings,
we present the Totenberg Tote Board. Number of times Nina defended
herself over the leak: four. Number of times Nina wondered
whether liberal interest groups would get a fair hearing from Thomas: three.
Number of times Nina downplayed or audibly giggled at John Doggett's
testimony: three. Number of times Nina promoted Hill's panel of
witnesses as important or damaging to Thomas: eight. Totenberg
ended her Sunday hearing analysis by saying: "By and large, I'd say
the big news of today was the very first panel of the day, those who
were corroborative witnesses for Anita Hill."
Just like their electronic colleagues,
many newspaper and magazine reporters accused Republicans of playing
dirty and the Democrats of being too nice:
"Just as they did in the 1988
campaign, the Republicans battered the other side by going ugly early
with nasty, personal attacks, by successfully linking the Democrats with
liberal advocacy groups and by using volatile images of race."
-- New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd in a page 1 news story,
"The White House went into those
hearings with a clear strategy: they were going to get Clarence Thomas
confirmed. And the Democrats came in, having been under a lot of heavy
criticism for trying to cover up this whole story or whitewash it, and
they said `we're going to be the seekers of the truth.' And so, Clarence
Thomas has lawyers sitting on that committee who were working for him,
and Anita Hill didn't have any, and in the end, the strategy worked for
-- U.S. News & World Report Asst. Managing Ed. Gloria
Borger, Oct. 18 Washington Week in Review on PBS.
"The lowest point on the first day
of the hearing came when Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter implied
that Hill had simply fantasized Thomas' asking for dates and his lurid
remarks about pornography. It is all but inconceivable that a similarly
qualified man, black or white, would be accused not merely of lying but
of imagining things."
-- Time Senior Editor Jack E. White, October 21 issue.
"The days of Simpson Chic are over.
Now he is more often compared to Red-baiter Joe McCarthy. The image of
Simpson flinging open his jacket and declaring he had lots of `stuff'
against Anita Hill -- while revealing nothing -- was the lowest of many
low points in the Clarence Thomas hearings. Any Senator with a sense of
history should have said, as attorney Joseph Welch eventually did to
McCarthy, `Senator, have you no shame?' ....[Simpson] is writing a book
about the media -- a little like Stalin discussing intergovernmental
-- Newsweek Washington reporter Eleanor Clift, October 28 news
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