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From the April 1992 MediaWatch

TV, Magazines Avoid Covering Clinton Finances

Page One


While reporters mourned the rough-and-tumble media coverage Bill Clinton received from the New York tabloids, they continued to cover for Clinton. On March 20, The Washington Times reported that contrary to Hillary Clinton's claim that she never got "one dime" from state business, she received $2,000 a month in legal fees for at least 15 months for defending business partner James McDougal's failed Madison Savings & Loan before a state agency. This charge has been totally ignored, while Time and Newsweek wrote apologetic articles about unfair scrutiny of working political wives.

Hillary's critics came under fire from the media. As returns came in March 17, NBC commentator John Chancellor took sides: "Jerry Brown's inaccurate attack on Hillary Clinton's legal fees did not work." On March 23, after The Washington Times report appeared, ABC's Chris Bury asserted: "Brown repeated claims that Clinton made money by directing state business to his wife's law firm. Those claims have never been proven."

Even reporters who specialize in critiquing the media ignored the Washington Times story. In a March 27 story complaining about unfair scrutiny of Clinton, Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz suggested Hillary "generally declines her share of fees from clients with state business." In the April 6 Newsweek, Jonathan Alter argued: "Jerry Brown was grossly wrong about Clinton 'funneling money' into his wife's law practice....Hillary Clinton takes no share of state fees, but if she did, it would be peanuts."

The same pattern happened earlier in the month. On March 8, The New York Times first reported on the partnership with McDougal. One week later, The Washington Post reported on Hillary's law firm and its dealings with state agencies. In both cases, the networks aired snippets of arguments, but did nothing to investigate the claims independently From March 8 to 31, the four networks did only five full stories and mentioned the financial questions in only nine stories.

NBC aired only one story, on the 16th. CBS made a brief mention of the New York Times story on the 8th, and then dismissed financial questions on the 16th. Reporter Richard Threlkeld portrayed it as an invasion of privacy: "And now, as Hillary Clinton is asking, must a wife sacrifice her career if it might interfere with her husband's? Not the sort of campaign issue the voters were expecting."

The newsmagazines were even less interested. In their March 23 editions, Newsweek devoted one clause; Time reported nothing; and U.S. News & World Report, which did a big report on the dealings of presidential son George W. Bush the week before, left the Clintons alone.


Revolving Door

Fox Guarding the Democratic Coop. The Democratic National Committee has called in an expert to help it best showcase this July's convention: Garth Ancier, Vice President for programming at Fox Broadcasting. Electronic Media's Wayne Walley reported March 16 that Ancier is advising Smith-Hemion Productions, the convention organizer, "on such diverse elements as set construction and message delivery to help the political event excite younger viewers and voters." Ancier spent seven years in NBC's programming department before helping to launch the Fox network in 1986 as head of programming. In 1989 he began a tour as President of television production for Walt Disney Television. Last year he returned to NBC as Executive Producer of the short- lived Sunday Best series, rejoining Fox last fall.

Tsongas Tsays. Two newspaper veterans climbed aboard the Paul Tsongas presidential campaign just a few weeks before he dry docked it. St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Jon Sawyer went on leave in early February so he could sign up as an adviser. A foreign policy and defense reporter in the Washington bureau since 1980, Sawyer told MediaWatch that before returning to the bureau he hopes to write a book on his campaign experience. In mid-February Philip Lentz became the Press Secretary. Most recently Deputy Press Secretary to N.Y. Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine, Lentz handled press for New York City Democratic mayoral candidate Richard Ravitch. Until jumping to politics in 1989, Lentz spent seven years with the Chicago Tribune, the last three as New York bureau chief. Lentz spent the fall of 1988 covering Michael Dukakis.

Back for More. Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Reagan, author of President Bush's 1988 convention acceptance speech, and the person who coined the "Read my lips, no new taxes" phrase, has returned to the White House as a speechwriter charged with "message development." Reportedly Noonan, who wrote radio commentaries for Dan Rather in the early 1980s, will move to the campaign staff in June.

Bye-Bye Betty. After 16 years with Today, NBC News decided not to renew the contract for consumer reporter Betty Furness. She made her last appearance on March 18. Before joining New York City's WNBC-TV in 1974, Furness held several political jobs. First she served President Lyndon Johnson as Special Assistant for consumer affairs, followed in 1970 by an appointment by Governor Rockefeller as Executive Director of the New York state Consumer Protection Board. She became Commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs under Democratic Mayor Lindsay in 1973.

Fowler's Fighter. Senator Wyche Fowler, a Georgia Democrat, has brought aboard a new Press Secretary with network television experience. Norm Kurz was Research Director for the News Election Service, a New York area election information service, in 1980 and worked for ABC's election unit during the 1982 campaign. In the mid-'80s Kurz put in a Press Secretary stint with U.S. Representative Les Aspin (D-Wisconsin).


Janet Cooke Award



The media's class war continues. On March 5, The New York Times topped its front page with an article headlined "Even Among the Well-Off, the Richest Get Richer." According to the Times, the top one percent of earners garnered 60 percent of the income gains in what it called "the 80s," from 1977 to 1989. But the Times took five paragraphs to cite their source, the Democrat- appointed Congressional Budget Office (CBO). CBS took the Democrats' study and created another one-sided, emotion-loaded, hate-the-rich commentary in the guise of a news story, earning the April Janet Cooke Award.

The New York Times story, by economics reporter Sylvia Nasar, at least included conservative economists and reported that the rich declared more of their income to the IRS in the '80s and paid more taxes because of lower tax rates. All nuance was lost on the March 5 CBS Evening News. Dan Rather introduced the story: "In America in the 1980s, what former President Reagan and those who support him call the Reagan revolution put more money in the pockets of the rich. We already knew that. But a new study indicates that those who did best of all by far were the very richest of the rich."

Bob Faw began: "The new figures compiled by the Congressional Budget Office show that in the 1980s, for Americans of privilege, the music was very sweet." To support the CBO, Faw aired soundbites of Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and Bill Clinton waving around the front page of The New York Times.

Faw attempted to appear balanced by including Pat Buchanan, who decried the politics of envy, but this is how he introduced Buchanan: "But today, when toes were being lovingly tended to on Miami's Gold Coast, and where shopping bags were bulging on Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive, there were voices which argued good times for the rich can mean good times for others, too." Faw ended by showing video of a debutante ball: "The issue of tax fairness will be front and center in the presidential campaign, even though it wasn't on the agenda here."

Faw explained: "The numbers show the rich did get richer, while the bottom 40 percent of families saw their income decline during the Carter-Reagan years, and the typical American family saw its income creep up just four percent. For that top one percent, incomes exploded, up 77 percent."

Wrong. Census Bureau data shows that average family income grew in every fifth of earners from 1977 to 1989, except during 1979-80, when every fifth declined. The CBO's tall tales of trickle-down aren't even close to the Census data. From 1980-89, the middle fifth of earners gained 8 percent, according to the Census numbers. CBO found a 0.8 percent decline for the middle fifth.

But according to the CBO's numbers, the middle fifth (or third quintile) of earners, a truly middle-class group, saw their after-tax incomes decline 5.3 percent from 1977 to 1989. Those same numbers say 4.5 percentage points of that number (or 85 percent of the decline) occurred from 1977 to 1980. So the study Clinton is touting on the campaign trail really proves that the last time Democrats held both the White House and the Congress, the middle class went in the tank. CBS and The New York Times avoided that interpretation.

On March 27, CBO Director Robert Reischauer issued an eight-page memo claiming its data were misinterpreted. Reischauer backed away from the claim about the top one percent getting 60 percent of the gains, saying it was not a CBO statistic, but an analysis of CBO data by economist Paul Krugman. Instead, he claimed that by the most accurate measure, the top one percent actually gained 44 percent of the income gain from 1977-89, meaning the Times front-page chart reveals at least a 36 percent error. The Times didn't report the CBO's back-pedaling.

But Chris Frenze, a Republican economist for the Joint Economic Committee, told MediaWatch that according to the CBO's own memo, the top one percent received 44 percent of the income gain from 1977-89, but only 38 percent of the gain from 1980-89. "For there to be a six-point discrepancy between those two numbers, the top one percent would have had to make something like 63 percent of the income gains in the Carter years," Frenze concluded. Frenze later discovered that CBO's own data suggested that the top one percent got 100 percent of the income gains from 1977-80, since no other group gained. Will CBS correct its story? Repeated phone calls to Faw and CBS press representative Donna Dees went unreturned.

The CBO is becoming the statistician's equivalent of the corrupt House Post Office and House Bank. But instead of treating CBO claims to scrutiny or balancing them with other statistics, major media outlets burnish their credibility by passing them along unquestioned, while their statistical screw-ups have been covered up or ignored. This latest fraud may get as much press as the CBO's ridiculous errors in projecting capital gains, missing in its estimates by more than 100 percent. The major media have yet to report that.



A BOOK GONE WRONG. If it sells, who cares if it's accurate? That seems to be the view of Andrews and McMeel, the book publisher which just released America: What Went Wrong, the paperback form of the October 1991 Philadelphia Inquirer series by the same name. As documented in the December and February issues of MediaWatch, reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele used misleading or inaccurate statistics to portray the middle class as decimated by tax cuts and deregulation.

MediaWatch asked Donna Martin, editorial director at Andrews and McMeel, if the firm had checked the book's statistical assertions for accuracy. "No," she responded before noting that she was pleased that the book "reflects the public mood" and is the basis of some April episodes of Bill Moyers' Listening to America PBS series. So much for fact checking.

FUDGING THE BUDGET. Even though the 1990 budget agreement has failed to control spending as its backers promised, it is still being trumpeted as a success by the media. In a March 6 "news analysis," Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson charged: "Today, with another election at hand, Bush seems willing to borrow a little more from young people's futures to protect his own." Mufson suggested: "Many of the President's own supporters were dismayed at his renunciation of the hard won budget compromise. And many economists criticized Bush's apparent renewal of his 1988 'read my lips' campaign pledge." Mufson didn't include any critics of the budget deal.

In the March 16 issue of Time, Washington reporter Michael Duffy complained: "Rather than telling Americans why he wants another four years and what he intends to do with them, Bush is repudiating one of the few domestic accomplishments of his first term -- a successful budget compromise that cut and capped spending, raised taxes and reduced government borrowing by nearly $500 billion."

What country's budget is he referring to? In a February 10 Wall Street Journal op-ed, the Heritage Foundation's Daniel Mitchell reported domestic spending under Bush has risen twice as fast as under Carter.

REGARDING HENRY. It's not too hard to see which side of the NEA controversy Time has taken. In the March 9 issue, art critic William A. Henry III wrote that Bush's NEA has "allowed the right wing to misrepresent culture as a hotbed of the unpatriotic, the irreligious, the sexually permissive, and perverse." He bemoaned the fact that even media figures, such as ABC's Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, have called for the NEA's abolition.

"Rather than a pluralist tolerance in which one seeks only to ensure that one's side is heard, anti-NEA campaigners seem to seek a monopoly in which no other values can be affirmed by the government," Henry charged. He failed to explain that the values he wants the NEA to affirm are those of the chocolate-covered, half-naked, lesbian performance artist.

Henry instructed readers: "In a heterogenous society there are other, often antagonistic points of view with equal entitlement to respect." So Michelangelo's David and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ are worthy of equal respect?

NO PROBE FROM STROBE. Time Editor-at-Large Strobe Talbott has made no secret of his affection for his former Oxford housemate Bill Clinton. In the April 6 Time, Talbott defended Clinton's draft record: "At issue is what lawyers call state of mind: How real was Clinton's concern that he might be drafted? The surmise that he had nothing to worry about is based on more than 20 years' hindsight...In the autumn of '69, no one who was at the mercy of the draft knew for sure who would be called up when and according to what procedures."

While the April 6 issue was still on the newsstands, the news broke that Clinton admitted receiving a draft induction notice in the spring of 1969, something he'd avoided telling most people, apparently even his friend at Time. Talbott's tale of tragedy turned to farce. He quoted Clinton writing a friend in the fall of 1969: "I am resolved to go to England come hell or high water and take my chances." Asked by Washington Times reporter John Elvin if he would revise his apologia, Talbott said "No."

NOW COVER-UP. Months after other newspapers and magazines broke the story, The New York Times has seen fit to announce that Patricia Ireland, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), has a female companion in addition to her husband. In December, The Advocate interviewed Ireland, who admitted to the affair. On March 3, reporter Jane Gross penned a New York Times Magazine profile of Ireland, suggesting Ireland's admission wasn't voluntary: "But her hand was forced by The Advocate, a gay-and-lesbian publication that threatened to 'out' her if she did not cooperate with an interview, Ireland says."

Not quite. On January 15, Washington Post columnist Judy Mann reported that when Ireland "was asked [last July] about her family, she disclosed the information. The New York Times did not print it. The story merely said that she was married and the couple had no children."

Instead of coming clean about the Times' self-censorship, Gross celebrated her subject: "Ireland has a winsome smile, a perfectly sculptured pageboy and a sleek wardrobe accumulated in her days as a partner in a Miami law firm....And her voice is sweetly modulated, especially when she is trying to win a point or have her way." Gross didn't even bother to identify NOW as liberal, just "hard-edged." But she did label another woman: "Beverly LaHaye, President of the right-wing anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America."

FEMINIST FORUM. In January, MediaWatch reported on Good Morning America co-host Joan Lunden's tribute to feminism when she interviewed NOW President Patricia Ireland and liberal columnist Ellen Goodman. On March 19, the tribute resumed when she interviewed Gloria Steinem and liberal reporter Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women.

Once again, Lunden engaged in a feminist lovefest rather than a debate. Lunden's questions included: "Why this backlash? Because a lot of women are talking about it now and feeling it," and "Isn't it nice to have something to just blame all these things on...From reading Susan's things, I mean, I really feel you feel there is a very strong backlash. Do you agree?" Lunden even criticized the media: "You're talking about these messages, these media messages that are all of a sudden coming out; that if you sit and look at them you can say, wait a minute, you know, this does seem...anti-woman." She ended: "We could go on and on about this, as they do at many, many dinner parties, I'm sure at many tables, but I gotta jump out of here."

POTTER SAVES THE PLANET. As June's U.N. "Earth Summit" nears, some in the media are doing their best to fan the "global warming" hysteria. Take Ned Potter's completely imbalanced March 12 report on ABC's World News Tonight. Potter, noting the Bush Administration's reluctance to give in to the green lobby, fumed: "At stake [at the Earth Summit] is a treaty to control the industrial gases, like carbon dioxide from oil and coal, that trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere and threaten to warm the world." As usual, Potter left out scientists like MIT's Richard Lindzen, who do not believe warming is occurring.

But Potter's real villain was John Sununu. Potter exalted, "Sources say what's allowed this debate to take place is the departure of John Sununu as Chief of Staff. They say he was so anti-environment and so intimidating that nobody dared tangle with him...Staff members complain that John Sununu held them up for two years. Now they only have two months to get a proposal together." Potter's the intimidated one: if Sununu's arguments were so weak, why was Potter so afraid to cite them?

UNGAGGED OPINION. The Bush Administration revised the so-called gag rule to allow doctors to give limited abortion counseling at federally-funded clinics, but network reporters still weren't satisfied. On the March 20 NBC Nightly News, reporter John Cochran told Tom Brokaw: "I think there will be more abortion counseling, because, along with these guidelines, an unwritten signal is being sent that the thought police will not be watching very carefully what's going on in these conversations."

ABC News reporter Al Dale followed on March 30: "But thousands of other clinics more dependent than Planned Parenthood on federal money may have to obey the rules, leaving many women who cannot afford private care with no place to turn for qualified medical advice on abortion." Neither reporter discussed the difference between the legal right to abortion and the demand that taxpayers subsidize the promotion of abortion.

On March 21, ABC correspondent Karen Burnes reported: "According to a recent ABC News poll, most Americans favor a woman's right to choose an abortion under certain circumstances; only 10 percent oppose it." Burnes avoided polls on issues before the Supreme Court., such as a January Gallup survey that showed 70 to 86 percent support for restrictions like parental consent and spousal notification.

ENGBERG ERRS AGAIN. "The way America treats its children from newborns to teens has deteriorated to danger levels according to a new study out today," Eric Engberg breathlessly declared on the March 23 CBS Evening News. Engberg treated the study, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, as the gospel truth, a threatening crisis beyond dispute.

But CBS excluded critics like Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector, who told The New York Times the report was "pure mental rubbish" that "ignores $150 billion in welfare; so it doesn't look at the children's standard-of-living conditions." Census Bureau statistics don't consider substantial non-cash welfare benefits such as housing assistance and Medicaid. Engberg also reported that child poverty increased 22 percent in the 1980s. But the Children's Defense Fund, a left-wing lobby for increased welfare dependency, calculated that the percentage of children in poverty declined from 22.3 percent in 1983 to 19.6 percent in 1989.

Without citing any statistical source, Engberg insisted "social workers have encountered more homeless children." For emotional impact, he turned to a social service worker who explained how homeless kids "forget how to laugh, they just sit, they cry a lot. We have a lot of kids that cry. They've lost a sense of trust." The poorest thing in Engberg's story was the reporting.

LANE COMPLAINS. Newsweek reporter Charles Lane, who reported from El Salvador from 1987 to 1990, took issue with an item in last month's MediaWatch. In the January 27 Newsweek, Lane wrote on the Salvadoran war: "By 1980, 800 death-squad victims a month were being dumped on the dusty streets." We responded that such a sentence ignores the killings of the communist FMLN at that time and throughout the war. In a letter, Lane called our article "a patently specious attack." MediaWatch replied: "Your formulation, that the war's deaths are somehow appropriately measured only by the presumed killings of one side, is inherently biased."

Wrote Lane: "In my three years in Salvador, some of my leftier colleagues in the press corps used to excoriate me for allegedly harping on FMLN abuses. Now you guys are slamming me for allegedly doing the opposite. In both cases the charges are bogus." In a later phone conversation, Lane also told MediaWatch: "I had the Salvadoran air force threaten me, I had the FMLN threaten me, I had the FMLN ban me from their territory because they were spreading the rumor that I was a CIA agent. And to have you accuse me of bias on the subject of El Salvador, after I have wrestled with that experience, after I have wrestled with those issues for five years, trying to come to some semblance of truth about that place, which is a damned difficult place to understand, is a cheap shot. And it's not worthy of your publication, which on many occasions I think properly skewers the press for its real biases."


Page Five

Reporters Take Cue from Left-Wing Class War Specialists


Democratic presidential candidate Jerry Brown's surprise win in the March 24 Connecticut primary led the networks to examine the only conservative policy he espouses: replacing virtually all current federal taxes with a flat income tax and Value Added Tax (VAT), both at 13 percent. Every story looked at the idea from the left, relying on loaded figures released by Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ). The day after the primary, NBC's Lisa Myers began the crusade: "Brown portrays himself as the champion of the little guy. Yet, his flat tax would cut taxes on the rich and increase them on everyone else." Myers then cut to CTJ President Robert McIntyre.

On World News Tonight, Bob Jamieson asserted: "The group's study ...says Brown's plan would hurt middle and low income families." After citing some figures, he continued: "The group says the business tax would be passed on to consumers. That would hit low income families hardest, because they spend a higher percentage of their income on essential goods and services."

CTJ's press release called the flat tax "just another dose of 'trickle down' economics. It would be the greatest thing for the rich and powerful since Andrew Mellon was Calvin Coolidge's Treasury Secretary in the 1920s." But reporters failed to identify CTJ's left-wing agenda. Instead, on the March 26 Prime Time Live Sam Donaldson reported: "According to the non-partisan organization Citizens for Tax Justice, an average American family with an income of $32,000 now pays combined federal income, Social Security, excise and gas taxes of $5,920. Under the Brown plan, the same family would pay between $7,360 and $8,320 while the wealthy one percent would get a tax cut of $86,000." On NBC Nightly News on March 27 reporter Mike Jensen declared that "most economists don't think it will work" and "that his plan would help the rich, but hurt the poor and middle class." Jensen then cited the CTJ figures, saying they came from "one independent study."

CNN attempted balance. Reporter Brooks Jackson put CTJ's numbers into an on-screen table, but he also interviewed two pro-flat tax economists, noting "most economists say a flat tax would be simple, efficient and great for business." Only CNN, in an earlier story, mentioned CTJ's interest in the debate: Until becoming Clinton's campaign manager, David Wilhelm had been CTJ's Executive Director.

No reporter, however, explored the games CTJ played. Brown's plan would let people deduct their rent, a factor CTJ failed to estimate. To make the flat tax seem more burdensome on the poor and middle class, CTJ's flat tax table added six percent for state sales taxes and assumed the poor would pay the 13 percent VAT on their entire income. But to measure the current situation, CTJ did not count state sales taxes. In the April 20 New Republic, the Hudson Institute's Alan Reynolds explained that "we already have a flat tax that exceeds 15 percent. It is called the Social Security tax. And it falls on the very first dollar earned. Because Brown would scrap that tax, the net effect is to replace a 15 percent tax with a 13 percent flat tax."

In a National Center for Policy Analysis study, economists Gary and Aldona Robbins noted the flat tax would spur job growth by shifting the tax burden from labor to capital and that simply keeping the personal exemption would insure that the poor don't pay more. As for reporter's contention that a VAT would further burden individuals, they explained: "Those who believe that VAT taxes would be passed on to consumers must also believe that Social Security taxes, corporate income taxes and excise taxes are currently being passed along to consumers -- since these taxes are also costs of doing business."


Page FiveB

Look Who's Advising PBS


Last year, PBS put a new twist on its Point of View (P.O.V.) series by airing Tongues Untied, a 60-minute ode to black gays by Marlon Riggs. Many PBS stations didn't air the film because of its coarse language and images of two men rollicking in bed. Now, P.O.V. producers have announced this summer's series will be kicked off on June 15 by Riggs' new film, Color Adjustment, which argues that TV programs like Roots aren't representative of the black experience.

Riggs won new celebrity from the Buchanan campaign, which ran ads in the South attacking Tongues Untied. In their zest to play "truth squad" with Buchanan's ad, at least five news outlets (CNN, NBC, Time, Newsweek, and The Washington Post) incorrectly reported that the federal government only gave Tongues Untied $5,000 in 1988. The P.O.V. series, however, received $250,000 from the NEA, $300,000 from PBS, and $215,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in 1991.

Riggs is not only an NEA favorite, he's a six-figure federal darling. In addition to being funded by NEA, PBS, CPB, and the NEH, Riggs was just awarded $245,000 from the federally-funded Independent Television Service (ITVS), the new welfare program for radical filmmakers.

He is also an appointed arbiter of public taste: Riggs sits on the PBS Programming Policy Committee, an advisory board to programming chief Jennifer Lawson. Appointed in 1989, Lawson has a long left-wing history. In the late '60s, she worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Council of Negro Women. In the early 1970s, she worked for the one-party socialist government of Tanzania, perfect training for the one-party mentality of PBS today.


Page Six

Thomas Trashed Again


Some Supreme Court reporters continue to reduce complex legal issues to tabloid simplicity. In February, MediaWatch reported how USA Today reporter Tony Mauro lambasted Clarence Thomas for ruling against a black county commissioner in a voting rights case. Mauro avoided the legal issues, instead focusing on race and who benefitted.

In a March 10 article headlined "Thomas Ultraconservative on Death Penalty Case," Mauro used a different spin. Thomas issued the lone dissent from the Court's decision that a white prisoner's membership in a racist prison gang could not be used against him during sentencing. Thomas would look good to his simplistic critics -- he'd ruled against a racist.

But Mauro wrote: "New Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has come under attack recently for his near-total adherence to the views of the court's most conservative members -- Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. But in a case handed down Monday, Thomas parted company with Scalia and Rehnquist. He took a stand more conservative than theirs."

When liberal Judge Leon Higginbotham wrote to Thomas accusing him of forgetting his roots, Washington Post reporter Ruth Marcus subtly endorsed Higginbotham's view: "But in a plea that has taken on added poignancy as Thomas's initial votes on the court have placed him among the most conservative justices, Higginbotham at moments sound almost beseeching as he urges Thomas not to join a majority that `will continue to retreat from protecting the rights of the poor, women, the disadvantaged, minorities, and the powerless.'"



House Bank:


Washington's most underreported story may be the growing inattention the news media are paying to the workings of Congress. According to a 1985 study in the Washington Journalism Review, the number of Capitol Hill stories on the nightly network news decreased by half between the late '70s and 1980-84. Increasingly, Washington news is centered at the White House, heading east to the Hill only for reaction to presidential initiatives. This goes double for scandals. White House appointees have long been target practice for investigative barbs, but the media have comparatively little appetite for legislative scandal.

This is unmistakably illustrated by the networks' lack of fervor in uncovering the House Bank scandal. The story first surfaced on February 7, 1990, when the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported it found $232,000 in bad House checks during the previous 12 months. Only The Washington Post (on February 8 and 21) and the Los Angeles Times (reprinting the second Post story on April 8) did stories on the GAO findings. The networks aired none.

On September 19, 1991, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call publicized the latest GAO report on the House Bank. While newspapers followed the revelations, the networks reported nothing for an entire two weeks, until October 3, when the House voted to shut the bank down. All four networks then put on one story, and then dropped the ball again until March 5, when the House ethics committee released its report on the bank. Suddenly, the bank became a worthwhile story.

To study the tone and scope of the coverage, MediaWatch analysts watched all stories on the House Bank and House Post Office scandals from March 5 to April 4 on the four network evening news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's World News, and NBC Nightly News). In that month, the networks aired 58 stories on the House Bank scandal and its repercussions. Of these, 18 were short anchor-read stories and three were NBC interviews. Twelve of the 58 stories followed Speaker Foley's agenda: executive and legislative perks. As the scandal developed, charges flew, but the networks often failed to go beyond airing the charges and investigate for themselves. Among the stories that are still uninvestigated:

THE POST OFFICE. The Washington Times uncovered a scandal at the House Post Office in early February, including the bombshell that Speaker Thomas Foley had told no one in the press or the Congress about possible criminal activity, including cocaine selling. The networks were silent. Other newspapers, such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today, began to follow up, but when Postmaster Robert Rota implicated the Speaker's wife and unpaid top aide, Heather Foley, in the coverup, even these papers dropped the ball. Of the 58 stories on House operations, only nine have even mentioned the post office scandal, and three of those were brief anchor-read stories. In fact, NBC, which along with CNN, paid the most early attention to the scandal, reported on it only once.

THE TOP 22'S SLEAZE FACTOR. To date, the networks have refused to report that some of the top 22 check bouncers have resigned or been embarrassed by previous ethical lapses. One of the top 22 check bouncers was former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho. Among currently serving abusers, Rep. Harold Ford (D-TN) has gone to trial for bank fraud over a $350,000 loan; Rep. Bill Alexander (D-AR) took a $60,000 flight with his family to Rio de Janeiro; and Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-OH) violated House rules when she put a woman on her payroll who was living in New York. On April 4, The Washington Post reported that Oakar resigned from a House task force looking into the post office, and that the Cleveland Plain Dealer alleged she had sponsored two "ghost" employees who collected salaries but did not work.

In at least two morning network appearances, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich charged Rep. Ron Colean (D-TX), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, with securing a $65,000 loan with a constituent who was also seeking a $6 million grant before the committee. Network reporters failed to follow up on that charge, even to prove Gingrich wrong.

LARRY HOPKINS. The networks failed to examine early leaks of House check bouncers, particularly the case of Rep. Larry Hopkins (R-KY). When Hopkins tried to run for Governor in the fall of 1991, someone on Capitol Hill leaked his House Bank records, and he lost. No one investigated why or how Hopkins' name was leaked, or who had it done. (Only Newsweek alluded to the partisan leak. On March 12, ABC's Prime Time Live referred to Hopkins' loss, but not the possibly partisan leak.)

PETER KOSTMAYER. Last October, the conservative weekly Human Events wrote a detailed story on the check-bouncing abuses of Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D-PA) from 1983 to mid-1985, including a check for $23,000 that left his account overdrawn by $32,000. His account was overdrawn for six months at a time. But none of the networks put the story on the air. Kostmayer didn't make the top 22 abusers.

CAMPAIGN FINANCING. None of the evening news shows has reported that some House members, in violation of federal election laws, gave themselves loans from the House Bank to help finance their campaigns. At least three Democrats, including Charles Wilson (TX) and 1990 losers Doug Walgren (PA) and Jim Bates (CA) admitted the practice. (The March 20 Today did carry a story on this by NBC's Andrea Mitchell.)

MEDIA CHECK-BOUNCERS. To date, nobody's reported that the sergeant-at-arms allowed reporters to cash personal checks of $50 or less at the House Bank, some of which have been held. The Democratic leadership is refusing to release the names of media check-bouncers. Could it be reporters are afraid of offending the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which operates the House and Senate press galleries? This committee not only hands out perks (such as parking spaces on the Capitol grounds) to journalists; it will also help decide who gets the best credentials for the conventions this summer. Nobody knows, because the networks haven't reported it.

The networks will have plenty of opportunities to cover the House scandals now that the special counsel is investigating. Indictments and convictions will probably follow. But when executive branch scandals like Iran-Contra broke, the networks didn't wait for the special prosecutor to publicly reveal what he had uncovered; they dug for leaks and investigated on their own. If Washington-based network reporters really want to be watchdogs of the government, they ought to apply the same zeal to Capitol Hill.


Page Seven

THE WATCHDOG YAWNS. Imagine the media defending Ronald Reagan for keeping the Iran-Contra diversion secret for two years. Ridiculous? Then consider the spectacle of the media defending Speaker Tom Foley, who hid the post office scandal from reporters for months.

Take, for example, Today show co-host Katie Couric interviewing House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich on March 16: "You've charged that the Speaker sat on the report for ten months linking drug sales to the post office. Yet he says he immediately called in postal inspectors. Postal inspectors did come in and there are indictments pending against the employees. So isn't this a cheap shot?" Cheap shot? Foley not only hid the scandal from the press, he hid it from everyone, including his fellow House Democrats.

On March 17, New York Times reporter Clifford Krauss took it upon himself to defend the good name of Werner Brandt, one of Speaker Foley's long-time top aides. "Now Mr. Gingrich hurls an attack a day on national television and the House floor with little regard for such niceties as evidence....he suggested without offering any evidence that Werner W. Brandt, the newly appointed acting sergeant-at-arms, 'may have been involved in actions stopping the Capitol police from investigating cocaine selling in the post office.'" In effect, Krauss told the reader Gingrich's charge was baseless, but Krauss did not tell readers that Foley admitted that Brandt was in on keeping the Post Office scandal from the public. Investigating Brandt's role is the media's job, and nobody's doing it.

Some reporters simply yawned at the possibility of House corruption. On Inside Washington March 14, National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg dismissed the imbroglio: "It has no merit as a really good scandal. There's no public money involved...It was a lousily run bank and that's stupid and probably someone should pay for it, but it is not that major." Such dismissals came before any of the offenders or their records had been disclosed; before the special counsel investigated possible crimes; before any of the indicted House post office employees go to trial; in short, before the full story is known.



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