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MRC Analysts Reveal that Real Network News is Dead

Op-ed by Brent Baker, Vice President for Research and Publications at the MRC and Tim Graham, MRC's Director of Media Analysis, in the June 9, 1998 National Review 

By Brent Baker & Tim Graham

ON May 15, the New York Times reported that Johnny Chung told investigators that part of the almost $100,000 he gave Democrats in the summer of 1996 came not just from Communist China but from the People's Liberation Army. It was a blockbuster story, confirming what had been the most sensational possibility when Asiagate first broke back in 1996. But none of the three network morning shows touched the story, devoting the majority of their air time to the death of Frank Sinatra. 
That night, after three Sinatra stories and updates on Indonesia and Pakistan, ABC's Peter Jennings devoted a minute and a half to the story. On CBS, Dan Rather spent 27 seconds on it. On NBC, Tom Brokaw surrendered just 15 seconds. CNN's 8 P.M. newscast gave the story 2 minutes after 43 minutes of other news, including an estimate of the audience for the Seinfeld finale and a story about the recall of the new Volkswagen Beetle. 

Two days later, the Times returned to the subject, detailing how President Clinton overrode the decision of Secretary of State Warren Christopher to limit permission to launch American-made satellites on Chinese rockets. Only ABC assigned a reporter to the story that night. CBS ignored it, although its newscast had time for a story on scientists' trying to determine whether Thomas Jefferson had offspring with slave Sally Hemings. NBC's basketball-shortened newscast covered the upcoming vote in Ireland on a peace plan and ``Powerball fever.'' 

Media critics once complained that the networks obsessively followed the lead of the New York Times. Now, when it comes to the Clinton scandals, they don't even do that. The primary building blocks of TV news shows today are packages -- ``A Closer Look'' on ABC, ``In Depth'' on NBC, ``Eye on America'' on CBS -- devoted to themes such as the joys of Viagra, the fat content of French fries, or the latest gale of El Niņo. These are great ratings grabbers -- and they do not need to wait for the news of the day; indeed, they are often produced weeks in advance. Segments like these used to focus almost exclusively on serious policy issues concerning health and welfare, education, and the environment. Now they're more likely to report on male pattern baldness or the flaw in new diet drugs. 

Network executives today seem completely comfortable making soft news a top priority. The ascent of 24-hour news outlets on television, radio, and the Internet makes the networks feel that public affairs have already been covered all day long; since a half-hour-long show can't compete with C-SPAN for the attention of political junkies, the reasoning goes, the networks may as well focus on the most attractive news for the greatest number. But 70 per cent of Americans tell pollsters they get most or all of their news from network television. 

And C-SPAN can't always cover the big stories either. In 1997, when the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee convened to investigate fundraising abuses at the Democratic National Committee, Sen. Fred Thompson's hearings were not aired during the day on C-SPAN, because of its commitment to cover Congress. Most days, they were not covered live by CNN or MSNBC. Even the Public Broadcasting Service, originally created to counter the networks' commercialism, decided that Barney and Big Bird and Arthur the Aardvark were too important to be interrupted by Senate hearings. 

With a longer list of affiliates than any of the other networks (and often with more than one station in a market), PBS insisted that its affiliates would not defer to someone else's notion of the public interest. Ellen Hume, head of PBS's ``Democracy Project,'' explained: ``A commitment to such open-ended coverage, including the House hearings which have not even started yet, was not a realistic option for PBS. PBS was in its infancy during Watergate, and, like MSNBC or the Fox cable channel today, it had little established programming to pre-empt. Today families rely on PBS's children's programming during the day, particularly when school is out during the summer.'' 

If the Thompson hearings were not given live coverage, were they at least seriously reported on the network newscasts? No. Jennings and Brokaw and Rather all buried the hearings beneath lurid tabloid-style stories. The murder of Gianni Versace easily outranked the fundraising hearings on the evening newscasts, and the morning shows aired 7 segments on Versace for every 1 on the fundraising scandal. In the month after Princess Diana's death, the Diana-to-DNC ratio was 6 to 1 on the evening news, 10 to 1 in the morning. 

Of course, there should be room in a half-hour-long show for both the ratings-grabber and the brain-teaser. But the networks are terrified of viewers flipping to Wheel of Fortune. Indeed, the news shows now often start with a trivial item, and the more important political news arrives twenty minutes later -- if it arrives at all. On July 16, 1997, the Thompson committee heard one of John Huang's bosses at the Commerce Department say Huang was ``totally unqualified'' for his post. But on ABC's World News Tonight, the lineup that evening was: three Versace stories, the NAACP convention, an FDA-approved implant for epilepsy, a bank robber who stuffed dollars in his pants and fled in his underwear when the dye on the bills ignited, and a fly-fishing program for breast-cancer victims. 

In August, ABC's Cokie Roberts explained that the networks weren't covering the Thompson hearings much because of the low name recognition of the witnesses. The next month, when National Security Advisor Sandy Berger testified, ABC gave his testimony 18 seconds. That show had led with a poll showing that Brits want Prince William rather than Prince Charles to be their next king. Before getting to Berger, ABC gave its viewers another Diana-related story, studies on AIDS and osteoporosis, and sexual harassment in the Army. 

Not only did Sen. Thompson and his committee colleagues go uncovered, they also went uninterviewed on the weekday morning shows. Those shows devoted only five interview segments to the hearings in July, and all five were with the networks' own pundits -- NBC's Tim Russert and ABC's Cokie Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, and Bill Kristol. The use of in-house pundits is largely a business decision: it helps promote the networks' Sunday interview programs, it justifies multi-million-dollar contracts for the pundits, it sticks to people who are accustomed to speaking in soundbites, and, most importantly, it avoids giving air time to boring public officials who might focus on something other than who's up and who's down. 

News Lite has worked to Bill Clinton's advantage, keeping most of his abuses of the public trust off the air -- except in the case of Monica Lewinsky. With the ratings bonanza of the O. J. Simpson murder trial still warming television executives' hearts, the networks ran more stories on Monicagate in its first few days than they had run on all the other scandals combined over the previous five years -- the FBI files (about 60 stories), Travelgate (many fewer than that), all the indictments of Cabinet members (next to none), the Asian fundraising scandal (see above). Was Monicagate definitive proof that there is no such thing as media bias? Ted Koppel suggested as much to Newt Gingrich on Nightline. But the course of that scandal has been instructive. 

Almost immediately, reporters began agonizing about how their coverage was hurting Clinton. Just three days after the Lewinsky affair broke, ABC was focusing on the media's ``overcoverage.'' CNN, with Clinton buddy Rick Kaplan at the helm, flayed the rest of the media -- not for failing to cover the earlier stories but for covering this one -- in a two-hour special. PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the other network news shows followed suit. Then, having concluded that they themselves had gone too far, the media decided that Ken Starr had too. 

Less than three weeks after the Lewinsky scandal broke, ABC's Michel McQueen concluded a piece: ``The question now is whether Starr's tactics will prove more offensive to the courts and the public than any alleged wrongdoing by the President that Starr is investigating.'' A week later NBC's Tom Brokaw plugged an upcoming story: ``Still ahead tonight: Investigating the President. A growing backlash against independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Is he out of bounds or just tone deaf? . . . Has Starr gone too far in his pursuit of Monica Lewinsky and the President?'' The network trotted out polls asking: Has Starr gone too far? By contrast, of course, when Iran - Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh indicted Caspar Weinberger four days before the 1992 election, there was a barrage of media commentary pointing out how the indictment would hurt the Bush campaign, but the networks didn't even mention Walsh's name. 

Even when it's a matter of policy debates rather than personalities, the same tired biases still apply. When the Senate considered a Republican proposal for tax-free education savings accounts, CBS's Dan Rather reported not on the proposal but only on the attack on it: ``President Clinton today attacked a Republican proposal in Congress. This Republican proposal would let people set up education savings accounts that earn tax-free interest. The President said this GOP version benefits the rich and private schools at the expense of already decaying public schools.'' CNN anchor Martin Savidge endorsed Democratic worries that ``tax breaks for private tuition would benefit the wealthy at the expense of public education. And Democrats have numbers on their side. A Treasury Department report says 70 per cent of the benefits would go to just the top 20 per cent of income earners. Overall the education savings accounts would cost the government $1.6 billion in tax revenues.'' 

Criticism of the media used to vary depending on whether the critic was on the Right or on the Left. Liberal critics would complain that the networks, in response to the market, were frivolous, while conservatives focused on their liberal bias. Frivolous or biased? Unfortunately, we don't have to choose.

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