Reed Irvine - Editor
|February A, 1976|
AIM TO SEEK HELP OF NETWORK SHAREHOLDERS
Reed Irvine, Chairman of the Board of Accuracy in Media, has announced that AIM will ask the shareholders of ABC, CBS and RCA (the parent of NBC) to join AIM in asking the networks to improve their handling of complaints from the public about inaccurate and unfair news programs.
AIM has asked all three corporations to place before their shareholders a resolution recommending that consideration be given to the appointment of an ombudsman or in-house critic for each network news department. The ombudsman would be responsible for investigating complaints from the public. He would have the privilege of going on the air to report on action taken about complaints he found to be valid. He would have direct access to top management of the corporations, and he would also prepare an annual report to the shareholders on his activities and accomplishments.
AIM suggests that he also be given responsibility for devising a workable code of ethics, similar to the code recommended by the Society of Professional Journalists.
AIM has asked that an explanatory statement be provided to the shareholders together with the resolution. It would point out that a number of progressive newspapers have adopted the ombudsman idea. Since over three-fifths of the people now say that they depend primarily on television for their news, the broadcasters have great power and great responsibility. In our opinion, they have yet to devise a satisfactory method of correcting errors made on news and public affairs programs. We note that if newspapers, which have better ways of correcting errors than do broadcasters, see the need for an ombudsman to deal with complaints, broadcasters should also recognize this need.
AIM argues that the adoption of this proposal would improve the performance of the news departments and would also improve the image of the networks, indicating in a concrete way their concern for accuracy and fairness. In the case of CBS and NBC. we note that they have both sought to have the fairness doctrine of the Federal Communications Commission eliminated. We suggest that it is important that they show the public that they really are dedicated to fairness, accuracy, and balance.
ABC has stood alone among the networks in upholding the reasonableness of the fairness doctrine. Our statement to the ABC shareholders takes note of the network's commendable stand on this issue, and suggests that it would be appropriate for ABC to take the lead in instituting progressive methods of handling viewer complaints and correcting errors.
Mr. Irvine indicated that an AIM representative would attend each of the annual shareholder meetings of these companies this spring and move the resolutions. He has asked that the companies include the resolution and the accompanying explanatory statement in the proxy material that will be sent to each shareholder before the meetings.
The resolutions are very similar to a resolution that was submitted to the RCA shareholders in 1975 at AIM's request. Over 2.7 million shares were voted in support of AIM. This represented over 5 per cent of the outstanding shares.
We think this is a respectable vote for a resolution submitted by a minority shareholder, which is opposed by management. Such resolutions are up against the tendency of many shareholders to automatically give their proxies to management, perhaps not even bothering to read the proposals and the arguments pro and con that are included in the proxy material distributed by management.
Mr. Irvine believes that the AIM resolutions would be supported by a large number of the shareholders of the broadcasting companies if their attention could be strongly focused on the proposals. This could be done if AIM could itself mail a copy of its resolution and the supporting arguments for it to each shareholder. AIM has therefore asked RCA and CBS for access to the shareholder lists, as provided by law. RCA has already agreed to comply with this request.
Mr. Irvine states that this opens up the possibility of not only soliciting support for the resolution, but also of soliciting proxies for two or three directors who might compete with management nominees on a platform of greater emphasis on improving the fairness and accuracy of public affairs programming. He notes that the applause at the RCA shareholder meeting last year indicated substantial agreement on the part of shareholders at the meeting with criticisms of NBC news programming. He thinks many shareholders might well agree that out of 15 RCA directors two or three should be other than management nominees. He emphasized that AIM does not want to appear to be trying to take over RCA, but he thought it might be healthy if the shareholders had an opportunity to vote for at least a few directors who were not beholden to management for their nominations. Such directors could be expected to display some concern about programming practices, which, in the view of many people, tend to undermine the values and principles that have made this country great.
Mr. Irvine states that although the prospect of pursuing the solicitation of proxies by contacting each shareholder is an exciting one, he is not at all sure that AIM can afford the great expense involved. Because of the large number of RCA shareholders, he estimates the cost of contacting each shareholder individually would be at least $25,000. The ability to carry out the project will therefore depend on whether or not the necessary funds can be found. Mr. Irvine states that he does not believe that funds from AIM's general treasury should be used for this purpose. He thinks it should be financed by contributions for this specific purpose from individuals who were willing to be publicly identified with the project.
Comments and suggestions from AIM supporters are invited.
The three television networks all contend that their procedures for dealing with complaints about the accuracy and fairness of their public affairs programs are quite adequate.
There has been some improvement in the past year in the sense that CBS and NBC have assigned the task of handling AIM (and presumably other) complaints to a designated vice president. This has resulted in reasonably prompt responses, but the reaction is almost always a denial that there has been any error or unfairness on the part of the network.
For example, AIM lodged some 18 complaints with CBS in 1975 about inaccurate or unfair programs, in only one case did CBS admit an error and make a correction the air And they did so only after a delay of nearly 10 weeks.
We lodged ten complaints with NBC. That network was unwilling to admit that there had been any error, serious omission or unfairness in any of these cases. No corrections were made.
The networks obviously try very hard to avoid admitting that they have made any errors or have ever been unfair. They don't follow the practice of airing a serious complaint, their rejoinder, and letting the viewers be the judge. Their defenses are often totally inadequate and unconvincing, but there is no budging them once they have decided to reject a complaint.
The reaction to the exposure in the December AIM Report of the fact that the top brass in the Democratic National Committee and columnist Jack Anderson were tipped off about Watergate in April 1972 was fascinating.
Senator Strom Thurmond inserted the entire AIM Report article in the Congressional Record of January 19, 1976 (p. S 87). Senator Thurmond said that the story referred to unresolved questions and raised the possibility that political misdeeds were a two-way street. The Senator noted that AIM had taken the nation's news organizations to task for failing to pursue the subject adequately, but he said it was ultimately the responsibility of Congress "to seek and find complete answers to questions raised about both sides of the political fence."
Although the AIM Report is sent to many of the top people in the national news media, the silence from the media was deafening. We checked with a number of top editors and reporters to see what their reaction to the story was.
The editor of The Washington Star said it was interesting and that it was one of the stories still hanging over that he wanted to do something about. The managing editor of The Washington Post said he had turned the story over to Watergate star reporter, Robert Woodward. We were not successful in our efforts to reach Woodward. A reporter for The New York Times expressed amazement that the story had never been covered by The Times. The executive editor of the Associated Press said they definitely planned to do a story on the basis of Fred Thompson's book, which devotes a chapter to the prior-knowledge story. We did not talk to a single newsman who thought that this story was not worthy of news coverage, but still no stories appeared in the national media.
AIM decided that the only way to penetrate the newsprint curtain would be by buying space in one of the large papers to tell the story. We felt that this would have two desirable results. It would bring to wide public attention a story that ought to have been told, and it would demonstrate that it could no longer be safely assumed that matters of this kind could be quietly swept under the rug by "think-alike" editors.
TO: AIM, 777 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005
YES, I want to help place the ad exposing the prior knowledge of Watergate by the Democratic National Committee top brass and Jack Anderson in more papers.
Enclosed is my tax-deductible contribution of $__________.
( ) Please use this contribution to place the ad in the paper of your choice.
( ) Please use this to place the ad in__________________________________________________
A full-page ad in this paper costs $__________
City. State, and zip____________________________________________________________________
We described our plan to a number of our contributors and sought their endorsement and support for financing the ad. The response was great. Within a week we had enough money in hand to pay for a full-page ad in The Washington Post, costing $8,300. We were able to reprint the entire story from the December AIM Report in The Washington Post on February 4.
We want to thank those contributors who came through so quickly and enthusiastically with the financial support that made this breakthrough possible.
On September 14, 1975, the St. Paul Pioneer Press said: "John Blatnik, a Minnesota Democrat after 14 terms in Congress, was recently hired to represent the industry-oriented Environmental Balance Association. His task is to try to reverse some environmental programs which are costly to industry, such as the Clean Air Act which, when he was in Congress, Blatnik helped enact."
On October 22, this was picked up by a gossip columnist for the Washington Star, who wrote: "Whatever happened to John Blatnik, veteran of 14 years in Congress and author of the Clean Air Act? He's now retired to a lobbyist job with the Environmental Balance Association, which is trying to have the Clean Air Act repealed."
On November 2, The St. Paul Pioneer Press carried a long story, which began with the statement that John Blatnik "was accused by the Washington Star of lobbying against environmental programs." The Press than quoted from a letter to The Washington Star from Rep. James Oberstar, who pointed out that Blatnik was not a lobbyist, did not have a job with the Environmental Balance Association, had never been paid by that organization and was not under contract to be paid by them. Also, he was not the author of the Clean Air Act.
The Press said that Blatnik had "indignantly denied The Star article." He had explained that he was a member of the Board of the Environmental Balance Association of Minnesota, a nonprofit group that describes its purpose as promoting "the sound use of our natural resources as a base for responsible economic development." He said that he received no payment either in the form of salary or expenses from this organization, and he was not lobbying for repeal of the Clean Air Act.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press finally got around to discussing its own responsibility in the 24th paragraph of its 28 paragraph story. It said the source of the controversy was apparently its September 14 article, quoted above. It did not explain why it waited for The Washington Star to run its erroneous story before setting the record straight.
Here are some illustrations of the complaints we have lodged and the network replies. You be the judge of the merits, and of the adequacy of the network response to complaints.
CBS on Castro
AIM complained that CBS in its Dan Rather interview of Fidel Castro had contrived to create the impression that Castro had quit trying to export revolution through, the support of subversive movements in other countries. They had omitted a taped statement by Castro that they had in their possession in which he stated forthrightly that he was supporting revolutionaries in other countries if they were actually fighting. In place of this, they recounted how 'Che' Guevara had failed in his efforts to start a revolution in Bolivia in 1967 and then said that Castro now "talks more of conciliation and trade."
(Angola, where Castro has 10,000 troops, shows that he was deadly serious in saying he backed fighting revolutionaries).
CBS said that it had not included the forthright Castro declaration of support for subversives who were fighting in other countries because they had included another statement, which, in their view, said about the same thing. This statement was a comment on the Allende experience in Chile, in which Castro emphasized that he believed the use of force was necessary to carry out a revolution. He cited as successful cases Peru and Panama where leftist governments made sure they had control of the military, something Allende lacked in Chile. CBS steadfastly insisted that this was the same thing as Castro's saying that he was giving support to revolutionaries in other countries if they were fighting.
Prior Knowledge of Watergate
On 1/23/75 AIM wrote to CBS about their having come into possession of a copy of the suppressed report prepared by the minority staff of the Ervin Committee on the prior knowledge of Watergate by the Democratic National Committee and columnist Jack Anderson. We asked whether CBS had made any investigation of this matter and why it has not reported to the American people.
We received this reply from Bill Small, Vice President of CBS News: "You have written me about a Watergate document which was not involved in a CBS News broadcast. I make it a practice to discuss material which we broadcast, not matters of speculation."
In other words, this was one Watergate leak that was not reported, and CBS would not say why.
The "Anti-war" Label
On 1/27/75, in a letter to CBS commenting on the use of inaccurate labels by newscasters, AIM cited as an example the term "anti-war demonstration" to describe a meeting called to protest continued military and economic aid to South Vietnam. We asked in what sense this meeting was "anti-war," asking whether it had condemned North Vietnam for continuing the war, for violating the truce agreement and inhumanely shelling cities? We asked whether they were against the war, or only against the preservation of the freedom of South Vietnam. We asked how CBS justified using the label the demonstrators applied to themselves instead of describing them more accurately.
In response to the CBS defense that they did not know enough about the demonstrators to deny them the "anti-war" tag, we pointed out again that none of the reports indicated that the demonstrators had denounced Hanoi's brutal aggression, and there was no indication that genuine pacifists were dominant in the group. We pointed out that in the ease of a pro-Nazi demonstration during World War II, the press would not have called it "anti-war and would have been interested in finding out who did the organizing, who paid the bills. We asked what the chances were of CBS doing this.
The reply: "Since the report did not get into specifics about the positions the demonstrators took, it seems to us the reference to them as anti-war demonstrators and peace marchers was perfectly accurate ... They are anti-war, for whatever motive..."
CBS readily agreed that a Nazi-inspired demonstration in World War II would not have been labeled "anti-war," but they found it hard to characterize the demonstrators against aid to Vietnam. CBS said some were no doubt pro-Hanoi while others were probably genuine pacifists. "Anti-war" was therefore accurate in their view.
CBS did not respond to our question about the chances of their making an investigation of who organized and paid for the so-called "anti-war" demonstrations.
On 6/15/75, AIM criticized a CBS program titled. "Whose Canal Is It?" We noted that CBS had described American acquisition of the Canal Zone as a classic example of international chicanery, but had failed to mention the eagerness of the Panamanians to have the canal built and to get the payment we offered for the right to do so. Nor did the program mention the payment to Panama or the payment for all privately owned land in the Canal Zone. Nor was there any mention of the huge U.S. investment in building the canal and maintaining it. We noted that CBS had contrasted the annual $2 million payment to Panama with the $121 million a year we get in tolls from the canal. We noted that this suggested that the U.S. was profiting to the tune of $121 million a year, when the fact is that the receipts from the tolls are used to cover expenses and capital improvements. (The $2 million is not a dividend to Panama from canal earnings, but a payment for loss of earnings from the old Panama Railroad). Citing other examples of slanting, we said CBS was signaling to the audience that they should support the abandonment of U.S. rights in the Canal Zone.
The reply: "We reject your contention that 'the net impression is that CBS is indeed telling the audience what ought to be done.' There is nothing in the report that would support such a contention. Because the future of the Canal has been a matter of continuing negotiation for the past year and a half. 'Whose Canal is it?' constituted a report on the conflicting issues involved in the dispute, and it treated the conflicting views with fairness and balance."
(AIM subsequently filed a fairness doctrine complaint about this program with the Federal Communications Commission).
Does DDT Cause Cancer?
On 10/31/75, we wrote to CBS about a statement made by Dan Rather in the program, "The American Way of Cancer." Rather had said: "What we were looking for were small amounts of some pesticides that have been banned as cancer-causing agents - DDT, aldrin and dieldrin... The question is whether the natural defenses of the body can take care of small amounts of these carcinogens (cancer-causing agents)."
We pointed out that there was no scientific evidence that DDT causes cancer in humans. We cited an article on DDT by Dr. Thomas Jukes in the Journal of the American Medical Association of 7/29/74, which pointed out that tests had shown that DDT produced nodules that may eventually become cancer-like in mice, but that similar results were not found in non-rodents. Jukes noted that there were no cases of cancer found among longtime workers in a DDT factory who had absorbed large quantities of DDT, and he concluded that it was unlikely that DDT posed any cancer risk to the general population. It was also noted that the EPA ruling banning DDT did not state that it was a carcinogen for humans. The EPA had said that there was no adequate evidence of this and it was unlikely that it could be obtained.
The reply: "You are in error... when you state that we indicated 'without the slightest qualification' that DDT was carcinogenic for humans. Dan Rather first described them as 'pesticides that have been banned as cancer-causing agents.' Later, he pointed out that, 'In spite of the evidence, there are those in agriculture and industry who don't believe these pesticides are dangerous. They're fighting the ban.
"This hardly suggests that there was not 'the slightest qualification.' Indeed, it indicates there is a difference of opinion about the effects of DDT and the others. Accordingly, we see nothing warranting correction."
AIM Comment: When Rather says DDT has been banned as a "cancer-causing agent," and then speaks of DDT, aldrin and dieldrin as "these carcinogens," he is calling them carcinogens with no qualification. It is not a qualification of this statement to say that some in industry and agriculture don't believe the chemicals are dangerous "in spite of the evidence."
Freedom in Yugoslavia
On 9/1/75, AIM wrote to NBC about an August 21 broadcast on Yugoslavia in which correspondent Douglas Kiker had said: "If there are restraints on personal freedom here, it is not evident on the surface. Life in Belgrade appears to be free and easy...There appears to be complete freedom of information. At newsstands, western magazines and newspapers are readily available for purchase."
We pointed out that one of Yugoslavia's best-known writers, Mihajlo Mihajlov is in prison for having written that there is no freedom of speech in Yugoslavia. He had previously served a prison term of 3 1/2 years on a similar charge. We also noted that while Kiker had said that the Yugoslavs appeared to be a united people, there is strong evidence of serious tensions among the various nationalities making up the country. In February, 15 persons had been given long prison terms for plotting to bring about the independence of Croatia. (Subsequent to this letter, The New York Times has described the intensification of repression over the past three years, resulting in the jailing of hundreds of dissidents, seizure of publications, etc.).
AIM responded to NBC with the comment that uninformed superficial observations about Yugoslavia could be provided by tourists, but that more was expected of professional news organizations. We noted that no great expertise was required to learn of the denial of civil liberties to such famous Yugoslavs as Mihajlov and Milovan Djilas.
The reply: It was noted that Mr. Kiker had mentioned, "Conservative Yugoslav expatriates contend that (Yugoslavia) remains essentially a totalitarian state." Mr. Kiker had gone on to say that Tito's champions "say, to the contrary, Yugoslavia stands as living proof to both West and East that socialism and a significant degree of civil and personal freedom are not necessarily incompatible." (Our point was that Kiker had limited himself to citing evidence that the latter was true, ignoring evidence to the contrary). To this NBC said: "It gave Mr. Kiker's personal observations on the matter. He did not assert that there was freedom; he only commented that there were no restraints evident on the surface.
"The report was not, nor was it intended to be, an in-depth review of Yugoslavia. The point, which concerned you, was made, nevertheless, without extended discussions of the pro's and con's. Accordingly, no purpose would be served in attempting to ascertain whether NBC News has reported on Mr. Mihajlov or suppression of liberties in Yugoslavia."
NBC's reply: "Whether under such circumstances it was neither appropriate or necessary to delve into specific cases dealing with freedom in Yugoslavia is a matter of news judgment; it is not a question of accuracy.
Aerosol and Cancer
On 1/1/76, AIM wrote NBC saying that on the Today Show guest Nora Ephron had stated that the cancer rate had risen five per cent because of environmental pollution. Referring to the alleged damage to the ozone layer from the fluorocarbons released by aerosol sprays, she said: "We are going to spray ourselves out of existence if we keep going."
We pointed out that the alleged 5 percent increase in the cancer death rate in 1975 was derived from preliminary data of doubtful validity. The data were being investigated by the National Institutes of Health. Until complete data were available, it was not possible to say now large the increase in 1975 was or what the causes may have been. We also noted that the theory about the effect of aerosol sprays on the ozone layer was being debated by scientists and that it was needed before any conclusions could be drawn.
We asked if NBC would take steps to inform the Today Show audience that Ms. Ephron's statements were, on the basis of present scientific knowledge, exaggerated and misleading.
On January 29, we responded to the NBC reply noting that we had made no reference to the fairness doctrine and had suggested no limitations on anyone's right to misinform. We had thought that perhaps NBC, in the interest of truth, might voluntarily set the record straight. We also pointed out that more complete data on cancer mortality now indicate that the rate in 1975 increased much less than 5%. We asked if it would not be a good idea for NBC to report this.
The reply: "As you point out, there has been some controversy about the relationship of the incidence of cancer to environmental factors such as aerosol sprays, and NBC has covered newsworthy developments in its programming.
"The program to which you refer included conversations among some public personalities in which they gave their opinions about events during the past year and the outlook for the future. It was in this context that Ms. Ephron, who is not an NBC newsperson... made the remarks you quote. They reflected, obviously, her personal opinion and did not purport to be an official statement of scientific fact. Many personal opinions are expressed by people on many subjects on the air and it would be impossible for any broadcaster to review all such opinions, to research their accuracy, and then to make a judgment as to their accuracy either as a condition of broadcast or as requiring further material by way of elaboration. The fairness doctrine does not attempt to impose any such stringent limitations as you suggest."
Second reply: NBC's practice was set forth in first letter. AIM's January 29 letter sent to NBC News personnel for their information.
There was no commitment made to report the facts.
Admiral Moorer graduated from the Naval Academy in 1933. He had a distinguished career in the Navy, commanding successively the Seventh Fleet, the Pacific Fleet, and the Atlantic Fleet. He was Chief of Naval Operations from 1967 to 1970 and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1970 until his retirement from active duty in 1974.
Since his retirement, Admiral Moorer has shown a deep and growing concern about the irresponsibility of the news media and the danger this poses to our nation's future. At an American Security Council luncheon last year, Admiral Moorer said: "I doubt seriously whether in 1975 Eisenhower could conduct the cross channel operation without it being leaked before the operation was initiated." At Accuracy in Media luncheon in Washington on November 10, the Admiral said that one trouble with the media was that they had great freedom and authority but no accountability. He noted that during the Vietnam War our media had been too prone to disseminate false propaganda put out by Hanoi. One of the worst examples was the repetition by our own media of Hanoi's lies about the nature of the bombing raids we conducted against Hanoi and Haiphong in December 1972. Our own media spread the fiction that we were carrying out "carpet bombing" and that we were even bombing prisons where American POWs were held. This was false, and the aerial photos and the prisoners themselves later proved that the stories were false.
Accuracy in Media is proud to have Admiral Moorer join our distinguished Board.
On December 19, 1975, Senator John McClellan put some interesting figures before the Senate. He presented a tabulation of the budget requests submitted to Congress in the current session of Congress and compared the requests with the amounts Congress actually approved. He showed that Congress had appropriated $7.4 billion less than the President had requested. The largest single reduction was in the appropriations for the Department of Defense. That cut was $7.4 billion, actually slightly more than the total net reductions.
Senator McClellan commented that this was irrefutable evidence that the Defense budget was "bearing an overwhelming disproportionate burden of budget reductions... while social programs continue to grow and thrive."
We did not see this significant statement by Senator McClellan reported in any newspaper or mentioned by any newscaster.
If an aspirant to high political office were to suggest that what we needed in this country was a radical redistribution of income, greater government control over the use individuals make of the land they own, abolition of the traditional form of local government and the substitution of some form of regionalism, and drastic cuts in the defense budget to increase allocations for social programs, that would be big news.
Recently John B. Oakes, who holds a very influential office-editorial page, editor of The New York Times, gave a talk in which he suggested that these were important questions that ought to be on our agenda for discussion. Mr. Oakes cautiously posed them as questions, but there was a strong implication that he was posing questions that he thought should be answered in the affirmative.
This is an interesting glimpse of the philosophy of the man who guides the editorial policy of the country's most influential newspaper. But it wasn't treated as news. We came across his talk in the Congressional Record.
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