Reed Irvine - Editor
|November A , 1992||XXI - 21|
SHOULD BUSH BLAME THE MEDIA?
During the campaign, President Bush often displayed and discussed a red and white bumper sticker that read. "Annoy the Media, Re-elect Bush." He expressed his impatience with "the Sunday morning talking heads" who he felt were constantly bad-mouthing him. He occasionally cited statistics to buttress his claim that he had to battle the media as well as Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
There is no doubt that the major media were tilting strongly toward the Democratic ticket throughout the campaign, and George Bush has a legitimate grievance against them. The AIM Report has documented the failure of important media organizations to report information readily available to them that would have been damaging to Bill Clinton. They were not similarly protective of Bush. This explains the Election Day exit poll showing that 67% of the voters believed Bush had not told the truth about Iran-Contra, but only 52% thought Clinton hadn't told the truth about his draft record and anti-war activities.
Robert Lichter's Center for Media and Public Affairs has evaluated thousands of television reports and has demonstrated statistically that the campaign coverage on the evening news shows was heavily slanted against Bush and in favor of Clinton. Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center showed in a column in the Wall Street Journal the day before the election how the labels and rhetoric of the TV anchors and reporters were slanted against the Republicans. The bias was so blatant that even some Clinton supporters such as Mickey Kaus of The New Republic confessed that they found it embarrassing.
But there is nothing new in media bias against Republicans and conservatives. With over 80 percent of the journalists employed by the national media organizations regularly voting Democratic and two- thirds of them espousing liberal views, it has always been difficult to get them to give a fair shake to conservatives. That is a hurdle that the Republicans have had to surmount in every election. Reagan did it successfully and so did Bush in 1988, using paid advertising and campaign activities that would assure getting their message on the evening news--for example, Bush's tour of polluted Boston harbor. Those same opportunities were available in this year's election. In addition, a new, wide-open bypass opened up--unedited appearances on television soft interview programs. There were also three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. The candidates had unprecedented opportunities to get their messages across to millions of voters without filtering it through reporters and seeing it reduced to 7-second sound bites.
From Labor Day through October 30, Bush and Clinton each took advantage of these opportunities 17 times and Perot 19 times. If there was anything any of them wanted to say that went unsaid and unheard by the millions who tuned into these programs and to the debates, they have only themselves to blame.
Bush proved to be less skilled than his two opponents at utilizing these opportunities to take his message to the people. Clinton's strategy from the beginning was to blame Bush for the recession, which was not justified, and to portray it as far deeper than the facts justified. Here is one of Bush's efforts to rebut this when he appeared on Larry King Live on October 30:
"I think I'm going to win because I think people have been told recession, recession, recession. 92% of the evening news--leading on the networks, the three networks--I'll exclude CNN because I haven't yet researched out the CNN. No, but 92% negative. Unemployment down for three months. Bad news for President Bush, job market shrinks. They couldn't turn away from it the other day when it came out that the third quarter: of this year grew at 2.7 percent, a fair growth, and it's grown now--our economy--for six straight quarters, and I don't think people believe that because a lot of people are hurting, a lot of families are hurting."
Apparently the message Bush wanted to convey was this: The television networks have been painting a gloom and doom picture of the economy that greatly exaggerates our troubles. A recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs shows that the economy has been evaluated negatively by 91% of the sources interviewed on the network nightly newscasts over the past two years; and for the three months, from July through September, the percentage was 96%. But the fact is that the economy, the GDP, grew 2.7% during those three months. And that's the sixth consecutive quarter in which it has grown. Unemployment has fallen, and we are clearly on our way out of the recession--which, incidentally, has been worldwide and milder here than in many of the other industrialized countries. If we can get that message out to the voters and counter the false picture that the media have been spreading, we will win.
That message might have gained some votes. What he actually said may even have cost him votes.
The unpopularity of the media makes journalists good targets for candidates who feel they are being treated unfairly. Ross Perot was rude to the point of being brutal in his treatment of the reporters who were covering him, and it probably won him votes. George Bush was more moderate in his criticism, as this exchange with Larry King shows:
KING: You are angry with Sunday morning pundits. Are you also angry at the Tom Brokaws and the Dan Rather's and-- BUSH: Now, wait a minute, we've got to be a little selective here. See, I have nothing to lose anymore. They've fired their best shots at me for six months. KING: Do you think CBS, NBC, ABC are prejudiced against you? BUSH: Let me refer you to a thing called Accuracy in Media. I don't know of anybody else that studies the media. KING: That's a conservative group. BUSH: Well, but they have differences in the networks in terms of fair play, or positive coverage of the president, or positive coverage of Clinton. Put it this way: I didn't fare very well on any of the three networks. But, I'm not, you know--. They got the last word there. Let them do their business, and I'll do mine. And my business is being president and taking my case to the people. And the great thing about this is I don't have to have some guy come on the minute the debate's over or you and I finish a question: "Well it looks like Larry King won this round." [Laughter and applause] I saw--you've got a guy that does that, you've got a guy. Now wait a minute, you've got a guy, Bode, B-o-d-e, he comes on the minute the debate, the last debate--before anybody can do anything, the pulse meters are clicking, everybody telling the American people what they just saw--this guy: "Looks to us like Bill Clinton won the debate again." Well. I mean, come on-- can't people decide without a filter?
After a commercial break, the discussion continued:
KING: It wasn't Accuracy in Media. Time out. BUSH: Time out. I made a mistake. I'm the kind of guy that admits it, remember? I said Accuracy in Media, and Marlin [Fitzwater] sends me a note that what I was citing on the nutwork coverage and how much it had been anti-- KING: Nutwork? BUSH: All right, let me restate it, the network coverage, come on [laughs]. KING: I heard you. BUSH: What I said, what I said was that this media outfit rated the various networks and it was not the Accuracy in Media. I was citing the Center for Media Research [actually the Center for Media and Public Affairs] under Mr. Lichter. So I do want to-- KING: That's a very balanced, that's not a--nothing against Accuracy in Media--but Center for Media Research (sic) is a very fair, balanced reporting nonpartisan wing. BUSH: Let's hold up their findings then. I mean you've--I think they bear out, I think they bear out my point is all I'm saying.
The president had come prepared to criticize the media, but his preparation was inadequate. He confused AIM with the Center for Media and Public Affairs and he garbled their statistics. He had two criticisms--the negativism of the TV evening news programs on the economy and the instant analysis after the debates. Neither, in and of itself. Provided the public with any information that would help his campaign. In citing the negativism about the economy, he did cite the news about growth and unemployment that was not being given the attention it deserved.
It is too bad Marlin Fitzwater had not provided him with information from the AIM Report about stories the media suppressed or ignored. He could have asked why the major media hadn't informed the public that Clinton's ROTC draft deferment was illegal and was obtained as a result of powerful political pressure. He could have asked Larry King why he didn't challenge Clinton's claim that he had risked being drafted in November 1969 when, in fact, he was still protected by the ROTC. He could have asked King why he and others in the media hadn't asked Clinton about the Charlette Perry case, which King, as a panelist on the ABC Viewpoint program, had heard Reed Irvine discuss. It is easy to see why pro-Clinton journalists suppressed stories such as these. Why the Bush/Quayle campaign didn't expose them is a mystery.
In response to a question on the King show about the campaign, Bush said, "I had to do two things. One, make it clear what I was for and what the real state of things were in our country and in the world, and the other, because I hadn't seen it done very much, to say what Governor Clinton's record was. And I think one of the reasons that things at least seem to be going better is both those areas have been more fully disclosed by me."
The president did try to counter the excessively dark picture of the economy that the media and the Clinton campaign were painting. He also attacked Clinton's record in Arkansas, but while he made character a leading theme in his speeches, he appeared willing to let Clinton define the limits of negative campaigning on character. Clinton's strategy was to make both reporters and his opponents ashamed to raise questions about his private life. He was surprisingly successful. Bush's one foray into challenging Clinton's past personal behavior was when he raised questions about his trip to Moscow in January 1970 when he was a student at Oxford. That backfired, because no one found evidence that it was anything other than an innocent tourist trip. Bush fell back on criticizing Clinton for having helped organize demonstrations against the Vietnam War in England. Little or nothing was said about what Clinton feared most-- exposure of his lies about Gennifer Flowers and the draft.
The evidence that Clinton considered these dangerous areas is seen in the violent reaction of his surrogates when they were mentioned; a reaction intended to intimidate the questioner. For example, when Reed Irvine, on the ABC Viewpoint program, asked ABC News president Roone Arledge to explain why ABC News had never reported the case of Charlette Perry, noting that the Clinton-Flowers tapes included Clinton's advice to Flowers to lie about how she got the state job--Clinton spokes- woman Mandy Grunwald tried to embarrass him with this comment:
"I guess I'm disappointed that your organization is called Accuracy in Media when you start perpetuating those kinds of stories. Those tapes, as I think everybody knows, were edited, and edited and edited, and I can't believe that here we are again on another Nightline with another set of questions about Gennifer Flowers and trashy, tabloid stories when there are real problems and real issues at stake in this country.... I think that America has heard plenty about this topic, and if you want to talk about press cover- age, I think the press knows it is time to do what the American people want which is to talk about the economy."
Democratic consultant Mark Siegel got even more excited on CNN's Crossfire when Republican Haley Barbour mentioned Gennifer Flowers. Siegel out-talked him with this eruption, "I don't want to talk about Gennifer Flowers. Let's not talk about Gennifer Flowers, okay? Five days before the presidential campaign [sic], let's not talk about Gennifer. And stop attacking the character of the next president of the United States. I resent it. And I resent the big lies that you're throwing around." Mr. Siegel had just finished accusing the current president of the United States of lying repeatedly about the arms-for-hostages deal, saying that showed how flawed his character was. Verbal assaults such as this were intended to convince viewers that the subject was beyond the pale. The Bush campaign also accepted this unilaterally imposed rule of engagement and limited its attacks on Clinton's character largely to generalities about trust and fudging on issues.
When polls on October 29 showed Bush moving up, Clinton hit hard at Bush's character. On NBC News that night he said, "The very idea that the word 'trust' could ever come out of Bush's mouth after what he has done to this country and the way that he has trampled the truth is a travesty for the American political system."
The ineptness of the Bush campaign doesn't minimize or excuse the role played by the media in defeating Bush. Despite the flaws in the campaign, a week before the election, the polls that had shown Bush trailing badly began to change. The CNN/USA Today tracking poll revived Republican hopes when it showed Clinton leading Bush by only two points on October 29.
That same day Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, obtained a new indictment of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, releasing the texts of 15 notes written by Weinberger. One dated January 7, 1986 was about a meeting of President Reagan and his top aides at which a plan to sell 4,000 TOW missiles to Iran in exchange for five hostages was discussed. Weinberger wrote that he and George Shultz opposed the plan and that Bush was one of four who favored it, but it is not clear from the note that Bush attended the meeting. Bush has long insisted that he didn't know that this was an exchange of arms for hostages until December 1986, when the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee briefed him.
With this, the attack on Bush's character that Clinton had launched the previous day escalated. Clinton declared this "diminishes the credibility of the presidency," and Senator Gore called it the smoking gun that proved Bush had been lying. It was the first subject Larry King brought up when Bush appeared on his show that night, grilling him for two minutes. When the lines were opened to callers, the fourth call was from George Stephanopoulos, Clinton's communications director. This dialogue followed:
KING: Let me, we have a call from Little Rock from, from George Stephanopoulos, who is, who is-- BUSH: Oh no, oh no. Go ahead. KING: He is Governor Clinton's campaign manager. This is an open phones session. He dialed in directly. It wasn't a secret number. Go ahead, George. STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, you asked us to find out what the smoking gun was. What this memo clearly shows, this memo by Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, is that on January 7, 1986, let me quote from the memo: "The president decided to go with an Israeli-Iranian offer to release our five hostages in return for the sale of 4,000 TOWs to Iran by Israel." In other words, it was clearly an explicit deal of arms for hostages. But on January 8, 1988, you said that you sensed that we were sending arms, you sensed that we were trying to get hostages out, but it was clearly not arms for hostages and for the last five years you have consistently said that it was not arms for hostages, and this memo clearly shows that it was arms for hostages, five hostages in return for the sale of 4,000 TOW missiles and that you knew it then. According to Mr. Weinberger. BUSH: May I reply? Let me tell you that Mr. Stephanopoulos, a very able young man, was the floor director or something for Mr. Gephardt, who is the majority leader of the Democrats, of the House of Representatives under the Democrats--that's his background. It is the Democrats who have been pushing --to the tune of some $40 million--these hearings. I would refer him to this testimony, which pretty much says what he has just said. However, to this very day, President Reagan didn't feel that that arrangement was arms for Hostages, the president of the United States. I have testified to that, and George, if I might make a little political observation here, because I keep reading you are getting into our stories all the time, I think this is rather desperation, last minute politics when you feel something slipping away from you, and you're too smart for that. KING: George, want to respond? STEPHANOPOULOS: All I would say in response was-- BUSH: I didn't come here to debate Stephanopoulos. I'm here to debate you, Larry. Come on. KING: Let him respond and then you respond. George?
After a second exchange along the same lines, King pursued the question, asking, "But if 4,000 TOWS had gone in return for five hostages, what else could it be'?" BUSH: Larry, please read the testimony. There was trying to work with moderates. They weren't dealing with people that had the hostages. There's a whole history that this poor guy is trying to resurrect four days before the election. It's wonderful how his call gets in. this random call.... KING: We don't have a private line. We really don't. I don't control the calls. BUSH: He's a patient fella. [Goes on to commend Stephanopoulos for the good job he had done for Clinton. but suggests that he read all the testimony.]
Larry King had scored a coup--a televised ambush interview of a sitting president running for reelection by his opponent's spokesman. King's producer says that he "misspoke" in claiming that Stephanopoulos had not been given a secret number and that there was no private line. On King's next program a caller charged that Bush had been "set up." King said, "Mr. Stephanopoulos called. He had a complaint. We told him to call back." He said nothing about his having "misspoken."
The closure of the gap in the polls was reversed over the weekend. Bush officials put the blame on the adverse publicity resulting from the new Weinberger indictment. One spokesman said, "We hit a wall," and the help King gave Clinton by arranging the ambush interview was partly responsible. It helped fuel the negative publicity that resulted from the action of special counsel Lawrence Walsh.
Was the Larry King incident related to a Democratic October surprise? Senator Bob Dole is one who has voiced such a suspicion. Like the alleged Republican October surprise in the 1980 campaign that the House Democrats voted to investigate last summer, only circumstantial evidence underlies Republican suspicions.
First, there was the timing of the release of the text of the Weinberger note indicating that Bush knew that arms were being sold to Iran as part of a deal to get hostages released. Walsh's office says it had been agreed when the judge dismissed a previous indictment, that if it were replaced, it would be done by the end of October.
Next came a report on November 6 in The Washington Times charging that the Clinton-Gore campaign had learned details of the new indictment the day before it was made public. The Times cited a four-page Clinton press release dated October 29 about the new indictment, which was not filed until the following day, October 30. George Stephanopoulos denies any advance knowledge, claiming that the date on the news release was a typographical error. He says the first he heard of the indictment was from a Reuters wire service report received around 2:00 p.m. EST on October 30. Reuters confirms that was when they put out their first story. Stephanopoulos said. "No one on the staff talked to Walsh's staff as far as I know." Walsh's office also denied having talked to Clinton or his staff.
Republican suspicions were also fueled by the discovery that a prominent San Francisco Democrat, James J. Brosnahan, had taken over the Weinberger prosecution on October 22. Mr. Brosnahan and others in his law firm had made substantial contributions to the Clinton campaign. See the Notes for more on Mr. Brosnahan.
Send the enclosed card or your own card or letter to Larry King, suggesting that he tell his viewers that he "misspoke" in denying that his show gave special treatment to Stephanopulos and that he apologize.
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IN THIS REPORT WE TRY TO ASSESS THE CONTRIBUTION THAT THE BUSH CAMPAIGN made to the president's defeat. We are not minimizing the role of the media by any means. Clinton was the candidate of choice for most journalists beginning with the New Hampshire primary, campaign, but there is nothing new about the working press being for Democratic candidates. A few years ago a check of the voter registration records of editors and reporters at The Washington Post revealed only one registered Republican, a sportswriter. When he was asked for his reaction, he explained that he and his wife liked to get literature from both parties, and so they flipped a coin to see which one would register Republican. Most reporters are young, and they tend to identify with Clinton and Gore generationally. One told a Bush campaign official that they weren't writing about all the negative stuff they knew about Clinton because they were bored with Bush and were looking forward to four fun years with Clinton. Will it also be fun for the 57 percent of the voters who didn't vote for Clinton?
MY GUESS IS THAT THOSE PEOPLE ARE VERY MUCH ON BILL CLINTON'S MIND. THE 1996 election is going to be one of his main concerns. As a career politician, he knows he will have to follow a course that will enable him to win over a substantial number of Bush and Perot voters if he is to have a second term. That means he may have to disappoint many of his more liberal supporters, including those in the news media, by reneging on what they consider to be commitments that he has made. The question is, will his liberal friends in the media turn on Clinton and start writing about all that negative stuff that they have lying around unused in their files if President Clinton strays too far from their agenda in his efforts to woo those who voted for Bush and Perot?
MANY BUSH SUPPORTERS ARE MORE ANGRY THAN EVER AT LAWRENCE WALSH, THE independent counsel, for making public that 1986 note written by then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger that indicates that then Vice President Bush wasn't being truthful in claiming that he didn't realize that the arms sales to Iran were, to some degree at least, a swap for hostages, Sen. Bob Dole thinks that this deserves further investigation, and he has suggested that President Bush consider pardoning some of the men who have been the targets of Mr. Walsh's long, costly and largely unproductive prosecutions. The Washington Times pointed out that Walsh may, have violated the American Bar Association's code of ethics, which says, "A lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third party." It noted that some lawyers also thought the timing of the release could violate codes covering pretrial publicity, since the wide publicity given to the Bush note could influence the jury pool. The New York Times took the opposite approach. It buried the story of Dole's suggestion that Walsh's action be the subject of an investigation at the bottom of page 13, and it ran an editorial note defending Walsh. Acknowledging that Walsh didn't need to do what he did when he did it and in the way he did it, John MacKenzie of the Times editorial board wrote, "If Lawrence Walsh had suppressed this information, the public would be justifiably angry. Angry enough to wonder why we bothered to have an independent counsel."
DOES THAT MEAN THE PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO BE ANGRY AT THOSE IN THE MEDIA who suppressed damaging stories about Bill Clinton during the campaign? We demonstrated to the publisher of The New York Times a month ago that his staff had suppressed important stories bearing on the election---Clinton's use of political pull to escape the draft and the Charlette Perry case. The publisher seemed impressed with the facts we gave him, but nothing was done to give either story the attention it deserved. Mark Miller, a Newsweek reporter who spent a lot of time at Clinton headquarters during the campaign, said on a National Public Radio interview that what the Clinton aides feared most was reporting on the draft evasion issue. The Times suppressed the most damaging aspects of that story. Should the public ask why we bother to have an independent press?
I DON'T KNOW IF THERE IS ANYTHING TO SEN. DOLE'S SUSPICIONS ABOUT DIRTY tricks on the part of Lawrence Walsh in timing the new Weinberger indictment, but my own suspicions were aroused when I saw that he had handed control of the Weinberger prosecution to James J. Brosnahan. a San Francisco attorney who made a $500 contribution to the Clinton campaign. Other attorneys in his law firm contributed a total of $22.000. In 1986, Brosnahan was a key figure in the effort to block Justice William Rehnquist's confirmation as Chief Justice. In an interview he gave The Washington Post in July 1986, Brosnahan claimed that he had seen Rehnquist at the Bethune precinct polling place in Phoenix in 1962 challenging Hispanic and black voters on literacy grounds, implying that Rehnquist was a racist. Testifying before the Judiciary Committee a few days later, Brosnahan changed his story. He could recall only that some voters at some polling place (he didn't remember which one) pointed to Rehnquist as a man who had done something they didn't like. He couldn't remember just what it was. He admitted he had not seen Rehnquist challenge anyone. (Rehnquist had served in 1962 on a Republican legal team that assisted poll watchers who encountered problems.) After Sen. Orrin Hatch had tried unsuccessfully to get Brosnahan to affirm or disavow the Post story under oath, I called Brosnahan and asked him to clarify the discrepancy between the story and his testimony.
BROSNAHAN REPLIED: "DO YOU THINK I SHOULD GO THROUGH THE WORLD DISAVOWING what The Washington Post says, sir? Is that the presumption from which you are proceeding? Because that is not my feeling about it.... I don't know what your thought is or where you're going or what you want to do." When I told him I was writing about the differences between his testimony and the article in the Post, he said: "That is your presumption, and if I may be very blunt, that is your bias. I know where you are coming from and I know where you are going, and I'm not going to help you come from the place you've started or go to the place you are going to. I am really concerned about people like you that try to make it more difficult for people to testify and say what it is that they know." When asked how I had done that, Brosnahan replied, "I know where you're headed." I asked where that might be, and he said, "I've got other things to do today than discuss with a group like yours what you wish were the truth." When he called me a "hatchet man" and advised me to be accurate in anything I wrote, I told him I would try to incorporate the interview into my story. That gave him a momentary pause, but he recovered and informed me: "You've got a lot of people out here who aren't scared of you one bit. Not just me, buddy. There are a lot of people out here who don't give a damn about whether you stomp around and try to frighten everybody or not. They don't care about that."
SOME MEDIA COMMENTARY ON THE CLAIM THAT WALSH'S OFFICE DELIBERATELY SET out to hurt Bush's chances of reelection pointed out that Walsh himself is a Republican and asserted that he has a nonpartisan staff. James J. Brosnahan is Exhibit A for anyone who wants to challenge that argument. It is ironic that the prosecution of Caspar Weinberger, a man with a reputation as a straight arrow and a very, decent man, has been entrusted to such an individual.
ON NOVEMBER 5, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION ASSEMBLED FIVE EDITORS AND columnists from outside Washington to do a post mortem on the election. One speaker was veteran editor Ed Grimsley of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia's largest newspaper. Grimsley is a member of an informal editors group, headed by Joseph R.L. Sterne of the Baltimore Sun, which under previous administrations was brought to the White House four times annually for briefings. This is part of the process by which a president sells his policies to the grassroots. "How many times have we convened at the White House under the Bush Administration? None!" Grimsley declared. He said the Bush White House "had by far the worst press relations beyond the Beltway of any administration" he ever wrote about.
OUR LIMITED EXPERIENCE WITH THE BUSH PRESS AIDES LEFT AN IMPRESSION OF ineptitude. Examples: In August the TV networks showed Bush telling a questioner at a conference of POW/MIA relatives, "Sit down and shut up!" It was suggested he was angered by a question about missing POWs. One of the participants told us this was not so----that the questioner, who was not registered for the conference, was attacking the president for not doing enough for the homeless and the poor. We sought verification before reporting this, but six calls to the White House press office produced nothing! Late in the campaign, Alixe Glenn, the top spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, asked us for some examples of media bias! I cited the cover-up of the case of Charlette Perry. Ms. Glenn didn't recognize the name. She had heard something about a black secretary, but she didn't know the details. Obviously she hadn't read the AIM Report.