The Worst of Mainstream Media's Failures
AND NOW, THE P.U.-LITZER PRIZES FOR 2000
by Norman SolomonAs usual, the competition for P.U.-litzers has been fierce.
For the ninth year in a row, I have worked with Jeff Cohen of the media watch group FAIR to sift through the many entries for the annual award that pays tribute to this nation's stinkiest media performances.
And now, the P.U.-litzer Prizes for 2000:
SWALLOW THE MONEY PRIZE -- Barbara Walters and ABC
The panel on "The View" program broke into a chorus of the "M'm M'm good" jingle when Walters asked, "Didn't we grow up eating Campbell's soup?" It was all according to plan. In November, blurring the line between programming and advertising, parts of eight episodes of ABC's daytime chat show became paid infomercials for Campbell's. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Walters and her panel agreed to "try to weave a soup message into their regular on-air banter." An ABC News executive defended the hucksterism of Walters, a news personality, by saying that "The View" is an entertainment show and that "people wear many hats."
COOL YOUR JETS AWARD -- New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post
It was a quiet media deal: The three most influential newspapers in the country would get the first crack at reporting on plans to merge United Airlines and US Airways -- on condition that the papers agreed not to call any other sources for comment. The deal unraveled only because the website of a British newspaper, the Financial Times, broke the story first, negating the agreement. Washington Post financial editor Jill Dutt defended the agreement to allow the subjects of a news story to dictate who the papers could talk to. "It does a better job for readers to have the story on the first day than not to have the story," she said.
NO NEED TO DEBATE PRIZE -- ABC's "Nightline"
On the eve of the May vote in Congress granting China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR), "Nightline" presented a panel composed of a former House speaker, a former senator and a former ambassador to China -- all strong supporters of PNTR. In response to complaints that the panel was one-sided, a senior producer wrote that "we never intended to have a debate" because "by the time that we went on the air, the vote was really not in doubt." The last time the program had debated China's trade status was 1991. In the intervening years, "Nightline" found time for a total of 40 episodes on O.J. Simpson, Elian Gonzalez, and the conflict involving skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL PRIZE -- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox
Decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr. commented that the most segregated hour in America came on Sunday morning, in the nation's churches. This year, on the Sunday morning chat shows, a similar tradition seemed firmly entrenched. On NBC's "Meet the Press," ABC's "This Week," CBS's "Face the Nation" and "Fox News Sunday," the guest list was approximately 97 percent white, according to an NAACP survey released in July.
BREEZING THROUGH HISTORY AWARD -- Liane Hansen of NPR
On NPR's "Weekend Edition," in mid-December, host Hansen was effusive about "Gone With the Wind," the 1939 movie that exudes nostalgic warmth for Southern slave owners. She told listeners: "The film remains immensely popular to this day, and I think it's safe to say it's become part of the basic DNA of this country, if not the world."
GOING FOR THE GOLD -- NBC NEWS
News executives indignantly deny that the economic interests of corporate owners influence their coverage. But in 2000 (as in previous years) journalists at the TV network airing the Olympics found the games to be much more newsworthy. NBC -- which had broadcasting rights to the summer Olympics -- aired 83 minutes of "news" about the Olympics on its weekday nightly newscasts. The contrast was sharp at rival networks: only 16 minutes on ABC and five minutes on CBS.
TRIMMING CHAD AWARD -- The Washington Post
In his popular syndicated column on pro football, Norman Chad (his real name) aimed an autumn barb at a favorite target, the owner of Washington's NFL team, which plays at the stadium renamed FedEx Field. "Redskins high-handed honcho Daniel M. Snyder quietly taking bids for naming rights to his children," Chad wrote. But when the column appeared in the Washington Post, "children" had been changed to "helicopter," and the quip was shortened to simply read: "Daniel M. Snyder quietly taking bids for naming rights to his helicopter." The Post's top sports editor defended the rewrite, asserting "We edit everybody." Chad says the editor has a habit of softening references to the Washington team and its owner: "He doesn't do it for any other team."
BRING BACK MONICA PRIZE -- Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly
Four days after the presidential election, O'Reilly was quoted in the Washington Post about his frustrations in covering the election aftermath: "You're trapped in a box full of numbers. With Monica Lewinsky, you could say, 'She's a tramp,' 'She's not a tramp.' You could do psychoanalysis. This is a one-dimensional story. You have to keep looking for new angles."
SYNCHRONIZE OUR WATCHES AWARD -- The Associated Press
In reporting on a Republican lawsuit against the TV networks for projecting Al Gore the winner in Florida before the polls had closed in the state's western panhandle, AP quoted area resident Michael Watson, a Bush supporter, as saying the early TV projection "robbed me of my right to vote." AP reported: "'I figured it wouldn't do me no good to go vote,' Watson said, so he decided not to make the trip of about 20 minutes to his polling place." But the story had a rather significant flaw: No TV network projected Gore the winner in Florida until 11 minutes before panhandle polls closed.
COUNT IDEOLOGY NOT VOTES AWARD -- The Wall Street Journal
A few days after five members of the U.S. Supreme Court settled the presidential election to their own satisfaction, the Wall Street Journal's lead editorial proclaimed: "Someday this may be looked back on as the Lucky Election. A complacent electorate took itself to the brink of a Constitutional showdown; the High Court barely stepped in to save the day before yet another flaky Florida vote evaporated the Presidency.... Mr. Bush won with more popular votes than Bill Clinton ever did. That's a pretty good position from which to lead." Unmentioned detail: At the time the editorial was printed, official totals showed that Al Gore's nationwide lead -- sizeable since election night -- had grown to 540,435 votes.
MICKEY MOUSE JOURNALISM PRIZE -- ABC News
Reporting that journalists at Disney-owned ABC News had decided to avoid stories on a cruise ship line (partly because Disney owned a rival line) and on the hit movie "Chicken Run" (produced by a rival movie studio), the New Yorker magazine quoted an ABC News producer who said that steering clear of Disney "comes up all the time." Explained a producer: "No one here wants to piss off the bosses."
BUSINESS AS USUAL AWARD -- Idaho Statesman
After the Statesman newspaper allowed a draft of an article about Micron Technology to be reviewed by Micron, which is Boise's largest employer, the business editor of the Gannett-owned daily resigned. The previous business editor recalled being fired over a sentence in the paper deemed too critical of Micron, which is covered at the Statesman by a reporter married to an employee of a Micron subsidiary. Interviewed in January by media critic Howard Kurtz, the Statesman's current editor explained: "It's not that it has anything to do with their being the biggest employer. What we write can affect a lot of people in this community. It can affect the stock price."
BUZZED JOURNALISM PRIZE -- The New York Times and Starbucks
In October, the New York Times and Starbucks consummated their "strategic relationship." The mega-chain of about 3,000 Starbucks coffee shops sells the Times -- while refusing to offer any other national newspaper on the premises. In return for its exclusionary privilege, the Times provides a national advertising campaign hawking Starbucks stores and products.
HYSTERIA IN COLUMN-WRITING AWARD -- Thomas Friedman of the New York Times
On Nov. 10, in an essay about options for the next president, Friedman closed with a couple of sentences that illuminated his nuanced approach to important economic and social issues: "My only hope is that no matter who wins, he will name Ralph Nader the first U.S. ambassador to North Korea. That way Ralph can spend his days with another egomaniacal narcissist, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, and get a real taste of what a country that actually follows Mr. Nader's insane economic philosophy -- high protectionism, economic autarky, anti-markets, anti-globalization, anti-multinationals -- is like for the people who live there."
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."
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