Despite controversial comments and GAO investigation, Bill Bennett reportedly joining CNN as political analyst
Research ››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN
CNN has reportedly hired conservative commentator Bill Bennett despite a controversial comment he made in September 2005 on his radio show, when he said that "it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime ... you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down."
The weblog TVNewser has reported that CNN has hired radio host and former Reagan administration Secretary of Education Bill Bennett as a political analyst. Specifically, in a December 30 post, TVNewser reported that "conservative talk show host Bill Bennett will become a CNN political analyst early in 2006." CNN's hiring of Bennett would come despite Bennett's controversial September 28, 2005, comment on his radio show, when he said that "it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime ... you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." CNN would not "confirm Bennett's new role at the cable news channel," according to a United Press International report.
K12 Inc., a company from which Bennett resigned in the wake of the controversy over his comment, is currently part of an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, which is looking into K12's involvement in a project that received an improper multimillion-dollar grant from the Department of Education during Bennett's tenure at the firm. Meanwhile, during some of his television appearances, Bennett has continued to comment on administration education policy and the No Child Left Behind Act without mentioning the grant, which was awarded while Bennett still was part of the company.
CNN's reported new hire has also repeatedly engaged in misinformation in his television appearances on Fox News, where he previously served as a contributor. He would replace outgoing conservative columnist Robert D. Novak, whose contract was not renewed by CNN. (Media Matters for America had urged CNN not to re-sign Novak.) Novak appeared on CNN only once after the network suspended him in early August for using vulgar language and storming off the set during the August 4, 2005, edition of Inside Politics. As Media Matters President and CEO David Brock noted when he urged CNN not to renew Novak's contract, the conservative's "credibility as a CNN contributor [was] severely compromised by [his] contradictory statements and accounts [of his role in the Valerie Plame case], as well as by his complete lack of candor on the issue of his involvement in the outing of Plame."
As Media Matters first detailed, Bennett's September 2005 comments came in the context of addressing a caller's suggestion that the "lost revenue from the people who have been aborted in the last 30 years" would be enough to preserve Social Security's solvency. Bennett dismissed such "far-reaching, extensive extrapolations" by declaring that if "you wanted to reduce crime ... if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." He added that aborting all African-American babies "would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do," then said again, "but the crime rate would go down."
Bennett later defended his remarks using the false claim (later repeated by his radio show's distributor, Salem Radio Network) that his comment was based on a 1999 Slate.com online discussion between Steven D. Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics (William Morrow, May 2005), and right-wing columnist Steve Sailer, in which Bennett claimed that Levitt "discusse[d], as I did, the racial implications of abortion and crime." But Levitt did not. In fact, in the Slate debate that Bennett cited, Levitt said the opposite of what Bennett claimed: "None of our analysis is race-based because the crime data by race is generally not deemed reliable."
Many public officials condemned Bennett's remarks. In a September 30, 2005, letter to Salem Radio Network, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) and 56 other members of Congress demanded the suspension of Bennett's radio show, writing that "[w]hile we all support First Amendment Rights, we simply cannot countenance statements and shows that are replete with racism, stereotyping, and profiling. Mr. Bennett's statement is insulting to all of us and has no place on the nation's public air waves." That same day, White House press secretary Scott McClellan stated that President Bush "believes the comments were not appropriate." CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley reported on that evening's edition of NewsNight that, among Republicans, "there is some off-camera fuming. 'Look,' said one top Republican, 'it was goofy and it was inappropriate.' "
Bennett later attacked his critics, claiming his comments were embarrassing to them because of their support of abortion. On the October 5 broadcast of the nationally syndicated Focus on the Family radio program, Focus on the Family founder and chairman James C. Dobson suggested that the reason "the left has reacted so viciously to you [Bennett] is that their own abortion movement is rooted in racism." Bennett agreed and expanded on these remarks by stating that "this is the sort of thing, I think, that was probably in their minds. On a conscious or subconscious level, that had something to do with the viciousness of the attack. In using this noxious hypothetical, I hit too close to what they believe, not what I believe." Bennett further stated on the October 5 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto that "I guess the irony is, I'm the pro-life guy. I don't advocate abortion for anyone, any group. ... And my critics are pro-choice, pro-abortion, but we'll clear the air."
But to many, Bennett's views on abortion were not the issue. As Media Matters wrote at the time:
Bennett and his defenders have seized on Bennett's original statement that it would be "impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible" to actually abort all black babies. But that isn't the issue; of course everyone understands that Bill Bennett doesn't want to abort all black babies. The issue is that Bennett, upon thinking "crime rate," immediately thought of black people. The issue is that Bennett thinks and speaks of crime as an issue of race.
Similarly, Conyers wrote in his weblog that "what they [right-wing critics] miss is not the abortion 'hypothetical' -- as absurd and tasteless as that is -- but Bennett's suggestion that African Americans are synonymous with crime. It is a text book case of stereotyping and racism, and cannot be explained away."
Media Matters for America has noted other instances of claims by Bill Bennett that amount to conservative misinformation. For example, appearing on the February 3, 2005, edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, Bennett falsely claimed that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have supported private accounts for Social Security. He stated that "Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the guy who established Social Security, said that it would be good to have it replaced by private investment over time. Private investment would be the way to really carry this thing through." As Media Matters documented, Bennett's claim was apparently based on a distortion of a Roosevelt quote by Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume. Bennett also falsely claimed six times on the November 21, 2004, edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday that former President Clinton committed "perjury" or a "felony" for lying under oath.
Also noteworthy is that Bennett has repeatedly appeared on cable television to comment on Bush administration education policies. However, Bennett never disclosed that he was the chairman of the board of directors and a shareholder (as of October 2005, he reportedly owned less than 5 percent) of K12 Inc., which was a partner in a project that received $4.1 million from the Department of Education -- which Bennett headed during the Reagan administration -- through grants made under the No Child Left Behind Act's Voluntary Public School Choice program. At the time of the company's founding, Bennett said he would receive a salary from K12 for his "significant" role there [Washington Post, 12/28/00]. The grant funded an "online-learning academy" in Arkansas, which K12 worked with the state department of education to create.
According to a July 28, 2004, Education Week report, (noted by The Carpetbagger Report weblog) the department's "decision to award $4.1 million over the past two years ... to a project involving Mr. Bennett's company raises questions about whether the privately held, for-profit K12 Inc. benefited from political connections." The report quoted an unidentified employee "who has knowledge of how the department decided to make the grant to K12" stating, "Anything with Bill Bennett's name on it was going to get funded." The report continued:
An Education Week review of federal and state documents, as well as information from sources familiar with the grantmaking process, shows that K12 and its Arkansas partner received the grant despite the fact that one project that independent reviewers rated higher was not funded. The choice of a lower-rated proposal over a higher-rated one in the department's competitive-grant process is highly unusual, according to sources inside and outside the department. The project received approval from political appointees even though some employees inside the department questioned whether it fit a basic criterion for the program: that the students benefiting from the grant attend public schools.
Education Department officials acknowledge that the office of the deputy secretary of education chose to finance the Arkansas-based project even after department employees who managed the competitive-grant program initially recommended a slate of 10 projects that did not include the online school.
One [federal Education] department employee contends that officials of the current Bush administration acted out of political interests in making the Arkansas award and failed to follow the congressional intent for the grant program or the department's procedures for awarding competitive grants. "Anything with Bill Bennett's name on it was going to get funded," said the employee, who has knowledge of how the department decided to make the grant to K12. The employee asked not to be identified.
The $2.3 million grant for the Arkansas Virtual School technically went to the Arkansas Department of Education, which worked with McLean, Va.-based K12 to establish an online-learning academy. The federal department renewed the grant in 2003, giving the Arkansas project $1.8 million more, according to James Boardman, the state education department's assistant director for information and technology.
The K12 program was not on the list of 10 grantees proposed by the program's staff, which based its recommendation on independent peer reviewers' grading of all grant applications, according to the source familiar with the grant. The Arkansas project was not on the list because it did not score high enough in reviewers' grading of all the proposals submitted to the department.
According to records obtained by Education Week under the Freedom of Information Act, peer reviewers gave the Arkansas Virtual School's proposal a score of 95 on a scale of 115, ranking it 11th among the 13 selected for funding.
The office of William D. Hansen, then the deputy secretary of education, chose to add K12 and other projects, said Ms. [Susan] Aspey of the department.
The grant was announced by the Department of Education on October 4, 2002. The GAO opened an investigation into this and other Education Department grants on November 19, 2004. The investigation had been requested on October 21, 2004, by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who cited the July 28 Education Week report.
Despite having been part of a company that received revenue from a project funded by the Department of Education, Bennett has repeatedly appeared on cable television and provided his opinion on the administration's education policies and on the No Child Left Behind Act:
- From Fox News' January 28, 2003, State of the Union speech coverage, which featured Hannity & Colmes co-host Alan Colmes:
COLMES: Aside from the top of the speech here, which hasn't gotten enough attention, he talked about jobs. You know 181,000 jobs were lost in 2002, 1.6 million in the last two years on Bush's watch. He talked about the standards of our public schools. Yet, he hasn't funded as much as some say he should. He cut $90 billion from our No Child Left Behind Act. So, you know, I see some places where he's falling short that don't match the rhetoric. What's your take on it?
BENNETT: Your perspective, obviously.
BENNETT: He increased spending on education dramatically. I think the first part of the speech so far in the commentary has been underrated. Obviously, the Iraq part was the most important. But these are very dramatic initiatives, particularly the AIDS initiative in Africa.
- From CNN's January 20, 2004, State of the Union speech coverage, which featured CNN anchor Paula Zahn:
ZAHN: Bill, let's move on to what else the president is expected to address this evening. He's supposed to lay out a number of expensive projects, from the ongoing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan --
ZAHN: -- to a very expensive space initiative. Do you have concerns about the fiscal responsibility of this president?
BENNETT: Well, some. I'm one of those persons who thinks that limited government is a -- is a -- ought to be a reality, as well as an ideal. But one has to say about this president that he's a big president. I mean, he thinks big and he acts big. And in the most important ways, that's very positive. He's done so on issues of war and peace. He's done so on foreign policy.
He's taking on big issues. Look at the immigration. He's not afraid of the third rails of politics. I could see some more restraint on some of the spending. I wasn't particularly happy about the Medicare. I think some of the education spending, an area I know pretty well, isn't necessary. But this is a historic presidency. This is a guy who paints in very bold strokes, takes everything on and is not backing off. And I think we're going to see that tonight in the State of the Union.
- From the November 4, 2004, edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:
COLMES: Look, you said in your piece that we just mentioned a moment ago, President Bush, you say, now has a mandate to affect policy that will promote a more decent society through both politics and law. What law or laws do you want to see enacted to promote the so-called more decent society?
BENNETT: Well, the things he talked about today would be a good start. Another one would be in the area of education, giving parents more say so their values have more say in the education of their children.
Discussing the then-debut of his Morning in America radio show on the April 2, 2004, edition of CNN's Inside Politics, Bennett commented that he would be talking about education policy on the new show:
BENNETT: Well, to be engaging and interesting, I am a conservative. I guess everybody knows that. But I'd like to be thoughtful about it. I don't want to berate guests. I don't want to make fun of people because they're liberal. I want to hear the argument. I start with a conservative position on most issues. But we want to take a lot of calls and talk to a lot of people. There's not a lot of morning drive talk radio that takes a lot of calls. We do say the most important voice out there is yours. We'll have a lot of guests but we're not going to focus on politics and policy. The focus will be on culture. Culture as it affects the news and politics and policy, but education, too, and the movies and sports. It will be about everything. [Former Sen.] Daniel Patrick Moynihan [D-NY] said culture is more important than politics. Politics can change culture, but culture's more important.