Misinformer of the Year: ABC

››› ››› MATT MCLAUGHLIN

In October 24 appearances on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes, ABC News political director Mark Halperin claimed that the "old media" -- broadcast news outlets and major newspapers -- were "biased against conservatives; there's no doubt about it." He stated, "I think we've got a chance in these last two weeks [before the then-upcoming midterm elections] to prove to conservatives that we understand their grievances. We're going to try to do better." But if "try[ing] to do better" to not appear "biased against conservatives" meant offering viewers conservative misinformation, Halperin shouldn't have worried; a review of dozens of items by Media Matters for America identifying and correcting conservative misinformation from ABC suggests that Halperin's network was "try[ing] to do better" throughout 2006.

This year saw ABC air The Path to 9/11, a two-part miniseries that placed the blame for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Clinton administration and whitewashed some of the Bush administration's failures leading up to the attacks. Additionally, the network's news coverage frequently reported Republican spin as fact, passed on falsehoods propagated by conservatives, and missed numerous opportunities to challenge or question the administration's actions during solo interviews with Bush and key members of his administration.

These examples, and many more, earned ABC the distinction of being named Media Matters' Misinformer of the Year for 2006. The selection of an entire network for the honor represents a change from previous years, when individual media figures -- Fox News' Bill O'Reilly in 2004 and MSNBC's Chris Matthews in 2005 -- received the award. But a look at some of its most flagrant examples of conservative misinformation confirms that ABC won the Misinformer of the Year the old-fashioned way: The network earned it.

The Path to 9/11

On September 10 and 11, ABC aired The Path to 9/11, a miniseries the network initially claimed was based primarily on the 9-11 Commission report but which many Democrats and even several conservatives criticized as "inaccurate" and even "defamatory." The principal controversy revolved around several fabricated scenes that depicted former Clinton administration officials undermining efforts to capture Osama bin Laden in the years prior to 9-11. As Media Matters documented, ABC gradually backed off its original claim that the film was an "epic" and "historic" "dramatization of the events detailed in The 9/11 Commission Report" that "absolutely ... get[s] it right."

Two weeks before its broadcast, however, various members of the right-wing media had begun promoting the "docudrama," including radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (subscription required) and websites FrontPageMag.com and Human Events Online.

In conjunction with the miniseries, Scholastic Inc. and ABC released a "Discussion Guide for the Classroom" aimed at high school teachers nationwide to "[e]ncourage your students and their families to watch The Path to 9/11 and use the accompanying" discussion guide as part of their lesson plan. But a Media Matters review of the material found it to be rife with conservative misinformation. The material omitted critical information regarding the Bush administration's pre-Iraq war weapons of mass destruction claims; falsely suggested a tie between Iraq and 9-11; gave upbeat accounts of reportedly dire conditions on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan; suggested that military responses to bin Laden by the Clinton administration could have "hinder[ed] the U.S. stance on the war on terror"; and asked students to debate whether the media "hinder our national security." Under intense criticism --including by Media Matters -- over its discussion guide, Scholastic pulled the guide from its website, stating, "[T]he materials did not meet our high standards."

Journalists, conservative pundits, and the film's star, actor Harvey Keitel, pressured ABC to correct the film's inaccuracies and set the record straight regarding the Clinton administration's counterterrorism efforts. In response, ABC released a statement, claiming that "[n]o one has seen the final version of the film, because the editing process is not yet complete, so criticisms of film specifics are premature and irresponsible" -- even though the network had reportedly previously said that the film was "locked and ready to air" and had released copies to members of the conservative media, including Limbaugh.

When ABC broadcast the miniseries, it did so with numerous inaccuracies still in it. The first night of the two-part miniseries included a fabricated scene that depicted Clinton administration officials declining to authorize the CIA to capture bin Laden. ABC retained the controversial scene despite the fact that it is contradicted by the 9-11 Commission report and had even been disputed by conservative media figures. The second half of the miniseries, which aired on September 11, also contained scenes that were factually inaccurate -- this time showing Bush taking aggressive action there is no indication he ever took. The film also misrepresented American Airlines and former FBI counterterrorism expert John O'Neill, who died on September 11, 2001, in the World Trade Center, where he was head of security.

In November, the Liberty Film Festival, "a forum for conservative thought on film," awarded the festival's "Freedom of Expression Award" to ABC's Judith Tukich, the vice president of Synergy and Special Projects, a right-wing evangelical who has described her mission as "evangeliz[ing] the world ... through the media," for her role in assisting the production and promotion of The Path to 9/11.

Propagating conservative misinformation

  • Following Bush's State of the Union address in January, Good Morning America co-anchor Charles Gibson cited after-speech poll results from previous years to claim that Bush may get a "pretty good size boost in his polls" after the 2006 address, even though ABC News polling director Gary Langer had dismissed such polls as a highly unreliable indicator of the entire country's view of the speech. [1/31/06]
  • Discussing a report detailing wasteful government spending or so-called "pork" on Good Morning America, Washington correspondent Jake Tapper claimed that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is "such an opponent of pork he's almost kosher." [4/5/06]
  • During an interview with first lady Laura Bush on This Week, host and chief White House correspondent George Stephanopoulos failed to correct a claim by the first lady that when Bush's "poll numbers were good," the press did not put them "on the front page." [5/14/06]
  • Discussing a May 15 ABC News/Washington Post poll, Stephanopoulos stated that "a president just shouldn't be at 33 percent when you've got 89 percent of the country optimistic about their future." Stephanopoulos focused on the administration's handling of Iraq as an "opportunity ... if things can turn around in Iraq" while omitting other results, both from that poll and others, that provide other reasons for Bush's low approval ratings. [5/16/06]
  • In reporting on a trip to Arizona Bush took to promote his immigration reform proposals, then-World News Tonight co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas claimed that "it was clear [Bush] is passionate about the very issue that has so many members of his party up in arms: allowing people now here illegally the chance to become American citizens." However, she completely ignored the fact that the White House reportedly supported a controversial immigration bill proposed by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) that would have made it a crime to be an illegal resident of the United States. [5/18/06]

Shoddy coverage of Democrats

  • Vargas reported that "Congress voted to raise the national debt limit to nearly $9 trillion" but omitted the fact that all Senate Democrats voted against the increase, along with three Republicans. [3/16/06]
  • In citing the results of an ABC News/Washington Post poll on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Tapper ignored the positive results and claimed that "a daunting 42 percent of all Americans say they will never vote for her." He added that "[s]ome think she's too liberal. Others think she's untrustworthy." Tapper did not mention the poll found that a majority of respondents said Clinton is, in fact, "honest and trustworthy" and that her views are "about right," while a minority thought she is "too liberal." [5/31/06]
  • Tapper uncritically reported an argument made by conservatives that raising the minimum wage will result in job losses and discourage job creation, even though numerous studies have found that increasing the minimum wage does not result in job loss or negatively affect employment. Further, neither Tapper nor business correspondent Betsy Stark reported that congressional Republicans tied a minimum-wage increase to legislation cutting the estate tax -- a measure that would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. As well, both Tapper and Stark did not report that Democrats have been pushing for years to increase the minimum wage. [8/02-8/03/06]
  • Chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz argued that Democrats "don't want" to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq because "the lesson from Vietnam ... was you have to support the troops or there's tremendous backlash." In other words, supporting the United States' withdrawal from Iraq is not supporting the troops. [8/13/06]
  • In a report on the campaign advertisement wars of the 2006 election cycle, Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran reported that "both sides are playing a serious game of hardball" with "mudslinging" attack ads hitting "below the belt." Moran wondered: "How low can they go?" Despite Moran's insistence that the "low punches" were being thrown by both Democrats and Republicans, he provided no examples of Democratic-sponsored attack ads that matched the level of distortion and personal attack found in Republican commercials. [10/25/06]

Missed opportunities in solo interviews with Bush administration officials

  • During an exclusive interview with Bush on World News Tonight, Vargas echoed the White House line that Bush "doesn't read the polls"; uncritically accepted Bush's explanation for Katrina failures, despite citing the House Katrina committee report critical of the White House's response; omitted the key distinction that a Dubai company seeking to take over operations at port terminals at six major U.S. ports is state-owned, allowing Bush to falsely attack port deal critics; and ignored a number of other issues, including warrantless domestic spying and the Plame investigation. [2/28/06]
  • During his interview with Bush, Stephanopoulos did not challenge Bush on several statements that directly contradicted previous statements and actions, including when Bush asserted that his administration has "never been stay the course" in Iraq. [10/22/06]
  • In an interview with White House senior adviser Karl Rove, correspondent Ann Compton asked Rove three questions about Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) "botched joke" about Bush and Iraq but none about other contemporaneous topics of greater significance. The only questions Compton asked not relating to Kerry were whether Rove believed that Bush would be able to "mobilize the Republican base and those independents and undecideds" and if "this [is] George W. Bush's last campaign and yours." [11/1/06]
  • During an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, Stephanopoulos prompted Cheney to blame the recent upsurge of violence in Iraq on an insurgent "strategy" to "influence" the midterm elections, asking Cheney if "that mean[s] that a Democratic victory is a victory for the insurgents." Additional portions of the interview showed that Stephanopoulos let Cheney repeat the administration's self-serving and dubious assertions on Democratic tax plans, Iraq, and the economy. [11/3/06: first part; second part]

Misinformation from Mark Halperin

  • In an online article, Halperin asserted that Republicans had "an advantage" over Democrats in the then-upcoming midterm elections on "national security and taxes." In fact, polls suggested that Democrats actually held the advantage over Republicans on both issues. [10/17/06]
  • On The Sean Hannity Show, Halperin falsely suggested that while progressive 527 organizations with ties to the Democratic Party attacked Bush during the 2004 election, there were no comparable groups on the right. However, one of the most prominent 527 groups during that time was the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, a group with ties to both the GOP and the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, whose attacks on Kerry received broad coverage in the media. [10/23/06]
  • During a report about the controversy surrounding Limbaugh's attacks on actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, Halperin claimed that "[i]n the past, conservatives let liberal entertainers kind of have a free ride," but now "they're saying, under George W. Bush, if you get involved in politics, we're going to come after you and the Democrats you're supporting." In fact, Fox was campaigning for candidates who support embryonic stem cell research; in 2004, he appeared in a campaign ad for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). [10/29/06]

Miscellaneous

  • During a report on ties between Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) and disgraced defense contractor Mitchell Wade, correspondent John Donvan reported that Wade "made illegal contributions to her campaign" but added, "[T]hough she gave the money back, it's what reporters in Florida keep asking about. Even this week it came up." In fact, while Florida newspapers continued to raise questions about the illegal campaign contributions, they also focused on Harris' subsequent request to the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for a $10 million earmark that would have benefited Wade's company. [3/21/06]
  • On Good Morning America, 20/20 co-host John Stossel claimed that it is a "myth" that "women earn less" than men for "doing the same work." Stossel acknowledged that women "earn less" than men overall, and concluded that "[t]he truth is" that "men are more willing to take lousy jobs" and "work longer," and that is why they yield higher wages. In fact, numerous studies and data indicate that, on average, men earn more than women regardless of occupation. [5/12/06]

On Good Morning America, discussing whether conflicts in the Middle East heralded the potential coming of the Apocalypse, co-host Robin Roberts asked of the authors of the Left Behind series: "You see what's going on: the bombing in Haifa and Israel and it's so close to the valley of Armageddon. And when you think about that, and people see this and think about [it], is it indeed Armageddon?" Throughout the segment, the onscreen text read: "Apocalypse Now: Is The End Near?" [7/27/06]

Network/Outlet
ABC
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