P.U.-litzer Prizes recognize some of America's stinkiest media performances. Each year, I work with Jeff Cohen of the watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting to sift through hundreds of deserving entries. But only a few can win. The foulest media achievements of 1999:
Pre-Feminist Prize: CNN's "Larry King Live." When Larry King hosted a segment about potential senatorial candidate Hillary Clinton on June 1, the discussion took political analysis to new depths. One panelist commented: "She has a bad figure. She's bottom heavy and her legs are short." Another expert added: "I don't know one good thing about her. She's got fat -- her legs are too short, her arms are too long. ... If your legs are too short, how do you evolve?" The panelists did not find time to discuss the anatomy of Clinton's likely GOP opponent, Rudolph Giuliani.
All Things Ethnocentric Prize: NPR's Linda Wertheimer. On Dec. 13, when "All Things Considered" host Wertheimer interviewed a Time magazine reporter about videos made by the two teens who massacred people at Columbine High, she expressed amazement: "You say in the article in Time that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were steeped in violence and drained of mercy. How could that be? I mean, they were middle-class children that had lots of advantages; they had nice parents."
"Inoffensive Integrity" Award: Viacom Chair Sumner Redstone. Speaking in October at a celebration in China, where Redstone hopes to expand business operations, the media mogul cautioned international news outlets about irritating sensitive governments. "Journalistic integrity must prevail in the final analysis," he advised. "But that doesn't mean that journalistic integrity should be exercised in a way that is unnecessarily offensive to the countries in which you operate." Weeks before this warning, Viacom announced plans to acquire CBS, thereby becoming the boss of CBS News employees.
Monopolizing the News Award: The New York Times. The day after Viacom -- the movie, cable TV and publishing powerhouse -- announced plans to purchase CBS and become the third-largest media conglomerate in the world, the New York Times devoted seven articles to the proposed takeover. But there was no space to quote a single critic about the threat to consumers or to democracy posed by this concentration of media power. There was room, however, for quotes from upbeat Wall Street analysts, and for a reporter's reference to the bygone era of the 1970s: "In those quaint days, it bothered people when companies owned too many media properties."
Play-It-Again Spin Award: National TV News. On April 5, network TV convened panels of experts to discuss the war on Yugoslavia. Viewers could see hawkish Sen. John McCain at 9 p.m. on CNN's "Larry King Live," at 10 p.m. on Fox News Channel, at 11 p.m. on PBS's "Charlie Rose" show and at 11:30 p.m. on ABC's "Nightline" with Ted Koppel. The senator's whereabouts between 10:30 and 11 p.m. could not be determined.
"Anchors Away to War" Prize: Fox News Channel and PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (tie). On March 24, about an hour before the first NATO missiles struck Yugoslavia, viewers heard a Fox News Channel anchor make an understandable slip: "Let's bring in our Pentagon spokesman -- excuse me, our Pentagon correspondent." A more scripted demonstration of journalistic independence came later in the war, when "NewsHour" anchor Margaret Warner introduced a panel: "We get four perspectives now on NATO's mission and options from four retired military leaders."
Proud to Censor Award: Seattle TV Station KOMO. Days before the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, the news director at the city's ABC television affiliate released a statement that promised to manage the news appropriately: "KOMO 4 News supports coverage of the critical issues raised by the conference, including legal protests, but will not devote coverage to irresponsible or illegal activities of disruptive groups. KOMO 4 News is taking a stand on not giving some protest groups the publicity they want."
Take It on Faith Award: Michael Kinsley. In a Time magazine essay, Kinsley -- who works for two of the planet's most powerful communications firms, Microsoft and Time Warner -- sought to persuade readers that the World Trade Organization is a fine institution, despite protests. Kinsley's Dec. 13 piece ended with these words: "But really, the WTO is OK. Do the math. Or take it on faith."
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