- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2000

The three major TV networks have given scant coverage to major stories on Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising lapses, prompting conservatives to charge the prime-time shows favor the Democratic presidential candidate.

"I think frankly two factors are at work," said Mike Collins, Republican National Committee spokesman. "There's a liberal bias and the mistaken impression that nobody cares about this story. The truth is this is the kind of reporting that needs to be done whether or not people are interested in it."

"I don't think there is any question that most of the people who work in network journalism are philosophically, politically and ideologically aligned with the left. And that's their right as Americans. But they have an obligation as journalists to report the news… . The networks know we are going to hold them to covering us. When they are not covering us fairly, we are going to get on the phone with them."

Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, said the networks favor Mr. Gore and his proposal to blunt big political contributions.

"I think it's just simply the media wants campaign finance reform and they know they're not going to get it with [Texas Gov. George W.] Bush because it gives the media added power over the political message in America," said Mr. Graham, whose group contends the news media is generally liberal.

Complaints against the networks, whose nightly 30-minute newscasts reach an audience far larger than cable stations, revolve around two important stories.

The first was the March 2 conviction of Maria Hsia, a close friend and key Gore fund-raiser. A federal jury found her guilty of five felony counts for concealing the source of money from an illegal 1996 fund-raiser at a California Buddhist temple. Mr. Gore spoke at the event but denies to this day he knew it was a campaigning-for-cash sojourn.

On the day of the conviction, NBC ignored the story altogether. ABC and CBS gave it less than 25 seconds. In fact, ABC devoted more time to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

The second story involved a Los Angeles Times report last Friday. The newspaper obtained excerpts of a secret, 2-year-old memo written by Justice Department prosecutor Charles LaBella.

In it, Mr. LaBella made the case for naming an independent counsel to investigate Mr. Gore, saying the vice president may have lied to investigators about suspect fundraising practices at the White House.

The day the Times story broke, all three networks ignored the story.

Mr. Graham said the omission follows a trend. The networks, he charged, have provided only tidbits of news on Democratic Party fund-raising scandals, including the raising of illegal Chinese and Teamsters Union money.

"You could just make a list," he said. "I would say the media is already totally in the tank for Gore. There is an utter lack of scrutiny on so many levels."

Barbara Levin, a spokesman for the "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw," denies there is any favoritism.

She noted that on Super Tuesday election night, Mr. Brokaw asked Mr. Gore probing questions about his money-raising activities. She said the network planned to air more on the scandal during last night's broadcast."

"Frankly, we receive pressure from interest groups to air certain stories on a regular basis," Ms. Levin said. "We certainly do understand that it's their right to do that. As an independent news organization, we make editorial decisions in our newsroom throughout the day and we stand by them."

While the networks have all but ignored Hsia's conviction and the LaBella memo, cable outlets, including Fox News Channel and CNN, quickly pounced on the stories. And on PBS' "The Newshour," anchor Jim Lehrer started a lengthy interview with Mr. Gore this week with six pointed questions about his past fund raising.

Bill O'Reilly, host of the news-talk show "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox, said ratings, not necessarily bias, sit at the core of the networks' news judgment. He said the three shows have turned to softer segments in recent years to boost ratings.

"I know that the producers of all three broadcasts are primarily concerned with ratings, not ideology," said Mr. O'Reilly, whose one-hour weeknight show did spots on both Hsia's conviction and the LaBella document.

"The only thing I can say is they don't feel that the American people care about these stories and that's why they're not going to cover them," he said.

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