By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
D.C.-based group says Treasury Department’s report on actions
at the Branch Davidian compound was not expansive in the press sp.
WHEN THE TREASURY Department released its report on actions at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, media coverage of the findings was not exactly probing, according to a new report.
A study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Media and Public Affairs found that in the three months after release of the report, media coverage was sparse, was critical but not skeptical, and questions about possible civil liberties violations were barely raised at all.
Looking at coverage of the report by 11 leading print and broadcast news outlets, CMPA found only 43 stories about the Treasury Department’s review in the three months after it was issued.
By comparison, the Center found 105 stories in 10 outlets on the Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in the three months after it was released, 41 from the Associated Press alone.
For the Waco report, CMPA looked at the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Associated Press, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and the evening news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS’s “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.”
The Times printed 13 stories on the report, the Post ran nine and five were moved over the AP wire.
Collectively, the newsmagazines printed only seven stories, CMPA reported.
In addition, the study found that government sources dominated the news reports. Treasury Department or other executive agency officials made up 126, or 74%, of the 171 sources cited. Branch Davidians and their lawyers were cited only 13 times and no civil liberty organizations were quoted at all.
Most of the coverage (26 extensive stories) discussed errors that occurred after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ (BATF) initial raid on the compound ? such as agents issuing misleading public statements, altering documents to conceal errors, and attempts to cover up misdeeds.
Errors in planning the raid garnered extensive coverage in 22 stories looked at by CMPA, and nine stories discussed events during the raid.
The Center found only one story, in the Times, that included two or more paragraphs discussing civil liberties, in this case questioning who fired first.
Further, only five items evaluated BATF’s behavior toward the Branch Davidians’ civil rights, and four of those exonerated the government.
CMPA found that media criticism of the raid mirrored criticism in the Treasury report, but where the report exonerated government agents, the media did not ask questions.
“The bottom line,” said CMPA co-director Robert Lichter, was that “journalists were critical of the government, but not skeptical of it.”
The Center undertook the study after receiving a letter from a coalition made up of the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, Gun Owners of America, the National Rifle Association, American Friends Service Committee, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Drug Policy Foundation, Fund for Constitutional Government, Independence Institute, International Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, and Second Amendment Foundation.
Lichter said this was not the first time CMPA had undertaken a media study on behalf of an interest group but, he added, the Center informs such groups, “You tell us what you’re looking for and we’ll tell you what’s there.”
CMPA was precluded by time and financial constraints from studying coverage of the Justice Department’s review of the events at Waco.
?(The Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Texas, where heavily armed Branch Davidian cultists died following a battle with Bureau of Alchohol, tobacco, and Firearms’ agents.) [Photo & Caption]