NBC: Metzenbaum a 'Populist,' But Jesse Helms an 'Ultra-Rightist'

When far-left former Democratic Senator Howard Metzenbaum passed away in March, the NBC Nightly News didn't identify his party or apply any ideological label as fill-in anchor Ann Curry hailed his life as “the classic American success story” of a man who “always fought for the little guy, taking on the oil and insurance industries” while he “stuck to his populist principles.”

But on Friday night, Independence Day holiday fill-in anchor Lester Holt accurately described former Senator Jesse Helms, who passed away earlier in the day at age 86, as “a Republican and staunch conservative” as well as “a champion to the right and a lighting rod to the left.” NBC reporter Martin Savidge, however, tagged Helms as “an ultra-rightist” when he won his Senate seat in1972, though Savidge concluded his review of Helms' career by portraying the late Senator's ideology in a positive light: “Helms finally left the Senate in 2003 at the age of 81, and for the rest of his life would proudly wear the unofficial title of the Senate's most conservative Senator.”

Holt painted Helms from the negative, what he was against as opposed to what he favored: “He staked out firm positions against everything from communism and foreign aid to civil rights and modern art.”

Holt could just as easily have summarized: “He staked out firm positions in favor of everything from freedom fighters and lower taxes to protecting the life of the unborn.”

Holt introduced the story on the Friday, July 4 NBC Nightly News:

As the country celebrated our 232nd birthday today, we learned one of the more remarkable and controversial figures of American politics has died. Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican and staunch conservative, who wore the nickname 'Senator No,' passed away this morning at the age of 86. With a brand of politics forged in the Old South, for three decades Helms stood at the forefront of the nation's political and social divide. A champion to the right and a lighting rod to the left, he staked out firm positions against everything from communism and foreign aid to civil rights and modern art. In life, few had ambivalent feelings about Jesse Helms and so it goes tonight with his death.

The over-the-top label from Savidge:

An ultra-rightist, he was elected in the Republican landslide of 1972.

MSNBC.com video of Savidge's story.

My March 13 NewsBusters item, on how the NBC Nightly News described Metzenbaum, recounted:

....[I]n an item about the passing of very liberal ex-Senator Howard Metzenbaum, [NBC Nightly News fill-in anchor Ann] Curry never mentioned his ideology or party as she hailed his life as "the classic American success story" of a man who "always fought for the little guy, taking on the oil and insurance industries" while he "stuck to his populist principles."...

Curry's short item on Metzenbaum on the Thursday, March 13 NBC Nightly News:
We learned today that former Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum has died. His life was the classic American success story. A self-made millionaire, his public career spanned nearly 20 years. And he always fought for the little guy, taking on the oil and insurance industries, often using filibusters to block bills. After leaving the Senate, Metzenbaum stuck to his populist principles, leading the Consumer Federation of America. Howard Metzenbaum was 90 years old.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center