20-to-1: Networks Go Crazy over Sheen Story, Downplay Planned Parenthood Scandal

If they ever take a break from publicizing Charlie Sheen’s cocaine dos and dont's, or detailing the power politics within his Beverly Hills harem, the networks should grab a copy of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. And they may want to pay special attention to this entry: “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

From Feb. 1 through March 6, the three networks distinguished themselves by devoting 20 times more broadcast time to Charlie Sheen’s porn stars and drug issues than to the Planned Parenthood video scandal and the subsequent vote in the House of Representatives to defund the organization.

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ABC, CBS and NBC aired, on 38 separate broadcasts, at least 4 hours, 51 minutes and 1 second of Sheen coverage. Meanwhile, the possible use of taxpayer dollars (Planned Parenthood receives more than $363 million in federal subsidies) to fund underage abortions received just 14 minutes and 32 seconds of air time.

Viewers didn’t have to seek out “Access Hollywood” or “TMZ” to be introduced to the two “goddesses” (one of whom is a porn star) that complete the current Sheen household, now that his sons have been taken from him in a custody dispute. Conveniently, Sheen was constantly on the networks to inform them that he had “tiger blood,” which helped in “banging seven-gram rocks [of cocaine] and finishing them because that’s how I roll.” They learned that he very adamantly is “winning.” They learned that he’s on the drug “Charlie Sheen,” which if anyone else were to try it, “your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.”

The Culture and Media Institute analyzed the news programs of all three networks from Feb. 1 through March 6 to compare the amount of Sheen coverage versus the Planned Parenthood story. The coverage was even more lopsided that CMI’s numbers would indicate because several broadcasts reporting on Sheen were unavailable for analysis and not counted. Teasers and casual mentions of Sheen also weren’t counted, though they were numerous.

In the case of Planned Parenthood, CMI counted any mention of its defunding, whether the report referenced the scandal or not. (Just one report, from ABC on Feb. 18, mentioned the video.)

Sheen has a long history of troubling behavior involving drugs, alcohol, prostitution, violence and multiple failed marriages. So it wasn’t all that surprising when the multi-millionaire star of CBS’s “Two and a Half Men” ended up in the hospital on Jan. 27, after a party involving a “briefcase of cocaine.” Since then, every aspect of his story and what he called his “b****in’ rock starlife” has been the topic of network stories.

Introducing an entire “20/20” broadcast devoted entirely to Sheen, ABC’s Chris Cuomo said, without a trace of irony, “But for all the outbursts, the 911 calls, and the tabloid headlines, we’ve never heard as completely from the man as now.” Andrea Canning, who conducted the Sheen interview, fawningly called him “a true Hollywood rebel.” During the interview, Sheen submitted to two drugs test for ABC (he passed).

That’s thorough investigative journalism. Too bad ABC and the other networks couldn’t exhibit that level of professionalism on an actual news story.

On Feb. 1, the pro-life group Live Action released undercover video of a New Jersey Planned Parenthood employee giving advice to a man posing as a pimp about obtaining abortions and birth control for the underage foreign prostitutes he traffics.

Within two days, Fox and CNN, along with The New York Times, The Washington Post and other print outlets had reported on the story. Not ABC, CBS and NBC though. In fact, it wasn't until Feb. 8 – a week after the story broke – that CBS finally reported the video.

Planned Parenthood, which bills itself as a “healthcare provider and advocate,” is the nation’s largest abortion provider, and it also receives federal funding. Due in large part to outrage over the Live Action video, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood on Feb. 19. All three networks breathlessly reported that during the debate, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., rose to the organization's defense and told her colleagues that she had a late-term abortion for medical reasons. Only ABC mentioned the related video scandal.

In a telling exchange on NBC’s March 1 “Today,” hosts Kathy Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb lauded NBC reporter Seth Rossen on landing an exclusive personal interview with Sheen:

KOTB: Yeah. All right, Jeff, good job, thanks.

GIFFORD: Jeff, great work. Really, congratulations.

KOTB: Awesome.

It would have been awesome if NBC had reported on the Planned Parenthood video just once. To date, it has not.

(Erin R. Brown contributed to the research for this report)

Matthew Philbin
Matthew Philbin
Matt Philbin is Managing Editor of MRC Culture