The question of whether the media has a liberal bias is, on the face of it, absurd. No one who reads newspapers—fewer people with every passing day—or watches the major networks—those numbers are plunging also—is not fully aware that the liberal slant in the news is alive and thriving. Nevertheless, Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and William McGowan’s Coloring the News are worth reading.
Goldberg, an Emmy Award-winning correspondent and 28-year veteran of CBS News, provides an insider’s look at the inner workings of CBS. Bias reveals, among other things, how the media became a tool, in Goldberg’s opinion, for homeless and AIDS lobby groups; how they shut out conservative voices from the abortion debate; how female news producers disparage the contributions of stay-at-home mothers and air stories promoting daycare; how the media bend over backward to cover racial issues in a “sensitive” way during prime time, while ignoring minorities in order to attract a more affluent “white” audience. (Race is a major topic in Goldberg’s book. Goldberg reports that, during the May 2000 sweeps, CBS’s 48 Hours and NBC’s Dateline ran no stories about blacks.)
Goldberg claims that even CBS executives acknowledge a liberal bias in the industry, among them CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who once told him: “Look, Bernie, of course there’s a liberal bias in the news. All the networks tilt left. . . . If you repeat any of this, I’ll deny it.” (And, naturally, in a post-publication interview, Heyward denied the statement without further comment.)
Bias contains plenty of fascinating tidbits for news junkies. Dan Rather, whom Goldberg describes as a friend, comes across as a cutthroat, “ruthless and unforgiving,” with a heavy dose of Nixonian “paranoia.” From a 48 Hours Survival Guide, Goldberg produces the following maxim: “Looks count, too. You can find the most articulate character in the world but if she has no teeth or has a beard, no one will hear what she’s saying.” (Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of 48 Hours, claims that the guide is no longer in print.) Goldberg reports a CBS conference call in which presidential candidate Gary Bauer was referred to as “the little nut from the Christian group.” Not surprisingly, Goldberg’s former colleagues at CBS do not have much good to say about him. Among them, Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer is the most diplomatic, remarking, “In the end, Goldberg seemed to think his job was to report on CBS instead of reporting for CBS.” Other, less kind comments include those of correspondent Eric Engberg, who called Bias an “act of treason” and referred to Goldberg as “a sleazy snake-in-the-grass.”
In the final analysis, however, Bias has a distracting, whiny tone that dilutes Goldberg’s case. A better investment of your time and money is Coloring the News by William McGowan, who charges that the nation’s major news companies—Gannett, Knight Ridder, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and, most importantly, the New York Times—have succumbed to a “disturbing conformity.” According to McGowan, this pattern is most evident in stories dealing with such controversial subjects as race, abortion, homosexual rights, multiculturalism, bilingual education, affirmative action, and immigration. “Far from being a progressive source of new ideas,” McGowan writes, “in many instances the press represents a tired bulwark of liberal dogma and reacting [sic], enforcing a PC conventional wisdom.”
Professional standards in print journalism have fallen by the wayside in our era of “diversity training.” McGowan believes that the obsession with diversity has undermined the morale of newsrooms and watered down the quality of the stories emerging from them. Within the diversity-driven newsroom, thoughtful questions about race or immigration simply are not permitted, since industry forces (publishers and editors) and outside influences (militant organizations of minority journalists, activists for various rights groups) have snuffed out reasoned discussion. Examples are Gannett’s “content audit,” requiring editors and reporters to quote sufficient blacks and Latinos from a minority source list in the interest of “reflect[ing] the face of the country,” and the same company’s refusal to use photographs that portrayed minorities in an unfavorable light. Reporters and editors could qualify for bonuses and promotions by following the Gannett guidelines; failure to follow company policy—or even the perception of failure—might result in dismissal.
The Gannett-owned Free Press in Burlington, Vermont, fired Paul Teetor, a respected reporter, in a meeting lasting a minute and a half, at the demand of Rodney Peterson, a black activist. Teetor had written a story that, according to Peterson, was racist. The Free Press, under heavy pressure from Gannett headquarters in Virginia to print more favorable stories about minorities, caved in without a fight. Teetor sued the paper and won. Subsequently, Gannett claimed to have eliminated its “content audit,” though you would never know it from reading a Gannett newspaper.
McGowan found immigration stories to be particularly tendentious. His chapter on immigration opens with a consideration of a front-page story in a June 1999 number of the New York Times, “Seeking Father, Boy Makes a 3,200 Mile Odyssey.” According to this incredible account, 13-year-old Edwin Sabillon departed hurricane-devastated Honduras bound for Queens with $24 and three cookies in his pockets, after receiving a letter from his father, whom he had never met, begging the child to meet
him at La Guardia Airport. According to the account in the Times, Sabillon crossed the Guatemalan, Mexican, and United States borders and, with the help of strangers, was eventually united with his father.
I recall reading the story when it appeared, and I did not believe a word of it. Had the reporter or the editors just an iota of skepticism (and how could they not?), the story would never have seen the light of day. But because not one fact was verified, Sabillon’s tall tale ended up on the front page of the prestigious New York Times. Before the week was out, reporters from the Associated Press and New York’s Newsday went to Honduras looking for a follow-up. They found that the Sabillons had fabricated almost every detail. The Times printed its retraction, “Boy’s Tale Mostly Fiction, Officials Say,” buried deep inside the Metro section. Instead of apologizing to their readers, the editors were dismissive of their error. To those who said the paper committed a major blunder by relying on Sabillon’s account without verification, Times editor Joyce Purnick replied, “I don’t see this as a major black eye for the media.” According to the Times, Sabillon, or at least the lies he told, symbolized “the plucky virtues of immigrants.”
Most of the questions McGowan asks in Coloring the News have been pondered by readers nationwide for years. The majority of Americans favor a reduction in the level of legal immigration—but where does one find their opinions? A large but unheard segment of the country is profoundly opposed to abortion—and their views should be voiced. Why is the liberal bias so deeply ingrained in the media? McGowan writes that, when he approached reporters to discuss examples of unprofessional or skewed reporting, they regarded him “the way a taxpayer might regard a revenue officer calling from the IRS.” They insisted that any particular story might appear one-sided, but, over the long haul, they believed, an analysis of many stories would confirm that no ideological bias exists. Of course, the reverse is true: Only by looking at stories over a prolonged period of time does the agenda of the print media become painfully obvious.
Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post and Newsweek has the spot-on answer to the question, “Why?” First, Samuelson says, the national media do not so much deny that a liberal bias exists as simply ignore the charge. “Liberal bias” does not mean that the press favors Democrats over Republicans, as was common in the 19th and 20th centuries; rather, “The bias is more subtle.”
Some groups and ideas are treated well in coverage because they seem praiseworthy and “right.” Others are disdained because they seem questionable or “fringe.” Among journalists, pressures for intellectual and social conformity mean that challenges to what “everyone believes” are rare. Journalists, like most people, want to be liked and respected by peers.
In other words: If you are for open borders, expanded rights for homosexuals, or a woman’s “right to choose,” the media have determined that you are on the “right” side of the issue. You can expect favorable coverage. If, on the other hand, you favor reduced levels of immigration, restrictions on homosexual rights, and are pro-life, your position will be marginalized or ignored. You are on the “fringe.”
According to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, only six percent of the press identify themselves as “conservative” and four percent, as Republican. (Among the public, the percentages are 35 and 28, respectively.) The real issue, perhaps, is not media bias but whether journalists have any interest in hearing the other side of the story. (They profess to encourage open and honest debate, after all.)
I decided to find the answer for myself, after Peter Schrag, former editorial-page editor for the Sacramento Bee and currently a columnist for the same paper, wrote a tepid review of Coloring the News in the Columbia Journalism Review. While acknowledging that the book makes some important points, Schrag found it lacking in historical perspective and insufficiently documented. And he was quick to defend the policies of the McClatchy Company newspapers. Since Schrag and I are both residents of Northern California as well as columnists concerned about standards in journalism, I sent him a friendly e-mail asking for an appointment to discuss his review.
I told Mr. Schrag that I had read and admired his book Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future, adding that I am involved in a long-term project to evaluate fairness and balance in the media. To bring him up to date on my findings, I sent him a link to a Denver Post column by Al Knight about this project. Finally, I mentioned that, in the course of my research, I had had occasion to call senior editors and reporters at the Bee newspapers in Sacramento, Modesto, and Fresno. I suggested that Schrag might be interested in hearing what I had learned from those contacts. When, after a week, I had no word from Mr. Schrag, I sent an equally friendly follow-up message. I am still waiting for a reply.
Perhaps Schrag sensed that my experiences with the Bee newspapers were not good ones. In fact, over the course of several months, I could not get anyone from any Bee paper to return a single call.
Samuelson has the best take on the problem: The mainstream media have a well-defined agenda. The best way for journalists to deal with those of us who oppose them is simply to ignore us.
[Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News, by Bernard Goldberg (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing) 234 pp., $27.95]
[Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism, by William McGowan (San Francisco: Encounter Books) 250 pp., $25.95]