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Rooting out the media ‘bias’


All governments lie,” said the 20th century’s most idealistic muckraker, I.F. Stone; but, he added, “they also reveal a great deal about themselves.” For a long while he had been growing deaf and couldn’t go to congressional hearings; so he took the time to carefully read the transcripts of everything that had been said -- and made discoveries that the regular Washington reporters, those who would follow the president around the rose garden taking notes or who got “scoops” by playing tennis with White House aides, never noticed.

Robert Fisk, the great British correspondent who covers the Middle East, says in the film “War Reporters” that the only approach to covering a conflict is to presume, “They all lie.” Believe no one. Go in without any preconceived views and dig, and listen to everyone. Then tell what you see and what you think.

So I was not surprised that Fisk, au-thor of Pity the Nation (1990), the classic account of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was among the first to condemn the high toll of civilian casualties in the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan.

Some would say that Stone and Fisk, who, when they dig, usually find something wrong, are “biased.” They are “against the government.”

Bernard Goldberg, the former CBS-TV News correspondent, has created a publishing phenom-enon, about a half-year on the bestseller list, with Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (Regnery) -- largely because thousands, maybe millions, of viewers think he’s right.

The networks and the “media elites,” he says, slant the news to the left.

First, I -- and the standard journalism ethics textbook -- would make the distinction between bias and values. Every journalist, we hope, has values, beliefs that form the basis of his/her moral judgments. A bias is a prejudice, a prejudgment that influences an unfair or distorted report.

Do the media -- which include TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, film, and now the Internet -- present a distorted picture of reality? Of course. It is the nature of entertainment media to feed fantasy, provide escape from reality, and it is the nature of advertising to sell us products, many of which we do not need.

But it is the moral obligation of the news media to give us the information that guides our political decisions. If the news is distorted or incomplete, democracy will fail.

Goldberg’s saga begins in 1996 when, he says, after complaining in-house that CBS News had a liberal slant, he became so irate with a CBS Evening News item dissecting presidential candidate Steve Forbes’ flat tax proposal, that he published an attack on his own network on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 13, 1996).

The reporter, Eric Engberg, whom he identifies as a “longtime friend,” he says, used loaded words like “scheme,” “elixir,” and “wacky” to demean the idea. He interviewed economists, but in a way that set up the case against the tax rather than allowing the viewer to decide for himself.

Goldberg’s attack on his own employer became a cause célèbre, he says. There were in-house letters of support, from Andy Rooney and others he declines to identify; but, in general, he became the office leper. Dan Rather, who used to be his “friend,” was furious. Indeed, throughout the book, Goldberg -- who abhors all “bias” -- cannot mention Rather’s name without an audible snarl: “But a few years ago I got to meet the other Dan Rather, the one behind the anchorman smile. The one the public doesn’t get a chance to see. The one who operates with the cool precision of a Mafia hit man who kisses you on the right cheek before he puts a bullet through your eyeball.” To put it kindly, the Rather Goldberg portrays is a liar.

Goldberg goes on to develop -- or inflate -- his 800-word op-ed piece into a 223-page book, with examples of other issues on which the biased media cannot be trusted.

For years in the 1980s, news reports portrayed the homeless romantically, as normal, white, middle-class unfortunates, huddling by the millions in the Christmas snow. In truth, their numbers were exaggerated by advocates for homeless people, Goldberg writes. The General Accounting Office estimated that there were at most 600,000. In reality, Goldberg writes, they were drunks, addicts, schizophrenics, largely responsible for their own fate.

AIDS is, in fact, a disease that, in this country, is largely limited to homosexuals, junkies who use dirty needles, their sex partners and their children who can inherit the virus. Yet, says Goldberg, the gay lobby, knowing that this small part of the population could never command public sympathy by itself, has sold the media the idea that AIDS is a general epidemic that threatens everyone: No one is safe. Oprah Winfrey was convinced to proclaim, “Research studies now project that one in five heterosexuals … could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That’s by 1990.”

Goldberg moves swiftly through a number of other issues where journalists show their “bias” by not writing about them enough: Women work, he writes, and thus neglect their children not because they “must” but because they just prefer to work. Maybe the Quran really does encourage terrorism! Otherwise, he asks why aren’t there Jewish suicide bombers? (It does not occur to Goldberg that the Israelis don’t need suicide bombers when they have USA-paid-for helicopters and tanks.)

A more substantial conservative critique is William McGowan’s Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism (Encounter). Covering some of the same ground, but in more depth, McGowan argues that in their commitment to the multicultural ideology, media institutions have both compromised journalistic standards and consistently misrepresented or ignored complex questions on race, homosexuality, feminism and immigration.

This is not because journalists are consciously biased, but because they come not from a cross-section of society but from the well-educated, secularist upper and middle classes and naturally share common assumptions about affirmative action, women’s rights, abortion and, sometimes, the irrelevance of religious belief.

As a result, The Washington Post, for example, didn’t see or wouldn’t say that lowering the standards of police recruitment to make the force more diverse put a lot of black crooks in uniform. Other media have been blind to the cultural damage resulting from unrestricted immigration and the illiteracy of a generation of Hispanic youth raised on bilingual education.

Goldberg and McGowan score some points. Praising both books, civil-libertarian Nat Hentoff writes that he himself was almost denied a National Press Foundation lifetime award simply because he was pro-life.

And even liberal Catholics cringe in occasional disgust when pundits like The Nation’s Kath Polite and, recently, The New York Times’ Bill Keller, can’t type words like “God,” or “Catholic church,” without foaming at the mouth. And the infamous review in The New Republic (Jan. 21) by Daniel Jonah Gold Hagen of 10 church/holocaust books reeks with a profound animus toward Catholicism.

But to imagine that the media are collectively liberal is to imagine that The New York Times and The Washington Post are liberal because they are to the “left” of The Wall Street Journal. There is, in fact, compared to Europe, a very narrow range of opinion in the American press and on TV, clustered in the extreme center.

The media are no more leftist than the handful of big capitalist conglomerates that own them: AT&T, AOL/Time Warner, Viacom (CBS), General Electric (NBC), Walt Disney (ABC), and the News Corporation, where one man, Rupert Murdoch, sets the right-wing political line for FOX News, the conservative Weekly Standard, the trashy New York Post and tabloids all over the English-speaking world.

Their collective bias is pro-business-government-establishment -- most evident when any administration wants to spend billions on weapons, wage a war and deny the existence of civilian casualties.

Finally, a word about the ethics of Goldberg’s original column. CBS did not fire Goldberg, he stayed another four years and resigned with his pension in 2001 -- and then wrote another Wall Street Journal broadside against “Dan.” But was it right for a member of the CBS News team to attack his own colleagues in another medium?

It’s hard for me to imagine there were not better ways of expressing dissent. At an editorial board meeting, circulating an internal letter, even politely in an interview. We all have to be willing to take risks to save our souls, to confront our bosses and colleagues -- especially on questions of great moment where both the public welfare and our own integrity are at stake. If we get nowhere and if it will serve the greater good, we should go public.

But first, resign.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit Community Professor of the Humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His latest book, Fordham: A History and Memoir, has just been published by Loyola Press. His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002