TCS Daily


Welcome To The Post-Bias Media

By Edward B. Driscoll - May 5, 2004 12:00 AM

There's been a curious pattern of "me too-ism" visible on the left recently. Al Gore is launching a liberal cable TV channel to compete with Fox News. Al Franken launched Air America, his nascent liberal talk radio network, to compete with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and other conservatives with successful national talk shows.

And then there's Media Matters. On Sunday, The New York Times announced the formation of a two million dollar think tank to research and prove the influence of the right on the media. As Andrew Sullivan noted in his Weblog, the Times' article was one of the stranger stories on media bias in a long time. It dusted off the claims that the media lean towards the right that Al Gore and others tried to float in November of 2002. The left created this meme to explain away that year's mid-term election results, when Republicans kept their hold on the House and regained the Senate after losing it in May of 2001, when Vermont's "Jumpin'" Jim Jeffords switched allegiances.

Of course, there were some other curious elements to the Times' story. First, the project is headed by David Brock, who not only did a little jumping of his own in the mid-1990s, ditching the conservative American Spectator magazine and becoming a committed man of the left. Second, Brock told the Times that he hopes that Media Matters will replicate the success of the Media Research Center, which for almost 17 years has documented the leftward tilt of the media. But as James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal wrote on Monday, "See the problem here? Brock's new shop is devoted to faulting conservative opinion journalists for expressing conservative opinions. What the Media Research Center does is entirely different; it analyzes liberal bias in the news media, which are supposed to be objective."

Another strange thing has started happening as well -- in the past, media elites denounced any claims of a liberal bias in the news with a shrug and a "who, us? We're not liberals. We're not leftwing. We're objective and neutral. No biases here!" More and more, as we'll shortly see, the media are going on the record (Brock, Gore and Franken, notwithstanding) that it leans pretty heavily towards the left.

Changing The Landscape

This new topsy-turvy world may have been ushered in by Bernard Goldberg, the author of two best-selling books, Bias and Arrogance. Goldberg built on the still ongoing spadework by the Media Research Center to document the leftward tilt of the media. Then the Blogosphere essentially had its grand opening on September 11th, when several million Americans who couldn't log onto the Websites of CNN, The New York Times and the Washington Post, instead began checking out alternatives whose servers weren't blown out from too much traffic. These newcomers to the Blogosphere stayed there, and often put down roots themselves, as the media trotted out its clich├ęs of Quagmire! Failure! Evil imperialism! The brutal Afghan winter! Remember the Soviets!

Shortly thereafter, in December of 2001, Goldberg released his first book, Bias. When I spoke to him in early April of 2004, he told me, that coming from a liberal journalist who had been in the media since 1967, first with CBS, and now HBO, "I think that Bias made the issue far more mainstream than it was before. I think that before that, the complaints came from almost exclusively from conservative places, like talk radio and the Media Research Center.

"In the beginning when the book came out", Goldberg adds, "media elites ignored it. Then, when they couldn't ignore it, because it hit The New York Times' bestseller list, some of them got incredibly nasty and mean spirited, and personal."

How nasty? Michael Kinsley described Bias as "this dumb book." The Washington Post's Tom Shales called Goldberg a "disgruntled has-been." And those were some of their more polite phrases. "But by doing all that," Goldberg says, "there was such a buzz that the subject couldn't be ignored anymore. Peter Jennings was talking about it, and Dan Rather was talking about it, and Tom Brokaw was talking about it, and the editor of the LA Times was talking about it, and the new editor of The New York Times was talking about it."

And the subject of media bias was out of the bottle in a way that it hadn't been before, Goldberg says. "I take no credit, by the way, for it being out there, except that I caught up with the American people. It was always out there, but it was not out there coming from a mainstream journalist, who had never been accused by his one employer of 28 years of having a bias -- not once.

"That's what I think changed the landscape."

2004: A Post-Bias Odyssey

So let's survey media bias in the post-Bias world. The first big difference is a real sea change in how the media discusses the subject. In the past, any claims of bias were responded to with lines such as those Lesley Stahl tried to sell Cal Thomas on Fox News with in early January of 2003, when she said, "I don't know of anybody's political bias at CBS News. I really think we try very hard to get any opinion that we have out of our stories, and most of our stories are balanced." Or as Howell Raines said the following month (only a few months before he resigned as the editor of The New York Times), "Our greatest accomplishment as a profession is the development since World War II of a news reporting craft that is truly non-partisan, and non-ideological, and that strives to be independent of undue commercial or governmental influence."

But after Bias was released, and after the first round of the media's Scud missile attacks against Goldberg, something remarkable happened. Journalists have started going on the record that they -- and their employers -- are biased.

Andy Rooney on Larry King Live in June of 2002 may have been the first when he said, "I'm consistently liberal in my opinions," and that he considers Dan Rather to be "transparently liberal." (Rooney's quotes later framed Goldberg's introduction to Arrogance, his 2003 book.)

In May of 2003, according to CNSNews.com, Bob Zelnick, who spent 21 years at ABC News, "confirmed fellow former ABC News correspondent Peter Collins' contention that anchor Peter Jennings routinely attempted to insert his left of center editorial slant into correspondents' news copy."

In August of 2003, Walter Cronkite added, "I believe that most of us reporters are liberal." (Does Lesley Stahl know this?)

And then ABC's "The Note" Weblog on February 10th of this year basically gave the game away in detail:

"Like every other institution, the Washington and political press corps operate with a good number of biases and predilections.

"They include, but are not limited to, a near-universal shared sense that liberal political positions on social issues like gun control, homosexuality, abortion, and religion are the default, while more conservative positions are "conservative positions."

"They include a belief that government is a mechanism to solve the nation's problems; that more taxes on corporations and the wealthy are good ways to cut the deficit and raise money for social spending and don't have a negative affect on economic growth; and that emotional examples of suffering (provided by unions or consumer groups) are good ways to illustrate economic statistic stories."

True, Dan Rather and Ted Koppel aren't going to appear on their respective shows tomorrow and say that they're planning on pulling the levers on the D-column of the voting booth at their local Manhattan polls, but after Goldberg's book, enough elderly, retired, or mid-level people are now willing to explain the rules the game for people who will listen.

Who Watches the Watchers?

And the people who are listening are Webloggers and other Web-based journalists who are recording this stuff for posterity. In the past, when someone like Andy Rooney went on Larry King's show, a comment like his was usually heard by the million or so who tuned into King's show, and then lost forever into the ionosphere, on its way towards the alien races in Contact and Galaxy Quest who tune in nightly to planet Earth's reruns.

But today, quotes such as Rooney's have a new audience: the Blogosphere, which is doing some of the investigative and analytical work that big media used to do in its heyday: the scandals that erupted when Senators Trent Lott and Christopher Dodd each apparently made racist comments began in similar fashions: each statement was first broadcast on C-Span (which in a way can be considered a new medium itself), picked up by astute bloggers, then by talk radio, and only then by TV news.

"If there's a problem besides bias with the evening news," Goldberg says, "it's a lack of intelligence. The reporters are intelligent -- that's not the problem. The news is not intelligent: they squeeze it into a minute and a half. They don't know anything about outsourcing, yet they do pieces about outsourcing. They do pieces on unemployment, but they know nothing about productivity problems.

"It's an unintelligent medium. With the best places on the Web, you can read things and say, 'Wow, I didn't know that! Why didn't I know that?!' Because you're not getting it if you watch the mainstream networks for your information."

Most of the folks who inhabit the Blogosphere are enlightened amateurs who have found that researching the media and politicians and yelling "gotcha!" when they're catch them lying can be tremendously rewarding when it's done right. As Roger Ailes once told Matt Drudge, "you don't need a license to report. You need a license to do hair."

But despite the work being done on the 'Net, Goldberg has mixed thoughts on the newest medium. "There are things on the Web that are totally irresponsible, more so than in the mainstream media; far more so. Far more so. But the best places on the Web offer the kind of journalism that you don't get from the evening news."

Lesley's Missing Question

One thing the 'Net has been particularly useful for is giving analysis and background on the recent 9/11 hearings. According to Goldberg, that's more than CBS can say:

"60 Minutes devoted 26 minutes to that interview with Richard Clarke, and they didn't have one question on the air -- not one -- where Lesley Stahl said to him, 'well, what about the Clinton administration?'

"Not one. They have a sound bite with a guy from the Bush administration saying 'we were in office 230 days before September 11th, and the Clinton administration was in office for eight years before September 11th,' and there was no follow up of that. They didn't go back to Richard Clarke and say, 'what about that?'

"I'm not even saying that's biased. But I'm saying that was incredibly bad journalism. And then I read a review of Clarke's book in The Wall Street Journal, and it is chock full of facts that Lesley Stahl obviously didn't know anything about, because if she had, she would have asked some decent questions.

"I think that what the media did with the Clarke thing, is that they just picked up on his criticism of President Bush, which I think is absolutely legitimate, and they didn't do anything else. They didn't analyze if he was right or wrong, and they didn't wonder very much about whether or not he went too easy on the previous administration. Because it's not as though nothing happened during those eight years. There was the bombing of the World Trade Center, there was the bombing of the Cole, there was the bombing of Khobar Towers, and there was the bombing of the Embassy in Africa. And there's not a single question in 26 minutes?! That's incredible! Whether or not it was biased, it was disgraceful journalism."

In Part II, we'll look at Goldberg's thoughts on liberal talk radio, how the media has covered the presidential race, and more of his thoughts on the post-Bias media.

Ed Driscoll is a frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote for TCS about whether or not the Blogophere is half-empty or half-full. This is the first part of a two-part series on the post-Bias media.

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