TCS Daily

Arrogance and Alternatives

By Edward B. Driscoll - June 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a two-part series. Read the first installment here.

On May 10, 2004, a videotape, almost universally believed to be authentic, surfaced of 26 year old civilian contractor Nicholas Berg's beheading in Iraq at the hands of al-Qaida affiliated terrorists who shouted "Allahu Akbar" as they sawed Berg's head off. No American television network showed the tape to its ending, which shows a masked terrorist holding up the severed head of Berg.

And yet, millions of people throughout the world saw these horrific images, and received a glimpse as to just how bloodthirsty America's Middle Eastern enemies can be. Unlike 9/11, this was largely thanks to the Internet, and what John S. Carroll, the editor of the Los Angeles Times dismissively dubbed "pseudo-journalism": opinion-oriented Websites, Weblogs, talk radio, the Fox News Network (and pretty much any other source that Carroll doesn't like).

Carroll is disturbed by the recent rise of so many competitors to the traditional news media. And yet, he's not willing to admit that, rightly or wrongly, many people think that the media has failed them.

This development comes as no surprise to Bernard Goldberg, the veteran CBS and HBO journalist and producer, and author of the best selling books, Bias and Arrogance. Back in April, I spoke with him, and this article concludes the first part of the interview, which ran on May 5th.

Media Focuses On Confrontation and Controversy

Goldberg thinks that television news in particular, by its very nature, doesn't do a very good job of covering issues. "It doesn't interest them," he says. Instead, "they cover controversy. News has become what literature has always been: a clash between this side and that side. And confrontation and controversy are necessary ingredients in literature. Well, now they're necessary ingredients in television news -- and not just television news, but mostly there."

Electing an American president, especially during a time of war, should be a serious-as-cancer business. But Goldberg says, "If you went out and surveyed people, 'what's John Kerry's position on NAFTA?', you wouldn't know from television news. If you said, 'what's his position on NATO?', you wouldn't know. You might know that he's against the war in Iraq -- sort of. You might know that Bush thinks it's a good thing."

Instead of issues, television news viewers "see the arguments", Goldberg says. "That's what the networks highlight -- because they think it makes for good television.

"Every four years they do this", he adds. "Every four years they get criticized. Every four years they sort of acknowledge that they need to get involved with the issues more, and it never quite happens".

New Alternatives on the Right -- and the Left

Given the rapid spread of alternatives, it's starting to cost them. As the late Robert L. Bartley said, "If it finds the mainstream press lacking, the public will simply find its own sources of information -- as declining readership and network news ratings suggest is already happening."

Of course, not all of those alternatives to the mainstream media have come from the right. Earlier this year, Air America, the leftist talk radio format created by Al Franken, and starring Franken and Janeane Garofalo began broadcasting. But the week after I spoke with Goldberg, stories started to fly that it was having cash flow problems. Which makes Goldberg's thoughts on the subject rather prescient:

"I think that a lot of Americans -- including liberals -- say, you know what? We've already got enough megaphones coming from left field. We have NPR, we have the mainstream media, we have the New York Times, we have the Boston Globe, we have the LA Times. I don't know if we need one more.

"But I think that the other reason has nothing to do with radio or the media at all. It has to do with the disaffection that many people in this country have for liberalism. Because the people who speak for liberalism now -- the Al Frankens, the Janeane Garofalos -- these kinds of people. They've hijacked what was once a great movement. These are nasty, close-minded, mean-spirited, fringe people.

"And I think there's disaffection -- conservatives feel this way, and I think a lot of liberals feel this way. Not the fringe liberals, but a lot of liberals feel this way, that here are liberals who love affirmative action, until it affects their precious little darlings. Then they're not so much for affirmative action. Here are people who feel uneasy with American military power in the world. Again -- the loudest liberal voices, who tend to blame America first for things. Here are liberals who go out of their way to defend art that is designed to do nothing but offend people such 'Piss Christ', or the more recent Virgin Mary covered in elephant crap.

"I think that regular people out there, whether they're regular people who aren't partisan, or whether they're open-minded liberals, I think they don't like that. And I think it's too strident, and I don't think that works.

"Now, they're going to say, 'you don't think Rush Limbaugh is strident?'

"Actually, I don't! I don't think he's mean-spirited. You can disagree with everything he believes in, but he doesn't come across as mean-spirited and nasty. Now, he does to some people on the left, I grant you that. I'm not going to be disingenuous about that. But I think that Al Franken comes off that way a lot of the time, and Janeane Garofalo, who said that 'President Bush is the head of the 43rd Reich', comes off as nasty, not just to conservative Americans, but I think to non-strident, non-way-out-there liberal Americans, too."

Has The Right Achieved Media Parity?

Air America was set-up, in this post-Bias media world, to counteract what the left fears is a growing counterbalance by the right from talk radio, just as Al Gore's recent purchase of a Canadian-based cable channel was designed to counteract Fox News.

Last fall, in a widely read article in City Journal, Brian Anderson wrote that the left's monopoly on opinion is over. Does Goldberg believe that the right has achieved a certain parity with the left in the culture wars?

"No I don't. I've never argued that conservatives don't have clout in certain parts of the media. They have clout on talk radio, they have clout on one cable network, they have clout in some places on the Web. No question about that. They have clout in the world of opinion journalism. But opinion and news are different things. And they don't have much clout in the big, respected, so-called mainstream media.

"The liberals have it in those big mainstream places."

"And there's a difference between opinion and news. And when it starts to slip into newscasts, because they see the world a certain way, then that's not a good thing.

"And finally, in the world of any media, clout comes from numbers. And let's just take TV: the mainstream TV networks during the dinner hour have about 35 million people watching: ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. Fox News has about a million watching. C'mon, it's not even close!"

There's always going to be a need for paid reporters, but given the combination of the Internet, which contains the Blogosphere, the Media Research Center's Website, and Google for people to find both news, examples of bias, and commentary that fits their own worldview, what does Goldberg see the traditional media evolving into over the next few years?

"I'll give you a quote from paragraph one of Arrogance", Goldberg says:

"If the media elites don't start to listen to reasonable criticism about them, they're going to become the journalistic equivalent of the leisure suit: harmless enough, but hopelessly out of date. The reason why I called that book Arrogance is that these people don't listen to anybody. They don't listen to any criticism! If you point something out to them, they say, 'this proves that you're the one with the bias problem'.

"If they continue that, they will be less relevant next year then they are this year, and less relevant two years from now than they will be next year. They're becoming less and less relevant."

"And proof of this is that once upon a time", Goldberg says, "not ten thousand years ago, but just in the recent past, the most trusted man in America was Walter Cronkite. Does anybody, no matter what his or her politics are, does anybody think that Americans would pick one of the three network anchors as one of the most trusted men in America today? I don't think so. I don't think so.

"So they're losing their clout, they're losing their influence, they're losing their relevance, and they continue to fiddle while Rome is burning. They are so arrogant that they can't see straight, and I think it's going to cost them."

Much to John Carroll's dismay, the fact that you're reading proves that it already has.


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