CBS Whistle Blower

“It’s short of soap, so there are lice in the hospitals. It’s short of pantyhose, women’s legs go bare. It’s short of snowsuits, so babies stay home in the winter. Sometimes it is short of cigarettes so millions of people stop smoking, involuntarily. It drives everybody crazy. The problem isn’t communism; no one even talked about communism this week. The problem is shortages.” — John Chancellor of NBC speaking of the Soviet Union, August 21 1991, as cited by Bernard Goldberg in Bias.

The argument for ethnic and racial diversity in newsrooms is one that Liberals are familiar with and adept at explaining. Regardless of good intentions on the part of the dominant racial and ethnic group, the argument goes, different groups bring with them different life experiences and different perspectives on stories and on what stories deserve more or less attention. Setting aside for the moment the question as to whether race and ethnic origin are accurate metrics of perspective, the argument has saliency. One wonders, therefore, why newsrooms to not also make formal and concerted efforts to insure political and ideological diversity in newsrooms.

Assessing the extent of Liberal bias in the major national media is often clouded by :what is meant by, Liberal, Moderate, and Conservative. There is an understandable tendency for everyone to view themselves as balanced, moderate, and near the center of the political spectrum. The recent book Bias by long-time CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg illustrates this tendency. After Goldberg had written an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal asserting that the national news programs were plagued by a Liberal bias, CBS’s Dan Rather expressed his chagrin to Goldberg that he had published his critique in the Conservative Wall Street Journal. Goldberg pointed out that Rather himself had published op-ed pieces in the New York Times. That was all right, according to Rather, because the New York Times is middle of the road. From Rather’s perspective, the New York Times swims in the middle of the political mainstream. This rather disturbing lack of circumspection and understanding of the American political scene on the part of Rather, goes a long way toward understanding why those in the major media do not believe they are burdened by bias.

During the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, Peter Jennings introduced the Senators who would decide the President’s fate. He was careful to identify for his audience Conservative Senators like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, while Liberal Senators like Barbara Mikulski from Maryland were just Senators. From Jennings perspective Mikulski was mainstream and needed no special notation to inform viewers. While Jennings’s descriptions were accurate, they were misleading because they tended, not matter how inadvertently, to make Republicans appear at the far extreme.

Searches of news databases reveal similar systematic biases in identification. A Nexis search shows that during the Clinton years, critics of the President were referred to as “Clinton-haters” or “Clinton bashers” (subtly suggesting an anti-Clinton psychosis) far more than similar terms were applied to critics of President Ronald Reagan. (See: Milzcik, Eileen, “Nexis Search Finds Few Bush or Reagan,”, published September 1, 2001. ) This bias is even apparent in selection of news stories. During the Reagan years stories about the homeless (who were invariably portrayed as middle class people down on their luck as opposed to people with pathologies such as drug or alcohol addiction) appeared far more frequently than during the Clinton years, though the homeless problem did not abate or abate nearly as much as the coverage.

Any objective definition of the location of the political mainstream must be made with reference to the country as a whole. The middle of the political spectrum is clearly smack dab in the middle between Republicans and Democrats. In the last four presidential elections, the Democratic Party has won twice and Republicans have won twice. Though President Bush won the last election, it is clear the electorate was pretty much split down the middle. Republicans control the House of Representatives by a narrow margin and the Democrats control the Senate by virtue of a single Senator who changed his allegiance from the Republicans and became independent, aligned with the Democrats.

Do the political affiliations and ideological perspectives of the national media even approximate those of the nation as a whole? Not even close. As Goldberg points out:

  • In 1992, while 43%of the public cast their ballots for Clinton, 89% of journalists did.
  • Half of journalists identify themselves as Democrats, while only 4% are Republicans.
  • While 50% of journalists call themselves liberal, only 23% of the public does.
  • Half the country is pro-choice, while 82% of journalists are.

The Conservative viewpoint is radically underrepresented in national newsrooms. From the perspective of the newsroom, the news coverage does represent the mainstream perspective. However, their mainstream is a little meandering tributary far to the left of the national mainstream.

People are not stupid. They realize when the news is being presented from a perspective far different from theirs. When the three broadcast networks had a monopoly, the viewing public had little choice what to watch. However, the Liberal slant of the news gave rise to Conservative talk radio as a refuge for like-minded people further to the right of the national media. More recently, viewers have hemorrhaged from the broadcast news to cable channels and the Internet. This has contributed to the meteoric rise of the Fox News Channel. At one time the major three broadcast newscasts enjoyed 75% of the audience. This dominance evaporated to 43% by 2001. At this rate, it will become harder and harder to argue that the national broadcast media is Liberally biased. There will be less left of the national broadcast media to criticize.

And how have Goldberg’s former colleagues, colleagues how make a habit of seeking out whistle-blowers in other industries, reacted? Well, Goldberg no longer appeared on Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News after his op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.

It is hard to characterize Goldberg a right-wing fanatic given that he is “pro-choice” on abortion rights, voted for George McGovern in 1972 and never voted for Ronald Reagan given two opportunities in the 1980’s. Nonetheless, he has been accused of having an “agenda.”

It is hard to impugn Goldberg’s journalistic credentials given that the has won seven emmys for his reporting. Nonetheless, critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post, answered the thesis in Bias by describing Goldberg has a “full-time addlepated windbag” and “a no talent hack” who “usually looked disheveled and bleary-eyed on the air.” Then, with out the slightest touch of irony, Shales accused Goldberg of “a laughably inept hate campaign [emphasis added].” Goldberg could not have made his point about the inability of media to be self-critical more eloquently than Shales inadvertantly did.

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