The point of this node ought not to be about possible bias among commentators on talk radio
, Sunday gab-fests
, and op-ed
pieces. People, these are opinion forums
, they are supposed to be biased!
. I suppose there are several interesting debates that ought to be softlink
ed to this node, like where precisely is the center in U.S. politics
, and like do conservative commentators
outnumber liberal commentators
, and if so, what does it mean. But that isn't what serious people mean when they talk about liberal media bias
When tregoweth writes, "If the media's so liberal, where's Noam Chomsky? Where's Michael Moore? Not on any major media outlets that I know of." These two have made some interesting points that deserve to be heard, but dude, get a clue. These aren't reporters or newsmakers, they're opinion makers, and by any mainstream standard, these two are the far left wing. They're about as quotable in non-opinion reporting as are Lyndon LaRouche or David Duke. If tregoweth or his colleagues read this, I am sure in the fine tradition of Chomsky he will deconstruct my entire write-up as feeding the vast right-wing media conspiracy. I wish him well, and can only hope he does it creatively, like cabin fever did in this deconstruction of a rant against graffiti, instead of boringly, as he did here. Besides, when Moore actually makes news, he gets plenty of coverage. He had no qualms doing the Madonna media whore drill to promote his latest book, claiming to be shocked...shocked when his publisher asked (but did not insist) that he mellow his book after 9-11. The book went out unchanged, and the fake controversy helped keep it a best seller. At least Madonna had a legitimate beef in that her performance really was censored in Toronto, by the police.
The Media Are Biased In How They Label Newsmakers.
The question of media bias is whether traditional news reporting, you know, the kind that is supposed to inform rather than persuade, is biased.
There was some interesting debate on this question not to long ago on the Newshour With Jim Lehrer, on PBS. On the one side was former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg, author of the book Bias; on the other side was Marvin Kalb, "a former NBC and CBS reporter now with the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy" (the man must carry an immense business card) at Harvard.
Goldberg's position is one with which the readers of this node are possibly sick of hearing, that the media is liberally biased. However, one of Goldberg's major points hasn't been discussed in this node so far: the issue of labeling. Goldberg says,
"There is no conspiracy. The media elites don't come into their offices in the morning, go into a dark room, roll up their sleeves, give the secret handshake and say, "How are we going to not only execute our liberal agenda, but get conservatives at the same time?"
That's not it. They marginalize conservatives mainly...by identifying every conservative who's in a story...but they rarely identify liberals."
Goldberg isn't against labeling, he acknowledges that the audience needs to know the presumed bias
es of those who make the news or provide the quotes. His point is, there is inconsistent labeling, the result not of some media plot but of the all-too-human
tendency to see the world as you as you see yourself
. But reporters are supposed to be professionals, and have a duty to rise above their foibles
. Start paying attention to labeling in whatever news you watch or read, I'll bet within a week you will easily spot an example. One of Goldberg's examples is from the Clinton impeachment hearing, here he is speaking to Marvin Kalb:
"And right before the impeachment proceedings began, Senators went up to sign what they call an 'oath book', promising to be fair and impartial. As they went up, Peter Jennings, doing a live play-by-play, on ABC, identified Senator Santorum as a young conservative Senator from Pennsylvania -- 'determinately conservative'. Then Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was also a 'determined conservative'. Senator Smith from New Hampshire was a 'very, very conservative Senator from New Hampshire'. Those are exact quotes. And I think that's absolutely fine. This is impeachment, it's a political process, we need to know that these are conservatives, and their conservatism may affect their views.
But Marvin, Barbara Boxer was simply 'Barbara Boxer from California'. Ted Kennedy was simply 'Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts'. Paul Wellstone was simply 'Paul Wellstone from Minnesota'. Now, did Peter Jennings, who is a bright, intelligent, excellent, first-rate newsman, did he really think that the conservative views would affect the vote, but that liberal views wouldn't affect the vote?
You see, this reminds me of the bad-old days, and we both remember these days, Marvin, when the only time a criminal was identified in a news story by race is if he were black."
Goldberg labels himself a lifetime liberal who as of 1996 had never voted Republican
. If he has a strong opinion one way or the other about the impeachment, I haven't been able to find it. Anybody know differently?
In response, Kalb makes some important points. He says its more complicated than simple bias, and he's right. He points out that the "liberal" media had no problem skewering Clinton when the time came, and he's right. The media aren't so biased that they're willing to give up high ratings. But on the specific issue of labeling, Kalb's response is illuminating -- he doesn't deny there's a problem, he just said it was not bias but...ready for this..."if there's lousy journalism, so be it." As if that makes it all OK.
What bothers me is, these lapses in labeling would be so easy to fix. Did you know that CNN anchors aren't supposed to use the word "foreign"? Ted Turner, who owns most of CNN, feels its a pejorative term and encourages his reporters to identify the country or use a word like "international". Newsrooms around the U.S. are responding to new diversity policies that require them to quotes and photograph more minorities when they do the inane person in the street reaction shot or interview ("When the Earthquake hit, how did you feel?"). A simple memo from the news director or president of the major networks would marginalize the point that Goldberg makes. It would be great PR for the media, as it would give the public the impression that the media can respond constructively to the same type of criticism they dish out to corporations and government. If enforced, such a memo would solve this labeling problem. And yet some would rather deny there is a political angle to this problem. Says Kalb to Goldberg, "your reaching back into dangerous turf: Spiro Agnew, Nixon, the media lost the Vietnam War. This is not simply a matter of choosing one issue over another; this is the condemnation of an industry". But bad journalism and the failure to take even elementary steps to correct it somehow isn't a condemnation of the industry? That defensive reaction to me suggests its more than just lousy journalism.
The labeling problem becomes even more pronounced if you listen for the affixes "far-" and "-wing". If you don't hear "conservative" that much more often that you hear "liberal", try listening for "right-wing", which you hear about as often as you'd expect, and "left-wing", which you almost never hear in non-opinion news. "Far-right" is uncommon, but I am hard pressed to think of a time I've read or heard "far-left" outside of conservative op-eds. Its perhaps most pronounced when anchors are broadcasting live instead of from a script. Outfits like Accuracy In Media, http://www.aim.org/ (which I would label right-wing) have attempted scientific tallies. But my personal experience, long before I found out about AIM, has been that the labeling problem is so pronounced, you don't need statistics to see it. Just listen to the news.
Interestingly, in my experience, the European press doesn't seem to have as much of a problem, they don't mind labeling what they consider to be "the left" as such. Anybody care to broaden this discussion to Europe?
Sources and Notes
All Goldberg and Kalb quotes from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/jan-june02/bias_1-24.html