Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News , by Bernard Goldberg (Regnery; ISBN: 0895261901)

This is a timely, important, even vital book whose message is unfortunately compromised by its style. Goldberg, a highly-respected newsman, has a compelling case to make about liberal bias in television news reporting, and he backs his arguments up with plenty of evidence and astute analysis. Had he opted for a tone of level-headed exposition, he could have been even more persuasive, but instead causes the reader to suspect his motivations at precisely those moments when one's full attention should be on the substance of his points.

It is difficult to take seriously a polemic that insists, in highly emotional terms, upon demonizing its subjects, especially when those subjects are taken to task for demonizing some of their subjects. Even while excoriating Eric Engberg for his patently biased portrayal of presidential candidate Steven Forbes, here is Goldberg, a respected and hugely talented journalist, constantly referring to Dan Rather as "The Dan," a belittling epithet unworthy of a serious writer with something important to say. ("Everyone is afraid of crossing The Dan, who, Sicilian style, divides the world into friends and enemies.") That he has great anger directed at Rather is understandable, but his perception of Rather's interpersonal failings, his ego, his management style and his arrogance are, when you get right down to it, utterly beside the point, or at least ought to be.

What is important is that Rather is a perpetrator, in Goldberg's view, of the liberal tilt discussed in Bias. That Rather presents news in a slanted manner is the salient issue, and it's the only thing that is salient, or should be, at least for the thesis being put forth here. That he took out after Goldberg following Goldberg's inflammatory op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal is lamentable, even execrable, but it's irrelevant. And it is in Goldberg's vicious return diatribe that Bias takes a wrong turn. What a more powerful case could have been made if Goldberg hadn't alerted us so candidly to his extreme distaste for Rather. (That Goldberg takes pains to assure us he doesn't hate Rather while he tears him apart is like Rush Limbaugh repeating endlessly that he didn't hate Bill Clinton even as he tried to convince us that the former president was the devil incarnate, or Louis Farrakhan claiming he is not anti-Semitic. If it walks like a duck, etc., etc…)

The high emotional content isn't helped by Goldberg's distrust of his own ability to make a cogent argument. His insistence on driving his points home with a tidal wave of exclamation points and repetition is not only self-conscious but unnecessary. When a CBS executive tells him his op-ed piece was tantamount to rape of the exec's wife and kidnapping of his children, we get it. It's a powerful moment, and we get it. We don't need it thrust back at us over and over, in italics and with exclamation points (sometimes four!!!!). We got it the first time and repetition only dulls the point and makes us wonder: doesn't the author think we understood it the first time? Does he not believe in his own ability to make a point?

Some strong-handed editing might have caught these lapses, and others as well, such as this self-negating sentence: "An especially courageous producer at 60 Minutes, whose name I won't mention to protect her from possible repercussions, left a voice mail saying, 'I agree with your premise and am proud to tell anybody that I do.'" Goldberg gives us a powerful example of liberal bias by quoting verbatim from Peter Jennings identifying a group of senators and constantly referring to "conservative" Senator So-and-So but never "liberal" anybody. Yet this example was dulled when Goldberg points out that Rush Limbaugh is repeatedly identified as the "conservative" talk show host yet Rosie O'Donnell is never called the "liberal" talk show host. That Limbaugh's show is about conservative politics and O'Donnell's is about quickie interviews with movie stars is the reason for that particular difference, not liberal media bias, and is therefore not a good example in support of the book's thesis.

There are other lapses as well, including troubling, self-serving inconsistencies. One of the more egregious occurs when we are told that "None of this should be seen as an argument against liberal values, or as an endorsement of conservative values," yet the book is crammed full of both. ("[Liberal elites] love affirmative action as long as their own kids get into Ivy League schools. They love handing out jobs based on racial preference as long as they get to keep theirs. It's…always somebody else who has to make the sacrifice…while the white liberal elites get to claim credit for being so decent, the saviors of black people in America.")

Goldberg's own biases are everywhere in evidence, perhaps nowhere more astonishingly than in his chapter on why the media have failed to report on the national problem of latchkey children. Goldberg asserts that the growing numbers of working (i.e., not at home with the kids) mothers is having dire consequences for the current generation of children. It's a good point, and critically important, and it is not being debated because of the media's fear of the feminist lobby. But he concludes as follows: "Why don't we get to see intelligent voices that would…say that it's more important for more women to spend more time with their children and not bring in a second income?" Nowhere in his entire discussion of this topic does it ever seem to occur to Goldberg that women have as much right to work as men do, and that maybe the point should be that one parent work and one stay home, without automatically assuming (with the kind of insidious unconscious assumption for which he condemns the liberal media) that it's the father who has the job and the mother who watches the kids and bakes cookies. Worse still, he goes on to argue his point of view on working mothers, quoting prominent sociologists, instead of following his own precepts and concentrating on the simpler and more powerful argument, which is that where one comes down on the issue of working mothers is nowhere near as important as having that debate in the first place.

(Undoubtedly, many will find unpalatable his clear sentiment that mothers should work only if they need to and not just because they want to, but that is important only as an example of how the author undercuts his message by bringing in material and opinions that are extraneous to it. In any event, as long as he insisted on taking on the debate, he should at least have gotten the facts right: He sums up the conclusion of a report on day care thusly: "[The] study concludes…that some very young children behave aggressively when they're away from their mothers for long stretches of time," when the report itself, as described by Goldberg, makes no distinction between being away from mothers vs. fathers. This bit of legerdemain is not surprising in light of the author's thinly-veiled blanket condemnation of working mothers as uncaring about their children.)

Logical lapses abound, too. Goldberg offers a quote from James Glassman writing in the Washington Post about liberal bias in the media: "That the press itself…chooses to gloss over it is conclusive evidence of how pernicious the bias is." You don't need to be a professional logician to spot the absurdity of that sentence, which calls to mind the crackpot scientist's contention that the ridicule he suffers from mainstream scientists is conclusive proof of his theory's merit. Goldberg is annoyed that baseball player John Rocker's eruption of bigoted vile got him into trouble, thereby denying him his rights of free speech, but at the same time Goldberg rips into CBS journalist Roxanne Russell for calling Gary Bauer "the little nut from the Christian group." (As Noam Chomsky told us years ago, defending free speech when you agree with the speaker is easy; doing it when you disagree is hard.)

More generally, Goldberg seems not to clearly understand the concept of free speech. It does not mean you can say anything you want without suffering consequences. As a matter of fact, his entire book is about the fact that media elites suffer no consequences for their bias. The natural conclusion would be that, should changes be made along the lines Goldberg is suggesting, those broadcasters would suffer damage to their rights of free speech, which of course is not necessarily the case.

In some instances, he strains too hard for evidence. In a fascinating and thought-provoking section on why it really isn't just harmless fun to blithely ridicule men, he shows how such casual slams can lead to devastating consequences for individuals, such as falsely accused deadbeat dads. But when he writes, "We get entire segments on the news about breast cancer — but hardly a word about prostate cancer," he is guilty of the same type of self-serving manipulation of facts of which he accuses others causists, most notably activists for the homeless. Media attention to prostate cancer has been massive in recently years, as evidenced by the frequent network invocations and interviews of the likes of Norman Schwarzkopf, Michael Milken and Rudy Giuliani to discuss the issue. It rings especially hollow when, a few short pages later, he refers (insultingly) to "cute, perky Katie" Couric, sliding by the fact that Couric did more for focusing attention on men's health over the past few years than any other media figure one could name, owing to the death of her husband. (It's also worth noting that the number of women who are willing to talk openly about breast cancer is — and I admit I'm guessing here — vastly larger than the number of men who are willing to talk openly about prostate cancer, which might help explain some of the difference in media attention at least as much as discrimination against men does.)

It's a shame that these kinds of flaws are so rampant throughout the book because they  seriously undercut the message. And that message is important. Goldberg demonstrates convincingly that superstar news broadcasters typified by the Jennings-Brokaw-Rather triumvirate consider liberals to be moderates and the gold standard for reasonableness, whereas conservatives are subtly tinged with hints of far-outness. This is why newscasters typically hang the "conservative" moniker in front of the names of people like Senator Rick Santorum but never refer to "liberal Senator Ted Kennedy."

Goldberg underscores what he considers to be the insidious nature of this bias by carefully pointing out that there is no conspiracy underway, no agreement, expressed or even implied, among television journalists to present the news this way. He tells us that it's much worse than that, because these people are completely unaware of what they're doing. Liberal beliefs are so ingrained in them that they take them as axiomatic and requiring of no explanation, and don't even recognize them as debatable beliefs at all. Where conservatives tend to be hyper-aware of their politics and are reflexively defensive about them, news broadcasters don't seem to realize they have a liberal political point of view, which makes the problem all the worse. They don't feel a need to say "liberal Senator Ted Kennedy" because they feel Kennedy's political stance is moderate and reasonable and therefore not subject to the implicit stigma of a label.

Despite its many flaws, this is still a book that should be widely read and discussed. Goldberg truly is a terrific journalist, and he's a clear thinker and keen observer as well. His thesis about liberal bias in television news reporting is unassailable, even if it is merely one slice of a larger pie that deals with the power of mass media to shape the way we think, and the unfair ways in which they do it, often without meaning to. Goldberg has the brains and insight to completely decimate the notion that there exists such a thing as objective news reporting, and perhaps someday he'll undertake that challenge, broadening the scope of his criticism from that of liberal bias to just plain bias, of all types. After all, any time a two-hour speech or a person's entire life is reduced to a 30-second sound bite, somebody has to make a decision on what goes and what stays. That determination, of necessity, reflects the biases of the editor.

-Lee Gruenfeld

 

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