| Arrogance |
By Bernard Goldberg
Genre: Non Fiction
(The buy button will take you to the standard print edition of this book at Amazon.com. From there you will be able to see if the book is also available in large print or audio.)
So I’m sitting in a very nice conference room in the very nice Time & Life Building, high above bustling West Fiftieth Street in Manhattan, for my first meeting on this book. There are about ten big shots from Warner Books sitting around a very nice long table waiting to hear what I have in mind, which basically is to use my earlier book Bias as a jumping-off point to examine the powerful behind-the-scenes forces that have turned too many American newsrooms into bastions of political correctness; to examine those forces and see why they generate bias in the news and how they sustain it; and to tell the media elites, who are too arrogant to see for themselves, the ways they’d better change if they want to stay relevant. Because if they don’t, they’ll cease to be serious players in the national conversation and become the journalistic equivalent of the leisure suit—harmless enough but hopelessly out of date.
But as I’m sitting there I’m not thinking about any of that. To be perfectly honest, what I am thinking is, before Bias caught on with so many Americans, before it became such a hit, no one in the liberal, highbrow book business would have thrown water on me if I were on fire. None of them would have dirtied their hands on a book that would have dismayed their smart, sensitive liberal friends. Before Bias I would have been the skunk at their garden party. But now they can’t wait to hear what I think?
But about fourteen seconds in, I am brought back to earth when one of the participants informs me that a friend of his thinks the whole idea of liberal bias is bogus.
I smile the kind of insincere smile I detest in others and look at the guy, wondering if I’m also looking at his “friend.” I’m also wondering if everyone else in the room also thinks that bias in the news is just the stuff of right-wing paranoia. I am in Manhattan, after all, the belly of the beast.
And besides, Manhattan is one of those trendy places where the new hot media chic thing is not only to dismiss the notion of liberal bias in the news, but actually to say, with a straight face, that the real problem is . . . conservative bias!
This is so jaw-droppingly bizarre you almost don’t know how to respond. It reminds me of a movie I saw way back in the sixties called A Guide for the Married Man. In one scene, Joey Bishop plays a guy caught by his wife red-handed in bed with a beautiful woman. As the wife goes nuts, demanding to know what the hell is going on, Joey and the woman get out of bed and calmly put on their clothes. He then casually straightens up the bed and quietly responds to his wife, who by now has smoke coming out of her ears, “What bed? What girl?” After the woman leaves, Joey settles in his lounge chair and reads the paper, pausing long to enough to ask his wife if she shouldn’t be in the kitchen preparing dinner!
Joey’s mantra in such situations is simple: Deny! Deny! Deny! And in this scene his denials are so matter-of-fact and so nonchalant that by the time the other woman leaves the bedroom, leaving just Joey and his wife, her head is spinning and she’s so bamboozled that she’s seriously beginning to doubt what she just saw with her own two eyes. She’s actually beginning to believe him when he says there was no other woman in the room!
Just think of Joey Bishop as the media elite and think of his wife as you—the American news-consuming public.
You have caught them red-handed over and over again with their biases exposed, and all they do is Deny! Deny! Deny! Only now the media have become even more brazen. Simply denying isn’t good enough anymore. Now they’re not content looking you in the eye and calmly saying, “What bias?” Now they’re just as calmly turning truth on its head, saying the real problem is conservative bias.
What’s next? They look up from their paper and ask why you’re not in the kitchen preparing dinner?
Having been on the inside for as long as I have, twenty-eight years as a CBS News correspondent, I should have known it would be just a matter of time before they would stop playing defense and go on the offensive. Given their arrogance, I should have known that sooner or later they would say, “We don’t have a bias problem—and if you think we do, then that proves that you’re the one with the bias problem.” Never mind that millions of Americans scream about liberal bias in the media; all the journalists can say is “You’re the one with the bias!” The emperors of alleged objectivity have been naked for quite some time now, and sadly, they’re the only ones who haven’t noticed. Or as Andrew Sullivan, the very perceptive observer of all things American, so elegantly puts it, “Only those elite armies of condescension keep marching on, their privates swinging in the breeze.”
But to deny liberal bias, the elites not only have had to brush off their own viewers, they also have had to paint their critics as wild-eyed ideologues—and then completely misrepresent what they say. For example, on March 4, 2003, this is how Nicholas Kristoff began his column in the New York Times: “Claims that the news media form a vast liberal conspiracy strike me as utterly unconvincing.” Well, they strike me as utterly unconvincing, too. Exactly who, Nick, is making those “claims”? Got any names? Because I travel all over the country and speak about bias in the media, and I haven’t met one serious conservative—not one—who believes that a “vast liberal conspiracy” controls the news. And for what it’s worth, I write on page four of the introduction to Bias that “It is important to know, too, that there isn’t a well-orchestrated, vast left-wing conspiracy in America’s newsrooms.” What I and many others do believe, and what I think is fairly obvious, is that the majority of journalists in big newsrooms slant leftward in their personal politics, especially on issues like abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, and gun control; and so in their professional role they tend to assume those positions are reasonable and morally correct. Bias in the news stems from that—not from some straw man conspiracy concocted by liberals in the supposedly objective, mainstream media.
Yet the idea that socially liberal reporters might actually take a liberal tack in their reporting is a proposition too many journalists on the Left refuse even to consider. Better to cast conservatives as a bunch of loonies who see conspiracies under every bed, around every corner, behind every tree, and, most important of all, in every newsroom.
In fact, right on the heels of the Kristoff column, the conspiracy thing pops up again in—surprise, surprise—the New York Times. This time in a book review: “The notion that a vast left-wing conspiracy controls America’s airwaves and newsprint [is] . . . routinely promoted as gospel on the right.”
Wrong again! But they are right about one thing: There is plenty of paranoid talk about a “vast left-wing conspiracy” in the newsroom. The problem is, the paranoids dreaming it up aren’t conservatives—they’re liberals!
And the uncomfortable truth—uncomfortable for ideologues on the Left, anyway—is that there now exists “a huge body of literature—including at least 100 books and research monographs—documenting a widespread left-wing bias in the news,” according to Ted Smith III of Virginia Commonwealth University, who has done extensive research into the subject. And much of the evidence comes not from conservatives with axes to grind but straight from the journalists themselves, who in survey after survey have identified themselves as liberal on all the big, important social issues of our time.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, despite all the examples of bias that were documented in my book and others, despite the surveys that show that large numbers of Americans consider the elite media too liberal, despite all of that, the elites remain in denial. Why? Well, for starters, as I say, a lot them truly don’t understand what the fuss is all about, since they honestly believe that their views on all sorts of divisive issues are not really controversial—or even liberal. After all, their liberal friends in Manhattan and Georgetown share those same views, which practically by definition make them moderate and mainstream. So, the thinking goes, it is all those Middle Americans who take the opposing view on, say, guns or gay marriage who are out of the mainstream, the ones who are “fringe.” Journalists don’t usually use the word—not in public anyway—but those supposedly not-too-sophisticated “fringe” Americans are smart enough to pick up on the condescension.
But there’s another reason journalists refuse to come clean on liberal bias—one that Dr. Freud would have a field day with. To be honest with the American people and themselves, you see, would be to shake their world to its very foundations. And that, as you might imagine, is not something they’re anxious to do, introspection not being their strong suit. By and large, these are people who see themselves as incredibly decent, even noble. They’re the good guys trying to make the world a better place. That’s why many of them went into journalism in the first place—to make the world a better place. Bias is something the bad guys are guilty of. So rather than look honestly at themselves and their profession, they hang on for dear life to the ludicrous position, to the completely absurd notion, that they, among all human beings, are unique—that only they have the ability to set aside their personal feelings and their beliefs and report the news free of any biases, “because we’re professionals,” they say.
But so are cops, and they can’t keep their biases in check is what journalists tell us all the time. If a cop is biased, sooner or later that bias is going to come out on the job, is what reporters say. And they’re probably right. It’s human nature, after all. It’s the same with judges and corporate executives with biases. No way they have the ability to set their personal feelings and beliefs completely aside—not for long anyway. And, as we all know, no white southern male over the age of five can keep his biases under control, certainly not as far as the elites are concerned. But journalists alone, the guys in the white hats, somehow can do what no other group can. Somehow, all of their life experiences can neatly be set aside as they go about bringing us the news, absent any preconceived notions and prejudices—because “we’re professionals.”
It’s unbelievable. Literally.
Deny! Deny! Deny! By now it’s not only their mantra, it’s practically official newsroom policy. In one way or another Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw have all dismissed the very idea of liberal bias in the news. Rather has called it a “myth” and a “canard” and has actually said that “Most reporters don’t know whether they’re Republican or Democrat.” Jennings thinks that “It’s just essential to make the point that we are largely in the center, without particular axes to grind, without ideologies which are represented in our daily coverage.” Ditto Brokaw, Couric, Lauer, Stahl, Wallace, and Bradley. The list, as they say, goes on and on.
But as strategies go, this new wrinkle—“There is no liberal bias in the news, but there is a conservative bias”—is far better. This is what you say if you’re a media liberal who is not only tired of playing defense but wants to put his critics on the defensive for a change. This is what you say if you’re trapped in a corner, and you don’t know what else to do and you think you’re fighting for your life.
It was Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, who fired the first shot (unless you want to go back a few years to Hillary Clinton and her warning about the vast right-wing conspiracy) when he went after every liberal’s favorite punching bag, Rush Limbaugh, in November 2002. That was right after the Democrats got hammered in the midterm elections and lost control of the Senate. Daschle accused Limbaugh and other conservatives on talk radio of inciting violence against liberals like himself. How would that work? you ask. Well, apparently Senator Daschle thinks the people who listen to talk radio are a bunch of crazy, drooling, scary rednecks who—if they’re in a good mood—merely send out death threats to the liberals Rush was complaining about. If, on the other hand, Rush riles them up—and they’re in a foul mood—well, then, who the hell knows what those morons might do?
This was so pathetically lame that it would have just been a one- or two-day story, except up popped Al Gore to stir the cauldron. Gore expanded the target list from Limbaugh to an entire Conservative Axis of Evil—an unholy trinity made up of talk radio, Fox News, and the Washington Times, whom Gore said were nothing more than mouthpieces for the Republican Party. “Most of the media [have] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks,” he declared, “that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what’s objective as stated by the news media as a whole.”
Once Al Gore spoke the gospel of conservative bias, it took only seconds for left-of-center journalists to start hopping on board the bandwagon.
“Al Gore said the obvious,” wrote the left-wing New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
“The legend of the liberal media is finally dead,” proclaimed Joe Conason, the liberal columnist of the New York Observer.
“Sooner or later, I think we’re all going to have to acknowledge that the myth of liberal bias in the press is just that, it’s a myth,” according to Jack White, one of TIME magazine’s liberal columnists.
The true “new bias,” according to E. J. Dionne Jr., one of the many liberal columnists at the Washington Post, “adds up to [a] media heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians.”
Then on January 1, 2003, a weary world woke up to a page-one story in the New York Times, a story that made it all official. According to the Times, liberals are so sick of being beaten up by pro-conservative media, like talk radio and Fox News, that they are looking to create liberal outlets of their own for “balance”—everything from “progressive” radio talk shows, as the Times described it, to “a cable network with a liberal bent.”
This seems like a good place to state the obvious: Yes, Republicans do indeed have friends in some conservative places like talk radio, Fox News, and the Washington Times, whom I’m sure they use to get their talking points out. But what Al Gore and his pals in the media forget to mention is that Democrats also have friends, in some very powerful liberal places, and the Democrats use them to get their talking points out. Places like major newspapers in every big city in the country, big-circulation mainstream news magazines, television networks with their millions and millions of viewers— all very large platforms that journalists use, intentionally or not, to frame the national debate on all sorts of big important issues, in the process creating “conventional” and “mainstream” points of view. That is what media power is really about.
The fact is, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the Washington Times might not even exist if weren’t for the routine (and the generally unconscious) liberal tilt of the mainstream media. Liberal journalists may indeed try to keep their biases in check (as they keep telling us), but—mainly because they don’t even recognize that their liberal views are liberal—they often don’t succeed. As I once told Bill O’Reilly, he should send a case of champagne to Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings with a nice little note that reads, “Thanks a lot, guys, for sending over all those viewers.”
Why do you think liberals like Mario Cuomo, who had a Saturday morning show on radio, and more recently Phil Donahue, with his nightly show on television, flat out failed as talk show hosts, along with a bunch of other liberals including Jerry Brown and Jim Hightower and a few more you probably never heard of? Why do you think there’s no current liberal talk show host in the entire United States of America who comes within light-years of Rush Limbaugh’s or Sean Hannity’s ratings? The Left, self-servingly, says it’s because conservatives (unlike civilized liberals, of course) are loud and angry and make complex political and social issues moronically simple for their moronically simple listeners, many of whom, of course, live in simple-minded Red State country. Here’s another theory: Maybe liberal talk shows keep failing because the American people don’t think they need yet one more media megaphone coming from left field. Maybe they flop because the American people are saying, “We already have plenty of those, thank you.” Or as Jay Leno put it one night: “A group of venture capitalists are in the process of developing their own liberal radio network to counter conservative shows like Rush Limbaugh. They feel the liberal viewpoint is not being heard—except on TV, in the movies, in music, by comedians, in magazines and newspapers. Other than that, it’s not getting out!” The joke got a great big laugh, which ought to tell us something, since the audience wasn’t made up of the Young Right-Wing Conservatives of America—just your regular Middle-American types. You think maybe just about everybody by now thinks it’s funny when the Left complains that, “the liberal viewpoint is not being heard”?
But the success of conservative talk shows isn’t just about America’s disaffection with the liberal media; it’s about America’s disaffection with liberalism itself: with liberals’ abiding respect for diversity (except, of course, diversity of opinion); with their reflexive tendency to blame America first for whatever is wrong in the world; with their deep suspicion of America’s military; with their titanic hypocrisy (as in their enthusiastic support of affirmative action (as long as it doesn’t adversely affect their own kids); with their self-righteous support for “art” seemingly designed to do nothing more than offend sensible people, often sensible people of faith. Remember Piss Christ and that other masterpiece that portrayed the Virgin Mary surrounded by elephant crap?
This is why liberal talk on television and radio has failed. And far more important, it’s also why liberalism in our culture—once such a great American treasure—has lost so much of its luster over the years. Half the time I find modern-day liberalism sad; the other half, I just find it silly.
So, in the world of media, if Republicans have the Washington Times, a relatively small second newspaper in a two-newspaper town, the Democrats have the most influential newspaper on the planet, the New York Times, whose editorials—and recently even some of its news stories—sound an awful lot like Democratic talking points.
And we’re supposed to fret about conservative influences on the news?
No matter. While the Left gears up to start its own national liberal radio talk show network (and maybe a liberal cable TV network, too, possibly starring Al Gore), using seed money from fat-cat Dem-ocratic Party contributors, this is the new mantra, the number one talking point for all those solid thinkers who for so long have denounced Rush Limbaugh’s ditto-heads as mindless automatons: “There is no liberal bias in the news, but there is a conservative bias.”
Yes, it seems that right-wingers these days not only control Big Oil and Big Tobacco and Big Tires and Big Business in general and the military-industrial complex and the White House and both Houses of Congress and on some days the Supreme Court of the United States . . . but now those conservative SOBs also control Big Media!
The very sound of it is comforting: “There is no liberal bias in the news, but there is a conservative bias.” Say it enough times and, who knows, maybe it will actually start to be true.
Perhaps the charge liberals have been making most often to back their claim of conservative bias is that the media have given George W. Bush a free ride on some very important issues involving foreign policy and national security. For a while you could hardly open up a liberal magazine or go to a liberal Web site without finding some bitter screed about how the press was sucking up to the president on everything from the war in Iraq to supposed civil liberties abuses at home. But the truth is, all the news media were doing was what the media always do in times of war: They were rallying ’round the flag. September 11 had a devastating impact on the national psyche. America had been attacked—not at our embassies in Africa and not even at Pearl Harbor. We had been attacked in New York City and Washington and Pennsylvania. The way the media covered the president wasn’t proof of a conservative bias so much as it was evidence of a post-September 11 pro-American bias. This may not please some on the Left, but that’s the way it’s always been. And, just for the record, this misplaced sense of patriotism, as some on the Left saw it, didn’t stop those lapdogs in the press from challenging President Bush on a million other issues, from environmental policy to the always popular “massive tax cuts for the rich.”
“Well, what about all those media outlets with right-wing points of view?” the guy in the conference room wants to know, repeating what his friend (who doesn’t think there’s a liberal bias in the news) told him. “There’s Bill O’Reilly; there’s talk radio; there are a bunch of conservative syndicated columnists . . .”
I’m not sure if he or anyone else in the room notices that my eyes are rolling around my head in lazy circles. I have heard this one about 40 million times.
I find it both tiresome and disingenuous when liberals say, “Stop your whining about liberal bias; you’ve got plenty of conservatives in the media.” Of course there’s a conservative media. There’s Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and George Will and Robert Novak and Cal Thomas and Fred Barnes and Bill Buckley. But let’s not forget that just about every editorial writer and columnist at the big powerful mainstream news outlets like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe are liberals! So conservatives have clout in the world of opinion and liberals have clout in the world of opinion. Wonderful! But, fundamentally, that’s not the point. The point is that opinion is one thing and news is another. So telling me that there are all those conservative commentators out there and that I should stop my whining doesn’t make me feel even the slightest bit better about the liberal bias of supposedly objective news reporters. News reporters are supposed to play it straight. It’s that simple!
But even beyond that, in the media world, power and influence come from numbers. So consider these: The evening newscasts on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS total about 35 million viewers a night compared to Special Report with Brit Hume—Fox’s evening newscast—which (right before the war in Iraq) was averaging about 1.3 million viewers. (Over an entire twenty-four-hour news cycle, Fox averaged about 1.058 million viewers; again, that’s just before the war began.) Yes, it’s true that Brit Hume brings certain conservative sensibilities to his newscast, but then Dan Rather brings certain liberal sensibilities to his. So, let’s review: 35 million for the supposedly mainstream, nonliberal, nonbiased media, and just over a million for conservative Fox News. I repeat my earlier question: And we’re supposed to fret about conservative influence on the news?
Of course, part of what really bothers so many liberals—though you can bet very few have actually thought about it this way—is that there even exists a more conservative alternative to the mainstream news outlets. Liberals, you see, had the playing field to themselves for so many years, controlling the rules of the game, that to them it had come to seem the natural order of things. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that liberals, who are always telling us that they’re for change, that they’re against the status quo, that that is what largely defines liberalism and (of course) makes liberals better, don’t really mean it when the change doesn’t quite suit them, when it means they will have a little competition—irreverent, edgy competition at that—to contend with. That’s when they embrace the status quo with everything they’ve got and pine for the good old days, the days before those annoying outsiders got into the act, when the Big Three networks had to compete only with themselves. So while many Americans are encouraged that there’s now some genuine diversity out there, many liberals regard this news as distressing—even disorienting, especially since ratings at the old news networks have been dropping for years while the upstart Fox News has been coming on strong, picking up new viewers just about every month since it went on the air in October 1996.
“Then what about the mainstream media’s treatment of Clinton? You can’t possibly think they went easy on him, can you?” is what liberals always ask.
It’s a fair question. And the answer is, no, they didn’t go easy on Clinton. The truth is, reporters will go after any politician—liberal or conservative—if the story is big enough and the politician is powerful enough. Still, all things being equal, there’s no question the media elites salivate more when they’re going after Republicans and conservatives—even the elites would admit to that, I think, after a few drinks.
But the entire premise of the question is wrong, because party politics is not primarily what liberal bias is about. What media bias is mainly about are the fundamental assumptions and beliefs and values that are the stuff of everyday life. The reason so many Americans who are pro-life or anti-affirmative action or who support gun rights detest the mainstream media is that day after day they fail to see in the media any respect for their views. What they see is a mainstream media seeming to legitimize one side (the one media elites agree with) as valid and moral, while seeking to cast the other side as narrow, small-minded, and bigoted. Even the editor of the liberal Los Angeles Times noticed that. On May 22, 2003, John Carroll wrote a scathing memo to his staff about political bias in the paper, singling out what he considered a liberally biased page-one story on abortion. “I’m concerned about the perception,” he wrote, “and the occasional reality that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. . . . The reason I’m sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.”
Three cheers for John Carroll of the Los Angeles Times! The only part I’d take issue with is where he says, “generally speaking, [it] is an inaccurate view” to think the Los Angeles Times is a “liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper.” No, generally speaking, it’s quite an accurate view to believe the Times “is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper.” And then there’s the only “occasionally we prove our critics right.” I don’t think so. But I don’t want to quibble. And besides, I understand he’s got to live with these people.
Bias in the media isn’t just about what they cover; it’s also about what they don’t cover. Sherlock Holmes once solved a particularly thorny crime using as his key piece of evidence the dog that didn’t bark. It’s the same with the news media. What they don’t make noise about also tells us a lot about their preconceived notions and their biases.
We get lots of stories, for example, on racial discrimination. And we should. It’s a valid and important subject. It also fits certain liberal assumptions about America—that bigotry is not just alive and well here and there, but that it’s everywhere. Yet we don’t get the kind of equally valid, legitimate, and important stories about race that make liberals feel uneasy. We hear almost nothing, for instance, about the powerful link between family dysfunction—especially children growing up without fathers—and violent crime. This isn’t some partisan issue—far from it—this is the kind of thing that should concern all Americans. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t a conservative at all but William Galston, an assistant to Bill Clinton, who said that in order to avoid poverty, just do three things: finish high school, marry before having a child, and don’t have that child until you’re at least twenty years old. Only 8 percent of people who do all three of those things wind up poor, but a staggering 79 percent of those who fail to do them wind up in poverty.
The fact is, poverty shouldn’t be a racial issue, either, since it and its social consequences cut across racial lines. But since a high percentage of those below the poverty line are black, liberal reporters do treat poverty as a racial issue, with the result being that it is rarely dealt with honestly.
It seems to me that the undeniable connection between poverty and the three key behaviors Galston cites would make a great story for the networks, the kind of story that might actually save lives. But we need more than just a story on the subject; the link between poverty and behavior should be part of the subtext of almost every story reporters do about poverty, about how the poor are always suposedly getting screwed by the system—or by overt racism. Do that kind of honest reporting enough times and we would start to really understand the nature and causes of poverty in America. That, for crying out loud, would be a much-needed public service for our country! But these are inconvenient stories that politically correct journalists pretty much stay clear of. It’s sad but true that stories about personal responsibility and behavior—especially when poor people are involved—don’t fit neatly into liberal journalists’ preconceived notions about poverty and race and discrimination. Which is to say, the very absence of such news in the mainstream press is itself evidence of bias. It’s the dog that doesn’t bark.
So, that’s what bias in the news is really about: what they report, how they report it, and what they choose not to report. The problem is groupthink. Outside the newsroom, the elites hang out with too many people who think just the way they do about the big issues of the day. Inside the newsroom, they surround themselves with still more like-minded people. They need a few pains in the ass around, a few newsroom renegades to keep them on their toes. But nervous news executives don’t like people like that, so they wind up with orthodoxy. It’s worse than a conspiracy.
Which is precisely why it’s so hard to fix.
And I’m thinking as I sit in that conference room high above West Fiftieth Street in Manhattan that the only people who at this late date still don’t know there’s a bias problem are the naked emperors of alleged objectivity and those poor saps determined to defend them at any cost. And if you listen closely, you can hear all of them, calmly chanting their mantra in perfect unison: “What bed? What girl?” Sorry. “There is no liberal bias in the news, but there is a conservative bias. There is no liberal bias in the news, but there is . . .”
Still, as I’m sitting there in the conference room, I realize all of this is helpful. The elite media are once again making things easy for me. They have made my point—that they will do anything to avoid facing up to this problem. Anything!
Even the good guys give you reason to despair. In early 2003, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, who is one of the top media writers in the country, came up with an earth-shaking theory. There is no significant liberal bias in the news, he told us, but there is another kind of bias, one that is far more dangerous. “We’re biased in favor of bad news, rather than good news. We’re biased in favor of conflict rather than harmony. Increasingly we’re biased in favor of sensationalism, scandal, celebrities and violence as opposed to serious, insightful coverage of important issues of the day.”
There’s a scoop, huh? Anyone who has tuned into 48 Hours, 20/20, or Dateline for two or three seconds knows all of that. But now we’re being told that just because there’s a bias toward crap in the news—which there most certainly is—we need to worry far more about that than “about any ideological infiltration” in the news, as David Shaw puts it. Sorry, David, I can walk and chew gum at the same time. And I can worry about two kinds of bias at the same time, too, because, despite what you seem to think, both exist.
But I don’t want to make this point, or any of the others, simply to people who already know it. Which is why one of the things I’m hoping this book will do is reach beyond the traditional conservative “ghetto” to reasonable and well-intentioned people across the political spectrum—to people with an open mind, no matter what their politics. To be sure, in today’s highly polarized world, that will not be easy. Too often we talk right past each other in our culture—and no one, liberal or conservative, has clean hands on this one. Still, it seems to me that liberals—the very people who take such pride in seeing themselves as civil and open-minded—have, in a sad kind of way, become precisely what they accuse conservatives of: being close-minded and nasty. Many liberals these days—and ironically, especially the elites who think of themselves as worldly and sophisticated—are even narrower and more provincial than they imagine the rest of America to be. How can this be? It’s easy when you live in a bubble, surrounded by others who think the same way about almost everything.
Yes, it’s true that many conservatives also spend too much time in their own bubble, surrounded by like-minded souls who are always agreeing with one another. But here’s the difference: Liberal culture in America is pervasive. You get it in movies and you hear it in music and you read it in magazines and you watch it on TV, in sitcoms and dramas as well as on the news. In America, unless you live in a cave, it’s nearly impossible not to be exposed to liberal attitudes and assumptions on all sorts of issues ranging from guns to gay rights. Liberals, on the other hand, if they avoid just a couple of spots on the radio and TV dial—and especially if they live in liberal ghettoes like Beverly Hills or the Upper West Side of Manhattan—can pretty much stay clear of conservative attitudes and assumptions and even conservative people, secure in the knowledge that they’re not really missing anything worth knowing.
Examples of this are not hard to come by, but some, like the following, are just amazingly telling. On February 6, 2003, while America was deeply divided on whether we should go to war with Iraq, veteran Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote these remarkable words: “Among people I know, nobody was for the war.” Imagine that. What a single-minded little world she must live in where, among all the people she knows, nobody—absolutely nobody—thought that invading Iraq was a good idea.
They live in a world, these bubble people, that is reassuringly uncomplicated and blissfully unchallenged by new ideas. As far as many liberals are concerned, all that’s necessary to know is that different ideas can be dangerous ideas, embraced by the narrow-minded and intolerant, a threat to everything that good and decent people (like themselves) believe in.
In fact, the only reason so many smart liberals are convinced there is no liberal bias in the news in the first place is that this is what they keep hearing from the mainstream media they rely on for so much of their information. Since almost no one in these liberal circles ever risks exposure to another point of view, they truly don’t understand why so many Middle Americans are so upset with Big Media. Yet what I have often found is that when liberals, for whatever reason, actually do come face-to-face with some of these scary ideas, they surprise themselves by how much they agree with them.
So, for all my frustration that so many intelligent people on the Left still don’t get it, I also see this chat with the bigwigs in the big conference room as an opportunity. Among the hundreds of letters that showed up in my mailbox after Bias came out, there was the one from Stephen DeBock of Bayville, New Jersey, who said, “Your book reminds me of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, not so much in content as in the industry’s reaction. When Unsafe blasted GM’s coffin-on-wheels Corvair, the company responded not by fixing the product but by hiring a private investigator to ferret out whatever information it could use to discredit Nader. The tactic failed. In like manner, CBS and its stablemates have responded to Bias not by fixing the problem but by trying to discredit you. I wish them the same success General Motors had.”
It’s funny, because as I started to outline this book, I had also been thinking about Nader’s classic work. What Ralph Nader understood was that the first order of business was to expose the industry’s ingrained culture of denial, because until that happens there will be no meaningful change.
That, my friends, is a very tall order, and I make no claim that this book will have the influence that Nader’s did. Still, as I told the executives in that conference room, I also intend to expose an industry’s culture of denial. I intend to deal with the internal pressures that silence in-house dissent. Why is it so difficult for good and honest journalists who know there is a problem to stand up and be counted? I intend to deal with the increasingly powerful pressure groups inside the newsroom that enforce political correctness, or “authoritarian liberalism, sometimes referred to, though inadequately, as ‘political correctness,’” as former federal judge Robert Bork has put it; with how liberal ideology permeates not only the networks and top newspapers but the journalism schools churning out the next generation of elite reporters; with the whole damn system that refuses to look honestly at itself.
But I also told them that I would lay out a blueprint for change. In the end, this is as important as anything in the book—because while everyone knows that you can’t have a free country without a free press, what isn’t said nearly enough is that you can’t have it without a fair press, either. Not in the long run anyway. The networks, as we’ve mentioned, have been bleeding viewers at an alarming rate. Powerful as they still are, they are far less powerful than they used to be. And less powerful than they will be next year and the year after that. That’s not entirely because of bias, but a lot of it sure is. Once upon a time Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” Who today would describe any of the network anchors that way?
The reason some of us got involved with this issue in the first place is not that we’re mindless right-wing media bashers, but that we care deeply about this issue of fairness—the very thing liberals always insist they, also, want. The mainstream media have a fundamental role in our democratic process, one that it is essential to the health of the Republic, not to put too fine a point on it. So it is in everyone’s interest that they not only survive, but that they also be widely respected.
The fact is, I’m rooting for them to turn things around and regain the trust of the American people. Too many Americans these days say they get their “news” from talk radio. This isn’t good for anybody. Rush Limbaugh is smart and knowledgeable, but he’s not in the straight news business and he’d be the first one to tell you that. Besides, there aren’t too many of his caliber on the air. But the elites will never be able to get things right with the American people if all they do when the subject of bias comes up is deny, deny, deny. As the Wall Street Journal put it: “In an era of talk radio, the Internet and ever more media outlets, denial is not a winning strategy.”
And as I told the people in the conference room, that is why this book is not about proving the existence of liberal bias in the media, much less about the phony issue of conservative bias. Ultimately it is about making things better. The naked emperors can continue to deny and dissemble on the bias question, proudly marching on with their privates dangling in the breeze, but while they’ve been marching, the ship has already sailed. The train has left the station. The ballgame is over. And the fat lady stopped singing a long time ago.
They need to be saved—from themselves.
Excerpted from Arrogance , by Bernard Goldberg . Copyright (c) 2003 by Medium Cool Communications Inc. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top