[This book review was published in The St. Croix Review, June 2002, pp. 59-64; and in the Middle American News, April 2002, p. 6.]
Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News
Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2002
The migration of thoughtful individuals from the Left to the Right has been going on for many years. In the 1930s, it occurred as one after another came eventually to "hear the screams" from Communist cellars. Most of the brilliant coterie of intellectuals who came to surround William F. Buckley at the newly-founded National Review in the years after World War II had traveled the entire distance from Communism to an articulate conservatism. Among those making the migration were John Dos Passos, Max Eastman, Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, Eugene Lyons, James Burnham, Freda Utley, and Willmoore Kendall, to mention a few. Philip Abbott Luce, Peter Collier and David Horowitz later made the transition from New Left militant to outspoken critic of the far Left.
Others who have made the migration from Left to Right have not so fully completed the journey, but have instead stayed somewhere on the left. Sidney Hook is perhaps the best example. Although he became a leading anti-Communist, his transition was to democratic socialism.
Now, shortly after the turn of the century, it is noteworthy that three books have appeared in rapid succession in which the authors give testimony to their having, after years of acceptance, seen chinks in the armor of the ideological hegemony, known generally as "political correctness," that prevails among the intelligentsia and the political and professional leadership in both Europe and America. But in each case the migration has been only part of the way, since all three have continued to embrace many tenets of the intellectual milieu from which they came.
One of these is Harry Stein, whose book How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace) was reviewed in these pages in the Winter 2001 issue. He has long been a columnist, book-writer, and free-lance contributor to several media.
Another is William McGowan, author of the recent book Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism. McGowan, a journalist, has been a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His book cites chapter and verse about how the ideologically partisan drive for multiculturalism has distorted the American press, weaning it away from objective reporting. Examples: He reminds us of how the management of the national newspaper USA Today required its editors to run a photograph of a "person of color" above the fold on the front page every day; and of how there were over 3,000 news stories in the American press about the murder of the homosexual Matthew Shepard during the first month after he was killed, but only 46 about two homosexuals' kidnapping, raping and murdering a young boy.
The third is Bernard Goldberg, whose book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News is the subject of this review. Goldberg joined CBS News in 1972 and retired 28 years later, in 2000. He was a senior correspondent and the winner of seven Emmy awards. For many years, he was at home in the liberal-left environment at CBS News, as attested to by his statement that as of 1996 he had never voted for a Republican candidate for president of the United States. But eventually he came to see how narrow the intellectual culture in which he was ensconced really was. He tells how it thrived on arrogance, the coloring of stories, elitism, hypocrisy, cowardice and double standards.
The result was that he had the temerity to write an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal in 1996, and a second one for that same paper in 2001, in which he incurred the wrath of his erstwhile colleagues by acknowledging openly that "the networks and other ‘media elites' have a liberal bias." The bias, he said, does not come from reporters' "planning strategies on how we're going to slant the news," but as something that comes naturally to them because of "how they see the world." They don't "see liberal views as liberal," but rather as "simply reasonable views, shared by all the reasonable people the media elites mingle with...."
As with Stein and McGowan, however, such insights haven't, at least so far, turned Goldberg into a conservative. Even though he now serves witness to the liberal bias of the media as though he were himself discovering it for the first time, he continues to see those who have for many years been complaining about that same bias as essentially unreasonable right-wing ideologues. "It's true," he says, "that some people who complain about liberal bias think Al Roker the weatherman is out to get conservatives just because he forecast rain on the Fourth of July." And: "Some right-wing ideologues do blame ‘the liberal news media' for everything from crime to cancer." According, he explains how when he wrote his op-ed pieces he "didn't want to become a darling of conservatives," and that "none of this [that he has to say about leftward bias] should be seen as an argument against liberal values, or as an endorsement of conservative values."
All three of these recent "apostates" from the left are thus in the odd position of wandering somewhere in an intellectual, political purgatory. They have certainly taken at least one giant step outside the orthodoxy that once housed them. The other foot drags behind, unsure just where to land. It has long been an article of faith on the left that there is no respectable intellectual position on the right. These three men have not abandoned that premise, at least. That leaves them naked as individuals, alone in their apostasy.
Later, I will comment on the intellectual shallowness of their present insights, which lack depth of understanding both of American society as in now exists and of the past. First, however, it will be worthwhile to see just what it is that Goldberg has to tell us about the media bias he has seen. All three of the books I have referred to provide a wealth of examples of how the ideology now dominant in opinion-forming circles in the United States thinks and operates. Stein, McGowan and Goldberg have been "close to the action," so to speak, and know whereof they speak.
Goldberg's Examples of Media Bias
Insistence upon "politically correct" language. Speaking of the CBS Evening News, Goldberg says "they'd practically go into cardiac arrest if a reporter used the word ‘Indian' instead of ‘Native American' on the air. Or said ‘handicapped' instead of ‘disabled' – or better yet, ‘physically challenged.'" This insistence on an ideological semantic is no small matter, as any reader of Orwell's 1984 can attest.
Homelessness. Goldberg devotes entire chapters to the bias shown on certain themes: homelessness, HIV/AIDS, the feminist attack on men, etc. Each of these chapters provides a good synopsis of the issue itself. On homelessness, he points out how the homeless shown on the nightly news shows were "sympathetic souls... temporarily down on their luck," whereas the homeless Goldberg saw on the sidewalks were "by and large, winos or drug addicts or schizophrenics" who "mumbled crazy things." He says the media "had to exaggerate reality if we were really going to gain support and compassion for the homeless." This led to giving wildly expansive numbers: whereas the General Accounting Office estimated there were between 300,000 and 600,000, one CNN commentator spoke of three million, another on NBC said five million, and Charles Osgood on CBS News anticipated nineteen million. Oddly, he says, homelessness became a national story the moment Ronald Reagan took office as president, and ceased being a story as soon as William Clinton was sworn in.
HIV/AIDS. Goldberg says the media responded energetically to the concern of AIDS activists that "straight America" might not pay attention to HIV and AIDS unless the public were convinced that these posed at threat to the mainstream, i.e., to heterosexuals. "Once again," Goldberg writes," the media were more than willing to... go right along." Headlines such as this began to appear: "Cases Rising Fastest Among Heterosexuals." The federal government joined in with a $5 million advertising campaign about how "AIDS doesn't discriminate," even though the disease really wasn't spreading to heterosexuals unless, Goldberg says, "they were having sex with junkies." Michael Fumento wrote a "meticulously documented book" The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, but some bookstores, despite their heralded opposition to "book banning," wouldn't carry it. The chapter on this alone is worth the cost ($27.95) of Goldberg's book.
The feminist attack on men. For several years, it has been not only "politically correct," but actually de rigueur, to portray men as insensitive dolts and women as universally bright and self-confident. This is in line, Goldberg says, with the feminist notion that there is one group that is "fair game: men." The thought is that "any group that feels, rightly or wrongly, that it has been oppressed... has the license to overkill." Accordingly, "we've done a million stories at the networks on deadbeat dads – fair enough – but almost none on how too many divorced women use custody and visitation as weapons to punish their ex-husbands...." He points out how "nobody in the mainstream media is going to criticize a feminist."
Multiculturalism. We have seen how McGowan reports that USA Today required a photo of a "person of color" on the top half of its front page every day. That, of course, provides a veritable parody on ideological extremity. Now we have Goldberg reporting how "Brill's Content, in 1999, told a story about the Gannett newspaper chain's policy that requires reporters at all seventy-five Gannett papers to include minority sources in all their stories." Another parody. Our age, no doubt, cries out for a second Voltaire to apply the acid humor of satire. Goldberg himself doesn't shrink from noticing the hypocrisies: "They love affirmative action, as long as their own kids get into Ivy League schools."
Ideological labeling. Goldberg raises the semantic issue again when he observes that anyone on the right is always given an ideologically-identifying label, whereas those on the left are not. "Why is it that Phyllis Schlafly was identified as a conservative, but Catharine MacKinnon was not identified as a radical feminist or a far-left law professor or even as a plain old liberal?" (He reminds us that MacKinnon "is the feminist ideologue who had famously implied that all sexual intercourse is rape.")
Valuable for What It Contains, but Intellectually Limited
Goldberg's book is a valuable contribution to today's social commentary, and he personally deserves much credit for his courage in speaking up against the milieu that surrounded him. Those who have noted "liberal bias" as a major fact in American life for several decades can't help feeling abashed, however, by his much-belated appearance with what to him seem to be new-found revelations. Thomas Jackson said it felicitously in a recent review of McGowan's expose: "The achievement is dimmed by the fact that exposing liberal press bias is like shooting fish in a barrel."
That is a minor criticism, however, compared to observations about the intellectual, historical shallowness of the revelations. Simply considering American society during the past half-century by itself, it must be said that the ideological predilections of TV news and of the major newspapers constitute just a small, albeit significant, part of the phenomenon. The Left has made its "march through the institutions," a la Gramsci, and dominates not just the media but academia, entertainment, much of professional life, and the artistic and literary cognoscenti. Revelations such as those by Stein, McGowan and Goldberg could just as easily be made in all those areas; and it would be a serious defect to think of each area alone as though it stands by itself. The overarching fact is that American society has a head that is very different from its body, a culture of alienated ideas that is for the most part contemptuous of the thinking and values of tens of millions of average citizens.
The shallowness runs even deeper than this suggests. What needs to be seen is that that same overarching fact has been a major feature of American society going back as far as the 1820s. It is impossible to understand American history without taking that potently into account. The "individualistic society" that is identified with the American tradition has not enjoyed the intellectual culture that John Stuart Mill said was essential to it. Instead, that culture has been alienated and has sought alliance with quite literally every disaffected or unassimilated group.
This suggests that it is even too shallow to tie the phenomenon, as I did above, to a Gramsci-like "march through the institutions." Gramsci, counted as a post-Stalinist in Marxian thinking, came along much too late to "earn the credit." No doubt the baby-boom generation of flower children of the Sixties have added to the ideological occupation of American institutions, and Gramsci (and others) can be considered influential to that, but none of that explains, say, how it was that American social science came into being under the influence of the German Historical School in the late nineteenth century, how John Dewey came to dominate American colleges of education beginning in the 1920s, and the like. No, the "occupancy of the commanding heights of American culture" came well before Gramsci or the generation of the Sixties.
One final observation is in order. It is that the working members of America's dominant intellectual culture seem, as evidenced by the authors I've discussed here, to be essentially uneducated. I don't mean that as a pejorative thrown at them lightly, but as an observation that I consider quite serious. They are highly narcissistic and their intellectual horizons are severely limited. Not only do they not see that there are reasoned points of view outside their own orthodoxy (which these particular authors are now questioning), but they don't have the depth even to understand their own origins or the breadth and role of their own consensus. Perhaps that is the final measure of how John Dewey's educational philosophy has worked in practice.
Dwight D. Murphey