Media bias: can they still deny it?

Posted: Jun 27, 2002 12:00 AM
CBS's Andy Rooney appeared recently on "Larry King Live." King asked Rooney about "Bias," the book by Bernard Goldberg that accuses CBS in particular and mainstream news in general of a liberal bias: "What did you make of Bernard Goldberg's book," asked King, "critical of television liberal bias, and especially harsh on some of your folks at CBS." "I thought he made some very good points," replied Rooney. "There is just no question that I, among others, have a liberal bias. I mean, I'm consistently liberal in my opinions. And I think some of the -- I think Dan is transparently liberal. Now, he may not like to hear me say that. I always agree with him, too. But I think he should be more careful ... " Rooney went on to accuse Goldberg of being a "jerk," but left untouched Goldberg's accusation of mainstream media leftism. Want a recent example of media bias? Well, the Senate recently voted against a permanent repeal of the "estate tax." Most newspaper headlines called this tax just that -- the "estate tax." In a story about the vote, the Los Angeles Times headline, for example, read "Senate Vote Blocks Repeal of Estate Tax Legislation." A few miles up north in the San Fernando Valley, however, the Daily News headline read: "Death-Tax Repeal Falls Short in Senate." That article said, "To Republicans, the estate tax -- they call it the 'death tax' -- is immoral." Republicans, for obvious reasons, prefer calling this tax the "death tax." It sounds bad and offensive. But newspapers make an editorial decision when they reject the Republican branding in favor of the term "estate tax." Why does it matter, the way the media frames issues and uses certain terms or expressions? Ronald Reagan, for example, called his anti-ballistic-missile defense shield the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. But many in the media use the term "Star Wars," an expression that Reagan loathed. "Star Wars" sounds fanciful, pie-in-the-sky, unworkable. Senator Kennedy, in speeches, called SDI "Stars Wars." Conservative outlets like the Washington Times pointed out that critics like Kennedy condescendingly dismissed SDI by tagging it "Star Wars." On abortion, the pro-choice media prefers the term "fetus" to the more disturbing "unborn." In an extraordinary series a decade ago, the liberal Los Angeles Times admitted abortion media bias, "Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80 percent to 90 percent of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington ... and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed 'freedom of choice in abortion decisions.'... Responsible journalists do try to be fair, and many charges of bias in abortion coverage are not valid. But careful examination of stories published and broadcast reveals scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play." What about homelessness? The Wall Street Journal's, after George W. Bush's election, began publishing the "Homelessness Rediscovery Watch." Why? When Republicans assume power, the media seems to suddenly rediscover homelessness. But the Media Research Center tracked interest in homelessness during the latter part of the Clinton administration. The MRC says, "Homelessness -- one of the media's favorite tools to portray the alleged downside of Ronald Reagan's '80s prosperity -- was a more serious national problem during Bill Clinton's 1990s. ... Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless admitted ... 'Definitely, we saw more homelessness in the 1990s than we did in the 1980s.' But we saw far less homelessness on TV sets during the Clinton years. "During the first Bush administration," according to the Media Research Center, "morning and evening newscasts on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN ran an average of 53 stories on homelessness annually, compared to less than 17 per year during the Clinton administration. ... The expanding homeless population was out of sight during the Clinton years but just three short weeks after George W. Bush assumed office, ABC won the race to be the first network to rediscover the homeless. On Sunday, Feb. 11, 2001, "World News Tonight Sunday" anchor Carole Simpson intoned: 'Homelessness, which is estimated to affect from two and a half to three and a half million people, is again on the rise.'" Does mainstream media tilt left on the environment? Yes, according to Newsweek's Evan Thomas, who said on CNN's Reliable Sources, "Certainly the press is pretty green. The press is pretty pro-environment. And I don't think there's any question that they, as a body, feel that Bush is wrong on the environment, with varying degrees of willingness to give him credit." Surely journalists, above most others, understand this -- words matter. But then, they already know that, don't they?