Media orthodoxy, credibility, bias and denial

Posted: Feb 15, 2002 12:00 AM
"Let any man write six words and I can hang him for it." Keats said it, and it's a better starting point than most for any discussion of bias - liberal bias - in the mainline press (most major newspapers, the big three newsmagazines and network television). Keats meant that within just six words, just about every writer discloses his slant on his subject. Liberalism has reigned in the nation's major urban newspapers for at least a century - prevailing in newsrooms and editorial departments, and heavily Pulitzered. The reason is not elusive. Newspapers traditionally have attracted "dirigiste" liberal-arts grads and those less motivated by making big money than by writing and reforming. They have wanted to make things better. Newspapers have given them a forum, a voice. Naturally, those doing the hiring tended to hire the like-minded. Liberals begat liberals. An ideology of reform, liberalism niftily perpetuated itself. Largely the same thing happened in the academy, the mainline churches and entertainment: A moderate risks incoming fire merely by peering out of his foxhole - and woe betide the conservative. The rise of television, with its dramatic advantages over newspapers in timeliness, but certainly not analysis or depth, moved to the fore predominantly an entertainment medium infused with the same lopsided degree of leftism infusing mainline newspapers. The polls show it categorically. The public, broadly, perceives it. Only those in denial reject the proposition of a leftism that dominates the written and visual media alike. Hear for instance Norman Pearlstine, editor-in-chief of Time-Warner magazines: "The New York Times is middle-of-the-road. There is no active, aggressive, important publication of the left in America. And so as a consequence The New York Times - when compared to The Wall Street Journal's editorial page - may be considered to the left of it. But to call The New York Times left-wing is absurd." Yet a few in journalism's highest reaches see at least part of the problem. CNN's chairman, Walter Isaacson, sensing that CNN staffers needed to put civilian suffering in Afghanistan in the context of a terrorist attack causing untold suffering in the United States, issued this October memorandum: "As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people." As the 9/11 attacks reshaped President Bush and the American nation, so they may have reshaped the mainline media. According to Lou Cannon (author and former Washington Post reporter), pre-9/11 "television news was often slothful, slanted, and trivial." Maybe it has changed, and maybe not. The public may think so, too. A book by longtime (and former) CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg ("Bias") has rocketed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. Goldberg's book cites chapter and verse. On CNN's "Greenfield at Large," Goldberg noted: "There's an overriding Exhibit A that tells you that liberal bias is still a problem today. And that is how we identify liberals and how we identify conservatives. We overwhelmingly identify conservatives because we think the audience needs to know that they're conservatives - that they're not mainstream. And we rarely identify liberals, which is why we have right-wing Christians and right-wing Republicans and right-wing radio talk-show hosts and right-wing Miami Cubans. The only time you hear the term "left wing" is if they're talking about a part of an airplane." Jeff Greenfield, a fair man, agreed with Goldberg - saying: "I have no doubt that these surveys that show that the great majority of working journalists vote Democratic are absolutely right. And it's ridiculous to deny it." The Post's entertainment critic Tom Shales has a different take, terming the Emmy award-winning Goldberg a "no-talent hack," a "full-time addlepated windbag," and a "disgruntled has-been." Possibly Goldberg's greatest sin? Ratting - telling tales out of family. For decades, as The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz has written, there was a "religiously held belief in the special vocation of journalists - an order of fact-seekers sworn to neutrality, divested of all allegiances that cumber the minds of ordinary citizens." Whether it was true, it was the perception. Now the perception is something else - and despite the blinkers on many in the mainline media, it may be contributing to the circulation and viewership (the credibility) problems many newspapers and networks are experiencing. As many parishioners tended to leave mainline churches, so many readers and viewers turned away from the mainline media - perhaps for at least one similar reason: weariness (or worse) with the prevailing ideological orthodoxy, with a seemingly enforced conformity of views, with one-way judgmentalism. Newspaper readership has been in a general decline since the mid-1960s - because of (variously) television, the rise of working women, the new emphasis on self, a decline in the joy of reading, etc. Network television viewership began to decline more recently - with 51 percent of the nation's TV sets tuned to CBS, NBC, and ABC in 1994, and 43 percent last year. Some readers and viewers may be tuning out and turning off. Others may be plugging in to new and alternative media, just as certain former mainline churchgoers have helped fuel a rise in newer evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Fox News now surpasses CNN in certain viewer categories - and probably not so much because Fox promotes itself as neutral and presenting "both sides," as the perception of many that - the other networks being liberal - Fox is conservative. They can tell, or think they can tell, in just six seconds, as Keats could tell in six words. A Fox reporter with President Bush in Winston-Salem was mobbed and asked for his autograph, while a CNN reporter was taunted with catcalls about the "Clinton News Network." Former Timesman John Leo writes that "much of what appears on page one [of The Times] now seems like editorializing lightly disguised as reporting." Yet the circle of denial in network television spreads ever outward. And a three-year study of the reasons for declining credibility by the lofty American Society of Newspaper Editors hardly addressed ideological bias at all. Keats could tell. Ditto a discerning public. The public can sense a reflexively liberal mainline media orthodoxy - an elitism that defines only its views as centrist, moderate, acceptable, and so must label (as Bernard Goldberg notes) all other views as somehow "un". In today's new atmosphere boasting a proliferation of mediums, the mainline media would do well to grow beyond their denial before they are not elite anymore.