Mar 1 2002

Bias Short on Substance

Former CBS reporter claims TV has "leftward" slant

Proving that irony is alive and well post-September 11, a book deriding the national press corps for its suppression of conservative views has received enormous attention in that same “liberal” media.

Bernard Goldberg’s Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News is long on name-calling and vitriol, but short on substance. “Delusional,” “hypocrites,” “Lilliputians”–these are just a few of the words Goldberg uses to describe journalists in general, and his former CBS colleagues in particular. He quips that if CBS News were a prison, many of its employees would be Dan Rather’s “bitches.”

Goldberg left CBS four years after accusing his colleagues of bias in a 1996 Wall Street Journal column (2/13/96). The piece focused on a CBS Evening News segment (2/8/96) scrutinizing a flat-tax proposal made by Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes. The CBS report was one-sided, giving no time to flat-tax supporters, but was it really proof of liberal bias? Consider the four flat-tax critics featured in the segment: House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an advisor to the senior President Bush, a former Nixon-era IRS Commissioner and a tax expert.

A single segment featuring mostly right-of-center sources criticizing one Republican’s tax proposal is hardly smoking-gun evidence of a left-wing media tilt. Yet five years later, the CBS flat-tax report is still Goldberg’s Exhibit A, the main evidence of liberal bias in his skimpy (though best-selling) book.

Instead of numbers or specific instances of biased coverage, Goldberg prefers broad generalizations, especially when it comes to the media’s alleged pro-feminist bias. The broadcast news has done “a million” stories about deadbeat dads, goes a typical claim, but has aired “hardly a word about prostate cancer.” Actually, a quick search of Nexis shows that prostate cancer has been mentioned 393 times on the three major networks since January 2000–while the phrase “deadbeat dads” came up exactly 19 times.

Borrowing an argument from the conservative Media Research Center, Goldberg contends that the big networks “re-discovered” homelessness at the beginning of the Bush administration after ignoring the story during the Clinton years (see Goldberg’s chapter “How Bill Clinton Cured Homelessness”). But Goldberg evidently isn’t watching very carefully: The segments he cites (ABC, 2/11/01; CNN, 8/4/01) both pointed out that the current rise began in 1999 and 2000–that is, during the Clinton years.

(Goldberg has previously complained–in a February 2, 1990 New York Times op-ed piece–that the media are too soft on the homeless, the unemployed and other underdogs, failing to point out that “many of the homeless are truly drug addicts or alcoholics or simply lazy,” or that some laid-off workers “thought kids who studied were wimps, or worse.”)

An asymmetrical world

When Goldberg points to alleged bias in media news, it’s often just evidence that the world is asymmetrical. For instance, he’s outraged that reporters who label Rush Limbaugh “conservative” fail to call Rosie O’Donnell “liberal.” The fact that Limbaugh’s show is virtually always about hard-core right-wing politics, while O’Donnell’s is much more likely to be about Broadway shows or snack foods, seems to elude him. Goldberg writes that Dan Rather characterized George W. Bush’s presidential agenda as “Republican-right,” and wonders why he didn’t “talk about President Clinton and his ‘Democratic-left agenda.'” Could it have anything to do with the fact that Bush ran as a proud standard-bearer of the GOP’s right wing, while Clinton boasted of moving his party from the left to the center?

Large chunks of the book deal with forms of bias that could hardly be called liberal. For example, Goldberg chides NBC anchor Tom Brokaw for failing to do a story about a defective airplane engine made by NBC parent General Electric. This kind of pro-corporate cover-up is something progressive media critics have been pointing out for years.

Later, Goldberg delivers a lengthy and stinging indictment of the networks for making profit-based decisions valuing white and middle-class demographics above all else, and skewing news and entertainment accordingly. He concludes, “Advertisers like white audiences, they have more money to spend.” How this supports Goldberg’s thesis that the networks “slant the news in a leftward direction” is far from clear.

Goldberg’s prescriptions for improving the news aren’t much better than his media analysis. He writes that broadcast reports about a controversial childcare study released last year could have been more balanced. Goldberg’s remedy? Reporters should have interviewed Steve Forbes. While not an expert on child development, Goldberg writes, Forbes could have explained that working less and raising children without having to rely on daycare was exactly what was so attractive about his flat-tax plan. You finish the book wondering not whether the media have a left-wing bias–it provides no credible evidence of that–but whether Goldberg has some kind of fixation on Steve Forbes.