Jul 1 1987

The Media’s Cold War Bias

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

I’m often called upon to debate conservative media-bashers on the subject of bias. After listing some of the ideological right-wingers who are regular fixtures on television–Bill Buckley, John McLaughlin, George Will, Robert Novak, Jerry Falwell and a half-dozen other conservative preachers–I challenge my opponent to name even one left-winger regularly on the tube. The responses are enlightening and laughable: John Chancellor, Sam Donaldson and that ultraleft rabble-rouser, Phil Donahue.

Those who whine about the “left-wing media” prefer not to mention the ideological bias of media management; Reagan won his biggest landslide in 1984 on the editorial pages of daily newspapers, grabbing 86 percent of the endorsements. In debates, right-wingers argue that while there are indeed many conservative media executives, it’s the “liberal journalists” who call the shots. In that case, why was Jesse Helms so gung-ho to buy CBS and, in his words, “become Dan Rather’s boss”?

FAIR’s media criticism seeks to move beyond the quibbling over whether media people hold conservative or liberal opinions. In either case, a Cold War bias pervades news coverage, especially during the Reagan years. This is reflected in often stark contrasts in the depth of coverage devoted to human rights abuses of “enemy” states versus those of US allies. Examples are plentiful:

  • For months the media pursued the case of Jerzy Popieluszko, the activist priest abducted and killed by Polish authorities (90 column inches in the New York Times in one week); around the same time, a dozen priests were assassinated in Guatemala—including a missionary abducted while saying mass—but this was ignored by the major media.
  • The censorship of La Prensa by the Sandinistas has been an ongoing story; the violent suppression of the press in El Salvador was hardly reported. Who has heard of El Independiente and La Cronica del Pueblo, two Salvadoran papers bombed out of existence in the early 1980s?
  • Casualties from Soviet mines in Afghanistan have received frequent mention; only a few media outlets have reported the civilian victims of land mines planted by US-armed guerrillas in central Angola, described as the “amputation capital of the world” by the Wall Street Journal (2/10/87).

Recent events in South Korea do not contradict this argument. While there was massive coverage of the June riots, the US press did little in previous years to inform us about the anger and discontent seething beneath the surface of South Korea’s “economic miracle.” Similarly, Ray Bonner’s Waltzing With a Dictator reveals the abysmal coverage of Ferdinand Marcos in the brutal years before the rise of “people power.” Near-insurrection seems to be a prerequisite for serious coverage of US-allied dictatorships.

An unbiased press would report events in both superpower blocs without fear or favor. It would also treat with great skepticism White House efforts to sanctify its client states in Central America as “burgeoning democracies” and its Contras as the “democratic resistance.”