Are the media biased? Do they have an agenda? Are they more concerned with ideology than information? No, say 41 percent of those surveyed in a recent Gallup Poll. Yes, say others, and by a margin of almost two-to-one they believe that the bias favors Democrats.
The Media Research Center is a conservative watchdog group that sides with the majority when it comes to media bias. It's not really a "watchdog" group so much as it is a "guard dog" group. Watchdogs are stupid little creatures who run around the house in the middle of the night barking at innocent sounds and waking everyone up. The MRC does not bark; it bites, and the sounds that catch its attention, although often disguised as innocent, often have deeper meaning.
In its 13th annual end-of-the-year look at bias in the press, the MRC cites 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, who touted her objectivity last January by insisting that she had "had my opinions surgically removed when I became a network correspondent."
Was the surgery successful? Apparently not. Less than two months earlier, Stahl confessed to being "endlessly fascinated" by Hillary Rodham Clinton. "She's so smart," Stahl went on. "Virtually every time I've seen her perform, she has knocked my socks off." Perhaps another operation is in order.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos is supposed to have put his partisan days behind him. Sometimes they catch up, even sneak ahead. A few weeks ago, on the network's This Week, he stated unequivocally that "Al Gore won the votes cast in the state of Florida." Later, in the same sound bite, he made sure the point was clear. "Listen, if this race is counted fairly, Al Gore won more votes in Florida." It is not known whether the opinion-removal surgery also failed for Stephanopoulos or whether he ever had it in the first place.
Bryant Gumbel of CBS is a favorite MRC target. The reason is the number of times he opens his mouth and forms his lips into a bullseye. In August, during an interview with Hadassah Lieberman, he called the phrase "family values" "a code word for intolerance." Which, I suppose, makes family abuse or spousal disrespect code words for broad-mindedness.
But there are targets as well for those who believe media bias is not so much political as corporate. Two associates of Fairness and Accuracy in Media, a group of journalist-biters at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the MRC, have presented their annual P.U.-litzer Prizes for stinky journalism, and ABC's The View heads the list.
It seems that the show's panelists, including Barbara Walters, took to the airwaves on eight occasions in November and talked about the joys of Campbell's Soup. What they did not talk about was the check that the show had received from Campbell's to pay for their blather. What kind of check, you ask? Mm-mmm big!
Then there was the deal that The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal struck with United Airlines. The three papers would get first crack at the proposed United-US Airways merger if they agreed not to call any other sources for comment. Sources, for instance, that might say something negative about the deal.
The FAIR associates also point out that ABC, which is owned by Disney, does not want the network to say something positive about competitors. So in 2000 it killed stories on a cruise ship line owned by a Disney rival and a movie, Chicken Run, produced by a competing studio.
The moral of the story, I suppose, is that although bias is sometimes in the eye — or ear — of the beholder, it is at other times right up there on the screen or on the page, and failing a New Year's resolution by the media to curb it, one can only hope that the MRC and FAIR and others will continue their resolve to point it out.