People ask me whether I think there is a liberal bias in the media.
I answer pedantically. “Media” is a plural noun, I say. In other words, there are a lot of individual mediums out there. Rush Limbaugh does not have a liberal bias. Oliver North does not have a liberal bias. The Washington Times does not have a liberal bias.
But does Dan Rather? Do Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings?
Yes, says former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg, writing a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal, and what is more interesting than Goldberg’s accusation is the reason that he believes it.
Simply put, it is that the three anchors do not know any better.
Understand: Goldberg is not accusing the anchors of ignorance, but rather of being so committed to a certain set of attitudes that they cannot help but regard them as facts. And so it is opposing points of view that seem biased to them, not their own.
Goldberg is telling us something important here, something that extends far beyond the journalistic outlooks of Rather, Brokaw and Jennings. He is telling us about every single man and woman in their audiences. And every single man and woman not in their audiences. We are all creatures of ideology, to one degree or another, and we all refer to our ideology as truth.
What Rather, Brokaw and Jennings are guilty of, then, is being human.
But just as human beings can be captives of their outlooks, so can they be masters of their behavior -- and Goldberg believes that the three anchors should behave more far more objectively than they do.
He cites a poll last year by Brill’s Content magazine that shows 74% of Republicans believe the media tilt to the left. “No bulletin there,” Goldberg writes. “But 47% of Democrats agreed, believing that ‘most journalists are more liberal than they are.’”
A journalist should not slant his views to suit his audience. But when his audience is suspicious of those views, when it thinks that the CBS Evening News or the NBC Nightly News or ABC World News Tonight is more an agenda than a catalogue of the day’s occurrences, then it is cynicism that is being disseminated, not information.
Goldberg believes that things are a little on the parochial side in network news business, that liberal journalists tend to hang around with other liberal journalists and reinforce one another’s prejudices rather than broaden one another’s outlook.
“This is very unhealthy,” Goldberg opines, “and sometimes downright ridiculous, as when Pauline Kael, for years the brilliant film critic at the New Yorker, was completely baffled about how Richard Nixon could have beaten George McGovern in 1972: ‘Nobody I know voted for Nixon.’ Never mind that Nixon carried 49 states. She wasn’t kidding.”
Do I believe there is a liberal bias at the three major networks? Yes, but it is more than just an opinion.
I used to work for NBC. Several years after leaving, I found myself hosting a series of cable programs which were being produced by one of the most highly-esteemed figures in the history of TV news, a man who had recently left his own position at ABC.
A major story had just broken. I was to comment on it. As I sat down to write, he stood at my shoulder and told me what to write. Not like a boss giving orders to a subordinate, but like a fellow chatting with a colleague of like mind, members of the same club. He just assumed I had the same views that he did. He was wrong.
But did he discuss the matter with me? Did he want to reach some kind of consensus that incorporated both of our views, and perhaps others? He did not.
When I told him I did not agree with him, he looked at me as if I were kidding, and then, more appalled, as if I were serious. He told me to get up: he would write the commentary. I said fine; you can deliver the damn thing, too.
As I yielded the typewriter to this resident of the broadcast news pantheon, I found myself wondering how many times he had done the same thing at ABC, but without meeting any resistance. How many times had this man, who would have railed at the charge of bias, slanted the news or jiggled the commentary, his co-workers such ready accomplices, not out of maliciousness, but because in his heart he knew he was right?
Even though what he really was, of course, was left.