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What Liberal Media?

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During the course of over 220 pages of complaining, Goldberg never bothers to systematically prove the existence of liberal bias in the news, or even define what he means by the term. About as close as we get is: “I said out loud what millions of TV news viewers all over America know and have been complaining about for years: that too often, Dan and Peter and Tom and a lot of their foot soldiers don’t deliver the news straight, that they have a liberal bias, and that no matter how often the network stars deny it, it is true.” A few of his examples, such as those involving corporate self-censorship in the event that a certain segment might offend the audience or advertisers, or the preference for interviewees with blond hair and blue eyes over people of color, actually serve to make the opposite case. With a keen eye to his likely audience of conservative talk-show hosts and book-buyers, the author simply assumes the existence of a liberal bias in the media to be an undisputable fact.

This same undocumented assumption characterized the conservative celebration of the book. The editors of the Wall Street Journal thundered: “There are certain facts of life so long obvious they would seem beyond dispute. One of these—that there is a liberal tilt in the media… “U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo added, in praise of Bias, that “the reluctance of the news business to hold seminars and conduct investigations of news bias is almost legendary.” Glenn Garvin, television critic of the Miami Herald, added, “That newsrooms are mostly staffed by political liberals is pretty much beyond dispute, although a few keep trying to argue the point.” That newspaper’s executive editor, Tom Fielder, was said to be so impressed by Bias that he invited Goldberg to lunch with top members of his staff. He told Garvin, “I hate to say there’s a political correctness that guides us, but I think there is. We tend to give more credibility to groups on the liberal side of the spectrum than on the conservative side.”

If, in an alternative universe, all of Goldberg’s claims somehow turned out to be justified, the crux of his argument would nevertheless constitute a remarkably narrow indictment. Goldberg did not set out to prove a liberal bias across the entire media, nor even across all television news. He concerned himself only with the evening news broadcasts, and not even with politics, but with social issues. Moreover, he appears to have done little research beyond recounting his own experiences and parroting the complaints of a conservative newsletter published by Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center. It is hard to see what so excited conservative readers about the book. The broadcasts in question represent a declining share of viewers’ attention, and, increasingly, an old and, at least from advertisers’ standpoint, undesirable audience. It is possible that these particular news programs — if not their very format — will not survive the retirement ages of the current generation of anchors.

Goldberg appears to consider this fact. However, he attributes the relative decline in viewership of the network nightly news to viewer unhappiness with the widespread liberal bias he clams to have uncovered. “It’s as if the Berlin Wall had come down,” he explains. “But instead of voting with their feet, Americans began voting with their remote control devices. They haven’t abandoned the news. Just the news people they no longer trust.” “How else can we account for Bill O’Reilly and The O’Reilly Factor on The Fox News Channel?… As far as I’m concerned, the three people Bill owes so much of his success to are Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather.”

The logic of the above argument is genuinely difficult to fathom. Goldberg is correct to note that all three networks have seen a significant decline in their ratings for their news programs. But so has just about everything on network programming, due, quite obviously, to the enormous rise in viewer choice—the result of the replacement of a three-network television universe with one that features hundreds of choices on cable and satellite TV and the Internet. Viewership for all four networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox — during the ratings period September 24, 2001, to March 3, 2002, for instance, made up only 43 percent of TV watchers, compared with more than twice that percentage for just three networks two decades earlier. Still the network news programs’ numbers remained impressive. The combined audience of the three network news programs is well over thirty million Americans, and better than fifteen times the number tuning into Mr. O’Reilly. It is also more than ten times the combined total prime-time audience for Fox News Channel, CNN, and MSNBc= These ratios render Goldberg’s logic entirely nonsensical. Had he, or anyone related to the book, had enough respect for his readers to bother with even ten minutes of research, this claim would have never made it into print.

Not all of Goldberg’s arguments are quite as easy to disprove, but most are no less false or misleading. One of the claims that many critics and television interviewers have considered the strongest in the book was the one the author credited with having inspired his initial interest in the topic:

not because of my conservative views but because what I saw happening violated my liberal sense of fair play. Why, I kept wondering, do we so often identify conservatives in our stories, yet rarely identify liberals? Over the years, I began to realize that this need to identify one side but not the other is a central component of liberal bias. There are right-wing Republicans and right-wing Christians and rightwing radio talk show hosts. The only time we journalists use the term “left-wing” is if we’re talking about a part on an airplane.

Goldberg illustrates his point with an example taken from the Clinton impeachment proceedings, during which, he claims, Peter Jennings identified senators as they came to sign their names in the oath book. According to Goldberg, Jennings described Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as a “very determined conservative,” Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania as “one of the younger members of the Senate, Republican, very determined conservative,” and Bob Smith of New Hampshire as “another very, very conservative Republican” but did not describe liberals accordingly. Goldberg also complained that CBS identifies the radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon as a “noted law professor” while Phyllis Schlafly is a “conservative spokeswoman.” Rush Limbaugh, says Goldberg, is the “conservative radio talk show host” but Rosie O’Donnell is not described as the liberal TV talk show host. “Robert Bork is the ‘conservative’ judge. But liberal Laurence Tribe, who must have been on CBS Evening News ten million times in the 1980s,” is identified simply as a “Harvard law professor.”

Well, it would be interesting if true. And many of even the sharpest SCLM critics of Goldberg’s book assumed it to be true, perhaps out of the mistaken belief that he must have done at least this much research. Both Howard Kurtz and Jeff Greenfield failed to challenge it on CNN. Jonathan Chait accepted it in his extremely critical cover story on the book in the New Republic but then went on to explain why, aside from liberal bias, it might be the case. And the then-dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Tom Goldstein, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, mocked Goldberg’s ad hominem claims but nevertheless credited Goldberg for “get[ting] down to specifics … [that] have the ring of truth” on this point.

In fact, all were overly generous. Goldberg presents no testable evidence and his arguments bear little relationship to the truth. At a 2002 book-store appearance broadcast on C-Span, a political science professor asked Goldberg something almost no television interviewer had bothered to inquire: Did he have any systematic data to back up this point? The author scoffed at the very idea of evidence. “I didn’t want this to be written from a social scientist point of view,” Goldberg explained. “I have total confidence that the point here is accurate.”

Another audience member then challenged him on this point and here, Goldberg got a bit testy:

Let me say this. And I want to say this as clearly as I can. You are dead wrong. Dead wrong. Not even close about Teddy Kennedy. You have not, almost every time they mention his name, heard “liberal.” I will say this — you have heard the word “liberal” almost never mentioned when they say his name, on the evening newscasts. They just don’t. That part — I mean you gave me an easy one, and I appreciate that. It doesn’t happen.

Goldberg seems to think that such statements become true by emphatic repetition. In fact, they are testable and it is Bernard Goldberg who is “dead wrong.” On the small, almost insignificant point of whom Peter Jennings identified with what label on a single broadcast, Goldberg’s point is a partial, and deliberately misleading, halftruth. As the liberal Daily Howler Web site pointed out, “the incident occurred on January 7, 1999, and Jennings did not identify ‘every conservative’ as the senators signed the oath book.” He identified only three of them as such, failing to offer the label of conservative to such stalwarts as Senators Gramm, Hatch, Helms, Lott, Mack, Thurmond, Lugar, Stevens, Thompson, and Warner. Most of the labels had nothing to do with politics and were peppered with personal asides about a given senator’s age, interests, or personality. On the larger point regarding a liberal bias in the labeling of conservatives, but not liberals, Goldberg could hardly be more wrong, even using the very examples he proposes. For instance, Ted Kennedy does not appear on the news with much frequency, but during the first six months of 2001, when he did, it was almost always accompanied by the word “liberal.” As for the “million” respectful references to Laurence Tribe that appeared without the appendage “liberal,” the indefatigable Howler checked those as well. According to Lexis, Howler found, Tribe has appeared on the CBS Evening News just nine times since 1993, almost always identified with a liberal label. On one occasion, May 14, 1994, CBS News even used Tribe and Robert Bork together, described as “legal scholars from both ends of the political spectrum.”

The above anecdotes are reinforced by some careful research on the topic by Geoffrey Nunberg of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University and its department of linguistics. The results of these are reprinted in Appendix Two, available at www.whatliberalmedia.com, and I urge you to examine them if you believe Goldberg has even a shred of credibility remaining.

Given the success of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, New York Post, American Spectator, Weekly Standard, New York Sun, National Review, Commentary, and so on, no sensible person can dispute the existence of a “conservative media.” The reader might be surprised to learn that neither do I quarrel with the notion of a “liberal media.” It is tiny and profoundly underfunded compared to its conservative counterpart, but it does exist. As a columnist for the Nation and an independent Weblogger for MSNBC.com, I work in the middle of it, and so do many of my friends. And guess what? It’s filled with right-wingers. Unlike most of the publications named above, liberals, for some reason, feel compelled to include the views of the other guy on a regular basis in just the fashion that conservatives abhor.

Take a tour from a native: New York magazine, in the heart of liberal country, chose as its sole national correspondent the right-wing talk-show host Tucker Carlson. During the 1990s, the New Yorker—the bible of sophisticated urban liberalism—chose as its Washington correspondents the Clinton/Gore hater Michael Kelly and the soft, DLC neo-conservative Joe Klein. At least half of the “liberal New Republic” is actually a rabidly neoconservative magazine (see chapter 3) and has been edited in recent years by the very same Michael Kelly, as well as the conservative liberal hater Andrew Sullivan. Its rival on the “left,” the Nation, happily published the free-floating liberal hater Christopher Hitchens until he chose to resign, and also invites Alexander Cockburn to attack liberals with morbid predictability. The Atlantic Monthly—a mainstay of Boston liberalism—even chose the apoplectic Kelly as its editor, who then proceeded to add a bunch of Weekly Standard writers plus Christopher Hitchens to Atlantic’s anti-liberal stable. What is the hysterically funny but decidedly reactionary P. J. O’Rourke doing in both the Atlantic and the liberal Rolling Stone? Why does liberal Vanity Fair choose to publish a hagiographic Annie Liebowitz portfolio of Bush administration officials designed, apparently, to invoke notions of Greek and Roman gods? Why does the liberal New York Observer alternate National Review’s Richard Brookheiser with the Joe McCarthy-admiring columnist, Nicholas von Hoffman — both of whom appear alongside editorials that occasionally mimic the same positions taken downtown by the editors of the Wall Street Journal. On the Web, the tabloidstyle liberal Web site Salon gives free reign to the McCarthyite impulses of both Andrew Sullivan and David Horowitz. The neoliberal Slate also regularly publishes both Sullivan and Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard and has even opened its pixels to such conservative evildoers as Charles Murray and Elliott Abrams. (The reader should know I am not objecting to the inclusion of conservatives in the genuinely liberal component of the media. In fact, I welcome them. I’d just like to see some reciprocity on the other side.)

Move over to the mainstream publications and broadcasts often labeled “liberal” and you see how ridiculous the notion of liberal dominance becomes. The liberal New York Times op-ed page features the work of the unreconstructed Nixonite William Safire and for years accompanied him with the firebreathing-if-difficult-tounderstand neocon A. M. Rosenthal. Current denizen Bill Keller also writes regularly from a soft, DLC neoconservative perspective. Why was then-editorial page editor, now executive editor, Howell Raines one of Bill Clinton’s most vocal adversaries during his entire presidency?51 Why is this alleged bastion of liberalism, on the very morning I wrote these words, offering words of praise and encouragement to George W. Bush and John Ashcroft for invoking the hated Taft-Hartley legislation on behalf of shipping companies, following a lock-out of their West Coast workers?52 (Has the Wall Street Journal editorial page ever, in its entire history, taken the side of American workers in a labor dispute?) It would later endorse for re-election the state’s Republican/Conservative governor, George Pataki, over his capable, if unexciting, liberal Democratic African-American opponent, Carl McCall. The Washington Post editorial page, which is considered less liberal than the Times but liberal nevertheless, is just swarming with conservatives, from Mr. Kelly to George Will to Robert Novak to Charles Krauthammer, among many more. On the morning before I finally let go of the draft manuscript of this book, the paper’s lead editorial is endorsing the president’s plan for a “pre-emptive” war against Iraq. The op-ed page was hardly less abashed in its hawkishness. A careful study by Michael Massing published in the Nation found, “Collectively, its editorials, columns and Op-Eds have served mainly to reinforce, amplify and promote the Administration’s case for regime change. And, as the house organ for America’s political class, the paper has helped push the debate in the Administration’s favor….” If you wish to include CNN on your list of liberal media—I don’t, but many conservatives do—then you had better find a way to explain the near ubiquitous presence of the attack dog Robert Novak, along with those of neocon virtuecrat William Bennett, National Review’s Kate O’Beirne, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks, and Tucker Carlson. This is to say nothing of the fact that among CNN’s most frequent guests are Ann Coulter and the anti-American telepreacher Pat Robertson. Care to include ABC News? Again, I don’t but, if you wish, how do you deal with the fact that the only ideological commentator on its Sunday interview show is the hardline conservative George Will? Or how about the fact that its only explicitly ideological reporter is the deeply journalistically challenged conservative crusader John Stossel? How to explain the entire career of Cokie Roberts, who never met a liberal to whom she could not condescend? What about Time and Newsweek? In the former, we have Mr. Krauthammer holding forth and in the latter Mr. Will.

I could go on almost indefinitely here, but the point is clear. Conservatives are extremely well represented in every facet of the media. The correlative point here is that even the genuine liberal media is not so liberal. And it is no match—either in size, ferocity, or commitment—for the massive conservative media structure that, more than ever, determines the shape and scope of our political agenda.

A Tom Tomorrow cartoon makes this point more cogently that I can in just four panels simply by (implicitly) asking readers to undergo a thought experiment. What if there really were a “liberal media”? Imagine, “an expansive network of left-wing think thanks which are of course bankrolled by secretive left-wing financiers seeking to advance their radical agenda.” Now imagine “blatantly left-wing cable news networks and op-ed pages that then promote (left-wing) ideas relentlessly.” Had enough? What about “angry liberals” debating these left-wing proposals with weak, mealymouthed conservatives on the Sunday talk shows? Want more? How about an entire universe of left-wing talk radio hosts spending endless hours devoting themselves to hammering these left-wing notions into the heads of tens of millions of listeners across the land? Why, poor President Bush and Vice President Cheney wouldn’t have a chance.

But to divide the media into their conservative, liberal, or centrist aspects misses a larger point and can do more to obscure than illuminate. The media make up a vast and unruly herd of independent beasts. Given their number and variety, it can be difficult for anyone to speak accurately about all of them simultaneously. Can one usefully compare Thomas Friedman to Larry Flynt? What about Garry Wills and Matt Drudge? Charlie Rose and Jerry Springer? Bill Moyers and Bill O’Reilly? Does Foreign Affairs share a single subscriber with the National Enquirer? Indeed, even the New York Times and the New York Post are not really in the same business. They have differing audiences, differing mandates, and differing professional standards, thank goodness. Marshall McLuhan was wrong, or at least woefully inexact: The medium is only the message if you’re not paying close attention.

Perhaps the most frequently made argument in defense of the SCLM thesis is the populist one. In a letter to the New Republic, for instance, Bernard Goldberg wrote, “Let’s assume I’m dead wrong in my book, that there is no liberal bias in the big-time media. Then I can be easily dismissed. But what about the millions and millions of Americans—including many liberals—who think I’m right… Are they all stupid? Or delusional? Are they under some kind of mass hypnosis, doing the dirty work of rightwing nuts who are pulling the strings? These strike me as important questions.”

According to a September 2002 Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans questioned believe the media are “too liberal.” This is an even smaller percentage of Americans than voted for George W. Bush. But even so, it hardly constitutes any form of normative proof or evidence. (Thirteen percent believe the media are biased toward conservatives.) Moreover the “millions and millions of people believe” is not a terribly convincing argument no matter what. Millions also believe in ghosts, extra-terrestrial visitations, and Osama bin Laden’s promise of seventy-two virgins. That “millions and millions” of people think Goldberg is right about the media is likely an indication that much of what the public sees and reads confirms their belief that liberal bias does exist. Or it could mean that most media reporters believe that a great percentage of Americans share this view and so don’t wish to confuse them. Conservatives, lest we forget, are much more energetic and better-funded complainers about media bias than are liberals. They are extremely vocal and well-organized in their pressure tactics, and they’ve done an impressive job over the years in convincing many people that any view that does not comport with a conservative ideological viewpoint is by definition “liberal.” In a careful 1999 study published in the academic journal Communications Research, four scholars examined the use of the “liberal media” argument and discovered a four-fold increase in the number of Americans telling pollsters that they discerned a liberal bias in their news. But the evidence, collected and coded over a twelve-year period, offered no corroboration whatever for this view. The obvious conclusion: News consumers were responding to “increasing news coverage of liberal bias media claims, which have been increasingly emanating from Republican Party candidates and officials.”

The right is working the refs. And it’s working. Much of the public believes a useful, but unsupportable, myth about the SCLM and the media itself have been cowed by conservatives into repeating their nonsensical nostrums virtually nonstop. As the economist/pundit Paul Krugman observes of Republican efforts to bully the media into accepting the party’s Orwellian arguments about Social Security privatization: “The next time the administration insists that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media – fearing accusations of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of “balance” – won’t report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they’ll report that some Democrats claim that it’s brown.”

No single work can compensate for the enormous advantage conservatives enjoy in their fight with liberals to control the fate of American politics. But if people are willing to examine the question of media bias in an open-minded fashion, perhaps we can even up the sides a bit.

Part 1 | Part 2

Copyright 2003 Basic Books Publishing. Reprinted with permission.