Media Bias: The State of the Problem

Former CBS newsman, author, and media critic Bernard Goldberg was on my radio show several months ago, and we were having a lively conversation about his books Bias, Arrogance, and 110 People Who Are Screwing Up America. It was the final segment, and one of the callers asked Goldberg why Seinfeld producer Larry David, a pop-culture comedian, seemed to make fun of Jews so often. I was thrown for a loop. The topic of liberal media and culture makers generally tends toward persecution of conservatives and, chief among them, Christians. Goldberg was a bit nonplussed, and stated the obvious: Larry David makes fun of everyone. He just happens to spend most of his time around his Jewish friends.

To hear “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you” may change the perception, but not the reality. Bias is partiality or prejudice, and you feel the unfairness if your beliefs aren’t being represented and respected. One belief system has been disproportionately promoted among this country’s powerbrokers, and that ideological bias has reshaped the culture. The labels “liberal” and “conservative” may be distasteful to some, but they do represent political stance and ideology. They are instant identifiers. And the term “left-wing liberal bias” brings them together in an accurate description of the media.

That term first blew into the public arena in 2002 when Goldberg wrote his first book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. It was loaded with inside information about how news stories were spun and doctored to reflect a liberal view of the world. “Too many news people, especially the ones at worldwide headquarters in New York, where all the big decisions are made, basically talk to other people just like themselves,” says Goldberg. “That’s one of the biggest problems in big-time journalism: its elites are hopelessly out of touch with everyday Americans…. Almost all of them think the same way on the big social issues of our time: abortion, gun control, feminism, gay rights, the environment, school prayer. After a while they start to believe that all civilized people think the same way they and their friends do. That’s why they don’t simply disagree with conservatives. They see them as morally deficient.”

And they don’t consider this merely a matter of opinion; it’s just the way it is to the liberal media. Consider the following exchange from Bias between Goldberg, who had published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal criticizing media bias, and former CBS anchor Dan Rather (especially in light of Rather’s downfall a few years later):

That I would write such treasonous material was bad enough in Dan’s eyes, but that I picked the Wall Street Journal—such a conservative paper—annoyed him too, and he let me know about it. “What do you call the New York Times editorial page?” I asked him, since he had written op-eds for that paper. “Middle of the road,” he said without missing a beat…. This is the essence of the problem. To Dan Rather and to a lot of other powerful members of the chattering classes, that which is right of center is conservative. That which is left of center is middle of the road. No wonder they can’t recognize their own bias.

The High and Mighty
Just after Baghdad fell in early 2003, CNN ran an astonishing confession on the New York Times’s op-ed page admitting that it had known, but kept secret, some “awful things” about the regime of Saddam Hussein over the years. “Each time I visited, I became more distressed by what I saw and heard—awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff,” wrote Eason Jordan, CNN’s chief news executive. “I came to know several Iraqi officials well enough that they confided in me that Saddam Hussein was a maniac who had to be removed.” The piece went into some gruesome detail of atrocities CNN “could not report,” for fear of reprisal from the dictator. “I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me,” he confessed.

Then why didn’t CNN leave Iraq and alert the rest of the world about these “gut-wrenching tales” and atrocities?

For a couple of weeks, other mainstream media reported moral outrage. The New Republic’s Franklin Foer shot back that this couldn’t even be called a belated outbreak of honesty. “If it were, Mr. Jordan would be portraying CNN as Saddam’s victim. He’d be apologizing for its cooperation with Iraq’s erstwhile information ministry—and admitting that CNN policy hinders truthful coverage of dictatorships.” CNN was, Foer stated, the network of record. “It makes rich reading to return to transcripts and compare the CNN version of Iraq with the reality that has emerged.”

The lesson never quite sank in. The press is not given to introspection unless forced, and though this forced it, the opportunity quickly passed. Soon after, the New York Times was in the news for its own breach of public trust. On May 1, 2003, Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned over revelations of plagiarism on a story about the family of Jessica Lynch, the famous kidnapped American soldier. But that was only the beginning.

After an extensive internal investigation that unraveled deeper deceptions, the venerable Times concluded that one of its own had committed “frequent acts of journalistic fraud.” In a 7,500-word article published on its Web site within a week, the “paper of record” accused Blair of making up reports, inventing quotes, and stealing material from other news organizations.

“The widespread fabrications and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper,” the editors wrote. The Times inquiry “found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth.”

The editors were sharply rebuked for their oversight. Nonetheless, the attitude at the Times had come to this: “Even at the Times’ lowest moment, which may be right about now, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the paper’s significance…. An event it doesn’t cover might, in a manner of speaking, just as well not have happened,” according to former Times reporter Elizabeth Kolbert writing in the New Yorker.

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson couldn’t let that stand without a response. “No place in American journalism is so smug and superior as the New York Times,” he wrote. “It was this conceit—the belief that the Times must be right because it is the Times and sets the rules—that ultimately caused the Jayson Blair debacle.” The internal inquiry, Samuelson notes, focused not on journalistic “fairness” or “objectivity,” but on restoring internal morale at the Times. “The Blair affair was treated as a stand-alone mishap. Here is a culture of arrogance…. The humiliation it suffered from the Blair scandal produced little humility or learning. Until it’s as tough on itself as it is on others, it will not deserve the ‘significance’ now so thoughtlessly accorded it.” 

Soon after, two top Times editors resigned. But those casualties did little to change the status quo.

Turning the Tables
Walter Lippman hit on this phenomenon in the early 20th century and turned his thesis into the timeless classic Public Opinion, “a bland title because its contents are so explosive,” claimed the opening line of the book. Lippman was a journalist and political scientist, but it was his role as government propagandist for military intelligence that opened his eyes to the real problem.

In one of his early works on the Russian Revolution, “he concluded that the newspaper stories of one of the seminal events of the century were distorted and inaccurate, based not on the facts but on the ‘hopes of the men who composed the news organization.’ … Unbiased information had become essential, he argued, because ‘decisions on a modern state tend to be made by the interaction, not of Congress and the executive, but of public opinion and the executive.’ … The power of public opinion, that is, had become greater than that of the legislative branch of government. For this reason the accuracy of news reporting, the protection of the sources of public opinion, had become the ‘basic problem of democracy.’”

A key question Lippman hit upon remains central today: How do people interpret information, accurate or not? How do people know if information is accurate?

These days, the bloggers will tell you. They are the latest generation of rapidly evolving sources and fact-checkers in the Information Age. And they reached critical mass late in 2004.

“Blog” is short for Web log, a site of free expression on the Internet set up by any individual with something to say and the time to post his thoughts online. There are millions of them, although the vast majority can be dismissed as either personal journals or specialty information sites for niche interests. Bloggers tend to be “citizen journalists,” as they’re called, simply because they are not professionals. However, a lot of journalists these days have departed from the customary professionalism, blurring the line between hobbyist and professional.

That, and an explosive blogging incident, prompted Time to run a significant story at the end of 2004 titled “Blogs Have Their Day.” It centered on the pivotal event for the “blogosphere”—the infamous CBS 60 Minutes report by Dan Rather that wound up being his downfall.

“Before this year, blogs were a curiosity, a cult phenomenon, a faintly embarrassing hobby on the order of ham radio and stamp collecting. But in 2004, blogs unexpectedly vaulted into the pantheon of major media, alongside TV, radio and, yes, magazines,” said Time. The respect—and focus—was reserved mainly for Powerlineblog.com and the three guys who started it as a diversion from their regular jobs as lawyers.

“All three are former liberals, believe it or not,” noted Time, “and when it comes to political arguments, they have the zeal of the convert.” The three are John Hinderaker, who started Power Line at his kitchen table in Minnesota, colleague Scott Johnson, and Washington, D.C.–based Paul Mirengoff.

“Which brings us to the morning of Sept. 9, 2004,” as Time tells the tale. “In his usual early-morning media sweep, Johnson noticed that CBS’s website was carrying an online version of a 60 Minutes story from the night before, about some new documents relating to President Bush’s service in the National Guard. Johnson thought the memos looked odd—they fit too neatly with an advertising campaign that he knew the Democratic National Committee would be unveiling shortly, attacking Bush’s service record. So he wrote a few paragraphs about it … [and] titled his post ‘The 61st Minute.’”

What happened next is journalistic history. Over the course of just a few hours that morning, a “feedback loop” generated numerous posts and responses disputing the CBS documents’ authenticity that, as a result, had slipped out of the network’s control. “By 10:30 a.m., Power Line had an arsenal of arguments attacking the memos—typographical, logical, procedural, historical. The three bloggers put up genuine National Guard documents from 1973 so that readers could compare them with the 60 Minutes memos.” By the end of the day, about 500 sites had linked to Power Line, and their Web server crashed.

That was the beginning of the end of Rather’s career at CBS. His initial 60 Minutes report had been quickly picked up by NBC, ABC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and others, all trumpeting the report as the smoking gun that would finally discredit George Bush. But when Power Line blew the report apart, the media backed off in a hurry. “If this is a hoax, it’s a huge story, right on the heels of the Jayson Blair matter,” reported CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “It would be humiliating for CBS—but we simply don’t know yet.” They found out in the days to follow.

Some in the press reported the CBS affair as “the perfect storm”—a confluence of chance events elevating what might have been a throwaway broadcast into the news story of the year. Others condemned CBS for broadcasting a piece that was so deeply flawed it shouldn’t have passed the most rudimentary scrutiny. CBS’s internal investigation into the 60 Minutes report concluded that it disregarded “some fundamental journalistic principles.”

Shortly thereafter, CBS News fired four staffers, and Rather retired from his anchor seat.

The Media Party
In January 2005, Howard Fineman declared that “the American Mainstream Media Party” is a political organization “dying before our eyes.” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote an obituary for it, titled “MSM [Mainstream Media] Requiem.” After the CBS debacle, it was thought, big media would never be the same.

“The Rathergate Report is a watershed event in American journalism not because it changes things on its own but because it makes unavoidably clear a change that has already occurred,” wrote Noonan. The monopoly “enjoyed by three big networks, a half dozen big newspapers and a handful of weekly magazines from roughly 1950 to 2000 is done and gone, and something else is taking its place.”

Noonan calls this new alternative media a “cacophony in which the truth has a greater chance of making itself clearly heard.” If that is so, it’s because of the bloggers who are watching every word printed, listening to every report aired, pouncing on every mistake, and exposing every bias. “The most successful bloggers aren’t bringing bluster to the debate, they’re bringing facts … and points of view on those facts that the [mainstream media] before this could ignore,” claims Noonan. “They’re doing what excellent reporters would do.”

The blogs have added new scrutiny to the news world. Unfortunately, no matter how often misinformation and bias are exposed and criticized, much of the media still don’t see it. They do realize they tend to be liberal, but they believe that’s the honorable, civic, compassionate, and tolerant way to engage the world. As Goldberg has put it, they don’t know they’re biased any more than a fish knows it’s wet.

They are what Princeton professor Robert P. George describes in his book The Clash of Orthodoxies as “orthodox secularists” for their dogmatic beliefs in “feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism, lifestyle liberalism.” What’s at stake for them is defining cultural issues of “sexuality, the transmitting and taking of human life, and the place of religion and religiously informed moral judgment in public life.”

How conflicted they were, though, when the Muslim “cartoon riots” erupted late in 2005. Though there are entire books written about the anti-Christian bias of elite media, the American press was afraid of reproducing the offending editorial cartoons that were published throughout much of the world. It was a revealing moment.

In a hand-wringing piece by the New York Times editors, they admitted to rethinking the meaning of images over this whole affair, and the fact that some people hold some images as sacred. “To many people, pictures will always, mysteriously, embody the things they depict.” Interestingly enough, in this piece on the Mohammed cartoons, the Times ran a photo of Chris Ofili’s The Virgin Mary, an image of Christ’s mother spattered in dung, at the bottom of this article. Apparently some groups are safer to offend than others.

Who’s Looking Out for You?
Last summer, RealClearPolitics.com ran an article by Michael Barone titled “The New York Times at War with America” that opened with the question “Why do they hate us?” Barone then admitted that “hate” may be “stretching it. But at the least they have gotten into the habit of acting in reckless disregard of our safety.” Months before, the Times revealed that the National Security Agency was conducting electronic surveillance of calls from suspected al-Qaeda terrorists overseas to people in the United States. “Now, thanks to The New York Times, al-Qaeda terrorists are aware that their phone calls can be monitored, and presumably have taken precautions,” Barone lamented.

The occasion of this article was yet another national security secret revealed on the front page of the Times. The subject was the notorious leak of a U.S. government operation to monitor the international financing of terrorism, known as the SWIFT program—and then known to the world, once the Times published the story last June.

New York Rep. Peter King (R), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for a criminal investigation of the Times, its reporters, editors, and publisher. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts (R), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed: “We have been unable to persuade the media to act responsibly and protect the means by which we protect this nation.”

Power Line and other blogs turned up evidence that the Times had earlier called for the very program it now criticized. In September 2001, a Times editorial demanded that “Washington and its allies … disable the financial networks used by the terrorists.” It highlighted the terrorist networks’ wealth as a key to their successful operations and concluded: “If America is going to wage a new kind of war against terrorism, it must act on all fronts, including the financial one.”

By publishing that pair of intelligence leaks, Barone noted that the Times appeared to violate provisions of the Espionage Act. “Why does the Times print stories that put America more at risk of attack?” he asked. “We have a press that is at war with an administration, while our country is at war against merciless enemies.”

Power Line linked to a Jerusalem Post interview that quoted an Israeli air force officer warning that terrorists keep adapting to revealed strategy. “I would love to be able to tell the people of Israel what we are doing new to protect them,” he said. “But the moment I make something public, the other side will adapt. So telling the public actually harms my efforts to protect the public.” That much should be obvious, but irresponsible reporting has continued.

In December, the Associated Press was caught in a “credibility crisis largely of its own making,” as Washington Times editorial page editor Mark Tapscott put it. The AP sent out “a horrifying dispatch from Iraq” claiming that “six Sunnis had been doused with kerosene as they left their mosque following Friday prayers and burned alive by Shiite-aligned militiamen,” while Iraqi military allegedly did nothing. The source was “police Captain Jamil Hussein.” The story was quickly picked up by virtually every major news organization in the world.

“The problem is there appears to be no such person as Captain Jamil Hussein,” said Tapscott. A “firestorm of criticism” erupted. “What AP appears not to grasp is that the most serious questions about its credibility are already in the minds of millions of people…. AP provides news to virtually every daily newspaper in America. [It] is a cornerstone of the mainstream media. If AP’s credibility is harmed, every news organization that uses its products also suffers.”

To Tell the Truth
The media suffer a credibility gap but still control the news. After an abortion rally, the editor of a daily news list I receive sent this note to members: “In attempting to find you different accounts of the just-finished abortion march in Washington, what I have found is that ALL the reports are identical: AP, CNN, Fox and Wall Street Journal, etc. All read the same at this point. We will fill you in tomorrow when, presumably, each news source will tell its own story. Or won’t.” They didn’t.

By manipulating the message, the media are able to make reasonable folks reconsider what they thought they knew. That’s how matters of life, death, and morality have been redefined in a Judeo-Christian culture. At some point, media outlets replaced the term “pro-life” with “anti-abortion,” while abortion support became known as “pro-choice” or “pro-reproductive rights.”

The language distortion has become almost surreal. USA Today ran an article titled “Abortion Foes Gain on New Ground,” covering proposals that “require doctors to tell women seeking abortions that their fetuses might feel pain during the procedure.” Imagine that. It referred to “a procedure that its critics call ‘partial birth’ abortion.” What do its proponents call the killing of a child in the process of being born?

Euthanasia is known now as “compassionate care,” and the word “embryonic” is dropped off of “stem cell research” so one doesn’t think about the human lives it costs to conduct scientific study. Homosexuality became an “alternate lifestyle,” and now it’s being mainstreamed as just one of many “choices.”

Doublespeak costs lives. In the last election, South Dakota’s abortion ban and Missouri’s stem cell amendment fell due to various deceptions committed by organizations working within a complicit media. Lippman’s principles of propaganda were at work.

When South Dakota passed legislation that would have banned a significant number of abortions in that state, pro-abortion activists launched a voter referendum and mounted a campaign to turn the voters against the life protection law. How? By repeating the lie that it did not have an exception for rape and incest (it did). And when public opinion polls were conducted, the Argus-Leader newspaper reported the results inaccurately.

Mason-Dixon Polling & Research director Brad Coker said the rape and incest exception was “the hook” the opponents built their argument on, which won the day. “If you’re trying to defeat something that’s on the ballot, you have an easier campaign to run … by raising little seeds of doubt.”

That happened in Missouri as well, especially after Michael J. Fox entered the campaign for embryonic stem cell research in several emotional ads that were well-covered by the press. The message driven through the media was that if you don’t vote for this amendment, you don’t care about people’s suffering.

Consistently throughout the elections, virtually no news reports clarified the most glaring issue in the stem cell controversy. Every discussion was peppered with the phrase “stem cell research,” without the vital distinction of which stem cells were under debate—embryonic or adult.

Everyone Is a ‘Values Voter’
Do the mainstream media represent mainstream America?

Although the media are thought to be too liberal by most people, they remain in denial. Goldberg writes in Arrogance: “By and large, these are people who see themselves as incredibly decent, even noble. They’re the good guys trying to make the world a better place. That’s why many of them went into journalism in the first place—to make the world a better place. Bias is something the bad guys are guilty of.”

Big media is at its best in times of disaster, like Katrina, the tsunami, Israel’s war with Hezbollah. Much of the coverage of such events is outstanding. We are the better for that kind of serious, global, humanitarian coverage. But excellence should be the rule, not the exception.

Covering religion used to be hazard duty. However, since the 2000 elections—and especially since 2004—the liberal media have sounded the alarm over religious values voters and the dangers of “theocracy.”

“The truth about Christian conservatives is that they support public-policy goals infused with a certain view of morality,” Rich Lowry wrote in the National Review. “This isn’t unusual. The greatest reform movement of the 20th century—the civil-rights movement—was explicitly Christian.”

Unfortunately, this point is lost on the media. He continued:

Some of the anti-theocracy writers claim that what sets Christian conservatives apart is that their advocacy is explicitly religious. But most of the time it isn’t. Take the high-profile issue of abortion. It doesn’t take any particular religious faith to think that embryos in the womb are humans deserving protection—the key claim of abortion opponents. But their critics don’t want to hear it…. For such self-professed advocates of reasoned discourse, they show an appalling tendency to want to shut down the other side with their swear word of “theocracy.” They are emotional, self-righteous and close-minded. They are, in short, everything they accuse Christian conservatives of being.

We need to claim what we are and what we believe. “A world where National Review is defined as conservative and Newsweek defined as liberal would be a better world, for it would be a more truthful one,” Peggy Noonan observed. “Everyone gets labeled, tagged and defined, no one hides an agenda, the audience gets to listen, consider, weigh and allow for biases. A journalistic world where people declare where they stand is a better one.”

Every thought and decision is informed by some values, whether Judeo-Christian or secular-liberal (or something else entirely). The Second Vatican Council defined in Inter Mirifica what the media should be in the modern world: Social communication, it said, is a moral act. But whose morals are being transmitted?

Pope Benedict XVI raised that question with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He said Inter Mirifica “recognized the enormous power of the media to inform the minds of individuals and to shape their thinking.” Benedict asked them to challenge “the hugely influential media industry, to ensure that promotion of the common good is never sacrificed to a self-serving quest for profit or an ideological agenda with little public accountability.”

No worries: The bloggers are on it.

By

Sheila Gribbens Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago journalist with extensive experience in both secular and religious journalism. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of the Church, faith, culture, politics and the media. For more than twenty years she reported for Time magazine out of the Midwest Bureau in Chicago—and at WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC-owned station, she was co-host of the program 'YOU'. She has hosted three radio programs, “The Right Questions” and “Issues & Answers” for Relevant Radio, and "America's Lifeline" on the Salem network. Sheila currently is the Host of "A Closer Look", an hour long news analysis program on Relevant Radio and serves as the Network News Director. She can be heard reading the Sunday Gospel and doing narratives on www.H2oNews.org in the English edition. She has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Crisis Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic New World, MercatorNet and the National Review Online.

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