WHEN FORMER CBS producer Bernard Goldberg appeared on CNN last week to plug his best-selling exposé of the so-called liberal media, host Jeff Greenfield ripped Goldberg’s heart out and handed it to him.
Greenfield matter-of-factly noted that nowhere in Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (Regnery) did Goldberg find the space to criticize Bryant Gumbel, the anchor of CBS’s ratings-starved morning program, The Early Show. Gumbel, Greenfield observed, "has been accused more often of liberal media bias than anyone else in the news." Could the curious omission, Greenfield wondered, have anything to do with the fact that Goldberg and Gumbel work together on HBO’s Real Sports?
Goldberg’s response was as pathetic as his 232-page screed. He told Greenfield that "if you read the book, Jeff, you’ll see that I almost — I have almost nothing to say about any of the morning shows. I don’t think that they’re hard-news shows. I mentioned Katie Couric once. But I don’t mention Diane Sawyer. I don’t mention [Charlie] Gibson. I don’t mention Gumbel. I just — I stay mainly with the evening news."
Goldberg’s defense was technically accurate but meaningless. In fact, his critique of Katie Couric is central to a particularly idiotic chapter on how men are mistreated by the media. Couric’s misdeed, in Goldberg’s view, was to ask a bride who had been stood up by her would-be groom, "Have you considered castration as an option?" Such man-hating quips, Goldberg argues, lead directly to situations like the one he reported on several years ago in Los Angeles (for the late, unlamented Public Eye, hosted by — yes — Bryant Gumbel), where the district attorney’s office was forcing men to pay child support even when DNA tests proved they were not the fathers.
"Let cute, perky Katie ask a jilted bride if she considered castrating the bum, and the images start to do their work. The message becomes clear: Men are the problem," Goldberg writes. After citing several other examples of the media’s mocking treatment of men, he concludes: "What makes it matter is that male bashing on TV takes a hard toll in the real world." Please.
Given how Goldberg had to strain to find something negative to say about Katie Couric, it’s only natural that Greenfield wondered if he’d strained at least as much to lay off Gumbel, who, after all, has been the subject of so many angry missives by the ultraconservative Media Research Center that it ought to name a wing after him.
But Greenfield’s piercing question points to a far larger problem with Bias — namely, that it’s a really awful book, intellectually dishonest, poorly written, and absurdly argued. Only occasionally is it even a critique of liberal bias. One of Goldberg’s few striking examples of media malfeasance, for instance, is NBC’s failure to report on dangerous flaws in jet engines manufactured by General Electric, the network’s corporate parent. There’s a name for that, although Goldberg doesn’t use it: corporate bias, and it’s the sort of thing documented with depressing regularity by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media-watch group that is the left-liberal counterpoint to the aforementioned Media Research Center.
Goldberg also discusses in some detail the networks’ reluctance to feature African-Americans on the evening newsmagazine shows, especially during "sweeps" periods, when ratings are used to calculate advertising rates. Goldberg attributes this to hypocrisy on the part of network executives who pride themselves on being liberals on race, and maybe he’s got a point. But there’s nothing liberal about the actions he describes.
WITH ITS MYRIAD flaws and oddities, it is stunning that Bias has touched off a sensation in the media world. Partly this is attributable to Goldberg himself, who’s been something of an icon in conservative circles since 1996, when he published a biting critique of his then-colleagues at CBS on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. Partly it’s because there is a large built-in audience for anyone who accuses the media of liberal bias.
Thus, Bias will be ranked number one next week on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, which is already available on the Web. And Goldberg has been a much-sought-after guest on television and radio talk shows, especially on the Fox News Channel, where its mantras of "fair and balanced" and "we report, you decide" are little more than code phrases for "mostly conservative, most of the time."
The charge of liberal media bias, at least in the modern era, goes back to 1969, when Vice-President Spiro Agnew, not yet a convicted felon, lambasted the media as an elite, highly educated class centered in New York City and Washington that was out of touch with "real" Americans (that is, middle-class and working-class whites), who were presumably sick of civil-rights marches, antiwar demonstrations, inner-city riots, the youth movement, and other signs that the world as they knew it was coming apart.
As Chris Lehmann wrote in the spring 2001 issue of the Baffler, Agnew’s genius was to meld the interests of downscale whites with those of wealthy business executives, adding a populist strain of anti-intellectualism and just the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism. "According to the bias critique," Lehmann wrote, "the blue-collar hardhats and the owning class were part of the same persecuted cultural majority, united by their shared marginalization in the press." (Not surprisingly, Lehmann panned Bias in a review for the Washington Post, where he’s on staff.)
In fact, the overwhelming majority of elite journalists — that is, those based in New York, Washington, and large seacoast cities such as Boston — really are liberal, at least in the cultural sense. A social anthropologist would probably be able to count on one hand the number of journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe who oppose same-sex marriages, for example, which is hardly the prevailing view in society at large. (At times Goldberg seems to say that the media need more homophobes. You know, for balance.) Likewise, members of the media elite vote liberal — and Goldberg dutifully regurgitates old surveys showing that journalists favored Bill Clinton over George Bush and Ross Perot by huge margins in 1992.
But it’s difficult to say how such predispositions actually affect news coverage. For one thing, a liberal tilt does not necessarily extend to economics, the sphere that more than any other shapes the world in which we live. Journalists today — especially in the elite media — are likely to be stockholding professionals who are far more enamored of Alan Greenspan than of Eugene Debs (if, indeed, they can even remember Debs from their college history courses), and who believe that globalization is good, welfare reform was necessary, and organized labor is a hopelessly corrupt anachronism.
For another, this updated, New Democrat–style media liberalism clearly does not extend to going easy on politicians who share those views. Bill Clinton’s presidency was one long, eight-year investigation by his enemies on the right, aided and abetted by the liberal media, of which the year of Monica Lewinsky was only the most flagrant and stupid example. In 2000, Al Gore was covered far more skeptically than George W. Bush. The media’s favorite candidate that year was John McCain, a conservative Republican who had mastered the difficult art of sucking up to journalists while seeming not to.
In actual practice, the media’s so-called liberal bias does not amount to much. As long-time conservative strategist William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, conceded in a 1995 interview with the New Yorker, "I admit it — the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."