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Media Bias: Skewing the News?

January 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: A new book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News, has risen to the top of the best-seller list. In it, author Bernard Goldberg asserts that there is a pervasive liberal bias in the mainstream media and that conservatives consistently get short shrift. To discuss that theory, we’re joined by the author, who left CBS two years ago after nearly 30 years with the network.

He is joined by Marvin Kalb, a media critic, who was a correspondent for CBS and NBC News before joining the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. His latest book is, One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, and 13 Days that Tarnished American Journalism. CBS, incidentally, CBS News, declined the NewsHour’s invitation to participate in this discussion. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Bernie Goldberg, explain what you mean, in this case, by “bias,” and what you think causes it.

BERNARD GOLDBERG, Author, Bias: Well, I think we marginalize conservative views. I think too many people in the big-time media, I think, conservatives, in too many cases, are just right-wing nuts. And let me tell you, it does not mean — I emphatically say it does not mean — that the there’s a conspiracy. There is no conspiracy. The media elites don’t come into their offices in the morning, go into a dark room, roll up their sleeves, give the secret handshake and say, “How are we going to not only execute our liberal agenda, but get conservatives at the same time?”

That’s not it. They marginalize conservatives mainly.. . I could give you many, many examples, Terry, but mainly by identifying every conservative who’s in a story because — and I think rightly — the audience needs to know that these people are conservatives, that their views are conservative views and we should know, as they say, where they’re coming from. But the very fact that we rarely identify liberals tells you, at least it tells me, that journalists very often think that these liberal views aren’t liberal at all, but really mainstream, civilized, reasonable views. And that’s the problem, I think.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Marvin Kalb, what do you think of that?

MARVIN KALB, Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy: Well, I think that Bernie is dead wrong. I mean, I think.. . Let me first say, Bernie, congratulations on the commercial success of the book. I think that’s just great.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Thank you.

MARVIN KALB: But the idea that Bernie for 28 years, me for 24 years, worked in this awful place where all kinds of bias was being displayed toward the news is simply not accurate. Now, it’s a very complicated process how news gets on the air. Are there liberals at the networks, at the newspapers? Of course. Are there also conservatives? Of course. And what do we really mean by the media, which Bernie has in the headline of his book. What do you really mean?

If what I think he means, because I think his book is a kind of stepchild of the Spiro Agnew era, is that you’re talking about ABC, CBS, NBC, which lost the Vietnam War for us, always critical of conservatives, never give us a break — this kind of defensive crouch in which the conservatives still see themselves, because a lot of people are buying this book, and that to me is fascinating; what it says about the popular view of the American people toward the media.

TERENCE SMITH: Bernie Goldberg, is that in fact what you’re saying?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Well, let me say this, I won’t be defensive. Let me just give you one little example. It was during impeachment, which we can all agree was a very, very big, very important story. And right before the impeachment proceedings began, Senators went up to sign what they call “an oath book,” promising to be fair and impartial. As they went up, Peter Jennings, doing a live play-by-play, on ABC, identified Senator Santorum as a young conservative Senator from Pennsylvania — determinately conservative. Then Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was also a determined conservative. Senator Smith from New Hampshire was a very, very conservative Senator from New Hampshire. Those are exact quotes. And I think that’s absolutely fine.

This is impeachment, it’s a political process, we need to know that these are conservatives, and their conservatism may affect their views. But Marvin, Barbara Boxer was simply Barbara Boxer from California. Ted Kennedy was simply Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts. Paul Wellstone was simply Paul Wellstone from Minnesota. Now, did Peter Jennings, who is a bright, intelligent, excellent, first-rate newsman, did he really think that the conservative views would affect the vote, but that liberal views wouldn’t affect the vote?

You see, this reminds me of the bad-old days, and we both remember these days, Marvin, when the only time a criminal was identified in a news story by race is if he were black. Why was that? Because the… And if the criminal was white, by the way, his race meant nothing because the black criminal was seen as what — different, out of the mainstream, certainly inferior, not just inferior to you and me, inferior to white criminals, and possibly dangerous, too.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, let’s let Marvin comment on that.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Let me just say this very briefly.

TERENCE SMITH: Go ahead.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: And that’s why we identify conservatives today, because we see them as out of the mainstream, as a little different, maybe as inferior, maybe as dangerous, and that’s the key. That’s exhibit A, as far as I’m concerned.

TERENCE SMITH: Marvin Kalb, does he have a point on ideological labeling?

MARVIN KALB: On ideological labeling, I have a better point, I think, than Bernie’s. I spent, in my own book, One Scandalous Story, focusing on the Washington press corps. According to Bernie’s thesis, that Washington press corps is a very elitist liberal press corps. Why in God’s name, if he’s right, would they have gone out and lacerated and destroyed a liberal president? That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. And that is because — hang on, Bernie — that is because it’s so much more complicated to explain the decision-making process. It has to do with economics, it has to do with ego, it has to do with ratings. An executive producer will not put a story on sometimes because the issue is a black person. That’s true. That to me is lousy journalism, but it’s not a political bias. They would put a story on about green people if green people attracted an audience — if it raised the ratings.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: But Marvin, I say that…

MARVIN KALB: The key thing, Bernie, that I’m getting at is that it isn’t political bias, which is what your headline and your book seem to be saying, and you and I have gone through too much to know that that is too simplistic an explanation.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, go ahead, Bernie.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: First of all, I make very, very clear that I’m not talking overwhelmingly, I’m not talking about politics; I’m talking about the big social issues of our time. You’re right about going after Clinton. The Washington press corps would go after their liberal grandmothers if they thought it would do them some good. I also made very clear in my book that they worship at the cathedral of Nielsen. They would do anything, virtually anything for ratings. We don’t disagree about that.

But here’s where we do disagree. On the big social issues: They got the homeless story all wrong by saying that there were far more homeless than they were, saying that they looked just like you and me, and doing way more homeless stories when Reagan was president than when Bill Clinton was president, even though homelessness didn’t go away; it only went away on television. They got the AIDS story all wrong, the worst covered story of the past 50 years, by telling us that heterosexuals were going to be the next wave of people with AIDS. They’re constantly going to the National Organization for Women to get reactions to women’s stories, and rarely going to conservative women groups.

TERENCE SMITH: And the motive for all of this, Bernie?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: When you say motive, there’s an implication that it’s malicious. It isn’t. It isn’t. The problem is that, if you travel in Washington and Manhattan circles, if you travel with friends who are largely smart, hip, sophisticated, and liberal, that after a while, you won’t see your view and their views as liberal views, but simply as civilized views.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, let me take you to one example, though. You, in the book, label people politically one way or the other. I noticed on page 146, you describe the social critic Michael Medved as mildly conservative.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Absolutely.

TERENCE SMITH: And Harry Smith, then of CBS, you describe as liberal. Are you not labeling people?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Oh, absolutely. What I’m saying is we should label people. If I haven’t made this clear, you know, mea culpa here, I think we should label people who are conservatives so that the audience knows that their views are not down-the-middle mainstream; and the bigger the story, the more important the story, the more we should make sure that we identify them. But we should also, also identify liberals, and this is something we rarely do.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay, now let’s let Marvin comment on what you said before.

MARVIN KALB: The whole idea that there is something about social issues that ought to be addressed, absolutely, and we ought to be doing more of that. But you’re dealing with fire here. You’re dealing with a headline “Bias;” you’re talking about why the media distorts the news. In my own book, I talk about tarnishing the news. We share the idea that they’re not doing a good job, but why? If the underlying precept here, is that there is political bias, and that’s what you’re saying. That is wrong, and I think you know that deep down.

What I’m trying to suggest is that if there’s lousy journalism, so be it. We can both criticize that, Terry’s been in it, we’ve been in it, we’ve seen it. But that’s not what you’re saying. You’re reaching back into dangerous turf: Spiro Agnew, Nixon, the media lost the Vietnam War. This is not simply a matter of choosing one issue over another; this is the condemnation of an industry.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: I very clearly said that this is not about political bias. This is not about going easy on Democrats and tough on Republicans. I could not have said it more clearly in my book. As far as Spiro Agnew is concerned, I could not have said it more clearly that, when Spiro… I was covering Spiro Agnew when he was saying these things. And I say in the book that I dismissed it out of hand because he had an agenda. I am not… I am not condemning big-time journalism. Big-time journalism covers wars; they show tremendous courage. If we didn’t have big-time journalism, government would run amuck.

MARVIN KALB: That’s precisely what you’re condemning.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: I am not saying anything…

MARVIN KALB: You’re condemning elitist journalism. That’s what you write about in the book, elitist liberal journalism, that’s what you’re condemning.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Well, Marvin, I don’t want to say anything that’s going to be taken personally, because that’s my intent. But you in Washington are smack dab in the middle of it. You’re smack dab in the middle of it. You talk about as if Washington is not some journalistic monolith. Well, you know what? They took this infamous poll of Washington journalists not that long ago, ten years ago, eight years ago, whatever it was, and 89 percent of them…

MARVIN KALB: Voted Democratic.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Voted for Bill Clinton when something like 40… Now, let me ask you this, and I’ll do this very, very briefly. Do you think if most journalists in America, big-time journalists in America, voted for Richard Nixon over George McGovern, and if most journalists voted for Ronald Reagan twice over his opponent, and most big-time journalists voted for George Bush over Bill Clinton…

MARVIN KALB: Bernie, did you always vote Republican?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Marvin, please understand…

MARVIN KALB: No, seriously. Did you…

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Please understand when I say this…

MARVIN KALB: No, because what you’re saying is if somebody voted Democratic, that are they would end up doing a story from a so- called liberal point of view.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Marvin…

MARVIN KALB: I don’t know, in 30 years as a reporter, that anyone has ever — ever– asked me to do a piece from a political point of view. It’s just wrong.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Marvin, for the hundredth time, and it’s the last time I’m going to say it…

TERENCE SMITH: It will be the last time.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: …I am not talking about their political point of view. The question I’m asking you– and if you read the book, which I don’t think you did…

MARVIN KALB: Uh-huh. Yes I did.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Okay, then you saw that I said that, as of 1996, when I wrote an op-ed about liberal bias, I had never voted for a Republican presidential candidate.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, we’re going to have to… We’re going to have to leave it there, your voting record aside, Bernie. Thank you very much, Bernie. Marvin Kalb, thank you.

MARVIN KALB: Thank you.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Thank you.