A Liberal Slant to the News?


If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. —George Orwell on freedom of the press

In my experience, the two groups most acutely sensitive to criticism are cops and journalists. During the Giuliani years, fear of retribution was so great that some New Yorkers were hesitant to ask a cop for his or her badge number.

As for journalists, Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (Regnery) has been attacked by, among others, Tom Shales (The Washington Post), Michael Kinsley (Slate), Tom Goldstein (outgoing dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism), and Eric Alterman (The Nation), as if Goldberg were a shabby turncoat and an incompetent journalist besides.

Moreover, one of Goldberg’s former colleagues at CBS News, Eric Engberg, has actually accused Goldberg of having committed “an act of treason.” And Eric Alterman has signed to write a book proving there is no liberal bias in the media.

The merits of Goldberg’s book aside for the moment, the Freedom Forum, whose only bias is in favor of the First Amendment, joined with the Roper organization in 1996 to ask 139 Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents whom they’d voted for in the 1992 presidential election. Clinton won 89 percent of the votes, and only 4 percent identified themselves as Republicans.

This led Washington Post and CNN press critic Howard Kurtz to say, “There is a diversity problem in the news business, and it’s not just the kind of diversity we usually talk about. . . . Anybody who doesn’t see that is just in denial.”

And last year, in The Boston Globe, ABC’s television news anchor, Peter Jennings, said that “conservative voices in the U.S. have not been as present as they might have been and should have been in the media.”

A personal diversity story: In 1995, the National Press Foundation in Washington gave me its award for “lifetime distinguished contributions” to journalism for my work in the Voice and The Washington Post, where I was then also writing. Among previous winners: David Broder, Fred Friendly (Edward R. Murrow’s close associate at CBS News), and Robert Maynard (a brilliant reporter in many fields and later the first black owner of a major newspaper, the Oakland Tribune).

Somewhat stunned, I went to Washington to accept the award from Meg Greenfield, then the editor of The Washington Post‘s editorial page, who had brought me there years before to write regularly about the state of the Constitution’s health. As I approached the auditorium, I met a journalist who had been on the panel of judges for the awards.

“It was quite a battle before the final vote,” she said. “It wasn’t,” she added, “anything to do with the quality of your work.” I knew what was coming. An opponent of the death penalty, a longtime critic of police abuses, the subject of a lengthy FBI file for support of the anti-war and civil rights movements, a columnist at the Voice (hardly a nest of conservatives), and an avowed atheist, I had committed the heresy among my peers on the panel of being pro-life.

“That’s what almost did you in,” my informant confirmed. Later, Meg Greenfield told the audience, “Hentoff is not tribal in his views. . . . [He challenges] icons and ideas in the community he lives in.”

From the attacks in the press on heretic Bernard Goldberg, you would think he was a crony of Pat Robertson and never more than a journalistic hack. Actually, Goldberg is pro-gay rights and pro-choice, and during his 28 years at CBS News, he was an unusually perceptive and searching reporter, whose work—including his interviewing skills—I much admired.

Goldberg makes clear in his book that he does not believe there is a conspiracy among liberal journalists to manipulate and distort the news. Instead, especially in big-city dailies, many reporters and editors “share the same values on . . . abortion, gun control, feminism, gay rights, the environment, and school prayer.”

He’s not talking about syndicated and local columnists, a larger proportion of whom are conservatives. As the April 1 Editor & Publisher points out, the columnists appearing in the most newspapers are conservatives Cal Thomas (540) and George Will (more than 400).

It is Goldberg’s contention—and I agree on the basis of conversations over the years with many journalists around the country—that however they label themselves, if at all, a considerable number of reporters instinctively believe that they reflect the views of mainstream Americans. They see people with contrary positions as marginal zealots—whether those outside the mainstream are demonstrating furiously against globalization or thrusting pro-life leaflets and shouting at women going into abortion clinics.

One of many examples of this kind of mind-set in Goldberg’s book is his once asking a senior producer for CBS Evening News “how many times she went to conservative women’s groups for on-camera reactions either to Supreme Court decisions or to votes in Congress regarding women’s issues. . . . She couldn’t think of a single time.”

And among liberal journalists, I might add, Ralph Nader was attacked repeatedly as a traitor to liberalism for having had the nerve to run against Al Gore—however fundamentally different Nader’s views were and are from those of the tepidly centrist Democratic Party.

Goldberg’s book, which largely focuses on the pre-set approaches to news on television, should have cited such exceptions as Bob Simon of CBS and a number of other TV reporters. A much more extensively researched and annotated report on rampant political correctness in journalism—at The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other papers—is William McGowan’s Coloring the News. More on that next week.

But Bias is worth looking at, and most of the offended and indignant skewerers of Goldberg’s book neglected to mention this point he raises: “Does anyone think a ‘diverse’ group of conservative journalists would give us the news straight? I sure as hell don’t.”

Coloring the News by William McGowan has yet to be reviewed in the proudly influential New York Times Book Review, as Cynthia Cotts has noted (Voice, April 2). That’s a story unto itself, as will be explored in next week’s column.