We tend to give more credibility to groups on the liberal side of the spectrum than on the conservative side. . . . We [journalists] have to guard against falling into groupthink. —Tom Fiedler, executive editor, The Miami Herald
If I were still teaching journalism, as I used to at New York University and the New School, we’d spend time on George Seldes, I.F. Stone, Murray Kempton, Jimmy Breslin, Dorothy Rabinowitz, and Bob Herbert. Of the assigned books, one would be mandatory: Coloring the News by William McGowan (Encounter Books).
McGowan’s reporting and commentary have been in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Columbia Journalism Review, and on BBC broadcasts. His book, much more deeply researched than Bernard Goldberg’s Bias (Regnery), speaks to what he describes as “an invisible liberal consensus”—not “an active liberal conspiracy”—in some major national newspapers and broadcast news outlets.
“The answer,” McGowan says, “is not affirmative action for conservatives, but rather a recognition that this bias exists.” And more to the point, that it can affect the coverage of the news.
If I didn’t have so many other stories I want to write about, I’d devote a series of columns to McGowan’s very specific and documented illustrations of groupthink in many newsrooms.
One example: Ward Connerly, a member of the University of California Board of Regents, who is black and a highly visible opponent of racial preferences in college admissions. He is principled, courageous, and sometimes goes too far in his admirable crusade to abolish all racial distinctions, discrimination, and divisions. (It’s too soon. Jim Crow is not yet moldering in his grave.)
As McGowan reports, “An editorial cartoon in The Oakland Tribune features [Connerly] with a KKK hood and rope hanging nearby.” Also in Coloring the News is the admission by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that “newsroom culture definitely sent a message that it was okay to go after Connerly . . . without considering what he was really saying.”
Unlike Bernard Goldberg’s bestselling Bias, McGowan’s Coloring the News has received generally favorable reviews, even in such papers as The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which are sharply criticized in his book. But the influential New York Times Book Review has so far ignored McGowan’s indictment of much of the press—an analysis that, as Peter Schrag, no right-winger, says in the Columbia Journalism Review, “has focused attention on important and troubling issues.”
In an interview published in the March 13 San Francisco Chronicle, Dan Fost asked the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Charles “Chip” McGrath, why the book isn’t considered fit for print there.
“One,” said McGrath, “I’m not convinced that it appeals to the kind of general audience we normally look for.”
Well, McGowan has talked about the book on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, various television stations, and at least 150 radio stations, as well as in magazine and newspaper interviews. That’s a rather general audience. The book is now in its fifth printing.
But the editor of the Times Book Review gave the San Francisco Chronicle another reason for his dismissal of Coloring the News: “I also think there’s a question, and I don’t know the answer: Is this newspaper . . . the best place to discuss a book that is so critical of this newspaper?” The book review editors of The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times had no difficulty answering that question.
Before McGrath joined the Times, I was banned from the Times as a whole for a long time for having criticized, in the Book Review, a book co-written by Abe Rosenthal, then the paper’s commander in chief. And the widely published Jim Sleeper, now teaching at Yale, tells me that after he was critical of the Times in his book Liberal Racism (Penguin), editors stopped asking him to write for the Book Review.
There are flaws in Coloring the News. Some of the stories should have been updated. And in writing of the police shooting of Amadou Diallo—which was, as McGowan says, a mistake, not an intentional killing—McGowan ignores its context: the Giuliani-ordered epidemic of Fourth Amendment violations by the stop-and-frisk street crimes unit that led New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer, no bleeding-heart liberal, to investigate rampant racial profiling by this city’s police.
But as a whole, Coloring the News merits Trevor Butterworth’s praise in the January 13 Washington Post Book World: “McGowan looks at what major news organizations chose to emphasize and leave out in national news stories on affirmative action, immigration, race, AIDS and promiscuity, integration in the military, and partial birth abortion . . . ” The Times often appears to be an adjunct of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
McGowan quotes Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s remark in 1992 that “diversity is the single most important issue” facing the Times “. . . . We can no longer offer our reader a predominantly white, straight version of events.” He was right, of course.
But the failure to seriously cover diverse viewpoints on issues has led to clear political correctness in the pages of the Times—as in the paper’s unflagging support of collective affirmative action that violates the “equal protection of the laws” guarantee of the 14th Amendment. As McGowan notes, Sulzberger has neglected a very important issue of fairness still facing the Times.
Dan Seligman captures an essence of the book in his review in The Wall Street Journal: “Paul Teetor, an award-winning reporter at Vermont’s Gannett-owned Burlington Free Press, is covering a local forum on racism. A young white woman tries to speak and is told by the moderator, a [black] mayoral aide, that only ‘people of color’ are allowed to speak. Mr. Teetor agrees with the woman that this is ‘reverse racism’ and says so in his next-day news story. The mayoral aide says he will organize a march on the Free Press if Mr. Teetor isn’t instantly fired. He is indeed fired, in a 90-second meeting at which he has no chance to defend himself. . . .
“The editor who fired him is under pressure from Gannett to improve his ‘mainstreaming’ scores. . . . Editors are supposed to meet a variety of racial targets in hiring, in the use of sources, and in positive news coverage.”
That diversity goal misfires when it leads to identity politics masquerading as reliable journalism.