Rooting out the Media `Bias'. (Television)

Article excerpt

All governments lie," said the 20th century's most idealistic muckraker, I.F. Stone; but, he added, "they also reveal a great deal about themselves." For a long while he had been growing deaf and couldn't go to congressional hearings; so he took the time to carefully read the transcripts of everything that had been said--and made discoveries that the regular Washington reporters, those who would follow the president around the rose garden taking notes or who got "scoops" by playing tennis with White House aides, never noticed.

Robert Fisk, the great British correspondent who covers the Middle East, says in the film "War Reporters" that the only approach to covering a conflict is to presume, "They all lie." Believe no one. Go in without any preconceived views and dig, and listen to everyone. Then tell what you see and what you think.

So I was not surprised that Fisk, author of Pity the Nation (1990), the classic account of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was among the first to condemn the high toll of civilian casualties in the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan.

Some would say that Stone and Fisk, who, when they dig, usually find something wrong, are "biased." They are "against the government."

Bernard Goldberg, the former CBS-TV News correspondent, has created a publishing phenomenon, about a half-year on the bestseller list, with Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (Regnery)--largely because thousands, maybe millions, of viewers think he's right.

The networks and the "media elites," he says, slant the news to the left.

First, I--and the standard journalism ethics textbook--would make the distinction between bias and values. Every journalist, we hope, has values, beliefs that form the basis of his/her moral judgments. A bias is a prejudice, a prejudgment that influences an unfair or distorted report.

Do the media--which include TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, film, and now the Internet--present a distorted picture of reality? Of course. It is the nature of entertainment media to feed fantasy, provide escape from reality, and it is the nature of advertising to sell us products, many of which we do not need.

But it is the moral obligation of the news media to give us the information that guides our political decisions. If the news is distorted or incomplete, democracy will fail.

Goldberg's saga begins in 1996 when, he says, after complaining in-house that CBS News had a liberal slant, he became so irate with a CBS Evening News item dissecting presidential candidate Steve Forbes' flat tax proposal, that he published an attack on his own network on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 13, 1996).

The reporter, Eric Engberg, whom he identifies as a "longtime friend," he says, used loaded words like "scheme," "elixir," and "wacky" to demean the idea. He interviewed economists, but in a way that set up the case against the tax rather than allowing the viewer to decide for himself.

Goldberg's attack on his own employer became a cause celebre, he says. There were in-house letters of support, from Andy Rooney and others he declines to identify; but, in general, he became the office leper. Dan Rather, who used to be his "friend," was furious. Indeed, throughout the book, Goldberg--who abhors all "bias"--cannot mention Rather's name without an audible snarl: "But a few years ago I got to meet the other Dan Rather, the one behind the anchorman smile. The one the public doesn't get a chance to see. The one who operates with the cool precision of a Mafia hit man who kisses you on the right cheek before he. puts a bullet through your eyeball." To put it kindly, the Rather Goldberg portrays is a liar.

Goldberg goes on to develop--or inflate--his 800-word op-ed piece into a 223-page book, with examples of other issues on which the biased media cannot be trusted.

For years in the 1980s, news reports portrayed the homeless romantically, as normal, white, middle-class unfortunates, huddling by the millions in the Christmas snow. …