Martin Wenglinsky. Television news: a new slant.
For at least three years now we have heard redundant public controversy over bias in television news, every political faction contending at some point that television does not portray events "accurately." And all sides are, of course, correct: television news is biased against the views from the political right, left, and center because it pursues a reality of its own, created out of the particular kind of truth for which newsmen search regardless of their own political sentiments. At its best, and under certain circumstances, television news both makes and reports the news, offering a portrait of the world wherein the perception of the viewer is the meaning of the event.
But to see all this more concretely, we should first clear away the accumulated charges and countercharges by radicals, conservatives, and liberals.
Radicals contend that television news is ruled by the interests of big business, most especially Eastern Establishment business, and so one can predict what events news programs will, as we say, "cover" and how they will cover them, or cover them up. The suffering of the poor is underplayed, and the resistance of the downtrodden to their oppressors is portrayed by television news as criminal or else sick. Indeed, ghetto riots are no longer much shown at all, now that networks and local stations have reflected on their coverage of certain events in the 1960's. Today, television producers seem to see themselves as acting responsibly when they censor such coverage lest it encourage others to join a dangerous action; but were they to apply this doctrine of "responsibility" for the results of news broadcasting evenhandedly, they would long since have stopped reporting news briefings by Presidential spokesmen, Presidents, or other self-admitted liars.
The power of the press, so the radical argument goes, is like a telescope: magnifying the importance of those in power, diminishing the grievances--and the very presence--of those with little power. When radicals themselves appear on television, it is usually on talk shows, where they entertain (and so are not taken seriously) by shocking. Radical spokesmen used to turn up on Sunday interview programs too, on the occasional slow week. But the hostile questioning of Tom Hayden on "Face The Nation" some years ago caught perfectly the style in which they were handled: the interviewers found time to ask Hayden why he was not grateful for the democratic freedom that allowed him to appear on national television in the first place--a gratuitous attempt to put a malcontent in his place, though he was in a place he had every right to be in. By that logic, the substance of freedom is that grievances vanish because they are heard. When Hayden explained that his brief appearance hardly countervailed the general tenor of public affairs broadcasting, he was asked, reasonably, why he then bothered appearing at all. He answered that it was to keep faith with his compatriots, in preparation for the period of harassment and suppression he believed the country would soon face. Prophetic or not, his defense was lame. The radicals of the 1960's were wedded to the media because they thought it the most powerful force for social control. At the same time they found it beyond their power to influence.
Perhaps the quintessential demonstration of free expression on television was a "Merv Griffin Show" of a few years ago, which Griffin announced, with much self-congratulation, as a no-holds-barred discussion of the medium itself by several of its critics, a discussion that would show just how brave and free television was. (if it was free, one wondered, why was bravery or congratulation required?) Nicholas Johnson, then a member of the Federal Communications Commission, proceeded to offer some genuinely critical remarks--the most pointed of which were edited out before the tape was broadcast.