Does the mainstream media really lean to the left?
July 12, 2002 | Page 8
SHAUN JOSEPH tears apart the myth that the media have a left-leaning bias--and shows which masters they do serve.
THE IDEA that the mainstream media is biased to the left has long been a favorite complaint of right-wing blowhards. Rush Limbaugh can't get through a whole radio show without hyperventilating about the media's "liberal brain-washing."
It's always been easy to dismiss these ravings of the right--if only by citing the media's "go-along-to-get-along" relationship with those in power and the conservative to moderate liberal politics of well-known journalists and editors.
But now the right is claiming that they have the inside scoop. Bernard Goldberg, a CBS News correspondent and "insider"--as he never tires of reminding us--claims to have set the record straight with his best-selling book Bias: A Veteran CBS Reporter's Account of How the Media Distorts the News. "His case is airtight," says the Wall Street Journal--although it's hard to imagine the circumstances in which the newspaper of big business wouldn't say that.
Goldberg's book is remarkably poorly written, even for someone in the TV business. The introduction and first four chapters are dedicated entirely to Goldberg's bluster about his gutsy and self-sacrificing move in taking on the so-called "News Mafia."
Maybe after being raked over the coals, Dan Rather wasn't so pleasant to Goldberg around the water cooler. But this pales in comparison to what happens to people who stand up for unpopular political beliefs in the real world. Like Sami Al-Arian, a University of Southern Florida professor who has been threatened with death and could still lose his job--all because he was falsely accused of being connected with terrorism by Fox News' not-so-left-leaning The O'Reilly Factor show, strictly on the strength of his support for the Palestinian resistance.
In comparison, Goldberg's scuffles at CBS News--which resulted in a nice book deal and lots of publicity--hardly seem so tough.
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BUT ASSUMING you make it through the hype, does Goldberg make a convincing argument that the media leans left? Not even a little. His "airtight case" is built on lies, distortion and outright bigotry.
Take Goldberg's chapter titled "Epidemic of Fear," which is about--you guessed it--the AIDS crisis. Goldberg claims that the media's coverage of the threat of AIDS was excessive. The "scientific" basis for Goldberg's argument is Michael Fumento's appalling book The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, whose very title gives away its ignorance. Yet Goldberg quotes Fumento approvingly, "AIDS remains a disease limited primarily to specific groups engaging in specific practices."
In other words, gay men and drug users get AIDS, so relax. Also, living in Africa must constitute a "specific practice"--since the vast majority of AIDS sufferers in countries where up to one-quarter of the population are infected with HIV got the disease through heterosexual contact.
There's no disputing the facts--so Goldberg ignores them, while claiming that AIDS activists falsely exaggerated the risks to all Americans in order to gain sympathy for their cause, and the media played along.
Actually, anyone who remembers the early years of activism around AIDS will know that one of the most infuriating aspect was the refusal of the media to report at all on what was written off as a "gay disease." That's why ACT UP's slogan "Silence=Death" struck such a chord.
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EVEN GOLDBERG has to admit that most of the examples of the media's left-leaning "bias" that he cites miraculously disappeared on September 11, 2001. "On September 11...the TV news anchors got it right," he writes. "They gave us the news straight, which they don't always do."
Just the opposite is true. In the period after September 11, the servility of the U.S. media reached an even higher level than usual. Cable news stations competed to come up with the most patriotic graphics. Journalists exploited the stories of tragedy and loss from 9/11 to contribute to the atmosphere of war frenzy. And scores of know-nothing "terrorism experts" were invited to spin wild tales about everything from al-Qaeda and "dirty bombs" to Iraq and anthrax.
No voice of opposition to the war was allowed to clash with the patriotic chorus. According to an analysis of news coverage by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, "the press heavily favored pro-administration and official U.S. viewpoints--as high as 71 percent early on [W]hat might be considered criticism remained minimal--below 10 percent."
And what about left-leaning Dan Rather and his relentless distortion of the news? "George Bush is the president," Rather said during an interview on David Letterman's Late Night show soon after September 11. "He makes the decisions. Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call."
How can Goldberg justify his claim that the media's bias is gone at the very moment when it's most clearly and explicitly present? Because for Goldberg and most of the other higher-ups in mainstream journalism, the media's "diversity of opinion" is only as diverse as the political views acceptable to the ruling establishment.
Since September 11, the media have shifted a bit to the right on this spectrum, becoming no more than mouthpieces for the Bush administration. It has taken half a year for some stories that appeared in European newspapers documenting the darker side of the U.S. war drive to get mentioned in the American press.
Naturally, Goldberg and his fellow conservatives are pleased. But it's hardly true that the media were left-leaning before September 11.
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THE MAINSTREAM media is produced for profit, just like any commodity under capitalism. The news departments at CBS, NBC and ABC are subsidiaries of giant megacorporations like Viacom, General Electric and Disney, which demand that the news make money, like any other product they control.
Obviously, the corporate media have a basic interest in preserving the system. This doesn't mean that news outlets necessarily declare their solidarity with the ruling class openly. There are other ways of making sure that the media reflect the conventional wisdom of the ruling class.
Take, for example, the New York Times' coverage of a pro-Israel rally in Washington D.C. on April 15--in contrast to its coverage of a larger antiwar and pro-Palestinian rally in D.C. just five days later. The pro-Israel rally got big headlines, with extensive coverage. Coverage of the antiwar rally was buried deep in the paper's huge Sunday edition.
The New York Times' unflagging support for Israel's occupation of Palestine is well known. But no one at the paper would have had to make an explicit decision to demonstrate such incredible bias. From the corporate media's point of view, the pro-Israel rally was more "newsworthy." It was addressed by high-ranking politicians of both parties and more likely to be attended by people from the elite social circles that establishment journalists themselves move around in.
This is the product of a media that is biased toward the status quo--relying on "official" sources for their version of the news and excluding anything outside the mainstream.
Goldberg and the other right-wing windbags who claim that the media are biased are wasting our time. If mainstream news outlets do lean in one political direction or another, this is only within an extremely narrow range of acceptable ruling-class opinion. Voices from outside the mainstream are ignored.
Those who want to understand the corporate media's true bias should read Robert McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy or Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting provides a consistent critique at www.fair.org.
And for the stories and ideas that the mainstream media won't talk about, keep reading Socialist Worker. SW tells the story of our side, reporting on the struggles and issues facing working people. And it not only exposes what's wrong with the system, but how it can be changed.