Weapons of Mass Distortion
In an April 10, 2002, appearance on CNN’s
Larry King Live, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings gave a remarkable answer when he was asked about media bias.
“Historically in the media, it has been more of a liberal persuasion for many years,” Jennings said. “It has taken us a long time, too long in my view, to have vigorous conservative voices heard as widely in the media as they now are. And so I think, yes, on occasion there is a liberal instinct in the media which we need to keep our eye on, if you will.”
It was an astonishing statement. For years, media analysts had been pointing out the pervasive liberal bias found in mainstream news coverage. In fact, in 1987 I founded an organization called the Media Research Center specifically to bring balance and responsibility to the news media, and for some fifteen years the center had been carefully and systematically documenting the extent of media bias. But despite all those efforts, news leaders had vigorously denied any charge of bias, no matter how thoroughly documented. Actually, for the most part the Jenningses, Brokaws, and Rathers refused even to acknowledge the charges, which they could get away with at a time when the American public was less attuned to the leftward slant in the press.
But that time had passed. Now, here was Peter Jennings, one of the most important journalists in the country, acknowledging on national television that, yes, the charge of liberal bias was true.
Then again, was the statement really all that astonishing? Well, yes, simply because no one of his stature had ever come close to admitting that liberal bias existed. (Though Walter Cronkite had acknowledged the leftist bias permeating the airwaves, he did so long after he had retired from CBS News.) But if one looks closely at Jennings’s answer, it becomes clear that, to the distinguished anchor of ABC News, media bias really isn’t much of a problem at all. It’s just an “instinct” that is evidenced only “on occasion.” Like a slow leak in a tire, it’s not something that demands an immediate repair. It’s just something “we need to keep our eye on.”
Jennings also betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of why media bias is a problem. For “too long,” he said, “conservative voices” were not “heard as widely in the media as they now are.” Quite true, but that statement is slippery on two counts. First, who does Jennings mean by “conservative voices”—journalists or their guests? There is no empirical evidence I’ve seen that there has been any marked increase of conservatives in the newsrooms—note that we’re talking about newsrooms, not the pundits’ roundtables—of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and PBS. Second, if by “conservative voices” Jennings is referencing the opinions of conservatives within news stories, even if journalists are giving more airtime to conservatives, it doesn’t follow that the coverage of those “conservative voices” is any more positive. The implication of his statement is that conservatives now are getting a fair shot in the media, which, as we’ll see in this book, is patently untrue. Even more important, having more conservative voices heard in the mainstream media is just one small step toward balanced news coverage. Liberal bias affects much more than simply how certain political figures are covered and how certain news stories are reported. The media’s pervasive bias determines precisely which stories are (and are not) covered, and in how much detail. Indeed, the media elite deliberately attempt to set the national agenda through their coverage of the news.
I have learned this firsthand in a career spent closely analyzing the news media, but the point was driven home to me several years ago at a meeting with a Los Angeles newspaper. The Media Research Center had just released an exhaustive study regarding liberal bias in the news media, and I was scheduled to meet with the editorial board of the (now--defunct)
Los Angeles Herald-Examiner to discuss the report’s findings. When I arrived, however, I was ushered into the conference room and met by a solitary figure, a member of the editorial board obviously pegged with the unsavory assignment of listening to this pesky conservative. The ponytailed hair and the cold body language—he silently pointed me to a chair—hinted that this would be anything but a productive meeting. I made an opening statement, then passed him the voluminous report we were to discuss. Without bothering to open it, the editor shoved it back at me and unleashed a vitriolic harangue against conservatives. Niceties flew out the window as he snarled, “All you conservatives care about is making money!” Clearly we weren’t going to discuss the report, so I asked him what liberals like him cared about. Without bothering to deny my description of his ideological persuasion, he quickly shot back, “You just don’t get it: We are the social conscience of this country and we have an obligation to use the media.”
At least this editor had the decency to admit what so many others steadfastly deny. Yes, the mainstream news media’s view of conservatives is less than flattering—the liberal media see conservatives as “the great unwashed,” as Republican congressman Henry Hyde aptly put it—and that is a big problem. But just as important, and too often overlooked, is the problem of how the media view themselves. The media elites feel they must be the “social conscience of this country”; they seem to have a higher calling beyond objectively reporting what happens on a day-to-day basis. Reporters, editors, and producers routinely display an arrogance driven by an inflated sense of self-worth. They are the enlightened, the elite. This attitude cannot help but distort the way the news is covered.
Media bias is more than just something “we need to keep our eye on.” It is an endemic problem, and even now, when the media have actually come under some scrutiny, the problem is not being seriously addressed. Although media bias has become the subject of debate in this country, the terms of that debate are far too narrow. Usually it is focused on a small subtopic, like the number of conservative commentators on television, when news commentary isn’t even the issue—it is in news reporting that the journalist must strive for objectivity. Or it is focused on a particular statement that galls—say, CNN boss Ted Turner’s insulting Christians—but examining such a statement, while instructive, doesn’t begin to plumb the depths of the problem of liberal media bias.
Peter Jennings might think that the problem of media bias is pretty much solved, but as this book will show, liberal media bias is alive and well. The evidence of such bias is simply staggering.
The Liberal Counterattack
Although overwhelming evidence indicates that liberal bias in the mainstream news media continues unchecked, something important has changed in recent years. It is not just that news leaders like Peter Jennings have been forced for the first time to answer questions about media bias. No, the Left has come to believe that a battle is on and has begun to attack those dreaded conservatives who dare to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the “mainstream” news media. But the liberal counterattack has been bizarre. Some on the Left, refusing to admit to the longtime liberal dominance over the mainstream news media, go so far as to claim that there is actually a conservative media bias. According to a series of books released in 2002 and 2003, the vast right-wing conspiracy has somehow managed to conquer the news media as well. It is important, and won’t take long, to demolish this mythology.
First out of the gate was The
Nation’s Eric Alterman with the book What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the
News, a response to the number one bestseller from former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg,
Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. (In his book Alterman condemns me for praising the media’s powerful, if short-lived, patriotism in the days following the September 11 horror.)
The New York Observer’s Joe Conason followed with Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the
Truth, in which he tries to “debunk conservative mythology,” devoting a whole chapter to the “palpably ridiculous argument” that “liberals control the media.” (It’s instructive that Conason says of this writer that the “belligerent, red-bearded Bozell, a nephew of William F. Buckley Jr., scarcely pretends to be anything more than an instrument of the Republican Party’s conservative leadership,” an extraordinary accomplishment given that I’m not even a Republican.) Finally we got comedian Al Franken’s
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the
Right. A quick review of Franken’s book begs the question: Is this man serious? And a related question: Just how serious is a movement that relies on this man as its spokesman? We will spend more time with Mr. Franken later in the book.
The Conason/Alterman/Franken argument that the media are conservative revolves around four major points, all of them fallacious:
1. Liberal bias? Just look at all those conservatives in the media! By far the most common trick of the Left is to focus on the “media,” not the “news media.” How many times do we hear liberals cite Rush -Limbaugh, William F. Buckley, Robert Novak, Cal Thomas, Sean Hannity, and so on, as evidence of the conservative “dominance” of the media? What these liberals know full well is that all of these conservatives are commentators, not reporters; their work appears in opinion columns and on TV or radio talk shows—not in news stories in our newspapers or on radio or television news programs. None reports news, but rather they all react to it analytically and, by necessity, with prejudice. More: No conservative on talk radio denies his conservative stance, which puts every one of them in almost perfect juxtaposition with the liberals in the news media, almost all of whom deny their own bias. It is impossible to contend that conservatives dominate the news media—which is why liberals play with the terminology.
2. Who cares about liberal reporters? It’s all about those dastardly conservative media owners. Alterman has a chapter titled “You’re Only As Liberal As the Man Who Owns You.” This is the stuff of Berkeley -coffee klatches. Contrary to the Marxist stick-figure caricature, corporate CEOs cannot be automatically stereotyped as supply-side right-wingers dressed in three-piece Armani suits smoking oversized stogies and swigging martinis at the Knickerbocker Club. And if you don’t believe me, ask Michael Eisner or Ted Turner.
Even if we suspend our disbelief for a moment and go along with Alterman that the owners of media corporations are all right-wingers, what does that really tell us? Nothing, as CNN’s Tucker Carlson rightly pointed out when Alterman tried to claim that right-wing media owners control “what gets on the news.” On the February 5, 2003, edition of
Crossfire, Carlson swiftly rebutted Alterman’s argument: “Actually, having worked in media corporations . . . all my adult life, I can tell you, as I think you already know, most reporters don’t take orders from the owners of their companies. Most reporters don’t know who the owners of their companies are and have zero contact with them. So that’s not a plausible claim.”
The corporate ownership argument is closely linked to point #1. Liberals like to point out that a majority of newspaper editorial pages normally endorse Republicans in presidential campaigns, as if somehow this validates their theory that the owners are calling the shots. But these are editorial writers—not owners, and not reporters—making this call. Moreover, theirs is a one-day story in the editorial page; this tells us nothing about a paper’s slant 365 days per year in the news section, which is all that matters.
3. Don’t believe us liberals; just listen to what some conservatives say about this silly “liberal media” accusation. Conason quotes former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed mouthing this analysis of the press: “My sense is that it’s probably never as good as you think and it’s never as bad as you think.” But what does that mean? It is not content analysis; it’s conjecture. And yet Conason believes that in saying this, Reed “acknowledged” that “the media have turned to the right.”
Alterman misuses Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol in the same way. Kristol once told
The New Yorker that “the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures,” a point with which most conservatives would disagree, but also a point focusing on the impact of liberal media bias, not its existence, which Alterman seems not to realize is a given for Kristol. Alterman also quotes Pat Buchanan suggesting that the media had been fair to him on the presidential campaign trail, but in no way was Buchanan denying the existence of a liberal media bias. In fact, over the years Buchanan has denounced the liberal media probably hundreds of times, but Alterman has somehow missed all of these quotes. I wonder if he also missed Buchanan’s dismissal of What Liberal Media? In a column in June 2003, Buchanan called Alterman a poor judge of bias and averred that there is indeed a “liberal press,” which includes “all three major networks, PBS, NPR and virtually all major U.S.
papers—Boston Globe, New York Times, Philadelphia
Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Atlanta
Constitution, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Denver
Post, Los Angeles Times. . . . Not only are the editorial pages of most major papers liberal, the news staffs are overwhelmingly so.” Buchanan concluded that “Big Media remains a fortress of liberalism,” which is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Alterman’s thesis.
Franken, meanwhile, relies on an ex-conservative to guide him through the world of conspiratorial conservative media politics. But the ex-conservative in question, David Brock, is a highly suspect source, to say the least, for he is an accomplished liar. (Incidentally, Franken, he who condemns “liars” in his book, was forced to confess that he lied in writing the book. In July 2003 he wrote a letter of apology to Attorney General John Ashcroft, admitting that he had not been truthful when he had earlier asked for Ashcroft’s views on abstinence for what he had claimed, falsely, was a book on the subject.)
4. Gore had the election stolen from him and this proves the media’s conservative bias. Conason finds a conspiracy here: “For eight years, the nation’s largest mainstream news organizations devoted substantial resources to bringing down a Democratic administration. Investigative units at ABC News and NBC News chased scandal stories so zealously that they became virtual adjuncts of the prosecutors and conservative groups attacking the White House. . . . That same enmity infected the coverage of Democratic nominee Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election. False stories designed to ruin Gore’s reputation, including phony and distorted quotes, found their way from the Republican National Committee to the conservative media and seeped into the mainstream press.”
That accusation packs quite a wallop—except Conason doesn’t offer a single example to support his case.
Franken devotes an entire chapter to the 2000 presidential election, claiming that it “disproved” the argument that the media display a liberal bias. This thirteen-page study in incoherent ramblings offers no serious content analysis and beats to death one or two utterly irrelevant anecdotes (the media’s handling of Al Gore and the Love Canal issue—stop the presses!).
Alterman devotes a chapter to the 2000 election and another entire chapter to the postelection standoff in Florida. Most of it is a rather hysterical tirade against George W. Bush’s camp for being evil and Al Gore’s camp for not being as clever as the evil Bush camp. Here and there, however, he slips in a quote or factoid as “evidence” of this conservative, anti-Gore bias. For example, he cites
The Press Effect, a study by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman which found that “in the five Sunday shows aired by the three networks [on December 3], the word ‘concede’ appeared in twenty-three questions.” In twenty of them, Alterman points out, “the hypothetical conceder was Al Gore.” Somehow he finds this to be rather damning evidence, but he does not consider that perhaps this was so because recount after recount continued to validate Bush’s victory while Gore’s attempts to overturn the election results were rebuffed time and again.
Since all three of these authors seize on the 2000 presidential election as “evidence” of their wacky claims, this book will address the topic in depth, in Chapter 11.
Strangely, even when denying a liberal bias in the media, these writers don’t deny that most reporters are liberal. Alterman admits, “I concur that the overall flavor of the elite media reporting favors gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights, and the environmental movement”—and he could have easily added abortion, tax hikes, big government, and a host of other liberal policies—though he does feebly submit, “I do not find this bias as overwhelming as some conservatives do.” Franken spends a chapter ridiculing Bernard Goldberg and Bias but also writes, “I think Goldberg’s most valid point is that reporters tend to have more liberal views than the public on social issues.” His argument is reduced to this: Okay, so the media are liberal on social issues, but they’re conservative on economic issues, which are what really matter. But even that is not true. To prove his point that “journalists are economically conservative,” Franken cites a 1998 survey of Washington-area reporters by Virginia Commonwealth University professor David Croteau, who often performs studies for the Far Left (and misnamed) group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Yet Franken omits the most important numbers from Croteau’s -survey—because these numbers contradict his conclusion: When asked to characterize their political orientation on social issues, only 9 percent of the journalists said “right” while 87 percent said “left” or “center”; on economic issues, only 19 percent said “right” while 75 percent said “left” or “center.” Despite what Al Franken would have us believe, few reporters are conservative on either social or economic issues. Interestingly, Joe Conason cites the same Croteau survey, but even he does not try to make the bogus Franken claim that it reveals journalists to be economically conservative.
The Coming Meltdown
The liberal argument about a conservative media bias is so flimsy as to be amusing. But the Left’s counterattack is serious, and calculated.
Several times during the Clinton years, when some in the media threatened to depart from liberal orthodoxy by focusing on Clinton scandals—Gennifer Flowers, Troopergate, and Monica Lewinsky come to mind—Team Clinton lashed out at the media for being mouthpieces of the vast right-wing conspiracy. The charge was always preposterous, and deliberately so: It was a preemptive strike designed to intimidate the press into compliance. And it worked every time, as the mainstream media responded by either turning their guns on Republicans (the Lewinsky scandal) or dropping the story altogether (Flowers, Troopergate) to prove their liberal bona fides.
No serious liberal believes that a conservative bias dominates the news media. Liberals know what this book will prove: Like the old
Outer Limits television series, the Left still controls the transmission, still controls “all that you see and hear.” Television is not the only domain of the liberal news media: The Left still dominates with the printing presses, and yes, still dominates the “news” programming on radio.
So why the hysterical claims of conservative domination of the media? Because liberals fear that their monopoly on news coverage is in jeopardy. For decades, the liberal hegemony over the news media has provided the political Left with the ability not only to slant news coverage portside but actually to control the public conversation, both political and cultural, in America. Being the “social conscience” of the nation—having the ability to direct the national agenda—is quite a power. Liberals don’t want to lose that.
In fact, they are right to be scared. As this book will demonstrate, the liberal news media are headed for a meltdown. To be sure, even today the vast power of the liberal media cannot be underestimated. But the days of liberal spin always prevailing are coming to an end. This has nothing to do with some sinister right-wing conspiracy. Rather, the problem lies with those in the liberal news media themselves. So dismissive are they of any claim of liberal bias, no matter how well documented, that they regularly allow this bias to seep into news stories. Even when poll after poll reveals that Americans have lost confidence in the news media, the liberal media elites do not deign to cleanse their industry of the bias that plagues it.
Something else is changing that will speed the collapse of the liberal media’s monopoly on news coverage in this country. Conservatives have traditionally accepted liberal bias in the mainstream news media as a fact of life; it has been a given that the Left controls the news industry just as it holds sway over academia and the arts. But this has bred a certain complacency toward the press that has spelled disaster for one conservative initiative after another. Remember the Contract with America?
Even though I firmly believe that liberal bias does not have to be a fact of life, and indeed have devoted my professional life to bringing balance to news coverage, I have at times had to throw up my hands and simply accept the liberal agenda of the news media.
One day in 1986 I received a call from public relations guru Craig Shirley, who told me that the
Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Hume wanted to interview me about John T. (“Terry”) Dolan, a friend of mine who had passed away a few days before. Dolan had founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), where I went to work in 1980, the year NCPAC scored some of the most amazing political feats in recent history, credited with defeating four of the most powerful liberal Democratic senators in America, George McGovern, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, and John Culver. Dolan was just twenty-seven at the time, a relative unknown, but that success had made him one of the most sought-after politicos in the country. Now, less than six years later, Dolan was dead, one of the first public casualties of the AIDS epidemic. The media fascination was feverish and understandable, even if in some quarters the sense of triumph could barely be disguised. So when Shirley called me about the interview, I immediately declined. Hume persisted, insisting that she did not want to talk about the AIDS issue but rather wanted to explore what she thought was a fascinating contradiction: the media perception of Dolan as the fierce, angry, mean-spirited political genius versus the reality of Dolan, the fun-loving, gentle jokester. Stressing her pledge not to explore the AIDS issue, she asked Shirley if I would reconsider. Again I declined, but again she wouldn’t accept my decision, this time asking Shirley to approach me with another suggestion: Could she meet me privately for breakfast, off the record, to give her an opportunity to convince me of her honest intentions? That seemed fair to both Shirley and me, and the following Saturday morning Hume and I met at the Jefferson Hotel. We were off the record, but I was guarded nonetheless. What, exactly, did Hume want?
The stories, she answered. Was it true what she’d heard about Dolan’s sense of humor? (Well, depends.) About the water gun battles in the office hallways? (Well, yeah.) And the NCPAC staff squirt gun attacks against other organizations? (Uh-huh.) And the hamster colonies at the office? (Yup.) And the solemn funerals for deceased hamsters outside the NCPAC offices, complete with twenty-one-bottle-rocket salutes? (Yes indeed.) Soon our conversation was loose; ultimately we were both dissolving in laughter as I recounted story after hilarious story about this lovable prankster, the protocols of an off-the-record conversation long forgotten and replaced by permission to record. When it was over, Hume had her piece, and I had the satisfaction of knowing that my friend Terry’s heart and soul would be the subject of this story.
Or so I thought. Several weeks later Hume’s story came out, not in the
Wall Street Journal but as the cover story for Regardie’s, Washington, D.C.’s would-be upscale, glossy gossip magazine. It had nothing to do with Dolan’s engaging sense of humor; it dealt with the alleged gay conservative conspiracy (the “Lavender Bund,” as Hume called it) that had hijacked the conservative movement. The headline told the story: “Fear and Self-Loathing on the Far Right.” I read, horrified—quote after quote had been twisted out of context to support her hit piece. I’d been had. From start to finish, Shirley and I had been set up. I called Hume and furiously demanded an explanation. Her answer was cold, short, almost uninterested. “I changed my mind,” was all she would say before hanging up. So Shirley and I jointly wrote her boss, the
Wall Street Journal’s proud liberal Al Hunt, explaining how Hume had openly deceived us, even hiding from us the publication behind the hit piece. Hunt’s response was as dismissive as Hume’s, a one-sentence back-of-the-hand answer making a simple point: We conservatives should have known better.
Well, conservatives now do know better. No longer do we merely have to accept the liberal agenda of the so-called objective news media. Nothing made this point more clearly than a startling statement by President George W. Bush in October 2003. Fed up with the way the national media were covering the rebuilding efforts in Iraq, Bush stated in a Hearst-Argyle interview that he was going to bypass them. “I’m mindful of the filter through which some news travels,” the president said, “and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people and that’s what we will continue to do.” The liberal press, predictably, fainted in disbelief. As John Roberts of CBS News put it, “It was the public relations equivalent of a declaration of war aimed at the national media.” Many who read this book will have an altogether different perspective. They’ll wonder why it took the Bush administration so long.
Excerpted from Weapons of Mass
Distortion, Written by L. Brent Bozell Copyright © 2004 by L. Brent Bozell III. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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