20 Years of Bias
Network anchors are captains whose ships list left.
Op-ed by L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research
Center, as printed in the September 10, 2003 edition of the Wall Street
By L. Brent Bozell III
Both ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Tom Brokaw celebrated their 20th anniversaries as their networks' top news anchors Friday, a milestone CBS's Dan Rather passed 2½ years ago. Such longevity is extraordinary both in television and in politics, and these three wield considerable clout in both arenas.
As "managing editor" (Messrs. Brokaw and Rather) or "senior editor" (Mr. Jennings), these men rule their broadcasts. And while the Internet and 24-hour cable TV may keep a couple of million news junkies well supplied, the majority of Americans still rely on the information that makes the three anchors' final cut. While 750,000 people are watching Fox News at any given time, 25 million watch the Big Three's evening newscasts.
The network anchors are not equally biased, of course. If there were a Richter scale of liberal bias, Mr. Brokaw would rank about a 4 or a 5 and Mr. Rather a strong 8, while Mr. Jennings would be off the charts. But their consistently liberal approach has made network news an inhospitable environment for conservative ideas (never mind politicians) for the past several decades.
Remember when conservatives were trying to slow the growth of government in early '95 with the Contract With America? Dan Rather characterized that as a "legislative agenda to demolish or damage government aid programs, many of them designed to help children and the poor." When George W. Bush was certified the winner in Florida, Mr. Rather repeatedly insisted the result was only as "Florida's Republican Secretary of State . . . sees it and decrees it."
These anchors love to advance liberal causes. ABC used to have a regular segment called "The American Agenda," which spent a lot of time explaining how government bureaucrats could fix your life -- with things like socialized medicine -- if only they had the power. Introducing one such piece, Mr. Jennings said "the best child care system in the world . . . [i]s in Sweden. The Swedish system is run and paid for by the Swedish government, something many Americans would like to see the U.S. government do as well."
The anchormen scorned Ronald Reagan's priorities. "He gave the Pentagon almost everything it wanted," Mr. Brokaw recalled during a 1989 NBC News special on the '80s. Then, as viewers saw pictures of homeless men in the streets, Mr. Brokaw condemned the conservative president: "Social programs? They suffered under Reagan. But he refused to see the cause and effect." As the anchors tell the story, big-spenders are good and budget-cutters lack compassion. "If they cut food stamps, who doesn't eat?" Mr. Brokaw wondered in 1995 of the Gingrich-led Congress.
These men have tilted our national debate for so long, it's hard to contemplate a world without their bias. Imagine news anchors who matched every story reflecting a liberal premise with one framed around a conservative question: Are taxes too high? Are we spending enough on our national defense? Is the pro-abortion movement too intolerant? Is the environmental movement too radical?
Imagine if the anchors had been just as outraged by President Clinton's ethical conduct as they were by President Nixon's in the 1970s. But when Congress held hearings into Mr. Clinton's 1996 fund-raising excesses, Mr. Jennings sniffed, "Is it a waste of time and money?" Three weeks after the Monica Lewinsky story broke in 1998, Mr. Brokaw would refer only to "the alleged White House scandal."
And yet these anchors stubbornly, and foolishly, continue to deny their biases. "The idea that we would set out, consciously or unconsciously, to put some kind of an ideological framework over what we're doing is nonsense," Mr. Brokaw once told a C-SPAN audience.
In a 2001 interview, Mr. Jennings was a bit more candid about journalists' willingness to be advocates. "If you see injustice and you can get people to do something about it, ahh, it's just a glorious feeling," he told producers from the Museum of Television and Radio. "There's nothing a reporter likes more than to have an effect on policy." But ask him if he's biased, and you get the usual boilerplate: "ABC, CBS, NBC are mainstream media," he told CNN's Larry King. "We are largely in the center without particular axes to grind, without ideologies which are represented in our daily coverage, at least not on purpose."
During the past 20 years, these three anchors have used their privileged positions to pull the public, and our politics, to the left. But in so doing, they've created a stampede: Reportedly half their audiences have fled since 1994. Now that Messrs. Brokaw and Jennings have joined Mr. Rather in the 20th-anniversary club, they'd be well-advised to ponder why.
Mr. Bozell is president of the Media Research
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