BIAS: A CBS Insider Exposes How the media Distort the News

By Bernard Goldberg (Regnery)

Wherein Danny Schechter takes Bernard Goldberg to task for his demonstrable bias







By Danny Schechter


Bias is a hot-button word. In veteran TV reporter Bernard Goldberg's hands, it is a cudgel, a weapon to strike out at the people at CBS News who rejected him after a lifetime of service, and more broadly, to advance an ideological agenda dressed up in the appealing clothing of media criticism. A New York Times #1 best seller, "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News" is published by Regnery, a long-time home for right-wing polemicists and propagandizers.[*]

His exposé is of interest as a specimen in the larger political wars being fought in the media worldwide. To him, distortion is, it seems, any perspective not certified by the conservative policy pushers at the Heritage Foundation. I am not going to go point-by-point through the text — this is not a review but a response.

Emmy Award-winner Goldberg is known to many U.S. viewers for his work at CBS News. A 30-year survivor of the news trenches, in 1996 he penned an op-ed for that bastion of righteous right-wingers, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. For the uninitiated, the journal is really two newspapers, with a respected professional news section with the best investigative reporting around, and a nasty editorial section that even Attila the Hun might distance himself from.

Goldberg's first Journal op-ed, a piece called "Reality Check," denounced "liberal bias at network news," in their coverage of economic issues, especially Steve Forbes' "flat tax," a proposal that later went flat with voters but which he felt CBS unfairly called wacky. "Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a network news reporter calling Hillary Clinton's health care plan wacky? Can you imagine any editor allowing it?" he asks rhetorically. Excuse me? Where was Goldberg when the Clinton plan was pilloried as everything but a communist plot (and in some circles, that too) by an avalanche of reporters, editorials and pharmaceutical industry-funded advertising that almost ran Hillary out of town and doomed health care reform ever since.

Goldberg's broadside offered the trappings of improving journalism, but along with many conservative media groups such as Accuracy in Media, his focus was on denigrating and discrediting political positions he opposed. It is propaganda by another name. You don't find them monitoring or critiquing fellow conservatives.

This is not to say that others don't do the same thing. Media critics are not empty-minded even as we try to be open-minded. We all have political leanings although most journalists I know believe in balance and fairness even if we don't always practice it. For example, during every election, conservatives argue that the liberal media favors Democrats because reporters tend to vote Democratic, according to several reports over the years by media monitor Robert Lichter to this effect. Yet most of their outlets largely endorse Republican candidates. At the same time, many media monitors at the other end of the spectrum find that coverage largely reflects the conservative values of the Beltway establishment. My book Mediaocracy (co-edited with Roland Schatz on the 2000 election found the media quite hostile to liberal values and tilted toward Bush. (This conclusion was drawn by the nonpartisan analysts at MediaTenor in Germany.)

There were few complaints from conservatives about "the liberal media" when media outlets were bashing Bill Clinton with a frenzy that often treated every rumor as a fact and every insinuation as grounds for indictment. There are few complaints from conservatives today about the media coverage of the terror war, which for the most part echoes the Pentagon line.

Why Is "Bias" Big Now?

Is it any surprise that "Bias" is getting so much attention in this period of conservative hegemony? Could it be that his think-alike colleagues in the mainstream media are helping a crony flack his book? It is called the echo chamber effect, where one radio station interviews him and another follows like a flock of birds migrating south. They are like dogs with a bone, refusing to let it go and forever recycling their political line and attitude. Trust me, this type of welcome wagon is not routinely extended to more progressive media critics. (In recent months I was booked — and canceled — by both CNN and Fox.) At the same time, it must be said that FOX does include FAIR's Jeff Cohen on its media program while CNN banished him from "Crossfire." Yet Cohen still says that the networks limit the range of legitimate expression "from A to B, from GE to GM." He doesn't argue that just because he has a once-a-week gig that the network itself is balanced.

Republicans own the White House and control the House of Representatives, Rush Limbaugh and his clones have radio pulpits nationwide, and straight-out conservative channels like Fox, which downplay their orientation by claiming to be objective, rule the ratings on cable news (Fox News just surpassed CNN in overall viewing.). A Project on Excellence survey of cable news outlets since September 11 found no real distinction between the coverage on Fox and CNN. Fox News sprinkles in a little from the left to appear even-handed but that is token. Most days, CNN doesn't even do that, cleaving instead to the right-center and having just added neocon Laura Ingraham to its lineup to draw Fox viewers.

What Is Liberal?

Goldberg's view of liberalism is vague and simplistic and seems to boil down to people with whom he has political differences. Does it matter? The label has lost most of its meaning and much of its constituency. One can be liberal on social or cultural issues and hawkish on foreign policy. It is complicated. What liberals? Many American liberal intellectuals were Cold War missionaries funded by the CIA, as a new book "The Liberal Conspiracy," explains. Many political conflicts took place among liberals in the '60s over the Vietnam War and the movement for racial equality. To lump these positions together does a disservice to the complex realities of American politics. Today, many in the Democratic party have turned away from liberalism to embrace the free-market corporate solutions advocated by the Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC). Years ago, satirists sang, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." Today no one wants admit they are one.

The same can be said of the term conservative, incidentally. Who fits that bill, and what are they conserving? Do fanatics of the strident right and libertarians warrant the same label? Is it "conservative" to subsidize big business or pump up the military industrial complex? The views among those who consider themselves conservative vary as much as those on the left. The 20 people/50 opinions phenomenon prevails in both camps. The right, however, unlike the left, seems to take a more Marine Corps approach to organizing, appearing at times more focused and goal-oriented than activists who champion a thousand causes at once.

The problem with "Bias" is that Goldberg doesn't seem to recognize that today's opposition movements don't even talk about liberalism or identify with its traditions. They organize against what they call "neo-liberalism," the appropriation of liberal rhetoric by conservative institutions like the World Bank or WTO to impose corporate agendas on developing countries. There is little that is liberal in neo-liberalism. Goldberg and the journalists he attacks are ALL conservative by global standards. The publishers of "Bias" say Goldberg is not partisan, simply a journalist (presumably apolitical) who thinks the media shape how we see the world. But in his world view, there is no world, just colleagues to turn on in a snide and sanctimonious manner.

Writing in a — sorry, Bernie — conservative newspaper, the New York Press, Michelangelo Signorile tears Goldberg's arguments apart and concludes "money is the real bias." He says all you have to do to realize how shoddy is Goldberg's case is to turn on the TV and watch programming like Alan Keyes' new talk-at-you show on MSNBC. "Goldberg seems to be saying that because everyone who works in a flag-making factory might be left-leaning, the flags in the end don't turn out to be patriotic. But a flag is a flag. And a sensational, ratings-driven media is a sensational, ratings-driven media."

So now we have neoconservatives like Goldberg making neocritiques and sadly, being taken seriously by people who should know better. It is the job of serious media scholars and analysts to debunk this pseudo-critique and replace it with a real one. Someone should explain to Goldberg about the more insidious problem of media consolidation and the pro-corporate bias that flows from it. He would probably dismiss me as a liberal if I try. And yet as a former network producer, I do agree with him on one point: "People don't trust us. And for good reason."

Danny Schechter is executive editor of His latest book is News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics 1960-2000, from Akashic Books.



* Many political observers suspect Regnery publishing to have willingly served as a right wing CIA front, receiving hidden subsidies. For a supposedly "commercial" publisher, the firm often exhibited less than prudent behavior in its publishing choices.