Bias by Bernard Goldberg
Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News
by Bernard Goldberg
Regnery. 232 pp. $27.95
The most interesting parts of this unexpected best-seller—in recent weeks, No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction list—are its depictions of life inside CBS News. Also worthy of note, if not entirely unfamiliar, are the examples it offers of liberal bias in network news and other media. Far less successful are the efforts of the author, Bernard Goldberg, to make sense of what happened to him during his last four years as a news correspondent at CBS.
This was the period in which he suddenly went public with an assault on his longtime employer in the Wall Street Journal, was ostracized at the office and found his on-air appearances drastically curtailed, and eventually worked out a deal whereby he would formally remove himself from the CBS payroll as soon as his pension kicked in. In taking the reader through this sequence, Goldberg depicts CBS as violating “the spirit of free speech” and engaging in outright persecution. But you need not be a rabid liberal to develop a few counter-thoughts. Indeed, it is possible to agree enthusiastically with Bias about bias and yet come away wondering if its author’s head is screwed on straight.
It is not hard to demonstrate that the media are biased, or that their politics are considerably to the left of American voters generally. Goldberg notes 1996 survey data (generated by the Freedom Forum and Roper) indicating that only 4 percent of journalists identify themselves as Republicans versus 50 percent as Democrats. In the 1992 presidential election, when 43 percent of the voters opted for Clinton, the corresponding figure for journalists was 89 percent. Poll data like these have been showing up for several decades (in 1972, McGovern, losing by a landslide, won a 70-percent landslide among media people) and will no doubt continue to do so.
Goldberg focuses on several varieties of bias at CBS News. One relatively minor problem, which nevertheless tells us a lot about network news writers, is the reflexive tendency to issue a kind of “warning” whenever the viewer is about to be exposed to a conservative thought. Case in point: a sequence on CBS This Morning wherein the host, moderating a discussion of sexual harassment, brought on stage “noted law professor Catharine MacKinnon and conservative spokeswoman Phyllis Schlafly” MacKinnon actually held an extremist position on harassment, having argued that all sexual intercourse involves coercion if not rape; it was telling, and unfair, that only her counterpart was given a political label. A parallel example, also cited by Goldberg: the network’s recurrent tendency to introduce Robert Bork as a conservative thinker while invincibly liberal Lawrence Tribe is always a “Harvard law professor.”
Goldberg’s best examples have to do not with the nuances of news-writing but with the editorial positions staked out by television news departments. Here the evidence is persuasive that they are not only left of center but prone to primitive, ritualistic versions of liberal thinking. During the 1980’s, for example, the networks insistently editorialized that homelessness was something that could happen to anybody, black or white, rich or poor, and was a consequence of Ronald Reagan’s lack of support for federal housing programs. The homeless persons shown on TV screens in support of this position invariably looked like middle-class folks down on their luck instead of like what homeless persons on the streets actually were—disproportionately poor and mentally ill. A similar distortion of reality informed the networks’ long-running insistence that AIDS was a serious problem for ordinary middle-class heterosexuals (strenuously argued in a mid-1990’s CBS program, The Killer Next Door) and not really centered in the worlds of homosexuals and intravenous drug users.
Stories of political correctness in the media are ubiquitous, horrifying, and occasionally hilarious, and Goldberg has a certain amount of fun with what he calls the Sensitivity Patrol at CBS. It registered heavy anxiety when a film team, sent to cover a hurricane in Jamaica, discovered belatedly that the associated looting—on an island that is 95 percent black—was the work of blacks. A story about two white men who kidnapped and brutally murdered a black man in Florida led to an in-house argument. The producers in New York said the victim had to be identified as “African-American.” The reporters in Florida said he happened to be Jamaican, not American. New York said the story would not run unless he was labeled African-American; so he was.
Goldberg’s own troubles with management began in February 1996, when he was already a moderately familiar face to viewers of CBS News, his employer of 25 years. At the time of his rebellion, the CBS evening news was featuring something called “Bernard Goldberg’s America,” which enabled him to preach a bit about non-hot-button issues like foolish government regulations and excessive commercialism in college football. Nothing exciting, but for him not a bad job.
But then Goldberg committed an act combining elements of civil disobedience, chutzpah, and wild improvidence: an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal titled “Networks Need a Reality Check.” The piece zeroed in on a CBS feature called “Reality Check” that had recently ridiculed Steve Forbes’s proposal for a flat tax. Strenuously talking back to the CBS commentator Eric Engberg (identified in the op-ed as “a longtime friend”), Goldberg argued that the commentary in question was biased and unfair, and that the bias was all too representative of his employer’s output.
Goldberg’s argument was utterly persuasive, yet his initiative has to be rated weird on several different counts.
Count No. 1: his stated reasons for publishing the article do not ring true. Goldberg tells us that for many years he had been complaining to his colleagues and bosses about the liberal tilt at CBS, that nobody had paid attention to his gripes, and that he delivered his oped broadside in an effort to make the network confront the issue honestly. But in his book, he has already observed—I am sure correctly—that the insular world of network television is populated by characters who go through life knowing mainly other liberals like themselves, and who tend to see their shared ideas not as controversial but as a kind of moderate, high-minded norm. So how could he possibly believe that his op-ed would spark a debate?
Count No. 2: Goldberg must have known that his surfacing on the Wall Street Journal editorial page would be viewed with extreme disfavor. It is unclear from his account whether he understands that all organizations, including the Girl Scouts and the Princeton Alumni Association, tend to resent it when privileged insiders take their grievances to the enemy camp. But he certainly understood that CBS News had a strong internal loyalty code.
In a passage early in the book that seems to have spun out of rhetorical control, Goldberg solemnly argues that the network’s “News Mafia” operates just like the real mafia, in which insiders who blab to the wrong people get whacked. He compares his own loss of status at CBS, in the wake of the Wall Street Journal article, to the fate of Pussy Bompensiero in The Sopranos, who is shot on a boat, has lead weights attached to his body, and is then dumped overboard, all because he has been found to be talking to the FBI.
Goldberg cannot have been truly surprised to find that most CBS insiders viewed his behavior as beyond the pale. Andrew Heyward, head of the news division, went ballistic and screamed at him. Eric Engberg, for whom Goldberg summarized the article before it came out, crisply stated: “You’re full of shit.” Equally indignant but less crisp was Dan Rather, who was informed by Goldberg in a phone call about the upcoming article. “The Dan” (CBS lingo) responded that the news made him “viscerally angry,” and then, voice quavering in Goldberg’s account, added that earlier in his life he had signed up with the Marines, and not once but twice. The sequitur here is a bit elusive, but Rather seemed to be saying that it was outrageous to tag an ex-Marine as a liberal.
Count No. 3: the same guy who was boldly kicking his employer in the shins was at the same time terrified that he might be canned:
Even though I knew how unforgiving Dan might be, I sure as hell wasn’t trying to be a martyr. I couldn’t afford to lose my job over this, not with a mortgage, wife and kids . . . . CBS News was paying the bills, and I wasn’t about to throw it all away because of a lousy piece on the evening news.
Luckily for Goldberg and his family, CBS News lacked the guts to fire him, and Goldberg himself opted against keeping the argument alive. (“If I had even tried, CBS would have fired me on the spot!”) And so, until he had his pension locked in, he endured a certain degree of banishment, appeared only briefly on second-drawer shows, and unlike Pussy Bompensiero, continued to deposit his checks.
And now he has a best-seller. Only in America.