Spotlight: Changing the Media


When historians look back at the history of network television news, they may someday note the remarkable outpouring of critical analysis of its performance that appeared in the 1970s. Numerous university studies, independent research projects, and watchdog groups have arisen in this decade to monitor news programs for distortion and bias.

The woman who pioneered the field is Edith Efron, a New Yorker whose articles and books raised consciousness about the techniques used to load programming with a mainstream liberal viewpoint. Since the publication of The News Twisters in 1971—the first study to document the short shrift given to free enterprise and non-liberal points of view in general—Efron has become an increasingly visible spokeswoman for freedom in the pages of major intellectual and popular journals.

From the beginning of her career, Efron showed evidence of a keen intellect and a command of communications. She graduated from Barnard College in 1942, finding work with some small town newspapers. On the basis of her writing skill, she was one of a handful of women chosen to enter the Columbia Journalism School, the most highly regarded journalism school in the country.

After gaining her Master's degree there in 1944, Efron became the first woman writer for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. She moved on to work for eight years for Time and Life magazines in Central America, then as a special editor for Look magazine, and finally as an interviewer for Mike Wallace at ABC.

It was as a result of the Wallace job that Efron first became aware of an intellectually respectable alternative to the liberal beliefs with which she had been bred. "I began as an absolutely standard New York liberal product of Columbia University," she says. Her stint in Central America began to corrode her "liberal truths," as she understood for the first time that production had to precede consumption for societies to prosper. But not until 1958, when she interviewed Ayn Rand for Mike Wallace, did a consistent political alternative become clear.

Efron was intrigued by what she heard. "Ayn Rand introduced me to Alan Greenspan," she recalls. "And in one evening, Alan changed my politics. I then read Hazlitt and von Mises. For the first time, I understood economics—it did confirm my experience." For the next three or four years, Efron became close to the Ayn Rand circle, drifting apart afterwards because of what she perceived to be unhealthy personal relations among members of the group.

"I was very torn because I valued Ayn Rand for many things," Efron says of the period. "A year before Ayn Rand's break with [Nathaniel] Branden, she came to understand how profoundly I did not like her. She is a tragic figure, who had had crucial things to tell people, things the world had to know." Rand's confusions in the realm of morality and psychology led Efron to conclude, as have many other past associates, that Rand has been destructive to her own cause.

Efron nonetheless remained convinced of the merits of capitalism and minimal government. When she took a staff position with TV Guide, the most widely read weekly magazine in the country, she began writing articles on such subjects as FCC regulation of the airwaves.

Her major impact on the industry came as a result of research starting in 1968. Efron had noted with unease the use of virtually propagandistic techniques in network coverage of controversial subjects. Concentrating on news treatments by television of the 1968 presidential election issues, she found overwhelming evidence that the air time given to spokesmen for the "liberal" side outweighed those for the opposition by a staggering amount.

Three years of research and documentation preceded release of The News Twisters in 1971. The book quickly went into several printings, eventually selling 30,000 copies in hardback. It created an uproar in the broadcast industry; NBC assigned individuals to tape her numerous lectures around the country, hoping to reveal her as a clear and present threat to the First Amendment. CBS assembled a biting, but inaccurate, rebuttal, which Efron used as a springboard for her subsequent book, How CBS Tried To Kill a Book.

Efron's struggle against the counterattacks of the networks was a trying one. None of her sympathizers in the industry stepped forward publicly to defend her. "For a couple of years, I was defending my work and my professional existence," she remembers. Ultimately, after monitoring her public statements, network officials realized that Efron did not advocating coercively controlling the media. Academic institutions—and even the networks themselves—began content analyses and bias studies of programming on their own.

In response to the deluge of analyses triggered by The News Twisters, and the prevailing uncertainty of liberals today on positions they once held without question, Efron notes that network news has become considerably more balanced. "There has come to be a more conscious awareness of the problems of journalism," she says—the outstanding exception being treatment of consumer and environmental issues.

Of greatest concern to Efron now are increasing curbs on business production, and the assault on science and technology. "It has been doing incredible damage," Efron says. She has just finished assisting former Secretary of the Treasury, William Simon, in a book on politics and the economy (to be released in 1978 by Readers Digest/Crowell Press). Besides regularly contributing to the News Watch column of TV Guide, she has recently written for publications ranging from Commentary and REASON to Barron's.

In the future, Efron intends to keep writing—and then "sleeping off"—books on such subjects as governmental stifling of jobs and productivity, the assault on reason, and the degeneration of culture. She hopes in the meantime to see libertarians become less "culturally rudderless," by gaining an appreciation for values of civilization beyond the merely political ones. Because libertarians often lack a broad world outlook, Efron is concerned that they are falling by default into the hands of the New Left. "No responsible person will take them seriously," she says, if libertarians continue to associate with persons such as Timothy Leary.

Efron also deplores the failure of conservatives to provide an influential intellectual defense of capitalism, despite their concern with the quality of civilization as a whole. "Many of the conservatives are on the level of Anita Bryant, which damages their capacity to provide intellectual leadership," she says. "Thus the two sources of capitalist thinking are desperately weak." If communicating libertarian values is to succeed, it will owe much to the efforts of Efron and others who argue articulately and effectively for the values of a free society.