Media

Skewed News

Fair and balanced coverage requires diversity of opinion.

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The hottest-selling book in America right now, "Bias: A CBS Insider Explains How the Media Distort the News" by Bernard Goldberg, is making a splash in the very media that are its target. Goldberg's claim that liberal bias is rife in television news and in major newspapers is hardly original; to most conservatives, it's about as surprising as the revelation that the pope is Catholic. But this charge is given extra weight and spice by Goldberg's background as a veteran CBS News correspondent.

Some of the response to "Bias" has been more vitriolic than polemical. Pundit Michael Kinsley derides it as a "dumb book"; television critic Tom Shales dismisses the notion of a leftward slant in the media as an "old canard," and Goldberg as an "addlepated windbag who is trying to make a second career out of trashing his former employer."

To some extent, the book invites such ad hominem blasts. It devotes ample space to an emotionally charged, gossipy account of the author's own battles with the liberal media, complete with a chapter-length diatribe against CBS newscaster Dan Rather. But ultimately, Goldberg's motives have little bearing on the credibility of his argument—which is echoed in a less "sexy" but more analytical book by journalist William McGowan, "Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism."

Neither Goldberg nor McGowan allege a deliberate vast left-wing conspiracy to distort the news. Rather, they convincingly argue that news coverage is often influenced by a knee-jerk bias stemming from the journalists' own views on political and social issues.

Surveys of print and broadcast journalists conducted by the Freedom Forum, the Los Angeles Times, and other organizations have found that self-described liberals outnumber conservatives at least 3 to 1. The imbalance is even more dramatic in the Washington press corps (89 percent of which voted for Bill Clinton in 1992). Overwhelmingly, journalists support abortion rights, affirmative action, and stricter gun control and oppose school prayer and the death penalty.

Moreover, media professionals tend to mix primarily with like-minded people. As a result, they may regard those with more conservative beliefs as alien, weird, and maybe even a bit dangerous.

Most journalists, no doubt, seek to be fair and objective. But surely, their politics affect their perception of what constitutes fairness, of which stories are important, of whose views are legitimate enough to include in the debate. Too often, liberal opinion is taken to be "mainstream" while conservative views are labeled "right-wing" or not represented at all. Too often, liberal causes are regarded as synonymous with social justice.

Both McGowan and Goldberg cite the reporting on the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s as one example of how news coverage can be skewed by political priorities. Anxious to dispel any notion that victims of the epidemic were to blame for their condition—and, in particular, to avoid stigmatizing gays—journalists were eager to seize on claims that AIDS was an equal-opportunity killer. (Ironically, the resulting disproportionate focus on white middle-class heterosexuals with AIDS seemed to imply that the lives of gay men or inner-city drug users mattered less.) Challenges to this conventional wisdom were ignored or dismissed. Yet, while heterosexual transmission of AIDS undoubtedly exists, the fact is that it remains fairly rare.

"Bias" and "Coloring the News" feature other case studies. In the 1980s, stories on the homeless routinely cited wildly overstated figures supplied by advocacy groups and downplayed mental illness and substance abuse as causes of homelessness. In the early 1990s, claims of an epidemic of racially motivated burnings of black churches received virtually uncritical coverage until an expose in The New Yorker showed them to be bogus. Reporting on women in the military has tended to give too much credence to allegations of discrimination, and not enough attention to the problems posed by sex differences in physical strength.

Other arguments made here—such as McGowan's claim of a pro-immigrant slant in news coverage or Goldberg's assertion that the media have suppressed the bad news about the harm working mothers allegedly cause to their children—strike me as far less persuasive. Perhaps this is because, in those instances, the biases of the media largely coincide with my own.

And that's a case in point. None of us can be entirely objective, though we can try. The only way to ensure fair and balanced coverage of the news is to strive for true diversity in the newsroom: not just diversity of gender, color, and ethnicity, but diversity of opinion.