An Echo Chamber of His Own
Bernie Goldberg's new niche is a little too comfortable.
Bernard Goldberg used to be a gadfly. In 1996, as a CBS News correspondent, he made a splash with a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece titled "Networks Need a Reality Check: A firsthand account of liberal bias at CBS News." Goldberg's colleagues were furious, and though he kept his job he reportedly became something of a pariah.
After cutting his ties to CBS in 2000, Goldberg became a reporter for the HBO program Real Sports while forging a second career as a crusader against liberal media bias and other cultural ills, with three bestsellers under his belt. In that capacity, Goldberg has made some valuable points, but he has also shown some pretty blatant biases of his own.
Goldberg's first book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, came out in 2001 to an enthusiastic reception from conservatives and shrill denunciations from liberals, often replete with personal attacks. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, writing in the journal Electronic Media, called Goldberg a "disgruntled has-been" who couldn't cut it at CBS because of his "disheveled and bleary-eyed" appearance–never mind the seven Emmys he had won for his work in broadcasting. The book invited such attacks with its over-the-top ranting and its heavy dose of personal rancor, but it also made a fairly strong case.
Most notably, Goldberg asserted that most journalists in the mainstream media live in such an insular world that they mistake their own ideology, shared by virtually everyone around them, for objective reality. Hence the tendency to identify conservatives as conservatives but liberals as simply "a columnist" or "a law professor." This claim about ideological labeling was strongly challenged in The American Prospect by the Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, but Nunberg's findings may have been skewed by use of a limited news database and by lumping together news stories and opinion columns. When the Stanford political scientist David Brady and his assistant Jonathan Ma closely examined news stories only, they found that The New York Times and The Washington Post "labeled" conservative members of Congress nearly three times as often as liberal ones, with similar trends in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today.
Some of Goldberg's charges of bias were exaggerated or even baseless, such as his contention that the liberal media largely stopped covering homelessness in the Clinton years but put it back on the radar screen as soon as a Republican was back in the White House. (The New York Times had 615 mentions of "homelessness" in 1995 and 404 in 2002.) But his basic argument holds up.
In Bias, Goldberg emphasized that he does not want to substitute right-wing blinkers for left-wing ones. But that's exactly what he does in his latest tome, the best-selling 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is #37). Aside from vulgar entertainers and corporate vultures, his rogues' gallery is populated almost exclusively by left-of-center public figures, pundits, and media personalities: Michael Moore, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean, George Soros, Bill Moyers, Gloria Steinem, Dan Rather, and other usual suspects (plus some who are so obscure or so pass? as to be unusual).
A few token malefactors on the right make the cut as well, but they're fairly marginal ones: former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who defied a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse; the appropriately named Michael Savage, the radio screamer who lost his show on MSNBC after telling a gay caller he should die of AIDS; abortion-doctor killer Bernard Kopp. But while Goldberg cluck-clucks a lot about incivility in public discourse and lambastes "haters on the left" who demonize their opponents, nasty right-wingers like Ann Coulter and Tom DeLay–the ones who still have their jobs–get a pass.
The problem here is not just the one-sidedness of Goldberg's list, which puts 100 People squarely in the category of books people can buy without ever leaving their ideological comfort zone. It's his basic view of just how America is being "screwed up" and who's responsible.
On the one hand, Goldberg castigates the arrogance of the liberal elites. Ordinary Americans, he writes, resent being looked down on "because they don't see things the same way the elites do…because they like to bowl and eat at Red Lobster" and because they go to church and fly the American flag. Yet when he's not talking about politics, his chief beef in 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America is with pop culture products and personalities enjoyed by millions of ordinary Americans: Howard Stern, Eminem, Jerry Springer, reality shows.
Goldberg rails against network executives and reporters who blur the lines between journalism and "infotainment," filling news shows with "fluff" about the Friends finale or the sex life of Britney Spears. "In the world of TV executives, if a show gets big ratings, it was a success–end of discussion," he huffs. Deploring the exhibitionism of Public Enemy No. 53, Anna Nicole Smith, he admits that she can only thrive in "a culture where there are enough people who actually care about this stuff"–and then concludes, "Still, just because people like watching car wrecks, doesn't mean car wrecks are good for us, does it?"
In other words, "serious journalism" is about giving the hoi polloi what the journalists think they need, not what they actually want. I happen to agree, up to a point, and I share some of Goldberg's dismay at the drift of news toward fluff and of popular culture toward crass freak shows. But then, I don't think there's anything wrong with a little elitism, or even with looking down on certain forms of mindless traditionalism. Goldberg can't have it both ways and be a populist only when the populace likes things that meet with his approval.
Perhaps a bigger flaw in Goldberg's case is that, as Jon Stewart observed on The Daily Show, even when he's writing about politics? his indictment focuses heavily on the culture wars while mostly leaving the government off the hook. Stewart may underestimate the power of culture, but surely Goldberg pays too little attention to that of people who wield actual political power. Who's really doing more to screw up America: artists who dabble in sophomoric sacrilege, or bureaucrats who hobble small businesses and torment home-owners with absurd regulations?
Even in the area of culture, Goldberg would be a much more effective critic if he were more willing to challenge his new friends in the conservative establishment. If he's concerned with how ideological bias distorts news coverage, analyzing Fox News' coverage of the Terri Schiavo affair, and particularly Sean Hannity's incessant peddling of misinformation and hysterics, would be a good start.
Goldberg's new career exemplifies many of the very trends he complains about, from a tendency to hector people about their misguided cultural preferences to polarizing rhetoric to the victim syndrome. In Bias he likens his treatment at CBS after his 1996 article to the fate of mob turncoats who get "whacked," despite the fact that he was allowed to retire with full pension benefits. While promoting his latest tome, he milked an unfriendly reception on the little-known CNBC show The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch for maximum publicity, going on The Rush Limbaugh Show and The O'Reilly Factor with tales of a horrifying "ambush" by liberals who will "stab you in the back."
In 2005 there is enough diversity in the media that conservatives, too, can stay in a bubble where everyone already agrees with them. Bernie Goldberg used to spend his time disrupting the ideological monotony of the mainstream media. Now he's just preaching to a rival choir.