May 25, 2024

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Burn, Bernie, Burn
From The New Criterion February 1, 2002.

The lead of the New York Times’s story about financial troubles at The Irish Times pays tribute to that paper as a “guide” to Hibernians doubtless bewildered by "the economic and cultural booms of the last decade.” Brian Lavery, the article’s author, could tell by the “nonpartisan and unbiased approach” with which “The Times pushed issues to the fore with a progressive, literate, pro-European voice.” It’s a small example, I admit, but as perfect in its way as you will find, of the way in which the subject of “bias” is understood, not only at the New York Times but in most of the mainstream media in the United States. Just as, in the European context, “nonpartisan and unbiased” means practically the same in the eyes of Mr Lavery and the New York Times as “progressive, literate, pro-European,” so in the U.S., the same words imply the constellation of attitudes and opinions that go under the name (when they must be named at all) of “progressive.”

It is the settled ambition of the “progressive” forces in the developed and English-speaking countries of the world to transcend what they regard as the parochialism of national and local identities. That is one reason why being “pro-European,” for example, is the same thing to both the Timeses as being unbiased. National or ethnic or religious or patriotic or other forms of feeling that do not aspire to the universal — these are what is meant by “bias.” But to those “progressives” who inhabit their airy, intellectual realm beyond all such provincial and partisan loyalties, charges of bias simply cannot apply. Conor Brady, editor of the Irish Times clearly sees his paper’s mission in terms that resonate on 34th street. According to Mr Lavery

Without The Irish Times, even Ireland's conservative mainstream, which often takes issue with the paper's liberal debates on gender relations, abortion and diversity, would feel the loss of the way it "tries to hold a mirror up to Irish society," Mr. Brady said. "It opens a window onto the world outside this island."

If you start from the assumption that conservative attitudes on “gender relations, abortion and diversity” are simply the result of ignorance of “the world outside this island” it follows that all your “debates” will be liberal ones. “Bias,” like conservatism itself, can only be committed by those who are not cosmopolitans like Messrs. Brady and Lavery.

I only bring the matter up because it helps explain the emotional heat generated whenever the subject of bias comes knocking at the gates of America’s citadels of journalistic rectitude. The latest to invite the pots of boiling oil on his head is Bernard Goldberg, a former reporter for CBS who went off the reservation in 1996 with an article on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal which took to task Eric Engberg, a CBS colleague, for a sneeringly negative and unbalanced report on Steve Forbes’s “flat tax” proposal during that year’s presidential primaries. According to Goldberg’s new book [Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes how the Media Distort the News (Regnery, 232 pp., $27.95).] previous, internal protests at the network’s biases had gone unheeded by CBS executives, and he was left with no recourse but to take his complaints public. As a result he was effectively banned by Dan Rather from further reporting for the “CBS Evening News” and frozen out by colleagues and CBS executives. What it was, exactly, that he continued working on at the network for the next five years is not made entirely clear in the book, but he was finally allowed to take early retirement last year when he turned 55. Now he is free to air his grievances without restraint.

In writing his book, Goldberg was clever enough to confine his charges of bias to the network news shows. He reaped his reward for that with Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times:

Even among those who reject that premise [that network news personnel “tilt to the left”], or some of the ad hominem bitterness on display here, "Bias" should be taken seriously. Unlike Bill O'Reilly, whose best-sellers (like "The No-Spin Zone") trumpet a bullying brand of conservatism as they recycle transcripts of television interviews, Mr. Goldberg has done real homework and has written a real book. Whatever his conclusions, however shaky his suppositions, he asks questions that are worth asking.

Unaccountably, she neglects to provide any examples of shaky suppositions to justify this kind of damning with faint praise, but the fact that it is praise at all doubtless owes something to the fact that the Times’s ox is ungored by an attack on the network news. The nearest she gets to a substantive criticism is the spectacular non sequitur of saying about his argument against the foolish media hype in the late 1980s concerning the alleged threat of heterosexual AIDS that it “is weakened by what he leaves unsaid: that the condition of a person with AIDS is not improved by blaming the victim.” What victim had he blamed? The only people blamed in his book are the lazy reporters who accepted at face value the assurances of the AIDS activists that the disease was as much a threat to heterosexuals, even children, as it was to the high-risk categories of homosexuals engaged in anal intercourse and intravenous drug users.

Chris Lehmann in the Washington Post “Book World” was less generous to Goldberg than Janet Maslin:

Unfortunately, Goldberg's apparently justified grievance against his CBS superiors -- most particularly news anchor Dan Rather -- supplies the template for his tour of the network news industry. As a result, the honorable dissent that midwifed "Bias" blurs almost immediately into a multifront crusade against high-profile media personalities that is, in truth, no better reasoned and no more balanced than the flat-tax report aired in 1996.

Once again, evidence of bad reasoning is rather thin on the ground. Lehmann writes that:

In his first 40 pages, for example, Goldberg revisits the original flap over his Journal op-ed to hammer out an unedifying portrait of stereotyped elite media clannishness. The network news is like the Mafia, he argues -- only "The Don in this case is actually The Dan. Dan Rather. Capo di tutti news guys." A few sentences later, he floats this unlovely analogy: "If CBS News were a prison instead of a journalistic enterprise . . . 100 percent of the vice presidents would be Dan's bitches."

What he is objecting to here, of course, is not Goldberg’s reasoning but his rhetoric, which is indeed rather overwrought and tasteless. He goes on to claim that Goldberg is attacking “this nameless congeries of ‘elites,’” even though the book is full of names, including that of Dan Rather which Lehmann himself has just quoted. He then tries with a bit of sophism to discredit not an argument but a hypothetical analogy of Goldberg’s by suggesting that Nebraska is really no more conservative than New York. Just look at Bob Kerrey in the former and Michael Bloomberg in the latter!

Like Miss Maslin, Lehmann is predictably exercised by Goldberg’s apparent belief in the social pathologies engendered by working mothers, but his evidence that this is not really the unreported story that Goldberg claims it is — namely that such pathologies as violent crime, suicide and drug addiction among teens are decreasing — even if true would be irrelevant. Goldberg was writing about the fact that such evidence as there was to link the one thing to the other had never been reported by television news, so that there had never been a discussion of a subject which, even if it turned out to be as Lehmann avers “not much of a story” (and the evidence for this is weak), deserved to be discussed.

I am not against “better day care,” and I have no problem with the evening news doing stories about how that might be done [writes Goldberg]. The problem is that they don’t let the other voices on. The ones who say that most toddlers are better off with their own mothers than with day-care workers and that most adolescent kids would do better if a parent were home after school instead of being alone and “fending for themselves.”

In other words, his argument is not about day care versus home care. It is about balance and fairness on the news. It is about a genuine diversity of opinion.

This is just one of many occasions on which the more vehemently the journalistic establishment insists that Goldberg is wrong the more obvious it is to any fair-minded observer that he is right. If bias were really, as they say it is, not a problem, they would not be so obviously threatened by someone who says it is a problem. Particularly someone who says so not from the right but from the liberal journalistic culture itself. Hence the appalling disingenuousness of Bob Schieffer, who was quoted by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post as saying of Goldberg that “In the end, he seemed to think his job was to report on CBS News instead of reporting for CBS News. . .Bernie just seemed to be upset about everything. He was upset with the world.” Nor did Eric Engberg, whose report on Steve Forbes six years ago started the whole business, have the sense to keep his mouth shut, telling Kurtz that Goldberg had committed an “act of treason”and that “he didn't have many friends in this organization because he was a selfish, self-involved guy who was not a team player.”

There, no doubt, was another example of Engberg’s celebrated lack of bias! But wouldn’t any network newsman similarly expect to have his character-assessment of an avowed enemy taken at face value? How dare we question his motives? The fact that Engberg thinks himself qualified to offer such an observation on such a subject itself tells us a lot about the justice of Goldberg’s charge against him. But if Schieffer, another CBS employee, and Engberg have some cause of grievance against Goldberg, what are we to make of the vitriol of Tom Shales — not, interestingly, in the Washington Post, where he is the resident TV critic but in the relative obscurity of the web-site emonline?

Disgruntled has-beens everywhere have a new hero and role model: Bernard Goldberg, the one-time CBS News correspondent and full-time addlepated windbag who is trying to make a second career out of trashing his former employer. Goldberg has picked this moment in time to haul out the old canard about the media being "liberal" and the news being slanted leftward.

It's the first refuge of a no-talent hack, that argument, and about as old as the printing press; in fact, wasn't poor old Gutenberg denounced in some circles as a heretic and a radical?

Wow! Talk about protesting too much! Whence comes this intemperate and excessive ad hominem language in an attempt to discredit a general argument about the TV news? He goes on to refer to “Goldberg's laughably inept hate campaign” (hate campaign?), adding that “Goldberg was not only a flop as a network correspondent, he's a lousy writer besides.” Naturally, we wait for the payoff. Let’s see this “laughably inept” instance in which Goldberg reveals himself as a “lousy writer.” Well, here it is:

Quoting Engberg as having referred to one aspect of the Forbes plan as being its "wackiest," Goldberg then asked in rhetorical high dudgeon, "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?" Well, frankly, yes. But Hillary Clinton and Steve Forbes were not on an equal plane. She was first lady of the land and he was a national non-entity trying desperately to draw attention to his failing bid for a presidential nomination.

Memo to Tom Shales: Do you really believe that (1) saying you can imagine the word “wacky” applied to Mrs Clinton’s health-care proposal by a network newsman without citing any example of anyone who actually did so constitutes a put-down of Goldberg? And that (2) it is an answer to Goldberg’s charge that Engberg did not treat Forbes fairly or with basic respect to say that Forbes was “a national non-entity trying desperately to draw attention to his failing bid for a presidential nomination”? Goldberg, in other words, is an “addlepated windbag” for accusing Engberg of insulting Forbes because, well, because Forbes had it coming to him! I wonder who it was who told Tom Shales he was qualified to call somebody else a lousy writer?

Perhaps we should make allowances for a history of personal enmity between Shales and Goldberg? After all, the former tells us of his own “unpleasant experience with Goldberg.” This was a “mish-moshy” op-ed by the latter in the New York Times “in which he quoted from TV reviews by me and by John J. O'Connor, then the Times TV critic, and because we apparently agreed about one program, Goldberg from this drew the conclusion that all TV critics write as a monolith and agree with each other all the time.”

We can only imagine how “unpleasant” it is for Tom Shales to find himself being compared to John J. O’Connor. And maybe Goldberg was guilty of the “patently preposterous contention” that “all TV critics write as a monolith.” But as Shales quotes no sentence, word or syllable of Goldberg’s that could be read as saying any such thing, I guess we just have to take his word for it — the word of a man who regards him to start with as a “disgruntled has-been” an “addlepated windbag.” I myself beg leave to doubt that Tom has quite got the goods on Bernie. His case looks particularly weak to one who, having seen how careful the latter is to disavow any belief in conspiracies, goes on to read Shales’s snide but subtle mischaracterization in suggesting that Goldberg blamed “a communist conspiracy against him.”

Michael Kinsley, though more in command of his emotions than Tom Shales, is equally contemptuous, airily informing us that “Like a stopped clock, Goldberg isn't always wrong.” Still, his being right accidentally once or twice isn’t enough to make Kinsley cite either of the examples. Instead he has a grand old time ridiculing the “comic futility of trying to insulate a quotation from denial by adding a second quotation promising to lie about the first one” — a reference to Goldberg’s contention that Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News confessed to bias at the network and then promised to deny it if he were quoted. He ends by noting Goldberg’s suspicion that the élitists at CBS considered him “white trash” and hinting at his own sense of betrayal by adding that: “Bernard Goldberg may carry many burdens, but the danger of being considered white trash is not one of them,” because “Other epithets are available.”

Well, nobody likes an informer, I guess. Oh, wait. Somebody does like informers. Journalists like informers, because informers give them most of their best stories. Kinsley has nothing to say to the charge that, if Goldberg had betrayed some tobacco company instead of CBS News, he (Kinsley) would hardly have been so censorious. Such a debate always tends to proceed by charge and counter-charge of hypocrisy. But that does not mean that Kinsley is not onto something when he writes that

At the Wall Street Journal editorial page, presumably, if a colleague announces to the world that he holds the institution and those who work there in contempt, he takes a bit of joshing around the water cooler, then everybody gathers for a group hug and returns to denouncing Tom Daschle.

The point is well taken that every group engaged in a common enterprise takes on the characteristics of an honor-group: a collection of peers to whom one owes a presumptive loyalty and whose opinion of one matters more than that of an outsider. If such a group naturally comes to share a similar worldview, it is fair enough to call it “bias” and a fair old humbug on both sides when discussion turns on whether one is more “biased” than the other.

Such discussions seem to me mere competitions in self-righteousness. I hope I may not be accused of adding to the obloquy which has been unfairly heaped on Bernard Goldberg’s head if I observe that even he is not without sin in this respect. For although he may be, as he clearly wants us to think of him as being, a liberal Democrat whose advocacy of more respectful treatment for conservative views comes from only the purest of journalistic motivations, we can’t quite believe in the shock and outrage he professes to feel at the resentment of Dan Rather and others over being criticized in public by a colleague. Well, well now, who’d have thought it? Either Goldberg had improbably managed to retain an almost childlike faith in the journalistic high-mindedness of his CBS colleagues for a quarter of a century before he found that he was sadly mistaken or there is just a little bit of hype here.

For valuable as Bias is as an insider’s account of the TV news business, in itself it also inadvertently illustrates one of the essential features of that business: namely the news-value of contrariness. In particular, nothing attracts a crowd like a betrayal, and Goldberg’s betrayal of his employers at CBS in order to become a reluctant right-wing hero is (one supposes) not a small part of the reason for his book’s current situation on the New York Times Best-Sellers lists. The rest of the reason is of course that large numbers of ordinary folk have known for years of the bias that it took so long for Goldberg to discover, and they like to have their beliefs confirmed. I count myself in this latter category and hasten to add that every one of Goldberg’s examples of bias is at least as well-judged and on-target as it would have been if it had come from an outside observer of the network news “product.”

I just wish that he hadn’t chosen by adopting a tone of high moral outrage to confirm on its throne the bogus god of journalistic “objectivity.” This is the same deity who assures Brian Lavery that being “progressive, literate, pro-European” is the same thing as being “nonpartisan and unbiased.” This false god of objectivity promises an equally false — indeed, an impossible — liberation from bias, and so leads journalists to neglect their devotion to the true god of fairness. If you believe yourself to be “objective” and “unbiased,” you are likely also to believe yourself above criticism. That would seem to be the attitude of many of Bernard Goldberg’s critics, whose consciousness of their own objectivity apparently frees them from any obligation of fairness or civility to someone who questions it. Until we recognize that biases are not to be abolished but rather to be proclaimed, the mummery of charge and counter-charge being exchanged by self-righteous prigs can only continue.

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