Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, December 12, 2012

Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says, “Bias is the elephant in the living room. We’re in denial about it and don’t want to admit it’s there. We think it’s less of a problem than the public does, and we just don’t want to get into it.”

Bernard Goldberg talks out of school about how alien the average person seems to the media elite, and tries to help us see why broadcast journalists sometimes appear to be from another planet.

RecommendationWorth reading
AuthorBernard Goldberg
Year2003
Length238 pages
Book Rating6

While I was reading Bernard Goldberg’s Bias, Ace at the Ace of Spades HQ coincidentally offered up this take on the media’s response to accusations of bias:

If you tell someone who’s not an alcoholic that he’s drinking too much, he’ll take an interest in your statement. He might be incredulous, but he’ll ask things like, “Do you really think I’m drinking too much? Have I gotten out of hand?” Your allegation might come as a surprise to him, and he might doubt you, but he’d probably be curious to find out if maybe he does have a problem, or if, at least, he’s engaged in behavior suggesting he’s got a problem.

He’ll actually cast his mind back to nights when he was drinking, trying to remember if he did something embarrassing.

Now, take an alcoholic who knows goddamned well he’s an alcoholic and has chosen to continue being an alcoholic and is pretty goddamned sick of people telling him he’s an alcoholic because he just wants to keep on drinking at an alcoholic level. Now tell him he’s got a problem. He’ll tell you “I don’t have a problem, you have a problem, now why don’t you mind your own business instead of sticking your nose into other people’s lack of problems?”

He’ll be angry about it because 1, he knows you’re right, but 2, he has no intention of ever changing this and just wants you to stop noticing he’s an alcoholic.

You can see the same dynamic more generally in any relationship. Person 1 makes an unfounded accusation against person 2, and person 2 will make an honest, possibly confused attempt to think back on what they could have done to elicit such an accusation. Person 3 makes a well-founded accusation against person 4, and person 4 goes ballistic.

This echoes what Goldberg wrote, toward the end of his book:

What a bunch of hypocrites, I kept thinking, these people who examine anybody and everybody’s life but will “never” forgive me for writing about their liberal bias.

The Dan Rathers of the world don’t try to crush you if they think you’re full of crap. They simply ignore you. It’s when you taunt them with the truth that they get really frantic and try to inflict pain, if for no other reason than to show everybody else in the newsroom that the cost of breaking the sacred code of omerta will be very high.

Ace hadn’t read Goldberg. It’s just an obvious point. Goldberg slammed into the same thing in 1996 when he, as a CBS employee, wrote about media bias for the Wall Street Journal. Goldberg got into trouble at CBS for writing what was basically a fisking of a CBS colleague’s on-air condescension toward Republican primary contender Steve Forbes’s flat tax proposal.

At the time, it was Dan Rather who basically ran CBS News, and Rather’s reaction was immediate and harsh: he refused to work with Goldberg ever again. But some of his other colleagues had even more over-the-top responses. To them, this was an unimaginable crime, worse than rape. That’s literally what one of them said. Here’s what happened when he talked to Andrew Heyward about the Journal article:

I also spoke to Heyward and Engberg, dropping an advance copy at Heyward’s office. When Heyward called me it was obvious that steam was coming out of his ears. What I had done, he told me, was “an act of disloyalty” and “a betrayal of trust.”

“I understand how you feel,” I told him, trying to defuse a bad situation. “But I didn’t say anything in the piece about how even you, Andrew have agreed with me about the liberal bias.”

Instead of calming things down, my comment made him go ballistic.

“That would have been like raping my wife and kidnapping my kids!” he screamed at me. If there was an instant when I knew just how dark things would get, this was it. This one, frantic statement—That would have been like raping my wife and kidnapping my kids—told me everything I needed to know about the magnitude of my sin.

Writing an op-ed piece was like raping his wife and kidnapping his kids. Criticizing, publicly, what I saw as bias in network news was like raping his wife and kidnapping his kids.

This is how self-centered media elites can be. These are people who routinely stick their noses into everybody else’s business.

His media colleagues immediately tried to dismiss his accusations by accusing him of being a right-wing partisan. His response in Bias is to examine his own positions. Is he conservative and he just didn’t know it?

I didn’t vote for Reagan either time. But I did vote for McGovern—twice. Once in the Florida primary and again in the 1972 general election.

I’m pro-choice, with reservations, especially when it comes to minors.

Goldberg might be left wing for America in general, but that’s extreme right-wing for the far left. Those caveats are not common sense to people who support even partial-birth abortions and brush off live-birth abortions, and who oppose any restrictions on performing abortions on minors. And that’s where his colleagues in the media live. Goldberg didn’t realize that the Left had left him behind.

And what Bias reads like most is the plaintive cry of a man who has lost his identity. Bernard Goldberg sees himself as a Democrat—as a fairly liberal Democrat. But the Democratic Party has passed him by, and they view him as someone who is no longer not only left of them, but not alongside them either. They see his common sense views as right-wing.

How did Goldberg get into this situation? It wasn’t just by writing a book about media bias; it was by working in the field for nearly thirty years and then writing about the bias that he saw.

What made doing this book so hard was that I was writing about people I have known for many years, people who are or once were my friends. It’s not easy telling you that Dan Rather, whom I have worked with and genuinely liked for most of my adult life, really is two very different people; while one Dan is funny and generous, the other is ruthless and unforgiving.

He gives the impression that, at the time, Dan Rather ran CBS News. Which makes it interesting reading this after Rather’s high-profile hoax forced him out of CBS.

If CBS News were a prison instead of a journalistic enterprise, three-quarters of the producers and 100 percent of the vice presidents would be Dan’s bitches.

If I were reading this before 2004 I would have thought it over the top. After watching how quickly Dan Rather went down it seems prescient. Using lies to sell a hit job on a Republican is hardly a firing offense in today’s news media. I was surprised to see Rather go down at all, let alone so quickly. Put in perspective of a prison environment, and it makes more sense: when the bully weakens, he always gets destroyed.

Goldberg’s troubles began with an article for the Wall Street Journal, Networks Need a Reality Check. In it, he dissected a CBS Evening News piece on the Steve Forbes tax plan. Forbes was running in the primaries to become the Republican presidential candidate. The piece was so incredibly biased that Goldberg, who had been voicing his concerns privately to his colleagues and superiors at CBS News, felt he needed to go public. In that CBS News piece, Eric Engberg hits quite a few of the ways that the news media slips in its own bias, including identifying conservatives as conservative, but leaving liberals un-labeled. In Bias, Goldberg expands on this, including this extreme example:

Harry Smith, the cohost (at the time) of CBS This Morning, introduced a segment on sexual harassment saying “… has anything really changed? Just ahead we’re going to ask noted law professor Catharine MacKinnon and conservative spokeswoman Phyllis Schlafly to talk about that.”

MacKinnon is the feminist ideologue who had famously implied that all sexual intercourse is rape.

That may be taking MacKinnon’s views a bit far—but not too much. MacKinnon does appear to believe that there is no way for a woman to consent to sex and that all sex is therefor non-consensual. That’s definitely a viewpoint requiring a label or even an explanation when it comes to discussing sexual harassment.

This tendency for media reports to not label people and organizations the reporter agrees with leads to what I’ve called “press-release reporting” where, if they identify with the organization the reporter trusts the press release and uses it as a factual source rather than as something to critique.

The other major failing of the media is to edit the news so that it measures up to their own fantasy of what reality is. For example, after Hurricane Marilyn in St. Thomas, Larry Doyle provided footage of looters being arrested. Doyle was accused of racism by his superiors in New York City because the looters were all black.

“Yes,” he told the New York producers by phone, “the looters are black. And so are the cops who arrested them. And so is 95 percent of the island.

Ultimately, the producers chose to cut the looting scenes from the footage. There’s a provincial quality to news reporting today that seems to get more and more pronounced. That the rest of the world—whether it be flyover country or the Middle East—conforms to their worldview. That because they make the news, they make the world. (They discover otherwise when they go on location in, for example, Egypt.)

And finally, there’s a thoughtlessness to that provinciality. They love “simple” solutions that someone else has to implement and pay for.

They love affirmative action, as long as their own kids get into Ivy League schools. They love handing out jobs based on racial preferences, as long as they get to keep theirs. It’s a great deal: it’s always somebody else who has to make the sacrifice—sometimes Asian-American kids, sometimes other white students who don’t get into places like Harvard and Yale and Princeton—while the white liberal elites get to claim credit for being so decent, the saviors of black people in America.

This came after Goldberg writes about suggesting to Heyward that the media could solve the racial power structure in America overnight: “you and every other white male high-level executive in America should voluntarily give up your jobs” on the condition that they be replaced by a qualified woman or minority.

Heyward didn’t think it was funny.

This is an interesting book. It is filled with anecdotes about clueless bias (such as the St. Thomas example above), and with lesser anecdotes about life at CBS News under Rather; for example, he accuses Rather of having Connie Chung fired from CBS, for having too much airtime and threatening Rather’s position at the top. It’s a very short read—which makes sense, as it grew from a very short editorial—and worth a read.

Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News

Bernard Goldberg

Recommendation: Worth reading

If you enjoyed Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News…

If you enjoy CBS News, you might also be interested in A Reporter’s Life and Murrow: His Life and Times.

If you enjoy media bias, you might also be interested in Florence Foster Jenkins is Hillary Clinton, Resistance to media bias is unexpected, A horse chestnut or a newspaper or a news show?, World News Tonight vs. the Sirens of the Internet, Divisive double standards, There will be lies, End of media; to delete this media…, Greta Van Susteren calls out media on hypocritical misogyny, The institutional forgetfulness of the press, Trickle down lying: What Wisconsin teaches us about the national news media, The Make-Believe Media’s New Normal, The media’s lies work, Why the New York Times can’t see 120 million homes, The media machine is calling me an asshole, How biased is Fox News?, (Joe) Scarborough Fair, How much is the media ignoring Elizabeth Warren’s problems?, Why don’t gun owners trust the left?, Why isn’t Bob Filner resigning?, Bob Filner media post-mortem, Remember this when the New York Times criticizes conservatives, Evil and religion in the modern media, Confirmation journalism and the death penalty, California drought caused by lack of rain and progressive government, but mostly progressive government, Trump and the media, the sequel, The candidate we deserve, Two lessons for the price of one, for the Republican Party, Voting Nobody in 2016, How the left transformed vulgarity into courage and elected Donald Trump, An outdated code of conduct, Advice to Sarah Palin From the Know-It-Alls, Sarah, Death-page 2000, Hillary Clinton and husband accused of sexual assault, The Hillary Clinton e-mail ‘scandal’ that isn’t, and Clinton calls for institutionalizing, curing, Trump supporters.