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

by Bernard Goldberg

 

A BOOK REVIEW BY SHIRA FELDMAN

 

Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News is a feisty expose, the product of reporter Bernard Goldberg's 28-year career at CBS News. Bias is churning controversy on points all over the political map, nettling liberals, vindicating conservatives, and, as the current #1 New York Times bestseller, selling robustly.

In Bias, Goldberg charges that journalists trim, tint, and tailor the news to suit their own left-of-center cosmology. This distortion, he argues, occurs on an unconscious level, permeates the news industry from mailroom to newsroom to boardroom, and stems from an intellectual self-containment that leads newspeople to regard liberalism as the only "civilized" worldview. In doing so, they disregard the conservative leanings of millions of Americans (whom they see as barbarians), and rightly forfeit public trust.

Goldberg's unfolding personal odyssey provides a colorful backdrop to his allegations. As a veteran of CBS's Evening News, Goldberg worked closely with Dan Rather, won visibility, prestige, and opportunity, and was poised to continue his upward glide. This happy story came to an abrupt end in 1996, when Goldberg published a professionally radioactive op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. He had been quietly criticizing CBS's biased practices from within for years, and had been completely ignored. He decided to go public with his arguments to initiate a conversation about liberal bias in the media: he wrote that its pervasiveness is "so blatantly true that it's hardly worth discussing anymore," and dissected a news report by colleague Eric Engberg, which brutally ridiculed Steve Forbes' flat tax in the name of "impartial" journalism. As if that instance of heterodoxy wasn't radical enough, Goldberg had the vertebrae to sign his name to the piece. Thereafter, Goldberg's professional world went dark: Dan Rather never spoke another word to him. Most of his colleagues shunned him. He was trounced in the press by Rather and other network representatives. He was removed from the news and put into rotation on a variety of short-lived newsmagazine shows. Though Goldberg was not terminated, his tenure remained tenuous, at best, until 1998, when he met with his managers and appealed to stay until his pension started in 2000, after which he would "never show my face again." They agreed to this condition; Goldberg departed as promised; he wrote his book, and the rest is history (or should we say "currency"?).

As a critique of misrepresentation and misinformation in the news industry, rampant and unapologized-for, Bias is powerful. Goldberg's points are irrefutable, his examples blistering. One especially egregious incident involved a 1995 news story on Alabama's reinstatement of inmate chain gangs. A CBS crew flew down to shoot footage of these gangs, whose laborers expressed reactions like, "It makes you feel like a slave" and "This makes you hate." A strong piece, the segment simply displayed what the news crew found. However, CBS producers balked at running the story, because 19 of the 20 convicts filmed were black. Even though the ratio accurately reflected chain gang conditions in Alabama, CBS authorities felt such a portrayal would make them appear insensitive, as well as bolster cliches about black criminals. It never occurred to the producers to question why the Alabama prison system was convicting black men in such multitudes--a query which may have actually led them to meaningful, ground-breaking investigative journalism. Instead, their "solution" was to distort reality by requesting more white convicts on film next time. This anecdote shows the extent to which the media both sires and suffers from its problem child, political correctness. In another, similar situation, reporters were barred from using the word "black" to describe a hate crime victim, and instead assigned the more PC terminology "African-American." Never mind that the phrase was factually incorrect: the man was Jamaican! As Goldberg puts it, this hyper-decorum (at the expense of accuracy) "is not about actually doing good.... It [is] about feeling better about ourselves--and making as little personal sacrifice as possible."

Elsewhere, Goldberg illustrates the mechanisms behind newscasters' shrewd political commentary. For example, in Peter Jennings' live coverage of the Clinton impeachment trial, Jennings identified each senator as he or she emerged, but cited the political parties of only the conservative senators. Thus, John McCain was labelled "more right than left in his politics," but Tom Daschle received no such tag--he was simply "Senator Daschle." This practice, Goldberg contends, stems from media elites' assumption that liberalism is the norm, whereas conservatism represents an unfathomable aberration from rationality. Indeed, a 1996 survey found that 50% of journalists identify themselves as Democrats, and only 4% as Republicans. Since journalists exist in a political vacuum, argues Goldberg, they lack exposure to a diversity of opinions and become arrogant and presumptuous in their convictions. To wit, CBS correspondent Roxanne Russell, on a conference call including all CBS producers nationwide, dubbed Gary Bauer (a 2000 presidential candidate) "the little nut from the Christian group." The casual epithet did not provoke a single rejoinder from the convened intelligentsia. This juicy anecdote--and plenty of other goods supplied by Goldberg--definitively demonstrate that a liberal bias not only exists in the so-called "free press" but that it threatens all Americans' access to factual information.

Unfortunately, the overly emotional, belligerent tone of the book undercuts Goldberg's relevancy. While he insists that he has not written his expose for the sake of vindication against his abusive former-colleagues, his truculence either belies this disclaimer or reveals him as a truly abrasive individual. Goldberg comes out scratching and howling and and does not cease doing so until the final period on the final page. He calls his former boss "The Dan," his former coworkers "putzes," his former industry a "News Mafia" (and on a related note, Goldberg's histrionic responses to the drama in which he finds himself do not exactly heighten his credibility), and rakes dirt over all of the above with glee: for example, he relates that a columnist "would break his nose on Dan's behind if the anchorman ever stopped quickly"; an EVP is "a cross between Woody Allen and Machiavelli"; and that anchormen are "like royalty... everyone is always kissing their royal ass." Furthermore, Goldberg sports a distinctly blaring writing style. He sledgehammers each point to its overpunctuated death using exclamation marks, italics, repetition, and hyperbole: "Pain and suffering?" he clamors. "Reporters who see more death and destruction than the Red Cross were in pain and suffering over... my opinion?" All this aggression indicates that Goldberg cannot merely tell his side of the story. He has to yell his side of the story.

In asserting that he has not written his book to extract revenge on his coworkers, Goldberg declares: "Anyone who writes a book to be vindictive is almost certainly insane.... my guess is it would be easier to give birth to triplets than write a book, especially if you've never written one before." (By this logic, perhaps Goldberg should have given birth to triplets and really made the network brass squirm.) This statement is unconvincing, though, since literary action was probably the best--if not only--avenue of retribution open to him. It is unclear to what extent anger steered Goldberg's pen (if he indeed wrote Bias for retaliation, he would certainly have had rationale) but even if he is sincere in his protestations of neutrality, could Goldberg have honestly believed CBS would receive his original op-ed with equilibrium? He claims: "All I wanted was a discussion, someone to take my concerns seriously." Goldberg's wounded tone here--considering his wounding pen--comes off as whiny. Could someone as intelligent, as experienced as Goldberg really have been blind to how his own organization operates? An example of Goldberg's inconsistent philosophy regarding intra-industry strife is found in his letter to Eric Engberg, the reporter he critiqued in his '96 op-ed, immediately after it was published. Goldberg wrote him: "the issue should never be that 'Goldberg launched a personal attack on Engberg.'... My point was about journalism and I stand by it. It was never about personalities or pesonal shots." True, Engberg might have richly deserved his comeuppance for slamming Steve Forbes like a basketball. Yet if Goldberg honestly believes that his strong rebuke of his own colleague (and friend), published in a major newspaper, does not represent a "personal attack," then he is living on the moon--or perhaps his own antagonistic style has numbed him to offensiveness except when he himself is its target. Goldberg's op-ed was the opening volley in a full-blown feud, and his book is the latest missile in that confrontation. His polemical style throughout would certainly indicate as much. He does not qualify as an innocent victim of the network's rancor.

In that context, Bias can be viewed from two lenses, as both an intellectual public offering and a private torpedo. Goldberg often promotes himself as a "whistle-blower"--a phrase which appears so frequently and in so self-congratulatory a context that the reader can almost perceive the projectile saliva--and, true to this self-designation, his shrill, piercing siren wails from cover to cover. The sound both absolves and annoys. The reader of Bias must take good with bad, the insights with the insults.

For example: one of the wrongs that Goldberg "exposes" is anti-male bias. He resents man-bashing humor, such as jokes about castration or men as dogs. He bemoans the lack of gender balance, longing for news on "divorced women us[ing] custody and visitation to punish their ex-husbands for what went wrong during the marriage." While we may suspect that Goldberg needs to lighten up, he does have a point in his observation that "the way journalists portray any group of people matters." He follows up with a story about L.A. men compelled to pay child support for children not their own, simply because they held the same names as the real fathers--a bureaucratic snafu the government was unwilling to correct. Here, while Goldberg makes a smirky argument about the mistreatment of men, one can look beyond his galling style to his sounder thesis.

On a similar note, many of Goldberg's vital points represent little more than glorified opinions. In his attempts to balance out his employer's liberal prejudices, he sometimes stacks the weights too heavily in his own favor. Goldberg reveals his political leanings early on, in a passage that speaks to the complexity of every individual's fine-tuned network of values and beliefs--for example, he is pro-choice, "with reservations," and supports welfare, though "it's wrecked the lives of far too many Americans who have gotten hooked on it." He makes the point, though, that he is not a conservative, having never voted for a Republican presidential candidate, and finally settles for the title "old-fashioned liberal": "I'm liberal the way liberals used to be." Political autonomy aside, however, Goldberg's opinions permeate every page of the book, his convictions are stamped on every paragraph--and, perhaps not surprisingly, he possesses some very strong opinions. This tendency emerges from two of his flagship exhibits of media liberalism: in AIDS reporting and in day-care coverage.

 Goldberg argues that newspeople overstated the threat of HIV (especially in the '80s) to drum up more support for those afflicted. In doing so, he charges, they kindled widespread panic and needless terror about the risk of contracting HIV. They realized this grim task by implying that heterosexuals are at much keener risk for transmission than they actually are. Goldberg quotes several mid-eighties articles indicating that "The disease of them is suddenly the disease of us"... "Cases Rising Fastest Among Heterosexuals"... "AIDS has both sexes running scared"... "AIDS Doesn't Discriminate." Goldberg then goes on to debunk the "myth" of heterosexual AIDS by showing that, while both sexes are equally at risk, middle-class, heterosexual, white Americans who do not indulge in risk behavior (such as intravenous drug use, or sex with risk groups) are at low risk.

What a bulletin: Stop the presses. Could Goldberg actually mean that white, straight, middle-class, non-junkies who avoid sex with black, gay, poor junkies are off the hook? What a relief! AIDS epidemic? Vastly overstated! Now we only have to worry about those irksome minority groups, lower economic classes, substance abusers, and populations of third-world countries, in some of whom disease is multiplying faster than mutated cells in a tumor. Does Goldberg think these people are not people? Does he think that none of them watch the news? Do only white people reckon in this bizarre AIDS-risk calculus? Even narrowly focusing on that elect group, white middle-class Americans, it is not incorrect to assert that both sexes, or that heterosexuals, are at increasing risk of infection. White skin is not a shield from the virus. Caucasians can acquire HIV as easily as anyone else if they indulge in certain well-known behaviors--and it is no secret that some do just that. If anything, the '80s awareness campaign helped prevent such behavior, so it functioned as legitimate, not to mention timely, news. That HIV-fear became entrenched among the "responsible" white middle class only served to ensure that group's relative safety subsequently. Moreover, the information that heterosexuals could acquire HIV was foreign to some, especially in the early '80s, who regarded it as a "gay disease"--a scourge delivered upon gays, even. Hence, this news indeed was news. These observations are not intended to invalidate Goldberg's opinion on this subject--merely to emphasize that his is an opinion, one among many, and that his arguments on AIDS coverage prove not so much that the media is liberal, as that his leanings are conservative on this point.

Further evidence of Goldberg's subjectivity appears in his chapter on child-care, which he appoints "The Most Important Story You Never Saw on TV." He alleges that the news has botched its obligation to working mothers, who often farm their children out to day-care, by witholding important findings about latch-key children. Quoting sociologist Mary Eberhardt, he argues that children left home parentless for extensive periods of time are far more likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol, be sexually active, falter academically, and undergo other difficulties. Goldberg blames the media's inadequate coverage of this story on its feminist tilt, which renders it reluctant to assail working mothers.

The child-care crisis may be true--and tragic. But Goldberg's presentation of it would easily offend any woman. He maintains that most working mothers are not lower-income single parents, for whom day-care is the only option, but wealthy two-income married women who, selfishly, prefer not to be changing diapers. This trend--working women's indisposition for child care--is, in Goldberg's mind, the true source of the crisis. Moreover, he leaves little ambiguity as to what side he is on: the not-so-subtle subtext loudly entreats women to stay home. Goldberg approvingly quotes National Review columnist Rich Lowry in saying: "Career moms... are a historical aberration; they represent a minority preference among women; and they run exactly counter to the standard of motherhood that should be encouraged by society.... Maybe a little stigma is what they deserve." (One supposes that working fathers, beginning from the caveman dragging home the kill, constitute a historical sacrament. Has either of these two thinkers ever heard of stay-at-home dads?) Goldberg denies that his reasoning represents "an out-and-out attack on women and the freedoms they've won since the 1970s." But it does: women's ability to work--to attain their highest creative potential, to realize their ambitions--is an important issue, not to be derided as a false "need." If nothing else, women's relationship to child-care is a complex issue open to debate, with valid arguments on both sides--not a closed case, as Goldberg presents it.

Goldberg's intent is to expose media bias, but that task alone does not impede him from a little fact-spinning. Does Bias make a valid point? Yes. Is Bias biased? Yes. It is biased in favor of Goldberg--of his particular point of view. Before he fell into disfavor with the network, Goldberg had a regular segment on the evening news entitled "Bernard Goldberg's America." This book could accurately be subtitled "Bernard Goldberg's Universe." It scores watertight points, then sails beyond them to subjectivity (without ever acknowledging that leap). In doing so, Goldberg weakens his own case, but he would probably argue that he strengthens it--at least it is so in the world according to Goldberg.

March 8, 2002 

Copyright © 2002 Shira Feldman

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