ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS: Bias in the New Media

Friday, August 31, 2001

Our leading newspapers and major television news networks portray themselves as objective and impartial presenters of the news. But are they? And if not, are they biased to the left as conservatives have long claimed or beholden to corporate interests, as those on the left have claimed? If bias in the news media is a problem, what should be done about it?

Recorded on Friday, August 31, 2001

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. On our show today, Political Bias in the Media.

In Europe, political bias in the media isn't shunned, it's embraced. In England for example, if you pick up a copy of the Observer, you know perfectly well you're going to be getting a left of center perspective. The Observer itself wants it that way. By contrast, if you pick up a copy of the Daily Telegraph, often called the Daily Torygraph, you know you're going to be getting a right of center perspective, which is just the way editors of the Daily Telegraph want it.

Here in the United States, however, the mainstream news media, the major newspapers, the television news organizations, all at least portray themselves as impartial and unbiased, above the political fray, but are they? Or are they actually biased to the left as conservatives have long claimed or beholden to corporate interests, as the left itself claims.

Joining us today, two guests, both of them journalists themselves. Norman Solomon is author or Media Beat, a syndicated column on politics and the media. Harry Stein is the author most recently of, How I Accidentally Joined The Vast Right Winged Conspiracy and Found Inner Peace.

Title: All the News That Fits

Peter Robinson: The event, the 2000 democratic convention, the reporter, Geraldo Rivera. As President Clinton engages in his televised walk down one hallway after another before reaching the podium to give his speech to the convention, Rivera first hums the theme to Rocky, then says the following, and I quote; "This is a master, he may be a rogue, but he is an artful and pleasant rogue and done a hellava job as President. I'm going to miss this guy. He should have been the Vice Presidential candidate". Harry, Norman, I put it to you that the press in this country is dominated by sycophants and shills for the Democratic Party. Norman?

Norman Solomon: Oh, I think it's dominated by shills and sycophants for people in power, which the last time I checked in Washington was both major parties.

Peter Robinson: Harry?

Harry Stein: I think, uh, one should never watch Reva--uh--Geraldo if one can help it. I--I think, uh, Norman is not wrong, uh, and I--I don't think the issue of bias is primarily about partisanship.

Peter Robinson: Hold that thought, I want to return to that. Now listen to a few figures, I'm not going to throw quotations at you through the whole show, but we have to establish the argument here. 1995, the Times Mirror Center for the people in the press published a study that compared the attitudes of the press with those of the public. Among the public, 40% called themselves conservative, among the press 5%. 1996, Freedom Foundation and the Roper Center released a survey of 139 reporters and Bureau Chiefs in Washington D.C., finding, that four years earlier in 1992, 89% voted for Clinton, only 7% for Bush, the proportion who called themselves Democrats 50%, Republicans 4%. 1998, last one, The Media Trade Magazine, Editor and Publisher conducted a poll of 167 Newspaper Editors across the country. The poll found that whereas two years earlier in 1996, President Clinton received 49% of the vote of the American people, he received 57% of the vote of the Editors. All right, Harry, what do you make of those figures?

Harry Stein: What concerns me is that there are millions of people out there who turn on the T.V. every night and do not see that their values or believes are represented. They don't see issues like abortion covered, uh, the way they would like it--like it to be seen, the way they feel comfortable with. They don't see, uh, gay rights issues covered and certainly not an issue like affirmative action. I think that's where the real, uh, bias comes in. Uh, when its contentious issues, uh, involving the--the nature of the culture, uh, the press is absolutely at odds with, uh, the American people.

Norman Solomon: You know, those statistics are interesting; they speak to the internal condition and personal beliefs of people who work as media professionals. What matters…

Peter Robinson: Right, reporters and editors

Norman Solomon: …what matters for those of us who watch T.V. and listen to the radio and read printed, uh, outlets is the content. And there you have a very different matter. If you subject what's on the airwaves and in major print outlets to a content analysis, it's very, very different. Now the media industry is structured, I think very similar to other industries. People at the top have a lot more to say about the constraints that the workers work under than people at the bottom. So for instance, Fox News Channel, owned by Rupert Murdoch, it's clear that the fact the Rupert Murdoch is conservative, quite conservative, um, has a lot to do with the way that Fox News Channel functions. And so, when there was a recent study, taking a look at the guests on the signature show, Britt Hume's Signature Show, it found that the Republican guests outweighed the Democrat gue--guests by 8 to 1, well you can't say that an 8 to1 ratio…

Peter Robinson: 8 to 1?

Norman Solomon: 8 to 1 which is not…

Harry Stein: I--I--I don't believe that, it--it's like…

[Talking at the same time]

Norman Solomon: Well, I have the statistics…

[Talking at the same time]

Harry Stein: A--a--a statistic is going to lie…

[Talking at the same time]

Norman Solomon: Well, let me make--let me finish the rest of the sentence.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead, go ahead.

Norman Solomon: The rest of it is, well, we're told we have CNN. Well, actually you look at the comparable show, Wolf Blitzer's show and you have the statistics 4 to 3 ratio, Republicans to Democrats. Now that doesn't sound to me like a raving left-wing or liberal bias, but more generally if you look at the content…

[Talking at the same time]

Harry Stein: …sound like anyone's experience of watching television, I mean, I…

Norman Solomon: You can't argue with empirical facts…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: You said--you said that--that Norman is not wrong, which struck me as an interesting--wh--wh--what did you mean by that?

Harry Stein: When he cast--when he casts in terms of partisanship, I think that reporters get a kick out of going after people in power to a certain extent. The argument always made…

Peter Robinson: Whoever is in power.

Harry Stein: …exactly, the argument always made by liberals is that they were, uh, very tough on--on Clinton and in fact they're easier on Bush in certain respects. You know that's not the argument that concerns me, because that isn't what people care about deeply. They care about, as I said, their values and beliefs and how they're presented…

Peter Robinson: Let's look at Norman's argument about the mainstream media organizations and the corporations that own them.

Title: Money Talks

Peter Robinson: Norman Solomon, quote; "Conservatives often promote the myth that the U.S. Media are liberal. The fact is that conservatives have powerful friends in the media. These friends include the Corporations that own the media and the Corporations that pay for their advertising." How do you respond to that?

Harry Stein: Well, I--of course, that's the other argument that's made and it has nothing to do with the content on, for example, CBS Evening News, where Dan Rather is the, uh, editor, uh, determines what goes on, lemme give you one example. The Juanita Broderick story, now here was a woman, uh, credibly accused, uh, President Clinton of rape. Investigated by Dateline NBC, Lisa Meyers, uh, spent a long time trying--trying to corroborate the story, could never nail it down absolutely, but the circumstantial evidence was very strong and they put together a report. Uh, and it was held, it was held and held and held, uh, finally there was some heat on NBC to run it, uh…

Peter Robinson: The heat was generated where? I mean did it go on to run the report?

Harry Stein: Primarily in conservative publications, I mean, you know columnists…

Peter Robinson: Okay, so word got out that they were sitting on a story?

Harry Stein: That they were sitting on the story. Juanita Broderick who had refused to talk for years was not profiting from the story, was absolutely credible among those very few people who saw it, because they finally cut the piece, uh, way, way down, I think to about, uh, fifteen or twenty minutes, ran it unannounced on Dateline NBC once, refused to give the video to other, uh, networks, cable, including their own cable network. Uh, the story disappeared, I mean, I would bet that probably 75% of the people watching this broadcast have to date, never heard of Juanita Broderick.

Norman Solomon: Well I think I saw her on National T.V., but I think more to the point, we have many anecdotes we can throw out, including election night involving Fox Television, also involving inter--interference from the top of NBC's ownership, General Electric in terms of how it was covered. Redounding to the benefit of the Republicans…

Peter Robinson: Ho--Ho--hold on, what's your story on--what's your story on NBC? You're not suggesting that Jack Welch, the Chairman of G.E., which owns NBC, called Tom Brokaw and said…

Norman Solomon: What I am saying is that there was pressure from management that's been documented on how to spin that story and there's no doubt…

Harry Stein: How to spin what story?

Peter Robinson: The--you mean the Florida deadlock?

Norman Solomon: Yes, exactly, how that was covered. More fundamental, if we talk about values that are being represented, I would submit that one of the huge changes in the last ten years has been the equating of business news with news proper. A couple of years ago, CNN moved to 3 or 3 hours of very prime programming devoted to news, business and investment. On public television, every day we have the nightly business report, we have no nightly labor report. On NPR news, we have at the top of every hour, we have the NPR business update. We don't have an hourly labor update, we don't have a daily labor update, we don't have a weekly update on national public radio. In point of fact, if you'll look at what's happened with newspapers, as Columbia Journalism Review documented a few months ago, we've seen a huge expansion in all the major daily's form two or three pages on business to twelve, fourteen, sixteen pages a day. I ask you to…

[Talking at the same time]

Norman Solomon: People are interested in their labor conditions and their working conditions. The fact is, I don't know if you could name a single daily newspaper in the United States that has a daily labor section.

Harry Stein: It is--it is a capitalist culture, like it or not…

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: Hold on, he--he's answering you--he's answering you.

Harry Stein: If there were a market for it, it would appear. People do not, uh, if--if people are interested in news, they cover it, if their interested in…

Peter Robinson: Okay, but now wait a minute, there's a contradiction in that position, I think. In that we began this and you agreed that this was the one study that was the most important by saying that the American public is 40% conservative and the press identifies itself as 5% conservative. So the question there is, why is it that the news organizations, the people in the newsrooms at NBC, ABC, CBS, the New York Times, the prestigious newspapers, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, why is it that they are so consistently in your opinion, and frankly mine, liberal on a number of political issues if--if that's not what their market wants? What's going on?

Harry Stein: It's a very in--interesting question. Um, they're liberal culturally and--and it's a key distinction to be drawn between business cu--I mean, they all buy stocks too. I mean, they're--they're--they're not conserv--I'm--they're not, that's not a liberal conservative issue. They're con--they're liberal culturally. They--they are part of that segment of the culture, I mean, I go to a party on--on the upper-west side of Manhattan with, um, with a bunch of New York Times or Network Journalists and you never hear anyone who is pro-life, for example. In fact, if someone expresses a pro-life position, if someone should, they would be look--looked at as--as if they were a Martian. It's not a, you know…

Norman Solomon: But Harry, I'm hearing a lot about private, social…

Harry Stein: No.

Norman Solomon: …opinions and beliefs, but when we look at content, there's no equivalent of Rush Limbaugh on National Radio every day reaching fifteen to twenty million…

[Talking at the same time]

Harry Stein: Rush Limbaugh, like Fox was an antidote to--to, was an antidote to what people saw every day.

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: There may be more sources of news today than in the past, but aren't the dominant organizations still liberal?

Title: Nattering Nabobs Redux

Peter Robinson: Late '60's, early '70's, Bob Haldeman, Nixon's Chief of Staff had a special television made for himself which David Gergen, in the Reagan years, I was a speechwriter in the Reagan White House, I saw this object in Gergen's office, Gergen inherited it and it had three screens. One large screen and two little screens, so that Haldeman could watch all three evening news broadcasts at the same time. The New York Times, widely understood, you may contest it if you want to, but widely understood that the New York Times sets the pace or sets the story for the day. The New York Times, tremendously more prestigious than any other newspaper in the country, much to the continuing embarrassment of the late Katherine Graham, whi--but in any event, the New York Times, the front page of the New York Times, people in news rooms across the country read that, that sets the story, the agenda for the day. So the notion would be that certainly in the old days, there was a kind of left of center domination of what were at the time, a relatively few in number dominant news organizations and that to the extent that they retain their dominance, that left of center influence continues, fair?

Harry Stein: Absolutely, and--and--and I think you're--you're mentioning the '60's is crucial. I mean, most reporters came out of that era, certainly most people who are now running major publications. I did myself. My friends are now in positions of authority at a--at a lot of, uh, organizations, we came out of the anti-war movement, we came out of the feminist movement. I mean, that was our background, those were our beliefs.

Norman Solomon: You know if it really mattered so much what the rank and file thought, then we wouldn't have hierarchies. This is an industry where, as in other industries, people at the top shape what the constraints are. If we are going to be to--be told that we should believe that AOL Time Warner, General Electric, News Corp, Viacom, that Wall Street is somehow a bastion of flaming left-wing belief, I think that's absurd.

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: We're talking about--we're talking about the are several tens of thousands of people who in this country make their living working for News organizations.

[Talking at the same time]

Harry Stein: I used to do a column for T.V. Guide and I did a piece on, uh, in the early '90's on AIDS coverage. Uh, and it began with an anecdote something that happened on--on, uh, the Phil Donahue Show, where they had an a--a woman who was HIV positive who was the guest. And a woman stood up in the audience and, um, uh, and said how did you come down with--with AIDS. And the audience kind of booed her down and everyone said--and Phil Donahue said; "It doesn't matter." Um, now to me, that question mattered enormously, but the reason it didn't matter was that in the reports we're reading every day in the news media, AIDS had become everyone's disease. Uh, the--the notion was and I quoted in my book as a matter of fact, I have a long section on this, uh, quotes from the New York Times and the networks and all the rest, uh, that AI--that heterosexual, uh, males were--were as susceptible over the long term, uh, to uh--to AIDS as--as were gay men and the HIV and--and--and, uh, drug users. Uh, it was, you were not allowed to, uh, to say--to say anything else in--in--in major publications. And I defy you to find--to find me an instance either on--on any network or in--in any major, uh, newspaper where that argument was made.

Peter Robinson: I'd like to look one area where conservatives do have a dominant voice and ask our guests, how come?

Title: Everyone's Got an Opinion

Peter Robinson: Adam Meyers, a conservative journalist, quote; "Today Op-Ed pages are dominated by conservatives. If Bill Buckley were to come out of Yale today, nobody would pay much attention to him because there are hundreds of people with those ideas and they've already got syndicated columns." The quest--and Richard Reeves says that liberals have a prism, conservatives have a megaphone. That is to say, conservatives to the extent that they are now in the media tend to be drawn to punditry, whereas the liberals tend to be drawn to reporting, how come?

Harry Stein: It's very, very hard, uh, within those institutions, take the New York Times as an--an example. Uh, to function as a--as a social conservative, uh, those institutions tend to be so dominated, I mean take John Stossel as an--as an example, I know John--I think he feels qu…

Peter Robinson: ABC News reporter.

Harry Stein: ABC News--news reporter feels quite isolated, has--has had trouble getting certain producers to work with him. He's--fortunately for him, his stuff does very well, he draws ratings. But Bernard Goldberg lost his job at CBS for--for trying to--to essentially, uh, annunciate conservative things. In his case, he came out, uh, with an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, in which he pointed to a, uh, CBS piece, piece at his own network, which he thought was rife with liberal bias and, uh, essentially was a whistle blower. Uh, you're allowed to be a--a whistler blower about every other industry at CBS, but not about, uh, media bias.

Peter Robinson: Do you wanna--you wanna take a shot at this one, why conservatives tend to be pundits as opposed to reporters?

Norman Solomon: Well I think they've got so much of a foothold now, uh, in punditry, uh, I think at the same time, the question, the ability to frame this question of is the media more liberal or not, is in itself a manifestation of the kind of constraints we have in media discourse. In other words, why aren't we discussing here, are the media too corporate? And I think the absence of that topic on the media agenda should tell us a lot about where the media are at. They're domin--dominantly advertised upon and owned by Wall Street firms. They are Corporate America themselves, not just megaphones for Corporate America and the reality is…

Peter Robinson: Onto what was once a heretical question. Now that there are more news sources than ever before, what's so important about impartiality in the first place?

Title: Voices of America

Peter Robinson: Whereas, in the old days, it was three news organiza--three network news organizations and a handful of newspapers that were not only overwhelmingly prestigious, but really were, on many stories, the only place you could go. That is no longer true. You have the Internet, talk radio, cable television. My television at home picks up sixty some channels, if you're in Manhattan, you're getting' far more than that and so why not simply let market forces rip? We know that in eighteenth and early nineteenth century America, newspapers were avowedly partisan. This whole notion of impartiality or objectivity was--is relatively recent in the history of journalism. So a newspaper was a republican or a federalist newspaper and it took--and why not let that happen, let the conservatives watch Fox, let liberals watch CNN. Liberals can listen to NPR, conservatives can listen to Rush Limbaugh and let the media simply follow market forces to all these niches and we'll all be happy, what do you make of that?

Norman Solomon: Well if you make a list of the prime national cable networks and then you take off the list the networks owned in whole or in part by AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, General Electric, Viacom, Rupert Murdock's News Corp. and a handful of other huge corporations, you don't have much of a list left. It's kind of like going to a store…

Peter Robinson: Yeah, but you've still got the Internet, right?

Norman Solomon: …it's kind of like going to a store and there's fifty brands of cigarettes, they're mostly owned by three different corporations. You do have the Internet, but Jupiter Media Matrix just did a new study finding that 47% of the minutes spent on the World Wide Web by people in the United States are on sites owned by three corporations.

Peter Robinson: Which three incidentally, do you remember?

Harry Stein: We've got--we've got Microsoft, we have AOL Time Warner. What--what is the, um, reality when we have that number dropping so steeply in the last couple of years?

Peter Robinson: Well maybe you have to face--you have to face the--the point that your position in this free, loud, raucous country of ours is a very small minority position and you're always going to be a niche, but why not start your own web-site?

Norman Solomon: Well, I think when we ask…

Peter Robinson: Nobody would prevent you…

Norman Solomon: …if there's a--if there's a corporate dominated society and we say, you know, we can pass the hat and start our own cable network, that's a little disingenuous I'm afraid.

[Talking at the same time]

Harry Stein: Geneva Over--Overholser had a column making exactly this point and--and--and I think it's a very interesting one. Uh, I--I lived for a while in France, which--where of course, the media is very partisan, you buy Le Monde for left wing news and you buy Figaro, or, um, I--at least it's honest. What I think a lot of conservatives detest is this pretense of neutrality, uh, at--at--where--when they just don't feel it, they just don't see it. They feel, uh, dissed and under represented on--on--on a daily basis and--and it causes tremendous frustration.

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: Are they just indulging in self-pity at this stage of the game? I mean Rush Limbaugh draws twenty million listeners a week.

Harry Stein: Yeah, well look, it's certainly better, easier, uh, there's more company being conservative now. Fox news, the reason Fox news has taken off from--from almost nothin' to be--now being the dominant s--uh, news source on--on cable is exactly that. There are so many people who were disenfranchised.

Peter Robinson: See Harry, what I'm trying to get at here is, it's one thing for conservatives to say, and I think it was valid for years and years that the press is liberal and--and rigidly so and that--that certain voices just can't be heard. These days, these voices are heard and it's quite a different thing for--for lib--for conservatives to say, ah yes, but we're still not respected on the upper East--upper West side. That will never happen and ought to stop whining.

Harry Stein: I think what is happening is that the networks, which is primarily what we're talking about are responding to a certain degree to the pressure from, uh, the numbers pressure from cable and from Limbaugh and…

Peter Robinson: Hence the opening for John Stossel.

Harry Stein: Well, Stossel no, uh, I--I--I wouldn't put him in that category. Uh, I--I--I think they've got a real problem from networks. I mean somebody like um, Andrew Hayward, who's the President of CBS News, he's stuck with Dan Rather, he wants to be stuck with him, what do you about that? Everything is through the filter of Dan Rather's political sensibility. Uh, that's the case too on both the--on NBC and ABC on the--on their nightly news broadcasting.

Norman Solomon: Well, you know, I don't know of a single network correspondent who goes on a crusade the way that Stossel does against consumer protection, on the other hand to raise the taxes of Corporations. Now the owner of NBC or ABC is not going to complain about, uh, a, uh, anti, uh, regulation crusade, but they will complain about a campaign that says that GE isn't paying …

[Talking at the same time]

Harry Stein: Stossel is a libertarian and he has gone after corporate welfare also…

Norman Solomon: Not very much.

Harry Stein: Yes, he has.

Peter Robinson: Norman's been complaining about corporate control of the media for the whole show, what would he like to see instead?

Title: Medium Cool

Peter Robinson: Harry is being made progressively happier by the unfolding of market forces. He's happy that Rush Limbaugh exists. What would make you happy? We've already discussed market forces, you're suspicious of the market itself, what do you do?

Norman Solomon: Well, it's not anything near a level playing field, which is one reason I'm more than suspicious, I'm antagonistic. Um, but if we can get outside the box of liberal conservative a bit, I think we can, uh, free ourselves to look at it more widely and raise questions about the extreme inequality of income, the enormous corporate domination and ask ourselves why, if the news media are so quote, unquote, liberal, why is it so difficult to even raise the question of why corporations have such a dominant role in our society. One example, in April, when there was a huge amount of coverage out of Quebec city of the proposed free trade area of the Americas, the media watch group fair that I'm associated with, went through Nexus and rigorously looked at editorials in major daily newspapers. We found thirty-five different newspapers editorializing in favor of that free market, corporate-backed FDAA agreement. We found zero opposed. Now if we'd get outside the box of liberal and conservative discourse, we could ask ourselves the question, why this huge imbalance and why don't we hear about the controversy…

Peter Robinson: Norman?

Norman Solomon: …of corporate dominated media?

Peter Robinson: …it's television, so I have to move to the last question. This box is rigid, the time box is rigid. Consider two--you've been talking about the--the--the nature--even as market forces unfold, there tends to be reconsolidations at the top so corporations, a few corporations end up controlling a lot of properties and so forth. Consider two models, America in 1970, I've already described it, H.R. Haldeman is sitting there watching the television news with three screens, there are a handful of newspapers that are dominant in the country, model one. Model two--and there--and there's a kind of little bit left of center view that dominates them all, although the asserted view is one of impartiality and objectivity. Okay, the other model is America in 1850, lot's of broad sheets, lots of newspapers, going after very small, often local markets and avowedly partisan. There was something for every political point of view. In twenty years, which will the media in America more resemble, 1970, or 1850, Harry?

Harry Stein: It's a very inters--interesting analogy. I think 1850, uh, and hopefully, uh, we'll see the end the network, uh, nightly news and, uh, we'll see a lot more cable networks, more points of view, more liberal, more left, because you're not happy with--with the voices on the left. I think that's--it would be absolutely great. I mean, I'm for a raucous, open debate and it's beginning to happen and--and I think, as you suggest, a lot of conservatives now feel a lot happier with what they're able to--to pick up than before.

Peter Robinson: Norman, which--which will it be?

Norman Solomon: Um, I think it's going to be neither and the reason is, we do need this open raucous debate, but right now, six corporations control through ownership most of the news and information flow of the United States. So it's a false choice to say well, can we go back to those multiplicity of voices…

Peter Robinson: And they'll be able to retain their control for decades to come?

Norman Solomon: Well, their ownership, it's--it wa--it's down from fifty corporations in 1983 to six corporations in the year 2001. That trend every year has gone in a consolidation of control direction.

Peter Robinson: Norman and Harry, thank you very much.

Norman Solomon: Thank you.

Harry Stein: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: Norman Solomon claims the media leans to the right, Harry Stein believes it leans to the left. I myself try to play it right down the center. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.