AR Special Report: 'LIBERAL MEDIA' IS A GHOST THAT WILL NOT DIE
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- You've probably heard a lot of spooky tales about "the liberal media." Ever since Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced news outlets thatwere offending the Nixon administration in the autumn of 1969, thespecter has been much more often cited than sighted. "The liberal media"is largely an apparition -- but the epithet serves as an effectiveweapon, brandished against journalists who might confront socialinequities and imbalances of power.
During the last few months, former CBS correspondent BernardGoldberg's new book "Bias" has stoked the "liberal media" canard. Hisanecdote-filled book continues to benefit from enormous media exposure.
In interviews on major networks, Goldberg has emphasized his book'scharge that American media outlets are typically in step with the biasedpractices he noticed at CBS News -- where "we pointedly identifiedconservatives as conservatives, for example, but for some crazy reasondidn't bother to identify liberals as liberals."
But do facts support Goldberg's undocumented generalization? Tofind out, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg searched a database of 30 large daily newspapers in the United States. He disclosed the results in an analysis that aired March 19 on the national radio program "Fresh Air."
Nunberg discovered "a big disparity in the way the press labelsliberals and conservatives -- but not in the direction that Goldbergclaims." Actually, the data showed, "the average liberal legislator has a 30 percent greater likelihood of being identified with a partisan label than the average conservative does."
When Nunberg narrowed his search to the New York Times, theWashington Post and the Los Angeles Times -- three dailies "routinelyaccused of having a liberal bias" -- he learned that "in those papers,too, liberals get partisan labels 30 percent more often thanconservatives do, the same proportion as in the press at large."
And what about Goldberg's claim that media coverage is also slantedby unfairly pigeonholing stars of the entertainment industry? His bookdeclares flatly: "If we do a Hollywood story, it's not unusual toidentify certain actors, like Tom Selleck or Bruce Willis, asconservatives. But Barbra Streisand or Rob Reiner, no matter how activethey are in liberal Democratic politics, are just Barbra Streisand andRob Reiner."
Again, Nunberg found, the facts prove Goldberg wrong: "The pressgives partisan labels to Streisand and Reiner almost five times asfrequently as it does to Selleck and Willis. For that matter, WarrenBeatty gets a partisan label twice as often as Arnold Schwarzenegger,and Norman Lear gets one more frequently than Charlton Heston does."
The results are especially striking because the word "liberal" hasbeen widely stigmatized, observes Nunberg, a senior researcher atStanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information. "It turnsout that newspapers label liberals much more readily than they do conservatives."
So, while Goldberg hotly contends -- without statistical backup -- that conservatives get a raw deal because they're singled out for ideological labeling more than liberals are, Nunberg relies on empirical evidence to reach a very different conclusion: "If there is a bias here,in fact, the data suggests that it goes the other way -- that the media consider liberals to be farther from the mainstream than conservativesare."
It's unlikely that factual debunking will do much to slow the momentum of those who are intent on riding the "liberal media"poltergeist. It has already carried them a long way.
Not surprisingly, President Bush displayed Goldberg's book forphotographers at the White House a couple of months ago. For a long time, GOP strategists have been "working the refs" -- crying foul about supposed media bias while benefitting greatly from the efforts of an unparalleled national media tag-team that includes the likes of Rush Limbaugh, a slew of corporate-funded think tanks and plenty of rightward pundits in print and on television.
It doesn't hurt that -- during the last 70 years -- the Republican presidential candidate has received most of the daily newspaper endorsements in 16 out of 18 elections. How's that for "liberal media"? But, like a ghost that long ago assumed corporeal form in the minds of millions, "the liberal media" cannot die. That's mostly because its image keeps being pumped up by huge media outlets.
In its first edition of this year, the Wall Street Journalpublished a lengthy lead editorial lauding Goldberg's new book -- evenshowcasing a photo of the cover at the center of the editorial, whichdeclared that "a liberal tilt in the media" is among the "facts of lifeso long obvious they would seem beyond dispute."
Overall, Goldberg's book is a muddled hodgepodge. While bashingjournalists as excessively sympathetic to the homeless, laid-off workersand poor people, he attacks the media establishment as elitist. Withvariations of faux populism, he expresses indignation that low-incomepeople are rarely heard or seen in mass media -- yet he lambastsadvocates for striving to widen the range of media coverage to includethe voices of such people.
On bedrock issues of economic power, what passes forliberal-conservative debate in news media is usually a series ofdisputes over how to fine-tune the status quo. In the process, the mythof "the liberal media" serves as a smokescreen for realities ofcorporate media.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.