- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

For almost half a year the charge of media bias was thrust before the public's face. During that time the media itself ignored it. Yet despite the media's averted gaze, the American public paid attention.
That's why ex-CBS news correspondent Bernard Goldberg's book, "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News," was on the New York Times' best-seller list for 20 weeks before leaving the list this month.
The book actually revealed an even bigger story than the one intended. The difference between the public's and the media's reception of the book highlights a deliberate disconnection by the media from the public it professes to serve. Implicit in its refusal to countenance the charge was the media belief that not only is the public unqualified to determine bias, but that it doesn't even have a right to that opinion.
Mr. Goldberg's attribution of bias admission (quoting CBS News President Andrew Heyward: "Of course, there's a liberal bias in the news. All the networks tilt left. If you repeat any of this, I'll deny it") has been accepted by the public for a long time. Nor was Mr. Goldberg the first to detect it.
"The Media Elite" by Robert Lichter and coauthors interviewed 238 top media sources in 1986 and found their voting dramatically diverged from the nation's over 1964-76 presidential elections. The average media response was 85.75 percent for the Democrat and 14.25 percent for the Republican; in contrast, the public average was 47.85 percent for the Democrat and 47.65 percent for the Republican. In 1992, Indiana University Professors David H. Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit recorded similar skewing in their book "The American Journalist in the 1990s." Forty-four percent of journalists labeled themselves Democrats, while only 16 percent claimed Republican affiliation contrasting with the general public's party affiliation of 34 percent Democrat and 33 percent Republican. Surveys since have documented similar findings.
Little wonder the American public perceives a leftward tilt. A Pew Research Center survey of registered voters in October 2000, found that 47 percent of respondents believed that "most newspaper reporters and TV journalists" wanted to see Al Gore win the election, vs. just 23 percent for George W. Bush. Not surprisingly 57 percent of these respondents felt that reporters often "let their own political preferences influence the way they report the news." Nor is it surprising that a July 2000, Gallup poll found that 49 percent of adults stated that their level of confidence in the mass media was "not very much" or "none at all" and that a June 2001, Gallup poll found only 36 percent and 34 percent of adults surveyed had either a "great deal" or "quite a lot of confidence" in newspapers and TV news respectively.
To some extent this may be unintentional and simply due to journalism's insistence on defining news as controversy. The demand to find both sides of an issue, even where a contrary opinion is only marginally held, inherently gives undue "weighting" to the marginal position. For example, if only 10 percent of people hold an opinion, even the 60-second sound-bite world of modern journalism requires more than the proportional 6 seconds for a coherent story. This phenomena has been quite evident in the media coverage of the war on terrorism where, despite overwhelming public support of the U.S. response, an undue amount of coverage has gone to protesters and opponents.
Yet in this perhaps unintentional bias, germinate the seeds of intentional bias that burst forth in the media's response to Mr. Goldberg's book. Here it was not an accident or even the prejudice that a journalist may bring to a story. Here it was a deliberate decision to ignore the public's very perception and thereby invalidate it.
To truly understand the import of the media's silence consider the news media's self-view as the fourth branch of government. Imagine then what the media's reaction would be if a sizable portion of the population believed that one of the actual three branches of government were biased. If polling further showed that a large proportion of members of that branch of government were greatly slanted in their political leaning. Wouldn't the media judge this to be news? Does anyone believe for a moment that there would not be wholesale reporting of this by the media? Of course.
The media have reported time and again on just such episodes when it involved the three formal branches of government. Yet it curiously refuses to examine itself under the same circumstances even though the public has less remedial recourse against the media.
While the evidence of liberal bias in the news media may not have been news to the media, at least the media's lack of concern over the charge itself should have been. Ironically and contrary to their intent, the media's silence to the charge of their liberal bias spoke volumes. It was a most eloquent confession.

J.T. Young is a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Treasury.


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