Folks know what Liberal Media Bias is. Even those who deny it must know what the rest of us are talking about. Anybody can read it between the lines, see it on CBS (also ABC and NBC), hear it on NPR, and almost feel it, it’s so thick at times. Like an oil slick over the news, L.M.B. permeates American journalism’s elite.
But defining Liberal Media Bias isn’t easy. Because its very purpose is to be slippery, hard to pin down, indefinable. At its most effective, L.M.B. isn’t even noticeable. It’s supposed to come naturally, even automatically. Indeed, that’s the object of the game: to present opinion as news, bias as fact, so smoothly nobody is aware of the subtle switch.
As with George Orwell’s newspeak, the function of L.M.B. isn’t just to condition thought; it’s to make any other thoughts unthinkable. Or at least unfashionable.
But although evidence of Liberal Media Bias abounds, there has never been any proof it’s part of a conscious pattern, a deliberate decision, something ordered from above. Until now.
Because now, thanks to some public-spirited leaker at ABC, we have the full text of an internal memo from its political director, Mark Halperin, to his minions. It’s dated Friday, Oct. 8, 2004, and it makes perfectly clear whose side ABC “News” will be on in this presidential election:
“It goes without saying that the stakes are getting very high for the country and the campaigns — and our responsibilities become quite grave.
“I do not want to set off [an] endless colloquy that none of us have time for today — nor do I want to stifle one. Please respond if you feel you can advance the discussion.
“The New York Times (Nagourney/Stevenson) and Howard Fineman on the Web both make the same point today: The current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done.
“Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win.
“We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.
I’m sure many of you have this week felt the stepped-up Bush efforts to complain about our coverage. This is all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped-up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Sen. Kerry at least partly through distortions.
“It’s up to Kerry to defend himself, of course. But as one of the few news organizations with the skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest. Now is the time for all of us to step up and do that right.”
To summarize: Yes, our candidate may falsify now and then, but the other guy’s falsity is at the center of his campaign. This memo might as well be a declaration of political war by ABC. It’s what every true believer thinks in the heat of an election season. But it’s unusual for a supposed unbiased newsman to think so. Or rather say so. In writing.
Liberal Media Bias isn’t just a feeling anymore; it’s a documented plan. Case closed. With a full confession.
And if you honestly can’t hear the prejudice in ABC’s memo, try switching the names of the candidates around and it’ll come through loud and clear. Unless, of course, you really do believe one presidential candidate is basically a good guy and the other is evil personified.
The bias behind much news fed to Americans isn’t exactly a surprise. But at least when you’re listening to right-wing talk radio, you know you’re listening to right-wing talk radio. And when you’re watching Fox News, you can be confident it’s fair and balanced in favor of the right.
It’s the pretense of objectivity at the old established networks that offends, or should. Now it lies shattered.
What’s surprising about this memo isn’t ABC’s Liberal Media Bias, but that someone at the top would be dumb enough to put it in writing.
How can anybody take ABC’s election coverage seriously after this? This memo makes even CBS’ fake-but-accurate coverage, phony documents and all, sound semi-honest. Once again, between leakers and bloggers, the Old Media have been unmasked. The proof is in the memo.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.