EDITOR’S NOTE: The following appears in the July 26, 2004, issue of National Review, a special issue made possible by the Media Research Center.
On the subject of media fairness, people who aren’t remote-tossing conservatives often ask, “What do you mean, liberal bias?”
In a nutshell, bias is all about selective storytelling. Which stories do you tell, and which do you bury in a drawer somewhere? As a story is assembled, whom do you build up as the hero, and whom do you paint as the villain–and how do you describe them? Do you tell a story to inspire, or to amuse? To inform, or to scare? As a program is assembled, in what order do you put the stories? Which are novels of epic proportions, and which are the length of a classified ad?
At the top TV-news outlets, these decisions are shaped daily by a crusading liberal impulse, whereby journalists think that pursuing objectivity and balance on controversial issues is a cowardly means of evading tough choices: between justice and injustice, or between the good guys and the bad guys. A look at a typical week’s programming–seeing how the nightly news unfolded for ABC, CBS, and NBC viewers–will make clear how the bias works.
Monday, June 21. The Supreme Court decides 9-0 that HMOs cannot be sued in state courts, and network coverage follows a predictable story line. All three networks feature good-guy plaintiffs with sad stories of malpractice or lost loved ones owing to bad-guy HMO accountants. Each includes a soundbite from HMO industry spokeswoman Karen Ignagni. But ABC and NBC describe her opponents from liberal groups like the AARP and Families USA favorably–and without identifying the groups’ ideological leanings–as merely “patients’-rights advocates.” Neither story notes that these groups were major backers of the Clintons’ health plan in 1993, which would have put most of America’s patients in these dastardly managed-care programs.
Dan Rather follows up on his interview of Bill Clinton with previously unseen footage of Clinton defending his foreign-policy record. Dan sits calmly and listens as the former president talks about his bold dealings with North Korea, which Clinton weirdly calls “the last great Communist outpost.” CBS will compound the weirdness on Wednesday with a report on how the Bush administration has “finally put a deal on the table” for an arms agreement with North Korea–making no mention of the fact that North Korea blatantly violated the last such agreement.
Tuesday, June 22. The big story is that a federal judge has allowed a whopping class-action sex-discrimination suit against Wal-Mart. It looks a little like a repeat from Monday night, with female HMO victims replaced by female CEO victims. CBS has no Wal-Mart spokesman, just upset female employees and attorneys. NBC at least features a Wal-Mart voice while noting, “Wal-Mart is already reeling from accusations of employing illegal immigrants and shaving hours off time cards.” ABC includes Wal-Mart’s CEO, and highlights immediate pressure to settle: “Lawyers for the women workers told ABC News that if they win the case at trial, a jury award could approach a billion dollars, but money isn’t everything.” The networks express no concern that Wal-Mart’s litigation problems might result in layoffs or higher prices.
Tom Brokaw promises: “Coming up later on NBC Nightly News: Former President Clinton kicks off his book tour in a frenzy that would make Elvis proud.” Andrea Mitchell’s story is soft-soap: “From coast to coast…the selling of Bill Clinton. His fans have been lining up since noon yesterday…midnight in Washington….Dawn in New York, rain or shine…it is the Bill Clinton book club.” At least she mentions that Clinton had a $10 million advance to try to earn back for his publisher. CBS’s Jim Axelrod does a story lamenting that the book’s buzz carries too much focus on Monicagate. Unasked question: Whose decision was that?
Wednesday, June 23. The big-impact story tonight on all three networks is an anonymous CIA officer we’re told has been one of our government’s top Osama bin Laden trackers. Shadowed in black, he sounds amazingly like John Kerry, saying that we are losing the War on Terror because we waged an unnecessary war in Iraq that only delighted Osama. He also sees nothing but disaster in Afghanistan. He makes grand and scary predictions that al-Qaeda is still capable of plotting an attack on American soil even more lethal than 9/11. He has an “anonymous” book coming out in three weeks titled Imperial Hubris. We never learn anything about this man, or his possible personal or political affiliations.
Is this fair? Haven’t the networks already promoted a parade of anti-Bush books this year–Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, Joe Wilson? (Wait, correction: Wilson’s book was crowded out by Abu Ghraib.) Here’s one way to think about it: If this CIA officer had written an anonymous book in the Clinton era with the message that President Clinton’s anti-terrorism policy was poor and could lead to a lethal attack on American soil, would he have received major publicity on the national TV news without any knowledge of his personal background? Answer: Try to find an author of a non-anonymous book questioning Clinton’s defense policies who was a sensation on all three network news programs. Good luck.
Thursday, June 24. All three play up dramatic incidents of violence against Iraqis, in which more than 100 were killed in systematic attacks. The daily soundtrack out of Iraq builds anxiety at home, helping to fuel negative views about Bush’s waging of the terror war, and casting doubt as to whether the war in Iraq was “worth it.” This is not to say, of course, that attacks in Iraq are not newsworthy–but equally newsworthy are our successes there, which certainly do not receive equal airtime.
The two political stories of the day are the president’s Oval Office testimony in the Valerie Plame leak case and the Supreme Court ruling supporting Dick Cheney’s position against releasing internal energy-task-force documents. Strangely, the anchors highlight how rare it is for presidents to testify in federal criminal proceedings without mentioning that the last president certainly did–for the Kenneth Starr investigation.
Cheney’s presumably good-guy, anti-secrecy adversaries from the liberal Sierra Club and the conservatives-turned-mugwumps at Judicial Watch are blandly identified as “opponents” (ABC), “environmentalists” (CBS), and “interest groups” (NBC). In the Clinton era, Judicial Watch was routinely labeled “conservative”–when it was mentioned at all, that is. Peter Jennings wouldn’t even say the words “Judicial Watch” on the air before the group sued Cheney in 2002. In all the coverage, secrecy is underlined, as in this introduction from Dan Rather: “The Bush administration would like to keep the workings of Vice President Cheney’s energy-policy task force secret. Environmentalists and others want to know what’s been going on and who’s been doing it behind closed doors.” No reference is made to Hillary Clinton’s health-care task force.
Friday, June 25. Liberal bias is not unremitting; occasionally, the networks relent. After airing several televised segments with far greater promotional value, ABC and NBC both offer “truth squad” pieces rebutting claims in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. CBS and NBC both ignore the New York Times article finding contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, a link they both disparaged nine evenings before while mischaracterizing the 9/11 commission’s finding of no “collaborative relationship” between the two. (ABC, which used the stronger words “no connection” on June 16, reports on the Times story.)
One story suggests a regular spin to look out for over the next few months. NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell touts John Kerry’s move to the center: “At every stop…on a range of issues, Kerry tries to line up in the center, hoping to reach beyond his own Democratic base…Kerry as corporate friendly….Eager to tap fiscal restraint…and national defense.” The whole piece lays out the thinking of “senior aides,” who are “feeling no pressure from the far left.” (Now, there are two words rare on television!) They say Kerry is “working off a successful Clinton centrist model,” not the Gore populist model. Kerry’s shifting rhetoric is, again, newsworthy–but so too is the fact that, prior to Kerry’s presidential bid, the senator had long enjoyed a reputation for being a fervent “Massachusetts liberal.” This network coverage, then, would be greatly improved by a laugh track–and mention of Kerry’s lifetime American Conservative Union score of 5 out of 100.
Tim Graham is director of media analysis for the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va.