Politics & Policy

The Long History of Media Bias

It has taken its toll on journalistic credibility.


After I watched a debate between Eliot Spitzer and Brent Bozell about whether Spitzer is a biased commentator, on his CNN program this week, I was starkly reminded of how insufferable a public personality Spitzer is, and also of how routine and brazen in their partisanship and unevenness the liberal media are. Spitzer and Bozell discussed three separate allegations that Bozell had made in his publication against Spitzer, and the former governor admitted that he was a liberal, but claimed that this did not lead to biased coverage if people of other views managed to hold their own with him in discussion (as Bozell did). Of course, this is nonsense, because the choice of subjects is Spitzer’s, most of his guests agree with him, and a good part of the program is a commentary monologue by him that is never anything but a diatribe in favor of the left-liberal line that made him so profoundly unpopular a governor even before the incident that led to his resignation.


It fell to his co-host, an animated blonde lady, to make the point, amid vigorous arm-waving, that of course Spitzer was biased, as were most people, though not as evidently as he is. By complete accident, I have seen this program a number of times in the last few weeks, and it is always the same: Eliot Spitzer is a loud, fast-talking, overbearing know-it-all, who has rehearsed his arguments and unleashes himself on guests, or directly at the camera, in a torrent of imperious blowhardism. He is even more irritating than Bill O’Reilly, because he is just as strident and ear-splitting, but more sinister. He has more than a desire to win an argument, like O’Reilly has; Spitzer has a will to dominate, to bulldoze his interlocutor. O’Reilly is opinionated, but Spitzer is belligerent. I normally move to the classical-music channel after a few minutes of either of them. But this self-adjudicated moot court Spitzer conducted about his own fairness and balance put me in mind of other recent outrages of liberal-media partisanship.


The left-wing media played up the showdown in Wisconsin over the governor’s reining in of the public-service unions with even greater ardor than the media of the Right, most of them associated with News Corp. As long as the betting was that the issue would be decided by the election of a pro-union judge, the Left touted the escalating battle as if it were a domestic Cuban Missile Crisis. When the liberal judge claimed victory by 200 votes, this was widely portrayed as the most heartwarming election since John F. Kennedy supposedly defeated Richard Nixon (with, as he put it himself, the help of “a few honest crooks”). When it emerged that a whole, largely Republican town had not been counted, and that in fact the more conservative candidate won safely enough, the story died. Only the most determined and meticulous scourers of the liberal media could find the dénouement, which was the principal reason I surmised that the conservative candidate had won after all.


The most egregious occurrence of this sort of thing in recent years was the saga of Deep Throat in the Watergate affair. In 2005, he identified himself as Mark Felt, former senior official of the FBI. He was duly lionized as one of the heroes of the Left, and the whole Watergate business was replayed again. What was almost entirely unmentioned in the mainstream national liberal media was that when Felt and an FBI colleague, Edward Miller, were accused in 1980 of criminally violating the privacy of members of the urban-terrorist Weather Underground by authorizing break-ins in their homes, Richard Nixon, although he suspected Felt was Deep Throat, offered to help them pay their legal fees and volunteered to testify on their behalf. They had the decency to decline, saying that they doubted Nixon would be helpful before a largely African-American jury in Washington, D.C. Not to be put off, Nixon required the prosecutors to call him, though he made it clear that he would be supporting the defendants. He appeared on Oct. 29, 1980, amid demonstrators outside the court and hecklers within, who were forcibly removed by U.S. marshals at the judge’s order.


Under constructive cross-examination by defense lawyers, Nixon made a strong case for “warrantless searches” and pointed out that in his first year as president there had been 40,000 bomb scares, and 3,200 bombings that killed 23 people, injured hundreds, and did $20 million of property damage. He defended the conduct of Felt and Miller as necessary to defend the lives of the innocent. They were convicted anyway, but Nixon successfully lobbied incoming President Reagan to pardon them, and sent them champagne and congratulatory notes when they were pardoned. Felt in his memoirs made no mention of this, or of his status as Deep Throat, and when he came out of that closet in 2005, his coronation was not sullied by reference, in the major media, to Nixon’s determined help to his chief accuser. The irony alone should have made it a compelling story. But it was ignored, not to say stifled.


This was of a piece with Watergate celebrity journalist Bob Woodward’s invention of a conversation in his book Veil, about the Iran-Contra affair, with former CIA director William Casey. Woodward claimed to have entered, in disguise, into Casey’s hospital room, shortly before he died and to have extracted a confession of wrongdoing from him. It was proved absolutely that Casey was not compos mentis at the time, and that his room was heavily secured from such intrusions. Clearly, Woodward’s proprietary instincts toward Washington scandals were mortally offended by being left out on this occasion, and he simply turned what purported to be a history of Iran-Contra into a novel to maintain his standing as the capital’s reigning scandal-monger.


Woodward was an enterprising journalist and though Watergate was grossly exaggerated, it was a formidable journalistic tour de force. But if a conservative commentator had taken the liberties with the facts that Woodward did over Iran-Contra, the liberal media would have crucified the myth-maker. In this case, they held their tongues and looked the other way. To see why Fox, which makes no bones about its conservative penchant, has hammered CNN, and Rush Limbaugh and others have almost ten times as many listeners as the New York Times has readers, one need look no further than these abuses of the public’s trust. Until the Left realizes that it will begin to rebuild its credibility by admitting its biases or moderating them, it will continue to lose ground.


— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.


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