8 October 2004

Bias by Bernard Goldberg

I recently read Bernard Goldberg's book Bias. Goldberg, a CBS news correspondent for 28 years, claims that a liberal media bias pervades the news put out by the mainstream TV broadcast stations and, by extenstion, the elite print media (TV news source of ideas for stories). The book provides a number of good examples of bias, to include the coverage of:
  • Homelessness during the Reagan era
  • The threat of AIDS from heterosexual sex
  • The Forbes flat-tax proposal
  • The absence of mothers from the home and latchkey kids
Goldberg doesn't feel that the news slant is part of an explicit conspiracy but rather claims it is due to:

(1) the cultural background of the people who go into news reporting, and
(2) the current marketing of news as money-making infotainment.

Regarding homelessness, Goldberg discusses the media's attempt to portray atypical examples (e.g., white families who have become homeless due to sudden job-loss) while remaining silent about what most people know to be the case--that the majority of the homeless are in that condition due to addictions or mental problems.

My own observations of homeless people completely agrees with Goldberg's observations. Over several years, I watched homeless people who frequented the same coffee shops that I did and found that 100% were clearly delusional. This was a surprising finding since many seemed highly intelligent and coherent much of the time. Of course, my sample wasn't very scientific and I don't want to cast dispersions on the homeless who don't fit this profile. Even so, I do agree with Goldberg that the media do us a great disservice when they distort situations in order to create stories featuring only people that their audiences can relate to (good looking white people).

Goldberg's analysis of the coverage of the AIDS epidemic is also right on. In fact, I remember years ago having conversations with friends in which we discussed how our observations of the epidemic's spread was completely at odds with the portrait painted in the media. News stations at the time (and pretty much any information source) were claiming that AIDS was going to spread at the same rate among heterosexuals and homosexuals. The gay lobby, and those sympathetic to its cause, had a great stake in the dissemination of this misinformation since it created more willingness to fund a cure for AIDS. What many of us noticed was that the disease wasn't spreading among most heterosexuals, and as Goldberg points out, the data also clearly shown that the vast majority of cases have been the result of either homosexual anal sex with an infected person or sex with someone who was injecting drugs. The small slice of the statistical pie that doesn't fit these two categories could very well be due to people lying (many people don't want to share certain facts about their sex-life or drug use, after all). I would agree with Goldberg here that truth does matter. If someone is sympathetic to the gay cause, it seems to me that instead of distorting facts, they should show stories that demonstrate to the public that these are indeed many wonderful people who are being ravaged by an awful disease and the public should therefore be doing more to help them.

The third example (actually first in the book) is Forbes flat-tax proposal which was described by Dan Rather as "wacky." I think that we can all agree that Rather wasn't remaining neutral (although, in all fairness, "wacky" and other such terms seem to be in no short supply on Fox network). On the other hand, the flat-tax proposal, and Forbes discussion of it, was truly inane. The idea that the wealthy would pay fewer taxes and somehow the poor would benefit (the same wealthy class that has taken virtually all the profit generated in the last 3 decades leaving the bottom quintile without a single cent)--it's hard to place such mathematical acrobatics in a good light. Perhaps Rather should have called the proposal "creative" or "interesting" (in the way my cooking is "interesting"). I would also like to point out that the Green Party platform, which is distinct and original and, I feel, very worthy of being part of the national debate, has never even been mentioned anywhere in the news to the best of my knowledge. We Greens would be quite happy to be called "wacky" if that's what it took to get people to consider our ideas.

 The fourth example Goldberg discusses--women in the workplace--is where I have some real problems with his analysis, and I think his discussion of this issue shows that he is a bit further out there in right field than he wants to admit. Goldberg discusses the media's coverage of the problem of latchkey kids--children who sit around at home as the parents work. Goldberg claims that the media fails to discuss research showing the problems such kids have compared to kids with a mother at home. The solution Goldberg proposes is to give equal time to conservative voices calling for women to quit working and go back into the home.

There are major problems with this entire argument, but I'll just discuss a few. First, why does Goldberg assume that this issue has two alternative viewpoints (1-women should work, 2-we should return to the 1950s with women baking cookies)? One could imagine countless other alternatives, such as having men stay home, or having extended families living together (an idea ridiculed throughout the media), or ensuring that childcare is integrated with the workplace so that people can see their kids more frequently throughout the day (an idea that was effectively tried in Russia).

Goldberg also clearly doesn't understand how research works. He ridicules the media portrayal of one major study as "controversial," but I remember the study he refers to, and it was controversial. Actually, most studies that make strong causal claims about complicated social phenomena tend to be controversial.

The last problem of course is the lunacy that the media could sit down one day and demand that women leave their professions to go back home and bake cookies. How are we going to get all the women to go along? We'll be fighting an insurgency here at home! (Although I guess we could ask Bush to rehire the Taliban. They fought well against Russia and there are probably a few Taliban clerics out of work that could do the job.)

Last but not least, Goldberg repeatedly cites Fox News as an objective news source. Yes, you heard me right. Fox News! I used to watch clips of Fox News at the gym while working out and I must say, you can watch 24 hours of the stuff and not get a single concrete fact beyond the most obvious event (a bomb went off somewhere) and without hearing a single bit of analysis by anyone qualified. Fox News is simply the broadcast equivalent of semi-intoxicated puffed-up know-nothings talking in a bar. The bias at Fox is so obvious that the transcripts could be used as textbooks on media bias. 

Goldberg's book does provide some good discussion of particular examples of bias, and his analysis is probably partly correct. However, I much prefer the more thorough-going and scholarly analysis of Chomsky in the documentary Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky, by analyzing U.S. media coverage of the Timor crisis, demonstrates in a very convincing manner that the elite media outlets such as the New York Times fixes the narrow parameters of debate which other print news and broadcast news then follow. (Actually, Goldberg makes similar statements.) Goldberg's solution of hiring more conservatives to news stations seems to miss the whole point. Until news stations develop high standards for fact-finding and analysis, I don't see how a change in employee demographics is going to fix the problem. Goldberg suggests (in an interview) that the head of a TV station could just give everyone a talking-to, telling them not to be biased. Don't we wish it was all so simple. If we hired more conservative news casters, instead of "liberal" garbage (CBS?) we'll end up with conservative garbage. There are numerous reviews of the book: Ryan Zempel (positive), Fair (negative), Vinod (Libertarian) and Zombie Hotties and Vampire Vixens.


Mitch H. said...

It's been recently noted on a number of conservative blogs that the Kerrys would be paying higher taxes under one of the standard strict flat-tax proposals - either the 18.5% or the 19% versions - since they managed to get their current marginal tax rate down to 12.8%. Personally, I'm not in favor of flat taxes, because I'm confident of the capacity of those with top-tier tax professionals to avoid the brunt of any scheme, no matter how simple or fiendishly clever. But I have to say, I at least respect those willing to bash their brains out on that particular brick wall.

I used to take the standard liberal line on Fox News, until I started watching them during the war. Aside from a tedious tendency to obsess on court dramas which I don't find in the least interesting, relevant, or important, Fox News doesn't suck. They benefit from a wonderful lack of Larry King, that's for sure. O'Reilly is still best in very, very small doses, however.

BTW, you cast aspersions, not dispersions.

Karlo said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments Mitch. One drawback of blogging is that few blogsurfers stop long enough to read the longer posts. As for your comments, I'm still amazed that people find Fox objective but I'll have to take your word for it. I've given up on all TV news. I remember watching a thinktank discussion for 30 minutes on C-span where one member, towards the end, claimed that they had covered more substance than an entire day of TV news. I think they were being kind to the news outlets. And thanks for the lexical advice--the team of secretaries and fact-checkers that are supposed to proofread my blog are all out on strike.

Scott said...

I'll restrict my comments, for the most part, to the section of the post on homelessness, though I think there are some serious misrepresentations in the section on AIDS as well.

I worked as a researcher in the area of homelessness and housing for a couple of years, and I know what you say about homelessness is way off. Admittedly, my research was done in a Canadian city, and there are details of public policy and timing that differ with the United States, but the basic phenomenon is the same. As best I can remember the data, there is a significant minority (but still just a minority!) of people who are experiencing absolute homelessness who are also suffering from serious mental illness. Yes, one piece of a genuine public policy solution to the problem (something neither the Canadian nor U.S. governments seem very interested in) would be an increase in innovative and diverse supportive housing solutions for people with serious mental illness. Incidence of depression among homeless people is more prevelant than that, but I think I'd pretty darn depressed if I was homeless, too.

In subjecting your informal coffee shop survey to a more rigorous analysis, I think one thing to think about is how you identified people as being homeless. There is a sort of stereotypical aesthetic that middle-class folk tend to associate with homelessness, even though there are lots of people who are homeless who we couldn't pick out of a crowd, and there are people who have that aesthetic who are housed. Another factor is that survival while experiencing absolute homelessness leads some people to adopt ways of functioning that are different from the middle-class norm, but are not in and of themselves indicative of mental illness.

In the city where I was doing this research there were employed people who were homeless; there were university students who were homeless; there were many women who were homeless because of experiences of violence from men in their families. The root causes of homelessness are lack of affordable housing, an economic system that depends on keeping some people in brutal poverty, and lack of support services for things like mental illness, substance abuse, and physical disabilities. Access to economic resources and housing is even tighter for people that experience racism and discrimination, i.e. Aboriginal peoples and people of colour, and often these populations are overrepresented among the homeless because of that.

Karlo said...

Thanks for the long and reflective post. I should buckled down at some point and read some hard research on the topic.