Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Liberal bias – against liberalism

Posted by metaphorical on 10 May 2007

“One of the great pressures we’re facing in journalism now is, it’s a lot cheaper to hire thumb-suckers and pundits and have talk shows on the air than actually have bureaus and reporters.”

  — former CNN president Walter Isaacson to Bill Moyers

I finally watched last month’s Bill Moyers special report, “Buying the War,” which PBS has made available here.

The day after it aired on 24 April, Tom Shales had a good write-up in the Washington Post. He called it one of the most gripping and important pieces of broadcast journalism so far this year,” but added,”it’s as disheartening as it is compelling.”

It’s always depressing to learn that you’ve been had, but incalculably more so when the deception has resulted in thousands of Americans dying in the Iraq war effort.

The Moyers report starts with Bush’s 6 March 2003 so-called press conference, which was anything but. As Shales puts it: “The press conference was a sham, with Bush calling only on ‘friendly’ reporters who’d ask friendly questions.” Bush called out names from a list that was visible on podium; there was no pretense made, and the reporters themselves laughed nervously as Bush looked around after he said one of the lucky reporter’s name.

“At least a dozen times during this press conference,” Moyers says, Bush would “invoke 9/11 and al-Qaeda to justify a preemptive attack on a country that has not attacked America.” The link between al-Qaeda and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was never proved and had to be taken on faith, Moyers recalls, as did the administration claim that Hussein had developed, was developing, or might soon develop weapons of mass destruction.

Moyers does not set out to attack anyone himself; instead he tries to find out why journalists — electronic and print — behaved in ways that are supposed to be anathema to a free press in a free nation.

Isaacson, quoted above, talked about being caught between the hyper-patriotism of the country and having a strong competitor, Fox, eager to exploit it. He described pressures from big corporate advertisers telling him not to run video of killed or wounded soldiers in Afghanistan. (Similarly, newspapers were getting angry and even threatening letters when images of dead soldiers were put on the front page.) Isaacson said he told his reporters to mix in footage of 9/11, hoping that “putting the war” in context would placate the public and his advertisers.

The pressures on CNN weren’t the exception, they were the rule.

Pressures subtle and blatant were brought to bear. Phil Donahue’s nightly MSNBC talk show was virtually the only program of its type that gave antiwar voices a chance to be heard. Donahue was canceled 22 days before the invasion of Iraq, Moyers says. The reason was supposedly low ratings, but the New York Times intercepted an in-house memo in which a network executive complained: “Donahue represents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time, our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Dissent was deemed not only unpatriotic, Donahue recalls, but — perhaps even worse — “not good for business.” Most of Moyers’s report involves serious, respected journalists who let themselves be swept up in war fever and who were manipulated by the administration sources who had cozied up to them. Instead of investigating administration claims about al-Qaeda and WMDs and such, cable news offered up hours and hours of talking-head television.

At the same time as Moyers’s report, Jeff Cohen wrote about his experiences at MSNBC and the the network news channels. Cohen is the founder of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. Much of his post was excerpted from his book Cable News Confidential. Cohen saw first hand the fairness problems at CNN that Isaacson spoke of.

I know TV news better than I ever wanted to. I started appearing as a guest on CNN in the 1980s when it was the only news channel on cable. But CNN attracted competitors, as others saw how easy and relatively cheap it could be to spatter “news” across 24 hours. Over the years, I’ve been a pundit on all three such channels: I got my feet wet at CNN, waded halfway in at Fox News, where I appeared each week for five years—and then became completely submerged at MSNBC, where I was a producer and pundit until terminated for political reasons three weeks before the Iraq war.

What I found inside cable news was a drunken exuberance for sex, crime and celebrity stories, matched by a grim timidity and fear of offending the powers-that-be—especially if the powers-that-be are conservatives. The biggest fear is of doing anything that could get you, or your network, accused of being liberal.

I also found in cable news a passion for following the media pack (sometimes resembling a lynch mob)—whether in pursuit of a sex scandal or war. And a fear of finding yourself alone, asking questions no one else is asking.

Here’s Cohen’s take on Donahue’s problems at MSNBC:

And actual journalism might undermine the “show.” Stars might refuse to appear on your channel. Big “gets” from the White House would be found only on rival programs.

When Phil Donahue toughly interviewed big-name guests, MSNBC execs were petrified that the VIPs would be offended and not make return engagements. They’d complain that Phil was “badgering” the guests. “Access is everything in Washington,” Phil later told a reporter. “If you’re the executive producer at one of the big news shows and you piss off Karl Rove, you’re not going to get Condi or Rummy or any of those guests who would legitimize your show as a serious, important program.”

Cohen says that he once booked former Attorney General Ramsey Clark on Donahue’s show as a critic of the Iraq war. “Soon after, I was told it wasn’t supposed to happen; MSNBC bosses had Clark on some sort of blacklist.”

What we have, Cohen says, is a media so cowed by charges of a liberal bias that it was highly biased in the opposite direction. Regarding the two week period before and after Colin Powell’s U.N. presentation about Iraq’s weapons of mass distruction, he says, a “FAIR study of the nightly newscasts on CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS” found that:

Of the 393 people interviewed about Iraq during those crucial weeks, only three were antiwar advocates. That’s a fraction of 1 percent—a nondebate, at a time when polls showed half the country opposing a rush to war.

As I sat at my MSNBC desk watching Bush or a top associate carry on, I knew painfully well that my network would not be following the administration event with a critical view, no matter how dubious or manipulative were the official claims. To do so—to practice actual journalism—might prompt the dreaded charge of “liberal bias.”


2 Responses to “Liberal bias – against liberalism”

  1. Blue Athena said

    For me the two saddest memories of the post-911 era were 1) watching the war live on TV, and waiting to see if the protests even made it to the scroll at the bottom of the screen and 2) watching politicians flock to the capitol steps to recite the Pledge after the “under god” insertion was challenged.

    One was an utterly unethical omission by the media, and the other an absurdly dishonest act on the part of most politicians, but together the acts summed up the fear society has of both those in power and of the ignorant mob that makes up society. They each reminded me of lack of real freedom of expression even under our best hope of democracy. And these kind of acts made clear how much more restricted is speech when fear is at its peak.

  2. I had forgotten the Pledge charade. If you can be embarrassed by a bunch of old white farts you don’t care one whit for, then I was embarrassed for them. I was embarrassed for the U.S.

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