What would it look like if Fox News produced a segment about bias in the media? Certainly it would follow the standard Fox format: conservative activists such as Accuracy in Media’s Cliff Kincaid “balanced” by columnist Clarence Page, along with Fox anchor Brit Hume and Fox contributor Juan Williams. After due deliberation, they would gravely agree that the media, sadly, has an obvious liberal tilt.
Such a segment on media bias does exist. It’s not on Fox, though; it’s at the Newseum, America’s “Interactive Museum of News” in Washington, D.C. The Newseum reopened last Friday amid great hoopla after a move to a giant new building near the Smithsonian and an extremely expensive redesign.
Where did the Newseum get this Fox ethos? Perhaps it’s a bizarre coincidence. Or perhaps it’s that the video is part of an exhibit funded by $10 million from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Apart from Page, Kincaid, Hume and Juan Williams, the only other person interviewed in the mini-documentary is NBC anchor Brian Williams. Williams is an admirer of Rush Limbaugh whom conservative pollster Frank Luntz considers the “go-to network anchor” for Congressional Republicans.
At seven minutes long, the video is like cable news in general: unbelievably superficial. It shows snippets from Bill Clinton’s angry response to questions on 9/11 from Fox’s Chris Wallace in 2006, and George H.W. Bush’s angry response to questions on the Iran-Contra scandal from CBS’ Dan Rather in 1988. Then it describes a 2006 Gallup poll in which 44% of Americans called the media “too liberal,” while 19% found it “too conservative.” Hume tells us that those who think journalists are liberals are “by and large correct,” while Brian Williams explains that until recently “conservative America” had nowhere to go for its news.
So the message, while shallow, is clear: the media is liberal, and any critique that it may have a corporate or conservative bias is so ridiculous it doesn’t even need to be voiced. (Juan Williams says journalists should be careful not to produce a story so it “fits an idea that may have come from you or from your news editor or your managing editor.” Intriguingly, the U.S. media seems to have no owners or advertisers. And certainly there are no Senior Vice Presidents.) Almost the only thing the video provides that could be called “evidence” appears in this section:
NARRATOR: The effort to avoid bias begins with language, labeling issues in the news…
BRIAN WILLIAMS: [As newscaster] “Conservative Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich today criticized Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy.” [As viewer] “Hey! Rewind that! Where’s the little label, the appellation, for Ted Kennedy? All you said is he was a Democrat from Massachusetts!”…[As himself] For the longest time, unchallenged, that’s how our business operated.
KINCAID: And that’s why conservatives and the public have gone elsewhere.
The claim Williams appears to be making—that the media labels conservatives much more often than liberals—was popularized by former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg’s 2001 book Bias. (“Bias” is also the name of the Newseum video, and the book appears in an exhibit nearby, along with Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media.) According to Goldberg:
I noticed that we [at CBS] pointedly identified conservatives as conservatives, for example, but for some crazy reason didn’t bother to identify liberals as liberals…This blindness, this failure to see liberals as anything but middle-of-the-road moderates, happens all the time on network television…In the world of Jenningses and Brokaws and Rathers, conservatives are out of the mainstream and need to be identified. Liberals, on the other hand, are the mainstream and don’t need to be identified.
This might be a worthwhile point on labeling—if it were true. However, no one ever seems to have been able to demonstrate that it is. Goldberg himself, when asked at a 2002 bookstore appearance whether he’d done a systematic analysis of who gets labeled, replied that he hadn’t because he “didn’t want this book written from a social scientist point of view.” Nonetheless, Goldberg was sure Ted Kennedy was “almost never” labeled a liberal on the evening news. This appears to be false; media critic Bob Somerby examined all references to Kennedy during the first six months of 2001, and found he was labeled as a liberal seven out of nine times. In one of his unlabeled appearances he was paired with the unlabeled Trent Lott. (The whole story is told by Somerby here.)
Geoffrey Nunberg examined whether Goldberg was correct about labeling in major papers, and found that liberal politicians were identified more often than conservative politicians. The same held true for people in other categories Goldberg mentions in Bias, including celebrities and legal commentators. Goldberg’s strange response was to say the New York Times uses the word “conservative” more often than “liberal.” Nunberg pointed out Goldberg “didn’t even try to screen out occurrences of ‘conservative’ that referred to European political parties, business suits, or investment strategies, not to mention occurrences of ‘liberal’ that referred to loan repayment terms and helpings of gravy.”
So the Newseum video, while telling visitors how liberal the news is, precisely embodies the progressive case about what’s wrong with the media: the right wing makes claims with no basis in reality; the corporate press mindlessly absorbs and repeats them; and people to the left of Clarence Page are completely shut out. And it’s all controlled by the people who pay for it.
Whether this can change at the Newseum is hard to say, but a good way to tell will be whether this video is ever altered. Certainly it will be if the people involved could be taken at their word. The Newseum has told the Washington Post that contributors have no influence over the exhibits. The News Corporation claims in a panel about its funding that “It has always been our company’s firm belief that only multiple voices, free from political interference, can ensure a vital democracy.” And in the video, Brian Williams himself says this:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: I’m asking that our viewers bring a certain amount of skepticism…I want to be questioned on my facts.
For anyone concerned about what gets codified in museums as “history,” now may be a good time to start questioning.