Goldberg's Bias

The following is a formal review of the book BIAS by Bernarg Goldberg.

Bibliographic Citation: Bernard Goldberg. Bias: a CBS insider exposes how the media distort the news. (Washington, DC: Regnery Pub., 2002).

About the Author: Bernard Goldberg is a sports reporter for HBO and a former Emmy Award-winning reporter for CBS News (where he worked from 1972 to 2000). Goldberg began his career in journalism after graduating from Rutgers in 1967 and accepting a position with the Associated Press. In 1969, he worked for network affiliate WTVJ in Miami, and was hired by CBS in 1972 to work at the network's Atlanta news bureau. During his tenure at CBS, he became best known as a correspondent from 1981-1988 for the news anchored by Dan Rather.

Abstract: Goldberg submits his view as a journalist “insider” that the news industry suffers from a “tilt” to the left of the political spectrum. For years, he claims he complained to CBS news editors and executives about the one-sided perspectives offered by the news staff without success. After writing a 1996 editorial in the Wall Street Journal that accused CBS of bias and attacked a story by Eric Engberg about Republican Steve Forbes' flat tax proposal, Goldberg describes this event as the beginning of his “fall from grace” in the CBS organization.

Goldberg uses his story and the anecdotal evidence he has gathered to launch a broader charge of left-wing bias at the broadcast networks, and to explain why the big three TV networks have been losing viewers. He explains that the devotion to ratings and to the corporate business model causes the liberal elites of news organizations (such as Dan Rather, towards whom he directs his most scathing comments) to become blind to their individual biases, resulting in the liberal bias he criticizes.

Goldberg charges that this bias becomes institutionalized by members of the media establishment who honestly believe that their perspectives are balanced. He argues that the media elites of our society have a blind spot when it comes to their biases and that this blind spot causes them to reinforce their liberal stances.

Review: Scholars expecting a book length academic study of bias in reporting will be disappointed by Goldberg’s book. No scientific sampling methodology, content analyses or rigorous field research is used to collect evidence for any of Goldberg’s claims. Instead, he cites anecdotal observations about particular high profile issues like AIDS and homelessness and describes how he has seen political correctness and an overriding desire for "diversity" biases their coverage.

Although the cases he presents do raise questions, several problems with Goldberg’s presentation style influence his conclusions.

    1. Elites or Liberals? In Bias, the author struggles to distinguish the difference between the terms “liberal” and “elite.” In fact, there are passages where Goldberg uses these terms interchangeably, suggesting that the elitism of the news industry somehow causes professionals like Dan Rather to become liberal. However, not all elites are liberal and not all liberals are elite, and Goldberg never provides a justification why he thinks there is a link between these two characteristics.

    Goldberg's "media elite" is more accurately defined as a media establishment made up of executives, editors and reporters bound together not in a liberal sociopolitical hierarchy, but by their corporate interest to present news and make money doing it. Goldberg ignores this tension between the long-standing liberal journalistic ideals that reporters must challenge tradition with the market forces of the media institution itself. In fact, early in the book, Goldberg claims that money and ratings are the media’s only goals. “Ratings are the God that network executives and their acolytes worship,” he asserts. However, if ratings were really the god that network executives and news professionals worship, one would think the media would be “tilted” to the right, not the left.

    2. “Left” vs. “Right.” Goldberg identifies bias using terms like “left” and “right” without articulating what the different biases assume or promote. A casual reading of Bias would lead a reader to believe that the left to right span of the political spectrum is defined easily by pro or con positions on the often mentioned political issues: gun control, prayer in public school, legal abortions, the death penalty and affirmative action.

    Should a reader of Bias agree that these particular issues define the “liberal” from the “conservative,” he or she will undoubtedly agree with Goldberg’s portrayal of the network news professionals as “liberal.” However, by the same test, Goldberg would appear to refute his own claim to “liberalness,” since he actively supports the “right” side of the issues that prove the reportage is “leftist.” Goldberg apparently does not allow for the possibility of a non-polar political perspective in the media.

    3. Personal Attacks Goldberg dedicates the largest portions of his book to describe the personal conflicts he has been involved in with network news personnel. He alternates claims that he has been unjustly accused of personal attacks with actual scathing personal attacks directed at the claimants. He reserves his most abrasive assaults for Dan Rather himself, who he portrays as crazy, possessive and vindictive.

    These charges may be justified (the reader is only presented Goldberg’s account), but the incendiary manner that Goldberg launches his criticism often resorts to childish insults. For example, he writes in response to statements that Rather (whom he refers to as “The Dan”) has made in public, “On what planet, Dan, would that be?” and “Could Dan Rather be the only person in the entire Unites States of America who doesn’t know this?” Bernard also levels heavy-handed criticism at the corporate structure of the news industry, a group he calls “the news mafia.” He describes personal encounters and arguments he has had with media executives as analogous to scenes from the Sopranos or The Godfather. However, most of this criticism is unsupported by any form of evidence, other than personal anecdote.

    4. What is News? Goldberg does present a few golden opportunities to support his thesis. Deep within the book, Goldberg addresses the selection of events that reporters choose to cover. He mentions that since events are arguably infinite in number, and the time and space available to reporters and news media are limited, reporters and editors can't cover everything. Thus, decisions about the “newsworthiness” of news must be made. Goldberg asserts that these selections are overwhelmingly liberal.

    Unfortunately, the only support he provides for this statement is merely anecdotal. The author notes that network news has been covering the issue of estranged fathers who refuse to pay child support, but these same media outlets have decided to ignore news about men falsely accused of being deadbeat fathers. For example, the legal system docked John Johnson's paycheck even after he proved that he was a different person who coincidently had the same name as the deadbeat John Johnson whom they sought. Another example: a court ruled that Tony Jackson has to pay alimony to his former girlfriend until her baby reaches the age of 18, even though DNA testing has proven that the child is not his. Goldberg holds up the omission of these examples as proof that the media are liberally biased in their story selection.

    However, these anecdotes are not entirely convincing. In order to follow Goldberg’s logic, one must assume that any omission of a story is an example of bias. A more systematic portrayal of the newsgathering and reporting process would better illustrate the presence of the “titling” the author claims is pervasive.

    5. Statistical “evidence”Goldberg does use statistics on occasion. Unfortunately, when he does, he often assumes that these statistics speak for themselves. Citing a 1985 nationwide survey by the Los Angeles Times, he points out that "23 percent of the public said they were liberal; 55 percent of the journalists described themselves as liberal." However, Goldberg makes no attempt to cite the source of this information or evaluating its findings. Additionally, quoting research reported in the March 2000 issue of Brill's Content magazine, "Seventy four percent of Republicans believe that most journalists are more liberal than they are.... Perhaps more surprisingly, Democrats also perceive the liberal media tilt: 47 percent believe that most journalists are more liberal than they are...."

    These examples do support the notion that there is a disparity in how journalists perceive their own political leanings and how non-journalists perceive the journalists’ leanings. However, these statistics do not prove that liberal biases DO EXIST, only that liberal biases ARE PERCEIVED to exist. Other support for liberal bias come from voting records of journalists, which Goldberg presents as showing a tendency to support Democratic candidates. However, Goldberg does not cite a sampling methodology for the figures he presents, nor does he describe how representative the figures are of the industry (for example, some journalists go on record as refusing to vote to maintain the appearance of neutrality). Goldberg also provides statistics measuring the leanings on particular political issues among journalists.

    As previously mentioned, these issue stances are taken as indicators of political stance by Goldberg without justification. And once again, Goldberg cites no methodology of the findings or the sample in his analysis. In short, Goldberg’s report of biased reporting does not actually look at the reporting practices themselves, but at anecdotal artifacts that he uses to support his position. In a very real sense, Goldberg appears to be practicing the very essence of the “tilted” journalism he criticizes.

Conclusions and Summary: Bernard Goldberg brings a wealth of experience and anecdotal evidence to bear on his analysis of the American news media. He makes several good insights and portrays the surfaces of interesting relationships within the news industry. Unfortunately, Goldberg does often not support these insights and they are often buried among personal attacks against Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, as well as the executive production staff of CBS.

Much of Bias reads like an angry rant against particular individuals (most notably Dan Rather) or an apologetic accounting of his own efforts within the CBS organization. Goldberg’s book is an accessible read and is very entertaining, but one wonders if it might have been better suited as a personal letter to Dan Rather instead of a mass-marketed work.