FLORIDA, October 25, 2012 — Most people would probably say that the media are biased.
Those on each side of the political spectrum are likely to perceive bias in very different ways. This makes it difficult to identify actual instances of views passing for news.
Over the last several years, journalist Bernie Goldberg has devoted his career to analyzing media coverage. While this has not come without controversy, it has resulted in a string of bestselling books and a revived conversation about the role that bias plays.
Now, Goldberg tells us about why cable news has become so popular over the last few decades, how the internet has allowed an opinion-based press to flourish, whether or not bias is mostly a left-leaning phenomenon, and much more.
Joseph F. Cotto: For millions of Americans, television news serves as a major source of information. Today, cable and network stations are competing to dominate the future of televised news. Which do you believe will ultimately win out?
Bernie Goldberg: I’m with the great American philosopher Yogi Berra who said, “Making predictions is hard, especially when they’re about the future.”
So the honest answer is I don’t know which will win out, but I know that people who are serious about news won’t be getting it from network TV as we move forward. The network news audience is aging, and when viewers (excuse the bluntness) die off, they won’t have kids coming in to replace them. Younger people are getting – and will continue to get – their news online. News junkies will still watch cable, because cable gives the viewer more than the old network model of a 30-minute news program, which is really about 21 minutes after commercials.
So, cable will do well in the future, online news will also do well, and network news will attract people for whom news isn’t a big deal. But the networks probably will continue to do well in the morning – and that’s where the real money is anyway.
Cotto: Why, in your opinion, have cable news stations gained such traction over the last few decades?
Goldberg: We live in the United States of Entertainment – and cable is a lot more entertaining than network news. Also, there’s a lot of opinion on cable TV and opinion is more interesting to a lot of folks than “mere” facts. Viewers like to have their own views validated. So they pick the cable channel that reflects their biases and they become loyal viewers.
Cotto: Whether the station in question is a network affiliate or a cable channel, most people would probably expect some sort of bias to be present. Do you agree with this idea?
Goldberg: I don’t think people see it as “bias” when it’s something they agree with. So if Fox tilts right that doesn’t bother conservatives; they don’t necessarily see it as bias. And when MSNBC goes left, liberals don’t see that as bias either. They see it as “truth.”
Cotto: Print publications, by and large, are going the way of the dinosaurs. Internet news outlets, meanwhile, are flourishing. During the years ahead, do you believe that this will contribute to or detract from the problem of media bias?
Goldberg: As bad as the so-called mainstream media can be in terms of liberal bias, they’re not in the same league with what passes for news on a lot of sites on the Internet. Serious news sites on the Internet at least try to play fair; their biases aren’t blatant. But the Internet has a million places you can go for “news” – and a lot of those places are unapologetically biased, drawing readers who revel in that particular kind of bias.
Cotto: Today, anyone can favor a news outlet on the basis of his or her political stances. In the long run, won’t this allow media bias to run even more rampant?
Goldberg: Yes, and here’s why: If a news outlet can make money catering to customers who like its kind of bias, the news outlet will continue to furnish that kind of bias.
Cotto: It is often said that media bias is more prevalent on the left than on the right. From your perspective, is this true?
Goldberg: If you’re asking about the so-called mainstream media, yes, there is more bias on the left. That’s because the MSM is populated – overwhelmingly populated – by liberal journalists, who see the world through a liberal prism. I’ve never argued that there was a conspiracy to slant the news in a liberal direction. It’s simply Groupthink. Too many people who see things pretty much the same way in the same newsroom. In a sense, it’s worse than a conspiracy. A conspiracy wouldn’t be tolerated. This is more subtle. And more harmful.
Cotto: Some say that in order to moderate America’s political tone, the media will have to be restructured. Do you believe that this is actually the case?
Goldberg: I believe that the media play a role in polarizing the nation’s politics. For some media figures – especially on talk radio – “compromise” is akin to a crime against humanity. And politicians, I think, fear that if they give in a little – if they work with the other side – they’ll incur the wrath of some media person with a big megaphone. If some big radio personality said Barack Obama was born on Neptune, I’m pretty sure more than a few politicians would be afraid to say he wasn’t.
Cotto: On both sides of the political spectrum, new media outlets have emerged to seriously challenge established sources. Does this have anything to do with bias, or might other factors be at work?
Goldberg: Let’s say a major TV network puts out a story that is just plain false. Let’s say the false report is aimed at a conservative politician. If some news site on the Internet says, “Hey that’s not true and here’s why” … that’s not bias. That’s journalism. In fact, the initial false news story from the supposedly objective network may in fact have been based on bias.
Cotto: Many people happily remember the days when alphabet networks and urban newspapers dominated our country’s media structure. Was this really such an idyllic time?
Goldberg: No. But we didn’t know any better back then. Who could have imagined the Internet and social media? When the MSM got something wrong, there was virtually nobody to correct them from the outside. Now there is. More information – as long as it’s accurate – is always better than less (as obvious as that may sound).
Cotto: How did you become such a prominent journalist? Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Goldberg: My first job out of college (Rutgers University) was at the biggest news organization on the planet, in America’s biggest city: The Associated Press in New York. It’s been downhill ever since. (Joke) After that I worked in local TV in Miami, then went to CBS News, where I worked for 28 years.
In 1996 – while I was still a correspondent at CBS News – I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about liberal bias in the news, a column that touched off the media equivalent of World War III. That op-ed changed my professional life – for the better! It led me to write Bias, a number 1 national best-seller (and four other best-sellers), and it led me to commentary on Fox, where I get to say things about the media that, I think, need to be said. I’m also a correspondent on Real Sports on HBO, the most important serious magazine show on TV along with 60 Minutes.
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