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Jacob Weisberg: See no liberal bias, hear no liberal bias

posted at 11:08 am on October 18, 2009 by

The creator of Slate’s Bushisms, the author of a book called “The Bush Tragedy,” and a lifelong liberal writer is calling Fox News “unAmerican” for having—wait for it—a conservative bias. He is also accusing Fox of forcing MSNBC and CNN to swing to the left instead of maintaining their world-renowned objectivity in news reporting. (Yes indeed, that was sarcasm.) (Via Hot Air.)

Consider Fox’s Web story on the episode. It quotes five people. Two of them work for Fox. All of them assert that administration officials are either wrong in substance or politically foolish to criticize the network. No one is cited supporting Dunn’s criticisms or saying that it could make sense for Obama to challenge the network’s power. It’s a textbook example of a biased journalism.

Meanwhile, ABC presented what was essentially an infomercial on Obamacare earlier this year. A CNN reporter went off on the people she was supposed to be objectively interviewing, and ultimately lost her job—probably because she’s not supposed to be so overt in her liberal bias. But that’s objective journalism. (Say, did ABC present the other side of the healthcare debate in its informercial? I’m thinking not.)

That Rupert Murdoch may tilt the news rightward more for commercial than ideological reasons is beside the point. What matters is the way that Fox’s model has invaded the bloodstream of the American media. By showing that ideologically distorted news can drive ratings, Ailes has provoked his rivals at CNN and MSNBC to develop a variety of populist and ideological takes on the news. In this way, Fox hasn’t just corrupted its own coverage. Its example has made all of cable news unpleasant and unreliable.

That’s amazing… Fox is not only responsible for tilting itself right, but it is also responsible for the leftward tilt of the other cable news networks. But that’s not the biggest load of bull in the piece. This is:

What’s most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its century-old tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups. Media independence is a 20th-century innovation that has never fully taken root in many other countries that do have a free press. The Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has applied at Fox is un-American, so much so that he has little choice but go on denying what he’s doing as he does it. For Murdoch, Ailes, and company, “fair and balanced” is a necessary lie. To admit that their coverage is slanted by design would violate the American understanding of the media’s role in democracy and our idea of what constitutes fair play. But it’s a demonstrable deceit that no longer deserves equal time.

I have three words in response: William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst’s reputation triumphed in the 1930s as his political views changed. In 1932, he was a major supporter of Roosevelt. His newspapers energetically supported the New Deal throughout 1933 and 1934. Hearst broke with FDR in spring 1935 when the President vetoed the Patman Bonus Bill. Hearst papers carried the old publisher’s rambling, vitriolic, all-capital-letters editorials, but he no longer employed the energetic reporters, editorialists and columnists who might have made a serious attack. His newspaper audience was the same working class that Roosevelt swept by three-to-one margins in the 1936 election. In 1934 after checking with Jewish leaders to make sure the visit would prove of benefit to Jews, Hearst visited Berlin to interview Adolf Hitler. Hitler asked why he was so misunderstood by the American press. “Because Americans believe in democracy,” Hearst answered bluntly, “and are averse to dictatorship.”[6]

A century-old tradition of independence? The deuce you say! (That’s a line from the 1930s. Or thereabouts.)

Weisberg is absolutely entitled to his own opinion. But he is not entitled to his own facts, and he is making those facts up out of whole cloth. There was no objective press in the 1930s, and the myth of the unbiased media is a new one, from less than fifty years ago, and I think it was spread by the media people themselves. The phrase “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America” was uttered by Lyndon Johnson after an editorial by the CBS anchor about Vietnam in 1968. Somehow, that doesn’t strike me as a century of unbiased media. The media was anti-Vietnam, anti-Richard Nixon (well, so was I, but that’s beside the point), pro-Democrat, anti-Republican, and absolutely not objective. It has had the illusion of objectivity for decades, and that illusion is courtesy of its own teachings in journalism schools, where, somehow, the professors manage to insist that the mainstream media outlets are all paragons of objectivity and unbiased reporting. The fact that everything skews liberal and Democrat is pooh-poohed as the ravings of the “vast, right-wing conspiracy”—the one that caused the Clinton impeachment.

And of course, Weisberg’s answer to the Fox News so-called bias? For “respectable” reporters to stop appearing on Fox at all.

By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations.

Apparently, editing Slate and creating the “Bushism of the Day” column—which ran even after George W. Bush was no longer in office—is considered legitimate news. But having opinion shows that run counter to the mainstream media’s wishes? Well. That’s just plain un-American.

Really, Newsweek is just embarrassing itself by running tripe like this.


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Up until the 1960s, big cities usually had anywhere from 3-7 papers, each with their own ideological viewpoint (people forget that in New York in the late 30s and 1940s, the newspaper PM was created by people who thought the New York Times and the (then-liberal) New York Post were too conservative. It ultimately failed, but the mindset lived on to create The Village Voice and the alternative left press in the 1950s and 60s. The problem today is too many in the media want to act like the alternative left press while working for news outlets that in a world of one-paper metro areas, are often the only choice readers have (the TV networks in contrast have always followed the Times’ lead, and have as a result followed the Times’ descent into overt advocacy journalism under Pinch over the past 20 years).

As for the White House’s attacks on Fox and their supporters in the media like Weisberg (whose time as the political columnist at New York Magazine a decade ago made me hearken for the nostalgic, unbiased days of Joe Klein), I would guess the next step will be some sort of de facto attempt to blackball liberal reporters who dare to appear on Fox on a regular basis. Juan Williams already has caught a ton of grief for daring to be a regular talking hear on the network, and I would guess Mara Liason is already catching flack behind the scenes for her continued appearances on “Fox News Sunday” and “Special Report”.

jon1979 on October 18, 2009 at 11:53 AM

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Allahpundit on October 18, 2009 at 12:31 PM

that illusion is courtesy of its own teachings in journalism schools, where, somehow, the professors manage to insist that the mainstream media outlets are all paragons of objectivity and unbiased reporting

I don’t believe that’s an accurate observation: Via Goffman and sundry neo- and post-Marxist theorists, the underlying theme, not just in journalism classes but throughout the humanities, is that the mainstream and side-stream media skew to the right: From this perspective, even MSNBC is “center right deviationist,” or, at best, liberal corporatist. It’s mere existence as a corporate-controlled, commercial network already ensures that it will interpret events and opinions from what the Marxists would once have been less shy about calling a “bourgeois” perspective. Whatever a Keith Olbermann says, his show is already part of the ideological state apparatus. Indeed, there’s an extensive esoteric vocabulary for describing the character and role of people like Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews in supporting the status quo and providing an illusion of oppositional thinking.

The vast majority of working journalists (like other humanities students) start leaving “what they learned in school” behind as soon as they find employment. But they’re not inclined to guilty consciences about tilting to the left.

CK MacLeod on October 18, 2009 at 12:33 PM

This is Weisberg channeling his inner “Joe McCarthy”

J_Crater on October 18, 2009 at 3:04 PM

In the The Last Lion by William Manchester, a bio of Winston Churchill, there was no such thing as an unbiased press in England and the US between 1900 and 1940. The papers where unabashedly conservative or liberal. They were honest about it and when you bought the paper you knew what you were getting. Where did the myth of an unbiased press originate?

Grunch42 on October 18, 2009 at 5:33 PM

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