NEW YORK, July 8 (UPI) -- This new book "Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism" (Encounter Books, 278 pages, $25.95) will break your heart.
I've worked in journalism all my life, and I had no idea any of this was going on. All through the 1990s, every time Rush Limbaugh would accuse the media of a liberal bias, I would just chuckle it away as the usual sort of right-wing paranoia we've been dealing with since the Nixon administration. But William McGowan has written a carefully researched analysis of news coverage in the '90s, showing that ... it's TRUE.
It's even worse than liberal bias.
He describes newsrooms full of little Bolsheviks-in-training, who have party lines on all sorts of issues, from affirmative action to crime to AIDS, and who consciously manipulate stories, fail to cover stories, and belittle stories that run counter to their political views. After reading this book, it's difficult to take seriously The New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald or Los Angeles Times, just to name the more egregious examples.
Newspapers have always been bent in one ideological direction or another, usually by their publishers. The Pulitzer Prize, after all, is named after one of the foremost practitioners of partisan bias. What's intriguing about this new era of yellow journalism is that it's apparently engineered from below, at the reporter and managing editor level, by zealots who think the concept of "objectivity" is a tool of the Old Guard.
Some of the doctrinaire journalists don't even try to hide it. One of the most chilling moments in the book comes when a Washington Post reporter successfully convinces the paper to soft-pedal trial testimony that former Mayor Marion Barry had raped several women. She argues that the paper should use the word "coerce" instead of "rape," and when they agree with her, she says, "No use of the 'R' word. Now that's spin control!"
Reporters at a serious paper practicing "spin control"?
By the time I got to the end of the book I was all but convinced it WAS a conspiracy, just like Limbaugh said --only to read McGowan's curious assertion that he did NOT believe it was a conspiracy at all. After spending some 250 pages outlining actions that should have gotten reporters and editors fired, or at least disciplined, he kind of forgives the business as a whole by saying that "the notion of die-hard liberals standing around in the corners of newsrooms plotting to infuse news reporting with left-wing bias is a caricature." He describes, rather, a climate in the newsroom that is at odds with "free and open exchange."
I don't see much difference between a pro-active conspiracy and a climate that discourages honest reporting -- it's the classic way that corporate presidents censor and control with a wink and a nudge -- but since McGowan is such an excellent reporter and obviously spent years on this book, I'll take his word for it.
I should point out, though, that this book is nothing like the two other media-bias books that are getting as much or more attention this year. In fact, the worst thing that could happen to this book is to get lumped in with its pale look-alike versions. Bernard Goldberg's "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News" is full of anecdotes that are far from scientific, and he seems to have a grudge against his old boss Dan Rather. Ann Coulter's "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right" is mostly witty invective that trots out outdated ideas of what constitutes right and left in this country. It's an argument, not a work of scholarship, and it's not even that current. As the success of Fox News proves, there's plenty of room on the TV dial for conservative opinions.
McGowan's book is the real deal, though. He has scrupulously and meticulously gone through the reporting on several dozen "hot topic" news stories over the past ten years, supplemented that with interviews with reporters and editors involved in the coverage, and written an expose that's as shocking in its way as "The Green Felt Jungle," the stunning 1964 book that first revealed in detail how most of the state of Nevada was controlled by the mob.
In this case there's no Lucky Luciano or Frank Costello pulling the strings from behind a magic curtain -- although McGowan DOES make an argument that New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is a partisan fanatic on certain issues and not above throwing his weight around -- but there are strange organizations, meetings, conventions and corporate "diversity" policies that are specifically designed to distort what a reporter would otherwise do.
For example, if you work at the Gannett chain, which owns USA Today, you'll be evaluated according to how many minority sources are used in your stories and how many pictures of minorities appear on the news pages. If you don't use enough, you may not get promoted. Of course, having your picture in the paper is a double-edged sword, and some papers have policies encouraging the use of black and Hispanic photos if the article is positive, and DISCOURAGING their use if the article is negative. In 1990 five Buffalo police officers were arrested for narcotics trafficking. All five had been hired as part of an affirmative action plan. Editor Murray Light decided not to use their pictures at all -- apparently because he didn't want his readers to know they were black!
I don't know when or why it ended -- McGowan doesn't go into it -- but the era of the journalist as a cynical loner who doesn't join any organizations is obviously over. McGowan attends a convention called UNITY '99 at which the Black, Latino, Asian-American and Native American Journalists Associations all came together for a job fair and seminars on news coverage. (What? No Islamic Journalists Association? No Catholic Journalists to handle spin control on abusive priests?) I'd heard of these organizations, but had no idea they thought of themselves as insider "watchdogs" that are supposed to police the newsrooms of America in support of a concept called "diversity." (Remember the subtitle of the book is "How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism.")
Their received mythology involves seeing all big media organizations as historically racist, white-dominated oppressors and exclusionists, and their various agendas involve destroying that bias. This is why I called them Bolsheviks. It's an almost classic political science case study -- using historical victimization to justify taking any measures necessary, including polite lies, in the present. They also have a Soviet-style tendency to rewrite history in such a way that the original bogeyman -- white middle class America -- remains strong, vicious and worthy of ceaseless warfare.
If you're wondering why the managing editors don't just weed these people out and say, "You can join the Black Journalists Association, but don't expect to be assigned to any black issues if you do," it's because the managing editors are either members themselves or supporters of the same organizations. In a way this is more frightening than the idea that a lot of young reporters are carried away by various enthusiasms. (Kara Briggs, president of the Native American Journalists Association, says without apology, "I was born into a tribe, not a newspaper.") In other words, Lou Grant has left the building.
I remember a story years ago about Gene Roberts, the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was asked why he had to fire a young woman reporter for sleeping with someone she was writing about. "I don't care if my reporters sleep with elephants," he said, "as long as the elephant is not one of their sources."
But some of these stories from the 1990s indicate that reporters are not only sleeping with their sources, they're staying for breakfast and buying them expensive gifts.
During the Elian Gonzalez affair in 1999 and 2000, for example, several Cuban journalists on the staff of the Miami Herald openly sided with the anti-Castro families trying to keep the boy in America, and one Herald columnist was photographed in a prayer circle with the Gonzalez family. Rather than simply taking her off the story, the paper had special meetings between the publisher and the paper's Cuban-American reporters to discuss their complaints about coverage of the story.
McGowan doesn't just have a few of these examples. He has dozens. He uncovers stories of newsroom petitions circulated by reporters trying to get colleagues fired for not towing this or that party line. He describes reporting on issues like Washington's Initiative 200, a measure to ban race preferences, as being so ludicrously one-sided that it would be funny if it weren't so irresponsible. He even finds stories that are made to vanish entirely -- the black anti-Semitism in Brooklyn's Crown Heights riots of 1991, overwhelming statistical evidence that AIDS had remained primarily a gay disease long after it was politically positioned as a disease likely to strike anyone with equal probability, the cover up of the actual crimes that led to the court martial of Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn so that the public would believe she was being punished for adultery only.
All of this is related in an unemotional straightforward style, piling fact upon fact upon example upon example, until it seems like the major newspapers and TV networks are existing in some kind of parallel universe that the average American would scarcely recognize. After a point you can't help but wonder WHY and HOW our fiercely independent press could become so clumsy and compromised. This is the same press, after all, that spends much of its time detailing the slightest hypocrisy in our elected leaders -- a $100 campaign contribution from a special interest group, saying one thing and doing another, refusal to speak in plain English, disguising intentions, using code words, ignoring inconvenient evidence, manipulating statistics -- while apparently doing all the same things itself.
To his credit, McGowan wrestles with the "why" question, but to my mind doesn't really answer it. After telling a horrific story about a writer fired from the Burlington, Vt., Free Press for political incorrectness, he first gives the industry's hollow excuses -- pressure of daily deadlines, staff stretched thin, inability to get a quote from the opposition, absence of a "peg" for an unpopular story -- and then says that reporters went astray when they sought to change a business that had been overwhelmingly white and male prior to the 1980s. This is the disease that apparently motivated their fanaticism.
But I worked for many of those managing editors who would have been considered part of the Old Boys network, and I remember them differently. Most of them didn't go to college, so they had no real connection to any elite, much less the rarefied world of the Ivy League elite. Few of them belonged to any organizations at all. They despised political parties of all stripes, much less special interest groups. And to regard them as people who hated minorities and gays and inflicted some kind of white male worldview on the public is to rewrite history. In fact, many of them went to the mat for the most unpopular causes of their day, infuriating their own publishers and the local establishment alike.
In the South, where I'm from, they were often the ONLY guys hammering the civil-rights story, but they didn't do it out of any alliance with blacks or liberals. They did it because their instincts always favored the underdog. They didn't even particularly LIKE the underdog; they just thought he should get a fair break. The truth is, they tended to have a low opinion of human nature. They valued irony, hated hypocrisy, and thought every human being was at least partly a liar. You could call them misanthropists, but you couldn't call them partisans.
I miss them.
(John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)