Let’s talk class again

Thomas Frank

  • Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes how the Media Distort the News by Bernard Goldberg
    Regnery, 234 pp, US $27.95, December 2001, ISBN 0 89526 190 1

You will probably be surprised to learn of the massive and virtually unchecked power that the Left holds in the United States. After all, you’ll say, aren’t the key American institutions – the Presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, the corporations – run by determined right-wingers or weak-kneed centrists? And didn’t American thinkers recently proclaim the dawn of a capitalist millennium, a ‘New Economy’ in which privatisation, deregulation and lower taxes were taken to be their own justification, while American CEOs mounted the heights of Davos and instructed the world in the timeless principles of the free market, as handed down by Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and the prophets of Silicon Valley?

If that’s what you think you will have overlooked the feature of American life that negates it all: TV news is insidiously slanted to the Left. The three broadcast TV networks, Bernard Goldberg tells us, twist the facts and distort Americans’ perception of the world to match the views of the smug, clannish liberals who control them. This isn’t to say that the broadcasting companies have carefully thought out a scheme of misinformation. The sin, according to Goldberg, is almost unconscious, a matter of – to use the term that conservatives have favoured for decades – ‘bias’.

You might expect Bias – one of the bestselling non-fiction books in America today – to be a meditation on the tricky problem of journalistic objectivity, or a wide-ranging look at the sorry ruin that is the American press, or maybe a brief examination of what ‘liberalism’ means in this age of casual, sensitive billionaires. But no. Bias itself, the cultural crime that is the subject of Goldberg’s J’accuse, is never even properly defined. ‘Bias is bias,’ he writes. He knows it when he sees it, and he’s here to tell you that it’s all over the place.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for an introduction to the indignant rhetorical style of the culture-war Right, Bias fits the bill. The book begins by reminding the reader that in 1996 Goldberg wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal criticising his employer, CBS News, for broadcasting a put-down of the ‘flat tax’ (a conservative fad of the mid-1990s) as though it were straight news. The appearance of this article naturally infuriated Goldberg’s bosses and colleagues at CBS, and he relates on page after page the personal slights he endured as his friends turned against him. Not only is every episode gone through in surprising detail but we soon learn why each colleague who disapproved of his op-ed was a hypocrite for doing so. He lingers with especial bitterness on the presenter Dan Rather – second only to the Clintons as a demon figure for the American Right – retailing a series of facts about Rather’s personal tastes (the cad wears Savile Row suits while affecting a Texas accent) and imagining him as a prison rapist and a Mafia chieftain. He then branches out into other media, recounting the insults levelled at him by people not associated with CBS News, and why they, too, are hypocrites. Then come the truculent imaginary come-backs that Goldberg would like to have delivered to those who dissed him. Soon he’s onto those who approved of his piece, with extensive quotations from their letters (photocopies are provided in an appendix). He tops it all off with a few paragraphs assailing unrelated figures who didn’t write anything at all about his op-ed.

I found all this tiresome, self-indulgent and more than a little embarrassing. Still, there must be many more for whom Goldberg’s obsessive return to his own humiliation is compelling, one of the reasons the book has moved up the bestseller charts so briskly. No matter how much power its corporate backers wield, no matter how far back it rolls taxes or the welfare state, and regardless of how it succeeds at polling stations, American conservatism always sees itself as a beleaguered victim, forever out of step with a degraded modernity, forever on the defensive in a threatening world of secular humanists, treasonous intellectuals and tempting entertainments. It pleases conservatives to think of themselves as the true patriots, stoutly faithful to American tradition and endlessly persecuted for their steadfastness.

This surly righteousness finds its signature expression in the dozens of passages in which Goldberg settles petty scores with this or that media figure. As the cultural critic Chris Lehmann has pointed out, short-fused touchiness is a classic marker of the bias genre, whose authors consistently magnify the most unremarkable media moments into full-blown assaults on their political views. Goldberg’s book, however, is presented as something different: this is supposed to be the inside dope. ‘CBS News Veteran Exposes “Inherent Bias” in the Media,’ the press release announces. Goldberg is even moved to boast about his former position, letting us know that, although many decry liberal bias, ‘there’s a big difference when Rush Limbaugh or Bill Buckley says it and when a CBS News correspondent says it.’

But there isn’t really such a big difference. Goldberg’s moment of glory – his critique of that long-ago broadcast on the flat tax – came about as a result not of inside knowledge, but of dissecting a particularly opinionated newscast that he watched on a TV set like everybody else. There are a few good CBS anecdotes here and there in the book and plenty of ugly facts about Dan Rather, but only a handful of its larger criticisms are inspired by Goldberg’s former position. In fact, there are very few larger criticisms of any kind. The book is a laundry list of petty, unconnected objections to what Goldberg has seen on TV over the years. He complains that TV news people readily identify conservatives as ‘conservative’ but rarely use the term ‘liberal’ to describe liberals. He accuses the media of paying attention to homelessness when the Republicans were in office and then dropping it when Clinton came to power. He takes strong exception to stories that warned of the spread of Aids into the non-homosexual and non-drug-using population. He spends an entire chapter getting indignant about offensive talk-show remarks aimed at conservative figures and then getting even more indignant about the wildly unfair (but completely imaginary) punishments that, he speculates, might be handed down if one said similar things about liberals. The only theory elaborated here is that ‘the Left controls America’s newsrooms.’

It’s a shame that Goldberg never takes up the subject of press history. Were he to do so, he would quickly run into the curious fact that, until Vice-President Spiro Agnew started talking about liberal bias in 1969, the prevailing American criticism of the news media came from the Left. The press was, after all, largely owned by a subset of the very rich – Hearst, Gannett, McCormick – that was given to proclaiming its idiosyncratic but always conservative views. The big-city dailies were bitterly hostile to organised labour and to the New Deal. In 1936, for example, three-quarters of them endorsed Roosevelt’s opponent; the Chicago Tribune even counted down the days to the election with the words: ‘Only X days remain in which to save your country.’ (To this day Republican Presidential candidates usually have the backing of more newspapers than Democrats do.) Media ownership was the starting point for press critics as different as Upton Sinclair (The Brass Check, published in 1919, compared journalists to prostitutes), George Seldes (author of the energetic 1938 exposé Lords of the Press), A.J. Liebling (the New Yorker’s sedentary press columnist) and Edmund Wilson, writing in 1932 about his discovery that ‘class antagonisms, conflicts, and injustices are real, that they rarely get any publicity, and that the class on top virtually controls the organs of publicity.’

Like Agnew and, indeed, like every writer in the last thirty years who has looked for liberal bias in the media, Goldberg simply stands this formula on its head. Social class is still at the centre of the argument, and the accusation is still that the news reflects the politics of the class on top: it’s just that the class on top has changed. The ‘lords of the press’ have dropped out of the picture almost entirely: Goldberg targets the ‘liberal elite’, that ill-defined but damnably persistent architect of ideological mischief.

Ironically, Goldberg takes great pains to deplore the language of ‘class warfare’ when it’s used by liberals in the media. Within a few pages, however, he is denouncing ‘the sophisticated media elites’ for being ‘hopelessly out of touch with everyday Americans’. While he himself enjoys the friendship of a hard-working Southerner, the liberal elite ‘don’t have blue-collar people . . . in their families. They don’t have blue-collar friends, and they don’t want any.’ Before long Goldberg has worked this up into a vision of America divided by class. ‘It’s as if there were two Americas, or at least two American cultures,’ he writes: ‘the media-elite America, which was shunning me, and the other America – the one between Manhattan and Malibu.’ Getting a little more specific, he identifies these humble, working-class folk of the heartland as the inhabitants of ‘the “red states” that George W. Bush carried’.

It would probably be fruitless to respond that Bush lost the popular vote of ‘everyday Americans’ by a significant margin (and won only by a hair in many of those heartland ‘red states’), or to point out that his Presidency has been distinguished by a certain hostility to the interests of blue-collar people and a tendency to back management in its endless fight against organised labour. To most American conservatives such facts count for little. Since free markets are for them the very essence of democracy and of nature, those who unquestioningly accept markets by definition have the common touch, while those who think they know better are ‘elitists’ defying the will of the people. Class becomes a matter of culture – of fancy colleges and highfalutin ideas and ‘arrogance’ in any form – and conservatives find it easy to understand themselves as the friend of ‘the nobodies’, as Peggy Noonan once described Dubya: ‘the modest, the patronised, the disrespected’. Class for Goldberg is about pedantry, not about economic power; it’s the divide between big-city sophistication and provincial piety, not the one between bosses and bossed. Upton Sinclair and George Seldes damned the press lords for their hostility to labour: Goldberg faults the media elite for not going to church.

Those who believe Americans have no sense of social class should take note. Like nearly every popular conservative tract to appear in recent years, Bias is written in the fulminating language of right-wing populism. Like The No Spin Zone, the collection of angry right-wing musings it displaced as number-one bestseller – and like the bestselling Rush Limbaugh books, the bestselling anti-Clinton books and the bestselling stockmarket advice books – Bias rails viciously against the affected tastes and habits of the American upper class.

Which brings us to the infuriating irony behind all this spectacle: the main reason conservatives have been able to annex the language of social class so completely is that their opponents have been silent on the subject. The Democratic leadership decided years ago not to talk class any more. These days they, too, rely on corporate handouts to fund their campaigns; they, too, own stocks and live in suburbs; and they believe that, as the monopoly party of ‘the Left’, they will receive the votes of workers and the poor without making concessions to them, rhetorical or otherwise. This idiotic strategy has been a godsend for the Right, which has proceeded to capture and turn every element of the old class-based critique of American life (such as press bias) over the last thirty years. The results are impressive. Not only do billionaire libertarians routinely claim to speak with the vox populi, but class anger in America is channelled almost exclusively at that snooty species known as the ‘liberal’; that there are upper-class people who ride in limousines and eat fancy pasta while living in Texas and voting Republican is, for Goldberg and others, simply not tenable. This curious cultural fact in turn provides Republicans with a perverse incentive for pushing the country still further down the free market road to social disaster: the worse things get for workers, they have reason to believe, the angrier we will become at those elitist liberals, and the more Republicans will be returned to office.

So why don’t the liberal media just roll out the older, less contorted version of populism and blast this confused collection of gripes back into the 19th century? Because the mainstream media are, in truth, what Edmund Wilson and A.J. Liebling and Upton Sinclair said they were, all those years ago. Yes, the media are largely staffed by college-educated members of the upper-middle class. And, yes, these reporters and newsreaders do tend to share that class’s annoying ideas of politeness and cultural propriety, which some understand as ‘liberalism’. But by far the most important expression of social class is in matters economic, and here the facts all point the other way. As the veteran journalist Trudy Lieberman reveals in Slanting the Story (2000), a painstaking, methodical, well-researched, but completely overlooked case-by-case study of American news decisions, reporters may be liberal on some issues, but they are reliably conservative on economic questions. This is one of the reasons, Lieberman argues, that right-wing foundations have had such gratifying media support for their views on welfare reform, Nafta and Social Security privatisation. Add to this the influence of advertisers and publishers, who weight commercial news media automatically to the Right, the rise of avowedly conservative cable news networks, stockmarket networks and radio talk shows, as well as the screeching libertarianism of the Internet – and the result is a media universe which, like our politics, each year spins further off into Toryland.

Labour reporting, once a staple of big-city journalism, has disappeared from all but a handful of American newspapers. Foreign affairs reporters (led by Thomas Friedman, the influential columnist for the New York Times) increasingly accept free-market globalisation theory, automatically blaming the problems of other countries on their failure to be more like the entrepreneurial US. Wall Street stock analysts, despite their obvious enthusiasm for low wages and weak environmental regulations, are routinely quoted by the American press as impartial economic authorities on every imaginable subject. And by far the greatest media myth of the last decade – if not the last century – was not heterosexual Aids but the ‘New Economy’, that vision of a capitalist golden age that sent so many off to invest their life savings in Enron and JDS Uniphase. With the dream of Dow 36,000 shattered, Americans are perhaps finally ready to think about the downside of free markets, about the ugly realities of social class. It is a measure of intellectual dysfunction in the US that gripes like Bias are what constitute our literature of dissent.