Back to the Backlash

Context N°11

by Thomas Frank

Readers in other countries will probably be surprised to learn of the massive and virtually unchecked power that leftists are reported to hold here in the United States. They will scratch their heads and run down the list of American institutions—the Presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, the corporations—and note that each of these is led either by determined right-wingers or by weak-kneed centrists. They will remember how recently it was that American thinkers proclaimed the dawn of a capitalist millennium, a “New Economy” in which privatization, deregulation, and lower taxes were said to be the mandates of history itself; they will recall how greatly it pleased American CEOs to mount the heights of Davos and instruct the entire world in the timeless principles of the free market as handed down by Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and the prophets of Silicon Valley.
But in doing so they will have overlooked that little feature of American life which, it now seems, negates it all: TV news is slanted insidiously to the left! Dominated by a set of smug, clannish liberals, American conservatives tell us, our TV networks twist the facts and distort our perception of the world to match the liberals’ own. This is not to say that there is a deliberate program of misinformation afoot in the broadcasting companies. Instead, the sin is thought to be almost unconscious, a matter of—to use the term that conservatives have favored for thirty-three years now—“bias.”

If you picked up Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias hoping to find 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 few thoughts on just what “liberalism” means in this age of New Democrats and casual, sensitive billionaires, you would be greatly disappointed. Bias itself, the cultural crime that is the subject of Goldberg’s j’accuse, is never really even defined. “Bias is bias,” Goldberg declares, simply. He knows it when he sees it, and he’s here to tell you that it’s all over the damn place!

If you’re looking for a primer in the implacably indignant rhetorical style of the culture-war right, however, you couldn’t ask for a more exemplary work. The book begins by reminding the reader that in 1996 Goldberg wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing his employer, CBS News, for broadcasting an opinionated put-down of the “flat tax” (a short-lived conservative fad of the mid-1990s) as though it were straight news. The appearance of this Wall Street Journal article naturally infuriated Goldberg’s bosses and colleagues at CBS, and he relates for page after page the personal slights he endured as his former friends erupted angrily at him. Goldberg relives every episode in surprising detail, and then tells us why each colleague who disapproved of his op-ed was a hypocrite for doing so. He lingers with especial bitterness on the figure of Dan Rather, retailing all manner of damning 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. Then he branches out into other media, recounting the insults levelled at him by people not associated with CBS News, and why they, too, were hypocrites. Then come the truculent imaginary come-backs that Goldberg would like to have delivered to those who dissed him. Soon it’s on to those who approved of Goldberg’s op-ed, with extensive quotation from their righteous letters (photocopies of these are also provided in an appendix, in case readers want to savor them again after they’ve finished the main text). And then, after a brief digression, Goldberg returns to the subject (we’re now on page 111) and tops it all off with a few paragraphs bitterly assailing those completely unrelated figures who didn’t write anything about his op-ed at all!

I myself found all this tiresome, self-indulgent, and more than a little embarrassing. But for others, I suspect, Goldberg’s obsessive return to his own humiliation is powerfully compelling, one of the things that has moved the book up the best-seller 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 the polling place, the conservative movement always manages to understand itself as a beleaguered victim, forever on the outside of a degraded modernity; forever on the defensive against 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 sensibility of intolerably wronged righteousness finds its signature literary expression in the dozens of passages in which Goldberg settles unbelievably petty scores with this or that media figure. Recounting how Tom Brokaw declined to discuss Goldberg’s op-ed in a 1996 interview on a different subject because he thought it arose from a feud with Dan Rather, Goldberg snaps, “Here’s a bulletin: In my entire life I have mentioned Dan Rather’s name only once in a column. . . .” Admitting that, okay, there was also a second column, Goldberg continues: “I have written exactly two times about Dan Rather and liberal bias—or, for that matter, about Dan Rather and any subject, period!” A short while later, though, it is the hated Rather himself, brushing off the complaints of “political activists” in an interview with a New York tabloid, who triggers Goldberg’s massive retaliation: “Political activist? Time to take a taxi back to Earth, Dan.” Goldberg just knows that Rather’s remark was a reference to him, and he rages at the infamy of the insult for nearly two full pages before being distracted by a remark from a different CBS employee, who dismissed Goldberg’s op-ed as a “wacky charge, and a weird way to go about it.” “Wacky? Weird? Bizarre?” Goldberg explodes. Bounces off me, sticks to you! “What I found wacky, weird, and bizarre was that,” this CBS employee approved of the hated broadcast on the flat tax.

As the great Chris Lehmann has pointed out, short-fused touchiness is a classic marker of the thirty-year-old bias genre, whose authors consistently magnify even the most unremarkable media moments into full-blown assaults on their political views. Bias, however, is presented as being something very different from the rest of that cranky literature: After all, this is supposed to be the inside dope. Not only does the book’s publisher advertise Goldberg’s former position in the book’s press kit (“CBS News Veteran Exposes ‘Inherent Bias’ in the Media”) and in the book’s subtitle (“A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News”), but Goldberg is even moved to boast about it in the book’s text, 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 really isn’t such a big difference. Goldberg’s moment of glory—his critique of that long-ago broadcast on the flat tax—came not from some dark insider revelation, but from watching an evening’s news program on a TV set like everyone 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 few of its larger criticisms are derived from Goldberg’s privileged former position inside the beast. In fact, there are very few larger criticisms at all. 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. Goldberg criticizes the media for playing up homelessness when Republicans were in office and then dropping it when Bill Clinton came into power. Goldberg takes strong exception to stories that warned of the spread of AIDS into the non-homosexual and non-drug-using population. Goldberg 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. There is little effort to explain any of these according to some larger account of what has happened to the TV news industry, or to guess at the effects that such skewed reporting has had; the only theory elaborated here is that “the Left controls America’s newsrooms.” Each of these arguments, it should be noted, are old and familiar conservative plaints, several of them having been elaborated at great length elsewhere. But let’s look on the bright side—this certainly makes the book convenient: Here you have all the cranky sniping of fifteen years in one volume, duly validated by an “insider,” and seasoned with heaping mounds of How Dare They.

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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 inaugurated the liberal-bias critique in 1969, the prevailing American criticism of the news media was the diametric opposite of Goldberg’s own. The press, after all, was largely owned by a subset of the very rich—Hearst, Gannett, McCormick—that was peculiarly given to proclaiming its idiosyncratic but always conservative views. The big-city dailies were bitterly hostile to organized labor and to the New Deal. In 1936, for example, nearly 75% of them endorsed Franklin Roosevelt’s opponent, with the Chicago Tribune actually counting 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 tend to win solid majorities in newspaper endorsements.) The facts of media ownership underlay the media muckraking of figures as different as Upton Sinclair (whose 1919 book The Brass Check compared journalists to prostitutes), George Seldes (author of the energetic 1938 exposé Lords of the Press), A. J. Liebling (the sedentary press columnist for The New Yorker), and Edmund Wilson, who recounted in 1932 how he learned 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 author to go looking for liberal media bias in the last thirty years, Goldberg simply stands this formula on its head. Social class is still the center 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’s villains are the “liberal elite,” that ill-defined but damnably persistent worker of ideological mischief.

Ironically, Goldberg takes great pains to deplore the language of “class warfare” when it’s used by the biased liberals of the media. Within a few pages of doing so, however, Goldberg himself erupts in the sort of class-baiting rotomontade that has propelled conservative politics for the last thirty years: “The sophisticated media elites” who run things “are hopelessly out of touch with everyday Americans,” he writes. He recounts how a drawling, hard-working Southern friend saw easily through their arrogance and clued him in to the flat tax broadcast; the media elite don’t listen to such voices: “They 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 torn geographically 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, Goldberg identifies these humble, working-class folk of the heartland as the inhabitants of “the ‘red states’ that George W. Bush carried.”

But there is a problem here, starting from Goldberg’s very first example. The archetypal “blue-collar” Southerner whose trust and friendship Goldberg is so proud of—the guy whom, he insists, the media elite would rather “eat rat poison” than befriend—isn’t a member of the working class at all. He’s a building contractor and thus an entrepreneur and a boss, not a wage worker. Goldberg reports that this heavily accented Man of the South objected to the CBS attack on the flat tax because it was delivered by a “snippy wise guy,” but he might more plausibly have been pissed off because, like most people of his rank, this building contractor stood to gain from the flat tax. Goldberg thus thoroughly confuses class with culture: Not only does overeducated “snippiness” take the place of economic interest, but the contractor’s southernness, not his class status, is what ultimately establishes that most critical of populist traits, his authenticity1.

This is why it means nothing in Goldberg’s scheme of populist righteousness that George W. Bush lost the popular vote of “everyday Americans” by a significant margin (and only won by a hair in many of those heartland “red states”), or to point out that his presidency has been distinguished by a remarkable hostility to the interests of blue-collar people and a willingness to grant corporate management any weapon it requests against organized labor. Since free markets are for most conservatives the very essence of democracy and of nature, those who accept markets unquestioningly are—by definition—gifted with the common touch, while those who think they know better are “elitists” defying the will of the people. For them class is always a matter of culture—of fancy Eastern colleges and big city ways and highfalutin social theories of all kinds—and conservatives find it easy to understand themselves, as Peggy Noonan once described Dubya, as the friend of “the nobodies,” “the modest, the patronized, the disrespected.” Class is about pedantry, not about economic power; it’s the divide between urban sophistication and provincial piety, not the one between bosses and bossed. Upton Sinclair and George Seldes damned the press lords for their hostility to labor; Bernard 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 angry populism. Like The No Spin Zone, the collection of angry right-wing populist musings it displaced as a number-one bestseller (and which was also marked by a special hostility for Dan Rather)—and like the best-selling Rush Limbaugh books, like the best-selling anti-Clinton books, like the best-selling stock market advice books—Bias is at its best when it rails against the affected tastes and habits of the American upper class.

Which brings us to the infuriating irony behind all this strange spectacle: The main reason conservatives have been able to annex the language of social class so completely is the silence of their opponents on that very subject. The Democratic leadership decided years ago not to talk class anymore: 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 each and every element of the old class-based critique of American life (such as press bias) over the last thirty years. The results are truly impressive. Not only do billionaire libertarians routinely pass themselves off as bearers of the vox populi, but class anger in America these days is channeled almost exclusively at that snooty species known as the “liberal”; that there are upper-class people who drive Boxsters and eat fancy French food while living in Houston and voting Republican is simply not thought to be part of the possible. 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 doesn’t the mainstream media just roll out the older, less contorted version of populism and blast this confused collection of gripes back into the nineteenth century? Because the mainstream media is, in truth, what Edmund Wilson and A. J. Liebling and Upton Sinclair said it was, all those years ago. Yes, Mr. Goldberg, the media is largely staffed by college-educated members of the upper-middle class. And, yes, (big admission here) these reporters and newsreaders do tend to share certain 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, polls consistently show reporters to be conservative on crucial economic issues like Social Security privatization, welfare reform, and NAFTA. Add to this the influence of advertisers and publishers, who weight for-profit journalism automatically to the right; the rise of avowedly conservative cable news networks, stock market networks, and radio talk shows; the screeching libertarianism of the Internet; and the concerted, multi-million-dollar efforts of conservative foundations and think tanks to push their ideas on the press, and the result is a media universe that, like our bought politics, each year spins further off into toryland.

Labor reporting, once a staple of big-city journalism, has disappeared at all but a handful of American newspapers. Foreign affairs reporters (led by Tom Friedman, the influential columnist for the New York Times) increasingly accept free market globalization theory, reflexively blaming the problems of other lands on their failure to be more like the entrepreneurial U.S. Wall Street stock analysts, despite their obvious interests in low wages and weak environmental protections, 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 plank down their life savings on Amazon, Enron, and JDS Uniphase. And with the opium dream of Dow 36,000 shattered, Americans are finally ready to think about the downside of free markets, about the ugly realities of social class. It is a measure of American intellectual dysfunction that gripes like Bias are what constitute our literature of dissent.

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1This is a persistent problem for conservative writers. Think of Bill O’Reilly’s ludicrous claim to be a member of the working class because his dad was a corporate accountant who lived in Levittown. Or . . .

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First appeared in the March 21, 2002 issue of the London Review of Books.

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