A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News,
by Bernard Goldberg (Regnery, 232 pp., $27.95)
CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg became an instant outcast at
his network when, on February 13, 1996, he published an article
in the Wall Street Journal accusing a colleague of one-sided
reporting. In his Journal piece, Goldberg said the work of
CBS's Eric Engberg exemplified the "liberal bias" of network
On a "reality
check" segment of the CBS Evening News, Engberg had
ridiculed the flat-tax proposal of presidential candidate Steve
Forbes. Goldberg assailed Engberg for quoting only opponents of
the flat tax, among them an unnamed economist who suggested the
plan should be tested in Albania. Engberg's report concluded with
a David Letterman-type parody, in which Engberg declared that "Forbes's
Number One Wackiest Flat-Tax Promise" was his contention that
it would give parents "more time to spend with their children
and each other."
I never saw
Engberg's commentary; assuming that Goldberg describes it accurately,
its economic ignorance is even more blatant than its bias. Engberg
said the flat tax was "called supply-side economics under President
Reagan," a misleading shorthand that should have set off alarm
bells at CBS. It didn't. Goldberg believes that this is because
CBS producers and anchorman Dan Rather are so reflexively
liberal (and anti-flat tax) that it never occurred to them that
the piece might be unfair.
column appeared, network luminaries, including CBS News president
Andrew Heyward, complained that Goldberg was disloyal because he
had expressed his opinions outside of CBS. Goldberg, who had worked
for CBS since 1972, was kept on the payroll but disappeared from
public view. He was so rarely seen on television that one admirer
sent him a picture of a milk carton and asked him to paste his picture
on it. (He was eventually put back on 48 Hours.)
to be surprised that his colleagues (except the untouchable Andy
Rooney, who wrote him a letter of support) regarded him as a "traitor"
for writing the column. But whistleblowers are frequently treated
as pariahs by those on whom they blow the whistle. For most Americans,
loyalty to the team is a defining virtue; Goldberg knows this, and
seems a bit uncomfortable with his apostasy. In his new book, Goldberg
has a chapter on the "News Mafia," in which he compares
himself to a mob member who cooperates with the authorities. (He
casts anchorman Rather "The Dan" as the
counterpart to TV's Tony Soprano.) When it comes to the "biggest
sin" of telling others about the family business, writes Goldberg,
"there is no difference no difference, whatsoever!
between the wise guys who operate in the dark shadows of
the underworld and the news guys who supposedly operate in the bright
sunlight." Actually, there is an important difference: The
Mafia kills members who talk. The bad guys at CBS, by Goldberg's
account, kept him off the air and allowed him to stick around on
full salary until he became eligible for his CBS pension on May
31, 2000, and took a job with HBO.
As a reporter
who worked for the Washington Post nearly as long (26 years)
as Goldberg did for CBS, I started reading his book with great anticipation:
The deficiencies of network news need to be exposed, and this book
offered an excellent opportunity to do it. Until the valiant and
often brilliant performance of the networks in dealing with September
11 and its aftermath, television news was often slothful, slanted,
and trivial; regrettably, Goldberg's book doesn't do justice to
the problem, and must be marked down as an opportunity missed.
to share my distaste for tabloid television; I say "seems"
because he equates the sagas of Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, and
Joey Buttafuoco with that of Elián González, of whom
he writes: "I know so much about Elián González
that for weeks before it finally happened, I was rooting for the
U.S. government to send him back to Fidel Castro's Communist dictatorship,
just so I wouldn't have to listen to his cousin Marisleysis anymore."
This offhand comment suggesting as it does a certain insouciance
about what was, after all, a foreign-policy story of considerable
significance points to the unevenness that is the book's
major flaw. Goldberg begins the book with a transparent joke about
how his liberal friends are planning to celebrate its publication;
a page later, he dismisses it as a "cheap attempt to be funny."
This fitful beginning sets the tone for a book that is too often
sarcastic when it ought to be serious.
does, however, have its moments. Goldberg's best story is an account
of what happened in 1993 when he suggested that CBS do a segment
on one of its magazine shows examining the network's
own bias. Heyward, then the show's executive producer, reluctantly
agreed, but said Goldberg could only interview Rather if he agreed
not to ask him any "tough questions." Goldberg then dropped
the idea of doing a segment on CBS's bias.
that Heyward went on to admit that "of course, there's a liberal
bias in the news" and to say that he would deny it if Goldberg
ever repeat ed their conversation. (Heyward has declined comment
on the book.) It's a great story, but on its very face, Goldberg's
account of Heyward's admission contradicts the book's basic thesis
which is that liberal culture at CBS is so ingrained that
it goes unrecognized. For example, the book depicts Rather as particularly
resistant to any suggestion that he has any bias. Goldberg claims
to like Rather, but it is hard to see why he would care for someone
he portrays as untrustworthy, ruthless, and resistant to even the
mildest criticism. Goldberg would be more believable if he frankly
acknowledged that he is trying to settle scores. Instead, sounding
remarkably like Dan Rather, he denies it. "Staring at a blank
page on a computer screen for hours and hours and hours is not the
most efficient way to be vindictive," he writes. (True, but
it's also not the most efficient way to write a book.)
Wall Street Journal column bothered his bosses because he
made a compelling case; his book will pose much less of a threat
to them. It relies largely on data compiled by others to assert
that CBS, NBC, and ABC have a liberal slant because journalists
at these networks are disproportionately liberal, Democratic, and
feminist. It's a familiar sermon, one that will be most convincing
to those already sitting in the choir. Those with more agnostic
views about news bias are likely to require more documentation to
A model of
such documentation was provided last February on National Public
Radio by L. Brent Bozell, who observed that one of Bill Clinton's
first presidential acts was to scrap an executive order of Ronald
Reagan prohibiting U.S. funding for international agencies that
subsidize or promote abortion. When George W. Bush became president,
he reverted to the Reagan policy. Both presidents were carrying
out campaign promises, but Bush's action was described by ABC anchor
Peter Jennings as "taking a tough line on abortion" and
Clinton's as "keep[ing] his word on abortion rights."
Similar comparisons of network reporting on other hot-button issues
my candidate would be missile defense might make the
case for a pattern of bias that Goldberg simply assumes into evidence.
his picture of journalistic unfairness, Goldberg uses a broad, sloppy
brush. He asserts, for example, that Reagan was depicted on television
as "the embodiment of the greedy 1980s"; but he is mistaken
in believing that Reagan suffered on the network news. To the contrary,
Reagan was so skilled in taking advantage of the camera (and so
well liked by many of those who covered him) that Democrats often
complained they weren't getting a fair shake. I covered Reagan in
all his campaigns and throughout his presidency, and heard more
complaints from outsiders that we were "too soft" on him
than that we were "too hard. "We probably erred in both
directions, but some of us were fairer than others. One of the fairest
was White House correspondent Bill Plante, who was respected by
Reagan and Reagan's critics alike. Plante reports for CBS.
better when he sticks to what he has observed. He tells an appalling
story of an incident in which a producer on the CBS Evening News
was reprimanded for a story about an Alabama chain gang in which
all but one prisoner was black. The pictures illustrating the story
accurately reflected the racial make-up of the chain gang, but the
CBS brass worried that blacks might object and change the channel.
This is an example of commercial, not liberal, bias; indeed, "cowardice"
might be a more accurate word than "bias."
Late in his
book, after repeatedly equating the big three network anchors, Goldberg
salutes Jennings for telling the Boston Globe: "Conservative
voices in the U.S. have not been as present as they might have been
and should have been in the media." Goldberg agrees, and his
book makes a strong case for political diversity in newsrooms. But
Goldberg has also told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post:
"Does anyone think a 'diverse' group of conservative journalists
would give us the news straight? I sure as hell don't. They'd be
just like the Left." I suspect that Goldberg's confusion reflects
contradictory premises that he has not thought through. At times,
he views all reporting as opinion, and suggests that balance can
be achieved by making newsrooms more representative. At other times,
he opts for the tradition of "objective journalism," which
requires journalists to set aside personal opinions and apply professional
standards to their coverage.
of Goldberg's generation, including me, prefer the professional
remedy. I never found it difficult to be fair to Hubert Humphrey
or Ronald Reagan (or George McGovern or Barry Goldwater), honorable
men with different ideas. My guess is that this is also true of
Goldberg, a television journalist of considerable attainment. The
premise of the Journal column that made him a CBS outcast
was not partisan or ideological: It was a complaint that the smear
of the flat tax (and Forbes) violated elemental standards of journalistic
I cheered Goldberg's
column because it so effectively made mincemeat of biased reporting.
I wish I could cheer this book. Perhaps now that Goldberg has expressed
his pent-up feelings about his former colleagues, he'll write a
thoughtful sequel that lives up to the promise of this book.
Mr. Cannon is the author of several books, the latest of which is
Reagan: The Presidential Portfolio.