the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism,
by William McGowan (Encounter, 250 pp., $25.95)
delicacy has its moments. Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.,
once paid the Most Reverend Prophet Alpha Omega Bondu $12,000 in
state funds to drive the evil spirits from a Haitian psychiatric
patient who had hacked his girlfriend to death. The Rev said the
patient was afflicted by seven evil spirits, and that he had chased
away four. Alert to cultural sensibilities, however, the New
York Times declined to call this an exorcism; it reported that
the $12,000 had been spent on "religious counseling."
As an example
of journalistic malfeasance, that may not be much; by Times
standards it's nothing at all. But it does hint at the problem:
Whole groups and classes of supposedly oppressed people voodoo
priests among them must be presented sympathetically in news
coverage. Few in our major news organizations admit this, however,
and even if they acknowledge the existence of P.C. journalism, they
seem to believe it is practiced only by others. In fact, however,
virtually everyone obeys the rules of the dominant P.C. culture,
and makes news judgments accordingly. A dissenting judgment will
be dismissed automatically as uninformed or wrongheaded, but it
may also be denounced as a sign of racism, misogyny, or homophobia.
the News, William McGowan offers a unifying theory for how this
all came about: The campaign to increase newsroom diversity did
it. Even if the effort was well intentioned, he says, it has had
a disastrous effect on the news, especially on what might be called
"diversity issues": race, gay rights, feminism, and affirmative
action. It has fostered identity politics, newsroom bitterness,
and a suspension of critical faculties by news organizations.
McGowan says, "diversity is supposed to be a matter of reporters
from all different ethnicities, races, genders, and sexual orientations
doing their work as searchingly as possible on a wide variety of
subjects, and functioning as a sort of equivalent of a representative
democracy. But in practice, the regime that diversity has created
does not work like this. Certain unfashionable or disfavored voices
are overlooked or muted . . . and certain groups feel more empowered
in the journalistic shouting match than others." Diversity
measured only by skin color, gender, or sexual preference is cosmetic
and superficial, and more likely to impede than stimulate the free
flow of ideas.
In survey after
survey, reporters and correspondents at our major news organizations
overwhelmingly have identified themselves as liberal Democrats;
but they insist (and seem actually to believe) that they never allow
their politics to get in the way of their stories. McGowan casts
serious doubt on these liberal disclaimers. He has examined the
coverage of hot cultural issues, and found it thoroughly distorted
and biased. The Los Angeles Times, for example, minimized
any serious discussion of California's Proposition 209, which banned
racial preferences, and treated it instead as an attempt to curb
civil rights and as an expression of anger by white male voters.
Even after Prop. 209 passed, with the support of a significant number
of minority voters, the Times continued to attack it.
of California's Proposition 227, which restricted bilingual education,
was similar. Rather than examine the obvious flaws in bilingual-education
programs, the L. A. Times and virtually every other news
organization treated Prop. 227 as a nativist plot to extinguish
Latino culture. The story line barely changed even after 227 passed,
with the support of many Latino voters.
The reason for this bias is quite obvious: The press is fearful
of antagonizing minorities, and therefore averts its eyes from facts
that might embarrass them. The New York Times, for example,
has never been able to admit that open admissions have been a disaster
for the once proud City College; Times columnist Bob Herbert
even said that a proposal by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to scale back
remedial-reading programs at the college was similar to "ethnic
cleansing." And the Washington Post hesitated for years
to publish critical pieces about the disastrous administration of
Mayor Marion Barry.
To his credit,
McGowan eschews the easy journalistic targets: Anna Quindlen and
Anthony Lewis turn up only once each, Geraldo Rivera and Bryant
Gumbel not at all. McGowan is less interested in media personalities
than in the corporate culture of news organizations and how it distorts
what ought to be a truth-seeking enterprise. The book has a great
deal in it about the New York Times, for good reason: When
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. became its publisher in 1992, he called
diversity "the single most important issue" facing the
paper. He also vowed that the Times would no longer provide
"a predominantly white straight male version of events";
if Times people were to continue doing that, he insisted,
they would not be doing their duty as journalists. Sulzberger did
not say whose versions of events would supplant those of the white
straight males; he didn't have to. Stories on diversity issues suggest
that feminists and gay and other activists are now the commisars
of the copy desks.
us several times in Coloring the News that he's an objective
journalist; perhaps he wants to escape being called a right-winger.
He shouldn't have bothered. After all, as his book demonstrates,
even the most biased journalist can convince himself that he's not
slanting his reportage; what's important is not the writer's protestations
of innocence, but whether the story he tells is true. McGowan has
written a very substantial book, one that tells the truth about
a very disturbing and sadly persistent trend in U.S.
Mr. Corry's memoir is My Times: Adventures in the News Trade.