Media Bias

We've grown accustomed by now to the ritual complaints about political "bias" in our mainstream media. Bob Dole made a litany of it during the last Presidential campaign, and right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy hammer away at the same theme, complaining that our major newspapers and TV and radio networks are guilty of slanting the news to suit their political agendas.But while it's easy to dismiss the likes of Dole, Limbaugh, and Liddy as hypocrites or windbags, you have to give them credit when they hit the mark. And as a new book titled Wizards of Media Oz demonstrates, Bob, Rush, and the G-man are absolutely right. The media that matters -- from the New York Times through the traditional networks, right through to PBS -- do give us a slanted, one-sided view of the way things are.But Wizards makes clear another fact that doesn't quite square with the complainers' appraisals. Dole, et. al., would have us believe that we're being victimized by the "liberal media." But Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen, co-authors of Wizards, make a persuasive case that the real bias in our mainstream media is toward the conservative, corporate values of the handful of CEOs who now control the majority of our news and entertainment sources. If Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and those other guys who run Disney/ABC, GE/NBC, and Westinghouse/CBS are going to pay big bucks to manage what we see and hear, you can bet they're not going to encourage views that are hostile toward their own.The prominence of voices such as Limbaugh's and Liddy's on talk radio networks is itself one sign of the media's rightward tilt. As Solomon and Cohen point out, the nation's airwaves are full of right-wing pundits who think nothing of lying, fomenting hatred for the government, or even, as in Liddy's case, offering advice on how best to shoot a federal official. But you'll look in vain for talk shows that feature hosts who are sympathetic to labor, to the environment, to minorities, or are critical of corporate welfare and greed.Even presumably "serious" news and commentary on mainstream TV is one-sided, according to Solomon and Cohen. ABC's This Week With David Brinkley stands as a prime example, with knee-jerk conservative George Will performing regularly with corporate-connected Cokie Roberts, while multimillionaire Sam Donaldson is the "liberal" voice in conversations with the bristly Brinkley, who, like his colleagues, hauls in $15,000 to $30,000 each for speeches before corporate groups. It isn't likely a bunch like this, doing so well in our current system, is going to say much against tax breaks for the wealthy or benefits for the companies that sponsor their gigs.Even the much-honored McNeil/Lehrer news shows on PBS reveal unsightly blemishes and fissures when subjected to the scrutiny of Solomon and Cohen. They note that the show -- with or without McNeil -- includes inordinate numbers of "experts" from conservative, corporate-funded think-tanks, and none from progressive, grass-roots movements; a heavy emphasis on current or former government officials (46 percent of guests), with only token representation (6 percent) from groups that advocate for consumers, minorities, or workers; and a conspicuous absence of representatives from environmental groups when the topic is the environment.Over the course of 270-plus pages, Solomon and Cohen range over a variety of subjects that demonstrate how much we lose when our media outlets are in the hands of a few megalithic organizations. A few years ago, Ben Bagdikian, in a book called Media Monopoly, deplored the fact that the men (and it was a mostly male group, then and now) who controlled the vast majority of our newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio networks, publishing houses, and movie studios could fit quite comfortably into an average school room.Now, Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and a few other moguls who control about 90 percent of our media outlets (not to mention Bill Gates, who has his foot in the door with MSNBC) could meet in a good-sized foyer to decide what's best for all of us, which is what they essentially do, when their conservative, corporate values trickle down to the beat reporters and news anchors who deliver our news in the mainstream media.Reading the coverage of the recent UPS strike provided a good illustration of what Solomon and Cohen are talking about. I was out of the area during the strike, and followed it in the Chicago and Milwaukee papers I could get hold of. There was some talk about the lives of workers, yes, and an occasional hint of the frustration many felt at working for years on a part-time basis, on part-time pay.But the major emphasis was on the inconvenience caused by the strike. Nearly every feature story high-lighted some small business that was being hurt by the Teamsters' action, or the complaints of customers who weren't getting their goods delivered overnight. If you'd just landed here from Mars, you'd have assumed that the big story was the slowdown of trinket delivery, rather than the efforts by a union to force a greedy corporation (over $1 billion in profits last year) to share some of its wealth with the workers who had toiled to make it happen.You wouldn't know that the issue at the heart of the strike had huge implications for millions: about whether corporations could continue "outsourcing" and "down-sizing" and exploiting part-timers, instead of helping to create a larger, more productive, more prosperous middle class. You wouldn't know that the problem wasn't hostility to UPS's success, but a wish and a hope that the fruits of that success could be spread more equitably and generously among the people who, so to speak, deliver the goods.Wizards, to be sure, is a choppy, fragmented book, composed as it is of columns and op-ed pieces Solomon and Cohen have produced over the past three or four years. But it makes you realize how much we miss when we rely solely on the mainstream media for our news, opinion, and information. It reminds you of how necessary it is to have responsible alternative voices around to torment the rich and powerful with pointed questions, undiluted facts, and some healthy skepticism.It makes you notice that after the first few days of the Teamsters strike against UPS, most of the stories appeared on the "Business" pages of major newspapers, even though it seemed more like a "Labor" story. It makes you notice that there are no "Labor" pages in any daily papers. And it helps you understand why that is, exactly. Which makes you recognize that Bob Dole and Rush and G. Gordon had part of it right, at least. There is a definite bias in the mainstream media.

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