Published July 12, 1996, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Perhaps it's just too much to ask, because few prominent journalists will publicly break ranks when asked to comment on the "B" word. The issue of media "bias" surfaced again. And once again, it was drowned by the voices of the renowned.
At a recent National Press Club luncheon in Washington, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw's responses to hard questions about the Fourth Estate did little to foil skeptics. Public television's Jim Lehrer's rejoinders to the same questions were entirely different. You had to believe one man or the other.
The fodder at this event was a well-publicized survey suggesting that 89% of U.S. journalists voted for Clinton in 1992. Asked to comment on the survey, Brokaw dismissed the familiar charge of industry bias by providing an equally tired reason why he feels it just is not so.
Echoing most of his colleagues from print to broadcast and sea to shining sea, he mused, "Bias like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder." In essence, the logic is that since complaints come from interlocutors at both ends of the political spectrum, (moreover, since the Clinton White House complains) the liberal bias issue must be overblown.
Of course, extremists will always cry foul. But most Americans, by definition, fall closer to the center of the political spectrum than either extreme. What could trouble more journalists is that Americans on the whole view the media as a decidedly liberal institution.
Can this group police itself as easily as Brokaw would have us believe? Brokaw theorized that since he and others owning responsible positions still remain, it is at least partial testimony to their objective performances. I think; therefore, I am. It worked for Rene Descartes.
He reminded the audience, "Otherwise, we just wouldn't survive."
Really? If 89% of our media are indeed left-leaning, how do journalists take risks by injecting liberal sentiments before so many ideologically like-minded editors? Brokaw is a pro and few would insist that he has to trash CNN's Peter Arnett to appear fair. However, he could have given the media a bounce on the credibility meter. He could have strayed from the party line and conceded that slanted reporting occurs and yes, it often does tilt to the left.
Brokaw could have said that responsible journalists don't have personal agendas and that others who do should find another way to make a living. He didn't. Instead, Brokaw chose to decry those reporters who have become "too much news celebrities in the eyes of the public." It was an odd attempt at critical balance coming from a regular guest on David Letterman's show.
PBS news anchor and author Leherer shared the podium with Brokaw at the same event. If Brokaw's remarks gave testimony to the continuing miasma of denial among major figures, Lehrer's comments were a sorely needed tonic.
In refreshing contrast, Lehrer drew a sharp distinction between himself and the pack. "Nobody in this room has to agree with me, including Tom," said Lehrer, as he surged with contempt for the "slippage" in journalism. "Remember, we are down there with the lawyers and the members of Congress on the public esteem polls," he opined.
Most repugnant to Lehrer is the subtle coloring of the news by journalists who make it difficult to distinguish an editorial from a news report. "People have just stepped over the line...and I think a very simple solution is just to quit doing it," he asserted.
Amen. Although Lehrer stopped short of calling the nature of the "slippage" inherently liberal, he at least acknowledged that something is amiss and allowed us to ponder its origin.
The most startling development of the entire Brokaw/Lehrer news hours was the scant, but audible applause after Lehrer's carefully worded scrutiny of his contemporaries. For those not watching that day, the word scant is safely defined here as something less than 89%.