DATE February 27, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Bernard Goldberg on his belief that there is a liberal
bias in the media
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Do the news media have a conservative bias as Bernard Goldberg asserts in his
best-selling book, or are the media more conservative than liberal, as Eric
Alterman says in his new book "What Liberal Media?" We're asking Goldberg and
Alterman to each make his case. First, Bernard Goldberg.
His book, "BIAS," was a number-one best-seller when it was published in
hardcover. Now it's on the paperback best-seller list. Goldberg looks
primarily at network TV news. He was a reporter and producer for the "CBS
Evening News" for nearly 30 years. In 1996, he wrote an op-ed piece for The
Wall Street Journal in which he cited a report that had recently run on the
"CBS Evening News" to illustrate what he sees as a liberal bias in the news.
He left the network four years later. Goldberg says there's not a
well-orchestrated vast left-wing conspiracy in America's newsrooms. Here's
what he says is happening.
Mr. BERNARD GOLDBERG (Author, "BIAS"): What happens, and the way media bias
works, I think, is like this: The media elites live in places basically like
New York and Washington. They go to dinner parties and cocktail parties and
socialize with their smart, sophisticated, liberal friends in New York and
Washington. Their newsrooms are populated by like-minded people on many, many
of the social issues, whether it's feminism, race, gay rights, even
homelessness, things like that. After a while, the media elites, while
they're able to spot a conservative point of view 10,000 miles away through
brick walls, they really think that their views aren't liberal on these
issues. They think their views are reasonable, are mainstream, are moderate,
and they think that because, well, all their friends think that way on those
issues. That's the nature of liberal bias in the news. It's not a
conspiracy, it's not something that they come in, in the morning and are
determined to accomplish, but it is a kind of group thing, and in that sense
it's not a good thing, because I think you could hook my friend Dan Rather up
to a lie detector machine, ask him if there's a liberal bias in the news, even
from time to time on the newscast, he'd say no, and I don't think the needle
GROSS: Well, give me an example of a program or a network or an individual
who you think displays this type of media bias that you're describing.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, I don't think ABC, NBC or CBS are really that much
different from each other. I just think it's who they are, it's part of the
mind-set. Let's take a subject like abortion. Very controversial subject,
Americans are split on it. Yet when political reporters report about
abortion, they say correctly, by the way, that Republicans have to appeal to
the anti-abortion people on the right in the primaries, and then the
Republicans have a real problem getting back to the middle to appeal to the
broader electorate in the general election. They're right about that.
But Democrats have the exact same problem, but it's never put that way. Not
long ago, six Democratic presidential candidates went to NARAL Pro-Choice
America, the biggest pro-abortion lobby in America that supports abortion
without restrictions, and they appealed to those people. But a recent Gallup
Poll shows that only something like 24 percent of the American people fit into
that category of abortion without restrictions. But the reporters who
reported about that didn't say Democrats who appeal to the left wing of the
Democratic Party are going to have a problem when they go into a general
election because most voters are not for abortion on demand. It's framed--the
default position, Terry--let me put it that way. The default position is that
Republicans and conservatives have the problem with abortion in America.
Liberals and Democrats don't because liberals and Democrats on abortion are
mainstream, Republicans and conservatives are not mainstream. Factually
that's just not true.
GROSS: Your book about liberal bias has been a number-one best-seller, but a
lot of people say, well, the opposite is true. If the media has a bias, it's
a conservative bias.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: And those people would say look at talk radio, look at Rush Limbaugh,
Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, Sean Hannity, Neil Boortz, Bob Grant, Michael
Medved. So what's your response to the people who say if there's a bias, it's
really a conservative bias in the media?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, there's no question that when it comes to the world of
opinion, conservatives are not shrinking violets. There's no question about
that. Talk radio is dominated by conservatives, absolutely true. But there's
a difference between talk radio and talk television, for that matter, which is
what Bill O'Reilly does and Sean Hannity on television do, and news, straight
news, allegedly, supposedly objective news. I don't have a problem if
everybody on talk radio were liberal. The marketplace is gonna determine
But I do think this: I think if it weren't for a feeling in much of America
among millions and millions of Americans that the mainstream media, the media
that's supposed to give it to them straight--and they don't confuse that, I
don't think, with talk radio where they understand that that's an opinion
medium--if the mainstream media were only giving it to them straight, I'm not
sure that there'd be a Fox News Channel, for instance. I think Fox News is
the direct result--and its growing success--certainly is the direct result of
a disillusionment with the way the mainstream media is operating. So I think,
yes, there's no question that in talk radio and on Fox, there's a conservative
attitude and a conservative slant and whatever you want to call it. But power
comes from numbers in the media, and Fox has about a million viewers a night,
and the "CBS Evening News," ABC, NBC and PBS evening newscasts combined have
about 35 million viewers a night. I'm not all that worried about Fox, which
is a talk opinion program in the evening, but I'm more concerned about 35
million people watching a supposedly objective newscast and not always getting
it that way.
GROSS: Let me quote something that Neal Gabler said in response to the whole
debate about whether the media has a liberal or conservative bias. He said,
"The real media war today isn't between liberals and conservatives, but
between two entirely different journalistic mind-sets: those who believe in
advocacy and those who believe in objectivity, or at least the appearance of
objectivity." What do you think?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, let's--I'll use me as an example. I believe in
objectivity. I don't want a conservative newscast. I don't want CBS News to
take a poll and say, `Since our ratings have been slipping, let's find out
what the American people want, and if they want a conservative newscast, we'll
give it to them.' So the debate among some people may be the way Neal Gabler
described it, but I think--I just want a newscast. I just want a newscast
that has more views from various points on the spectrum. We get intelligent
liberal views. How about a few more intelligent conservative views? I think
that's really the nature of the problem. But I'm willing to accept, and I'll
say for argument's sake I'm willing to accept, I'm just dead wrong about all
of this. I tried to get it right, but I got it all wrong.
Here's the real problem for the media elites. The real problem for Rather,
Brokaw, Jennings and people at The New York Times like Howell Raines.
Millions and millions and millions of Americans think I got it right. I'm not
a Svengali. Believe me, I don't go out there and hypnotize people to either
buy books or to agree with me. They just do because it resonates, and they do
actually because I caught up with many of them. I mean, they didn't catch up
with me. So even if I'm wrong, then I can be dismissed. I don't have a
problem with that. But what are the media elites going to do with those
millions and millions and millions of Americans who also think the way I do on
Sooner or later--and this is crucial--sooner or later the people at the
networks are gonna have to deal with those people because they continue to
lose viewers, and at some point they'll either deal with them and address the
issues and not ignore this whole problem, or they'll become less and less
GROSS: Do you think that the success of your book shows something that might
not be what you think it shows? And here's what I'm thinking: A lot of
people seem to really enjoy news as sport, news as opinion, news as argument,
as demonstrated by all of the, you know, "Point Counter Point" kind of shows
where you've got two people from opposite sides who are kind of battling out
every issue through the evening, and you have shows like that on CNN.
There's, you know, a lot of interviews like that on MSNBC. Fox certainly has
plenty of, you know, opinion journalism. And your book is opinion journalism
in the sense that, you know, you're giving your opinions. The book is very
much about what you think, it's about your opinion. Maybe, you know, if
you're arguing that the network news is losing listenership, is losing
viewers, maybe it's losing viewers 'cause people would rather have more
opinion. Maybe it's not because they're biased. Maybe it's because they're
not opinionated enough for people who are so used to opinion journalism.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, it's true that we live in the United States of
Entertainment, and people, for whatever reason, need conflict. It's like--the
television is like literature, but not necessarily good literature. It's like
everything has to have a conflict--good guys, bad guys--so you're definitely
on to something there. But the arguments in the book that I make, yes, of
course they're my opinions, just as the arguments in anybody's book, you know,
are those person's opinions. But I don't think if I had argued the opposite,
if I had argued, for instance, that people who say there's a liberal bias in
the news are right-wing dolts who are taking their marching orders from people
like Rush Limbaugh, I don't think the book would have been successful because
I don't think that's what so many Americans actually believe.
GROSS: But I guess what I'm asking is, do you think that your book, in its
own way, is increasing this climate of opinion journalism where people like
the fight, they like the controversy, and maybe even become less interested in
the journalism of fairness, the journalism of just examining...
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.
GROSS: ...you know, gathering facts and examining all the points of view and
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, that's a very good point. You know, I'd love to say I
don't know what you're talking about, but I do, and it's a very good point,
and it's certainly possible. I tried to make the book entertaining. I admit
that. At least I acknowledge it. Admit implies some, you know, guilt along
the way. I acknowledge that I tried to make the book entertaining. But I
also--I mean, I tell real stories about how we cover AIDS and how we cover
homelessness and how we cover racial issues.
There's a danger, though. You're absolutely right. There's a danger that if
something isn't entertaining in this country, it doesn't survive. I think
everything in the mass media has to be entertaining at some level. If it's
simply dry statistics, no matter how intelligent it is--this isn't my fault,
this is just the way it is--it's not gonna work. If it isn't entertaining, it
dies sooner or later, and usually sooner.
GROSS: My guest is Bernard Goldberg, author of the book "BIAS." More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bernard Goldberg, author of the best-seller "BIAS," in
which he argues that the news media have a liberal bias. Goldberg is a former
reporter and producer for CBS News.
Could you choose an issue, a major issue in the news--possible war with Iraq,
Bush economic plan--some like really major front and center issue in the news
that you think has been handled with bias by most of the media?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Whenever a story about AIDS comes up, I just wait for the bias
to come out. If even one person in America or anyplace in the world has AIDS,
it's a terrible, terrible, terrible tragedy. I mean, that, I hope, goes
without saying. But what the media started to do 20 years ago but continues
to do today is that it tells us that AIDS isn't just a disease--in the United
States, I'm talking about, in the United States--is not just a disease of gay
men and junkies. AIDS is everybody's disease. This is how it started in the
1980s. They said AIDS was a disease where everybody is at risk. And they
managed to create an epidemic of fear, and the fear was that heterosexuals,
and not just heterosexuals who were having sex with junkies, but heterosexual
Americans were the next big wave. We were told that one in five Americans
would be dead by the year 2000, and just a bunch of insane things.
Well, the media has never corrected that. That didn't happen. All you have
to do is look around and say, `Well, where are all these dead heterosexuals?
They're not in my newsroom. They're not on my block. Where are they?' And
they've had every chance to correct that, but whenever they do a story, I
mean, it's--I'll bet you if you went out and did a poll right now and asked
mainstream America, `Do you think heterosexuals are at high risk for getting
AIDS if they have, quote, unquote, "unsafe sex" with other heterosexuals,'
they'd say yes. But it isn't true.
GROSS: You work under the assumption that a lot of the reporters in the press
are liberals and that even if they try to be fair, their bias will express
itself in their reporting. Do you think it's possible for a journalist to
have a political point of view and yet to believe so much in the profession of
journalism and in the code of impartiality for reporters that they are doing a
very fair and balanced job in spite of the fact they may have a point of view?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, a couple of things. First, it's not my feeling that most
journalists at big news organizations are liberal. It's their feeling. The
Los Angeles Times has done a poll, all sorts of people have done polls on
this, where they asked journalists to identify themselves, and on issues from
abortions to guns to death penalty and affirmative action and all sorts of
things, they come down on the side that's more liberal than the American
people. So that's not, like, my opinion that they're liberal.
Do I think that they can put whatever their politics are aside and cover the
news because that's what journalists are supposed to do? Yeah, I think they
can and I think sometimes they do. What I'm saying is, when you have so many
like-minded people in the newsroom, even when you try to do the right
thing--and I've never said that they don't try to do the right thing--it's
Let me give you an example, Terry, involving guns. Awhile back there was a
rampage at a law school in the western part of Virginia, and the rampage
involved a student who had a gun and shot and killed several other students
and wounded others and he was on a rampage and he probably would have killed
and wounded a whole bunch more, except that three students went to their cars,
two of whom had guns, and two of these students went back and used their guns
to subdue the gunman, the one who was killing the students.
I spoke to one of those students who had a gun, and he said he told that
story, the one I just told you, to 50 to 100 reporters, and yet virtually none
of them--virtually none of them--I did a Nexis search, I could only find four
stories that mentioned that the students who subdued the gunman also had guns.
Now why is that? I mean, that's strange. That's monumentally bad journalism
since that's a crucial part of the story. It explains how the rampage ended.
Well, perhaps if there were more journalists out there who--and I'm not a gun
person, for whatever that's worth. I don't like guns. I don't like having
them around. I don't like looking at them. But if there were more
journalists who weren't liberal on the issue of guns, and more journalists in
the newsroom who were conservative and thought that, well, guns aren't a bad
thing, necessarily, then that story would have come out right. And they
couldn't have made the mistake honestly. I mean, I do believe that most
mistakes are honest mistakes, but that one they have to consciously decide to
leave out such a crucial piece of information, and I think--I'm connecting the
dots here. I don't have absolute proof, but I think it's a safe bet that they
left out that crucial piece of information because here was an example of
someone using a gun to do something good, and that didn't fit the preconceived
notions, and that's where much of the bias in the media comes in. They're
based on preconceived notions. How are we supposed to feel about certain
issues? If it's homelessness, well, we're supposed to feel that they look
just like you and me even though they don't look just like you and me. Things
GROSS: I don't want to make this about NPR, but I'm just curious: Where do
you think NPR fits in in your charge of liberal bias?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, I think NPR does a lot of very interesting and
intelligent things, so I don't have a problem with that. If I have a problem
with NPR, it's that they'll devote 10 minutes to a fascinating subject, and
then they'll also devote 10 minutes to somebody who's planting petunias, you
know, in her back yard. So I find some of it not especially interesting, but
I find that--that's not a rap. I mean, that's true in a lot of places.
Ideologically conservatives certainly think that NPR is a liberal network and
the talk shows are liberal. As a matter of fact, when liberals started
complaining about conservative talk radio and said, `We need our own liberal
network,' my two or three conservative friends said, `What do you think NPR
is?' And I do think certainly on talk shows, there's some truth to that. And
I've been on about 400 radio shows around the country, and a couple of local
NPR shows, and I will tell you, Terry, they are demonstrably different than
the other talk shows I've been on, ideologically speaking. So, yeah, there's
certainly a lot on NPR that tilts to the left, but I also think there's an
awful lot of very, very good stuff and intelligent stuff, and stuff that goes
more than a minute and a half on NPR, and it serves a great purpose.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, thank you, Terry, for having me. I appreciate the
opportunity to try to get some of my points out.
GROSS: Bernard Goldberg is the author of the best-seller "BIAS." We'll hear
from the author of a new book that responds to Goldberg's book in the second
half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, more on bias in the news. We talk with Eric Alterman. His
new book "What Liberal Media?" argues that the media are more conservative
than liberal. And film critic David Edelstein reviews the DVD release of a
cult film which only briefly played theaters, "Donnie Darko," starring Jake
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Interview: Eric Alterman discusses whether there is a liberal bias
in media reporting
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the new book "What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News," Eric
Alterman responds to Bernard Goldberg and others who argue that the media have
a liberal bias. Alterman thinks that idea is just a myth, and it's a myth
that empowers conservatives to control the debate in the United States to the
point where liberals can't even hope for a fair shake anymore. Alterman
writes the Stop the Presses medial column for The Nation and the Altercation
Weblog for MSNBC.com. He's also the author of a book about media pundits
called "Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy." I asked him to
describe the bias that he perceives in the news.
Mr. ERIC ALTERMAN (Author, "What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the
News"): I basically share the view that many conservatives have that most
elite journalists are social liberals, but I feel that they're economic
conservatives. In fact, I think I demonstrate with evidence, which is
something some of these other books don't bother with, that they're economic
conservatives. But on the social liberal side, there's a whole conservative
structure and an economic structure in the media that keeps journalists'
biases in check, so you hear very little of them. In fact, more often than
not, I think journalists bend over backwards to denude themselves of their
biases because they're trying to be objective.
With the economic biases, there's no such structure. Everything about
journalism--the fact that we have a strong conservative movement, the fact
that we have very tiny number of enormous corporate owners, the fact that
business is the way we think about the world--NPR doesn't have labor shows,
it's got business shows, and that's NPR. So I think everything on the
economic side reinforces journalists' economic conservatism, whereas it pushes
in the opposite direction of their social liberalism.
GROSS: OK, let me ask you about the social liberalism for a second. So you
feel confident that most journalists are, in fact, social liberals.
Mr. ALTERMAN: Well, look...
GROSS: Is that like a feeling, or is that based on a poll?
Mr. ALTERMAN: I don't really trust the polls very much. There's one poll
that people are always waving around, that 89 percent of Washington
journalists voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. It's a bad poll and I don't
believe it. But I nevertheless think its thrust is probably accurate; not the
poll itself, but it's consistent. Look, I live on the Upper West Side of
Manhattan. I used to live in Dupont Circle in Washington for eight or 10
years. Everybody I know, pretty much, supports a woman's right to choose,
supports gays' rights to marry and to raise children. They support gun
control. They support campaign finance. There's no dissension on these
But like I said, these views are--journalists don't feel free to preach these
views, in part because there's an enormous conservative structure ready to
pounce on them if ever they hear them, but also in part because journalists
want to be professionals. They want to be objective. In 1990, I believe,
David Shaw of the LA Times published an enormous series, Media Criticism, in
which he dissected coverage of the abortion issue. And he felt that it leaned
very far in favor of pro-choice advocates, that there was a lot of sort of
coded messages and that the anti-abortion side, or pro-life side, was being
This series won a Pulitzer Prize from the so-called liberal media and it had
an enormous effect on people's perception of the coverage, so that they tried
to fix the problems that he identified. They weren't trying to secretly give
out these messages the way conservatives imagine. They were trying to do
their job. And yeah, sure, prejudices get involved in every report, because
the mere act of committing journalism is to invoke your own prejudices.
GROSS: Now let me ask you about a point that Bernard Goldberg makes. He says
that when it comes to certain social issues, that liberals see their point of
view as not being a point of view as much as just being a civilized way to
think. On such issues as being pro-choice on abortion, being for gun control,
being for gay rights and being for feminism, Goldberg is saying liberal
journalists don't see that as a political point of view as much as they see it
as just a civilized point of view to have, a point of view everybody should
Mr. ALTERMAN: Yeah, I think that was true in the 1960s and the 1970s, and I
think, for instance, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon had a real problem with
the media in that regard. But I think that the tide has turned. I think
Goldberg is 20, 30 years out of date, and I think that conservatives who make
this charge are either not paying attention or they're being deliberately
strategic, one might even say dishonest, because it has such a powerful effect
on journalists when they make this complaint.
I'll tell you the truth; I think what conservatives really object to in this
so-called liberal media is that they feel that the media are looking down on
them. They feel that these guys like Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and Peter
Jennings--and by the way, that's really all Goldberg's book is about, and
he'll say so. His book is about the three evening newscasts, and 72 pages out
of 200 have the words `Dan Rather' on them, and none of them are very nice.
I think what these people really object to is that they perceive a kind of
condescension towards their lives on the part of the liberal media, the
so-called liberal media. Not that it's not political, it's social and
cultural. And I actually think they may be right about that. And there's
nothing journalists can do about that. They do live in a different world. I
mean, Dan Rather and Brokaw, they make $10 million a year and, you know, they
worry about co-ops in Aspen and the Caribbean. They don't worry about making
payments and public schools and so forth. And I fear that the--my objection
to this is that the conservatives, particularly on talk radio, but also on
cable TV, they exploit this feeling and put it in the service of an economic
and political agenda that actually hurts the interest of the people that
they're alleged to be speaking for. I wish liberals could find their own
populist voice and speak for these people and address their cultural concerns
and put it at a service of a political agenda, which I feel would advance
their interests rather than retard them.
GROSS: In looking at whether the media has a bias, you say, `Conservatives
are extremely well represented in every facet of the media.' Make your case
Mr. ALTERMAN: Well, look, take a look at talk radio, which approximately 40
million Americans say they get their news from, and 15 to 20 million alone get
their news from Rush Limbaugh. There's about as much ideological variety in
American talk radio today as there was in the Soviet Communist Party of 1934
under Josef Stalin. It's no joke to say that Bill O'Reilly is a liberal by
the standards of American talk radio, and that's only because O'Reilly admits
that global warming is taking place but he doesn't think we should do anything
about it, and he's against the death penalty because he thinks that criminals
should suffer longer. He thinks death penalty's too nice, that that's what a
liberal is by talk radio standards.
Now that Phil Donahue has been canceled, there is no liberal on cable TV with
his own show. There are a few liberals who play the liberal against a
conservative. Except in the case of "Crossfire," I would say most of these
liberals are getting beaten up by the conservatives they're playing against in
terms of they're much tougher, much stronger, much more outspoken than the
liberals that they're pitted against.
So if talk radio is 100 percent far right, then cable TV is about 85 percent
conservative. And it's very conservative. It's not just a little bit
conservative. On broadcast TV, the only people who are empowered to give
their opinions on a regular basis, as I can tell, are George Will and John
Stossel of ABC News, both quite conservative; no liberals at all.
If you look at print, if you look at the most articulate liberals in print,
there's not as many of them as there are conservatives. The Washington Post
has far more conservatives than they do liberals, for instance. The New York
Times, a little bit more liberal than conservative. But almost all of the
conservatives--I suppose the only exception I could think of off the top of my
head is William Safire of well-known people, and that's because The Times has
a policy on this. They don't allow their people to be regulars on TV. All
the conservatives are on TV who write conservative columns. None of the
liberals are. None of the well-known liberals--like I said, Hertzberg,
Dionne, Paul Krugman, Richard Cohen, William Greider of The Nation, none of
them have regular TV slots, but just about every conservative does. Robert
Novak alone has more TV slots than all these guys put together.
So I think that in the opinion media--and actually, to tell you the truth, I
don't get all that much argument from conservatives on this--it's almost
entirely conservative dominated. And they have various reasons why this is
the case. They say they're just better at TV and their talent pool is larger
and that's why. But the conservatives, as you can see with Goldberg, tend to
make their case with regard to what they see as the biases of allegedly
objective reporting, because they know they have the opinion media sewn up,
GROSS: And do you agree with any of those charges that the reporters, in
newspapers or in broadcast, have a liberal bias in their reporting?
Mr. ALTERMAN: No. I do, as I said, agree that they have socially liberal
views, but I think that those views are a script from most of the reporting.
I mean, you can always find examples of this, of either side of the bias, if
you spend all day looking for them. There's nothing--you know, of an
organization like Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, which looks for this
kind of thing on the right, and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, which looks
for it on the left, these people are not going to be out of work, because it's
impossible to denude yourself of biases.
Like I said, the mere act of choosing what story you're going to present and
from what perspective you're going to present it, without even thinking about
politics, is an act of bias, and someone can tell you why that's biased. I
argue in the book that the entire structure of business reporting is biased
against labor. When The New York Times reports that corporations have reduced
the cost of production, they're not paying attention to the fact that jobs are
being shipped overseas, that these, quote-unquote, "externalities" like
pollution are being downloaded onto the people in the communities, that
workers are losing their health care, their pension rights, so forth. These
would be stories that would be reported if the entire structure of the media
were not biased towards business over labor.
So I would make the argument that on economic news, the unspoken bias is
definitely towards the right, and that on social issues, like gay rights and
abortion, there's an enormous effort on journalists to include people and
points of view that they don't share, to the point where it's sometimes silly.
GROSS: My guest is Eric Alterman, author of the new book "What Liberal
Media?" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Eric Alterman is my guest. He's author of the new book "What Liberal
Media? The Truth About Bias and the News."
I think it's fair to say that in certain political stories, you think that the
press tends to favor conservatives over liberals, Republicans over Democrats.
As an example, you think that President Bush has received much easier coverage
than President Clinton has.
Mr. ALTERMAN: Yeah, no question about that in my mind. And I also think that
the coverage of the 2000 election was egregiously slanted against Al Gore in a
way that even as someone who covered the media coverage for that election--not
just the election. It was my beat, the media coverage, for both The Nation
and MSNBC, but when I went back to look at it, I was shocked at how
egregiously Al Gore's positions were manipulated and known.
GROSS: Let me ask you about Gore. Do you think that was the result of a
conservative bias or something more personal, the people in the press just
didn't like Gore?
Mr. ALTERMAN: Well, I know people in the press didn't like Gore; they hated
Al Gore. It wasn't that they didn't like him. There was an incident
described in the book--I didn't see it, but it was reported in Time
magazine--where during a debate between Gore and Bradley that people in the
pressroom actually stood up and screamed and jeered at the screen when Gore
came on. I mean, you would think that they would at least try to hide it. I
don't think it was ideological in the case with Gore. I think they hated
Clinton. Clinton was incredibly charming in terms of the way he manipulated
the press and seduced the press, but the day after Clinton became president,
he shut the door of the White House and he decided he hated the press and he
wanted nothing more to do with them, and they turned on him with an incredible
degree of ferocity, to the point where, you know, the president's sex life,
which all presidents have had a right to in the past, became the most
important issue that the country was facing in a way that the rest of the
world just couldn't fathom it.
I mean, here Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush, the current
president, have all felt empowered to lie to the nation about matters of war
and peace. You can call it a lie, you can call it misleading. Perhaps in the
case of Reagan, and maybe even George W. Bush, you can be charitable and say
they're misleading themselves as well, but they're saying a lot of things that
aren't true, and they were getting way with it then, and Bush is getting away
with it now, whereas with Bill Clinton, we basically stopped the entire
business of the American government to impeach a man for saying something that
millions of Americans have done, which is lie about adultery, and many
presidents had done before him.
Take the example of Whitewater. The Clintons lost $30,000 on a real estate
investment. We spent $70 million investigating. There were thousands and
thousands of stories written about it. What about George Bush and Harken
Oil, where he made millions? That story came and went in two weeks. What
about the fact that George may have deserted his National Guard post for a
year? We don't know what happened there. What about the fact that George
Bush may have used cocaine? We don't know what happened there either.
Now personally, Terry, I have to tell you, I don't really care about any of
these things, whether or not George Bush did them years ago. I only care
about what the president does while he's president. But if you compare the
incredible amount of resources and energy and excitement that was poured into
investigating Bill Clinton's past life, things that had nothing whatsoever to
do with the presidency, and what George Bush was able to get away with before
he was president, and is able to get away with today, I don't see how you can
conclude anything but that the press is much more sympathetic to a Republican
conservative than they are to a moderate Democrat.
GROSS: I don't want to make this about National Public Radio, which is the
network that FRESH AIR is on, but I would like to hear if you think that NPR
has a political bias.
Mr. ALTERMAN: I'll tell you what I think, Terry. I think that NPR--I don't
think there are many conservatives working at NPR. I think most people at NPR
are either liberals or just honest, down-the-line journalists. And I think
they try and do down-the-line journalism, and they're extremely sensitive,
particularly since they're publicly funded, to this right-wing, conservative
attack on both NPR and PBS that's been going on for the past 20 or 30 years.
So I think that left alone, NPR probably would have a liberal bias, but I
think NPR has been enormously sensitive and enormously careful as a result of
this conservative attack. I think the conservatives actually have a right to
declare victory vis-a-vis NPR because they've succeeded in getting their point
of view well-represented by people who don't share it.
And NPR is sort of a perfect example of what I was talking about earlier where
social liberals--I imagine everybody at NPR feels basically the same way about
abortion and gay rights and so forth, but I think it bends over backwards to
be more than fair to conservatives. And I think this notion that I've heard
on--when I was on Bill O'Reilly's show last week that `OK, the right has Rush
Limbaugh and Michael Savage and Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, and the
left has NPR' is just ridiculous, because NPR is specifically not in the
business of political advocacy. It's in the business of trying to address all
points of view. And to my mind, lately, it bends over too far to the right.
When Bernard Goldberg was on--when his book came out a year ago, the
discussion was between two conservatives and two mainstream journalists, no
liberals were invited into that discussion, just the way it's done in the
mainstream media. So I think that, yeah, NPR has kind of a social and
cultural bias, which it works hard to address, but it's in no way comparable
to the naked and rather aggressive and open bias that is dominating the
American discourse and coming from the extremely well-funded right.
GROSS: Your book challenges the charges that there's a liberal bias in the
media. Within your book you also talk about another issue that a lot of
journalists face, which is that a lot of newspapers, TV stations, radio
stations are owned by large corporate interests. Do you think that that's an
issue that affects news coverage?
Mr. ALTERMAN: Absolutely, Terry. I think there's relatively few examples of
explicit corporate censorship of journalists, although there are some, and I
talk about them in the book. They seem to--there's one, you know, involving
Disney, or one or two involving Disney. They seem to be actually the people
who do this the worst. There are some accusations about the 2000 election and
Jack Welch and NBC-GE that have never been proven, and they may or may not be
But more important, I think they set a tone for journalists who know better
than to go into certain areas, who know better than to write stories that are
going to hurt their corporate parents. Michael Kinsley did us all the great
favor of admitting that you should never look for an investigative story about
Microsoft in Slate magazine. The same is true just about everywhere else, you
now, in terms of you're not going to look for NBC to investigate GE. You're
not going to look for Disney to investigate Disney. You're not going to look
for the New York Post to investigate Rupert Murdoch and--but it's actually
worse than that because there are 150 or so--I have no idea how many companies
there are under AOL Time Warner. There's more than I can count. And they all
have their own interests and they all have executives who have girlfriends who
have friends, and it has an enormously chilling affect on journalists in the
stories they choose to write and choose not to write.
Something like 40 percent of journalists, according to a Columbia Journalism
Review survey, admitted to practicing self-censorship, mostly on this very
issue, on not wanting to upset either advertisers or their parent corporation.
So the fact that six companies--and this is no exaggeration, six companies
control just about all of the media right now. And that's actually one reason
why independent voices, believe it or not, like The New York Times and, of
course, NPR is so much more valuable. The fact that only six companies
control so much of the media, it makes it that much more difficult for
journalists to find stories that don't in some way involve their own
corporation and it leads to a much--it leads, in part, to more pabulum and
more white bread reporting and, in part, to emphasis on stories that are
meaningless, tabloid-type stories about phony kidnapping of blond-haired
children and so forth, because these kinds of stories don't get anybody in
GROSS: Eric Alterman is the author of the new book "What Liberal Media?" He
writes the Stop the Presses media column for The Nation.
Earlier, we heard from Bernard Goldberg, whose book "Bias" argues that the
news media have a liberal bias.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the DVD release of a film which
only briefly played in theaters, "Donnie Darko," starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: DVD release of "Donnie Darko"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Film critic David Edelstein has a review of a low-budget independent film he
figures you probably didn't get to see in theaters. The film, "Donnie Darko,"
which stars Jake Gyllenhaal, had a very limited run when it opened in the fall
of 2001, but it developed a cult following through cable showings and through
video and DVD rentals. This month the DVD became available for purchase.
(Soundbite of "Donnie Darko")
"FRANK": Wake up.
That voice belongs to a six-foot-tall rabbit called Frank who is either an
emissary of God or a sure sign that our suburban high school hero, Donnie
Darko, is a delusional schizophrenic. The rabbit wakes Donnie up at midnight
on October 2nd, 1988, and tells him to leave his house. A few moments later,
a jet engine of unknown origin falls through the roof above his room. Donnie
has been saved, yet he is doomed. The rabbit says the world will end in 28
days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. Increasingly, there are signs that
Donnie has entered a tangent universe, that the time-space continuum has been
ruptured. Or maybe he's just nuts.
I saw "Donnie Darko" at the end of its brief theatrical run in the fall of
2001, and I wasn't sure what Donnie was. All I knew was that I loved him, and
I loved the movie around him, too. But I think I needed to live with it a
while, let it ferment, watch it again on cable, watch it again on DVD. Now I
think it could be one of the great cult DVDs of all time. The movie is a
genre bender. It's John Hughes' teen angst with a jolt of Stephen King. No,
it's much better than that. It's "Catcher in the Rye" with time twists out of
Philip K. Dick. No, that makes it sound too sci-fi, whereas the movie is
funny and romantic and generally down to Earth. It's a family drama, a comic
book superhero saga, a passionate religious parable. It's all over the map.
It shouldn't gel.
But it's so tenderly written, so lyrically photographed by Steven Poster, so
gorgeously acted that its youthful overreaching doesn't matter. It's as if
the writer-director Richard Kelly packed the entire spectrum of his adolescent
thoughts and feelings into a single movie--the books he read in high school
and summer camp, the mope rock he heard on the radio, the changes he felt in
his body, the anxiety dreams, the sex dreams, the superhero fantasies.
"Donnie Darko" is finally nothing less than a teen-age inquiry into the
existence of God. It explicitly poses the question: Does every living
creature on Earth die alone? Here's Donnie, played by Jake Gyllenhaal,
pressing his science teacher, played by Noah Wyle, on the subject of time
travel. Donnie has begun to see watery spears like Slinkys emerge from
people's chests and dart ahead of them, tracing the path they're going to take
in the next few seconds. He wants to know badly what it says about
(Soundbite of "Donnie Darko")
Mr. NOAH WYLE: Well, each vessel travels along the vector of space time
along its center of gravity.
Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) Like a spear.
Mr. WYLE: I beg your pardon?
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: Like a spear that comes out of your chest.
Mr. WYLE: Sure. And in order for the vessel to travel through time, it's
got to find a portal, or in this case a wormhole or...
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: Well, could these portals just appear anywhere, anytime?
Mr. WYLE: I think that's highly unlikely. No, I think what you're talking
about is an act of God.
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: Well, if God controls time, then all time is pre-decided.
Mr. WYLE: I'm not following you.
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: Look, every living thing follows along a set path. And if
you could see your path or channel, then you could see into the future, right?
Like a--that's a form of time travel.
Mr. WYLE: Well, you're contradicting yourself, Donnie. If we were able to
see our destinies manifest themselves visually, then we would be given a
choice to betray our chosen destinies. And the mere fact that this choice
exists would make all preformed destiny come to an end.
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: Not if you travel within God's channel.
EDELSTEIN: I don't know how to praise Jake Gyllenhaal enough, except to say
that he embodies the titanic contradictions of every teen. His Donnie is
crazy, yet burningly lucid. At times, he has the satanic cast of Malcolm
McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange," yet he also has the sweet and dopy
earnestness of Tobey Maguire in "Spider-Man." The DVD has two engaging but
problematic commentaries, one with Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal, the other with
Kelly and the cast, including Drew Barrymore, who is also the movie's
executive producer and guardian angel. It also boasts many deleted scenes,
which tend to pin down the symbolism too firmly. I think they were
well-discarded, but Kelly doesn't, and the more he talks about what the movie
means, the more you want to turn off the commentary. His unconscious
instincts are just so much more fascinating than his conscious explanations.
And the movie is richer for its ambiguities.
What finally makes this such a great movie for DVD is that you'll want to see
it over and over again, to take it apart and put it back together. And even
if the time travel pieces don't all fit, the puzzle still makes your synapses
hum. No movie has ever captured adolescent self-pity in a way that makes it
quite so mythic.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we remember Fred Rogers and listen back to an
interview with him. Rogers has died of cancer at the age of 74.
I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.