'Tude on the tube TV news bias -- by popular demand

Sunday, August 22, 2004

In early July, George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton administration adviser who anchors ABC's "This Week," was in Ohio trying to get some inkling of whether the state is going to wind up red or blue come Nov. 2. Several likely voters mentioned they had seen "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's George W. Bush-whacking film.

"What was most striking to me is that when I asked them, 'Why did you go to see it?' they said, 'Because we wanted to get the facts,"' Stephanopoulos said. "And they said it very sincerely, very earnestly and forcefully. ... At least a few of them had a sense that if information is coming from the government, if it's coming from the established media, they must not be telling us something and we have to go to this alternative venue to get the facts. And I think that's a challenge for all of us [journalists]."

Loss of objectivity

Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC's "Nightline," added that he is "concerned that on both sides of the political spectrum, that if what Americans feel they get is news with an attitude, what they're going to end up losing is some of the objectivity that traditionally people in our business have tried [to attain]. We don't always succeed, but we have tried."

The ascendancy of "news" with an attitude -- a spin, a bias -- is undeniable. Whether it's Moore's effort to make Bush look dishonest and stupid; Brit Hume, Fox News Channel's chief Washington correspondent, looking as if he swigged sour milk when he mentions Democratic nominee John Kerry; Matt Drudge's right-thinking blogs; MSNBC's Keith Olbermann edging toward "Weekend Update" irreverence on his nightly news "Countdown," or the openly leftist Air America radio network hammering at Republicans the way Rush Limbaugh got rich pounding Democrats, purveyors of news and information that play to their audience's prejudices are everywhere.

The partisan-news trend is even getting endorsement from unlikely sources. The Television Critics Association, in its collective lunacy, gave its 2004 award for outstanding news and information program to Comedy Central's current-events satire "The Daily Show," bypassing nominees that included "Nightline," "60 Minutes" and PBS' "Frontline." "Daily Show" star Jon Stewart had the decency and good sense to be embarrassed by his trophy.

Americans want bias

Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw said he thinks that a growing number of Americans "don't really want unbiased, straightforward news reporting. When they complain about bias, what they're really complaining about, whether they're on the right or the left, is that the news isn't biased in favor of their side of the argument." Shaw attributes this phenomenon to the "intellectual laziness" of citizens too conditioned by the media's bite-size amusements to bother sifting through conflicting reports.

In the spirit of unbiased thinking, is this level of concern is really warranted? It may be that the openly, unapologetically slanted news outlets are satisfying a longstanding hunger, not creating a new demand.

While the existence of nonobjective journalism is hardly unprecedented in our history, Bill Moyers, a journalist who has been accused of bias a few times in his long career with CBS and PBS, believes its current scope is. "Now you have the constant, round-the-clock, ideological partisans who are spinning, spinning, spinning."

Whether "news with 'tude" is a cause of our current political polarization or a manifestation of it is, perhaps, an argument that we'll never resolve. And whether it's bad or good for democracy may be moot. It's here, it's severe, and whether we get over it or not, we have to live with it.

Moyers said that in his more optimistic moments he believes we'll eventually reach a point at which the babble of biased news sources serves to boost the market value of the purveyors dedicated to the more neutral variety.

It's an outcome that Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, not only foresees but is preparing for.

"If people's only source of information about the world is a combination of late-night comedy monologues and 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' there's only so much I can do about it," he said. "I think it's regrettable. I think that is not what one would call an informed citizen. One of the challenges for us over time is going to be to engage the attention of younger viewers so that they also see CBS as part of their array of choices. We're never going to be dominant again. But, by the way, neither is anybody else.

"We have to accept that there is a broad array of news, pseudo- news, ersatz news, meta-news," he added. "And one of our roles over time is going to be to sort through all those things and actually say, 'What are the facts?' I can actually see a more powerful role for network news growing out of this cacophony of different sources where we say, 'You know what? If you knew that when you came to CBS you would absolutely get something that we could verify and prove and present with backup and credibly say that we have no agenda whatsoever, that would actually be -- not to sound crass about it -- not only valuable to the public but very marketable." And if it isn't, what's a mainstream news organization to do but keep on keeping on.

"It's a very difficult, interesting and challenging media universe in which to work," ABC "World News Tonight" anchor Peter Jennings said. "We try to remember what we're supposed to be doing every day. And as long as we do it over a long period of time, people continue, I think, to put some trust in it." And if they don't, we can hope that our fellow citizens will stray from their respective news cocoons occasionally and see what the other half thinks, if only to raise their blood pressure.

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