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Is the US Media Biased? - 2003-06-06


On Focus, VOA's Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion on the issue of alleged bias in the American press.

MR. MORALES: According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, public confidence in the US press is slipping with nearly 60 percent of Americans believing that news organizations are politically biased.

Is the press biased and, if so, what does it mean for consumers of the news?

Joining me to examine the issue of bias in the media are: Cliff Kincaid, Director of Policy and Communications for Accuracy in Media -- a non-profit media watchdog group located here in Washington; and journalist Eric Alterman of The Nation magazine and author of the book: What Liberal Media: The Truth About Bias in the News. Eric Alterman, let me begin with you. We have a long tradition of freedom of the press here in the United States and the American press often is a model in burgeoning democracies. Why then are there so many charges of media bias -- both on the left and the right?

MR. ALTERMAN: I would say that to the degree that our media are held up as a model for the rest of the world, that's in part because, in many places, there's virtually no tradition of freedom of the press at all. And we do have a long tradition of freedom of the press, and there is a lot to be learned from the struggles that have been fought to retain it. But also, it's because people aren't looking that carefully at our media, there is a great deal wrong with our media that should not be emulated, that is done better in other places. And yet, because we are so good at trumpeting our cause, we pay a great deal of heed to our principles without taking a very close look at the reality.

MR. MORALES: Cliff Kincaid, let me put that same question to you.

MR. KINCAID: I think it's considered that the American media are held to a higher standard and have considerable freedom and are more objective and fair and balanced and accurate. But as a journalist myself . . . when I took journalism, my college textbook was "interpretive reporting". That's a form of advocacy reporting. This is what is being taught in the journalism schools. And, of course, conservatives like me, though, have been effectively shut out of major media organs in this country. And we have now seen the scandal at The New York Times [newspaper] show how liberal some of the major media organs in this country are -- how "values" such as diversity have trumped accuracy and cast a pall on this so-called newspaper of record, which is read around the world.

MR. ALTERMAN: I would, as you can imagine, disagree 180 degrees with Mr. Kincaid's characterization of the media. He would have had a case through, say, around the late 1970s. But beginning in the 1980s, conservatives invested hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in building their own conservative media. This media has had the effect of making the mainstream media much more conservative, so that now you have a phenomenon whereby you have two poles in America within the media in terms of political debate. You have the far right, represented by things like Fox [television] News, The New York Post [newspaper], The Washington Times, [newspaper] and The Wall Street Journal [newspaper] editorial page, and then you have the center and center right, represented by things like CNN and MSNB-C, which are becoming more and more like Fox News.

Now, it's true, The New York Times is still a liberal newspaper on its editorial pages, by and large. But it's a liberal newspaper with a great deal of conservatives on it. And even in the editorial positions of The New York Times you have conservative positions, like the endorsement of, say, George Pataki, the Republican Governor of New York. You don't have that kind of thing in the conservative media. You don't have liberals in the conservative media. And so the very definition of what is news today is a conservative definition. Even though, I admit, many journalists are liberal, they are still sort of taking their marching orders from what has become a conservative media.

MR. KINCAID: I would say that most of the journalists, as I think Eric Alterman just conceded, are themselves liberals. And at a paper like The New York Times, that kind of attitude is clearly shared by the owners and the management. The New York Times not only has been embarrassed by this scandal over the former reporter who plagiarized and stole material and faked stories, but had been embarrassed even before that because this paper has been campaigning not only against the US liberation of Iraq, but for a change in the rules of who can be members at the Augusta National Golf Club.

This paper -- The New York Times -- was so concerned that Augusta didn't have a female member that this attitude was reflected not only in editorials, but also in news stories -- to the point that columns by two Times staffers, disagreeing with Times editorials, were temporarily suppressed until the public outcry forced them eventually to be published. This is not objective journalism anymore. And we're not talking about some small-time, small-town city paper. This is the major newspaper in the United States.

MR. ALTERMAN: The New York Times, with the Jayson Blair case, has handed opponents of affirmative action a great victory. There is no doubt about it. And the case will be used to make the case that Mr. Kincaid just made. And I don't know if it's true. There's no way to know whether it's true. He is attributing motivations to people that he can't possibly know.

MR. MORALES: We have just a few minutes left, and I'd like to ask each of you, beginning with Eric Alterman: What lessons might our international listeners draw from our discussion today, particularly those in countries with an emerging free press? I'm thinking specifically about journalists and the public.

MR. ALTERMAN: There is no such thing as reality. Reality is contestable. Mr. Kincaid and I have completely different views of affirmative action, how it works, what its importance is in society, and whether this particular case has important implications for it. There is no such thing as truth and there is no such thing as objective reality. And therefore it's very important for journalists to understand, in the larger sense, what they're writing about and try to bring some context to the report, so that people who read this can understand why it's important.

MR. MORALES: And, Cliff Kincaid, the last word to you.

MR. KINCAID: I would say that those abroad looking at the American media have to take the same attitude as American news consumers here. And all the media -- whether it's Eric Alterman's The Nation magazine or Fox News or The New York Times -- have an agenda of sorts, because true objective reporting is not possible. So, be skeptical. Consult alternative sources of information.

Yes, demand answers, for example, from the US Government about where the [Iraqi] weapons of mass destruction are. Were they there in the first place? Have they been transferred out of the country? These are the sorts of legitimate questions that we have to ask, not only of the US Government, but also major corporations, labor unions and the media themselves.

MR. ALTERMAN: Amen. We agree on that.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we'll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: Eric Alterman of The Nation magazine and Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media.

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