News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Bernard Goldberg's Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News.

This book opens up with an excellent quote: When it comes to arrogance, power, and lack of accountability, journalists are probably the only people on the planet to make lawyers look good. - Steven Brill

Bernard Goldberg put in 27 years as a reporter with CBS News where he flew his own television investigative journalism series.

I learned the hard way how unreliable the media can be via researching the AIDS epidemic which seemed oddly absent here in Taiwan. Goldberg does a whole chapter on how the media cynically magnified AIDS into a best-selling welter of fear, completely unwarranted by the facts. Remember the media frenzy over SARS, the latest incarnation of the 1917 flue epidemic? Many if not most of the SARS victims in the Free World died due to the botched immune-suppressant therapy prescribed by the World Health Organization. Of course death by bungled injection didn't scrape up much news, nor did the many pathetic victims in Hong Kong who died slow deaths over the following several months due to unstoppable bone deterioration caused by the WHO's very same therapy.

After running a news website for a year, and watching reporters consistently highball statistics, botch even the simplest addition of figures, play up victimization at every possible turn (the BBC has the worst tear-squeezer of them all, a female with a great vocal impression of the Adam's Family's butler Lurch) write advocacy journalism whose articles included facts that clearly defeated the reporters opinion on the issue at hand, I grew annoyed and eventually quite contemptuous of reporters as a class. Naturally there are must be some reporters who shine, but outside of David Brooks and Chris Hitchens, none other come racing to mind.

The following is a grab-bag of self-explanatory quotes from his chapter on the calculated fumbling of the homeless issue:

(Page 65~71) No one knows exactly how many homeless there were in America in the 1980s and early 1990s, but there were researched, educated estimates. For example, the US Census Bureau figured it was about 230,000. The General Accounting Office of Congress put the number between 300,000 and 600,000. The Urban Institute said that there were somewhere between 355,000 and 462,000 homeless Americans. These numbers weren't state secrets. Reporters knew what they were. They just didn't care.

Meanwhile, the homeless lobby was putting the number of homeless in the millions. No matter how bad a problem really is, advocates think they need to portray it as worse.

We have come to expect this of advocates. They know their cause is worthy, so what harm can a little exaggeration do? But reporters - when they also see the cause as worthy - buy into it. They also become advocates. They take the numbers as gospel. They have no desire to look too deep, because if they do, God forbid, they might find something they'd rather not find. There's an old saying in the newsroom: don't let the facts stand in the way a good story!

So in 1989 on CNN, Candy Crowley, a fine, serious reporter, said that "Winter is on the way and 3 million Americans have no place to call home."

3 million!

Not to be outdone, in January of 1993, Jackie Nespral, the anchor of NBC Weekend Today, said, "Nationally right now, 5 million people are believed to be homeless... and the numbers are increasing."

5 million!! And the numbers are increasing!!!

Charles Osgood of CBS news, one of the most talented journalists in all of broadcasting, reported, "It is estimated that by the year 2000, 19 million Americans will be homeless unless something is done, and it done now."

19 million homeless by the turn-of-the-century!!!!

And Ray Brady, one of the best in the business, who was reporting for the CBS evening news, found homeless people who actually lived in homes. These were - ready for this? - the "hidden homeless."
Who are they? People who aren't homeless at all, but, because they can't afford their own places, are living at home with Mom and Dad, often in cushy houses in the suburbs with big-screen TVs and three squares a day.

"Of all the lies that are swallowed and regurgitated by the media, the ones that hurt the most come from the good guys," Kathryn Dunn wrote in the New Republic in 1993. "The grassroots do-gooders, the social work heroes, the nonprofit advocacy groups battling for peace, justice, and equality."

Did anyone, least of all seasoned reporters who pride themselves on their skepticism, really believe that the vast majority of the homeless - the addicted and the mentally ill - would virtually disappear from America's streets if only Ronald Reagan hadn't cut housing programs?

Scott Schuger, a Washington journalist who wrote a piece in the Washington Monthly - "Who are the Homeless?" - certainly didn't. In a monument to common sense and politically incorrect wisdom, Schubert wrote, "There can be all the low-cost housing in the world and an untreated paranoid won't set foot in it, and an untreated schizophrenic might burn it down... and a drug addict will spend the rent money on crack."

When the "proper" victims are involved, we become journalists/social workers. And we live by the journalist/ social worker motto: afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

We know who our viewers are. We know what they look like. And we know that they would be drawn more to stories about homeless people who looked just like their mothers and fathers and sons and daughters than homeless people who look like, well, homeless people.

But to do that we first need to go to central casting and get just the right kind of homeless people on the news. White was better than black. Clean was better than dirty. Attractive was better than unattractive. Sane was better than insane. And sober was better than addicted. So when the TV people went looking for just the right kind of homeless face to put on the news programs, they went to people like Robert Hayes, who ran the National Coalition for the Homeless in New York.

In 1989, Hayes told the New York Times that when congressional committees in TV news producers contact him, "They always want white, middle-class people to interview."

Walter Goodman, who writes about television for the New York Times, came up with a name for what we in the media were doing. He called it the "prettifying of reality."

[He wrote] The reasons for the choices are not obscure. If you want to arouse sympathy for the homeless, you cannot put forward offputting specimens. Television news producers can count on advocacy groups to supply them with model victims for viewing purposes, people who may even be untouched by the other afflictions discovered in...[a] survey of the homeless: mental illness, AIDS, domestic violence, and lack of education and skills. And why should a producer focus on one of the 50% of single homeless people who have served time in jail when he can just as easily find someone without a record.... the result is a prettifying of reality.

1 comment:

  1. I think the media is there to make money for their parent organizations.

    Whether they are liberal or conservative is based on what is popular at the moment.

    Fox News would slant liberal if they could make more money. Rupert Murdoch is conservative but I am sure he would rather be making money than making a point.

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