Opinion: Daily Journal

Look for the Union Label

RALEIGH – I’ve just read Bernard Goldberg’s new best-selling book Bias, which provides an insider’s look into the true nature of television news. I’ll save my comments on the work of Goldberg, a former CBS reporter who had a major falling-out with the network, for a review to be posted soon here on Carolina Journal Online (preview: I didn’t like it). But in the meantime, let me comment on one kind of media bias that is pervasive and annoying.

I should preface this by saying that another thing I find pervasive and annoying is conservative whining about media bias. All too often, conservatives and Republicans who complain that they don’t get a fair share from the news media are at least partially responsible for their own plight. They refuse to make themselves available for interviews, they treat reporters like enemies (instead of like colleagues who interests sometimes coincide and sometimes conflict with theirs), and they imagine conspiracies where none exists.

But Goldberg does write about one legitimate problem, although some might call it a minor one. When print and broadcast media report on public policy issues that require expertise, they tend to turn more to left-of-center rather than right-of-center sources. More importantly, when they do quote think tanks, advocacy groups, professors, or other analysts, they usually attach an ideological label to the conservatives and a neutral one to the liberals.

It might not seem like a big deal, but it is a subtlety that has a cumulative import. When you label a source as a “conservative economist,” for example, you give the impression to the average reader or viewer that the source has such a strong opinion about an issue that it might overwhelm his ability to provide fact-based analysis. In a word, you give the source a bias in the minds of the audience. On the other hand, when you call him an “independent economist” or simply an “economist,” you cloak whatever he says with at least a veneer of impartiality.

Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but it isn’t trivial, either. As Goldberg notes, this practice is so commonplace that it infects the coverage of numerous issues. I have seen the problem here in North Carolina. Reporters usually refer to the John Locke Foundation as a “conservative think tank,” a “libertarian think tank,” or, occasionally, a “right-wing think tank.”

Long ago, I used to resist all of these labels, preferring that the media simply refer to us as an “independent think tank,” but I got nowhere. For a while, I even encouraged them to use the term “classical liberal think tank,” which most accurately reflects our free-market, limited-government principles, but all I got was puzzled looks. I think when I said “classical liberal,” they were thinking Adlai Stevenson, not John Locke or William Gladstone. Ultimately, I just gave in and stopped fighting the label wars.

However, many of the same reporters who label us as “conservative” will quote our liberal counterparts in their stories — as well they should, of course — but will attach labels like “progressive public-interest group” or “low-income advocacy group.” Some torture the English language to transform the verb “advocate” from a transitive to an intransitive, as in “the Carolina Institute of Pabulum, which advocates for the poor.” This simple grammatical error reflects a bias; the reporter is suggesting that the liberal source somehow speaks for the poor, which is completely untrue. The group speaks for a certain political viewpoint which may or may not advance the interests of the poor (who were never consulted on the matter). A little more truth-in-labeling would be appropriate, here.

I just read a great example of the problem in the Feb. 7 edition of the Christian Science Monitor. Reporter Alexandra Marks, writing about a small uptick in welfare rolls since the onset of recession, quoted experts from five institutions, four liberal and one conservative (problem number one). Noticeably, however, Marks only attached an ideological label to the conservative, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. She did not call the Brookings Institution liberal, or at least left-of-center. She did not label as liberal an “advocacy group” called Connecticut Voices for Children. She did not label as liberal the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a “grassroots advocacy group.”

Finally, Marks did not call the main source for her data, the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, a leftist, union-backed group, which she should have done. The Center is funded by all the usual hard-left foundations, is well-connected to organized labor, and has fought to destroy welfare reform for much of the past decade.

Read her pitiful story here.

Liberal media bias is not a conspiracy. It is the product of incompetence and narrow-mindedness. It is quite possible that Marks believes left-wing opinions are mainstream and Heritage’s are way outside the mainstream. Perhaps that’s why she quotes so many more of the former than the latter, and sees no need to help readers look for the union label.