You've probably heard a lot of spooky tales about "the liberal media."
Ever since Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced news outlets that were offending the Nixon administration in the autumn of 1969, the specter has been much more often cited than sighted. "The liberal media" is largely an apparition -- but the epithet serves as an effective weapon brandished against journalists who might confront social inequities and imbalances of power.
During the last few months, former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg's new book Bias has stoked the "liberal media" canard. His anecdote-filled book continues to benefit from enormous media exposure.
In interviews on major networks, Goldberg has emphasized his book's charge that American media outlets are typically in step with the biased practices he noticed at CBS News -- where "we pointedly identified conservatives as conservatives, for example, but for some crazy reason didn't bother to identify liberals as liberals."
But do facts support Goldberg's undocumented generalization? To find out, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg searched a database of 30 large daily newspapers in the United States. He disclosed the results in an analysis that aired March 19th on the national radio program Fresh Air.
Nunberg discovered "a big disparity in the way the press labels liberals and conservatives -- but not in the direction that Goldberg claims." Actually, the data showed, "the average liberal legislator has a 30 percent greater likelihood of being identified with a partisan label than the average conservative does."
When Nunberg narrowed his search to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times -- three dailies "routinely accused of having a liberal bias" -- he learned that "in those papers, too, liberals get partisan labels 30 percent more often than conservatives do, the same proportion as in the press at large."
And what about Goldberg's claim that media coverage is also slanted by unfairly pigeonholing stars of the entertainment industry? His book declares flatly: "If we do a Hollywood story, it's not unusual to identify certain actors, like Tom Selleck or Bruce Willis, as conservatives. But Barbra Streisand or Rob Reiner, no matter how active they are in liberal Democratic politics, are just Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner."
Again, Nunberg found, the facts prove Goldberg wrong: "The press gives partisan labels to Streisand and Reiner almost five times as frequently as it does to Selleck and Willis. For that matter, Warren Beatty gets a partisan label twice as often as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Norman Lear gets one more frequently than Charlton Heston does."
The results are especially striking because the word "liberal" has been widely stigmatized, observes Nunberg, a senior researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information. "It turns out that newspapers label liberals much more readily than they do conservatives."
So while Goldberg hotly contends -- without statistical backup -- that conservatives get a raw deal because they're singled out for ideological labeling more than liberals are, Nunberg relies on empirical evidence to reach a very different conclusion: "If there is a bias here, in fact, the data suggests that it goes the other way -- that the media consider liberals to be farther from the mainstream than conservatives are."
It's unlikely that factual debunking will do much to slow the momentum of those who are intent on riding the "liberal media" poltergeist. It has already carried them a long way.
Not surprisingly, President Bush displayed Goldberg's book for photographers at the White House a couple of months ago. For a long time, GOP strategists have been "working the refs" -- crying foul about supposed media bias while benefiting greatly from the efforts of an unparalleled national media tag team that includes the likes of Rush Limbaugh, a slew of corporate-funded think tanks, and plenty of rightward pundits in print and on television.
It doesn't hurt that during the past 70 years the Republican presidential candidate has received most of the daily newspaper endorsements in 16 out of 18 elections. How's that for "liberal media"?
But, like a ghost that long ago assumed corporeal form in the minds of millions, "the liberal media" cannot die. That's mostly because its image keeps being pumped up by huge media outlets.
In its first edition of this year, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial lauding Goldberg's book and declaring that "a liberal tilt in the media" is among the "facts of life so long obvious they would seem beyond dispute."
Overall, Goldberg's book is a muddled hodgepodge. While bashing journalists as excessively sympathetic to the homeless, laid-off workers, and poor people, he attacks the media establishment as elitist. With variations of faux populism, he expresses indignation that low-income people are rarely heard or seen in mass media -- yet he lambasts advocates for striving to widen the range of media coverage to include the voices of such people.
On bedrock issues of economic power, what passes for liberal-conservative debate in news media is usually a series of disputes over how to fine-tune the status quo. In the process, the myth of "the liberal media" serves as a smokescreen for realities of corporate media.
Norman Solomon's syndicated AlterNet column focuses on media and politics.