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14 January 2002

Our current howler (part III): Checks, please!

Synopsis: Bernie slams one piece by Engberg. But time out! He ignores all the rest.

Bernard Goldberg, Regnery Publishing, 2002

Commentary by Eric Engberg
CBS Evening News, CBS, 4/26/95

Commentary by Eric Engberg
CBS Evening News, CBS, 5/24/95

It’s amazing that someone would try to show "liberal bias" in the way Bernie Goldberg’s book does. His allegations seem vast and sweeping, but his targets are rather selective. He denounces an eight-year-old study of insect mating; he laments the way Laurence Tribe was introduced on CBS in the 80s (the way he allegedly was introduced; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/12/02). But in a book released in December 2001, there is barely a word about the Clinton press coverage, and there isn’t a word—not a single one—about the treatment of Bush’s tax cuts. In fact, there isn’t a single word in this book about the coverage of Election 2000! Can any sane person believe that the press corps was trying to get Al Gore elected? As Goldberg more or less acknowledged in his 12/28 WMAL interview, he himself doesn’t hold that view. So in a book which denounces the corps’ "liberal bias," we simply skip the trashing of Gore. Instead, we mourn the way Laurence Tribe was introduced on CBS during Reagan’s first term.

Alas! The media are full of bias and error, and—unless you craftily pick-and-choose targets—it ain’t easy to sort it all out. There is pro-liberal bias; pro-conservative bias; anti-Gore bias; anti-Bush bias. There is bias concerning taxing (and spending), and bias concerning race, religion, social class, region. There is bias in coverage of the Middle East, and there’s bias on the sports pages too. Goldberg would do us all a favor if he showed where "liberal biases" rule, and if he gave us a road map—one we could trust—which would help us improve the coverage. But while it’s very easy to yell "liberal bias," it isn’t so easy to prove such loud claims. Goldberg claims, for example, that the liberal press corps refuses to ID Rob Reiner as "liberal." Apparently, Bernie missed this report by Claudia Eller in the Los Angeles Times:

ELLER, 8/16/00: In 1987, Horn went into business with yet another liberal activist, director Reiner, who starred in "All in the Family" and became one of Horn’s four partners in film and TV producer Castle Rock Entertainment.

Perhaps Bernie didn’t get his paper the day this appeared in the Washington Post:

WILLIAM BOOTH, 10/22/98: The California Children and Families Initiative, better known as Proposition 10, is the brain child of Rob Reiner, the actor…

Joining Reiner, an avowed liberal, on proposition mailers, radio and television spots are some odd bedfellows, including actor and National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston, millionaire former representative Michael Huffington (R), crooner Pat Boone and former surgeon general C. Everett Koop.

Does Bernie read USA Today? If so, he surely caught this:

JILL LAWRENCE, 6/17/98: Reiner played the long-haired, liberal son-in-law on the 1970s sitcom All In The Family. His real politics are similar, and he feared Californians would dismiss his initiative as a liberal cause. Then Conservative Republican Michael Huffington called. He sized up Reiner over lunch. "After we were finished talking, there wasn’t even an ounce of reservation," Huffington says. He immediately signed on as co-chairman and now calls Reiner "my new best liberal Democrat friend."

Jeez! Lawrence called Reiner a "liberal" three times! And how about the many cites which plainly link Reiner with liberal causes? By Frank Rich in the Times, for example:

RICH, 2/23/00: [T]he political contributions that are most worth tracking are not those high-profile sums that Mr. Gore collected from movie stars and directors last week. Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner and Tom Hanks aren’t giving so that Mr. Gore will help them let 15-year-olds sneak into "Saving Private Ryan"— they’re giving because they support his traditionally liberal stands on social issues.

Are these the exceptions that prove the rule? Or is Goldberg’s claim just a big pile of hoohah? There is no way to tell from Goldberg’s book, because he’s too lazy to offer real research. Like that cry-baby gang on the talk-show right, he cranks the claims which the cattle all love, and Regnery runs off to print it. By the way, Rosie O’Donnell has been outed, too. Michael Grunwald, in the Washington Post:

GRUNWALD 10/26/00: "This is really therapeutic!" squeals the first lady of the United States.

No, she’s not talking about campaigning for office. She’s talking about carving pumpkins. She’s carving a jack-o’-lantern on national TV with Rosie O’Donnell, an unreconstructed liberal who has just noted fawningly that "I care a lot, as you do, about education for our kids." Clinton has been taking this free opportunity to talk about her work with abused and neglected children.

Oh yeah. When the First Lady "squeals" and the Big Liberal "fawns," is that an example of liberal bias? But then, why in the world can’t it be liberal bias? If Harvest of Shame getting dumped is lib bias, this might as well be the big B-word too.

Has anyone ever written a book that is lazier than Goldberg’s quite aptly-named Bias? If you look up "anecdotal" in the Big Book of Words, they should run Bernie’s picture there too. As everyone knows, Goldberg’s fight with his Liberal Lords began in 1996, when he published a piece in the Wall Street Journal slamming around Eric Engberg. Engberg had done a "Reality Check" on the CBS Evening News which trashed the Steve Forbes "flat tax" proposal; Goldberg denounced Engberg’s "Check" for its liberal bias. Did Engberg’s report display such bias? We’ll examine that matter a bit in Part IV. But Goldberg’s treatment of the Engberg piece is a perfect example of his larger method—the anecdotal approach which can feel so good, but is so worthless for those who aren’t spoutin’.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Engberg’s report was unfair to Forbes. Does that show Engberg has "liberal bias?" Time out! Wouldn’t you want to review the gentleman’s other reports before making such a sweeping accusation? In fact, just a few weeks before he beat up on Forbes, Engberg did a "Check" trashing Hillary Clinton for Whitewater and the travel office firings. The report featured a few bits of bogus reporting which drove the coverage of those two matters. So what kind of "bias" did this report show? Did this piece show a conservative bias? And—reviewing Engberg’s work in the year before he slammed Forbes—what kind of bias was Engberg showing on April 6, 1995? On that day, the scribe reviewed the first 100 days of the new Gingrich Congress:

ENGBERG (4/6/95): They scoffed last fall when Newt Gingrich said a Republican House would slam-dunk the status quo…Time out! They did it. Politicians actually keeping a promise?

And what bias was he showing on May 24? Here’s how Engberg closed a "Reality Check" about GOP proposals to balance the budget:

ENGBERG (5/24/95): Fiscal fantasy number four is that a balanced budget cures all ills…It’s future generations that really benefit. But the fiscal discipline that might be imposed by the GOP plans could be a welcome step away from fiscal fantasyland. Eric Engberg, CBS News, Washington.

In that report, Engberg criticized past, failed efforts to balance the budget, saying, "Best sign that this year is different? The Republicans are going after big-dollar entitlement spending." And what was the bias on November 20, when Engberg said that "the Republicans’ call for $245 billions in tax cuts which the Democrats say are heavily weighted toward the wealthy" really weren’t that big a deal? "That’s because even with this cut, the IRS will still collect $13 trillion over the next seven years," Engberg said. "A $245 billion slice of that is just 2 percent, a drop in the bucket."

On balance, we’d say that Engberg’s prior year of "Reality Checks" hit Republicans more than Dems. But if so, did that show that Engberg has "liberal bias?" Or was the story mix justified by events? That, of course, is a matter of judgment—and judgments like that don’t come easy. But Goldberg’s approach makes the whole game much simpler. He simply selects the "Check" he don’t like, and he then starts to yell "liberal bias."

Goldberg hammers the piece on Forbes—then skips the piece on Hillary Clinton. He hammers Tribe’s ancient introductions—then takes a pass on Election 2000. Press critique is remarkably easy when you can pick and choose the targets you’ll hit. But time out! Real press criticism don’t come so easy. Real criticism takes a good deal of work.

After all, is "liberal bias" the only kind? In part IV, we’ll look at how thorny that question can be. And we won’t just look at poor Eric Engberg. Unafraid to search far and wide in our search for the truth of these matters, we’ll ponder the "bias" the New York Times showed when it took a look at flat taxes.

Next: Andrew Sullivan—bollixed as always—got flattened by Dick Armey’s tax.

Afternoon delight: We don’t doubt for a minute that "liberal bias" may infect the areas which Goldberg discusses. But the talk-show right is deeply lazy; it really likes to cry and play victim. In Chapter 11, Goldberg claims that the TV networks only give you good news about day care. Is that true? We don’t have the slightest idea. After all, we just read Bias:

GOLDBERG (page 170): Over the years, I have seen many stories about day care, and I have come away with the impression that most mothers who work pretty much have to in order to make ends meet. But it turns out that isn’t so. Many, in fact, work outside the house because "they prefer to arrange their lives that way," as [social scientist Mary] Eberstadt put it.

Note that Goldberg’s two propositions are not inconsistent. That is, it may be true that 1) "most mothers who work pretty much have to" and also that 2) "many work outside the home because they prefer to." But how do you like the research Goldberg has done about the reporting on day care? After watching many stories "over the years," he had "come away with the impression" that most mothers have to work. But forget about the impression he got—did the stories actually say that? No reports are actually cited. After quoting Eberstadt’s views on why women work, Goldberg goes back to his slumbers:

GOLDBERG (page 171): Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation found that "nearly 80 percent of preschool children using any form of day care come from married-couple families with two income earners." I don’t remember ever hearing that on the network news.

Yeah, and we don’t remember the Bolshoi Ballet, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t out there. Forget about what Goldberg remembers; what reports have actually appeared on the nets? You won’t find out in this book. Apparently, when you’re throwing raw meat to today’s talk-show right, you’re very much like most American moms. You don’t have to go to work, either.