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1 February 2002

Our current howler (part II): Peter's patter

Synopsis: Bernie loves flogging that Jennings Moment. Here’s what actually happened.

Commentary by Bernard Goldberg
The NewsHour, PBS, 1/24/02

Commentary by Peter Jennings
ABC Special Report, ABC, 1/7/99

A Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy?
Richard Zoglin, Time, 1/28/02

Is there liberal bias and error in the media? You darn sure straight tootin’ there is! The press is filled with bias and error—bias and error of many descriptions—and bias and error that could be called "liberal" can surely be found in the stew. And, since no one boohoos about bias any better than Bernie Goldberg, all our analysts sat and watched when Bernie met Marvin last week. Starting a colloquy with Marvin Kalb, Goldberg described an incident which he called the "Exhibit A" of liberal bias. We’ll quote his account in some detail because he cites this one outrage so often:

GOLDBERG: Let me just give you one little example. It was during impeachment, which we can all agree was a very, very big, very important story. And right before the impeachment proceedings began, Senators went up to sign what they call "an oath book," promising to be fair and impartial. As they went up, Peter Jennings, doing a live play-by-play, on ABC, identified Senator Santorum as a young conservative Senator from Pennsylvania—"determinedly conservative." Then Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was also "a determined conservative." Senator Smith from New Hampshire was "a very, very conservative senator from New Hampshire." Those are exact quotes. And I think that’s absolutely fine. This is impeachment, it’s a political process, we need to know that these are conservatives, and their conservatism may affect their views.

Bernie was reciting his prime example of "liberal bias"—the example he tends to talk about first. Moving on, he explained his concern:

GOLDBERG (continuing directly): But Marvin, Barbara Boxer was simply Barbara Boxer from California. Ted Kennedy was simply Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts. Paul Wellstone was simply Paul Wellstone from Minnesota. Now, did Peter Jennings, who is a bright, intelligent, excellent first-rate newsman, did he really think that the conservative views would affect the vote, but that liberal views wouldn’t affect the vote?

"You see, this reminds me of the bad old days," Goldberg said, "when the only time a criminal was identified in a news story by race is if he were black." That was done "because the black criminal was seen as what—different, out of the mainstream, certainly inferior…And that’s why we identify conservatives today, because we see them as out of the mainstream, as a little different, maybe as inferior, maybe as dangerous, and that’s the key. That’s Exhibit A, as far as I’m concerned."

As usual, Bernie’s prose was a bit overhet; somehow, conservatives were being singled out just as black criminals once were. Of course, in Bernie’s book, a producer said CBS should try to avoid filming chain gangs which were all black (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/24/02). And Bernie got upset about that statement too, saying that it too showed liberal bias! "We don’t want to give the impression that the only prisoners [in Alabama] are black," the CBS producer had said. The whole thing made Bernie’s blood boil so badly that he ended up quoting the "ex-marine/no-nonsense/straight shooter" cameraman who had filmed the segment in question. "Fuck you," the cameraman told the producer, a "politically correct, sensitive, liberal" guy who was, of course, trashed and held up to ridicule by name. This was just fine for Bernie to do—but Goldberg cried, boohooed and blubbered when Michael Kinsley dared criticize him (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/30/02). That’s right—after dropping a "fuck you" on a producer for voicing a perfectly sensible concern, Bernie had to talk to a shrink to learn why people don’t always praise him. But so it goes when such consummate phonies pretend to write books about bias.

At any rate, Peter Jennings IDing three conservatives is Bernie’s idea of Liberal Bias, Exhibit A. How does the press corps show its bias? "Mainly by identifying every conservative who’s in a story," Bernie said on PBS, just before he told the world about what Jennings had done.

Bernie, of course, was embellishing. For the record, the incident occurred on January 7, 1999, and Jennings did not identify "every conservative" as the senators signed the oath book. Jennings did identify Senators Smith, Santorum and McConnell in the manner Bernie described—and he didn’t ID any solon as "liberal." But he also failed to ID a raft of other conservatives as they signed the book. Among senators normally thought of as conservative, he named but didn’t label Senators Gramm, Hatch, Helms, Lott, Mack and Thurmond. He also named, but did not label, such solons as Lugar, Stevens, Thompson and Warner. Meanwhile, to show you how Jennings was just trashing conservatives this day, get a load of the nasty way he beat up Helms and Thurmond:

JENNINGS: Senator Jesse Helms of—sorry, Linda [Douglass], you can’t see a television monitor, I don’t think. I want to make sure people don’t miss some of the senators who had such an impact on the development of the country, and the country’s history. Senator Helms is walking back talking to Senator Thurmond there on the left-hand side. I haven’t seen Senator Helms with a cane in quite some time. Senator Helms had knee surgery not too very long ago.

As you can see, it was ugly. A bit later, he battered Thurmond again:

JENNINGS: Senator Thompson, Senator from Tennessee. One time thought to be a bright light of the Republican party, possible presidential candidate. And there’s Senator Thurmond who is, as we said, is 96 years old now. I’m not sure he appreciates all the emphasis we put on his age, but he likes to talk almost endlessly about how he is young at heart and he is, of course, the President pro tem of the Senate today…

Don’t worry, cattle! We’re sure that Bernie can find a way to turn that into lib bias too. In sum, Jennings named twenty Republican senators as they signed, and only labeled three by ideology. To Goldberg, though, this is "Exhibit A"—the key example of the press corps’ vile ways.

Readers, if this is the worst case of liberal bias, can you believe we waste our time on the topic? But before you answer, there’s one other thing you ought to know about this Bernie-hyped incident. What had been the lead-in discussion, before the solons began signing the book? ABC pundits, including Bill Kristol, were explaining a split among Republican senators—between the "moderates," who in some cases didn’t want to call witnesses in the trial, and the "conservatives," who generally did. That is how the question of "moderate" versus "conservative" Republicans first came up this day. Linda Douglass, for example, had already identified Santorum as "Senator Santorum of Pennsylvania, very conservative member, one who wants witnesses." Almost surely, that is part of the reason why Jennings IDed the three dudes he did. It was clearly the reason why Cokie Roberts IDed one other solon:

JENNINGS: That’s Senator Olympia Snowe.

ROBERTS: Olympia Snowe, who’s expected to play an important role here, Peter, because she is one of those moderate Republicans. But she is also a person who has said that this needs to be a trial, that it shouldn’t be a one-day or few-day wonder. And those are the people who are going to make a difference in helping come to some kind of agreement.

Snowe was "one of those moderate Republicans" who perhaps didn’t want a full trial. Jennings had IDed three others who presumably did. There is no sign that they were being IDed for the reason Goldberg dreamed up—because Jennings and Roberts were helping viewers know how they would vote. As usual, Goldberg doesn’t seem to have done much homework in his searing "Exhibit A" piece. But then, that is perfect par for the course in this consummately inept, lazy book.

Can you believe a word Bernie says? For the record, here’s Goldberg’s account of this incident in Bias itself:

GOLDBERG (page 57): During the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, as the senators signed their names in the oath book swearing they would be fair and impartial, Peter Jennings, who was anchoring ABC News’s live coverage, made sure his audience knew which senators were conservative—but uttered not a word about which ones were liberal.

Did Bernie ever sign that "oath book?" This passage plainly makes it sound like Jennings IDed all the cons (see below). For the record, he didn’t "make sure" that his audience knew about Gramm, Hatch, Helms, Stevens, Lott or the young at heart Thurmond.

So there you have it—Exhibit A! Can you explain why Bernie’s crying?

Next: When Bernie met Marvin on public TV, it was Marvin who seemed to be fakin’.

When Bernie met Richard: Bernie rarely looks things up. But then, his reviewers don’t look things up, either. The latest victim was Richard Zoglin, bollixed and bull-roared at Time:

ZOGLIN: Goldberg, though foaming a bit at the mouth, lands a few good punches. He notes, for example, how ABC’s Peter Jennings, ticking off the Senators at President Clinton’s impeachment trial, labels all the conservatives ("Senator McConnell of Kentucky; very determined conservative member of the Republican Party") but not the liberals ("Senator Mikulski of Maryland").

According to Zoglin, Bernie managed to "land a good punch" when he noted that Jennings "label[ed] all the conservatives." Richard thereby slandered Peter. So what kind of bias is that?