The "Liberal Media" Myth,

Giving Labor the Business

excerpted from the book

Dirty Truths

by Michael Parenti

City Lights Books, 1996, paper


It is a widely accepted belief in this country that the press suffers from a liberal bias. Television pundits, radio talk-show hosts, and political leaders, including presidents of both parties, help propagate this belief. And their views are widely disseminated in the media. In contrast, dissident critics, who maintain that the corporate-owned press exercises a conservative grip on news and commentary, are afforded almost no exposure in the supposedly liberal media.

Consider the case of David Horowitz. When Horowitz was a radical author and editor of Ramparts, the mainstream press ignored his existence. But after he and former Ramparts colleague Peter Colliers surfaced as new-born conservatives, the Washington Post Magazine gave prominent play to their "Lefties for Reagan" pronunciamento. Horowitz and Colliers soon linked up with the National Forum Foundation, which dipped into deep conservative pockets and came up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to enable the two ex-radicals to do ideological battle with the Left. Today Horowitz is a rightist media critic, who has his own radio show and who appears with dismaying frequency on radio and television to whine about how radio and television shut out the conservative viewpoint.

Then there is the multitude of talk-show hosts, of whom Rush Limbaugh is only the best-known, who rail against the "pinko press" on hundreds of local television stations and thousands of radio stations owned by wealthy conservatives and underwritten by big business firms. To complain about how the media are dominated by liberals, Limbaugh has an hour a day on network television, an hour on cable, and a radio show syndicated by over 600 stations.

There are well-financed, right-wing, media-watch organizations, such as Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media (AIM). In a syndicated column appearing in over one hundred newspapers and a radio show aired on some two hundred stations, Irvine and his associates complain that conservative viewpoints are frozen out of the media. Many left critics would like to be frozen out the way AIM, Limbaugh, and Horowitz are.

There is no free and independent press in the United States. The notion of a "free market of ideas" is as mythical as the notion of a free market of goods.

Who owns the big medial The press lords who come to mind are Hearst, Luce, Murdoch, Sulzberger, Annenberg, and the like, personages of markedly conservative hue who regularly leave their ideological imprint on both news and editorial content. The boards of directors of print and broadcast news organizations are populated by representatives from Ford, General Motors, General Electric, Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, ITT, IBM, and other corporations in a system of interlocking directorates that resembles the boards of any other corporation. Among the major stockholders of the three largest networks are Chase Manhattan, J.P. Morgan, and Citibank. The prime stockholder of this country's most far-reaching wire service, Associated Press, is the Wall Street brokerage firm, Merrill Lynch. NBC is owned outright by General Electric, a corporation that frequently backs conservative causes and candidates. In 1995, CBS was bought up by Westinghouse for $5 billion and Time Warner prepared to take over Ted Turner's CNN.

Not surprisingly, this pattern of ownership affects how news and commentary are manufactured. Virtually all chief executives of mainstream news organizations are drawn from a narrow, high-income stratum and tilt decidedly to the right in their political preferences. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch was once asked in an interview: "You're considered to be politically conservative. To what extent do you influence the editorial posture of your news) papers?" He responded with refreshing candor: "Considerably... my editors have input, but I make the final decisions."

Corporate advertisers exercise an additional conservative influence on the media. They cancel accounts not only when stories reflect poorly on their product but when they perceive liberal tendencies creeping into news reports and commentary.

As might be expected from business-dominated media, the concerns of labor are regularly downplayed. Jonathan Tasini, head of the National Writers Union, studied all reports dealing with workers' issues carried by ABC, CBS and NBC evening news during 1989, including child care and minimum wage: it came to only 2.3 percent of total coverage. No wonder one survey found that only 6 percent of business leaders thought the media treatment accorded them was "poor," while 66 percent said it was "good" or "excellent."

Religious media manifest the same gross imbalance of right over left. The fundamentalist media-featuring homophobic, sexist, reactionary, televangelists like Pat Robertson -comprise a $2-billion-a-year industry, controlling about 10 percent of all radio outlets and 14 percent of the nation's television stations. In contrast, the Christian Left lacks the financial backing needed to gain major media access.

The Petroleum Broadcasting System

A favorite conservative hallucination is that the Public Broadcasting System is a leftist stronghold. In fact, more than 70 percent of PBS's prime-time shows are funded wholly or mostly by four giant oil companies, earning it the sobriquet of "Petroleum Broadcasting System' PBS's public affairs programs are underwritten by General Electric, General Motors, Metropolitan Life, Pepsico, Mobil, Paine Webber, and the like. One media watchdog group found that corporate representatives constitute 44 percent of program sources about the economy; activists account for only 3 percent, while labor representatives are virtually shut out. Guests on National Public Radio (NPR) ) and PBS generally are as ideologically conservative as any found on commercial networks. Even "Frontline" and Bill Moyer's "Listening to America"- favorite GOP targets-use Republicans far more frequently than Democrats.

Conservatives like Horowitz make much of the occasional muckraking documentary that is aired on public television. But most PBS documentaries are politically nondescript or centrist. Progressive works rarely see the light of day. Documentaries like Faces of War (revealing the brutality of the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency in El Salvador), Building Bombs (on nuclear weapons proliferation), Coverup (on the Iran-contra conspiracy), Deadly Deception (an Academy Award-winning critique of General Electric and the nuclear arms industry) and Panama Deception (an Academy Award-winning exposé of the U.S. invasion of Panama) were, with a few local exceptions, denied broadcast rights on both commercial and public television.

A rightist perspective dominates commentary shows like NBC's "McLaughlin Group' PBS's "One on One" (with McLaughlin as host), CNBC's "McLaughlin Show" (with guess who), PBS's "Firing Line" with William F. Buckley, CNN's "Evans and Novak" and "Capital Gang," and ABCs "This Week with David Brinkley." The spectrum of opinion on such programs, as on the pages of most newspapers, ranges from far right to moderate right or center, in a display of false balancing. Facing Pat Buchanan on CNN's "Crossfire," Michael Kinsley correctly summed it up: "Buchanan is much further to the right than I am to the left."

On foreign affairs the press's role as a cheerleader of the national security state and free-market capitalism seems almost without restraint. Virtually no favorable exposure has ever been given to indigenous Third World revolutionary or reformist struggles or to protests at home and abroad against U.S. overseas interventions. The media's view of the world is much the same as the view from the State Department and the Pentagon. The horrendous devastation wreaked upon the presumed beneficiaries of U.S. power generally goes unmentioned and unexplained-as do the massive human rights violations perpetrated by U.S.-supported forces in dozens of free-market client states.

On one of the rare occasions it has acknowledged the existence of media censorship, the New York Times (11/27/88) noted that while network "production and standards" departments have reduced their policing of sexual and other cultural taboos, "the network censors continue to be vigilant when it comes to overseeing the political content of television films.'

Censorship is far more widespread than the few publicized incidents suggest. According to a poll conducted by the Writers Guild of America 86 percent of the writers who responded found from personal experience that censorship exists in television. Many claim that every script they have written, no matter how seemingly innocuous, has been censored. And 81 percent believe that "television is presenting a distorted picture of what is happening in this country today- politically, economically and racially'



y do so many people have a negative view of workers a labor unions? In part, it is because of what is fed to them by the corporate-owned news media. A 1990 City University of New York study found that programs devoted to "elite" personages consumed "nearly ten times more PBS prime-time programming hours than programs devoted to workers?' Less than half of one percent of the programming dealt with workers-and it was mostly with British rather than American ones. A Los Angeles Times survey found that newspaper editors favored business over labor by 54 to 7 percent. My reading of this nation's newspapers leaves me to wonder who the 7 percent might be.

The media's pro-business bias is pronounced enough for anyone to see. The major newspapers and weeklies have no labor section to go along with their business section. They have whole staffs reporting on business news but not more than one labor reporter, if that. And usually "labor" reporters, judging from the ones I have met, show no special grasp of labor's struggles or sensitivity toward workers' issues. If they did, they would not last at that assignment and would be judged as "getting too close" to their subject.

The media's devotion to corporate America is manifested in the many TV and radio commentary shows that are glutted with conservatives. Public affairs programming is crowded with offerings like "Wall Street Week' "American Enterprise' "Adam Smith's Money World," "Nightly Business Report," and "Marketplace?'

The network evening news regularly reports the Dow Jones average but offers no weekly tabulations on lay-offs, industrial accidents, and long-term occupational illness. When the stock market has a good day, for some reason this is treated as good news for all of us. The press seldom refers to the politico-economic power of corporations. The economy itself is presented as something government and business attend to, while organized labor tags along at best as a very junior and often troublesome partner.

The media's anti-labor biases should come as no surprise. Media owners themselves are among the most exploitative, antiunion employers and strikebreakers. Over the years, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the New York Daily News, CBS, NBC and numerous other news organizations have been locked in bitter strikes that ended with unions being seriously weakened or totally crushed. As Washington Post owner Katharine Graham is reportedly fond of saying: "Unions interfere with freedom of the press."

... the press treats the government as a neutral arbiter acting on behalf of the "national interest" in the struggle between management and labor. It is assumed that the public's interest is best served by avoiding strikes or getting strikers back into production as soon as possible, regardless of the terms of settlement. The police-along with the courts, the president, and the rest of the state apparatus-are presented as guardians of the peace, defenders of the public interest, rather than as protectors of corporate property and bodyguards for strikebreakers.

House Report 102-363, accompanying the Public Telecommunications Act of 1991, calls on the public broadcasting community to stop ignoring "class differences and the plight of American working people" and to make greater efforts to meet its "obligation to encourage diversity in programming, including programming which addresses the lives and concerns of American workers and their families, in documentaries, dramas, and public affairs programs." The report also noted that "public television station boards typically are dominated by business interests, even though working Americans are key supporters of public television' Unfortunately the report had little to say about the media's treatment of labor unions, an omission that itself may be a reflection of the anti-union bias that permeates the business-dominated political culture.

A common method of deception practiced by U.S. leaders and the U.S. news media is omission. Rather than outright lying, rather than twisting and embellishing the truth, leaders and their faithful flacks in the mainstream media frequently just ignore or greatly downplay events that might prove too troublesome for officialdom and too edifying for the U.S. public.

This is especially true when it comes to matters relating to the national security state. Reports can appear now and then in the news regarding an irresponsible business firm, a catastrophic oil spill too large to keep hidden, a corrupt banker or broker, an incident of sexism in the armed services, and so forth. Out of bounds are the fundamental questions about the use of state power in the service of corporate class interests at home and abroad. Critical discussions of global capitalism and what it is doing to the world are not likely to be countenanced by either U.S. leaders or the corporate-owned media.

The various methods of U.S. interventionism in other countries include both the overt forms of military invasion and the covert actions of the CIA and other counterinsurgency agencies; they include everything from bribes and rigged elections to death squads and mass slaughter. The purpose of these actions is to eliminate individual leaders, political parties, social movements, and governments that in any way challenge the existing global politico-economic arrangements that advocate egalitarian social change, be it toward a social democracy or socialism or even a conservative economic nationalism that strives for some kind of independent development.

Our "free and independent" news media are actually controlled by publishers and network bosses who see to it that their own preferred views prevail. They will refuse to run letters, guest columns, and occasionally even their regularly syndicated features and comic strips if the material does not suit their political proclivities. They punish editors and journalists by passing them over for promotion, transferring them to remote posts, and even firing them if they don't learn soon enough what is and is not ideologically fit to print or broadcast. Such actions should be exposed for what they are: censorship. But news organizations are the last to publicize their own transgressions. Instances of censorship are simply not treated as newsworthy.

The hardest kinds of censorship to detect are the preemptive forms. In a profession that is literally awash with right-wing pundits, there are few, if any, progressives who appear regularly as TV commentators or as nationally syndicated columnists in the major dailies. The Left does not have to be censored; it is excluded from the start. It does not have to be reined in; it is never even put into harness.

Dirty Truths

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