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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Focusing on the Media During Visit to China

July 01, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"I'm not really a journalist. I just play one on the evening news."

That caption was under a recent New Yorker magazine cartoon of a man schmoozing with a woman at a cocktail party. When it comes to a related area where TV also plays games, he as easily could be saying:

"I'm not really a liberal. I just play one."

Just as the New Yorker caption fits reality, so would the second one, for the "liberal" label is usually attached on TV's myriad of talk, morning and public-affairs programs to those who are actually hard-line, card-carrying centrists. So instead of the advertised political balance, you very often get the right debating the center, with the ever-invisible left excluded by a media fearful of being accused by conservatives of a liberal bias. If there are no liberals, there can't be a liberal bias, right?

Ha!

Of course, they get slammed with the charge anyway.

That broad charge of a liberal bias is rebutted by the just-released results of a survey commissioned by Fairness and Accuracy in Media, a leftward watchdog group that for years has insisted--correctly--that the broadly applied charge of a "liberal bias" in the media is baloney.

The survey is reported in a special edition of FAIR's bimonthly magazine, Extra! It's especially timely, arriving during President Clinton's controversial trip to China, where he has spent recent days tiptoeing through political minefields and fattening his memory book of symbolic moments, some of which have been captured on television.

President Jiang Zemin, leader of a padlocked society opening the door at least a crack to allow a U.S. president to peek his nose through and speak directly to Chinese without censorship? Add Clinton's remarks and exchange with Jiang--covering human rights abuses and the slaughter of dissidents at Tiananmen Square and beamed live to perhaps 800,000 Chinese--to a highlight reel of global history in the '80s and '90s.

"Television is now a powerful medium in China," Stanford scholar Michel Oksenberg told Charlie Rose on PBS Monday night. Thus, China's next important leader will be a TV leader, and that man is Jiang, Oksenberg predicted. One TV president, Clinton, in effect welcoming another, Jiang, to the stage? If true, that would be historic.

As always, the American reportage is crucial. It is helping nudge public opinion about Clinton's China policy and its impact on freedoms and the plight of dissidents there in conjunction with continued economic growth. And of course, there are many ways to slant stories, from overt comments by reporters to the covert, selective use of sources or using material out of context.

So is this where the pointy-headed media intercede with their liberal agenda, whatever that might be?

Come again? Of the 444 respondents to FAIR's questionnaire--all members of the Washington press corps--57% said they were at the "center" politically, 30% on the "left" and 9% on the "right." On economic issues, the watchdog group said, 64% rated themselves at the "center," 11% on the "left" and 19% on the "right."

FAIR compared its own survey results with other random polling of the general public, finding that only on environmental issues were the journalists more liberal than the majority of Americans.

Although unscientific, the FAIR survey affirms logic. It's absurd on the face of it, as Extra! editor Jim Naureckas notes in the survey issue, "that corporate-owned, advertiser-dominated news outlets . . . are carrying out some kind of left-wing agenda."

Case closed?

Well, not quite, for political labels can be misleading, and there's always the possibility that the journalists questioned were using conflicting definitions, or even that some were hoping to throw off their conservative critics by shading the truth in their answers.

Moreover, FAIR itself is guilty of an overreach by extrapolating from its 444 respondents within the Beltway a scenario for all of the nation's press. Who's to say that the Washington press corps isn't relatively conservative and that the rest of us--the un-surveyed multitudes--are not raging liberals? In fact, some of us (blush) are.

I'm especially sensitive about this media watchdog business, having been taken to task myself--and quoted out of context--by a watchdog from the right.

It happened this year when L. Brent Bozell III, who heads the Media Research Center, ridiculed me in his newspaper column for writing that Clinton belonged on Mt. Rushmore. Although that's what I wrote, Bozell didn't mention that I was referring only to Clinton's media skills--likening them to Ronald Reagan's--not to his policies.

Not that any of this--left vs. right--addresses another fundamental problem that is just as perilous to mainstream media and the flow of honest information.

The entertainment virus.

It was Monday morning. And on the NBC News program "Today," co-host Katie Couric announced: "In just a minute, we'll get Geraldo Rivera on the president in Shanghai."

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