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Media Can Dish It Out but Can't Take It

Exposing biases is what a free press is all about.

June 06, 2002|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism.

Is criticism traitorous? In the workplace it usually is. If you bad-mouth your employer within earshot of the head honcho or the office snitch, you'll probably face the consequences. It's one of Dilbert's laws.

But somehow we think it should be different with news people because, after all, they make a living poking their pens and lenses into other people's infelicities and then trumpeting the results for all to hear and see. Surely they can take some of the voyeuristic pedantry they dispense?

Think again. No one bleats more loudly than a critic who's been critiqued, a reporter who's been reported, especially by one of his own. So it goes in the American media, where biting the feeding hand of the Fourth Estate seems to be the order of the day and has claimed some famous casualties lately.

First, there was Bernard Goldberg's 2001 book "Bias." Years before he published it, in 1996 to be exact, Goldberg wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on the subject of liberal bias in the news, using his then-employer, CBS News, as Exhibit A. Unsurprisingly, soon thereafter he was sidelined and later retired from CBS. What he described in the book as shunning by his colleagues after he wrote the op-ed was the motivating force, no doubt, behind his decision to expand his criticism into a best-selling book.

Another apparent traitor, Web pundit Andrew Sullivan, met a similar fate at the hands of the New York Times Sunday magazine, for which he had been a regular contributor since 1998. As readers of Andrewsullivan.com know, he makes a habit of deconstructing the New York Times' liberal slant, which, he says, has crept in recent years from the editorial page to the front page. Purported news stories are now infected with the artfully jaundiced verbiage of the Old Gray Lady's steely orthodoxies. For example, the Times routinely labels conservatives as such yet rarely identifies political liberals.

Sullivan, who had written for the magazine about subjects ranging from the effects of testosterone to the war against militant Islam, says he was banned because his presence in the Times, he is told, makes Times Executive Editor Howell Raines uncomfortable. Sullivan considers it retribution for the sharpness of some of his broadsides against the Times in general, and in particular, op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, whom he repeatedly slammed.

Now comes William McGowan's "Coloring the News," a book that claims to expose "an invisible liberal consensus" in some major broadcast and print news outlets. As columnist Nat Hentoff reported May 15 in the Village Voice, "McGowan's [book] has received generally favorable reviews, even in such papers as the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which are sharply criticized in his book. But the influential New York Times Book Review has so far ignored McGowan's indictment of much of the press."

Why? Hentoff cites an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle in which New York Times Book Review Editor Charles "Chip" McGrath said the following: "I think there's a question, and I don't know the answer: Is this newspaper ... the best place to discuss a book that is so critical of this newspaper?"

Hentoff duly notes: "The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times had no difficulty answering that question."

And that is the issue at hand. Shouldn't the media be open to criticism from their own? Exposing biases and blind spots, including--or perhaps especially--those that appear in their own pages is what a free press is all about. If journalists cannot be honest with themselves, then what authority do they have to question the truth-telling of anyone else? Why should we trust their reports if we suspect them of biases they refuse to acknowledge, much less redress?

It is an inauspicious time for the 1st Amendment when media outlets put themselves above meaningful reproach and beyond professional critique. But as long as Hentoff, Sullivan, Goldberg and McGowan can keep writing and--more important--keep getting published, we're on the road to recovery.

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