Radical media, politics and culture.

Thomas Frank, "Let's Talk Class Again"

"Let's Talk Class Again"

Thomas Frank


London Review of Books, 21 March 2002

Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes how the Media Distort the
by Bernard Goldberg. | Regnery, 234pp., US $27.95,
11 December 2001

You will probably be surprised to learn of the massive
and virtually unchecked power that the Left holds in
the United States. After all, you'll say, aren't the
key American institutions -- the Presidency, the
Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, the
corporations -- run by determined right-wingers or weak-
kneed centrists? And didn't American thinkers recently
proclaim the dawn of a capitalist millennium, a 'New
Economy' in which privatisation, deregulation and lower
taxes were taken to be their own justification, while
American CEOs mounted the heights of Davos and
instructed the world in the timeless principles of the
free market, as handed down by Milton Friedman, Ronald
Reagan and the prophets of Silicon Valley?

If that's what you think you will have overlooked the
feature of American life that negates it all: TV news
is insidiously slanted to the Left. The three broadcast
TV networks, Bernard Goldberg tells us, twist the facts
and distort Americans' perception of the world to match
the views of the smug, clannish liberals who control
them. This isn't to say that the broadcasting companies
have carefully thought out a scheme of misinformation.
The sin, according to Goldberg, is almost unconscious,
a matter of -- to use the term that conservatives have
favoured for decades -- 'bias'.

You might expect Bias -- one of the bestselling non-
fiction books in America today -- to be a meditation on
the tricky problem of journalistic objectivity, or a
wide-ranging look at the sorry ruin that is the
American press, or maybe a brief examination of what
'liberalism' means in this age of casual, sensitive
billionaires. But no. Bias itself, the cultural crime
that is the subject of Goldberg's J'accuse, is never
even properly defined. 'Bias is bias,' he writes. He
knows it when he sees it, and he's here to tell you
that it's all over the place.

On the other hand, if you're looking for an
introduction to the indignant rhetorical style of the
culture-war Right, Bias fits the bill. The book begins
by reminding the reader that in 1996 Goldberg wrote an
op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal criticising his
employer, CBS News, for broadcasting a put-down of the
'flat tax' (a conservative fad of the mid-1990s) as
though it were straight news. The appearance of this
article naturally infuriated Goldberg's bosses and
colleagues at CBS, and he relates on page after page
the personal slights he endured as his friends turned
against him. Not only is every episode gone through in
surprising detail but we soon learn why each colleague
who disapproved of his op-ed was a hypocrite for doing
so. He lingers with especial bitterness on the
presenter Dan Rather -- second only to the Clintons as a
demon figure for the American Right -- retailing a
series of facts about Rather's personal tastes (the cad
wears Savile Row suits while affecting a Texas accent)
and imagining him as a prison rapist and a Mafia
chieftain. He then branches out into other media,
recounting the insults levelled at him by people not
associated with CBS News, and why they, too, are
hypocrites. Then come the truculent imaginary come-
backs that Goldberg would like to have delivered to
those who dissed him. Soon he's onto those who approved
of his piece, with extensive quotations from their
letters (photocopies are provided in an appendix). He
tops it all off with a few paragraphs assailing
unrelated figures who didn't write anything at all
about his op-ed.

I found all this tiresome, self-indulgent and more than
a little embarrassing. Still, there must be many more
for whom Goldberg's obsessive return to his own
humiliation is compelling, one of the reasons the book
has moved up the bestseller charts so briskly. No
matter how much power its corporate backers wield, no
matter how far back it rolls taxes or the welfare
state, and regardless of how it succeeds at polling
stations, American conservatism always sees itself as a
beleaguered victim, forever out of step with a degraded
modernity, forever on the defensive in a threatening
world of secular humanists, treasonous intellectuals
and tempting entertainments. It pleases conservatives
to think of themselves as the true patriots, stoutly
faithful to American tradition and endlessly persecuted
for their steadfastness.

This surly righteousness finds its signature expression
in the dozens of passages in which Goldberg settles
petty scores with this or that media figure. As the
cultural critic Chris Lehmann has pointed out, short-
fused touchiness is a classic marker of the bias genre,
whose authors consistently magnify the most
unremarkable media moments into full-blown assaults on
their political views. Goldberg's book, however, is
presented as something different: this is supposed to
be the inside dope. 'CBS News Veteran Exposes "Inherent
Bias" in the Media,' the press release announces.
Goldberg is even moved to boast about his former
position, letting us know that, although many decry
liberal bias, 'there's a big difference when Rush
Limbaugh or Bill Buckley says it and when a CBS News
correspondent says it.'

But there isn't really such a big difference.
Goldberg's moment of glory -- his critique of that long-
ago broadcast on the flat tax -- came about as a result
not of inside knowledge, but of dissecting a
particularly opinionated newscast that he watched on a
TV set like everybody else. There are a few good CBS
anecdotes here and there in the book and plenty of ugly
facts about Dan Rather, but only a handful of its
larger criticisms are inspired by Goldberg's former
position. In fact, there are very few larger criticisms
of any kind. The book is a laundry list of petty,
unconnected objections to what Goldberg has seen on TV
over the years. He complains that TV news people
readily identify conservatives as 'conservative' but
rarely use the term 'liberal' to describe liberals. He
accuses the media of paying attention to homelessness
when the Republicans were in office and then dropping
it when Clinton came to power. He takes strong
exception to stories that warned of the spread of Aids
into the non-homosexual and non-drug-using population.
He spends an entire chapter getting indignant about
offensive talk-show remarks aimed at conservative
figures and then getting even more indignant about the
wildly unfair (but completely imaginary) punishments
that, he speculates, might be handed down if one said
similar things about liberals. The only theory
elaborated here is that 'the Left controls America's

It's a shame that Goldberg never takes up the subject
of press history. Were he to do so, he would quickly
run into the curious fact that, until Vice-President
Spiro Agnew started talking about liberal bias in 1969,
the prevailing American criticism of the news media
came from the Left. The press was, after all, largely
owned by a subset of the very rich -- Hearst, Gannett,
McCormick -- that was given to proclaiming its
idiosyncratic but always conservative views. The big-
city dailies were bitterly hostile to organised labour
and to the New Deal. In 1936, for example, three-
quarters of them endorsed Roosevelt's opponent; the
Chicago Tribune even counted down the days to the
election with the words: 'Only X days remain in which
to save your country.' (To this day Republican
Presidential candidates usually have the backing of
more newspapers than Democrats do.) Media ownership was
the starting point for press critics as different as
Upton Sinclair (The Brass Check, published in 1919,
compared journalists to prostitutes), George Seldes
(author of the energetic 1938 exposé Lords of the
), A.J. Liebling (the New Yorker's sedentary press
columnist) and Edmund Wilson, writing in 1932 about his
discovery that 'class antagonisms, conflicts, and
injustices are real, that they rarely get any
publicity, and that the class on top virtually controls
the organs of publicity.'

Like Agnew and, indeed, like every writer in the last
thirty years who has looked for liberal bias in the
media, Goldberg simply stands this formula on its head.
Social class is still at the centre of the argument,
and the accusation is still that the news reflects the
politics of the class on top: it's just that the class
on top has changed. The 'lords of the press' have
dropped out of the picture almost entirely: Goldberg
targets the 'liberal elite', that ill-defined but
damnably persistent architect of ideological mischief.

Ironically, Goldberg takes great pains to deplore the
language of 'class warfare' when it's used by liberals
in the media. Within a few pages, however, he is
denouncing 'the sophisticated media elites' for being
'hopelessly out of touch with everyday Americans'.
While he himself enjoys the friendship of a hard-
working Southerner, the liberal elite 'don't have blue-
collar people . . . in their families. They don't have
blue-collar friends, and they don't want any.' Before
long Goldberg has worked this up into a vision of
America divided by class. 'It's as if there were two
Americas, or at least two American cultures,' he
writes: 'the media-elite America, which was shunning
me, and the other America -- the one between Manhattan
and Malibu.' Getting a little more specific, he
identifies these humble, working-class folk of the
heartland as the inhabitants of 'the "red states" that
George W. Bush carried'.

It would probably be fruitless to respond that Bush
lost the popular vote of 'everyday Americans' by a
significant margin (and won only by a hair in many of
those heartland 'red states'), or to point out that his
Presidency has been distinguished by a certain
hostility to the interests of blue-collar people and a
tendency to back management in its endless fight
against organised labour. To most American
conservatives such facts count for little. Since free
markets are for them the very essence of democracy and
of nature, those who unquestioningly accept markets by
definition have the common touch, while those who think
they know better are 'elitists' defying the will of the
people. Class becomes a matter of culture -- of fancy
colleges and highfalutin ideas and 'arrogance' in any
form -- and conservatives find it easy to understand
themselves as the friend of 'the nobodies', as Peggy
Noonan once described Dubya: 'the modest, the
patronised, the disrespected'. Class for Goldberg is
about pedantry, not about economic power; it's the
divide between big-city sophistication and provincial
piety, not the one between bosses and bossed. Upton
Sinclair and George Seldes damned the press lords for
their hostility to labour: Goldberg faults the media
elite for not going to church.

Those who believe Americans have no sense of social
class should take note. Like nearly every popular
conservative tract to appear in recent years, Bias is
written in the fulminating language of right-wing
populism. Like The No Spin Zone, the collection of
angry right-wing musings it displaced as number-one
bestseller -- and like the bestselling Rush Limbaugh
books, the bestselling anti-Clinton books and the
bestselling stockmarket advice books -- Bias rails
viciously against the affected tastes and habits of the
American upper class.

Which brings us to the infuriating irony behind all
this spectacle: the main reason conservatives have been
able to annex the language of social class so
completely is that their opponents have been silent on
the subject. The Democratic leadership decided years
ago not to talk class any more. These days they, too,
rely on corporate handouts to fund their campaigns;
they, too, own stocks and live in suburbs; and they
believe that, as the monopoly party of 'the Left', they
will receive the votes of workers and the poor without
making concessions to them, rhetorical or otherwise.
This idiotic strategy has been a godsend for the Right,
which has proceeded to capture and turn every element
of the old class-based critique of American life (such
as press bias) over the last thirty years. The results
are impressive. Not only do billionaire libertarians
routinely claim to speak with the vox populi, but class
anger in America is channelled almost exclusively at
that snooty species known as the 'liberal'; that there
are upper-class people who ride in limousines and eat
fancy pasta while living in Texas and voting Republican
is, for Goldberg and others, simply not tenable. This
curious cultural fact in turn provides Republicans with
a perverse incentive for pushing the country still
further down the free market road to social disaster:
the worse things get for workers, they have reason to
believe, the angrier we will become at those elitist
liberals, and the more Republicans will be returned to

So why don't the liberal media just roll out the older,
less contorted version of populism and blast this
confused collection of gripes back into the 19th
century? Because the mainstream media are, in truth,
what Edmund Wilson and A.J. Liebling and Upton Sinclair
said they were, all those years ago. Yes, the media are
largely staffed by college-educated members of the
upper-middle class. And, yes, these reporters and
newsreaders do tend to share that class's annoying
ideas of politeness and cultural propriety, which some
understand as 'liberalism'. But by far the most
important expression of social class is in matters
economic, and here the facts all point the other way.
As the veteran journalist Trudy Lieberman reveals in
Slanting the Story (2000), a painstaking, methodical,
well-researched, but completely overlooked case-by-case
study of American news decisions, reporters may be
liberal on some issues, but they are reliably
conservative on economic questions. This is one of the
reasons, Lieberman argues, that right-wing foundations
have had such gratifying media support for their views
on welfare reform, Nafta and Social Security
privatisation. Add to this the influence of advertisers
and publishers, who weight commercial news media
automatically to the Right, the rise of avowedly
conservative cable news networks, stockmarket networks
and radio talk shows, as well as the screeching
libertarianism of the Internet -- and the result is a
media universe which, like our politics, each year
spins further off into Toryland.

Labour reporting, once a staple of big-city journalism,
has disappeared from all but a handful of American
newspapers. Foreign affairs reporters (led by Thomas
Friedman, the influential columnist for the New York
Times) increasingly accept free-market globalisation
theory, automatically blaming the problems of other
countries on their failure to be more like the
entrepreneurial US. Wall Street stock analysts, despite
their obvious enthusiasm for low wages and weak
environmental regulations, are routinely quoted by the
American press as impartial economic authorities on
every imaginable subject. And by far the greatest media
myth of the last decade -- if not the last century -- was
not heterosexual Aids but the 'New Economy', that
vision of a capitalist golden age that sent so many off
to invest their life savings in Enron and JDS Uniphase.
With the dream of Dow 36,000 shattered, Americans are
perhaps finally ready to think about the downside of
free markets, about the ugly realities of social class.
It is a measure of intellectual dysfunction in the US
that gripes like Bias are what constitute our
literature of dissent.

Thomas Frank, who lives in Chicago, is the author of
One Market under God and The Conquest of Cool. He is
the editor of the Baffler.