Fair and Balanced?
Two Long-Time Press Critics Discuss the Mainstream American Media, its Failings, and How it Sometimes Promotes Bigotry
by The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project
September 11, 2003
Although the American media is frequently accused of having a liberal bias, a large body of evidence suggests that in a great many cases just the opposite is true. Time after time, biased, reactionary and even racist ideas ideas that frequently originate on the radical right bubble to the surface in news stories, opinion pieces, on talk radio and among the many pundits who interpret current events. Steve Rendall and Norman Solomon are long-time critics of both print and broadcast media who have focused on exposing bias in news coverage. Rendall is senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which issues frequent reports on American press coverage, and has appeared as an expert on that topic in scores of venues. He is also co-host of “CounterSpin,” FAIR's national radio show, and the author of a book on radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Norman Solomon is a nationally syndicated columnist on media and politics, the author of 10 books on similar subjects, and the founder and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a consortium of policy researchers and analysts. The Intelligence Report spoke to both men about the media's role in helping to promote bigoted ideas, individuals and groups.
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: Fox News has explicitly positioned itself as a conservative alternative to CNN - what it calls a “fair and balanced” alternative. Any thoughts about this?
STEVE RENDALL: Our problem with Fox isn't that it comes from the right. In a healthy media culture, you would have media outlets coming from all kinds of points of view, but getting their facts straight. The problem with Fox is that they claim to be “fair and balanced” but are really airing a lot of ideological opinions.
NORMAN SOLOMON: There are constituencies that Fox plays to that clearly spill over into racism and xenophobia. Fox's coverage is a cause for concern, but it is also a symptom of what is out there in the population. We shouldn't simply hang it on the news media. There is a constituency that is both propagated and extended by the news media, but it's a constituency that also exists apart from the media.
RENDALL: The failure of our society to deal with these issues - racism and bigotry and eugenics [the science of “improving” racial groups through selective breeding] - is significantly affecting our media culture. Journalists are the people that we depend on to help us form our opinions, but too often, I think, they fail to call things by their real name. That is especially true of racism and bigotry - it seems almost like there is a media taboo on calling individuals or ideas or institutions racist.
After all, it took two major scandals to draw enough attention to [former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Mississippi Republican] Trent Lott's history of racism. [Editor's note: Lott's ties to the racist Council of Conservative Citizens were exposed by FAIR and the Intelligence Report in late 1998; but only after he was quoted last year endorsing the racist Dixiecrat campaign of 1948 was Lott denied the majority leader post he was widely expected to reacquire after the Republicans had regained their Senate majority.] To even be demoted down to simple U.S. senator, Lott had to express admiration for a political campaign whose two main goals were maintaining segregation and eliminating anti-lynching laws.
IR: Have politicians abetted the media's reluctance to identify racists and racism?
RENDALL: Like Norman said, there is a market for bigotry. In the New York City area, Bob Grant had the biggest local talk radio show in the history of the country during the 1990s, a million listeners a week, and the politicians lined up to get on.
Here's a guy who refers to black people as “savages” and “beasts,” who once called on the New York Police Department to take machine guns to a gay pride parade and, quote, “mow them down.” Yet [New York] Gov. [George] Pataki, [then-] New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, [then-U.S. Rep.] Alfonse D'Amato [R-N.Y.], and [then-New York City Mayor] Rudolph Guiliani lined up to get on his show. This shows how we have a culture that tolerates these politicians tolerating racism. And it shows how Grant was striking a note with a lot of his listeners.
SOLOMON: Folks like Bob Grant are saying stuff that reflects overtly coded - or not even coded - hostility toward people because of the color of their skin.
IR: Has this changed over the years?
SOLOMON: There have been different racial buzzwords and different levels of overtness over the years. The 1970s and '80s saw this kind of percolating resentment towards people on welfare or perceived to be on welfare. There was tremendous momentum gained by people I would call respectable white superiorists, if that is a word - not quite supremacists. [Columnist] George Will was constantly banging the drum against welfare, and I think that was understood to be a code for people of color even though we know most people on welfare are not people of color. There was a playing on racial animosities felt by white people, many of whom were getting shafted by the corporate system and by economic inequities. Going back centuries, there has been a displacement of anger by people who are at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, who opt for racism instead of fighting for progress.
Over the last decade or so, the mass media generally has given very short shrift to any kind of analysis of why people are in so much economic distress. The surrogate for any kind of perceptive analysis of social inequities is passive and sometimes overt racism, and that is expressed in the news media. While overt anti-Semitism is not tolerated by the mass media, the threshold for outrage is much higher for code words in the news media that relate to race.
RENDALL: Coverage of the war with Iraq shows another kind of bias. Look at all the opinion-shapers on national television in the run-up to the war, and there were only two people with even tenuous connections to the anti-war movement. Now there is one: Bill Moyers, on public television. Phil Donahue recently lost his show at MSNBC, and it wasn't because he wasn't getting the ratings, as NBC said. A secret NBC memo that was leaked regarding Donahue's show said that they were really afraid that Donahue was an awkward, difficult face in times of war. They were afraid that the Donahue show would be seen as a gathering place for the antiwar movement while their [television news] rivals were waving the flag. So NBC knows the game is rigged. It isn't really about fair and balanced journalism. It's about getting behind the government effort in Iraq.
IR: What do you think of some of television's right-wing commentators?
RENDALL: Look at who some of the prominent media political figures are. It's [Christian Broadcasting Network television host] Pat Robertson, who never misses an opportunity to bash gay and lesbian people, and who has put forth a strange theory about the Rothschilds and the New World Order. It's Michael Savage, who talks about the “Turd World” and is the latest right-wing talk radio star to be hired by MSNBC. Or it's [current MSNBC talk show host and commentator] Pat Buchanan. Here's a guy who's on record questioning aspects of the Holocaust, degrading every [minority] group, and who has launched three presidential campaigns from his perch at CNN. He was on [CNN's] “Crossfire” for years, and when he wasn't on “Crossfire” he was on “The Capital Gang” or 's “The McLaughlin Group.” I mean, this is one of the most prominent media figures of the last 20 years.
Every society has these kinds of bigots. Why is it that we elevate them? Why are they such prominent voices in our media? I would say it's because they have significant media enablers.
SOLOMON: Progressives and racists are both widely represented in the population, but to use Steve's term, why do only the racist strands seem to have media enablers? This is important because it is very easy in the space of a minute or two on the air to reinforce pre-existing biases. Just talk about welfare or whatever. But ideas that are not responsive to pre-installed buttons - that don't have a record of having already been heard by the population through the media - are much tougher to develop. To raise questions about racism in society requires more than a sound bite or two.
RENDALL: I am not going to argue that [white supremacist and eugenicist] Jared Taylor should not ever show up on Phil Donahue's show [as he did in late 2002], or that Charles Murray [who co-authored The Bell Curve, a highly controversial book that argues that blacks are generally less intelligent than whites] should be on a blacklist as far as mainstream media goes. But the fact is that the most natural opponents of the ideas that men like these promote, the people who've done the most work on the other side, are not invited into the debate. Progressive voices, anti-racist voices, anti-war voices, are largely marginalized in the mainstream media.
Instead, you've had CNN sponsoring Buchanan, Disney sponsoring Bob Grant [the Walt Disney Co. owns ABC, including the ABC radio network and its flagship station, WABC-AM, where Grant worked], and now, MSNBC sponsoring Michael Savage. Remember, MSNBC is not an avowedly right-wing news channel, but they have just given a show to Savage, who is on record calling child victims of gunfire in the inner city “ghetto slime,” referring to non-white countries as “Turd World” nations, calling homosexuality perversion, asserting that Latinos breed like rabbits, and referring to [Jewish television talk show host] Jerry Springer as “hook-nosed.” He got his national show within days of when they fired Donahue.
This indicates that hatred of “Turd World” immigrants is a viewpoint that MSNBC is more comfortable with than criticism of the war. This is a microcosm of the larger problems in the American media.
IR: It seems that the notion that liberals and progressives are “politically correct” hard-liners has badly damaged those who are not conservatives or rightists.
SOLOMON: That's a key point. Back in the early 1990s, the first President Bush gave this whole idea of “political correctness” a big launch with a speech. Since then, there's been an enormous wave of publicity about it. Mass media culture now is much more quick to condemn, mock and cast aspersions on anti-racism than on racism. That's been the enormous utility of the term. People are more skittish today about being accused of political correctness than being accused of racism.
RENDALL: To call someone a racist is considered a worse thing than actually being a racist! That, in a nutshell, is the problem we're talking about here. There are dozens of prominent pundits on editorial pages, television and radio who constantly harp on the “liberal media.” It's no wonder that many Americans believe that.
IR: Is there a solution to any of this?
SOLOMON: What we don't have is a mass media culture that analyzes and challenges racism on a regular basis. If we did have such a culture, I have no doubt that what we have right now on the airwaves would wither away - not because it would be censored, but because it couldn't stand the light of day. But we don't have anybody on the national networks that regularly challenges and denounces racism.
RENDALL: Think about it. Barbara Ehrenreich [the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a book about the working poor], Cornel West [a prominent black scholar], Norman Solomon - these are the voices that represent progressive movements in the way that Buchanan and Limbaugh and [Fox talk show host Sean] Hannity represent the conservative movement. But they're totally missing from television. Why doesn't [filmmaker and commentator] Michael Moore have a national show? Instead, what we get on these television talk shows is a debate between bona fide movement conservatives and the center.
SOLOMON: One of the characteristics of having a narrow ideological spectrum in the mass media is that the media becomes inured to its own narrowness. The small differences become magnified to appear large on cable TV - the high decibels of the debate pass for wide diversity, which just isn't the case.
RENDALL: And it's not just television - although television has the largest influence on news consumers and is also the best place to challenge irresponsible, racist, inflammatory and divisive speech. You've also got people like Malcolm Browne of The New York Times recommending The Bell Curve, a book that overtly argues African Americans are less intelligent than whites. [Commentator] Andrew Sullivan did the same thing at The New Republic, giving great respect to this racist volume by Charles Murray and [the late] Richard Herrnstein. At the same time, you've got [conservative author] Dinesh D'Souza saying we've come to “the end of racism,” a view that is also held by lots pundits and commentators in our national media.
IR: All this comes at a time when minorities are more visible than ever before.
RENDALL: There is a dual discourse that has been going on for a very long time. We do now have black people and Latinos on commercials, in journalism and entertainment, on television, MTV and so forth, but there is also a very heavy set of messages about you if you are a loser economically - it's because you had it coming. The racial disparities in economic resources, which are huge, are absolutely denied.
There is an enormous media focus on race in the United States, but very little focus on racism. Often, you will hear that race is a problem, but that's not true. Race is not a problem. Racism is a problem.
IR: It also seems like many media outlets manage to find highly conservative black commentators who are generally very unrepresentative of their communities. I think of Ken Hamblin [a.k.a. “The Black Avenger,” host of a syndicated radio show that originates on KOA in Denver], who once said on the air that he was a member of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.
SOLOMON: The 9% or 10% of African Americans who vote Republican are vastly overrepresented compared to the 90% who vote Democratic. I think there is a utility and novelty to having African Americans on the right with a national platform.
RENDALL: You find the same thing across the board. With African Americans, you get [commentators] Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Armstrong Williams, Larry Elder and Ken Hamblin. The most prominent media pundits who are gay include Camille Paglia, Norah Vincent and Andrew Sullivan. It is hard to find progressive blacks or gays or lesbians in any position of punditry in our national mainstream media. I would say that this even extends to Jews, another generally very progressive voting constituency. We see a plethora of Jewish neo-conservatives and conservatives, but it's getting harder and harder to find a progressive or even liberal Jewish voice in our national media.
IR: What about the anti-immigration movement and right-wing commentators?
RENDALL: Peter Brimelow [current president of the anti-immigration Center for American Unity; see group description in “Into the Mainstream,” also in this issue], who at the time was a regular writer for Forbes magazine, wrote Alien Nation, a book I believe is racist. But the problem isn't that we have people like Peter Brimelow or books like [the racist French anti-immigrant novel] The Camp of the Saints [see group descriptions of the American Immigration Control Foundation and U.S. Inc. in “Into the Mainstream”]. It's that we don't have a media culture that challenges this. If we did, we'd know that a lot of the same things that are being said about Latin and Asian immigrants today were said about Italian and Russian Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 19th century. It's the same kind of phobia - the immigrants are dirty, more criminal, less intelligent. It's a script that's been written and performed many times. We can't seem to have any sort of intelligent discussion informed by our past. We seem to have to learn everything all over again every 20 years or so.
Look who Bill O'Reilly [host of Fox News' “The O'Reilly Factor”] invites to discuss immigration policy issues - [executive director] Dan Stein from the other FAIR [Federation for American Immigration Reform; see description in “Into the Mainstream”], an anti-immigrant group that has taken more than $1 million from racist funders [the Pioneer Foundation; see description in “Into the Mainstream”]. We've documented time after time when Stein has appeared on shows, completely unopposed, saying things that in many cases were inaccurate and in some cases hateful and even racist about certain ethnic groups.
IR: So what can we do to cure this state of affairs?
SOLOMON: People who want to create progressive change in the media have been way too reticent to do much about it. A.J. Liebling, the press critic, said decades ago that freedom of the press is only guaranteed to those who own one. Those who don't shouldn't pipe down; they should speak up. If you don't organize, you're going to be victimized. There is a grassroots movement around the country to get other voices into the mainstream media, past the gates of the news mansion.
RENDALL: Broad debate and independent information are the oxygen of democracy. Our Bill of Rights only protects one profession, the press. We should do what we can to support and help create independent and non-commercial media. That is why we think the public should take back the airwaves. The airwaves belong to the public just like water, just like air, just like the national park system. The airwaves are a national resource, and we have a right as the public to demand that a larger chunk of it be dedicated to our interests, and that means more non-commercial broadcasting.
* This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 edition of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. Posted with Steve Rendell and Norman Solomon’s permission.