News Analyst Discusses Media’s Role in Promoting Bigoted Ideas
Editor's note: 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 Reportspoke 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 [-..], 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.