The "Liberal Media"
Giving Labor the Business
excerpted from the book
by Michael Parenti
City Lights Books, 1996, paper
THE "LIBERAL MEDIA" MYTH
It is a widely accepted belief in this country that the press
suffers from a liberal bias. Television pundits, radio talk-show
hosts, and political leaders, including presidents of both parties,
help propagate this belief. And their views are widely disseminated
in the media. In contrast, dissident critics, who maintain that
the corporate-owned press exercises a conservative grip on news
and commentary, are afforded almost no exposure in the supposedly
Consider the case of David Horowitz. When
Horowitz was a radical author and editor of Ramparts, the mainstream
press ignored his existence. But after he and former Ramparts
colleague Peter Colliers surfaced as new-born conservatives, the
Washington Post Magazine gave prominent play to their "Lefties
for Reagan" pronunciamento. Horowitz and Colliers soon linked
up with the National Forum Foundation, which dipped into deep
conservative pockets and came up with hundreds of thousands of
dollars to enable the two ex-radicals to do ideological battle
with the Left. Today Horowitz is a rightist media critic, who
has his own radio show and who appears with dismaying frequency
on radio and television to whine about how radio and television
shut out the conservative viewpoint.
Then there is the multitude of talk-show
hosts, of whom Rush Limbaugh is only the best-known, who rail
against the "pinko press" on hundreds of local television
stations and thousands of radio stations owned by wealthy conservatives
and underwritten by big business firms. To complain about how
the media are dominated by liberals, Limbaugh has an hour a day
on network television, an hour on cable, and a radio show syndicated
by over 600 stations.
There are well-financed, right-wing, media-watch
organizations, such as Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media (AIM).
In a syndicated column appearing in over one hundred newspapers
and a radio show aired on some two hundred stations, Irvine and
his associates complain that conservative viewpoints are frozen
out of the media. Many left critics would like to be frozen out
the way AIM, Limbaugh, and Horowitz are.
There is no free and independent press in the United States. The
notion of a "free market of ideas" is as mythical as
the notion of a free market of goods.
Who owns the big medial The press lords who come to mind are Hearst,
Luce, Murdoch, Sulzberger, Annenberg, and the like, personages
of markedly conservative hue who regularly leave their ideological
imprint on both news and editorial content. The boards of directors
of print and broadcast news organizations are populated by representatives
from Ford, General Motors, General Electric, Alcoa, Coca-Cola,
Philip Morris, ITT, IBM, and other corporations in a system of
interlocking directorates that resembles the boards of any other
corporation. Among the major stockholders of the three largest
networks are Chase Manhattan, J.P. Morgan, and Citibank. The prime
stockholder of this country's most far-reaching wire service,
Associated Press, is the Wall Street brokerage firm, Merrill Lynch.
NBC is owned outright by General Electric, a corporation that
frequently backs conservative causes and candidates. In 1995,
CBS was bought up by Westinghouse for $5 billion and Time Warner
prepared to take over Ted Turner's CNN.
Not surprisingly, this pattern of ownership
affects how news and commentary are manufactured. Virtually all
chief executives of mainstream news organizations are drawn from
a narrow, high-income stratum and tilt decidedly to the right
in their political preferences. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch was
once asked in an interview: "You're considered to be politically
conservative. To what extent do you influence the editorial posture
of your news) papers?" He responded with refreshing candor:
"Considerably... my editors have input, but I make the final
Corporate advertisers exercise an additional conservative influence
on the media. They cancel accounts not only when stories reflect
poorly on their product but when they perceive liberal tendencies
creeping into news reports and commentary.
As might be expected from business-dominated
media, the concerns of labor are regularly downplayed. Jonathan
Tasini, head of the National Writers Union, studied all reports
dealing with workers' issues carried by ABC, CBS and NBC evening
news during 1989, including child care and minimum wage: it came
to only 2.3 percent of total coverage. No wonder one survey found
that only 6 percent of business leaders thought the media treatment
accorded them was "poor," while 66 percent said it was
"good" or "excellent."
Religious media manifest the same gross
imbalance of right over left. The fundamentalist media-featuring
homophobic, sexist, reactionary, televangelists like Pat Robertson
-comprise a $2-billion-a-year industry, controlling about 10 percent
of all radio outlets and 14 percent of the nation's television
stations. In contrast, the Christian Left lacks the financial
backing needed to gain major media access.
The Petroleum Broadcasting System
A favorite conservative hallucination
is that the Public Broadcasting System is a leftist stronghold.
In fact, more than 70 percent of PBS's prime-time shows are funded
wholly or mostly by four giant oil companies, earning it the sobriquet
of "Petroleum Broadcasting System' PBS's public affairs programs
are underwritten by General Electric, General Motors, Metropolitan
Life, Pepsico, Mobil, Paine Webber, and the like. One media watchdog
group found that corporate representatives constitute 44 percent
of program sources about the economy; activists account for only
3 percent, while labor representatives are virtually shut out.
Guests on National Public Radio (NPR) ) and PBS generally are
as ideologically conservative as any found on commercial networks.
Even "Frontline" and Bill Moyer's "Listening to
America"- favorite GOP targets-use Republicans far more frequently
Conservatives like Horowitz make much
of the occasional muckraking documentary that is aired on public
television. But most PBS documentaries are politically nondescript
or centrist. Progressive works rarely see the light of day. Documentaries
like Faces of War (revealing the brutality of the U.S.-backed
counterinsurgency in El Salvador), Building Bombs (on nuclear
weapons proliferation), Coverup (on the Iran-contra conspiracy),
Deadly Deception (an Academy Award-winning critique of General
Electric and the nuclear arms industry) and Panama Deception (an
Academy Award-winning exposé of the U.S. invasion of Panama)
were, with a few local exceptions, denied broadcast rights on
both commercial and public television.
A rightist perspective dominates commentary
shows like NBC's "McLaughlin Group' PBS's "One on One"
(with McLaughlin as host), CNBC's "McLaughlin Show"
(with guess who), PBS's "Firing Line" with William F.
Buckley, CNN's "Evans and Novak" and "Capital Gang,"
and ABCs "This Week with David Brinkley." The spectrum
of opinion on such programs, as on the pages of most newspapers,
ranges from far right to moderate right or center, in a display
of false balancing. Facing Pat Buchanan on CNN's "Crossfire,"
Michael Kinsley correctly summed it up: "Buchanan is much
further to the right than I am to the left."
On foreign affairs the press's role as
a cheerleader of the national security state and free-market capitalism
seems almost without restraint. Virtually no favorable exposure
has ever been given to indigenous Third World revolutionary or
reformist struggles or to protests at home and abroad against
U.S. overseas interventions. The media's view of the world is
much the same as the view from the State Department and the Pentagon.
The horrendous devastation wreaked upon the presumed beneficiaries
of U.S. power generally goes unmentioned and unexplained-as do
the massive human rights violations perpetrated by U.S.-supported
forces in dozens of free-market client states.
On one of the rare occasions it has acknowledged the existence
of media censorship, the New York Times (11/27/88) noted that
while network "production and standards" departments
have reduced their policing of sexual and other cultural taboos,
"the network censors continue to be vigilant when it comes
to overseeing the political content of television films.'
Censorship is far more widespread than
the few publicized incidents suggest. According to a poll conducted
by the Writers Guild of America 86 percent of the writers who
responded found from personal experience that censorship exists
in television. Many claim that every script they have written,
no matter how seemingly innocuous, has been censored. And 81 percent
believe that "television is presenting a distorted picture
of what is happening in this country today- politically, economically
GIVING LABOR THE BUSINESS
y do so many people have a negative view of workers a labor unions?
In part, it is because of what is fed to them by the corporate-owned
news media. A 1990 City University of New York study found that
programs devoted to "elite" personages consumed "nearly
ten times more PBS prime-time programming hours than programs
devoted to workers?' Less than half of one percent of the programming
dealt with workers-and it was mostly with British rather than
American ones. A Los Angeles Times survey found that newspaper
editors favored business over labor by 54 to 7 percent. My reading
of this nation's newspapers leaves me to wonder who the 7 percent
The media's pro-business bias is pronounced
enough for anyone to see. The major newspapers and weeklies have
no labor section to go along with their business section. They
have whole staffs reporting on business news but not more than
one labor reporter, if that. And usually "labor" reporters,
judging from the ones I have met, show no special grasp of labor's
struggles or sensitivity toward workers' issues. If they did,
they would not last at that assignment and would be judged as
"getting too close" to their subject.
The media's devotion to corporate America
is manifested in the many TV and radio commentary shows that are
glutted with conservatives. Public affairs programming is crowded
with offerings like "Wall Street Week' "American Enterprise'
"Adam Smith's Money World," "Nightly Business Report,"
The network evening news regularly reports
the Dow Jones average but offers no weekly tabulations on lay-offs,
industrial accidents, and long-term occupational illness. When
the stock market has a good day, for some reason this is treated
as good news for all of us. The press seldom refers to the politico-economic
power of corporations. The economy itself is presented as something
government and business attend to, while organized labor tags
along at best as a very junior and often troublesome partner.
The media's anti-labor biases should come as no surprise. Media
owners themselves are among the most exploitative, antiunion employers
and strikebreakers. Over the years, the Washington Post, the Los
Angeles Herald-Examiner, the New York Daily News, CBS, NBC and
numerous other news organizations have been locked in bitter strikes
that ended with unions being seriously weakened or totally crushed.
As Washington Post owner Katharine Graham is reportedly fond of
saying: "Unions interfere with freedom of the press."
... the press treats the government as a neutral arbiter acting
on behalf of the "national interest" in the struggle
between management and labor. It is assumed that the public's
interest is best served by avoiding strikes or getting strikers
back into production as soon as possible, regardless of the terms
of settlement. The police-along with the courts, the president,
and the rest of the state apparatus-are presented as guardians
of the peace, defenders of the public interest, rather than as
protectors of corporate property and bodyguards for strikebreakers.
House Report 102-363, accompanying the Public Telecommunications
Act of 1991, calls on the public broadcasting community to stop
ignoring "class differences and the plight of American working
people" and to make greater efforts to meet its "obligation
to encourage diversity in programming, including programming which
addresses the lives and concerns of American workers and their
families, in documentaries, dramas, and public affairs programs."
The report also noted that "public television station boards
typically are dominated by business interests, even though working
Americans are key supporters of public television' Unfortunately
the report had little to say about the media's treatment of labor
unions, an omission that itself may be a reflection of the anti-union
bias that permeates the business-dominated political culture.
A common method of deception practiced by U.S. leaders and the
U.S. news media is omission. Rather than outright lying, rather
than twisting and embellishing the truth, leaders and their faithful
flacks in the mainstream media frequently just ignore or greatly
downplay events that might prove too troublesome for officialdom
and too edifying for the U.S. public.
This is especially true when it comes
to matters relating to the national security state. Reports can
appear now and then in the news regarding an irresponsible business
firm, a catastrophic oil spill too large to keep hidden, a corrupt
banker or broker, an incident of sexism in the armed services,
and so forth. Out of bounds are the fundamental questions about
the use of state power in the service of corporate class interests
at home and abroad. Critical discussions of global capitalism
and what it is doing to the world are not likely to be countenanced
by either U.S. leaders or the corporate-owned media.
The various methods of U.S. interventionism
in other countries include both the overt forms of military invasion
and the covert actions of the CIA and other counterinsurgency
agencies; they include everything from bribes and rigged elections
to death squads and mass slaughter. The purpose of these actions
is to eliminate individual leaders, political parties, social
movements, and governments that in any way challenge the existing
global politico-economic arrangements that advocate egalitarian
social change, be it toward a social democracy or socialism or
even a conservative economic nationalism that strives for some
kind of independent development.
Our "free and independent" news media are actually controlled
by publishers and network bosses who see to it that their own
preferred views prevail. They will refuse to run letters, guest
columns, and occasionally even their regularly syndicated features
and comic strips if the material does not suit their political
proclivities. They punish editors and journalists by passing them
over for promotion, transferring them to remote posts, and even
firing them if they don't learn soon enough what is and is not
ideologically fit to print or broadcast. Such actions should be
exposed for what they are: censorship. But news organizations
are the last to publicize their own transgressions. Instances
of censorship are simply not treated as newsworthy.
The hardest kinds of censorship to detect
are the preemptive forms. In a profession that is literally awash
with right-wing pundits, there are few, if any, progressives who
appear regularly as TV commentators or as nationally syndicated
columnists in the major dailies. The Left does not have to be
censored; it is excluded from the start. It does not have to be
reined in; it is never even put into harness.
Michael Parenti page