In a most ordinary moment on a normal day at work in the Chicago bureau of a major national newsmagazine, I came to a realization that has bothered me ever since. Everyone knows how much power the press has in shaping the news, how its choice of stories and words influence readers. But one afternoon, talking about a rather silly feature story we were doing on pop culture, someone joked, “You know, we can start a trend just by calling it a trend!”
I stopped dead. It was true. But I was the only one not laughing.
Of course, this was hardly an original insight. Walter Lippman—journalist, military intelligence specialist during World War I, propagandist, political scientist, author, and adviser to the presidents—made the same observation a generation ago. These words from his book, Public Opinion, bear repeating:
Every newspaper when it reaches the reader is the result of a whole series of selections…. In order that [the reader] shall enter he must find a familiar foothold in the story, and this is supplied to him by the use of stereotypes. They tell him that if an association of plumbers is called a “combine” it is appropriate to develop his hostility; if it is called a “group of leading businessmen” the cue is for a favorable reaction. It is in a combination of these elements that the power to create opinion resides.
Why is it so easy to lead people into new behaviors, desires, and attitudes? Why don’t people think more critically and see through some of the airy media stories that have no real substance—the stories that are less news than public relations or marketing? As Lippman noted, it’s the result of “apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three-legged calves.”
These days, sideshows and curious trivia have actually gained even greater importance in an industry that has become a confusing mix of news and entertainment. Still, there are people who would like to pay attention to the more consequential events and issues that used to be called news. These can be hard to discern when politics itself has become trivialized. Hence the need to become intelligent news consumers: to learn how to pick through massive fields of information for substantive and fair reporting.
This is a tall task. The manipulation of public opinion is of great importance to both the government and the media. And it takes on added urgency in the months before an election.
Shaping the News
Last year, veteran CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg shocked the media world with his book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. He minced no words in laying out the fundamental problem. “The old argument that the networks and other ‘media elites’ have a liberal bias is so blatantly true that it’s hardly worth discussing anymore,” he writes. “No, we don’t sit around in dark corners and plan strategies on how we’re going to slant the news. We don’t have to. It comes naturally to most reporters…. When you get right down to it, liberals in the newsroom see liberal views as just plain…sensible, reasonable, rational views, which just happen to coincide with their own” (emphasis added).
Consider this exchange from CNN’s American Morning show. The panelists are talking about the quality of the reporting from the Middle East. Anderson Cooper says, “On both sides of this issue, people see this so clearly one way or the other. It’s really fascinating.” Paula Zahn: “And it clearly colors their reaction to reporting, and I think it’s, you know, very difficult for people to separate their own personal views from the way they interpret the news.” Jack Cafferty: “The news media is [sic] only objective if they report something you agree with.” Zahn: “Right.” Cafferty concludes: “Then they’re objective. Otherwise they’re biased if you don’t agree, you know.”
For these three CNN personalities, the news media themselves are impervious to the predispositions and prejudice that afflict their audience. But contrary to what CNN might have us believe, bias is a real problem. You can see it in all the ways the media interpret, frame, and produce the great issues of our day. They slant the news according to their ideologies and find sources who will back them up. Over my 23 years with a newsmagazine, it often did a good—sometimes very good—job of reporting and analyzing news and its impact. But sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the editors assigned reporters to a story that had been pre-conceived in the New York headquarters—a story with a foregone conclusion.
It was the job of the local bureaus to find people who would give us colorful quotes that fit the theory the story would propose. For instance, the New York office once sent to the bureaus an assignment to do a story on experimental and unproven procedures that “cavalier surgeons” were “getting away with” in the operating room. The story concept assumed the worst—that unchecked surgeons were doing all sorts of impromptu experiments with untested medical instruments in order to pioneer a new operation. Unfortunately, the agenda-driven piece only worked by making invalid comparisons, giving inaccurate medical descriptions, and adding misleading explanations.
We at the local bureau had our job cut out for us: to find examples to buttress New York’s faulty premise. We were to hunt down quotes about surgeons who have too much freedom in trying out risky new techniques.
In other words, the magazine had decided there was a controversy and then had to scramble to find evidence to prove it. It was clearly off the mark, and so I reported at length on what I found, with strong quotes from strong sources (including the vice president of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons). The experts I interviewed explained with great clarity the very complicated process of advanced life-saving surgery—both its risks and its benefits. (The vice president had said: “It’s mind-boggling how low the failure rate is, so we’re kind of looking around and wondering why people aren’t standing up and cheering and saying, ‘You guys are doing a hell of a job!” Predictably, that quote never got used.)
Happily, the article that appeared in the magazine was substantially different from the tone and original intent of the assignment. Score one for truth. But I can’t say that was always the result. Often, if the reporting didn’t fit the required conclusions and desired slant of the piece, it just didn’t make it into the story at all.
“In the higher bureaucracy organizations—the major media—editors pay less attention because they’re busy doing other things,” observes Chicago writer and media raconteur Gary Ruderman, a former colleague who left the magazine several years before I did. “They choose not to be informed, and they don’t do the work to find out the truth behind the rumors and hearsay?’
Or as Goldberg puts it, “National TV reporters, as a group, are lazy.”
We once had a bureau chief who was deeply engaged in the world of high society and quite adept in the inner circles of Washington politics, where he’d been a diplomatic correspondent. He was, indeed, very busy. But when it came to reporting from the field, at least in this bureau, his research and writing came mainly from the Chicago newspapers. While that fact was well-known, it didn’t matter to anyone in power. Headquarters took him away from Chicago only to give him a plum job in London.
Veteran newsman Jim Hatfield was an exception to the rule, referring to himself as a “Genghis Khan” in the newsroom. He went from newsman for KPIX in the late 1960s to news writer for KNBC, to executive producer for KABC in Hollywood, and then to the CBS-owned station WBBM in Chicago as news director, producer, and executive producer of magazine programming. “It’s more difficult now to get an accurate picture from the news media,” notes Hatfield, who does freelance work from his home outside Chicago. “The broad spectrum of media now, especially with the advent of the Internet, has added pressure and forced changes in the broadcast arena. They’ve hired younger, less experienced people and have pushed for the most sensational angles possible. The levels of taste and sensitivity that we always observed, thelines we would never cross, are just about gone now.”
“The problem comes in the big social and cultural issues, where we often sound more like flacks for liberal causes than objective journalists,” Goldberg admits. “It’s a world where money is often seen as a solution to social problems, where antiabortionists are seen as kooks and weirdos.” The major network chiefs take their cues every day from the New York Times, he says, and all reporting derives from that worldview. “It’s scary to think that so many important people who bring Americans the news can be so delusional.” Scary because, as Goldberg notes, “It’s not just that so many journalists are so different from mainstream America. It’s that some are downright hostile to what many Americans hold sacred.” And these are the creators of American public opinion.
If you control language, you control thought. In Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, author Joseph Pieper reminds us of Plato’s lifelong battle with the Sophists, “those highly paid and popularly applauded experts in the art of twisting words, who were able to sweet-talk something bad into something good and to turn white into black?’ Hegel saw sophistry as a distinct danger to any society, believing that “such absolute and unmoored questioning that plucks apart any object and dialectically discredits everything…almost inevitably leads us to the conviction that everything can be justified if we look hard enough for reasons?’
Even when challenged, the news elites keep changing the language and their tactics for controlling it. In George Orwell’s 1984, the “Party” replaces ordinary language with “Newspeak?’ a language of propaganda, euphemism, double-talk, and evasion—a language in which words are evacuated of their natural meaning.
We don’t need to search for modern examples. The advocates of abortion-on-demand do this better and more forcibly than anyone. They eschew phrases like “partial-birth abortion?’ which accurately describes a surgical procedure. Instead, they use words with a more positive connotation, combining “reproductive” with “rights,” and “pro” with “choice.” They label those who oppose the killing of life in the womb as “anti-choice,” preferring not to mention what the choice is.
During the Clinton impeachment hearings, there were almost too many biased news reports to keep track of. But here are a few I noted. CNN’s Jeanne Meserve, while interpreting a poll on the country’s supposed reaction to the idea of impeachment, said, “The majority of those polled do not favor impeachment—27 percent said no impeachment—while only a quarter said yes.” That’s a virtual tie, given the standard margin for error.
A couple of days later, CNN’s Candy Crowley reported from Capitol Hill on the ugly battles and charges between the two political parties over the Clinton tapes. She concluded by noting that the Senate had just fallen three votes short of overturning the president’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. With a smile, Crowley observed that this was the same vote count as the last time around, so “it’s good to see that there’s some degree of normalcy still around here.”
Goldberg himself makes some interesting notes about the impeachment coverage. “During the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999,” Goldberg writes, “as the senators signed their names in the oath book swearing they would be fair and impartial, Peter Jennings, who was anchoring ABC News’s live coverage, made sure his audience knew which senators were conservative—but uttered not a word about which ones were liberal.” He noted that Jennings referred to various Republican senators as “more right than left in his politics” and as “very determined conservative member[s] of the Republican Party,” while liberal Democratic senators were just pointed out by name and state.
I was watching CNN during this episode and noticed a brief (almost imperceptible) moment of recognition of personal bias in former studio anchor Frank Sesno. As he watched the Senate Republicans on the screen next to him, he charged that they were not conducting the proceedings in a fair and impartial manner, despite their pledge. In a fit of obvious indignation, Sesno looked into the camera and said that these members of the Senate “took an oath” and, before finishing the sentence, looked down at his desk with what I detected was embarrassment and continued rather meekly, “Well, that’s what this is all about in the first place, isn’t it?” referring to Clinton’s perjury. He seemed to recover from this bout of conscience fairly quickly.
Shortly after the 1992 election, one of our senior editors at the newsmagazine left to take a high-level position in the Clinton administration. No surprise there. I was surprised, however, when I learned of the remarks another former colleague made after she rose rapidly through the ranks and wound up as one of the magazine’s White House reporters. In an interview in Mirabella magazine, referring to former President Clinton, she said: “I’d be happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”
This from a woman who gave you the news from the White House for a newsmagazine many of you read regularly.
Think for Yourself
Addressing truth and distortion in Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, Pieper cautioned that in the future, communication would give way to ominous forms of verbal manipulation:
Instead of genuine communication, there will exist something for which domination is too benign a term; more appropriately we should speak of tyranny, of despotism. On one side, there will be a sham authority, unsupported by any intellectual superiority, and on the other a state of dependency, which again is too benign a term. Bondage would be more correct…a state of mental bondage…. Propaganda in this sense…can be found wherever a powerful organization, an ideological clique, a special interest, or a pressure group uses the word as their “weapon.” And a threat, of course, can mean many things besides political persecution, especially all the forms and levels of defamation, or public ridicule, or reducing someone to a nonperson—all of which are accomplished by means of the word.
Pieper’s statement applies to everything from Hitler’s description of Jews as “parasites” to the Dred Scott decision, which infamously concluded that a slave was not a human person and thus had no rights whatsoever. So too, Roe v. Wade declared that although an unborn baby may have a heart and brain, and may be a human life biologically, that baby is not a legal person.
On a massive scale, people have been reeducated to accept the unacceptable. Even people of faith, drawn into this groupthink culture, accept distortion of the truth, packaged as freedom and enlightenment. As Pieper put it, “The general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.”
Of course, it need not be that way in an informed republic. It’s up to each of us to be aware of the convictions and beliefs that make up our own worldview and the basis of the values by which we analyze and judge what we see, hear, and read. People of faith, for instance, will follow the tenets of that faith and live them in all that they do—including their involvement with politics, media, culture, commerce, and academia.
To guide their own flock, the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote a document in 1998 titled, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.” In it, they address that fictitious reality Pieper observed and warn of the threat this poses to our democracy. “The nature and urgency of this threat should not be misunderstood?’ the bishops wrote.” Respect for the dignity of the human person demands a commitment to human rights across a broad spectrum…yet abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself…. Such direct attacks…once crimes, are today legitimized by governments sworn to protect the weak and marginalized.”
Unfortunately, few Catholics are aware of the bishops’ sobering letter; it received very little attention in the mainstream press. And so, the media win again.
Stopping the Spin
In a world of media spin, it’s not easy to keep one’s own balance. First, know what your core values are, what you hold to be objectively true. Be discriminating in your selection of news sources and carefully scrutinize everything you hear and read—see how it resonates with what you believe.
Note how news gatherers select subjects and how they cover them. What photographs do they choose? Do their accounts sound slanted, or do they present compelling voices from both sides of an issue?
Notice their sources: Do you hear from the same set of “experts” again and again? I find this especially annoying. The newsmagazine I worked for is still using some of the same old liberal “news analysts” they used when I first arrived in the Midwest bureau more than two decades ago. And you see them all over television news as well. When the topic is Catholicism, the networks all call on the same dissident priests and ex-priests, feminists, and “Catholics for a Free Choice”: Andrew Greeley, Eugene Kennedy, Charles Curran, Richard Sipe, Frances Kissling, and so on. Paula Zahn has continually used Sipe as the go-to expert on the troubles within the Church, always describing him as a “retired priest?’ He’s an ex-priest, Paula. There’s a difference.
“They don’t want our new, fresh sources when they’ve got the regulars who give them the quotes they want?” Ruderman says, sharing my observation that the major media, like the newsmagazine we worked for, have all taken the easy route of using dog-eared Rolodexes to call on the same talking heads. “They never wanted my sources when they didn’t fit the mold of what they wanted the story to say. They had a preconceived idea of the status quo, and so they would always go to the status-quo sources for their standard comments.”
On the eve of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in August, the New York Times ran a piece by Frank Bruni, headlined “Pope, Again, Heads Home and, Again, Rumors Fly.” It revealed much about how the old “pack journalism” is at work preparing for the imminent demise of the pope (preparations that have been in the works for about a decade now). The article noted that “ABC News has exclusive rights during that period to the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame University professor.” And “ABC News also has dibs on Father Greeley?’
The article did not note that Father McBrien and Father Greeley are leading dissidents with a dependable animus against John Paul II. No need to confuse viewers with important background information about the “experts” they’re invited to trust.
Democracy and the Press
It’s interesting how much of Lippman’s analysis from 70 years ago still applies to the media. In the foreword to the 1997 edition of Public Opinion, Ronald Steel recalls that from a young age, Lippman studied politics and the press. “In Liberty and the News he concluded that the newspaper stories of one of the seminal events of the century (the Russian Revolution) were distorted and inaccurate, based not on the facts but on the ‘hopes of the men who composed the news organization.”
Lippman then posed a more fundamental problem, as Steel relates: “How could the public get the information it needed to make rational political judgments if it could not rely on the press? Unbiased information had become essential, he argued, because ‘decisions in a modern state tend to be made by the interaction, not of Congress and the executive, but of public opinion and the executive.’ …For this reason the accuracy of news reporting, the protection of the sources of public opinion, had become the ‘basic problem of democracy.'”
The power of public opinion, which is supposed to be the driving force behind most important decisions in a democracy, can itself be driven or steered by the prejudices of unofficial opinion-makers. Vigilance and self-awareness are its only protection. Which is why, wherever they get their news, intelligent citizens will take nothing for granted except their principles.