UNRELIABLE SOURCES A Guide to Detecting Bias in the News Media By Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon Lyle Stuart. 419 pp. $19.95
WHEN ONE first sees promotional material for Unreliable Sources trumpeting the fact that actor Ed Asner wrote the foreword, images of an infamous television commercial are evoked: the one where the pitchman for an over-the-counter drug says with a straight face, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV."
Although Asner is not a journalist, but rather portrayed a tough but well intentioned newsman on both the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant" television series, he has been active on behalf of various social causes and lent his name and efforts to politicians of liberal persuasion and therefore does bring some credibility to the book. And the revelations made by authors Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon are serious indeed.
Unreliable Sources should take an honorable place alongside two other works of media criticism, Deciding What's News by sociologist Herbert Gans and The Media Monopoly by journalism educator Ben Bagdikian. Lee and Solomon are themselves journalists of substantive experience and write with the authority of practitioners who have seen the machinations of news organizations from within. Not only do they reveal why American news media underserve the public while catering -- intentionally or otherwise -- to the interests of corporate advertisers, government officials and the privileged classes, they cite numerous examples to support their thesis. Moreover -- and here's the real value of their work -- they provide practical advice on what citizens can do to address the perceived failures, biases and inadequacies of the news media.
Little time is wasted in getting to the point. In their introduction, the authors ask the reader to imagine what television news would be like if sponsored by a labor union or an environmentalist organization instead of by the corporate giants of America.
All the demons of media influence are brought out for scrutiny: corporate advertisers, interlocking directorates among media owners, business and banking interests, government manipulation, cronyism and the like. Individual journalists are seen as pawns or unwitting accomplices, if not downright lazy. And the case is made convincingly. Some of the icons of modern American journalism are held up for examination against the ethical standards they presume to use in the practice of their own profession. What about Linda Ellerbee and those coffee commercials? What is the significance of the disproportionate number of appearances by Henry Kissinger on Ted Koppel's Nightline program?
In attempting to painstakingly document the various media ills by citing specific and varied examples, the authors risk journalistic overkill. However, they employ clever diversions to help break the monotony, including several cartoons and illustrations. In the first chapter they offer "A Lexicon of Media Buzzwords" as an entertaining but useful means of documenting media reliance on cliche's instead of insightful reportage as a means of biasing the news. Thus, when news media use the terms "military leader" and "military strongman" in the context of foreign policy, the connotations are distinctly different. According to the authors, the former is used to describe a foreign military dictator "whom the White House doesn't mind a whole lot," while the latter term is reserved for dictators who are out of favor. Lee and Solomon note that Manual Noriega was characterized as a "military leader" prior to the mid-1980s before assuming the media moniker of "military strongman" in the years prior to the U.S. invasion of Panama.
Lee and Solomon also address coverage of domestic issues, including the distortions created by racism, sexism and homophobia among the press corps and its corporate management. They cite the fact that news decisionmakers are overwhelmingly white, middle class, conservative and male and suggest that their work reflects those values to the exclusion of pluralistic and non-sexist values. For instance, in an assessment of news treatment of Washington's low-income neighborhoods, the authors show how the media obfuscate cause and effect concerning this city's problems with drugs and violence. They properly observe that the press reinforces the Bush administration reduction of the drug problem to a "war" on drugs and violent crime while largely ignoring the root causes of the problem in illiteracy, inadequate health care, unemployment, social alienation and racism. AT THE same time, while media focus on the metaphoric war against street crime and illicit drugs, corporate criminals receive scant attention. Lee and Solomon point out that a single act of white-collar corruption, such as cutting corners on safety in the manufacture of consumer products, can cause more human death and suffering than the work of dozens of crack dealers. Yet such stories are rarely the focus of crime coverage. The white-collar aspects of the illicit drug trade, including the role of banks in laundering more than $100 billion a year in drug money, merit nowhere near the attention of street crime as a topic of journalistic coverage.
These are serious issues, and they raise doubts about the future of America's social infrastructure and the effectiveness of its "watchdog" -- the news media -- to help its citizens identify social realities and address problems. It is not clear how Lou Grant would fare in the media milieu portrayed in Unreliable Sources. But, in the parlance of modern journalism, even "senior administration officials" might agree that this book makes a worthy addition to the library of any student of American news media, social structure and political science.
Clint C. Wilson II is associate dean for administration of the Howard University School of Communications.