Back in what some called the golden age of broadcast journalism -- when the emphasis was on the journalism -- some viewers thought they detected bias in Chet Huntley's occasionally raised eyebrow or David Brinkley's wry smile on NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report."
Today's broadcast journalists are more broadcast commentators who left fairness at their agent's door. Coverage of the Iowa caucuses is just the latest example.
Repeatedly, the overpaid hotshots of network TV concluded that Gov. George W. Bush had been pulled to the right by religious conservatives and, as NBC's Tim Russert opined, that "could hurt" him "with a mainstream electorate in the general election." Yet, as the Media Research Center noted, no one concluded that Al Gore had been pulled to the left by Bill Bradley when Gore proposed universal health coverage or when teachers unions took a hard line against school vouchers, once favored by Bradley.
A lot of "analysts" and reporters are of one mind that Bush's openness about his faith will also hurt him. That's because most of them are closed to such things or, as a Washington Post ombudsman once explained: "You have to understand, we don't know many of these people."
On taxes, the broadcasters (like the Democrats most of them are) never saw a tax cut they liked or a spending program they couldn't embrace. So tax cuts are described as risky, irresponsible or extreme, echoing Democrat critics.
Brian Williams said on NBC that in order for Bush to have received a record 41 percent of the Iowa Caucus vote, he "had to run with Jesus Christ." Williams offered a disclaimer that he meant "no disrespect." Sure. Some of your best friends are Christians, right? The fact that NBC's own exit poll showed that moral issues ranked first with voters (35 percent), followed by taxes (23 percent), apparently did not sway the perspective of NBC journalists.
Since all of the networks picked up the mantra that Bush is being "forced" to the right, their questions to Republican and conservative guests were confrontational and designed to portray the opinion of the questioner as fact. CBS' Bryant Gumbel, whose morning-show ratings are on a par with Hillary Clinton's slipping approval numbers, asked Steve Forbes: "Do you really expect to win moderate votes in this country?"
The networks have also stepped up their use of labels, almost exclusively of conservatives, as another way of editorializing. In just three nights over last weekend, the "CBS Evening News" used "conservative," "right" or "hard right" 20 times. Not once was anyone or any idea labeled "liberal," "left" or "hard left."
Broadcast and cable networks are also using more former office holders, flacks and political hacks than ever before. They're called "analysts," but their views are merely extensions of the advocacy roles they once held. So, on CNN we get Tony Blankley, former spokesman for Newt Gingrich, and Mike McCurry, the former White House press secretary. We also get former Texas Gov. Ann Richards (who lost to George W. Bush), and we must put up with increasing reports from George Stephanopoulos, recently of the Clinton administration, who has been morphed into a "correspondent" by ABC News President David Westin. Remember, it was Westin who dumped William Kristol because of Kristol's previous association with Republicans.
The editorializing is no longer even subtle, because this mostly leftist clan fears the Republicans will finally assume control of all three branches of government this fall. That prospect scares them more than the loss of their influence. Working in ideological tandem with their Democrat brethren, look for them to pass along untruths, slights and put-downs of all ideas Republican.
Perhaps the truest statement made by any broadcaster recently came from ABC's Peter Jennings. During a technical glitch, Jennings said off camera, but on mike: "What happened, did this camera crap out?" It is a question that might also be asked about contemporary broadcast journalism.
Los Angeles Times Syndicate