briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, May 28, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, May 28, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Why Did the ‘Liberal Leaning’ Media Turn Even Further to the Left? An Important Article from the Former President of CBS News

When we speak about the media, after all, the word is the plural of medium, we’re talking about a means of communication. So when we speak about the media these days, what we’re technically talking about is television, broadcasting, print journalism. We’re also talking about the internet. But let’s be honest, when we use the word the “media” these days, we’re really talking about all of that put together in one giant information complex. It’s an information industry. We call it the media, but many Americans fail to note that in the Latin, the word “media” is actually plural. We’re talking about many different means of conveying information, but we are increasingly talking about one big information industry, an information industrial complex. And it is, by all means, predominantly in the control of those who are on the left of the political spectrum, are more secular, more highly educated, tend to live more in cosmopolitan cities, tend to have graduated from just a handful of universities and graduate programs.

It can be argued that the media is more open in one sense now than it was a generation ago, but that’s largely because of two developments. The first was the development of cable television that created alternatives to the three major television networks when it came to news. And when we’re talking about the media in this conversation, we are predominantly talking about the news industry. The second big development was the advent of the internet and digital forms of communication that allowed just about anyone to become a publisher of some sort. And it has created disequilibrium in the information environment. But still, the big names are big names. The big sources are big sources, and we are still looking at an industry, an entire complex, that is predominantly run by an elite. That’s not name calling. They consider themselves an elite. They’ve defined journalism as a profession, claiming the same status as other professions like historically, the ministry and law and medicine. But at the same time, by claiming journalism to be a profession, they also claim to be the only people who can judge whether they themselves are doing a good job. Only journalists can say what journalism is, that’s the logic of the profession.

But despite the arrival of cable television and the digital revolution, the reality is that most of the prestigious names in journalism, most of those prestigious platforms, are still in the control of a very few. And that few is quite, self-consciously, more liberal than the rest of the country. An amazing article that gets right to the heart of this problem appeared in recent days in The Wall Street Journal, the author was none other than Van Gordon Sauter, who was the President of CBS News from 1982 to ‘83 and in 1986. The stunning issue to consider here is the fact that this article is being written by a man who not once, but twice was the President of CBS News.

The point of his article is very clear in the headline, “The ‘Liberal Leaning’ Media Has Passed Its Tipping Point.” Van Gordon Sauter begins with a personal anecdote. He writes, “About 35 years ago, I was sitting at lunch next to Jeane Kirkpatrick, a onetime Democrat who became a foreign policy advisor to President Reagan and later a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She was lamenting what she called the “liberal leaning media.”

Van Gordon Sauter then says, “As the President of CBS News, I assured her that it was only a liberal tilt and could be corrected.”

“You don’t understand,” said Jeane Kirkpatrick to Van Gordon Sauter, “It’s too late.”

Sauter now writes “Kirkpatrick was prophetic. The highly influential daily newspapers in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Boston are now decidedly liberal. On the home screen, the three broadcast network divisions still have their liberal tilt. Two of the three leading cable news sources are unrelentingly liberal in their fear and loathing of President Trump.”

He then writes later, “To many journalists, objectivity, balance and fairness, once the gold standard of reporting, are not mandatory in a divided political era and in a country they believe to be severely flawed.” There is an amazing amount of very important material just thus far in this article. And the article continues for many more paragraphs. Here you have one of the most highly placed former executives in broadcast news, CBS News after all, telling us that when Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick warned him almost four decades ago that the media was irretrievably lost to liberalism, he had said no then, but she turned out to be right. And he goes on to document just how right Ambassador Kirkpatrick had been.

But it’s that sentence I just read to you where he says that “to many journalists, objectivity, balance and fairness, once the gold standard of reporting, are not mandatory in a divided political era and in a country they believe to be severely flawed.” That sentence, that sentence tells us a very great deal about what the historian Paul Hollander, in other contexts, has called the adversary class. People who see themselves as having a professional responsibility, basically to dislike the majority of people in the United States and the political positions they represent, the worldviews that shape them. This adversary class has, for decades now, set itself over against what they consider to be the myth of the United States. And as Van Gordon Sauter says, “They do overwhelmingly tend to see this country as severely flawed.”

Now, at this point, you might say that it is at least part of their job to point out the flaws because after all, it is not news when a tower stands tall, it’s news when a tower falls down. That’s what makes news, news. But there is something bigger here. It’s an attitudinal and intuitional, it is an ideological issue that Van Gordon Sauter identifies very clearly and describes amazingly well, with amazing candor. But Van Gordon Sauter is also talking about the fact that he fears this distancing between the American people and the American media as becoming catastrophic, because at some point, the American people either will or have figured out that the mainstream media doesn’t much like them and doesn’t much like their understanding of their country.

Sauter writes this: “More important, how will a large segment of the public ever put stock in journalism it considers hostile to the country’s best interests? Unfortunately,” he writes, “dominant media organizations have bonded with another large segment of the public, one that embraces its new approach. Pulling back from anti-Trump activism could prove commercially harmful.” Now in historical terms, there is no doubt that President Trump represents a disruption of this entire picture. Indeed, he intended that disruption.

But we also need to understand that the crisis when it comes to the worldview of the media is not a recent development. You can’t date that to 2016. There’s a certain frenzy after 2016 or during the course of 2016 and the presidential election then. You can expect it to rise to fever pitch in the campaigns ahead. But this concern goes all the way back to the 1960s and the 1970s, right into the 1980s. That brings us to a very interesting background to Van Gordon Sauter’s article. We often talk about the three major legacy networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC, and the fact that they had an entire monopoly on television news, certainly before cable. Not only did they have a monopoly in that they were only the three major networks and they controlled so much of the journalistic story, but they also had a great deal of control because you had to watch those programs live or you missed them altogether. And so there was a premium on being close to a television during the time of the network news in the evening. This centrality of this particular experience in the American culture was made clear by the fact that because the West coast was so distant in time from the East coast, there were at least two major feeds of the network news. So those on the West coast could also see the evening news broadcast at a time when they were likely home from work and in their homes to be able to watch.

But as we speak about those three legacy networks, they are not equal. CBS was by far the most influential. So much so that it was often referred to as the Tiffany Network, meaning the elite amongst the broadcast networks. NBC came to have quite a respected news program of its own. And throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, even into the ‘70s, you had major competition between CBS and NBC. Both of them of course, located in New York City. Both of them operating basically in the same social context.

Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who were the co-hosts of the NBC News program in the evening, were understood to be slightly more liberal or thought to be so than Walter Cronkite, who was the iconic anchor of the CBS Evening News for decades. It was Walter Cronkite who ended every night by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” and then he would give the date and for a lot of America, so far as they knew, that is the way that it was.

In the age before the internet, you might have received your local paper and you might have listened to the news on the radio, often on a network like Mutual, or you might have seen the evening news. The evening news, thought to be the most up to date, the most interesting, and perhaps even the most authoritative and you had no other recourse to find out what other newspapers were saying. You had to wait a week in order to get one of the newsweeklies. And for that matter, you really didn’t have much of an opportunity to go shopping for the news in any event.

During the Vietnam War, NBC was understood to be, at first, more critical of the war than CBS. But Walter Cronkite made a visit to Vietnam in which he became disillusioned so much so that President Lyndon Johnson shortly before the end of his term in 1969, came to the point where he said, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, then I’ve lost America.” ABC was the third of the major television networks to get into the news business. And it did also in a big way, but more slowly than the other two. And that’s why for so long, you had the three legacy networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, you watch them, or you didn’t watch anyone. Then came cable news, then came the digital revolution. But the fact is the most influential news sources tend to be rather much still the same.

In worldview analysis, it is really important that we recognize this isn’t an accident. You can’t really say it’s a conspiracy either. A conspiracy would be something hidden and secret. But the fact that the liberal media turned so far left over the last several decades is really not a part of a conspiracy. It was right out in the open.

Part II

The Old Rules Are Off: What Happened to Fairness, Objectivity, and Reporting in the Media?

One way of trying to understand what took place is to look at a work like that of Thomas R. Dye. He’s Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Florida State University. He was formerly McKenzie Professor of Government there. He is the author of a book entitled, Who’s Running America?, and it is the eighth edition. This one is subtitled, “The Obama Reign.” The point is that this political scientist has looked at the elite who have outsized influence in the United States. In this case, he’s looking historically at the Obama years and he’s pointing out that the elite was in control of the country before the Obama administration is pretty much the same elite, and you could say that decade after decade.

One of the major points that Professor Dye makes in his book is that an elite of just a few thousand people in this country makes most of the major policy decisions for over 330 million. And the biggest importance of his study, published by Routledge University Press, one of the most respected academic presses in the world, is the fact that that elite is largely self-defining. And he also makes clear, they tend to be very much interconnected. They tend to have gone to the very same prestigious universities, and before that, they probably went, as he makes clear, to the same prestigious prep schools. They belong to the same clubs, they had the same kind of cultural experiences. They are also predominantly in the professions, having the graduate study and the credentials, they have bought into the worldview. By the time they are shaped by that world of higher education, they’re very much on the left, quite a bit more liberal and quite a bit more secular than the rest of America.

Over time, we’ll look more closely at other dimensions of Thomas Dye’s research. But in chapter four of his book entitled “The Media Moguls,” he observes, “Great power derives from the control of information.” But from there, Professor Dye goes on to speak of what he calls the concentration of media power. He writes this: “Despite the multiplication of channels of communication in recent years, media power remains concentrated in the leading television networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, the nation’s influential newspapers, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the broad circulation magazines such as Time.”

He says this, “It is true that the national network evening news shows NBC, ABC, CBS have lost viewership in recent years.” But he says, “Viewership of cable networks, CNN and Fox News, is rising and the viewership of local television news has remained strong. Moreover,” he says, “Television news magazines, notably CBS’s 60 Minutes, are regularly listed amongst the most popular shows on television.”

When Professor Dye speaks about the concentration of the media in the hands of just a few, he actually provides a chart on page 59 of his book. It takes up just a little over half of the page. A little over half of a single page to indicate the predominant media industry factors that are involved. The point here is not that there are so many, but that there are so few. Later in this very chapter, Professor Dye writes, “When TV newscasters insist that they are impartial, objective, and unbiased, they may sincerely believe that they are. Because in the world in which they live, the New York and Washington world of newspeople, writers, intellectuals and artists, the established liberal point of view is so uniformly voiced.” He continues, “TV news executives can be genuinely shocked and affronted when they are charged with slanting their coverage towards liberal concerns.”

“But the media elite,” he writes, “the executives, producers, reporters, editors, and anchors, are decidedly ‘liberal’ and ‘left leaning’ in their political views.” He uses quotation marks around “liberal” and “left leaning.” He then cites political scientist, Doris A. Graber who says, “Economic and social liberalism prevails as does a preference for an internationalist foreign policy, caution about military intervention and suspicion about the ethics of established large institutions, particularly government. Dye, the political scientist, then goes on to document, “One study of news executives reported that 63% describe themselves as left leaning. Only 27% described themselves as middle of the road and 10% as right-leaning.” Now, if you’re doing the math, that means only one out of 10, and this is by their own self-description. This shows up in partisan identification, “Newspeople described themselves as either independent, 45%, or Democratic, 44%. Only 9% admit to being Republican.” Again, the key word there, “admit.”

Speaking about those legacy networks, Dye writes, “The older established television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, present nearly identical liberal packages of news each evening. They have been described,” he says, “as rivals in conformity. Liberal views,” he says, “also dominate at CNN, although the need to broadcast 24 hours of news each day often leads to the presentation of raw news on this network.” He acknowledges that MSNBC is “the voice of the far left of the American political spectrum.” Another factor that Christians need to recognize, as we consider our responsibility as stewards and consumers of news and information, is that much of what is presented to us these days as news crosses the line into opinion and commentary in a way that the mainstream media would have considered absolutely illegitimate, just say a decade ago. All those old rules are now off.

One of the points made by Van Gordon Sauter in that article that appeared in Monday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal is that many of these journalists acknowledge that they have thrown the old rules entirely off. But they’ve done so they say, in a way that’s justified by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. It’s a very interesting argument, a very revealing argument. It helps to explain the sense of panic that appears to rule in so much of the media, nearly 24 hours a day, panic about this, panic about that.

Christians should never argue that we live in a perfect society or that the news should only bring to us what might be defined as good news. By definition, much of what we would consider news in any sense is not so much good news, but those old journalistic qualities that were considered essential, of fairness and objectivity and truth telling, separating opinion and commentary on the one hand from news reporting on the other, those were distinctions that really were important.

Part III

Why Is Freedom of the Press Protected in the First Amendment? The Important Role of the Press in Democracy

I found the Van Gordon Sauter article absolutely interesting. Not only because of the arguments he makes and not only because of his personal credibility in making these arguments, but because of his anecdote concerning Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations. He mentions that Jeane Kirkpatrick was a liberal who turned conservative. In telling her own story, Ambassador Kirkpatrick pointed to the fact that she became convinced that so much of higher education, so much of the intellectual elite in the United States, was actually hostile to the United States at the core, not just at the periphery.

It’s also very interesting that Van Gordon Sauter would write about that experience 35 years ago and say 3.5 decades later, it turns out that Jeane Kirkpatrick was right. “It’s too late,” she told him. But of course, it’s never too late for intelligent Christians to try to think intelligently about what we are observing here and to understand the media is actually never neutral. The myth of neutrality runs right into the Christian biblical understanding of sin. Sin means that we never actually know our own hearts and minds well enough to have any credibility to claim that we are being absolutely objective. That’s why objectivity can’t be individually established. Objectivity, fairness, and balance have to be established in an analysis that brings not one set of eyes or one mind to the question, but many.

And if the American people and the values and worldviews they represent are left out of that equation, well, you just have one side, an elite on the left wing of the United States, deciding what they will consider fair and objective and balanced. But the problem is actually more significant. And again, it’s good that we know that because Van Gordon Sauter says, “They have really given up on those rules anyway. The old rules are now simply off.”

It’s also rather chastening to recognize that when you look at the founding era of the United States of America, there was a huge explosion of news and information that came during that very era, in the midst of that generation. One of the things to note is the explosion of broadsides and newspapers that became characteristic on both sides of the Atlantic in the English speaking world, without which you would not have had the national consensus that emerged in the United States. You wouldn’t have had the kind of national debate that began to shape this country and it’s experiment in ordered liberty, producing even the Constitution of the United States.

But we should also note just how important the freedom of the press was to this country from the very inception of our constitutional order. Right there in the Bill of Rights, with freedom of religion and other essential freedoms is the freedom of the press. That’s very, very important. It reminds us of the fact that when you do have a government, a government like the government of the United States of America, and do have powerful interests, economic interests, political interests, cultural interests, all kinds of interests, then even with the separation of powers within the government, there still needs to be an external observation, a vantage point from which questions can be raised and information can arise in a way that could not take place where there is no freedom of the press.

Van Gordon Sauter by the way, by the time he ends his article, congratulates Dan Abrams, who is the Chief Legal Affairs anchor for ABC News. He, according to Sauter, “Has a novel but valuable idea for the media, candor.” He then writes, “Speaking to the matter at February’s Rancho Mirage Writers Festival, Mr. Abrams said, ‘I think the first thing that would help is to admit that the people in the media are left of center.’” Sauter then wrote, “It would be delightful if a publisher, an editor, a reporter would just say, ‘Yes, I’m left of center. I’m proud of it. I think our reporting is accurate. It best serves the public and the credibility of the media, so there.’”

But the last sentence of Van Gordon Sauter’s article is perhaps the most important when he warns, “But America won’t reunite until far more people can look at a news story in print or on the screen and of all things, believe it.”

So in the end for today, the release of an article like this is so important that it deserves our attention this long because the issues it addresses are this big.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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dI’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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