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

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
May 29, 2020

When we use the word “media,” we invoke the plural form of the word “medium”—and we are usually talking about a means of communication. In our contemporary times, when we say media we usually mean television, broadcast, print, and digital journalism.

We live in the age of the information industrial complex—and it is a complex that is overwhelmingly controlled by the political left and marked by an increasingly secular worldview. Those facts matter.

It can be argued that the media world is more open than a generation ago, but that development stems from two innovations, namely cable television and the advent of the internet. Cable television offered alternatives to the three major news networks while the internet allows anyone to be a publisher. These two developments, however, have created disequilibrium in the information environment.

Notwithstanding cable and the internet, the establishment media giants are still the big names when it comes to news and information. The big sources are run by an elite and they consider themselves an elite. They define journalism as a profession, claiming the same status as other professions like law and medicine. Labeling their craft as a profession also means that they believe that only fellow journalists can judge the quality and standards of their work and whether or not they are doing a good job. Only journalists can say what journalism is—that’s the logic of the modern journalistic profession.

The prestigious platforms in the news media are controlled by a very small number of very powerful people, and that cohort is quite self-consciously more liberal than the rest of the country. This inevitably creates a problem, and an amazing article appeared this week in the Wall Street Journal that captures this problem in full color. The author was Van Gordon Sauter, who was president of CBS from 1982 – 83 and in 1986. The headline of his article: “The ‘Liberal Leaning’ Media Has Passed Its Tipping Point.”

Van Gordon Sauter begins with a personal anecdote, writing, “About 35 years ago I was sitting at lunch next to Jeane Kirkpatrick, a onetime Democrat who became a foreign-policy adviser to President Reagan and later U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She was lamenting what she called the ‘liberal leaning’ media. As the president of CBS News, I assured her it was only a ‘liberal tilt’ and could be corrected. ‘You don’t understand,’ she scolded. ‘It’s too late.’”

He continued: “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.”

The very fact that a former president of CBS News has written this article should have our immediate attention. Van Gordon Sauter has already chronicled enormously important details, telling us that Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick warned almost four decades ago that the media had succumbed to an inevitable liberal drift. He told her that she was wrong, but she turned out to be right—and as the rest of the article continues, Gordon Sauter goes on to document just how right the Ambassador was.

Van Gordon Sauter describes the depth of the problem: “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.”

This sentence tells us a great deal about what historian Paul Hollander called the “adversary class”—people who view themselves as the society’s overlords and who dislike the majority of the people in the United States, the political positions they represent, and the worldviews that shape them. As Van Gordon Sauter says, “They do overwhelmingly tend to see this country as severely flawed.”

Certainly, part of a reporters’ job is to point out flaws and inconsistencies in any society. But there is something bigger going on with the major media outlets—it’s attitudinal and intuitional.  It is an ideological divide that points, as Gordon Sauter argues, to a growing distance between the American people and the American media. This divergence, he fears, is reaching catastrophic levels, and at some point, the American people will figure out that the mainstream media do not like them and that they don’t much like the media’s understanding of the country.

Sauter writes, “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, 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.”

From a historical perspective, President Trump represents a disruption of the entire picture. Indeed, he intended that disruption. But that disruption hardly began in 2016.

For decades, the three major legacy networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on television news, controlling much of the national story and exerting a great deal of oversight into what programs America watched.

To be sure, the three legacy networks 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. A major competition developed between CBS and NBC, both of which are located in New York City and both operating in the same social context.

Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were co-hosts of the NBC program during its zenith, and they were understood by many viewers as more liberal than Walter Cronkite, who reigned as the iconic anchor of CBS Evening News for decades. It was Walter Cronkite who ended every night by saying, “And that’s the way it is.”

For most of America, so far as they knew, that was the way it was—before the internet, American received their news from the local paper and listed to the news on the radio, but the three television networks dominated.

In worldview analysis, we must understand that the power of these legacy networks was no accident, nor was it a conspiracy. A conspiracy involves a plot that remains hidden or secret. There was no hiding the turn of the media towards an increasing liberal political agenda and a more secularized worldview. It wasn’t a conspiracy, it was the liberalization of the media elites—and it was stunningly consistent.

Thomas R. Dye, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Florida State University, describes this elite in his book, Who’s Running America? Professor Dye argues that the elite have run the United States, decade after decade, with a long legacy of dominant control. He convincingly makes the case that a few thousand people in this country make most of the major policy decisions for over 330,000,000 people. These elites, moreover, are interconnected. They tend to attend the same prestigious universities and prep schools; they share club memberships and the most important social circles and, more importantly, they generally share the same worldview.

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

When speaking about the concentration of the media in the hands of just a few, Professor Dye argues, “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 news people, writers, intellectuals and artists, the established liberal point of view is so uniformly voiced. TV news executives can be genuinely shocked and affronted when they are charged with slanting their coverage towards liberal concerns. But the media elite—the executives, producers, reporters, editors, and anchors—are decidedly ‘liberal’ and ‘left leaning’ in their political views.”

Regarding these legacy networks, Dye contended, “The older established television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, present nearly identical liberal packages of news each evening. Liberal views also dominate at CNN, although the need to broadcast twenty-four hours of the day often leads to the presentation of raw news on this network.” He also acknowledged that MSNBC is on the far-left American political spectrum.

This presents a whole host of challenges for thinking Christians. We are consumers of news and information—and that is a stewardship that demands careful thinking. What is presented to us in the news these days often crosses the line between opinion and commentary.

Van Gordon Sauter’s important article also acknowledged that many of these mainstream journalists understand and recognize that they shuffled off the old rules of sound journalism, laying the blame on Donald Trump. This reality also explains the heightened level of panic that permeates much of the media today.

Christians should never argue that we live in a perfect society or that the news should only deliver content deemed as “good news.”

Yet, as Van Gordon lamented, Jeane Kirkpatrick was right three and a half decades ago—the media were lost in an undeniable liberal drift. She argued that it was too late to turn this ship around.

But Christians must understand that it is never too late to think intelligently about the most important cultural and social developments facing our nation.

If the American people and the worldviews represented by them remain at odds with the trajectory of American media, a balanced equation becomes impossible. But there is still something more significant, namely, that the liberal media, as argued by Gordon Sauter, have thrown the rules out the window.

When we look at the founding era of the United States, there was a huge explosion of news and information—especially when it came to newspapers. It was during this time that media helped to build a national consensus, especially as it ratified what became the United States Constitution.

The freedom of the press was, to this country, a vital and pre-political part of our constitutional order. Indeed, the right to freedom of press was placed in the Bill of Rights with freedom of religion and other essential liberties.

Ironically, at the end of his article Van Gordon Sauter congratulates Dan Abrams, who is the chief legal affairs anchor for ABC News. Abrams, according to Sauter, “has a novel but valuable idea for the media candor. 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.’ 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!

He then concludes with these words: “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.”

That is a very powerful point, and understanding the culture around us requires an understanding of the media ecology. This essay by Van Gordon Sauter is not likely to be welcomed in the headquarters of that ecology.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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