Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2004 / 21 Elul, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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Miller's treatment shows media bias | The notion that the news media have a Democratic, liberal bias is neither new nor surprising.

It is as much a part of daily life as the infomercial, an annoying aspect of American culture that many accept as part of the landscape.

However, the TV networks' practice of hiring former politicians - mostly Democrats - as journalists who deliver allegedly impartial analysis is troubling.

For the most part, these former politicians put aside their biases.

Yet at times, they just can't get out of their own skins.

The treatment of Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia is the best evidence why the networks should re-examine their hiring policies that damage the credibility of the entire news media.

Democrat Miller's keynote speech at the Republican convention scorched his own party for being inadequately committed to protecting national security.

He said party nominee John Kerry is not competent to be commander in chief, and he worried about his family's safety if the Democrat won the White House.

Miller's speech had a harshness not echoed by Vice President Dick Cheney or President Bush, neither of whom could make such charges without risking a backlash.

Coming from lifelong Democrat Miller, who gave the keynote speech at the 1992 convention that nominated Bill Clinton, it was a powerful indictment of Kerry.

Of course it is relevant for journalists to question why Miller has made such a turnaround. But striking was the commentary from three high-profile network types who earned their spurs working for top Democrats.

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Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, was a top aide to Gov. Mario Cuomo and Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, both New York Democrats. Interestingly, Russert's bio on the NBC Web site mentions his government background but not who or what party he worked for.

NBC's Chris Matthews, a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and top aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, was by far the worst offender toward Miller, with whom he had an on-camera confrontation,

ABC's George Stephanopoulos was an aide to President Bill Clinton and Democratic lawmakers.

All are good, decent people who try to put their own political bias in the closet when they take to the air. Russert, especially, has become one of the best interviewers on TV, generally treating Democrats and Republicans alike.

Their treatment of Miller was something else.

Instead of focusing on what Miller said and the significance of his willingness to savage the titular head of his own party, they tried to explain away his behavior or get inside Miller's head about why he would turn on his own party.

It was almost as though they were high-school kids talking about a friend who had decided to hang out with a rival clique. They were trying to rationalize it, rather than present it as something the Democrats should take to heart.

Of course, the networks have hired some Republicans, too.

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former congressman, Fox's Bill Kristol, a former top aide to Vice President Dan Quayle, and ABC's George Will, long ago a GOP congressional staffer, come to mind.

Here's the difference, though:

Kristol, Scarborough and Will make no bones about their politics, and they are not foisted off on viewers as impartial analysts.

Their job is to give a Republican, conservative perspective, and they are advertised as such.

Television makes individuals larger than life and imbues them with magical, all-knowing powers in the minds of many viewers.

Most viewers don't know broadcasters' backgrounds and, at least superficially, assume them to be objective.

These three may be less biased than Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings. But the top anchors lack the work history that give us reason to doubt their impartiality.

Polls show Americans are becoming more and more skeptical about the news media's objectivity and many more believe that the media tilt left than lean right.

The networks need to rethink their practice of hiring so-called journalists who are cashing in on their celebrity status.

Journalists don't hesitate to impugn the credibility of those in public life based on background, friendship or comments.

The network honchos should understand this skepticism is applied by the public to the news media also.

It should be.

When I hear Russert, Stephanopoulos or Matthews tell me why something is happening or questioning a politician's motives, I can't help but question how their backgrounds figure in their analysis.

If most Americans were aware of these backgrounds, they would, too. Journalists' conflicts of interest are no more acceptable than those of politicians.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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