TV & Politics
The News Twisters.
by Edith Efron.
Nash. 336 pp. $7.95.
Early in October of last year a little-known publisher in Los Angeles released a book which, by the normal standards of American publishing, had only a modest future. Not only was the publisher little known, so was the author: Edith Efron, a staff writer for TV Guide. Miss Efron’s prose was nothing more than competent. The book itself carried a tendentious title, and a pugnacious blurb on the jacket. Most other forms of advertising, moreover, were nonexistent. By all odds, The News Twisters should have been ignored by most book-review editors and have passed rapidly into the bins of those booksellers who specialize in disposing of overstocks.
In New York, the center of the publishing and communications industry, it began exactly that way. Not one of the important reviewing publications—the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Saturday Review—chose to consider it. The morning and evening talk shows of the television networks ignored it. But in the rest of the country something peculiar happened. Several major newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Washington Post, gave it major reviews. The opinions ranged from good to dreadful, but even when they were bad, The News Twisters was treated as important. In St. Louis, for example, the Post-Dispatch gave it both straight news coverage and the backhanded compliment of an editorial attack. In Boston, the Globe covered it on the front page. By the end of November it had been praised by a half-dozen syndicated columnists (none of them, curiously, based in New York) and violently attacked by one (Harriet Van Horne of the New York Post) . In its December 13 issue Time listed it, without comment and still without review, as the Number 10 non-fiction bestseller in the United States.
Outside of New York City, The News Twisters had somehow become a publishing phenomenon like Unsafe at Any Speed and How to Avoid Probate, one of those occasional volumes in which a previously unknown author manages to touch a public nerve the rest of the industry scarcely knew existed. Books with this impact usually have a certain quality in common: a brief and pungent message that means something to nearly everyone. The News Twisters fits the pattern. Its subject is TV and politics—specifically, network TV coverage of the 1968 Presidential election campaign—and its message is simple and straightforward: the networks are biased.
Miss Efron studied the early evening news programs of all three networks during the final seven weeks of the campaign, examining the coverage given (a) to each of the candidates, and (b) to “a set of 10 related issues: the U.S. policy on the Vietnam war; the U.S. policy on the bombing halt; the Viet Cong; black militants; the white middle class; liberals; conservatives; the left; demonstrators; and violent radicals.” Among her conclusions are these: all three networks actively slanted their coverage to oppose the administration’s Vietnam policy in general and its bombing policy in particular. All three networks actively slanted their coverage “in favor of the black militants and against the white middle-class majority.” And all three actively favored Hubert Humphrey and opposed Richard Nixon. From these specific conclusions she draws a more general one: “. . . it is clear that network coverage tends to be strongly biased in favor of the Democratic-liberal-left axis of opinion, and strongly biased against the Republican-conservative-right axis of opinion.”
Similar charges have of course been made before, and some of the critics have been far more prominent than Miss Efron (the Vice President of the United States, for one). For the most part their criticisms have been ignored or successfully dismissed by the networks. But in two respects Miss Efron’s accusations are different from those that have appeared before. First, previous critics have been clearly partisan, applying partisan standards to the coverage given their favorite topics. Despite the obvious conservatism of her personal preferences (and it is obvious that many ways she is an Ayn Rand, free-enterprise, capital-C Conservative), Miss Efron has managed to avoid this posture. Instead, in a stroke of rhetorical genius, she has invoked a clearly nonpartisan criterion for network bias: the “Fairness Doctrine” of the Federal Communications Commission.
The Fairness Doctrine was established by the FCC in 1949, replacing an earlier policy which had outlawed any partisan commentary by broadcasters altogether. In it the Commission encouraged the presentation of controversial public issues on the air—provided that approximately equal coverage was given to each side of each issue.1 The doctrine does not require that every broadcast, or even a series of broadcasts in the same time-slot, be balanced (a point which Miss Efron mentions but then tends to forget). It is sufficient if the “overall” coverage is balanced. Nevertheless, the principle is intuitively appealing: nonpartisanship requires balanced coverage; somehow that is common sense.
It is the second distinction—and another brilliant stroke—of Miss Efron’s book that she takes this principle literally. Fair coverage requires equal coverage? Very well, she says, let us measure. Using three tape recorders, a typist, and a grant from something called the Historical Research Foundation (which seems to be, at least in part, a subsidiary of that well-known conservative conglomerate, William F. Buckley, Jr.), Miss Efron transcribed, classified, and counted the words each network devoted to the topics she was studying. She classified the words into pro– and anti-, and calculated the ratio between them. The results of this process, a primitive version of the professional social-scientist’s technique of content analysis, are what gives her book its impact. They are devastating. If her figures are to be believed, the evening news programs of all three networks broadcast, during the period of her study, 2,125 words in favor of an American bombing halt in North Vietnam, and only 348 words against. Her figures show 7,296 words in favor of black militants and 3,271 against. And they show that while coverage of Hubert Humphrey was almost equally balanced at 8,458 words pro– and 8,307 words anti-, coverage of Richard Nixon was 1,620 words pro– and 17,027 words anti-, an incredible anti-Nixon ratio of over 10 to 1.2
The figures for her other topics are, for the most part, equally striking. But it is her method that deserves the most attention. If it is as impartially accurate as she claims, then she has provided for the first time solid and incontrovertible proof of something which both conservatives and radical leftists have alleged for years: Establishment liberals have captured one of the most important parts of the mass media and are using it for partisan propaganda.
Not surprisingly, Miss Efron’s method has its critics. Chief among them is CBS, which celebrated the publication date of The News Twisters with a highly critical 18-page press release based on an advance copy of the book. Several of the arguments in the release quickly appeared in reviews by presumably independent critics. There is also Professor Charles Winick of the City University of New York, a sociologist and specialist in content analysis who was engaged by CBS to examine the professionalism of Miss Efron’s techniques and who issued a report which found them wanting. The arguments of this group of critics are various, but the most important can be summarized under two headings: Representativeness and Accuracy.
Under the first heading, it is said, first, that the last weeks of a Presidential campaign are probably not representative of year-round news coverage; second, that the evening news may not be representative of the networks’ total newscasts; and third, that the issues examined by Miss Efron may not be representative of all the topics covered on the evening news and in any case do not describe the overall pattern of coverage. These points are easily dealt with: they are mainly true and mainly trivial. True, a Presidential campaign is not representative: instead, it is unusually important. The same can be said for the evening news programs; as the networks themselves are fond of pointing out, they are the single most important source of news for more than half of the interested public. As for the topics chosen: it is obvious they are a conservative choice; there is “the Left” but not “the Right,” “violent radicals” but not “repressive society.” Nevertheless, most of them (the candidates, Vietnam policies, racial images) are significant by anyone’s standards. If, therefore, her results cannot justify the charge that the networks violated the Fairness Doctrine, neither can they be dismissed on this account. She studied something important.
The question of accuracy is more serious. Essentially, her critics charge that Miss Efron misclassified many of the items she transcribed, labeling as bias passages which are merely impartial reporting. Classification—or coding, as professionals call it—is the heart of any content analysis. In academic studies it is normal to establish written standards for coding in every study, and it is common to use a panel of three or more judges who independently examine any crucial or difficult-to-code material. Miss Efron did neither. “Network news,” she says, “is an extremely nonintellectual commodity, and the opinion which it relays tends to be simple, short, highly partisan, and crudely ‘for’ and ‘against.’ It is readily isolated.”
Following this conviction, she apparently coded every item herself. The results do not always justify her belief in the simplicity of the process; CBS has pointed out persuasive examples of cases in which her conservative attitudes obviously led her to see liberal innuendo in innocent material. Invariably, however, these errors are in her coding of reporters’ comments, and not of interviews, excerpts from speeches, and so forth. Network news contains a large proportion of such direct quotations from partisan sources, and coding them is simple. A child could identify the bias in Eugene McCarthy’s comments on Richard Nixon or U Thant’s view of America’s Vietnam policies; establishing a panel to do so is like establishing a panel to determine whether the speakers are male or female. When such material is separated from reporters’ comments—and Miss Efron does separate it, in one of her chapters and in one of her numerous appendices—the pattern remains evident in nearly every topic.
Examining solely material from people other than reporters, we find that the three networks together broadcast 5,095 words favorable to black militants and 2,881 words against during Miss Efron’s seven-week period. They broadcast 2,956 words critical of U.S. Vietnam policy and 700 words favorable; 1,385 words favoring a bombing halt, 348 words against. If one examines the coverage of Nixon and Humphrey, it seems that deleting reporters’ comments leaves the pro-and anti-Humphrey material essentially even, or a shade against him on CBS and NBC; the material on Nixon varies from a ratio of 5.5:1 against him on ABC to 6.8:1 against him on NBC and 9.0:1 against him on CBS.
Neither the networks nor reviewers have commented on this aspect of the book. Unless they can show that Miss Efron simply added wrongly, it is hard to see how they could comment. Sloppy methodology or not, she is on to something.
Interpreting what she is on to is at least as interesting as examining how she found it. Miss Efron herself offers two explanations, covering average reporters and then the more perceptive ones. The first group, she thinks, simply mimic the selection procedures and the presentation of those they admire. She quotes Theodore White: “The moral heights of New York are held by journals like the Village Voice and the New York Review of Books. They are so pure, and shriek with such passion, that, in fashionable New York, they are the pulpit-voice of The Church of Good Liberals.” But behind the pulpit, so to speak, she sees a group of self-conscious liberal-Establishment newsmen who are perfectly aware of what they are doing. She sees no conspiracy, it should be noted, rather “a tacit determination by a ruling intellectual elite to hold onto a position of influence in which it is now entrenched.”
Her solutions are straightforward: political labeling, spectrum commentary, and spectrum hiring. The process by which this is to be accomplished, however, she does not discuss. So long as the networks insist that they are merely reporting the news, not editorializing on it, they will have to be enticed or compelled to institute a wider spectrum of labeled commentary as a supplement to their present programs. It is hard to see how they can be so enticed (editorials sell little advertising), and the prospect of compulsion leads to a bureaucratic and judicial swamp. The Supreme Court might approve, in principle, such a requirement; in 1969 the Court ruled 8-0 that “to condition the granting and renewal of licenses on a willingness to present representative community views on controversial issues is consistent with the ends and purposes of those constitutional provisions forbidding the abridgement of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.” But the practical problems of deciding when and how well the requirement had been met could drive both the Court and the FCC to distraction.
It seems more likely that the solution to editorializing in the news (whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise) lies in technology rather than revision of the Fairness Doctrine. The recent agreement worked out by the administration for the expansion of cable-TV in the country’s 100 largest cities will eventually make it possible to provide viewers with the same variety magazine and newspaper readers enjoy now. Cable-TV can offer dozens of programs simultaneously. In such a situation, those who find the Evening News with Walter Cronkite unpalatable might just as easily have it with William Buckley. And who knows, in such a situation Edith Efron might even get reviewed in New York City.
1 The Fairness Doctrine should not be confused with the “equal time” requirement imposed by Congress on those broadcasters who carry political speeches. That requirement is a law; the doctrine is a policy of the FCC which could be revised by the FCC.
2 Here and in the other places where I refer to “the networks,” I have added up the figures which Miss Efron has presented on a network-by-network basis.