Bernard Goldberg on Biden, Trump, and Cable News
We talk about whether the media is giving Joe Biden a pass, how liberal bias helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump, and why cable news is focused on fan service.
This week, I talked with Bernard Goldberg, author of the New York Times number one bestseller Bias. He has won 14 Emmy awards for excellence in journalism at CBS News, six Emmys at CBS, and eight more at HBO’s Real Sports. During the podcast, we discussed whether the media is giving Joe Biden a pass, how liberal bias helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump, and why cable news is focused on fan service.
The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:
Matt: Lately, I’ve been on a kick about how Donald Trump has made it harder for me to talk about the debt and spending, because of his spending. I also wrote a piece recently where I argue that the Christian Right’s embrace of Trump undermines the Christian witness to a skeptical and diverse world. And in a way, Trump's behavior also makes it harder for you and me to warn about liberal bias, because the pushback is, “How can you criticize Joe Biden after all the stuff Trump did?!?” I’d love to get your take on that.
Bernie: My take is exactly your take. You're absolutely right about that. If it sounds like we're defending Donald Trump when we criticize a media that crossed the line and went after Donald Trump, you could do both: You could criticize Donald Trump's behavior and his dishonesty, and at the same time, criticize a media that wasn't fair to Donald Trump—you can do both. But it makes it more difficult because critics on the left think you're defending Donald Trump, when in fact you're not defending him. You're criticizing a liberal media.
Matt: I think you and I have a lot in common. We try to be intellectually honest, and we try to call them like we see them. But the business of being a commentator, you have to have a fan base. And fans don’t root for intellectual honesty, usually. You're either a Republican or a Democrat, and there's not a lot of room anymore commercially for people who are simply truth tellers.
Bernie: Let me put it this way, I don't know what else we're going to be talking about, Matt, but from my point of view, that is the most important subject. First of all, let's take cable news where opinion makes money. Cable news is not a journalism model, it's a business model. And the business model is quite easy to understand. Give the audience what it wants, feed them the red meat that will make them come back for more. Don't challenge their accepted wisdom. Just feed into their biases, give them the values that they share, don't tell them anything they don't want to hear, because that's bad for business. By the way, it's cable news on the right and cable news on the left. But it isn't only cable news. The New York Times is no different. Now, the New York Times was a great newspaper, and they still have bureaus all over the world and all that. But they're a subscription basis publication, and that's how they make their money, and they're pandering. That's the word I want to use for cable news and for the New York Times. They're pandering to their audience. They know what the liberals who subscribe to The New York Times Online want to hear. So that's what they give them, and that's a very bad thing. And you made another very important point. People put you in a certain box. When I was at CBS News, and at great expense and danger, I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about liberal bias in the media. And then when I left CBS News, four and a half years later, I wrote a book called Bias, that, thank God, went to number one on the New York Times and other national bestseller lists. I was hailed as a hero by conservatives. I could have run for president, and I might have had a shot. I have no interest in it. But I mean, if I were a Christian, they might have nominated me for sainthood. I mean, that's how much they loved me. Okay, but when I write negatively on my website, BernardGoldberg.com about Donald Trump, when I write negatively about conservative media and their biases, I'm called all sorts of names, including—you're ready for this?—“Bernie, you're just a liberal hack.” It's ridiculous.
Matt: One day, I'm called a liberal hack, and the next day, I'm called a right-wing Trump defender, like literally 24 hours apart.
Bernie: This is not this is not a reflection on you or me, this is a real reflection on the audience, because the audience, and they get away with murder in this area. They are the unindicted co-conspirators. The reason? Fox and CNN and MSNBC and the New York Times gives the audience what it wants. The reason they pander to the audience, is because the audience wants it. The audience doesn't hold Fox, or MSNBC or CNN accountable. The audience doesn't say, “Why are you giving me stuff I already believe? Why don't you try to open up my mind?” The audience wants it. They're in on it. They are the unindicted co-conspirators in all of this. Now, Matt, I don't know if you know this, or not. But you mentioned I was at Fox. I was at Fox for about 10 years as a paid contributor. I was on with [Bill] O'Reilly, who had a show that was different from the shows that are on today. He had people who disagreed with him and that was a good thing. All of a sudden, and Fox… didn't renew my contract. And that's fine, I want to make clear, I'm a capitalist. That's fine with me if they didn't want to renew my contract. That's fine, they didn't tell me why, but the reason was clear. The reason was that I was too negative on Donald Trump and the audience didn't like it. So, in effect, I got cancelled. I'm not losing any sleep over, but I got cancelled. So did George Will. So did Colonel Ralph Peters. So did Eric Erickson. Now these are four conservative voices, who've had some experience in the news business, and the opinion business, which I came to late in my career. But we had the wrong opinions for the place that was employing us. That's not a good thing. I don't care about me, and the others can handle themselves. But that's not a good thing. Opinion people on cable TV have a right to their opinions, that goes without saying. But even opinion people have to be fair. So if they criticize Donald Trump for something he did at the border, for instance, if CNN and MSNBC criticized him for that, they have to criticize Joe Biden for the same thing. As long as Joe Biden is president, you will not hear one good word from Fox News, not from conservative commentators, not from Laura Ingraham, not from Sean Hannity, not from Tucker Carlson, not from the [hosts] in the morning. You won’t hear one good word for the next four years about Joe Biden. And for the last four years, you didn't hear one good word about Donald Trump on CNN or MSNBC. There is something very wrong with that. You figure in four years, Joe Biden's gonna do something right. In four years, Donald Trump did something right. But that's not how that's not where the money is. That's not the business model.
Matt: In James Carville and Paul Begala his book, Buck up, Suck Up and Come Back When You Foul Up, they talk about branding. And they have a story about how Southwest Airlines decided to become “the low-fare airfare.” And so anytime a question came up, like “Should we give people should we give peanuts out on the first class flight?” The question management asked was, “Will that help make us the low-fare airline? Because if the answer's ‘no,’ we're not going to do it.” And I think that's where cable news is. It seems like now they all get branding. I guess my question is whether you have any thoughts on how we got here?
Bernie: I think it's the polarization in general. As that got worse, and more obvious, the business people in cable figured we can give money just peddling our stuff to the audience that wants to hear a certain kind of stuff. I think that was the biggest single factor. I'm such an idiot, like, I can't play this game, so I wrote to Roger Ailes, when I was on Fox doing a lot of media analysis, and I wrote to him, and I said, “Roger, I need to know that my job here is that I can criticize conservative media as well as liberal media.” I said, “Out of respect, I'm not going to mention any names of people on this channel. I think that would be crossing the line. But generally speaking, I need to know that I can criticize, if I'm going to criticize the New York Times for something that I can criticize conservative media, when they do something similar.” He wrote back and said, “You can criticize anybody you want, anytime you want.” And then he added, “I just think liberals are worse.” Well so do I. I think that they’re worse, because they have more of the landscape. They have the New York Times, The Washington Post, other big city, newspapers, MSNBC, CNN, and not counting the internet, except for talk radio and Fox News, liberals pretty much control the media landscape. So I agree that when Roger said, “I think liberals are worse,” but he wasn't going to not renew me. Again, that's fine with me, I'm a capitalist. I have no financial issues with their decision. But I don't think he would have done what the current management did. Because it became so polarized by that point, that you had to stay in your lane, because that's where the money was.
Matt: Do you have any thoughts on the types of people that should be giving TV commentary?
Bernie: Yeah, that's a good question. I do, but I'm dreaming. I think people who do commentary should have some background beyond having a big mouth. I think they should have some experience in some area. So if you're going to talk about China, and Russia, and geopolitical issues, you should know what you're talking about. I talk a lot about politics. I've had no I never held office or anything like that, but I was a hard news journalist for a long, long time before I became a commentator. As a matter of fact, I didn't become a commentator in any sense of the word, until I wrote the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about liberal bias in the media… I think the people that they bring on, should not simply be… talk show radio talk show hosts, who never had any news background. They didn't know what the rules of news were, as I said before, even opinion people have to be fair. And I don't think opinion people are fair. I'm willing to accept that they believe what they say. But they just say what their audience wants to hear. You're never going to hear Sean Hannity say, “you know, I, generally speaking don't like his policies, [but] I think Joe Biden is right about this.” Or “I think Donald Trump was wrong about this.” You're never going to hear that, because he was a radio talk show host. He was never a journalist. He never covered a fire. He never covered a city council meeting. And I think if I were making the decision, I'd want people who were fair and objective and cared about accuracy before they became commentators. I know I'm dreaming, I know that. That's how that's how I would do it.