Norman Solomon says that if people could take one lesson from the book he co-authored, "Unreliable Sources," it would be to trust themselves and their own judgment before they trust that of the people they watch on television.
"There's just so much people are shown that they do not question," Solomon said on a recent visit to Baltimore. "That's even true if their own experiences contradict it. I think people should watch the TV with their own media screening device on full alert."
Solomon wrote "Unreliable Sources," which is subtitled "A Guide to Detecting Bias in the News Media," with Martin Lee. Both have been associated with a group called FAIR, which stands for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
FAIR tries, often quite successfully, to wage the same attack from the left that was so often launched from the right side of the political spectrum, charging that the reporting of the news is often biased toward the corporate and conservative political interests that have occupied the thrones of power in this country for the last decade.
Its most telling chapters follow in the footsteps of Ben Bagdakian's work, "The Media Monopoly," which warns of the danger of more and more of our news outlets controlled by fewer and fewer large corporate interests.
"I think I would like NBC's news a lot more if every night Tom Brokaw ended the newscast by saying, 'Here are the stories that we have reported tonight in which General Electric has a financial interest and how they might affect the corporation,'" Solomon said, referring to the fact that GE now owns NBC.
But Solomon really has little use for any of the anchormen. "When people ask me if I prefer Brokaw or Rather, I tell them that's like asking if I think Marlboros are better than Salems."
He admits that Peter Jennings' more international outlook might give him a slight advantage over his rivals. "Maybe he's like a Carlton where the air comes into the filter and lowers the tar and nicotine," he said.
Solomon's contention is that the nightly news shows present only a thin slice of the possible perspectives of what is going on in the world, usually the view approved by corporate America and the government.
He saves some of his toughest criticism for ABC's "Nightline" and PBS' "McNeil/Lehrer Report," in part because those shows are perceived as presenting a balanced portrayal of the issue with representatives from both sides of an issue.
Instead, he would contend, such programs often present two sides that are not really in opposition, but that actually accept a huge number of assumptions which would be questioned by other parts of the political spectrum in most countries of the world, questions that go unrepresented, and unasked, on our television sets.
And Solomon is right on that. When the usual experts are rounded up for the TV news talk shows to discuss the current budget crisis, how many of them question the near oligarchic hold on the economy exercised by a small number of huge corporations and its potential effect on the recession? Whether it's the right position or not, it's certainly an arguable one, and it's rarely heard.
Or, in discussions of international affairs, how often is it pointed out that children are dying from lack of medical care in third world countries because their governments have adopted austerity budgets demanded by their creditors, usually huge banks headquartered in New York? Children may die, but the bankers' interest is paid; that's an argument rarely put forward when David Brinkley gathers his group of sages every Sunday.
And might that be due to the fact that the companies that own the media outlets -- or, in the case of PBS, underwrite the shows -- are part of the economic oligarchy? Or that they also have big business dealings with those big bankers?
Solomon and Lee are at their weakest when they lean on their own ideological bias. Their argument about the lack of representation for the left's points of view in the media was also made quite effectively by the right in the '60s when a liberal agenda was accepted as the conventional wisdom in the way a conservative, capitalist one is now.
For instance, during the era of the civil rights movement, how many Southerners did you hear pointing out that racism also existed in other parts of the country without being followed by an all-knowing smirk from some New York-based correspondent? Once it became de rigueur to oppose the war in Vietnam, how often did you hear it articulately defended?
But, even if the authors' tendencies to conspiracy theories weaken their case -- it's not so much conscious conspiracies that are at fault, as more subtle, approval-seeking tendencies that cause so many to join the pack -- they make an effective argument to approach the so-called "experts" you see on TV with many grains of salt. Often they are not dispensing genuine insight, but merely that week's accepted viewpoint.
"I'm not asking people to be cynical, but skeptical," Solomon said. "A cynic would say there's nothing you can do about this, but people can do something about it if they just realize what's going on."