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Libertarian women’s history month: Edith Efron

20 Mar
Edith Efron (1922 – April 20, 2001) was an American journalist and author, who first identified media bias and the way biased media coverage amounts to a major unexamined and privileged political donation from powerful corporations that own the mainstream media.
Graduating from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she studied under journalist John Chamberlain, her career began as a writer for the New York Times Magazine. In 1947, she married a Haitian businessman, with whom she had a child. After living in Haiti and working as a Central America correspondent for Time and Life magazines, she divorced and returned to New York City where she worked on the staff of television journalist Mike Wallace. After her return to New York, she also became part of Ayn Rand‘s circle, contributed to Rand’s magazine, The Objectivist, and presented a lecture series on non-fiction writing at the Nathaniel Branden Institute in the 1960s, although (as you can see in this series often happened), the two women later parted ways.

Former reason editor Virginia Postrel recounted Efron’s early career:  “Edith began her journalism career in the waning days of World War II, when a newly minted female graduate of Columbia Journalism School could still get a job at The New York Times Magazine. As the magazine was warning readers that “career women” would be unwanted by postwar businesses and shouldn’t waste their time studying science or math, young Edith reported on such topics as peacetime conversion in a Connecticut town and whether mustered-out servicemen would be looking for colorful fashions once they escaped their uniforms. (They were conformists above all, she concluded, ready to wear purple and green but only if everyone else did.) Her report on bare-legged women is classic enough to appear on a Smithsonian history site.
“She had stories about all sorts of New York movers and shakers: how Alan Greenspan used to come and go from Ayn Rand’s circle “as if he were going to a secret mistress,” how those who worked for Mike Wallace worried about his depression (Edith was a staff writer for his show in the late ’50s), how she once got into a knock-down-drag-out argument with Irving Kristol in which she accused him of ‘telling young people to believe in ghosts.’ (Edith was a third-generation atheist.)”

She became a writer and, later, a senior editor of the widely circulated TV Guide magazine in the 1960s and 1970s, where she wrote celebrity profiles, political columns and editorials. In the 1970s, she was also ghostwriter for former Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon‘s book A Time For Truth. In her editorials for TV Guide, Efron criticized what she saw as liberal bias in the media, and she defended politicians Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan. Efron and other columnists writing in TV Guide like Kevin Phillips and Pat Buchanan advocated the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine by the Federal Communications Commission, in order to permit alternative viewpoints greater access to the airwaves. The FCC would remove the policy in the late 1980s.

In their 1993 history of TV GuideChanging Channels: America in TV GuideCornell professors Glenn C. Altschuler and David I. Grossvogel have stated that “no writer…did more to shape TV Guide,” a publication that reached over 40 million readers at the time. Her impact on the magazine, they said, included her role as “the quintessential TV Guide voice on race relations.”

All the positions she took on race in her articles, Efron told us, “were determined by what I thought would be good for a young, vulnerable black child.” Disturbed by the changing strategies toward achieving racial equality in the sixties, Efron remained the same on her position: “Always, I was in favor of equality of opportunity and meritocracy. Meaning, among other things, that I was as critical of crap from blacks as I was from whites, and used the same standards to judge both. That is the definition of not being a racist. One judges individuals, not their color!!!” Thus, Efron was as passionate about black power as she was about theories positing the genetic inferiority of blacks because each accepted the group instead of the individual as the appropriate unit of analysis and action: “Essentially I was always protecting my child from two kinds of racism: the bestial kind common in the South and the inverted kind characteristic of the North. Both contempt for all blacks and glamorization of all blacks are detestable, and both damage blacks.”

In 1971, Efron published The News Twisters, a controversial book which claimed to find media bias in the television news coverage of the 1968 U.S. presidential election, one of the first studies of its kind ever conducted.  The reviewer in Commentary summed up the originality of her project:  “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. The doctrine does not require that every broadcast, or even a series of broadcasts in the same time-slot, be balanced . 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 Efron’s book that she took 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.), 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.

Twisters, was followed by her 1972 work, How CBS Tried to Kill a Book, an examination of CBS News’s reaction to her study.  Efron was the original Media Research Center or Bernie Goldberg, before there were VCRs and other recording devices to easily measure biased coverage, and before there was the internet or The O’Reilly Factor to publicize the discovery.  She is the Columbus of the phenomena of media bias.

She was a contributing editor to reason magazine from the 1970s until her death in 2001, where she wrote psychological studies of former President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The latter prompted Justice Thomas to declare that Efron had been the “only person” to understand what was going through his mind during the hearings that made him a household name, according to Virginia Postrel.
In 1984, Efron published The Apocalyptics, described as “an expose of shoddy science and its effects on environmental policy,” which systematically examined the regulatory “science” behind the banning of chemicals in consumer products, debunking the alleged “cancer epidemic” claimed to exist by many in the media.