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What Liberal Media?

One of the most powerful tools in the conservative arsenal is the phony accusation of liberal bias.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This article was adapted from Eric Alterman's newly released book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic), published in February.

Social scientists talk about "useful myths," stories we all know aren't necessarily true, but that we choose to believe anyway because they seem to offer confirmation of what we already know (which raises the question, If we already know it, why the story?). Think of the wholly fictitious but illustrative story about little George Washington and his inability to lie about that cherry tree. For conservatives, and even many journalists, the "liberal media" is just that -- a myth, to be sure, but a useful one.

Republicans of all stripes have done quite well for themselves during the past five decades fulminating about the liberal cabal/progressive thought police who spin, supplant and sometimes suppress the news we all consume. (Indeed, it's not only conservatives who find this whipping boy to be an irresistible target. In late 1993 Bill Clinton whined to Rolling Stone that he did not get "one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press.") But while some conservatives actually believe their own grumbles, the smart ones don't. They know mau-mauing the other side is just a good way to get their own ideas across -- or perhaps prevent the other side from getting a fair hearing for theirs. On occasion, honest conservatives admit this. Rich Bond, then chair of the Republican Party, complained during the 1992 election, "I think we know who the media want to win this election--and I don't think it's George Bush." The very same Rich Bond, however, also noted during the very same election, "There is some strategy to it [bashing the 'liberal' media].... If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."

Bond is hardly alone. That the media were biased against the Reagan Administration is an article of faith among Republicans. Yet James Baker, perhaps the most media-savvy of them, owned up to the fact that any such complaint was decidedly misplaced. "There were days and times and events we might have had some complaints [but] on balance I don't think we had anything to complain about," he explained to one writer. Patrick Buchanan, among the most conservative pundits and presidential candidates in Republican history, found that he could not identify any allegedly liberal bias against him during his presidential candidacies. "I've gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage--all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the 'liberal media,' but every Republican on earth does that," the aspiring American ayatollah cheerfully confessed during the 1996 campaign. And even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential Republican/neoconservative publicist in America today, has come clean on this issue. "I admit it," he told a reporter. "The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures." Nevertheless, Kristol apparently feels no compunction about exploiting and reinforcing the ignorant prejudices of his own constituency. In a 2001 pitch to conservative potential subscribers to his Rupert Murdoch-funded magazine, Kristol complained, "The trouble with politics and political coverage today is that there's too much liberal bias.... There's too much tilt toward the left-wing agenda. Too much apology for liberal policy failures. Too much pandering to liberal candidates and causes." (It's a wonder he left out "Too much hypocrisy.")

In recent times, the right has ginned up its "liberal media" propaganda machine. Books by both Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg have topped the bestseller lists, stringing together a series of charges so extreme that, well, it's amazing neither one thought to accuse "liberals" of using the blood of conservatives' children for extra flavor in their soy-milk decaf lattes.

Given the success of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the Washington Times, the New York Post, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, the New York Sun, National Review, Commentary, Limbaugh, Drudge, etc., no sensible person can dispute the existence of a "conservative media." The reader might be surprised to learn that neither do I quarrel with the notion of a "liberal media." It is tiny and profoundly underfunded compared with its conservative counterpart, but it does exist. As a columnist for The Nation and an independent weblogger for MSNBC.com, I work in the middle of it, and so do many of my friends. And guess what? It's filled with right-wingers.

Unlike most of the publications named above, liberals, for some reason, feel compelled to include the views of the other guy on a regular basis in just the fashion that conservatives abhor. Take a tour from a native: New York magazine, in the heart of liberal country, chose as its sole national correspondent the right-wing talk-show host Tucker Carlson. During the 1990s, The New Yorker -- the bible of sophisticated urban liberalism -- chose as its Washington correspondents the belligerent right-winger Michael Kelly and the soft, DLC neoconservative Joe Klein. At least half of the "liberal New Republic" is actually a rabidly neoconservative magazine and has been edited in recent years by the very same Michael Kelly, as well as by the conservative liberal-hater Andrew Sullivan. The Nation has often opened its pages to liberal-haters, even among its columnists. The Atlantic Monthly -- a mainstay of Boston liberalism --even chose the apoplectic Kelly as its editor, who then proceeded to add a bunch of Weekly Standard writers to its antiliberal stable. What is "liberal" Vanity Fair doing publishing a special hagiographic Annie Leibovitz portfolio of Bush Administration officials that appears, at first glance, to be designed (with the help of a Republican political consultant) to invoke notions of Greek and Roman gods? Why does the liberal New York Observer alternate National Review's Richard Brookhiser with the Joe McCarthy-admiring columnist Nicholas von Hoffman--both of whom appear alongside editorials that occasionally mimic the same positions taken downtown by the editors of the Wall Street Journal? On the web, the tabloid-style liberal website Salon gives free rein to the McCarthyite impulses of both Sullivan and David Horowitz. The neoliberal Slate also regularly publishes both Sullivan and Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard, and has even opened its "pages" to such conservative evildoers as Charles Murray and Elliott Abrams.

Move over to the mainstream publications and broadcasts often labeled "liberal," and you see how ridiculous the notion of liberal dominance becomes. The liberal New York Times Op-Ed page features the work of the unreconstructed Nixonite William Safire, and for years accompanied him with the firebreathing-if-difficult-to-understand neocon A.M. Rosenthal. Current denizen Bill Keller also writes regularly from a DLC neocon perspective. The Washington Post is just swarming with conservatives, from Michael Kelly to George Will to Robert Novak to Charles Krauthammer. If you wish to include CNN on your list of liberal media--I don't, but many conservatives do--then you had better find a way to explain the near-ubiquitous presence of the attack dog Robert Novak, along with that of neocon virtuecrat William Bennett, National Review's Kate O'Beirne, National Review's Jonah Goldberg, The Weekly Standard's David Brooks and Tucker Carlson. This is to say nothing of the fact that among its most frequent guests are Coulter and the anti-American telepreacher Pat Robertson. Care to include ABC News? Again, I don't, but if you wish, how to deal with the fact that the only ideological commentator on its Sunday show is the hard-line conservative George Will? Or how about the fact that its only explicitly ideological reporter is the journalistically challenged conservative crusader John Stossel? How to explain the entire career there and on NPR of Cokie Roberts, who never met a liberal to whom she could not condescend? What about Time and Newsweek? In the former, we have Krauthammer holding forth, and in the latter, Will.

I could go on, but the point is clear: Conservatives are extremely well represented in every facet of the media. The correlative point is that even the genuine liberal media are not so liberal. And they are no match -- either in size, ferocity or commitment -- for the massive conservative media structure that, more than ever, determines the shape and scope of our political agenda.

In a careful 1999 study published in the academic journal Communications Research, four scholars examined the use of the "liberal media" argument and discovered a fourfold increase in the number of Americans telling pollsters that they discerned a liberal bias in their news. But a review of the media's actual ideological content, collected and coded over a twelve-year period, offered no corroboration whatever for this view. The obvious conclusion: News consumers were responding to "increasing news coverage of liberal bias media claims, which have been increasingly emanating from Republican Party candidates and officials."

The right is working the refs. And it's working. Much of the public believes a useful but unsupportable myth about the so-called liberal media, and the media themselves have been cowed by conservatives into repeating their nonsensical nostrums virtually nonstop. As the economist/pundit Paul Krugman observes of Republican efforts to bully the media into accepting the party's Orwellian arguments about Social Security privatization: "The next time the administration insists that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media--fearing accusations of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of 'balance'--won't report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they'll report that some Democrats claim that it's brown."

In the real world of the right-wing media, the pundits are the conservatives' shock troops. Even the ones who constantly complain about alleged liberal control of the media cannot ignore the vast advantage their side enjoys when it comes to airing their views on television, in the opinion pages, on the radio and the Internet.

Take a look at the Sunday talk shows, the cable chat fests, the op-ed pages and opinion magazines, and the radio talk shows. It can be painful, I know, but try it. Across virtually the entire television punditocracy, unabashed conservatives dominate, leaving lone liberals to be beaten up by gangs of marauding right-wingers, most of whom voice views much further toward their end of the spectrum than any regularly televised liberals do toward the left. Grover Norquist, the right's brilliant political organizer, explains his team's advantage by virtue of the mindset of modern conservatism. "The conservative press is self-consciously conservative and self-consciously part of the team," he notes. "The liberal press is much larger, but at the same time it sees itself as the establishment press. So it's conflicted. Sometimes it thinks it needs to be critical of both sides." Think about it. Who among the liberals can be counted upon to be as ideological, as relentless and as nakedly partisan as George Will, Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan, Bay Buchanan, William Bennett, William Kristol, Fred Barnes, John McLaughlin, Charles Krauthammer, Paul Gigot, Oliver North, Kate O'Beirne, Tony Blankley, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Laura Ingraham, Jonah Goldberg, William F. Buckley Jr., Bill O'Reilly, Alan Keyes, Tucker Carlson, Brit Hume, the self-described "wild men" of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, etc., etc.? In fact, it's hard to come up with a single journalist/pundit appearing on television who is even remotely as far to the left of the mainstream spectrum as most of these conservatives are to the right.

Liberals are not as rare in the print punditocracy as in television, but their modest numbers nevertheless give the lie to any accusations of liberal domination. Of the most prominent liberals writing in the nation's newspapers and opinion magazines-- Garry Wills, E.J. Dionne, Richard Cohen, Robert Kuttner, Robert Scheer, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, Mary McGrory, Hendrik Hertzberg, Nicholas Kristof, Molly Ivins--not one enjoys or has ever enjoyed a prominent perch on television. Michael Kinsley did for a while, but only as the liberal half of Crossfire's tag team, and Kinsley, by his own admission, is not all that liberal. The Weekly Standard and National Review editors enjoy myriad regular television gigs of their own, and are particularly popular as guests on the allegedly liberal CNN. Columnists Mark Shields and Al Hunt also play liberals on television, but always in opposition to conservatives and almost always on the other team's ideological field, given the conservatives' ability to dominate television's "he said, she said" style of argument virtually across the board.

As a result of their domination of the terms of political discourse, conservative assumptions have come to rule the roost of insider debate. And they do so not only because of conservative domination of the punditocracy but also because of conservative colonization of the so-called center -- where all action in American politics is deemed to take place.

Consider the case of Howard Kurtz. By virtue of his responsibilities at CNN as host of Reliable Sources and at the Washington Post as its media reporter and columnist, Kurtz is widely recognized as the most influential media reporter in America, akin to the top cop on the beat. There is no question that Kurtz is a terrifically energetic reporter. But all media writers, including myself, walk a difficult line with regard to conflicts of interest. As a reporter and a wide-ranging talk-show host, Kurtz, unlike a columnist, cannot choose simply to ignore news. What's more, the newspaper for which he writes cannot help but cover CNN, the network on which he appears, and vice versa, as they both constitute 800-pound gorillas in the media jungle. Post executive editor Len Downie Jr. says he thinks "the problem is endemic to all media reporters. Everyone in the media universe is a competitor of the Washington Post, and so it's impossible to avoid conflicts of interest. Either we tell him the only people he can cover is The Nation or we set up this unique rule for him that he has to identify his relationship with whomever he writes about." Downie may be right. But the system didn't work perfectly when Kurtz covered Walter Isaacson's resignation from CNN recently. He wrote a tougher piece on Isaacson than most, which is fine, and noted that he worked for CNN at the end, but did not note that the network brass -- meaning, presumably, Isaacson -- had just cut his airtime in half. (Kurtz later explained this in an online chat.)

Regarding the political coloration of his work, it is no secret to anyone in the industry that CNN has sought to ingratiate itself with conservatives in recent years as it has lost viewers to Fox. Shortly after taking the reins, in the summer of 2001, Isaacson initiated a number of moves designed to enhance the station's appeal to conservatives, including a high-profile meeting with the Congressional Republican leadership to listen to their concerns. The bias reflected in Kurtz's work at the Post and CNN would be consistent with that of a media critic who had read the proverbial writing on the wall.

Whatever his personal ideology may be, it is hard to avoid the conclusion, based on an examination of his work, that Kurtz loves conservatives but has little time for liberals. His overt sympathy for conservatives and their critique of the media is, given the power and influence of his position, not unlike having the police chief in the hands of a single faction of the mob. To take just one tiny example of many in my book What Liberal Media?, Kurtz seemed to be working as a summer replacement for Ari Fleischer when Bush's Harken oil shenanigans briefly captured the imagination of the Washington press corps, owing to the perception of a nationwide corporate meltdown during the summer of 2002. Over and over Kurtz demanded of his guests:

"Why is the press resurrecting, like that 7-million-year-old human skull, this thirteen-year-old incident, in which Bush sold some stock in his company Harken Energy?"

"Laura Ingraham, is this the liberal press, in your view, trying to prove that Bush is soft on corporate crime because he once cut corners himself?"

"Regulators concluded he did nothing improper. Now, there may be some new details, granted, but this is--is this important enough to suggest, imply or otherwise infer, as the press might be doing, Molly Ivins, that this is somehow in a league with Tyco or WorldCom or Enron?"

"Is there a media stereotype Bush and Cheney, ex-oilmen, ex-CEOs in bed with big business that they can't shake?"

"Are the media unfairly blaming President Bush for sinking stock prices? Are journalists obsessed with Bush and Cheney's business dealings in the oil industry, and is the press turning CEOs into black-hatted villains?"

"If you look at all the negative media coverage, Rich Lowry, you'd think that Bush's stock has crashed along with the market. Is he hurting, or is this some kind of nefarious media creation?"

"And why is that the President's fault? Is it his job to keep stock prices up?"

Kurtz even went so far as to give credence to the ludicrous, Limbaugh-like insistence that somehow Bill Clinton caused the corporate meltdown of the summer of 2002. Kurtz quoted these arguments, noting, "They say, well, he set a bad example for the country. He showed he could lie and get away with it, so is that a reverse kind of 'Let's drag in the political figure we don't like and pin the tail on him?'" It was, as his guest Martha Brant had to inform him, "a ridiculous argument," surprising Kurtz, who asked again, "You're saying there's no parallel?" Recall that this is the premier program of media criticism hosted by the most influential media reporter in America. It did not occur to Kurtz to note, for instance, as Peter Beinart did, that Clinton vetoed the 1995 bill that shielded corporate executives from shareholder lawsuits (when every single Republican voted to override him), or that Clinton's Securities and Exchange Commission chief wanted to ban accounting firms from having consulting contracts with the firms they were also auditing. Thirty-three of thirty-seven members of Congress who signed their names to protests against the Clinton SEC were also Republican. The man who led the effort was then-lobbyist Harvey Pitt, whom George W. Bush chose to head the SEC and who was later forced to resign. But to Kurtz it is somehow a legitimate, intelligent question whether Clinton's lying about getting blowjobs in the Oval Office was somehow responsible for the multibillion-dollar corporate accounting scandal his Administration sought to prevent.

The current historical moment in journalism is hardly a happy one. Journalists trying to do honest work find themselves under siege from several sides simultaneously. Corporate conglomerates increasingly view journalism as "software," valuable only insofar as it contributes to the bottom line. In the mad pursuit for audience and advertisers, the quality of the news itself becomes degraded, leading journalists to alternating fits of self-loathing and self-pity. Meanwhile, they face an Administration with a commitment to secrecy unmatched in modern US history. And to top it all off, conservative organizations and media outlets lie in wait, eager to pounce on any journalist who tries to give voice to almost any uncomfortable truth about influential American institutions -- in other words, to behave as an honest reporter--throwing up the discredited but nevertheless effective accusation of "liberal bias" in order to protect the powerful from scrutiny.

If September 11 taught the nation anything at all, it should have taught us to value the work that honest journalists do for the sake of a better-informed society. But for all the alleged public-spiritedness evoked by September 11, the mass public proved no more interested in serious news -- much less international news -- on Sept. 10, 2002, than it had been a year earlier. This came as a grievous shock and disappointment to many journalists, who interpreted the events of September 11 as an endorsement of the importance of their work to their compatriots. And indeed, from September 11 through October, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 78 percent of Americans followed news of the attacks closely. But according to a wide-ranging study by Peyton Craighill and Michael Dimock, interest in terrorism and fear of future terrorist attacks have "not necessarily translated into broader public interest in news about local, national, or international events.... Reported levels of reading, watching and listening to the news are not markedly different than in the spring of 2000," the report found. "At best, a slightly larger percentage of the public is expressing general interest in international and national news, but there is no evidence its appetite for international news extends much beyond terrorism and the Middle East." In fact, 61 percent of Americans admitted to tuning out foreign news unless a "major development" occurs.

The most basic problem faced by American journalists, both in war and peace, is that much of our society remains ignorant, and therefore unappreciative of the value of the profession's contribution to the quality and practice of our democracy. Powerful people and institutions have strong, self-interested reasons to resist the media's inspection and the public accountability it can inspire. The net effect of their efforts to deflect scrutiny is to weaken the democratic bond between the powerful and the powerless that can, alone, prevent the emergence of unchecked corruption. The phony "liberal media" accusation is just one of many tools in the conservative and corporate arsenal to reorder American society and the US economy to their liking. But as they've proven over and over, "working the refs" works. It results in a cowed media willing to give right-wing partisans a pass on many of their most egregious actions and ideologically inspired assertions. As such it needs to be resisted by liberals and centrists every bit as much as Bush's latest tax cut for the wealthy or his efforts to despoil the environment on behalf of the oil and gas industries.

The decades-long conservative ideological offensive constitutes a significant threat to journalism's ability to help us protect our families and insure our freedoms. Tough-minded reporting, as the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee explains, "is not for everybody." It is not "for those who feel that all's right with the world, not for those whose cows are sacred, and surely not for those who fear the violent contradictions of our time." But it is surely necessary for those of us who wish to answer to the historically honorable title of "democrat," "republican" or even that wonderfully old-fashioned title, "citizen."

Eric Alterman is a columnist at the Nation.