Conspiracy of Dunces
Are liberals secretly slanting TV news and hiding their messages between the lines of your local newspaper? In part to examine this old charge, the most recent convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors announced a multi-million dollar "credibility project." According to a 1996 poll, apparently only 21 percent of readers have "a great deal of confidence" in newspapers, down from 1989's already-miserable 35 percent. Yet another poll says 53 percent believe that journalists favor the liberal point of view.These revelations arrived courtesy of my local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Columnist Ross MacKenzie wrote, "I'm not sure what the solution to the credibility/bias problem is. There may not be one." Pretty astute for a conservative. As a more-astute liberal, however, I have a solution: Simply persuade more conservatives to seek low-paying jobs with dubious prospects for advancement, terrible hours, and hectoring superiors with the power to mangle your writing while still attaching your name to it.The latest conservative analyses, however, involve "newsroom culture" and "geographical bias." Newsroom culture is supposedly leftward-biased and out of touch, thanks to newsroom people having been to college. "Fewer than half of Americans have been to college," conservative columnist John Leo wrote in the same edition of my local paper. "But nowadays almost all reporters come from the colleges." Surely, Leo can't be arguing for dumber journalists. The career choice alone tells us they're plenty dumb already.True, most journalists do go to college. But they often major in English literature, effectively canceling the benefit. They read the great writers -- Homer, Shakespeare, Kerouac. They begin to care about the Big Questions -- the Little Guy, the nature of Truth. Such rubbish turns them into the worst sort of humanists, unfit for any work apart from dealing dope or ... journalism, which is much the same, less the profits.Poisoned by the ideals conveyed in great literature, English majors want to write some. But great literature having been supplanted by great TV, they resort to journalism as the next best means of pursuing Truth, Justice, and the American Way. However, on discovery that this has been supplanted in turn by the pursuit of celebrity status as a TV anchor -- with a set of teeth, head of hair, or bustline that they simply can't muster -- most become hard-drinking cynics. And your hard- drinking cynic likes nothing better than to maintain his or her youthful ideals out of sheer cussedness, aiming for the "gruff but lovable" status of Mary Richards' Mr. Grant. This is real "newsroom culture."As for "geographical bias," publishing in the US has always been concentrated in New York, in what The American Enterprise calls "a single New York borough that is one of the least representative places in modern America. All four national news networks ... are headquartered within walking distance of each other. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are published within a subway ride of opinion-shaping magazines like Time, Newsweek, Business Week and Fortune. "More than liberal bias, this conglomeration of media power increasingly reflects a retrograde Northeastern elitism out of sync with the rest of the country."About the only thing more retrograde would be the conglomeration of automobile-making power in Detroit, film-making power in Hollywood, policy-making power in Washington, computer-making power in Silicon Valley, or red-beans-and-rice-making power in New Orleans. Next thing you know, if you want to steal a bunch of money, you'll have to go to a bank.I'm less concerned about the concentration of such "liberal" rags as the Wall Street Journal and Fortune in New York than I am with the concentration of the entire Western alphabet in the hands of Rupert Murdoch. The mass consumption of soft pretzels by NYC journalists will always worry me less than monopoly capitalism. But, hey, I majored in English Literature during the 1960s.Despite the so-called plague of liberal bias, there's no shortage of conservative critique. Much of it comes from media so agonized about the mere possibility that we must regularly suffer orgies of Maoist-style self-criticism: Ted Koppel's "town meetings," PBS roundtables with Arthur Miller, Rush Limbaugh, and The McLaughlin Group, to name but a few.But even without such stellar assistance, if bias were really rampant, US news consumers would figure it out. After all, if journalists could really fool people, they'd probably have real jobs.