Myth of the Liberal Media

Sure, you’ve heard of the story behind the story, but what about the powerful narratives that run so deep beneath mainstream journalism you don’t realize you’re hearing them? Like the idea that all American wars are just. Or that every kid in the land has the same chance to succeed. For independent-minded journalists seeking to convey something closer to reality than this, the first step is to master what many conservative communicators already seem to know: A story belongs to the one who tells it best. –The Editors

Republicans of all stripes have done quite well for themselves during the past five decades fulminating about the “liberal media”–the progressive thought police who spin, supplant, and sometimes suppress the news we all consume. 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, explained during the 1992 election, “There is some strategy to [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. Even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential neoconservative publicist in America today, has come clean on the 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, in a 2001 pitch to potential subscribers to The Weekly Standard, his Rupert Murdoch-funded conservative 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.”

In recent years, the right has cranked 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, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, and so on, 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 side on a regular basis. New York magazine, in the heart of liberal country, chose right-wing talk-show host Tucker Carlson as its sole national correspondent. During the 1990s, The New Yorker–the bible of sophisticated urban liberalism–chose as its Washington correspondents another right-winger, the late Michael Kelly, and the soft, neoconservative Democrat Joe Klein. At least half of the “liberal New Republic” is actually a rabidly neoconservative magazine where both Kelly and the self-professed conservative Andrew Sullivan served as editors in recent years. Before his death in Iraq while covering the war, Kelly was also a top editor of The Atlantic Monthly–a mainstay of establishment liberalism–and during his tenure added a bunch of Weekly Standard writers to its stable.

Move over to mainstream publications and news shows often labeled “liberal,” and you see how ridiculous the notion of liberal bias becomes. The New York Times editorial page features a regular column by the unreconstructed Nixon speechwriter William Safire, and Bill Keller also writes regularly from a conservative Democratic perspective. The Washington Post is just swarming with strident conservatives, from George Will 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 Reagan cabinet member William Bennett, Pat Robertson, Ann Coulter, and Tucker Carlson. Care to include ABC News? Again, I don’t, but if you do, how do you deal with the fact that the only ideological commentator on its Sunday show is 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, both 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. Even the genuine liberal media are not so liberal. And they are no match–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 Communication Research, four scholars examined the use of the “liberal media” argument and discovered a fourfold increase over the past dozen years 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 12-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.”

As GOP chair Rich Bond admitted, the right is working the refs. And they’re getting results. Much of the public believes an unsupportable myth about the so-called liberal media, and the media themselves have been cowed by conservatives into repeating these nonsensical nostrums virtually nonstop.

Even the conservative pundits, who constantly complain about alleged liberal control of the media, cannot ignore the vast advantage they enjoy when it comes to airing views on television, in the opinion pages, on the radio and the Internet. Take a look across the landscape of American punditry–the Sunday talk shows, the cable chat fests, the op-ed pages and opinion magazines, and the radio talk shows. Unabashed conservatives dominate this world, leaving the few lonely liberals to be beaten up by gangs of marauding right-wing bullies, most of whom voice views much further toward the hard-right 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. “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, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, William F. Buckley, Sean Hannity, William Kristol, and the self-described “wild men” of The Wall Street Journal editorial pages?

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, 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. Columnists Mark Shields and Al Hunt also play liberals on television, but always in opposition to conservatives.

The current historical moment in American 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 U.S. 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 out the old but effective accusation of “liberal bias” in order to protect the powerful from scrutiny.

Conservatives have proved over and over that “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. Successfully deploying this tactic since the days of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, conservatives have won large influence and power. For this reason, liberals and centrists need to resist these charges every bit as strongly as they do Bush’s latest tax cut for the wealthy or efforts to despoil the environment on behalf of the oil and gas industries.

This decades-long conservative ideological offensive constitutes a significant threat to journalism’s historic role in uncovering abuses, protecting citizens, and ensuring our freedoms. Tough-minded reporting, as the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee explains, “is not for everybody.” It is not, he says, “for those who feel that all’s right with the world, not for those who fear the violent contradictions of our time.” But it is surely necessary for any society where people want to assume the historically honorable role of “democrat,” “republican,” or even that wonderfully old-fashioned title, “citizen.”

Queens, New York-born Eric Alterman is a press watchdog and culture critic with a keen sense of style. His 1999 book, It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen, won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award, while Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992) garnered the 1992 George Orwell Award. Holder of a Cornell B.A. in history and government, an M.A. in international relations from Yale, and a Ph.D. in history from Stanford, Alterman has been a columnist or contributing editor for Worth, Rolling Stone, Elle, Mother Jones, World Policy Journal, and The Sunday Express (London). He’s also a digital communicator: His “Altercation” Web log runs on MSNBC.com. There, and in his Stop the Presses media column for The Nation, Alterman regularly challenges conventional wisdom on the media and political issues. A new book, When Presidents Lie: Deception and Its Consequences, is forthcoming. This article was adapted from Alterman’s new book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic), and excerpted from The Nation (Feb. 24, 2003). Subscriptions: $39.97/yr. (47 issues) from Box 55149, Boulder, CO 80322.

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