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The Gasbag Gap | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

The Gasbag Gap

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Mainstream reporters tend to see both liberal and right-wing critics as a bunch of whiners who "just don't get it." And in many cases, they're right. But being mainstream reporters, they tend to believe--nay, know--that they are always right. In fact, journalism is just about the only field whose practitioners routinely justify themselves on the basis of the fact that they receive criticism from "both sides." The possibility that they might be screwing up in two (or more) ways simultaneously appears to be beyond their imaginative capabilities.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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During the past generation, these same mainstream journalists have lurched to the right, thanks in large measure to an extremely well-funded, well-organized and well-disciplined conservative political assault comprising, essentially, two tactics: a willingness (and ability) to make life miserable for those who don't go along, and a determination to shape the zeitgeist in such a way that those who do go along may not even know they're doing so. In other words, what Tony Soprano cannot accomplish, leave to Antonio Gramsci.

While most fair-minded observers ought to agree with the above, particularly in light of the rise of the far-right media empire of Rupert, Rush, O'Reilly and talk-radio, etc., it's still pretty difficult to prove. Most academic studies of media content are compromised because even with the best intentions, it's impossible to control for independent political variables. As for the decades-old studies purporting to show that reporters vote Democratic: When not biased in the first place, they tell us nothing about the content of the news. A number of Rupert Murdoch's top lieutenants claim to be liberal Democrats--a lot that matters!

All this is reason to welcome the new study by David Brock's Media Matters for America, titled If It's Sunday, It's Conservative. MMA conducted a content analysis of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS's Face the Nation and NBC's Meet the Press, classifying each one of the nearly 7,000 guests from Bill Clinton's second term, George W. Bush's first term and 2005 as either Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive or neutral. Its key finding: "The balance between Democrats/progressives and Republicans/conservatives was roughly equal during Clinton's second term, with a slight edge toward Republicans/conservatives: 52 percent of the ideologically identifiable guests were from the right, and 48 percent were from the left. But in Bush's first term, Republicans/conservatives held a dramatic advantage, outnumbering Democrats/progressives by 58 percent to 42 percent. In 2005 the figures were an identical 58 percent to 42 percent." And remember, this study doesn't include Fox!

In addition, "more panels tilted right (a greater number of Republicans/conservatives than Democrats/progressives) than tilted left" for every single year of the study. In some years the gap was as high as four to one. Moreover, Congressional opponents of the Iraq War were all but banished from the Sunday shows, particularly in the period just before it was launched.

When spokespeople for the shows were contacted to explain the disparity, they claimed that they go where the action is, and today the action is Republican/conservative. (Though it should be noted that Face the Nation was considerably fairer than Meet the Press or This Week.) But of course, were that true, then the Clinton years would have been just as tilted in favor of Democrats/progressives as the Bush years have been toward Republicans/conservatives. But of course they're not even close.

Think about it: These shows feel empowered to engage an agenda-setting discussion with a panel of mostly right-wing politicians, followed by a journalists' panel in which conservatives are paired almost exclusively with down-the-middle reporters, rather than a writer or thinker who might credibly represent the liberal side. Every week, a politically neutered George Stephanopoulos seeks the wisdom of the deeply right-wing George Will, and the "neutral" (though personally conservative) Fareed Zakaria, with no balance whatsoever. (Sam Donaldson, a liberal, was previously an exception to this rule, though no liberal I know would have picked him to represent our side.) The guest list for the far more influential Meet the Press tells a similar story. Why, asks the MMA study's author, Paul Waldman, "would the producers of the shows believe that a William Safire (56 appearances since 1997) or Bob Novak (37 appearances) is somehow "balanced" by a Gwen Ifill (27) or Dan Balz (22)?"

What's more, despite its having been produced by a liberal think thank, the study's grading of the guests--where the rubber hits the road--is extremely generous to the right-wing side, and therefore precludes any credible complaints that it's a product of liberal bias. For instance, liberal-hater Joe Klein, together with war-supporters Peter Beinart and George Packer, are coded "progressive," and Cokie Roberts and David Broder, who openly detest both Clinton and Gore while frequently apologizing for Bush--together with former GE chairman Jack Welch and Mrs. Alan Greenspan, Andrea Mitchell--were classified as "neutral." (Remember how quick Mitchell was during the 2004 debates to accuse Kerry of "demagoguery" for daring to criticize her husband?)

Indeed, as far as critical commentary goes, with the occasional exception of E.J. Dionne, there's not a single unapologetic liberal on any of these shows, save perhaps an annual appearance as a kind of anthropological curiosity. Tune in to every show every week for a year, and you are unlikely to see Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Rick Hertzberg, Harold Meyerson or anyone associated with The Nation, The American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, The New York Review of Books, Salon, In These Times, Mother Jones or even the liberal remnant inside The New Republic.

When you think about it, it is a tribute to the American people that they remain as receptive to liberal arguments as they do, given how infrequently they hear them.

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