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The Liberal Media, RIP | The Nation

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The Liberal Media, RIP

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"Electrifying and oh-so vital." If that sounds like model Melania Knauss testifying about the sexual prowess of her former boyfriend, Donald Trump, guess again. It's the sound of R.W. "Johnny" Apple of the New York Times's page 1 swoon at the feat of John McCain. The conservative Arizona Senator has the odd idea that he can win his party's nomination by first seducing the national media. It's a nutty concept, but like bad sex, watching it happen can be highly instructive.

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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Immediately following the McCain victory in New Hampshire, the Word went forth from Media Conspiracy Central: "We have finally found a potential President who listens to us, who loves us, whom we can train. Immediately cease and desist writing flat-out love letters to John McCain. Republican voters are getting suspicious. Replace them forthwith with love letters disguised as 'news analyses.'"

The question: Just why are the "liberal media" writing love letters to John McCain?

A. Because he's antiabortion, anti-gun control, anti-environment, anti-gays in the military, anti-minimum wage, anti-business regulation, pro-wasteful military spending, pro-Star Wars, pro-privatization of Social Security, pro-tax cuts for the rich, pro-impeachment of President Clinton for lying about sex, and pro-war on drugs (unless your name is Cindy McCain, of course, but I hate myself for even mentioning that);

OR

B. Because he is a nice guy, a former POW, he likes to kibitz with us in the back of his bus, returns phone calls pretty quickly, has sensible, er, Democratic, positions on exactly two issues (campaign finance and tobacco), lets his staff have food fights with us in fancy Charleston restaurants (but no sleepovers yet) and, oh yeah, has shown the ability to "grow."

If the media cared at all about liberalism, then choosing McCain over Bush would be like picking arsenic over cyanide. But ask them to choose between the funny guy who likes to tell dirty jokes over brewskies and one whose campaign is more tightly scripted than Cats (and even more annoying), well, pass me a cold one, dude.

This silliness cuts both ways. Bill Bradley, who is running the most progressive mainstream campaign since Ted Kennedy in 1980, had a chance to steal some of McCain's thunder. But he choked on the really important stuff. While he had a pretty decent biography, storywise (scholar, athlete, etc.), Dollar Bill refused to play ball when it came to the true determinants of presidential greatness. He did not shmooze. There were no food fights. Hell, the self-important stiff wouldn't even reveal his favorite movie. No doubt if he actually became President, he would diss Joe Klein over dinner. Unaware of just what country he was running in, Bradley instead issued long treatises on boring stuff like universal (yawn) healthcare. Better to interview Donald Trump and that Melania chick one more time. (And check and see if Warren or Cybill Shepherd might be available, too.)

You have to be pretty stupid to believe in the idea of "liberal media" these days. Not simply because most editors, owners, producers and certainly pundits are, in fact, moderately conservative--and those who work for Rupert Murdoch, extremely so--but because most reporters couldn't care less about actual issues. They like a good story. They like to be flattered by politicians who ask their advice, make them feel important and show the ability to "grow." If you do all that, why, not only can you run for President as a reactionary and be celebrated for it; you can tell cruel, sexist jokes about the President's teenage daughter, and we will conveniently forget them. Er, wasn't that Gary Bauer who called Chelsea the "ugly" offspring of Hillary and Janet Reno?

McCain has Apple, Al Hunt, Mike Wallace, Jonathan Alter, Michael Lewis, David Nyhan, Jacob Weisberg, Lawrence O'Donnell, Jake Tapper, Mike Isikoff and Bill Press, to name just a few, pulling for him without shame. Can we please put this "liberal media" bullshit to rest forever, now?

The great conservative victory of the past two decades has been the right's success in redefining the word "liberal" to apply to anyone to the left of say, John Rocker. "Ever since a now-legendary poll from the Media Studies Center showed that 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Clinton in 1992, it has been hard to deny that the press is 'liberal,'" writes Weekly Standard writer Christopher Caldwell for The Atlantic Monthly. Well, liberalism is in bad shape, true. But not so bad that we have to accept Bill Clinton. Forget about welfare reform, the death penalty, the massive increases in the military budget, the coddling of corporate power. Clinton is the first President since Eisenhower to shrink the size of the federal government. What does it mean to be liberal if you don't believe in expanding the government's ability to invest in education, in housing, in job training, in environmental protection in times of unprecedented prosperity? What's our litmus test now? Interracial dating?

Caldwell might like to listen to his boss, Bill Kristol, perhaps the most honest and intelligent conservative in Washington (excluding, of course, that funny, friendly, charming McCain fellow). "The press isn't quite as biased and liberal. They're actually conservative sometimes," Kristol said recently on CNN. If Chris missed that one, he might have come across a similar admission by Kristol offered up in the spring of 1995. "I admit it," Kristol told The New Yorker. "The whole idea of the 'liberal media' was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."

Back in Michigan, actual Republicans stuck to their stupid guns and gave likely loser George Bush a strong intraparty majority. As a member of that rare species, the genuine liberal, I am grateful for their stupidity and hope it holds in the upcoming primaries, when Democrats and independents will no longer be allowed to pick the Republican nominee. But as a reporter, I can't help feeling a bit, well...hurt.

Johnny, we hardly knew ye.

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