When, in January 2004, the New York Times announced its new “conservative beat,” the most common reaction was bemusement. “The conservatives thought it was patronizing,” executive editor Bill Keller told Byron Calame, the paper’s public editor, and “the Democrats thought it was pandering.”
It was probably just a slip of the tongue, but an interesting one nevertheless, that led Keller to counterpoise “conservatives” with “Democrats” rather than “liberals.” After all, no Democrat running for national office has admitted to being a “liberal” in decades. Some claim to be “conservative.” Others prefer “populist.” Almost all of them claim to be “progressive,” but they usually preface this with another word, like “pragmatic,” lest it open up unwanted vulnerabilities. “Liberals” are off the map, except as an epithet.
To much of the media, there are only two sides to any debate: the “conservative” side and everybody else. Because so-called conservatives these days get their policy instructions largely from big business, fundamentalist Christians and a small coterie of neoconservative ideologues, this Manichean tendency ignores progressives whose views extend beyond the simple “not crazy” response inspired by so much of the Bush agenda. If you simply accept the scientific data on global warming or stem-cell research, you’re a liberal. If you think there’s something odd about tax cuts that undermine our fiscal future and give the lion’s share of benefits to the over-class at a time of exploding economic inequality, you’re a liberal. If three years ago you insisted on evidence of a genuine threat, either past or future, from the nation you were about to invade… Well, you get the point. Genuinely liberal alternatives to these nutty notions rarely merit a mention.
Some right-wingers have professed discomfort about the Times‘s conservative beat. Weekly Standard editors complain that the reporters’ focus was largely on “issues that divide conservatives from the Bush White House…. From Paul Krugman on down, the Times offers its readers an extensive array of Bush-bashing features. The ‘conservative beat’ is simply a clever new addition to this menu.” The Wall Street Journal‘s Paul Gigot also said he thought the beat unnecessary. “Maybe they could save time and read us,” he quipped. “Cut out the middleman.” There has been some liberal grumbling as well. Jamison Foser, my colleague at Media Matters for America, complains that the beat skews coverage against progressives. He offers an example: a story about a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that detailed support for the amendment from religious conservatives but ignored the fact that ten times as many religious leaders had signed a letter in support of same-sex marriage.
Even granting Foser’s complaint–and I do–it would be crazy to argue that the world would somehow be better off with less information about the right-wingers who run so much of our government and media. The paper’s resources are unequaled, and reporters David Kirkpatrick and Jason DeParle have produced thoughtful, illuminating stories that have significantly improved our understanding of the movement and its component parts. For instance, DeParle traveled from Kentucky to Kenya to investigate the incredible global influence of a tiny think tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, and its guiding spirit, Lawrence Reed (he “was a high school sophomore when he burned his first Soviet flag”).
But in chartering a conservative beat while refusing to consider an analogous one on liberal activists, intellectuals and organizations, the Times perpetuates a number of stereotypes that do more to confuse than to illuminate. Set aside, for a moment, that while the movement upon which the beat focuses may be extremely right wing, it does not deserve the moniker “conservative.” As one of the paper’s correspondents to Calame’s column pointed out, “A conservative to me is a fiscal conservative who believes in prudent financial management and a social conservative who advocates caution in making changes to longstanding societal arrangements.” None of these apply to America’s right-wingers today.
No less important, the focus on only the right appears to re-affirm the powerful myth that the rest of the paper is sufficiently “liberal” to have that end of things covered. According to Calame, this decision merely “reflected the reality that The Times‘s coverage of liberals had no gaps similar to those in its reporting on the conservative movement.” Once again, this “reality” is hardly apparent to this liberal. Had the Times, for instance, paid more attention to what genuine liberals were saying four years ago, it would not have allowed its reporters to be sucked into the vortex of lies spun by the Bush Administration, which have embroiled this country in a ruinous war.
A strong case can be made that while the paper’s editorial page has been liberal of late, and while most Times employees are probably sympathetic to gay marriage, reproductive choice and the like, the paper’s political coverage is actually driven by the far-right’s agenda, as expressed by both the Bush Administration and the punditocracy. Liberal ideas, initiatives and organizations are, in fact, the ones that have been given short shrift in the current political environment. The work of many fine institutions and individuals is viewed exclusively through the prism of partisanship rather than considered respectfully as a matter of policy and the world of ideas–as both Kirkpatrick and DeParle honored their subjects. This is but one of many reasons, no doubt, why America’s political discourse is located in a territory so far rightward it could barely be contained on the political map of any other industrialized democracy.
The word in Times Square is that now that the right-wingers appear to have played themselves out, the paper will probably fold its coverage of them into its larger political coverage. That would be a pity. The kind of coverage the beat has so far offered is available nowhere else in the mainstream media. What is needed is more of it–expanded to embrace liberal movements, organizations and thinkers–not less.