This article was adapted from Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic), published in February (www.whatliberalmedia.com).
Social scientists talk about “useful myths,” stories we all know aren’t necessarily true, but that we choose to believe anyway because they seem to offer confirmation of what we already know (which raises the question, If we already know it, why the story?). Think of the wholly fictitious but illustrative story about little George Washington and his inability to lie about that cherry tree. For conservatives, and even many journalists, the “liberal media” is just that–a myth, to be sure, but a useful one.
Republicans of all stripes have done quite well for themselves during the past five decades fulminating about the liberal cabal/progressive thought police who spin, supplant and sometimes suppress the news we all consume. (Indeed, it’s not only conservatives who find this whipping boy to be an irresistible target. In late 1993 Bill Clinton whined to Rolling Stone that he did not get “one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press.”) 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, complained during the 1992 election, “I think we know who the media want to win this election–and I don’t think it’s George Bush.” The very same Rich Bond, however, also noted during the very same election, “There is some strategy to it [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. That the media were biased against the Reagan Administration is an article of faith among Republicans. Yet James Baker, perhaps the most media-savvy of them, owned up to the fact that any such complaint was decidedly misplaced. “There were days and times and events we might have had some complaints [but] on balance I don’t think we had anything to complain about,” he explained to one writer. Patrick Buchanan, among the most conservative pundits and presidential candidates in Republican history, found that he could not identify any allegedly liberal bias against him during his presidential candidacies. “I’ve gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage–all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the ‘liberal media,’ but every Republican on earth does that,” the aspiring American ayatollah cheerfully confessed during the 1996 campaign. And even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential Republican/neoconservative publicist in America today, has come clean on this 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, Kristol apparently feels no compunction about exploiting and reinforcing the ignorant prejudices of his own constituency. In a 2001 pitch to conservative potential subscribers to his Rupert Murdoch-funded 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.” (It’s a wonder he left out “Too much hypocrisy.”)