What Liberal Media?
The current historical moment in 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 US 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 up the discredited but nevertheless effective accusation of "liberal bias" in order to protect the powerful from scrutiny.
If September 11 taught the nation anything at all, it should have taught us to value the work that honest journalists do for the sake of a better-informed society. But for all the alleged public-spiritedness evoked by September 11, the mass public proved no more interested in serious news--much less international news--on September 10, 2002, than it had been a year earlier. This came as a grievous shock and disappointment to many journalists, who interpreted the events of September 11 as an endorsement of the importance of their work to their compatriots. And indeed, from September 11 through October, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 78 percent of Americans followed news of the attacks closely. But according to a wide-ranging study by Peyton Craighill and Michael Dimock, interest in terrorism and fear of future terrorist attacks have "not necessarily translated into broader public interest in news about local, national, or international events.... Reported levels of reading, watching and listening to the news are not markedly different than in the spring of 2000," the report found. "At best, a slightly larger percentage of the public is expressing general interest in international and national news, but there is no evidence its appetite for international news extends much beyond terrorism and the Middle East." In fact, 61 percent of Americans admitted to tuning out foreign news unless a "major development" occurs.
The most basic problem faced by American journalists, both in war and peace, is that much of our society remains ignorant, and therefore unappreciative of the value of the profession's contribution to the quality and practice of our democracy. Powerful people and institutions have strong, self-interested reasons to resist the media's inspection and the public accountability it can inspire. The net effect of their efforts to deflect scrutiny is to weaken the democratic bond between the powerful and the powerless that can, alone, prevent the emergence of unchecked corruption. The phony "liberal media" accusation is just one of many tools in the conservative and corporate arsenal to reorder American society and the US economy to their liking. But as they've proven over and over, "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. As such it needs to be resisted by liberals and centrists every bit as much as Bush's latest tax cut for the wealthy or his efforts to despoil the environment on behalf of the oil and gas industries.
The decades-long conservative ideological offensive constitutes a significant threat to journalism's ability to help us protect our families and insure our freedoms. Tough-minded reporting, as the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee explains, "is not for everybody." It is not "for those who feel that all's right with the world, not for those whose cows are sacred, and surely not for those who fear the violent contradictions of our time." But it is surely necessary for those of us who wish to answer to the historically honorable title of "democrat," "republican" or even that wonderfully old-fashioned title, "citizen."