What Liberal Media?
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.")
In recent times, the right has ginned up its "liberal media" propaganda machine. Books by both Ann Coulter and Bernard Goldberg have topped the bestseller lists, stringing together a series of charges so extreme that, well, it's amazing neither one thought to accuse "liberals" of using the blood of conservatives' children for extra flavor in their soy-milk decaf lattes.
Given the success of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the Washington Times, the New York Post, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, the New York Sun, National Review, Commentary, Limbaugh, Drudge, etc., no sensible person can dispute the existence of a "conservative media." The reader might be surprised to learn that neither do I quarrel with the notion of a "liberal media." It is tiny and profoundly underfunded compared with its conservative counterpart, but it does exist. As a columnist for The Nation and an independent weblogger for MSNBC.com, I work in the middle of it, and so do many of my friends. And guess what? It's filled with right-wingers.
Unlike most of the publications named above, liberals, for some reason, feel compelled to include the views of the other guy on a regular basis in just the fashion that conservatives abhor. Take a tour from a native: New York magazine, in the heart of liberal country, chose as its sole national correspondent the right-wing talk-show host Tucker Carlson. During the 1990s, The New Yorker--the bible of sophisticated urban liberalism--chose as its Washington correspondents the belligerent right-winger Michael Kelly and the soft, DLC neoconservative Joe Klein. At least half of the "liberal New Republic" is actually a rabidly neoconservative magazine and has been edited in recent years by the very same Michael Kelly, as well as by the conservative liberal-hater Andrew Sullivan. The Nation has often opened its pages to liberal-haters, even among its columnists. The Atlantic Monthly--a mainstay of Boston liberalism--even chose the apoplectic Kelly as its editor, who then proceeded to add a bunch of Weekly Standard writers to its antiliberal stable. What is "liberal" Vanity Fair doing publishing a special hagiographic Annie Leibovitz portfolio of Bush Administration officials that appears, at first glance, to be designed (with the help of a Republican political consultant) to invoke notions of Greek and Roman gods? Why does the liberal New York Observer alternate National Review's Richard Brookhiser with the Joe McCarthy-admiring columnist Nicholas von Hoffman--both of whom appear alongside editorials that occasionally mimic the same positions taken downtown by the editors of the Wall Street Journal? On the web, the tabloid-style liberal website Salon gives free rein to the McCarthyite impulses of both Sullivan and David Horowitz. The neoliberal Slate also regularly publishes both Sullivan and Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard, and has even opened its "pages" to such conservative evildoers as Charles Murray and Elliott Abrams.
Move over to the mainstream publications and broadcasts often labeled "liberal," and you see how ridiculous the notion of liberal dominance becomes. The liberal New York Times Op-Ed page features the work of the unreconstructed Nixonite William Safire, and for years accompanied him with the firebreathing-if-difficult-to-understand neocon A.M. Rosenthal. Current denizen Bill Keller also writes regularly from a DLC neocon perspective. The Washington Post is just swarming with conservatives, from Michael Kelly to George Will to Robert Novak to Charles Krauthammer. If you wish to include CNN on your list of liberal media--I don't, but many conservatives do--then you had better find a way to explain the near-ubiquitous presence of the attack dog Robert Novak, along with that of neocon virtuecrat William Bennett, National Review's Kate O'Beirne, National Review's Jonah Goldberg, The Weekly Standard's David Brooks and Tucker Carlson. This is to say nothing of the fact that among its most frequent guests are Coulter and the anti-American telepreacher Pat Robertson. Care to include ABC News? Again, I don't, but if you wish, how to deal with the fact that the only ideological commentator on its Sunday show is the hard-line conservative George Will? Or how about the fact that its only explicitly ideological reporter is the journalistically challenged conservative crusader John Stossel? How to explain the entire career there and on NPR of Cokie Roberts, who never met a liberal to whom she could not condescend? What about Time and Newsweek? In the former, we have Krauthammer holding forth, and in the latter, Will.