If you want to date the beginning of conservative domination of the opinion media, you could do worse than to pick Election Day 1964. That’s when Richard Mellon Scaife, later joined by many others, figured out that it was pointless for wealthy conservatives to pour money into the coffers of conservative candidates like Barry Goldwater without first investing in their own form of media through which to communicate their ideas.
The multibillion-dollar conservative investment helped to create much of the media world in which we wallow today. Liberals are now grappling with a problem not unlike that facing the far right forty years ago: how to get one’s ideas across through media that twist and distort them beyond recognition? It is hardly an academic question.
Just about the only thing liberals have going for them these days is that most Americans agree with them on the issues. This is partly due to the annexation of the Republican Party by its Taliban faction. It is also likely a product of the relative conservatism of today’s liberals, present company included. Today, “liberal” is just another word for “not nuts.” Don’t go around invading countries that do not pose a threat and lie to the world to justify it; don’t destroy the nation’s fiscal health in order to give trillion-dollar gifts to the wealthy; don’t gratuitously insult countries whose help we need to maintain world peace and security; don’t shred the Constitution at every opportunity, etc., etc.
Why, then, if liberals are speaking little more than consensus common sense, do they seem to be in danger of political oblivion? Well, lots of reasons actually, but a big one is a right-wing opinion media that treats these principles as if they derived from The Communist Manifesto. Report on dissension about Iraq between Republicans and military men, and you’re treated as the vanguard of the antiwar movement. Do the math on a tax cut geared to multimillionaires, and you’ve declared “class warfare.” Mention that Bush is neglecting “homeland security” while bin Laden remains at large, and you’re giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
The power of conservatives to control the discourse through biased media is only now beginning to dawn on liberals. Progressive politicians, activists and intellectuals once believed that all they had to do was make their case, and the media would faithfully pass it along to voters, who would judge the argument on its merits. Thanks to the “liberal media” fallacy, few seemed to notice that the world hasn’t worked this way for a while. Don’t forget that shortly after coming into office, Bill Clinton himself complained he did not get “one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press.”
Well, at least that jig is up. If you run into Clinton these days, he’s likely to bend your ear about the media’s shameless affection for Bush & Co. (Hillary’s belated “aha moment” apparently came with her discovery of the profoundly misnamed “vast right-wing conspiracy.” If only she had known during the healthcare debate…) Today liberals are finally starting to take the first steps in the enormously expensive task of building their own media institutions.