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.