What Liberal Media? *very long article*

iVillage Member
Registered: 04-09-2003
What Liberal Media? *very long article*
Thu, 04-10-2003 - 12:18pm
Seems like the appropriate place to post:

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


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 .... 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 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


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


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.

I could go on, but the point is clear: Conservatives are extremely well

represented in every facet of the media. The correlative point is that even

the genuine liberal media are not so liberal. And they are no match--either

in size, ferocity or commitment--for the massive conservative media structure

that, more than ever, determines the shape and scope of our political agenda.

In a careful 1999 study published in the academic journal Communications

Research, four scholars examined the use of the "liberal media" argument and

discovered a fourfold increase in the number of Americans telling pollsters

that they discerned a liberal bias in their news. But a review of the media's

actual ideological content, collected and coded over a twelve-year period,

offered no corroboration whatever for this view. The obvious conclusion: News

consumers were responding to "increasing news coverage of liberal bias media

claims, which have been increasingly emanating from Republican Party

candidates and officials."

The right is working the refs. And it's working. Much of the public believes

a useful but unsupportable myth about the so-called liberal media, and the

media themselves have been cowed by conservatives into repeating their

nonsensical nostrums virtually nonstop. As the economist/pundit Paul Krugman

observes of Republican efforts to bully the media into accepting the party's

Orwellian arguments about Social Security privatization: "The next time the

administration insists that chocolate is vanilla, much of the media--fearing

accusations of liberal bias, trying to create the appearance of

'balance'--won't report that the stuff is actually brown; at best they'll

report that some Democrats claim that it's brown."

In the real world of the right-wing media, the pundits are the conservatives'

shock troops. Even the ones who constantly complain about alleged liberal

control of the media cannot ignore the vast advantage their side enjoys when

it comes to airing their views on television, in the opinion pages, on the

radio and the Internet.

Take a look at the Sunday talk shows, the cable chat fests, the op-ed pages

and opinion magazines, and the radio talk shows. It can be painful, I know,

but try it. Across virtually the entire television punditocracy, unabashed

conservatives dominate, leaving lone liberals to be beaten up by gangs of

marauding right-wingers, most of whom voice views much further toward their

end of the spectrum than any regularly televised liberals do toward the left.

Grover Norquist, the right's brilliant political organizer, explains his

team's advantage by virtue of the mindset of modern conservatism. "The

conservative press is self-consciously conservative and self-consciously part

of the team," he notes. "The liberal press is much larger, but at the same

time it sees itself as the establishment press. So it's conflicted. Sometimes

it thinks it needs to be critical of both sides." Think about it. Who among

the liberals can be counted upon to be as ideological, as relentless and as

nakedly partisan as George Will, Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan, Bay Buchanan,

William Bennett, William Kristol, Fred Barnes, John McLaughlin, Charles

Krauthammer, Paul Gigot, Oliver North, Kate O'Beirne, Tony Blankley, Ann

Coulter, Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Laura Ingraham, Jonah Goldberg, William F.

Buckley Jr., Bill O'Reilly, Alan Keyes, Tucker Carlson, Brit Hume, the

self-described "wild men" of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, etc.,

etc.? In fact, it's hard to come up with a single journalist/pundit appearing

on television who is even remotely as far to the left of the mainstream

spectrum as most of these conservatives are to the right.

Liberals are not as rare in the print punditocracy as in television, but

their modest numbers nevertheless give the lie to any accusations of liberal

domination. Of the most prominent liberals writing in the nation's newspapers

and opinion magazines-- Garry Wills, E.J. Dionne, Richard Cohen, Robert

Kuttner, Robert Scheer, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, Mary McGrory, Hendrik

Hertzberg, Nicholas Kristof, Molly Ivins--not one enjoys or has ever enjoyed

a prominent perch on television. Michael Kinsley did for a while, but only as

the liberal half of Crossfire's tag team, and Kinsley, by his own admission,

is not all that liberal. The Weekly Standard and National Review editors

enjoy myriad regular television gigs of their own, and are particularly

popular as guests on the allegedly liberal CNN. Columnists Mark Shields and

Al Hunt also play liberals on television, but always in opposition to

conservatives and almost always on the other team's ideological field, given

the conservatives' ability to dominate television's "he said, she said" style

of argument virtually across the board.

As a result of their domination of the terms of political discourse,

conservative assumptions have come to rule the roost of insider debate. And

they do so not only because of conservative domination of the punditocracy

but also because of conservative colonization of the so-called center--where

all action in American politics is deemed to take place.

Consider the case of Howard Kurtz. By virtue of his responsibilities at CNN

as host of Reliable Sources and at the Washington Post as its media reporter

and columnist, Kurtz is widely recognized as the most influential media

reporter in America, akin to the top cop on the beat. There is no question

that Kurtz is a terrifically energetic reporter. But all media writers,

including myself, walk a difficult line with regard to conflicts of interest.

As a reporter and a wide-ranging talk-show host, Kurtz, unlike a columnist,

cannot choose simply to ignore news. What's more, the newspaper for which he

writes cannot help but cover CNN, the network on which he appears, and vice

versa, as they both constitute 800-pound gorillas in the media jungle. Post

executive editor Len Downie Jr. says he thinks "the problem is endemic to all

media reporters. Everyone in the media universe is a competitor of the

Washington Post, and so it's impossible to avoid conflicts of interest.

Either we tell him the only people he can cover is The Nation or we set up

this unique rule for him that he has to identify his relationship with

whomever he writes about." Downie may be right. But the system didn't work

perfectly when Kurtz covered Walter Isaacson's resignation from CNN recently.

He wrote a tougher piece on Isaacson than most, which is fine, and noted that

he worked for CNN at the end, but did not note that the network

brass--meaning, presumably, Isaacson--had just cut his airtime in half.

(Kurtz later explained this in an online chat.)

Regarding the political coloration of his work, it is no secret to anyone in

the industry that CNN has sought to ingratiate itself with conservatives in

recent years as it has lost viewers to Fox. Shortly after taking the reins,

in the summer of 2001, Isaacson initiated a number of moves designed to

enhance the station's appeal to conservatives, including a high-profile

meeting with the Congressional Republican leadership to listen to their

concerns. The bias reflected in Kurtz's work at the Post and CNN would be

consistent with that of a media critic who had read the proverbial writing on

the wall.

Whatever his personal ideology may be, it is hard to avoid the conclusion,

based on an examination of his work, that Kurtz loves conservatives but has

little time for liberals. His overt sympathy for conservatives and their

critique of the media is, given the power and influence of his position, not

unlike having the police chief in the hands of a single faction of the mob.

To take just one tiny example of many in my book What Liberal Media?, Kurtz

seemed to be working as a summer replacement for Ari Fleischer when Bush's

Harken oil shenanigans briefly captured the imagination of the Washington

press corps, owing to the perception of a nationwide corporate meltdown

during the summer of 2002. Over and over Kurtz demanded of his guests:

"Why is the press resurrecting, like that 7-million-year-old human skull,

this thirteen-year-old incident, in which Bush sold some stock in his company

Harken Energy?"

"Laura Ingraham, is this the liberal press, in your view, trying to prove

that Bush is soft on corporate crime because he once cut corners himself?"

"Regulators concluded he did nothing improper. Now, there may be some new

details, granted, but this is--is this important enough to suggest, imply or

otherwise infer, as the press might be doing, Molly Ivins, that this is

somehow in a league with Tyco or WorldCom or Enron?"

"Is there a media stereotype Bush and Cheney, ex-oilmen, ex-CEOs in bed with

big business that they can't shake?"

"Are the media unfairly blaming President Bush for sinking stock prices? Are

journalists obsessed with Bush and Cheney's business dealings in the oil

industry, and is the press turning CEOs into black-hatted villains?"

"If you look at all the negative media coverage, Rich Lowry, you'd think that

Bush's stock has crashed along with the market. Is he hurting, or is this

some kind of nefarious media creation?"

"And why is that the President's fault? Is it his job to keep stock prices


Kurtz even went so far as to give credence to the ludicrous, Limbaugh-like

insistence that somehow Bill Clinton caused the corporate meltdown of the

summer of 2002. Kurtz quoted these arguments, noting, "They say, well, he set

a bad example for the country. He showed he could lie and get away with it,

so is that a reverse kind of 'Let's drag in the political figure we don't

like and pin the tail on him?'" It was, as his guest Martha Brant had to

inform him, "a ridiculous argument," surprising Kurtz, who asked again,

"You're saying there's no parallel?" Recall that this is the premier program

of media criticism hosted by the most influential media reporter in America.

It did not occur to Kurtz to note, for instance, as Peter Beinart did, that

Clinton vetoed the 1995 bill that shielded corporate executives from

shareholder lawsuits (when every single Republican voted to override him), or

that Clinton's Securities and Exchange Commission chief wanted to ban

accounting firms from having consulting contracts with the firms they were

also auditing. Thirty-three of thirty-seven members of Congress who signed

their names to protests against the Clinton SEC were also Republican. The man

who led the effort was then-lobbyist Harvey Pitt, whom George W. Bush chose

to head the SEC and who was later forced to resign. But to Kurtz it is

somehow a legitimate, intelligent question whether Clinton's lying about

getting blowjobs in the Oval Office was somehow responsible for the

multibillion-dollar corporate accounting scandal his Administration sought to


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 inserious

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."

This article can be found on the web at


iVillage Member
Registered: 04-02-2003
Thu, 04-10-2003 - 1:42pm
How can this problem be solved? Though this writer exposes his own bias right from the start (whatliberalmedia.com) so atleast you know where he is coming from. I think bias is part of the game today, by both sides, and knowing how to play it has become an unfortunate ingredient to communication. I resent it, though it is probably naive to expect that anybody would be totally honest and objective when pursuing deseminating information.

I think we're doomed to battle each other over these things, right down to the level of internet message boards. My position is pretty clear to me and I have what I feel are very well informed opinions and reasons for thinking as I do, but I can't say that I haven't ever thought twice because of a well posted opinion that differed from my normal view. I have even changed my mind on occasion!