Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2002 / 11 Teves, 5763
Yes, Virginia, there is (still) a liberal media bias
A groaning shelf of evidence bears out what many people know
intuitively: The American mass media suffers from a left-wing slant.
The data come in a variety of forms: classic studies such as "The Media
Elite" (first published in 1986) and William McGowan's "Coloring the
News" (2001), insider exposes like CBS veteran Bernard Golberg's
recent bestseller "Bias," a sheaf of industry studies, and no end of
public opinion polls. (The web site of the Media Research Center
summarizes much of this material in its primer on "media bias basics.")
And yet some liberals have always claimed that the media's liberal
predisposition is nothing but a shibboleth.
"It's one of the great political myths," insisted Dan Rather in
1995. "Most reporters don't know whether they're Republican or
Democrat, and vote every which way. . . . And also, let me say that I
don't think that `liberal' or 'conservative' means very much any more."
Peter Jennings offered much the same argument last year.
"I think it's just essential to make the point," he told Larry King,
"that we are largely in the center, without particular axes to grind,
without ideologies which are represented in our daily coverage." A few
months earlier, to take just one more example, Geraldo Rivera had
contended that "people who pretend the media has a liberal bias aren't
really listening or reading."
Comes now an even more delusional claim: Not only does Big Media not
tilt to the left, it is actually being shoved to the right.
"The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are
some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and
parcel of the Republican Party," former vice president Al Gore recently
declared. "Fox News [Channel], The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh --
there's a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy
ultra-conservative billionaires . . . . Most of the media has been slow
to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks --
that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points
into the definition of what's objective as stated by the news media as a
Gore's motion was seconded by a number of prominent media liberals.
Paul Krugman of The New York Times pronounced it "so clearly true." The
Washington Post's E.J. Dionne averred that conservatives have won a
"genuine triumph" -- "a media heavily biased toward conservative
politics and conservative politicians." After all, he noted, when
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle publicly denounced Rush Limbaugh,
two cable TV talk shows took the unheard-of step of interviewing
The first thing to be said about this "new" argument is that it's
not new at all. The notion that conservative operatives are turning the
media into a GOP echo chamber goes back at least six years, when it was
an article of faith in the Clinton administration.
Everyone recalls Hillary Clinton sneering away reports of an affair
between her husband and Monica Lewinsky as the ravings of a "vast
right-wing conspiracy." What most forget is just how gripped by
conservatives-are-taking-over-the-media panic the Clinton White House
was. In 1995 it produced a 332-page report purporting to prove -- I am
not making this up -- that Republican politicians, conservative think
tanks, certain "British tabloids," The Wall Street Journal's editorial
page, and The Washington Times were all linked in an insidious plot,
funded by the heir to the Mellon fortune, to get scandalous "fringe
stories" about Bill Clinton "bounced into the mainstream media" in order
to ignite a "frenzy."
Well, conspiracy thinking is something of an American tradition.
Some people believe the CIA funneled cocaine to the Los Angeles slums;
why shouldn't others believe Richard Mellon Scaife is the root of all
evil? It somehow comes as no surprise to find Al Gore resurrecting the
Clinton-era fable about the devilish right-wing tentacles that
manipulate CNN, Time, The New York Times, USA Today, National Public
Radio, NBC, and all the other influential outlets that make up the
national mainstream media. It's not the only dotty theory cherished by
the former vice president.
The hard reality, though, is that the media's very few conservative
institutional voices -- basically, the three that Gore listed -- cannot
hope to overpower the liberal bias that permeates the rest of the media.
It is a simple matter of arithmetic. As JWR's Michael Kelly noted in a
column last week, Fox News Channel's viewers add up to about 3 percent
of the ABC-CBS-CNN-NBC-PBS news audience. The Washington Times has
one-eighth the circulation of The Washington Post. In the media world,
power comes from numbers.
And so does media bias. The national media is largely
left-of-center because those who go into the national media are largely
left-of-center. "Everybody knows that . . . there's a heavy liberal
persuasion among correspondents," Walter Cronkite has said. Inevitably,
that liberal persuasion colors reporters' and editors' work. How could
it not? When everyone in the newsroom shares a liberal worldview,
conservative opinions and ideas are easily dismissed. The result is
that on a host of topics, from capital punishment to gun control to tax
cuts, Big Media almost always speaks with one voice. It's hard to
believe Al Gore can't hear it.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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