THE ILLIBERAL MEDIA


Novak (CrossFire), the McLaughlin Group, and Rush Limbaugh and
Limbaugh clones; and even PBS is saturated with right-wing
regulars (Buckley, Brown, McLaughlin, Wattenberg).

 

The Pitiful Giant Syndrome

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
(FAIR) recently listed 52 national media figures of the right,
from Roger Ailes to Walter Williams, most of whom have proclaimed
the media’s liberal bias while occupying positions of access and
power vastly more extensive than liberals could ever hope to
attain. And leftists are an extinct species in the mainstream
media; the firing of Jim Hightower by ABC, immediately following
the Disney acquisition, was like the passing of the last carrier
pigeon, or dodo bird. This doesn’t prevent the pundits, and even
the media moguls, from making bitter complaints about the power
of the "left." Rupert Murdoch and John Malone vowed a
year ago that they were jointly planning a news channel in order
to combat the "left bias" of the media. The right-wing
Canadian mogul Conrad Black, who owns more than half the daily
newspapers in Canada and over a hundred in this country
(including the Chicago Sun Times) is also constantly whining
about the liberal-left bias of the press.

The reason we only hear plaints of
a "liberal" media is that the right-wing is so well
entrenched and aggressive that its members can pretend that their
own potent selves don’t exist when they speak of media bias. Just
as power allowed the right-wing and a complicit "liberal
media" to label university dissidents a PC threat, while
ignoring the massive right-wing attempt to impose its own
political agenda on the university, so in the case of the media,
views disapproved by the powerful are "liberal" or
"left"–the views of the numerous right-wing moguls and
pundits are implicitly unbiased or merely countering those of the
omnipresent, subversive, but elusive "liberals." We can
call this the "pitiful giant syndrome," harking back to
Nixon era claims that the poor USA was a pitiful giant being
pushed around by Third World upstarts. The pitiful moguls are of
course in the supremely privileged position of being able to
create their own right-wing news and commentary operations and
exclude those that don’t meet their political standards. Murdoch
personally funded the new conservative magazine The Weekly
Standard, and he has placed Roger Ailes in charge of his new
cable news services–Ailes is the Republican specialist in media
dirty tactics (famous for his role in the Willie Horton ploy in
1988), who came to the Murdoch news operation after a stint as
Rush Limbaugh’s producer. Malone recently created his own new
talk-commentary program, "Damn Right!," hosted by David
Asman, the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s noted apologist
for state terrorism in Central America, along with another
"citizen education" show, "The Race for the
Presidency," under partisan Republican management. He has
also welcomed to TCI cable Pat Robertson’s Family Channel and the
new, exclusively right-wing, Empowerment Channel. At the same
time, Malone succeeded in killing The 90s Channel, that rare (and
now approaching the extinct) entity called a "liberal"
channel, by raising its entry rates to his cable system to
prohibitive levels. The pitiful giant was exercising raw economic
power in pursuit of his political agenda, but the liberal media
didn’t notice or complain. (And the Clinton FCC, while
sanctioning one giant monopoly power enhancing merger after
another, refused to intervene.)

 

Flabby Centrists versus
Aggressive Right

In the real world, the resurgent
power of corporate and financial interests, an increasingly
concentrated media ever more closely integrated with advertisers
(now spending on the media over $75 billion a year), the
proliferation of corporate-funded thinktanks and the corporate
"leasing the ivory tower," has shifted political power
and media opinion sharply to the right. At this point,
"left" in the media is conservative, centrist, and in a
defensive mode, accepting without question the premises of
corporate capitalism and the imperial state, but weakly
supporting the preservation of an eroding welfare state. The
strong liberalism of L. T. Hobhouse (Liberalism), Louis Brandeis
(The Curse of Bigness), and John Dewey (Reconstruction in
Philosophy), with its powerful strain of equalitarianism and
opposition to concentrated economic power, is still deeply rooted
in the public, but is hard to find in mainstream politics or the
media. The centrist-conservative media "left" is
epitomized by David Broder, although Mark Shields, Roger
Rosenblatt, or Jack Germond would do just as well. In the late
1980s, when a Central America activist asked the editor of the
Philadelphia Inquirer to identify his left columnist who offset
Charles Krauthammer and George Will, the editor answered: David
Broder. But Broder’s views are pure establishment; he evades
tough issues, joins almost every establishment crusade (NAFTA,
Persian Gulf war, Soviet Threat and military buildup, welfare and
entitlements out of control), and devotes maximum attention to
election horse-racing. He also never fights for principles
against strong establishment opposition– thus, while disliking
Reagan’s Central America wars, he simply abandoned the subject,
giving the floor to Will, Krauthammer, and the administration. So
Broder never bothers anybody important, adapts beautifully to
class and imperial warfare, and is the ideal liberal for an era
of counterrevolution. (For a fuller treatment, see my chapter on
Broder in Triumph of the Market).

Meanwhile, the right-wing
opposition to Broder and company–Will, Krauthammer, Robert
Bartley, Fred Barnes, Mona Charren, the Kristols, John Leo, and
dozens more–are not conservatives, they are reactionary servants
of the corporate community, which has been on the offensive for
over 20 years, striving to remove all obstacles to its growth and
profitability. These obstacles include the welfare state,
regulation of corporate practices, and an organized labor
movement. Removing these, and returning us to nineteenth century
socio-economic conditions, is not a "conservative"
project, it is reactionary. So is the support of the "strong
state" in the Pinochet-Reagan-Thatcher modes, featuring
ruthless law and order regimes, imperial aggressiveness, and
military-industrial and prison-industrial complexes riding high.

 

Right-wing Echo Chamber

With flabby centrists like Broder
as the left, and even these in small numbers, the large array of
aggressive right-wing pundits and editors like Robert Bartley
(Wall Street Journal) can engineer agendas. In order to fix
agendas themes must be repeated, with passion, to make them seem
really important. The right wingers are sufficiently numerous to
be able to constitute an "echo chamber," in which the
charges are repeated, each small elaboration used to keep the
subject on the agenda, and the agenda pushed relentlessly. They
are able to elevate sleazy trash with a suitable message (Gary
Aldrich’s Unlimited Access) into national prominence and turn the
relatively trivial "filegate" into the equivalent of
Watergate (Jeff Cohen, "’Filegate Equals Watergate’: The
Conservative Echo Chamber Circulates a Myth," EXTRA!, Oct.
1996). They can even make a genuine contribution to war hysteria
and the militarization of foreign policy, as in the Persian Gulf
crisis of 1990-1991 (see Eric Alterman’s Sound and Fury).

The spineless political and media
liberals not only don’t set agendas, they often get on the
right-wing bandwagons themselves. They quickly swallowed the line
of a Sandinista threat, and in the phony MIG crisis of 1984
competed with one another in urging an aggressive U.S. response.
Liberal congressman Lee Hamilton was notorious for caving in
during the Iran-contra investigation, in the interest of a
"national unity" that the right-wing regularly ignores
in attacking their enemies. And David Broder followed Hamilton
and his fellow Democrats in failing to press the attack on North,
Reagan and Bush despite their carrying out covert terrorist
operations in violation of law and constitutional principles.
Clinton refused to pursue the Bush administration’s involvement
in the Banco Lavoro case and indirect funding of Saddam Hussein,
and the media liberals followed in his wake. The 1995 testimony
by former Reagan official Howard Teicher that the Reagan
administration had "authorized, approved and assisted"
delivery of cluster bombs to Iraq, among other massive arms
support, was of no interest to the liberal media.

The right-wing media maintained a
ferocious attack on Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, whose work
was vastly more relevant to substantive issues than Kenneth
Starr’s inquiries into Whitewater. The liberal media, which
failed to defend Walsh and give his investigation major
attention, have allowed the conservative echo chamber to elevate
and honor Starr and the Whitewater investigation (see Robert
Parry’s Fooling America, and his ongoing reports in his
newsletter The Consortium). Iraqgate is "ancient
history" for the media; the more aged Whitewater for some
reason retains currency.

While the right-wing echo chamber
has been important in pushing numerous nasty policy trends, it
should be recognized that this echo chamber is underwritten by
big money and would not work without "liberal media"
cooperation. The McLaughlin Group is funded by General Electric,
many of the other right wingers are or have been supported at
corporate funded thinktanks, and a majority of them are carried
as columnists by the liberal media. The liberal media have also
regularly joined in right-wing propaganda campaigns- -Newsweek
and the New York Times were major participants in the PC
propaganda wave; they all gave prominence to The Bell Curve, and
supported the Reaganite arms race and wars of the 1980s; and they
are virtually all now in the Concord Coalition camp elevating the
threat of entitlement costs into a crisis and setting the stage
for the further erosion of the welfare state.

 

Proving Liberal Domination

Just as money and power allow the
dominant illiberals to call the media liberal and left, so money
and power allow them to study and "prove" media bias.
S. Robert Lichter, Linda Lichter, and Stanley Rothman have been
the most prominent rightists who have engaged in this
"scientific" effort. The Lichters organized their
Center for Media and Public Affairs in 1985, with accolades from
Reagan and Pat Buchanan; Rothman has an Olin chair at Smith
College. In a 1981 article on "Media and Business
Elites" (Public Opinion), Robert Lichter and Rothman (LR)
tried to prove the liberal bias of the media by showing that the
"media elite" votes Democratic and has opinions more
liberal than that of mainstream America.

The LR study violated every
scientific standard you could name. They claimed to be studying a
"media elite," but actually sampled media personnel who
had anything to do with media "content," so most of
them may be ordinary reporters (they failed to disclose the
composition of their sample). LR compared their "media
elite" with a sample of middle and upper levels of corporate
management, not with comparable professionals like teachers, let
alone non- professional "middle Americans." Their
questions were ambiguous and loaded (for a good analysis, see
Herbert Gans, "Are U.S. Journalists Dangerously
Liberal?," Columbia Journalism Review, Nov.-Dec. 1985),
making one wonder why anyone would participate in this survey.
And in fact, Ben Bradlee, the top editor of the Washington
Post–one of the papers allegedly sampled by LR–claimed that he
couldn’t locate a single employee who had participated in the LR
survey.

One key technique of right-wing
proofs of liberal bias is to focus on social issues, as the
affluent and urban media journalists and editors do tend to be
more liberal than blue collar workers on issues like
abortion-choice, gay rights, and the handling of drug problems,
as are urban professionals across the board. On the other hand,
on matters like government regulation, distrust of big business,
income distribution, and jobs policies, "middle
America" is to the left of the business and media elite.
Rightwingers like LR handle this by bypassing the problematic
areas and focusing on social issues, where they can score points.

Right-wing proofs of a liberal
media also focus on voting patterns. The 1981 LR piece featured
the pro-Democrat voting records of the media elite in the four
elections between 1964 and 1976. In April 1996 a similar finding
was published by the Roper Center and Gannett Freedom Forum; 89%
of a sample of 139 Washington journalists allegedly voted for
Clinton in 1992. The inference quickly drawn from this, as from
the LR study, was that the media has a liberal bias. But the true
media elite is the owners, who have legal control of the media
companies, can hire, promote and fire their employees, and can
shape policy a la Malone and Murdoch. LR and their allies never
poll owners.

There are other questions to be
asked in regard to these conservative polls. Why don’t they
compare the media elite’s views on NAFTA with the views of middle
America? How can we explain the mainstream media’s failure to
focus on the declining economic position and insecurity of middle
Americans as an election issue? How can we explain the fact that
a majority of newspapers came out editorially for Bob Dole with
the "liberals" controlling the media? How can we
explain the steady attacks on Clinton’s character and focus on
Whitewater, and more cursory treatment of Iran-contra and the
Banco Lavoro case, in terms of a pro-Democrat bias? In what sense
is Clinton a "liberal" anyway?

These and other questions can be
answered by media analyses that focus on the control, funding,
structure, and performance of the media, rather than reporter
opinions and voting patterns. For example, the "propaganda
model," which Noam Chomsky and I spelled out in
Manufacturing Consent, describes the working of the mainstream
media in terms of underlying structural factors and
"filters" that define the parameters within which media
underlings work. These constraints and filters include ownership
and the financial pressures for bottom line performance; the need
to adapt to the interests of advertisers, who pay the media
bills; sourcing processes which cause journalists to depend
heavily on government and business newsmakers; the threat of
flak, which keeps the journalists under pressure and in line; and
anticommunist and market-supportive premises that journalists
internalize. The right-wing pundits and their echo chamber fit
into this model quite nicely, which is why General Electric and
the advertising community give them generous support.

It should be noted that FAIR, in
its bimonthly publication EXTRA!, has provided numerous studies
with compelling evidence of conservative domination of talk shows
and public broadcasting. With the exception of their study of the
huge bias in the selection of guests on Nightline, their efforts
have been given much less attention in the mainstream media than
right-wing "proofs" of liberal media bias as pronounced
by Lichter and Rothman and the recent Roper–Gannett study. This
is a reflection of genuine media bias, with the right-wing
network always able to push congenial findings into the echo
chamber, giving themselves and their principals a boost. But this
publicity and neglect of the superior FAIR offerings are living
proof that the claim of "liberal bias" is a lie and
that the reality is one of illiberal domination.