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Media-Homeless Liberals

Editorial
November 13, 2002

The secret to the conservative media’s success in reshaping America’s political landscape is not the pervasive nastiness, though that’s played a role. The key is that conservatives have created a “media home” for tens of millions of like-minded viewers, listeners and readers across the country.

Conservatives anywhere can tune in Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or a host of other broadcast outlets. They can open the pages of the Wall Street Journal editorial section, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard or dozens of other print or Internet publications. There, they will find their interests addressed, their outlook validated, their enemies unmasked.

In other words, conservatives are given a comfort zone by their national media, which in turn gives them a political cohesion. They are part of a team with shared goals. But what makes this conservative media such a potent political force is the lack of anything comparable on the liberal side of the U.S. political divide.

There is no liberal “media home” remotely like what the conservatives have built. Indeed, the mainstream news outlets – that conservatives incorrectly label the “liberal media” – studiously avoid tilting to the liberal side and increasingly compete for conservative viewers and readers.

CNN’s chief Walter Isaacson has made clumsy gestures to woo conservative viewers from Fox News. CNN’s fawning coverage of George W. Bush from the likes of correspondent Kelly Wallace stands in marked contrast to the tough treatment that CNN meted out to Bill Clinton over the years. Still, many on the right – apparently understanding the value of relentless attack – continue to call CNN the “communist news network.”

Similar patterns hold true with major newspapers. For instance, while the New York Times has written critical editorials about Bush’s budget and foreign policies, its editorial page under editor Howell Raines in the 1990s excoriated Bill Clinton with far greater vigor over various “scandals,” such as his Whitewater real estate investment.

The editorial pages of the Washington Post have more conservative and neo-conservative opinion from Michael Kelly, Charles Krauthammer, George Will and Robert Novak than center-left liberalism from E.J. Dionne and Richard Cohen. This November, in two key congressional races in the Washington suburbs – involving Connie Morella in Maryland and Jim Moran in Virginia – the Washington Post made a point of endorsing the Republican candidates.

Even the small publications of the left, such as The Nation, are more likely to attack liberal politicians than to defend them. By contrast, the conservative media almost always can be counted on to promote conservative politicians and advance conservative policies.

Political Imbalance

The political consequences of this disparity – where one side pours billions of dollars into dedicated media and the other side does almost nothing – cannot be overstated. Media gives conservatives huge strategic and tactical advantages. Not only can broad political themes be developed, but small political mistakes by opponents can be spun immediately into hot-button issues.

The political rhetoric near the end of Paul Wellstone’s memorial service, for instance, was turned by the conservative media into a rallying point not just for Republicans in Minnesota but around the country. In Election 2000, the success of the conservative media in immediately painting Al Gore as the one trying to steal the election in Florida influenced the outcome of the recount battle.

But what can be done to restore some balance to the American political system?

As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out, “Democrats should complain as loudly about the real conservative bias of the media as the Republicans complain about its entirely mythical liberal bias.” [NYT, Nov. 8, 2002]

Liberals certainly should demand that journalists live up to their professional obligations to be fair and accurate. Still, journalists at the national level realize that tilting their stories to the right buys them a margin of safety from the far more aggressive and powerful conservative media attack groups.

One of the biggest career threats to journalists is to be accused of “liberal bias” for digging up stories that put conservatives in a bad light. The conservative media apparatus can quickly “controversialize” a reporter’s work as happened often during the Reagan-Bush era to journalists who reported honestly about events in Central America. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

So there is little to be gained by liberals simply complaining about the conservative bias in the U.S. media. It’s also not enough to turn off sycophantic coverage of Bush on broadcast outlets or to skip over the cheer-leading op-ed pieces.

It’s unfair, too, to expect political leaders to charge madly into the face of this daunting conservative media artillery. No national politician can be expected to survive such a suicide mission.

At the center of any viable answer must be the construction of a counter-media that addresses the interests of those tens of millions of Americans who are now “media homeless.” That does not mean that this new structure should be a liberal mirror image of today’s conservative media. It should have a journalistic ethos, not an ideological one.

Yet to succeed in the market place, it must speak to those millions of Americans alienated by today’s news media. In doing so, it would need a distinctive journalistic voice. In part, that could come from treating the Bush administration with a skepticism lacking at Fox News, CNN and most other news outlets. It could report on what Democratic leaders are saying, which might encourage them to sharpen their message.

It also could offer programming of interest to environmentalists, small investors, women, Hispanics, African-Americans and other groups that are underrepresented in the mainstream and conservative media.

There are a variety of strategies that could be followed to this end, but it is a discussion long overdue. The 2002 Election should have killed off any lingering hopes that this is a problem that will solve itself.

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