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Price of the 'Liberal Media' Myth

By Robert Parry
January 1, 2003

The notion of a “liberal” national news media is one of the most enduring and influential political myths of modern U.S. history. Shaping the behavior of both conservatives and liberals over the past quarter century, the myth could be said to have altered the course of American democracy and led the nation into the dangerous corner it now finds itself.

On one hand, the Right’s long-held conviction that the media is the enemy helps explain the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of many conservatives, plus their motivation for investing billions of dollars to build a dedicated conservative media. That well-oiled media machine now stretches from TV networks to talk radio to newspapers to magazines to books to the Internet – and helps set the U.S. political agenda.

On the other hand, the endless repetition of the “liberal media” myth has sedated liberals who have avoided a commitment to develop a comparable media infrastructure, apparently out of a hope that one is not needed. Indeed, if an honest history of this era is ever written, one of the most puzzling mysteries may be why the American liberal community – with all its wealth and expertise in communications – sat back while conservatives turned media into a potent weapon for dominating U.S. politics.

How did conservatives grasp the concept of the “war of ideas” and the crucial role of media in that battle while liberals were lulled by the dream that some pendulum would swing back and return the news media more to the center or left?

Whatever the answer, the “liberal media” myth has proved so useful to conservatives that they continue to promote it even after mainstream news organizations – including the New York Times and the Washington Post – joined in “press riots” over Bill Clinton’s Whitewater real estate investment and Al Gore’s supposed exaggerations, trivial issues that paved the way for Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and Gore’s loss of the White House in 2000, respectively.

One view is that the durability of the “liberal media” myth is a testament to today's conservative media power – that simple repetition from a wide enough circle of voices will convince a gullible portion of any population that a lie is the truth. That’s especially the case when there are few voices arguing to the contrary.

The "liberal media" myth has survived even though at its center sits a glaring misconception about how news organizations work.

Conservative Argument

The core of the conservative “liberal media” case is that surveys have shown that a majority of journalists vote Democratic in presidential elections. Therefore, conservatives argue that a pro-Democratic bias permeates the American news media. Conservatives then bolster this claim of liberal bias with anecdotes, such as the alleged inflections of Dan Rather’s voice on the CBS Evening News or the supposed overuse of the word “ultra-conservative” in news columns.

But other surveys on the views of individual journalists suggest a more complicated picture. Journalists generally regard themselves as centrists with more liberal views on social issues and more conservative ones on economic issues, when compared with the broader American public. For example, journalists might be more likely to favor abortion rights, while less likely to worry about cuts in Social Security and Medicare than other Americans. [See "The Myth of the Liberal Media," Extra!, July/August 1998.]

But the larger fallacy of the “liberal media” argument is the idea that reporters and mid-level editors set the editorial agenda at their news organizations. In reality, most journalists have about as much say over what is presented by newspapers and TV news programs as factory workers and foremen have over what a factory manufactures.

That is not to say factory workers have no input in their company’s product: they can make suggestions and ensure the product is professionally built. But top executives have a much bigger say in what gets produced and how. The news business is essentially the same.

News organizations are hierarchical institutions often run by strong-willed men who insist that their editorial vision be dominant within their news companies. Some concessions are made to the broader professional standards of journalism, such as the principles of objectivity and fairness.

But media owners historically have enforced their political views and other preferences by installing senior editors whose careers depend on delivering a news product that fits with the owner’s prejudices. Mid-level editors and reporters who stray too far from the prescribed path can expect to be demoted or fired. Editorial employees intuitively understand the career risks of going beyond the boundaries.

These limitations were true a century ago when William Randolph Hearst famously studied every day’s paper from his publishing empire looking for signs of leftist attitudes among his staff. And it is still true in the days of Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

The Republican and conservative bent of senior media management also is not limited to a few “name” publishers and executives. A survey conducted before Election 2000 by the industry magazine, Editor & Publisher, found a strong bias in favor of George W. Bush among top editorial decision-makers nationwide.

Newspaper editors and publishers favored Bush by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the survey of nearly 200 editors and publishers. Publishers, who are at the pinnacle of power within news organizations, were even more pro-Bush, favoring the then-Texas governor by a 3-to-1 margin, E&P reported. Gazing through the rose colors of their pro-Bush glasses, the news executives incorrectly predicted a Bush electoral landslide in November 2000. [See E&P, Nov. 2, 2000]

Powerful Publishers

Many of these pro-Republican news executives also control important national news properties.

Right-wing media magnate Murdoch owns the conservative Weekly Standard, the New York Post and the national cable network Fox News, which he’s staffed with prominent conservative journalists, such as Brit Hume and Tony Snow, and star commentators, such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

At the helm of Fox News, Murdoch put Republican political strategist Roger Ailes, who became famous in the 1988 presidential race for advising George H.W. Bush to use tough-on-crime rhetoric to paint Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as soft on violent criminals. But Ailes has denied that the notorious Willie Horton ads -- featuring a black murder convict who raped a white woman while on a Massachusetts prison furlough -- were meant to nail down the Southern white vote for Bush.

Ailes also insists that Fox News is politically evenhanded, true to its slogan “we report, you decide.” Yet, on Election Night 2000, Fox was the first network to call the presidential election for George W. Bush, setting in motion other premature calls by other networks.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Ailes returned to his practice of giving public-relations advice to the Bush family. Via White House political adviser Karl Rove, Ailes sent a “back-channel message” to George W. Bush urging him to employ “the harshest measures possible” in the terror war as a way to sustain American public support, according to author Bob Woodward’s summary of the memo which is described in Bush at War, a generally flattering look inside Bush’s White House. “Support would dissipate if the public did not see Bush acting harshly,” Woodward wrote, summarizing the memo.

Ailes has confirmed sending the memo to the White House, but said he “never used the word ‘harsh’ or ‘harshly’ or anything like that.” [NYT, Nov. 19, 2002]

General Electric Co.’s Chairman Welch revealed a similar favoritism for Bush while visiting the election desk of GE’s NBC News subsidiary on Election Night 2000. In front of the NBC staff, Welch rooted for a Bush victory, asking apparently in jest, "how much would I have to pay you to call the race for Bush?" according to witnesses.

Later, after Fox News declared Bush the winner, Welch allegedly asked the chief of the NBC election desk why NBC was not doing the same, a choice NBC did make and then retracted. Though premature, the pro-Bush calls colored the public impression of Bush's entitlement to the presidency during the month-long Florida recount battle. Welch, who has since retired, denied pressuring NBC to call the race for Bush and defended his other behavior as a reaction to younger NBC staffers who Welch thought were favoring Gore.

Welch and Murdoch are far from the only network chieftains to be ardent Republicans, as columnist Joe Conason has noted. “So was Larry Tisch when he owned CBS. So are Richard Parsons and Steve Case of CNN (and Time Warner AOL),” Conason wrote at Salon.com. “Michael Eisner (Disney ABC) gave to Bill Bradley and Al Gore, but he gave more to Bush and McCain – and he supported Rick Lazio for the Senate against Hillary Clinton.”

Rev. Moon is another media mogul whose publications have backed Bush and Republicans while attacking Democrats, including printing an accusation in 2000 that Gore was “delusional.” A South Korean who regards himself as a messiah destined to bring the world’s population under his personal dominion, Moon founded and still funds the Washington Times, the second newspaper in the nation’s capital. He also started Insight magazine and other publications.

In the 1990s, Moon front groups hired former President Bush and ex-First Lady Barbara Bush to give speeches at Moon-backed functions in the United States, Asia and South America. In a 1996 speech in Argentina launching a new Moon newspaper, former President Bush stood before Moon and hailed him as the “man with the vision.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Hooking Bush.”]

Logical Fallacy

Another way to illustrate the fallacy of the “liberal media” argument is to hypothesize that a survey of editorial workers at, say, Murdoch’s New York Post would find that most editorial employees voted Democratic – not an unreasonable assumption for professionals living in New York City – and a minority voted Republican.

Under the logic of using how journalists voted to determine the bias of the company where they work, such a survey would “prove” that the New York Post was a liberal newspaper dominated by pro-Democratic articles. But it’s a decidedly conservative newspaper bristling with pro-Republican commentary.

The reason is simple: the woman writing obits or the guy doing the copy editing or the reporter covering the police beat – the working stiffs who may have voted Democratic – have only marginal influence over the newspaper’s slant. The content – and especially editorial opinions – are determined in the corporate offices by top editors and executives who report back to Murdoch.

Given the conservative bias among senior news executives, lower-level editorial employees also understand that critical articles about Bush and other favored Republicans carry extra risk. So smart employees tend to do the opposite – write stories that are more likely to get positive attention from the boss – a natural survival instinct that helps explain why journalists, who were so eager to bash Clinton and Gore, now would fawn over Bush. [For an example of how this pattern worked in Central America coverage in the 1980s, see Robert Parry's 1998 story, "In Search of the Liberal Media."]

A 'Liberal' History

When looking back historically – from the 1950s through the mid-1970s – conservatives could make a stronger case that the national news media reflected more “liberal” views.

In the 1950s, for example, the national press reported critically about the segregationist policies of the South. A media spotlight was cast on the lynching of black men, repression of civil rights activists and violent protests by whites to keep black children out of previously all-white schools. Indeed, the national coverage of the civil rights movement could be viewed as the origin of the conservative grievance against the "liberal media."

Northern reporters, for example, descended on Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, for the trial and acquittal of two white men for the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a young black man who had boasted about dating a white woman. The negative press coverage led the state’s whites to plaster their cars with bumper stickers reading, “Mississippi: The Most Lied About State in the Union.” [For more on the media’s coverage of the civil rights movement, see David Halberstam’s The Fifties. Or Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters.]

Conservatives also accurately noted that television images of death and destruction in the Vietnam War eroded domestic support for the war effort in the 1960s. The Right’s additional argument, however, that the news media slanted its reporting against the war has been countered even by the official U.S. military history on the press and the war.

“Most of the public affairs problems that confronted the United States in South Vietnam stemmed from the contradictions implicit in Lyndon Johnson’s strategy for the war,” wrote U.S. Army historian William M. Hammond in The Military and the Media: 1962-1968. “What alienated the American public, in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, was not news coverage but casualties.”

Military critics of the press focused too much on isolated reporting mistakes while ignoring “the work of the majority of reporters, who attempted conscientiously to tell all sides of the story,” Hammond wrote in his book published by the U.S. Army Center of Military History. “It is undeniable … that press reports were still often more accurate than the public statements of the administration in portraying the situation in Vietnam.”

Then, in the 1970s, came the final straw when conservatives blamed shaggy-haired reporters for “hounding” Richard M. Nixon out of office over the Watergate scandal. Though subsequent release of Nixon’s own tape recordings proved his guilt in a criminal abuse of his presidential powers, conservatives have continued to nurse a grudge for more than a quarter century over Nixon’s forced resignation.

A Catalyst for Action

By the late 1970s, the cumulative impact of those three examples of “liberal bias” – the battle against segregation, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal – became the catalyst for an extraordinary historical reaction. Conservatives, led by former Treasury Secretary William Simon and financed by major conservative foundations, began investing first tens of millions of dollars and later billions of dollars in building their own media, think tanks and attack groups. [For a brief history of the modern conservative media machine, see Consortiumnews.com's "Democrats' Dilemma."]

Over the next quarter century, this conservative infrastructure emerged as a potent force in American politics, becoming effectively a firewall against the news media challenging key conservative policies and top Republican politicians.

During the Iran-contra scandal, for instance, the conservative media counterattacked journalists who uncovered embarrassing evidence implicating Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in shipping weapons to both Iran and Iraq as well as their involvement in an illegal scheme to arm Nicaraguan contra rebels.

The conservative attack machine, often led by Moon’s Washington Times, later turned on Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a former Republican judge who tried to pursue the evidence of Reagan-Bush criminality until he was stopped by then-President Bush’s pardoning of six Iran-contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992. [For details about this Iran-contra counterattack, see Walsh’s Firewall or Robert Parry Lost History.]

From playing aggressive defense, the conservative media machine shifted to relentless offense after Bill Clinton took office in 1993. The right-wing media pushed story after story about Clinton’s Whitewater real-estate investment and his private life. The Rev. Jerry Falwell and other conservative operatives circulated spurious allegations about Clinton’s supposed role in “mysterious deaths,” including the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster.

During the Clinton administration, coverage by the mainstream media effectively merged with that of the conservative media, as mainstream reporters found they could advance their careers by picking up many of the conservative allegations against Clinton.

Though the Whitewater case was complicated and seemingly inconsequential, the national press corps went wild over the story. With the appointment of conservative special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the stage was set for an unprecedented investigation into the personal life of a sitting president.

Election 2000

The media momentum against Clinton carried over to a press assault on Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, when he ran for president in 2000.

In near perfect harmony now, the mainstream press and the conservative media struck the same chords about Gore as a “serial exaggerator” and a phony who would “do or say anything to win.” By contrast, George W. Bush was perhaps a bit inarticulate but a charismatic leader who knew his own mind, wasn’t afraid to delegate authority to seasoned counselors, and would “put the adults back in charge.” [For details on the disparity in coverage, see Consortiumnews.com's "Protecting Bush-Cheney."]

The media’s anti-Gore bias carried over to the Florida recount battle, where Bush was treated as the legitimate winner although he had lost the popular vote by more than a half million ballots and fought furiously against a full recount of Florida votes. Again, the conservative media – especially Fox News – set the parameters of the debate and the mainstream press followed.

Ironically, the Bush campaign had been geared up, prior to the election, for the potential of an opposite result, with Bush winning the popular vote and trailing in the Electoral College. In that case, Bush aides planned to activate the conservative media, especially talk radio, to challenge Gore’s legitimacy and demand that Bush be accepted as the people’s president. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The GOP's Popular-Vote Hypocrisy."]

When the tables flipped, so did the media strategy. Though the story of the Bush plan to use his conservative-media assets had been reported before the election, it slid into a memory hole afterwards.

During the Florida battle, Gore was the interloper, the “Sore Loserman” of the printed-up conservative signs. Little attention was given to the systematic exclusion of thousands of African-American voters whom Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration had scrubbed from the voting rolls under false allegations that they were felons.

Instead, Gore was blamed for an effort to exclude military absentee ballots, though months later it was disclosed that the Bush forces had engineered a two-tier approach, letting questionable military absentee ballots be counted in predominately Republican counties and excluding them in heavily Democratic counties, where many black voters resided. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com "The Media Is the Mess."]

With Bush installed in the White House, after five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a state-court-ordered recount, the national media rallied around him again, apparently out of concern that his fragile claim to legitimacy might undermine American prestige in the world. In marked contrast to the harsh reporting that confronted Clinton even before he was sworn in, the national news media treated Bush with kid gloves.

Sept. 11 Fallout

That deference deepened after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, eight months into his presidency. The media held off on any searing examination of Bush’s failure to recognize the growing danger from al Qaeda terrorists despite warnings that his incoming administration had received from Clinton’s national security aides. As the dangers had mounted and missed signals accumulated in summer 2001, Bush retreated to his Texas ranch for a month-long vacation.

Rather than meting out tough criticism, the national media couldn't get enough of Bush's decisive leadership and his skill as a wartime president. Again, the press corps seemed worried that critical coverage would undermine the U.S. government at a time of crisis and might open the press corps to the old charge of "liberal bias."

In this post-Sept. 11 climate, leading news organizations chose to play down the most dramatic finding of their own recount of Florida’s ballots – that Al Gore won Florida regardless of what standard of chad was used, whether dimpled, perforated or fully punched through.

Instead of leading with the finding of a Gore victory based on legally cast votes in Florida, the media companies arbitrarily and incorrectly decided that so-called “over-votes” – ballots in which voters both marked and wrote in their choice – would not have been counted in the statewide recount. By doing so, the news outlets headlined their stories with Bush still winning a narrow “victory” in the unofficial tally.

That impression was allowed to stand even after later disclosures that the Florida judge in charge of the recount was moving to include the “over-votes,” which would have secured Florida and thus the White House for Gore. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “So Bush Did Steal the White House.”]

Democratic Complaints

Belatedly, Gore, Clinton and other leading Democrats have begun to address this media imbalance, though so far their words have not translated into much action. In an interview with the New York Observer, Gore noted that the current national news media presented a serious challenge to the ability of the Democratic Party to get out its message.

“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,” Gore said. “Fox News Network, the Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh – there’s a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations. …

“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 whole,” Gore said.

“Something will start at the Republican National Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play this game, the Washington Times and the others. And then they’ll create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon they’ll start baiting the mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story they’ve pushed into the zeitgeist. And then pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold , these RNC talking points are woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist.” [New York Observer, posted on Nov. 27, 2002]

Gore’s comments correctly summarized how the media sometimes followed RNC wording during Campaign 2000, putting Gore’s statements and background into the most unfavorable light. For instance, Republican operatives invented the bogus Gore quote in which he allegedly claimed to have “invented the Internet.” Before long, the made-up quote was routinely attributed to Gore, though he had never said it.

Similarly, the RNC refined another Gore misquote about the Love Canal toxic waste cleanup. The New York Times and the Washington Post started that confusion by misquoting Gore as saying “I was the one that started it all.” An RNC release fixed the grammar in further distorting Gore’s comment to become “I was the one who started it all,” which was then picked up in derivative press reporting.

Gore had actually been referring to a Tennessee toxic site when he said “that was the one that started it all.” By the time, the Post and Times grudgingly filed corrections, the misquote had spread far and wide, contributing to the Washington Times’ assessment that Gore was “delusional.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Media.”]

As Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler has noted, Gore’s latest comments about the RNC's talking points provoked a new round of anti-Gore ridicule from media commentators who said they found Gore’s comments baffling and fresh evidence that he had lost grasp of reality. "Well, now this is nutty," declared Fox News commentator Fred Barnes. "I mean, this is conspiratorial stuff." [For details, see Somerby's Daily Howler.]

Anti-Gore Bias

After Gore announced that he would not seek the Democratic nomination, some media executives began acknowledging the obvious: that the national press corps had operated with a deep-seated bias against Gore.

“Somewhere along the line,” said Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director, “the dominant political reporters for most dominant news organizations decided they didn’t like him, and they thought the story line on any given day was about his being a phony or a liar or a waffler. Within the subculture of political reporting, there was almost peer pressure not to say something neutral, let alone nice, about his ideas, his political skills, his motivations.” [Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2002]

The open hostility toward Gore and Clinton – often over manufactured or exaggerated offenses – was only possible within the context of mainstream journalists trying to disprove the "liberal media" accusation. To do so, reporters either followed the lead of the conservative media or struck out on their own to get ahead of the curve in bashing leading Democrats.

In the framework of this media dynamic, it made every bit of sense for journalists to adopt a pugnacious anti-liberal ‘tude. For their careers, it was all upside and no downside. They protected themselves from potent conservative media "watchdog" groups, while opening up potentially lucrative career opportunities from top-level news executives who already disliked Clinton and Gore.

For Democrats and liberals, however, the political message should be clear: only by countering the powerful conservative media machine can they hope to change this dynamic. There is no reason to believe that simply complaining about the situation will do much to alter the behavior of the national press corps.

On the other hand, for Republicans and conservatives, the secret to their continued success will be, in part, to keep the “myth of the liberal media” alive.

In the 1980s, as a correspondent for the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

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