secret to the conservative medias success in reshaping Americas
political landscape is not the pervasive nastiness, though thats
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.
CNNs chief Walter Isaacson has made clumsy
gestures to woo conservative viewers from Fox News. CNNs 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 Bushs 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
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
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
Wellstones 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
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 reporters work as happened often
during the Reagan-Bush era to journalists who reported honestly about
events in Central America. [For details, see Robert Parrys Lost
So there is little to be gained by liberals
simply complaining about the conservative bias in the U.S. media.
Its also not enough to turn off sycophantic coverage of Bush on
broadcast outlets or to skip over the cheer-leading op-ed pieces.
Its 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
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 todays 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 todays 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.
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.