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 Rights 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
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 Clintons
Whitewater real estate investment and Al Gores supposed exaggerations,
trivial issues that paved the way for Clintons impeachment in 1998 and
Gores 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. Thats
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
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 Rathers 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
That is not to say factory workers have no input in
their companys 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 owners
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 days 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]
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 hes staffed with prominent conservative
journalists, such as Brit Hume and Tony Snow, and star commentators, such
as Bill OReilly 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
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 Woodwards summary of
the memo which is described in Bush at War, a generally flattering look inside Bushs 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]
Electric Co.s Chairman Welch revealed a similar favoritism for Bush
while visiting the election desk of GEs 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.
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.
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
worlds population under his personal dominion, Moon founded and
still funds the Washington Times, the second newspaper in the nations
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.coms Hooking
Another way to illustrate the fallacy of the
liberal media argument is to hypothesize that a survey of editorial
workers at, say, Murdochs 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 its 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 newspapers 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 states
whites to plaster their cars with bumper stickers reading, Mississippi:
The Most Lied About State in the Union. [For more on the medias
coverage of the civil rights movement, see David Halberstams The
Fifties. Or Taylor Branch's Parting
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 Rights 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
Most of the public affairs problems that
confronted the United States in South Vietnam stemmed from the
contradictions implicit in Lyndon Johnsons 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
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 Nixons 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 Nixons 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
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
Moons 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 Bushs
pardoning of six Iran-contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992. [For
details about this Iran-contra counterattack, see Walshs 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 Clintons
Whitewater real-estate investment and his private life. The Rev. Jerry
Falwell and other conservative operatives circulated spurious allegations
about Clintons 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.
The media momentum against Clinton carried over to a
press assault on Clintons 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, wasnt 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
The medias 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 Gores legitimacy and demand that Bush be
accepted as the peoples president. [For details, see
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 Bushs 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 Bushs failure to recognize the growing danger
from al Qaeda terrorists despite warnings that his incoming administration
had received from Clintons 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 Floridas ballots that Al Gore won Florida regardless of
what standard of chad was used, whether dimpled, perforated or fully
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
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.coms So
Bush Did Steal the White House.]
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
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 theres 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 whats 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 theyll
create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon theyll start baiting the
mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story theyve 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]
Gores comments correctly summarized how the media
sometimes followed RNC wording during Campaign 2000, putting Gores
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 Gores 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
Gore v. the Media.]
As Bob Somerbys Daily Howler has noted, Gores
latest comments about the RNC's talking points provoked a new round of
anti-Gore ridicule from media commentators who said they found Gores
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
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,
ABCs political director, the dominant political reporters for most
dominant news organizations decided they didnt 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.