my two decades as a Washington reporter, Ive often wondered where the
legendary liberal media resided.
Clearly, there were a few modest-sized journals of
the left The Nation, for instance which had one or two underpaid
correspondents in Washington. There were a few moderate liberal talking
heads on the Washington pundit shows like Newsweeks Eleanor Clift
often sitting as a minority amid pundits of the right.
But where was the powerhouse liberal media, the
one that supposedly controlled the national debate and needed Rush
Limbaugh as balance?
The traditional thinking was that the liberal
media lurked somewhere in the editorial offices of the Washington Post
and other major publications. The liberal agenda was pushed, too, by the
subtle inflections of TV anchormen and the clever placement of stories by
TV producers, the theory went.
My problem with the theory, however, was that in my
years at the Associated Press, Newsweek and PBSs Frontline, I sat in
many of those offices, I met a number of senior editors and producers, and
I have never known a single one to consciously promote liberalism. Indeed,
whatever their private opinions, they seemed far more inclined to bend
over backward to appease conservatives.
I came to realize that there was a practical reason
for this behavior. Mainstream journalists lived with a constant career
dread of being labeled liberal. To be so branded opened a journalist
to relentless attack by well-funded right-wing media watchdog groups
and other conservative operatives. It guaranteed that a reporters
career would be at least damaged, maybe ended.
So, contrary to the theory of a liberal media agenda,
I found the opposite. Since the principal career danger came from
offending the right and there was almost no danger from upsetting the
left Washington journalists positioned themselves and shaped their
work from a rational perspective of self-preservation, sometimes
consciously, sometimes instinctively.
Fear of a Liberal Label
This little-acknowledged reality of Washington media
explains why editors so often water down stories that might upset
conservatives and why TV producers weigh down their talk shows with
conservative pundits. On the Washington Posts op-ed page, supposedly
the heart of the liberal media, conservative and neo-conservative
opinions dominate in the columns of Robert Novak, James Glassman, George
Will, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Samuelson, Michael Kelly, etc.
Fear of the liberal label also explains why the
Washington press corps shied away from many of the most dramatic stories
of the 1980s. One might have thought that a liberal media would have
welcomed the stories about scandals in the CIAs Central American covert
operations, for instance. It didnt.
In part, that was a tribute to President Reagans
hardball public diplomacy strategies. In the early 1980s, he added
government public diplomacy specialists to the already aggressive
conservative media watchdog groups.
This example of public/private cooperation tag-teamed
reporters who dug up information that put Reagans policies in a harsh
light. A story critical of a Contra atrocity in Nicaragua, for instance,
could mean State Department public diplomacy officials visiting your
bureau chief to complain about your shoddy work, your bias and your
suspect loyalties arguments against you that might be reprised by
Accuracy in Media, the Washington Times and a host of conservative
At another level, many senior editors and publishers
personally favored Reagans foreign policies, especially the Contra war.
These conservative executives did not take kindly to their reporters
undercutting those efforts. The combination of high-level pro-Reagan
sympathies inside and administration pressure outside proved very
In the 1980s, I wrote a number of the articles that
helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal, including disclosures about Oliver
North, Contra drug trafficking and the CIAs role in the secret war
against Nicaragua. But at AP and later at Newsweek, I confronted editors
whose reactions ranged from fearful to openly hostile.
Other reporters who worked the same territory
experienced similar problems. Jefferson Morley and Tina Rosenberg
described the phenomenon in a Rolling Stone article [Sept. 10, 1987] on
coverage of Central America: [Reagan-Bush] Administration pressure
created an atmosphere in which reporters were reluctant to publish sound
stories for fear of being attacked, they wrote. While reporters felt
obliged to print even the most preposterous predictions or information
from administration officials, critical stories required far more
In 1987, when Times Laurence Zuckerman couldnt
get his report on Contra-cocaine allegations through editors, he was told
by a senior editor: Time is institutionally behind the Contras. If this
story were about the Sandinistas and drugs, youd have no trouble
getting it in the magazine.
Karen Burnes of ABC News recalled that the Reagan
administration pressure was so intense that she took time off from
covering the Contra policies in Washington to work on famine stories in
Ethiopia. It was a relief, she commented. Ill take a civil war
any day before working in this city.
Though the fear of offending conservatives might have
peaked in the 1980s, it did not recede much in the 1990s. Instead, it
transformed into a kind of permanent reflex, a Pavlovian response to
rewards and punishments, even when some of the administrators of those
inducements had left the scene.
This was particularly true for the journalists who
had played it smart and advanced their careers in the 1980s. They
internalized the lesson that slanting stories to the right was the safe
way to go. But, understandably, these journalists also were defensive
about any reminders of their timidity during the 1980s.
That shame helps explain the mainstream medias
excessive attacks on Gary Webbs 1996 San Jose Mercury News series,
which revived the Contra-cocaine scandal by revealing its real-life damage
on the streets of Los Angeles. Webbs series jabbed a painful nerve for
many thriving Washington journalists who had shirked their
responsibilities to the American people.
The slant-to-the-right self-interest also can be seen
today in the eagerness of the Washington media to hype the so-called
Clinton scandals. By bashing President Clinton on relatively petty
issues compared to the grievous scandals of the 1980s the
successful journalists again can insulate themselves from the
liberal label. Theres also the additional benefit of looking
tough on the White House.
So the search for the liberal media is a
fools errand. Whatever private opinions reporters might hold or whoever
got their vote in the last election, Washington journalists have learned a
far more important lesson: how to survive professionally at the national
[Reprinted from the July/August 1998 issue of