The notion of a liberal media bias has grown so firmly codified in the right wing’s DNA that it is now simply taken for granted, and it continuously perpetuates itself despite a overwhelming stream of contrary evidence. Recently, in the Forward, historian Murray Friedman wrote of changes at The New York Times and simply assumed a liberal bias, providing no evidence whatever to support his view. What Friedman did provide evidence for, however—and perhaps inadvertently—was the not-to-be believed nuttiness of some of those who insist on these same "bias" claims. "Conservatives," he noted, "are particularly incensed at the paper’s coverage of the Iraq War; they are especially critical of its news columns and editorials insisting there were no connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein; while it has not been conclusively shown that Hussein colluded with al Qaeda in the September 11 attacks, many believe that abundant connections have been documented in government reports and other materials. As a result, many conservatives have simply stopped reading the paper." Note that it matters not here that there was no actual connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda; nor that many in the Times, like William Safire, joined the administration in pretending it was. The Times should not have "insisted" on the truth; it should have made it up to suit the administration’s dishonest arguments.
Never mind as well that in Judith Miller’s articles among others, the paper actually swallowed whole the administration’s misinformation about Iraq’s alleged nuclear and WMD programs. And Condi Rice even found herself quoting this evil liberal conspiratorial newspaper on television to make her case. But even so, this is not enough for conservatives. As the brilliant press critic "The Daily Show’s" Rob Corddry has pointed out, the problem is that "the facts are biased… the facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda."
Immediately following the election, and goaded by the resignation of Dan Rather from the "CBS Evening News," the far-right media has expanded their critique from just a few allegedly liberal news programs and newspapers to the media establishment in general, as Jay Rosen, chair of the Journalism department at NYU recently pointed out. Exploring the claim made by some bloggers and pundits that "big media," having failed so miserably during the election (by dint of their alleged liberal bias, as the story goes) is on its last legs, Rosen quoted 21 sources who claim that the media was the biggest loser in the post-election dustup. Taking a look at the list of publications that have picked up on the media-bashing meme, we find such familiar faces as National Review, Townhall.com, the New York Post, Conservativegroundswell.com, the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal and Instapundit.com. The conservative press outlets quoted in Rosen’s piece show a remarkable affinity for like-minded analysis and wording, recycling the same list of complaints and showing a penchant for triumphalism. All seem committed to the unproved assumption that the right-wing blogosphere has defeated the allegedly liberal mainstream. Republican flak and Wall Street Journal pundit, Peggy Noonan, held forth her belief that the "yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took [the mainstream media] down." Similarly, Chronwatch, (a site that critiques the "liberal bias" of the San Francisco Chronicle) argued that the election represented the "last gasping breaths of the New York Times and CBS News."
According to these conservative critics, not only was the mainstream media overtly pro-Kerry, but also anti-Bush. As Steven F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard argued, the media’s "long offensive against George W. Bush" proved unsuccessful. Real Clear Politics weighed in with its belief that the national media harbored a "near-pathological desire to remove George W. Bush from office." The Journal’s Opinion Journal claimed that the media chose "to go into overt opposition to one party’s candidate, a sitting president." To back up these claims, conservative critics point to the present that Dan Rather personally wrapped and delivered to their doorstep: fake Bush National Guard records. While invariably trotting out the ‘Rathergate’ scandal and condemning stories dealing with the chaos in Iraq as proof of anti-Bush bias, these critics end up burying more recent history than they choose to exhume. Nowhere in the right-wing attacks can one find any mention of some of the media’s most egregious failures in recent times. In case after case, — and directly contrary to the view put forth by these conservatives – mainstream media offered aid and comfort to the smears of the Swift Boaters while virtually ignoring Dick Cheney’s industry-friendly energy task force, the Valerie Plame outing, the administration’s initial blocking of the 9/11 Commission, flip-flopping on Homeland Security and the failure of anyone anywhere in government to address the full horror of the administration’s manifold, manifest failures in Iraq, to name just a few.
As Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw ‘pass the torch’ to a new generation of anchors, the right wing press has begun crowing for FOX-worthy anchors to step in and staff the network anchor desks. But as Frank Rich pointed out this past weekend in the New York Times, this is an impossible demand to satisfy. Jeff Zucker, the NBC president, summed up the attributes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw’s successor, to Peter Johnson of USA Today: "No one understands this NASCAR nation more than Brian." Mr. Zucker was in sync with his boss, Bob Wright, the NBC Universal chairman, who described America as a "red state world" on the eve of Mr. Brokaw’s retirement." Not only does Williams like NASCAR, but he’s also a fan of right-wing talk radio, telling Sean Hannity in a December 1st interview that "Rush Limbaugh has a place in American history he has not yet received his due for." If Williams truly believes that praising Limbaugh will win him the affection of the far right, he’s in for a rude awakening. Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center has already announced that it expects him to "wind up pushing Nightly News even further to the left."
It is part of the genius of the right, no doubt, to work the refs, even before the refs show up for work.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.