What Liberal Media?

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Only a liberal would be dumb enough to title a book, What Liberal Media? Listen to just about anyone and the answer is obvious: “What, are you stupid? Just pick up a newspaper or turn on your TV.” Should that fail to convince, bemusement can turn to anger, or at best, pity, as in “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” America’s argument about media bias features just two points of view. The right argues that the media is biased toward leftists. The other side responds, to quote David Broder, “dean” of the Washington press corps, “There just isn’t enough ideology in the average reporter to fill a thimble.” The idea that the media might, for reasons of ownership, economics, class, or outside pressure, actually be more sympathetic to conservative causes than to liberal ones is widely considered to be simply beyond the pale.

Social scientists talk about “useful myths,” stories we all know are not necessarily true, but that we choose to believe anyway because they seem to offer confirmation of what we already know (which raises the question, if we already know it, why the story?). Think of the wholly fictitious but illustrative story about little George Washington and his inability to lie about that cherry tree. For conservatives, and even more many journalists, the “liberal media” is just that: a myth, to be certain, but a useful one. If only it were true, we might have a more humane, open-minded, and ultimately effective public debate on the issues facing the nation. Alas, if pigs could fly…

Republicans of all stripes have done quite well for themselves during the last five decades fulminating about the liberal cabal/progressive thought-police who spin, supplant, and sometimes suppress the news we all consume. Indeed, it’s not only conservatives who find this whipping boy to be an irresistible target. Dwight David Eisenhower received one of the biggest ovations of his life when, at the 1964 Republican convention, he derided the “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” who sought to undermine the Republican Party’s efforts to improve the nation. The most colorful example of this art form, however, is probably a toss-up between two quips penned by William Safire when he was a White House speechwriter for Vice President Spiro Agnew, who denounced both the “nattering nabobs of negativism” and the “effete corps of impudent snobs” seeking to sink the nation’s morale. His boss, Richard Nixon (who had been Ike’s VP), usually held his tongue in public, but complained obsessively in private to the evangelist Billy Graham of “a terrible liberal Jewish clique” that “totally dominates the media” and “erodes our confidence, our strength.” Just about everyone wants to get in on the fun. Even Bill Clinton whined to Rolling Stone that he did not get “one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press.” The presidency’s current occupant, George W. Bush, continues this tradition, complaining that the media “are biased against conservative thought.” On a trip to Maine in January 2002, he quite conspicuously carried a copy of the best-selling book, Bias, by Bernard Goldberg, as if to the give the so-called “liberal media” — hereafter, SCLM—a presidential thumb in the eye.

But while some conservatives actually believe their own grumbles, the smart ones don’t. They know mau-mauing the other side is a just a good way to get their ideas across—or perhaps to prevent the other side from getting a fair hearing for theirs. On occasion, honest conservatives admit this. Rich Bond, then the chair of the Republican Party, complained during the 1992 election, “I think we know who the media want to win this election — and I don’t think it’s George Bush.” The very same Rich Bond also noted during the very same election, however, “There is some strategy to it [bashing the ‘liberal’ media]… If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.” Bond is hardly alone. That the SCLM were biased against the administration of Ronald Reagan is an article of faith among Republicans. Yet James Baker, perhaps the most media-savvy of them, owned up to the fact that any such complaint was decidedly misplaced. “There were days and times and events we might have had some complaints [but] on balance I don’t think we had anything to complain about,” he explained to one writer. Patrick Buchanan, among the most conservative pundits and presidential candidates in the republic’s history, found that he could not identify any allegedly liberal bias against him during his presidential candidacies. “I’ve gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage — all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the ‘liberal media,’ but every Republican on earth does that,” the aspiring
American ayatollah cheerfully confessed during the 1996 campaign. And even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential Republican/neoconservative publicist in America, has come clean on this issue. “I admit it,” he told a reporter. “The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.” Nevertheless Kristol apparently feels no compunction about exploiting and reinforcing ignorant prejudices of his own constituency. In a 2001 subscription pitch to conservative potential subscribers of his Rupert Murdoch–funded magazine, the Weekly Standard, Kristol complained, “The trouble with politics and political coverage today is that there’s too much liberal bias… There’s too much tilt toward the left-wing agenda. Too much apology for liberal policy failures. Too much pandering to liberal candidates and causes.” (It’s a wonder he left out “Too much hypocrisy.”)

In recent times, the right has ginned up its “liberal media” propaganda machine. Books by both Ann Coulter, a blond bombshell pundette, and Bernard Goldberg, former CBS News producer, have topped the best-seller lists, stringing together such a series of charges that, well, it’s amazing neither one thought to accuse “liberals” of using the blood of conservative children for extra flavor in their soy-milk decaf lattes. While extremely popular with the media they attack, both books are so shoddily written and “researched” that they pretty much refute themselves. Their danger derives less from the authors’ respective allegations than the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” impression they inspire. In fact, barely any of the major allegations in either book stands up to more than a moment’s scrutiny. The entire case is a lie, and, yes, in many instances, a slander. Although I abhor the methods of both authors, I do not feel they can go unanswered. Ideas, particularly bad ones, have consequences. The myth of the “liberal media” empowers conservatives to control debate in the United States to the point where liberals cannot even hope for a fair shake anymore. However immodest my goal, I aim to change that.

I first met Ann Coulter in 1996 when we were both hired to be pundits on the new cable news station, MSNBc= Still just a right-wing congressional aide, she had been hired without even a hint of journalistic experience but with a mouth so vicious she made her fellow leggy blond pundit, Laura Ingraham, look and sound like Mary Tyler Moore in comparison. Coulter was eventually fired when she attacked a disabled Vietnam veteran on the air, screaming, “People like you caused us to lose that war.” But this was just one of many incidents where she had leaped over the bounds of good taste into the kind of talk that is usually reserved for bleachers or bar fights. In her columns, published in one of the most extreme of all conservative publications, Human Events, she regularly referred to the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, as a “pervert, liar, and a felon” and “a flim-flam artist.” She termed the first lady to be “pond scum” and “white trash” and the late Pamela Harriman a “whore.” Coulter said these things all the while appearing on air in dresses so revealing they put one in mind of Sharon Stone in the film Basic Instinct.

The greater Coulter’s fame, the more malevolent grew her hysteria. In her 1998 book, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, she wrote, “In this recurring nightmare of a presidency, we have a national debate about whether he ‘did it,’ even though all sentient people know he did. Otherwise there would be debates only about whether to impeach or assassinate.” Such was the wisdom of the alleged “constitutional scholar” whose work George Will quoted on ABC’s This Week. (Will is not very particular about his sources. I counted exactly one work of history in Coulter’s copious footnotes. Coulter has also been accused of plagiarism by a former colleague, but denies the charge.)

Shortly after 9/11, Coulter became famous again when she suggested, in a column published by National Review Online, after seeing anti-American demonstrators in Arab nations, that we “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Coulter’s column was dropped by the magazine, but not because the editors objected to its content. Editor Jonah Goldberg explained, “We ended the relationship because she behaved with a total lack of professionalism, friendship, and loyalty.” (Coulter had called the editors “girly boys.”) Coulter remained unbowed. At a meeting of the National Political Action Conference, speaking of the young American who converted to militant Islam and fought for the Taliban, Coulter advised, “We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors.” She also joked about the proposed murder of the U.S. secretary of transportation, Norm Mineta.

In her second book-length primal scream, published in the summer of 2002, Coulter compared Katie Couric of the Today show to Eva Braun. (She would later add Joseph Goebbels after Couric challenged her in an interview.) She termed Christie Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a “dimwit” and a “birdbrain.” Sen. Jim Jeffords is a “half-wit.” Gloria Steinem is a “termagent” and “deeply ridiculous figure,” who “had to sleep” with a rich liberal to fund Ms. magazine. But the errors are even more egregious than the insults, and her footnotes are, in many significant cases, a sham. The good folks at the American Prospect’s Web log “Tapped” went to the trouble of compiling Coulter’s errors chapter by chapter. The sheer weight of these, coupled with their audacity, demonstrates the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of a journalistic culture that allows her near a microphone, much less a printing press. (If you doubt this, put down this book and log on right now to, and follow the clicks to Appendix One.)

Coulter’s view of the U.S. media can be summed up as follows: “American journalists commit mass murder without facing the ultimate penalty, I think they are retarded.” In the New York Observer, published in one of the two cities attacked on 9/11, Coulter joked about how wonderful it would have been if Timothy McVeigh had blown up the New York Times building and murdered all of its inhabitants. Apparently nothing—not even the evocation, serious or not, of the mass murder of journalists — could turn Coulter’s love affair with the SCLM sour.

For such comments, she is celebrated and rewarded. While promoting Slander, Coulter was booked on Today, Crossfire (as both a guest and guest host), Hardball, The Big Story with John Gibson, and countless other cable and radio programs. She was lovingly profiled in Newsday, the New York Observer, and the New York Times Sunday Styles page, while also enjoying a seat at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner as a guest of the Boston Globe. She was even invited on ABC’s Good Morning America as an election analyst in November 2002. In the Wall Street Journal — a newspaper that had actually been destroyed by terrorists, and whose reporter, Daniel Pearl, had been murdered by them—Melik Kaylan defended her comments in Coulter-like fashion. He argued, “We have been programmed to think that such impassioned outrage, and outrageousness, are permissible only on the left from counter-culture comedians or exponents of identity politics.” He also compared
Coulter’s alleged “humor” to that of Lenny Bruce, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers. Too bad, therefore, as Charles Pierce pointed out, the conservative media darling has yet to be “arrested and jailed for what she said (Lenny Bruce), prosecuted in federal court (Angela Davis), or shot to ribbons in her bed (the Black Panthers).”

Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias suffers from many of the same weaknesses as Coulter’s, though he lacks her colorful flair for murderous invective. Still Bias proved a smashing success. The New York Times’s publishing columnist, Martin Arnold, termed its sales to be “the most astonishing publishing event in the last 12 months.” Indeed, with its publisher claiming more than 440,000 copies in print, the book’s sales figures alone are taken by many to be evidence of the truth of its argument. In many ways, the conservative side was hardly better served in its arguments by Goldberg than by Coulter. To those who do not already share Goldberg’s biases, his many undocumented, exaggerated assertions have the flavor of self-parody rather than reasoned argument. Among these are such statements as: “Everybody to the right of Lenin is a ‘right-winger’ as far as media elites are concerned.” Opposition to the flat tax, he claims, comes from the same “dark region that produces envy and the seemingly unquenchable liberal need to wage class warfare.” Roughly 72 of the 232 pages of Bias are devoted to attacks or score-settling with Dan Rather, whom Goldberg believes to have ruined his career. “If CBS News were a prison instead of a journalistic enterprise, three-quarters of the producers and 100 percent of the vice-presidents would be Dan’s bitches,” Goldberg says. Much of the rest of Bias consists of blasts at unnamed liberals who are accused of exaggerating data and manipulating the truth for their own purposes. How strange, therefore, that Goldberg seeks to make his case with statements about: “America’s ten-trillion-page tax code,” tuition fees that are “about the same as the cost of the space shuttle,” and Laurence Tribe’s “ten million” appearances on CBS News during the 1980s.

Taking the conservative ideology of wealthy white male victimization to hithertounimagined heights, Goldberg employs an extended Mafia metaphor to describe his departure from CBS. He speaks of having broken his pledge of “omerta” by writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal attacking his colleagues. “So what happened?” he writes. “Well, as Tony Soprano might put it to his old pal Pussy Bompensiero in the Bada Bing! Lounge: Bernie G. opened his big mouth to the wrong people—and he got whacked.” You believe this heartbreaking tale until you discover that CBS had every right to fire him for violating the terms of his contract by attacking the network news program in a public forum. Instead, his superiors found him a comfortable job where he was allowed to quietly qualify for a higher pension. (On The Sopranos, and indeed, in most Mafia lore, the term “to whack” carries rather different connotations, as evidenced by Big Pussy’s undisturbed slumber with “the fishes.”)

Part 1 | Part 2

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow