Oftentimes a kind of groupthink overcomes Washington reporters, leading them to focus on – indeed, obsess about – stories that matter only inside their encircled biosphere. Not only does this serve to obscure the real issues, but it leads other reporters to parrot the same misguided line, for fear of missing out on a hot angle.
We saw this illuminated most explicitly in the frantic post-election coverage last fall that proclaimed that Americans had voted to re-elect the president almost entirely on "values" issues. As with so many other dumbed-down media constructions, the sheer intellectual laziness of the media's lunging groupthink was here on full display. While it would be foolish to claim that that there isn't a core group of socially conservative Americans who vote with one hand placed firmly on their Bible, it's another thing entirely to promote this vocal minority into the stratosphere of the major voting blocs.
The history of this supposedly new group, as we eventually came to understand after a time, could be traced back to a single question in the Election Day exit poll. Question J asked: "Which ONE issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?" The answers ran as follows: Education, 4 percent; Taxes, 5 percent; Health Care, 8 percent; Iraq, 15 percent; Terrorism, 19 percent; Economy and Jobs, 20 percent; and the kicker, Moral Values, 22 percent. Sure, moral values had the highest ranking, but what was largely ignored was that 71 percent of respondents did not choose "Moral Values." What's more, the term was never given any definition. And finally, the percentage of voters giving this answer actually dropped between 2000 and 2004. Still, we heard from the likes of pundit Tucker Carlson (among many, many others) on CNN on the day following the election; he opened the Nov. 5 show with this categorical assessment: "Three days after the presidential election, it is clear that it was not the war on terror, but the issue of what we're calling moral values that drove President Bush and other Republicans to victory this week."
A moment's thought to the issues would have yielded the insight that some of the responses, such as "education," or "taxes," addressed specific problems, while "moral values" offered a virtual continent of wiggle room for interested parties to add interpretation. For example, if we group "war issues" (Iraq and terrorism) together, we find that 34 percent of voters felt they were the most important issues facing the country, while economic issues (economy and jobs, taxes, health care) comes in at 33 percent. When looked at this way, moral values—whatever they are—come to a mere 22 percent.
The media's near Pavlovian recitation of the right's talking points in re the moral values issue points out how successful right-wing media critics have been in convincing reporters that they are somehow out of step with the lives and values of "ordinary" Americans. The fact is conservatives currently control every level of government, not to mention huge swaths of talk radio, cable TV and the network news shows. So when conservatives criticize the media, they're simply playing a con – casting themselves as the victims of media bias and scaring reporters away from covering the right as critically as they do the left. Ironically, they happen to have a point: To a significant extent, the media are out of step with the majority of Americans on 'values'-related issues. What ought to be shocking to everyone who isn't paying attention, however, is that those values are a great deal more liberal than either the media or their right-wing minders imagine.
A Pew Research Center for People and Policy poll conducted in May 2005 throws this misperception into high relief, confirming a trend that has remained unchanged for decades. If the media were genuinely interested in accurately portraying the values of ordinary Americans, some of these numbers might receive some coverage. The poll shows that on most of the most important social issues facing Americans today, the public mind is much further to the left than it is the right.
For example, a staggering 65 percent of those polled favor providing health insurance to all Americans, even if it means increasing taxes, while 86 percent say that they favor raising the minimum wage. While the left can't claim to hold a monopoly on quality of life issues such as health care and the minimum wage, you would be hard pressed – to say the least – to ever find a conservative pundit or politician champion either one of these issues.
On another tax-related issue, the Pew poll finds that by about a two-to-one margin, most of the electorate would give higher priority to reducing the federal budget deficit than to cutting taxes. Speaking of money, Pew notes that "over the past decade or so, the number favoring more aid for needy people has increased from about 50 [percent] to 57 [percent]." You don't need to look any further than the president's and the Republican-led Congress's last few budget proposals, which do indeed cut aid for needy people, to see that this view isn't exactly in step with the current crop of conservative lawmakers.
Finally, while the president, along with a majority of his conservative allies, continues to support drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas, the poll finds that a full 77 percent of those polled believe the country "should do whatever it takes to protect the environment," while a large majority of 63 percent subscribe to that view "strongly."
So has the country moved to the right during recent decades? Well, perhaps it has, on certain issues, but nowhere near as much as the media would have us believe. At a time when Congress, the Executive Branch (and soon the Supreme Court), the opinion media, talk radio and the like are all singing from the same conservative hymnal, it's almost a miracle that Americans have retained their progressive values. But they have, and it's about time the media woke up and dealt with it.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.