On Friday of last week, I received the following email from Maxim Lott, a reporter from FOXNews.com:
“Hi Eric, I am writing an article for FOXNews.com on how the NBC Universal store sells 29 different items about Barack Obama—from a shirt that says ‘yes we did’ to fridge magnets, to his books—but no items from, say, McCain/Palin or Bush. Some conservatives are saying this indicates that NBC has a left-wing bias. Since you’re the author of What Liberal Media? I would love to get your take on this. Does this indicate anything? Unfortunately my deadline is 1 p.m. today. Sorry for the short notice, and hope to hear from you soon. Thanks…”
Well, I try to be a nice guy, and so even though it was a Friday in August, and (as I later learned), both Media Matters and FAIR refused to respond, I gave it my best shot and answered:
“I think it indicates that NBC thinks it can make money from selling Obama items but not from McCain or Bush items. I think this is a sound judgment. Don’t you?”
I mean the guy did win the election and all, is the president, and NBC is in New York City where pretty much everybody voted for Obama, etc., but Mr. Lott continued to wonder if perhaps there wasn’t more to it. He wrote back:
“Thanks. I’ll be sure to include your point in the article. Conservatives I talk with say that even if it’s true that it’s a purely business decision and NBC sells only Obama items because those sell best—aren’t they likely to take the same attitude for on-air reports? More positive coverage of Obama, if that’s what sells? Would be interested in your response to that.”
Here, I’ll admit, Mr. Lott got me thinking. I suppose I should have realized that a conspiracy must lie beneath the sales of the tchotka-stocking decision-making establishment at the NBC gift shop, but alas I did not. Now that he raised it, I felt Mr. Lott deserved a more complete reply. I wrote back:
“I think it an almost comically stupid question. Do these conservatives think that the person making the decision of what items to sell in the NBC gift shops is the person giving orders about how to slant the politics of NBC news? What about the choice of beverage sales in the cafeteria? Is that a conspiracy to send people to Obama’s death panels? Do they, like Obama, hate white people? Really, this would be funny except that FOX pretends to be a real news network….”
Give Mr. Lott credit. His piece is entirely fair to my point of view. And he found two sources without obvious right-wing affiliations to gin up the conspiracy angle: “DePaul University journalism professor Bruce Evensen said, ‘The [NBC] site seems like a campaign stop for those following their messiah…The appearance that NBC isn’t reporting the news with fairness, balance and impartiality—but is instead cheerleading—is apparent,’ he said.”
Later in the piece came Jane Kirtley, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Silha Center for Media Ethics and Law, who said, “I would agree that it is problematic when you have an entity that has a news division to appear to be taking a partisan line. When you’re selling memorabilia that supports anybody who prevailed in an election, you run the risk of being labeled as having a partisan affiliation. To me, whatever money they’re making off of this, it’s not worth it. It undermines any attempt to represent itself as a nonpartisan entity,” she said.
Lott also found a fellow who granted the business point, but nevertheless thought it worth attacking anyway. Joe Luppino-Esposito, a conservative blogger who spotted the shirts for sale, agreed that selling only Obama gear could be a good business decision, but he said that it reflected network bias nonetheless. “It’s definitely possible that it’s a business decision, but I think that a news organization should always be careful in selling products that aren’t so blatant in showing a bias,” he said.
I don’t mean to make such a big deal about one little article on FOXNews. com, especially after my very first visit there. Thing is, it’s interesting that the notion I find to be so nutty is actually quite prevalent among conservatives. And the journalism professors quoted above either agree with it or feel it needs to be indulged. But it sure is there.
Before I was even aware the piece had been published—Mr. Lott was good enough to send me a link—I received an email from a Mr. Gregory Goodman who searched me out on the Internet and explained, “‘Do these conservatives think that the person making the decision of what items to sell in the NBC gift shops is the person giving orders about how to slant the politics of NBC news?’ Yes, or at least they are from the same ‘journalistic culture.’ The Messiah is here, and we got him elected! Pretty damn obvious, to any intelligent observer. Oh, sorry. Nevermind.’” And while I cannot honestly claim to have read the hundreds of comments that this post generated, my guess is that a healthy percentage of them proceed from Mr. Goodman’s assumption that some of us refuse to recognize that this “journalistic culture” pervades even the orders at the GE/NBC gift shop.
Another article that caught my eye this week—no surprise, I suppose, since articles in which my name appears often win my attention—was this kvetch from the right-wing newspaper Human Events, entitled, “New York Times Refuses to Review Conservative Books by Christian Toto.” It argued, “The New York Times is generally loathe to dignify conservative-leaning books with an official review.”
I thought this rather funny because just two Sundays previously, I had observed to a weekend house guest—upon reading a boffo front-page New York Times book review of (the conservative) Weekly Standard editor Christopher Caldwell’s work on Europe and Islam by conservative frequent Wall Street Journal editorial page contributor Fouad Ajami—that if I had to guess off the top of my head, I would estimate that fully 80 percent of the people asked to review foreign policy books in the Times book review were supporters of Mr. Bush’s deceptive and disastrous decision to invade Iraq. So I was naturally eager to examine Mr. Toto’s evidence.
Well, we got Marji Ross, president and publisher of (the extremely right-wing) Regnery Publishing, explaining, “Very rarely do they review conservative books.” I see—demonstration by assertion. But what was funniest to me, however, was the actual evidence provided that liberals get a free ride. “Yet the newspaper saw fit to call What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News by The Nation’s Eric Alterman ‘impressively researched and documented.’”
I mean, really. If this were such a strong point to be made, might Mr. Toto come up with a book that was not only less impressively researched and documented than said masterpiece but published, after say, the spring of 2003? (His only other example, Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars, etc, was published a few months later, that August.)
The sad fact about this silliness is that it works. As I’ve written so many times before, including here, this is a time-honored tactic of Republican conservatives who are rarely silly enough to believe this nonsense themselves. During the 1992 presidential race, Rich Bond, then chair of the Republican Party, outlined the right’s game plan, saying that “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.”
I could fill thousands of web pages with examples, but my favorite one, given the currency of recent attacks on Dan Rather’s credibility by his former colleagues at that commie outfit, CBS News, was this amazing story from 2008, dealing with right-wing accusations against CBS that it had fabricated evidence in the case of George W. Bush deciding he’d just as soon skip the Vietnam War after all.
As Think Progress reported, CBS did announce that it was forming an “independent review panel” to investigate the controversy, composed of former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press Head Louis Boccardi. They eventually threw everybody involved, including Rather, underneath the train, leading to Rather’s current lawsuit. But documents made public in that suit show just how cravenly the network planned to respond to the right-wing attacks. Before picking Thornburgh and Boccardi, here are the names they considered:
- William Buckley
- Robert Novak
- Kate O’Beirne
- Nicholas Von Hoffman
- Tucker Carlson
- Pat Buchanan
- George Will
- Lou Dobbs
- Matt Drudge
- Robert Barkley [sic]
- Robert Kagan
- Fred Barnes
- William Kristol
- John Podhoretz
- David Brooks
- William Safire
- Bernard Goldberg
- Ann Coulter
- Andrew Sullivan
- Christopher Hitchens
- PJ O’Rourke
- Christopher Caldwell
- Elliot Abrams
- Charles Krauthammer
- William Bennett
- Rush Limbaugh
At the very bottom of the list, someone wrote in one more name: “Roger Ailes.”
CBS’s own lawyers explained that indeed, they were caving, pure and simple, to right-wing pressure. Or as they put it: “[A]s is clear from the deposition testimony, because of the perception that CBS News and Dan Rather had a liberal bias, CBS purposefully chose a Republican lawyer, not for any nefarious purpose, but to open itself up to its harshest conservative critics and to ensure that the panel’s findings would be found credible.”
It really is that easy. And that’s why they’ll keep doing it—however lazily (and crazily) it might appear to the rest of us—until we wise up a bit….
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.