"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Is the Media Liberal?

The New Right rhetoric appealed to populist sentiments, through its fear of elites, and the indictment of an imaginary cultural elite. It was intended to retain the loyalty of cultural conservatives. Central to this position were complaints about the alleged bias of the so-called liberal media. Conservatives consider the New York Times an ultra-liberal paper even though a 2004 survey of journalists found that only 20% of them thought the Times even “takes a decidedly liberal point of view.” Although these loud complaints were heard for more than three decades, very little evidence was adduced to support these claims. In the sixties and seventies, when a liberal outlook was common in America, there may have been a liberal bias in the media. By the 1990s, the complaint could not be sustained by solid evidence, but lodging the complaint continued to inflame the New Right faithful. These complaints were designed mainly to convince people they were opposed by plotting and arrogant elitists, but the liberal media argument also persuaded people to reject information they did not like and accept whatever was said by the emerging right-wing information network

The press in the 1970s was blamed for the loss of the Vietnam War and for driving Richard Nixon from office. Of course, liberals thought that most of the media took too long in reporting what was really happening in Vietnam. It could also be noted that there were very few reports about Watergate developments in 1972. Bernard Goldberg, a CBS correspondent, claimed in 2002 that the media was biased against conservatives because it labeled them more often than it labeled liberals. This set off a debate about labeling that seemed to result in findings that politicians on both sides were labeled about the same number of times. He complained that the media spent too much time reporting on the homeless. Goldberg claimed that the census only recorded 600,000 of them and that they were largely responsible for their own plight. They were largely mentally ill, drug addicts, or drunks. Another complaint was about the coverage of Palestinian grievances. The fact that there were no Jewish suicide bombers, he argued, should have persuaded media people that Palestinian grievances did not require extensive coverage. The AIDs epidemic, he argued, was blown out of proportion. The media exaggerated the chances of straights contacting the deadly disease.

Ann Coulter complained that the press never mentions “the atheist left” or “atheist liberals” but frequently refers to “Christian conservatives” and the “Religious Right.” She claimed the latter two terms were used to smear people. However, an analysis of the conservative Washington Times for the year 2000 did not turn up either “atheist liberals” or “the atheist left, “ probably because there is no significant political force that could be identified this way. Stanford research scholar Geoffrey Nunberg looked into the matter of labeling and was surprised to discover that the average liberal had “a better than 30 percent greater likelihood of being given a political label than the average conservative does.” Some have complained that the term “right wing” is used more often than “left wing, ” but a study of Washington Times usage suggested that this leading conservative paper had a liberal bias because it used the term “left wing” more frequently than “right wing.”
A study of the use of labels by the several newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times found that liberal politicians had “a better than 30 percent greater likelihood of being given a political label” than conservatives. When commentary and editorials were eliminated, neither side was labeled more frequently. David Cotreau of Virginia Commonwealth University found that most journalists consider themselves centrists. Those who do not identify themselves this way were more likely to be conservative than liberal on economic issues and liberal on social issues. In general, the press tended to be somewhat more conservative than the general public. A more important test would be to keep track of how frequently the media reports information that is potentially damaging to conservative and liberal interests. A twenty-five year study conducted at Sonoma State University focused on important stories that received very little coverage. It concluded that the press sided with established economic, political, and social power bases by not paying attention to these matters.

Next to labeling, conservatives seem to be most unhappy about the way stories related to culture are reported. John Leo, a respected and very capable conservative journalist, complains that those who write news stories about gay marriage, the death penalty, cloning, benefits for illegal immigrants, racial preferences, and gay marriage make it clear that their personal views are different from those of most Americans. Presumably they do this by choice of words, such as affirmative action rather than racial preferences, or the facts they that they choose to include in their stories. Leo wrote, “Whether you call it a political bias or the class bias of a similarly educated elite, it amounts to the same thing. And it calls for the same reforms.” Of the seven syndicated columnists whose columns appeared in a hundred or more papers in 1990, four were conservatives, and only one-- Ellen Goodman-- was liberal, and few would consider her to be anything other than a very moderate liberal. Later, Leo admitted that two out of three political commentators are conservative and had no problem with that.

Decades before, Kevin Phillips wrote in Human Events that it appeared that government lacked the power to deal with “Big Media power” and that the First Amendment was “obsolescent” in this case. He thought “we need a new socioprudential approach that can solve the problem before the government throws the baby of a free press out with the bathwater of Liberal Establishment bunk.”
By and large, media people are neutral about religious matters, which means that they are essentially more at home with secularist than with the Religious Right. Their lack of familiarity with conservative religion is revealed by means of the adjectives that news writers use in reporting about it.

William McGowan offered a better critique of the media in Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism. He thought the problem was that most media people come from the well educated the sectors of middle and upper middle class. These people are essentially centrists. While on social questions, they may veer to the left, they tend to be centrists on economic questions.. Anything to the right of them seems very conservative and hard to comprehend. For that reason, they characterize unfamiliar views view to the right of them as very conservative or rightist. Anything that seems far out to the left of them they call “liberal, ” but the truth is that there are not that many liberals these days. By the nineties, right-wing criticisms of the press had made the media very sensitive to how it framed coverage on social, political, and economic matters and sought to avoid appearing to be liberal.
However, there is probably still some bias against conservative Protestants and critics of abortion and homosexuality. There also remains strong media bias against Roman Catholicism that reflects both the education of most journalists and a long-standing American tradition, but anti-Catholicism should not be confused with an anti-conservative bias.

It may well be true that most national journalists are Democrats, but this could work to the disadvantage of Democratic politicians. Journalists might understand Democrats better because they are people very similar to themselves, and the scribes are able to more quickly notice when things go awry for liberals. Journalists may also register much greater disappointment when Democrats disappoint them, as Bill Clinton did in many ways. Joshua Micah Marshall suggested that this was “ a large part of what made the media's relationship with the Clintonites so toxic.” On the other hand, the journalists had less in common with the MBAs and former CEO’s who staffed the second Bush administration and may have been confused or buffaloed by their claims to competence. They not notice that Vice President Cheney, while leading Haliburton, was snookered into a disastrous merger that eventually cost the firm billions in asbestos claims. The Bushies start meetings on time, and no one leaked information to the press, which the scribes seemed to accept as evidence to support the claim that the administration was competent and efficient.

Since the Reagan years, there have been more indications that the press could actually be tilting toward the right, but conservative spokesmen have not noticed this. John Pilger, the noted Australian and British journalist, argues that most English-speaking journalist think they are objective, and do not sit down and think, “I’m now going to speak for the establishment.” The problem is that they have internalized so many middle class and middle of the road assumptions that they cannot avoid speaking for the powers that be.” It would seem that the so-called “right” and “left” are labeled with about equal frequency. In most cases, it probably reflects mental laziness rather than ideological bias. Those who object to using these labels have a point; they are seldom accurate or very useful.

In the eighties, the electronic media allowed itself to be manipulated by the popular Reagan administration. Reagan had fewer press conferences than any other modern president except George W. Bush. It was obsessed with secrecy and tightly controlled access to information. When White House officials appeared on television, the networks were forced to agree that they be given unequal time. When Senator Christopher Dodd appeared on David Brinkley’s Sunday program in 1984, the White House required that he be shown between two Reagan spokesmen and that he be given less time than either of them. Secretary of State George Schultz would not appear on Face the Nation unless he was given two-thirds the air time allotted to political spokesmen.

It is almost an article of faith for conservatives that the media is biased toward liberalism. An analysis of media output in 1992 found that even when media accounts were balanced and unbiased, Republicans perceived the media as hostile to their candidates. It did not matter that journalists, perhaps influenced by the bandwagon effect, often picked up stories from the Republican National Committee and printed them with no effort at verification. For example, the story that Al Gore held a fundraiser at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in 2000 was repeated so often that Roger Parloff’s thorough rebuttal in the American Lawyer did not stop its spread or lead to corrections.

Similarly, there was no effort to examine the veracity of the GOP-inspired story that Gore said he invented the Internet. Even though television presented more balanced coverage, but Republicans saw it as more “hostile” than the newspapers. The study also showed that the media was biased toward Clinton that year perhaps as part of a bandwagon effect rather than out of agreement with a particular outlook. Many customarily Republican outlets were supporting Bill Clinton. Although the above study found that newspaper content tilted toward Clinton in 1992, a huge majority of the nation’s newspapers endorsed the reelection of George H.W. Bush, and in 1996 that majority backed Bob Dole against Bill Clinton.

Four years later, a majority of the big metropolitan dailies backed the election of George W. Bush against Al Gore. Despite these facts, conservatives continue to complain about a liberal press. The claim of media bias also arises when the media reports something conservatives think should not be reported. Rush Limbaugh, who complains daily about a so-called liberal bias, becomes enraged when the press reports Democratic comments that are critical of Republicans. He denounced the New England press for reporting a speech of Ted Kennedy in which he complained that President George W. Bush had offered very incomplete plans on what the US would do in Iraq after the Second Gulf War.

In another example of alleged media bias, the conservative Media Research Center, before the beginning of the Second Gulf War, criticized ABC News because Peter Jennings asked soldiers “inappropriate” questions. He had asked if they felt any anxiety about the prospect of fighting. At the same time, Republican Congressmen were asking Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld why he had not imposed censorship on the media.

In 1996, when Republican Steve Forbes advocated a flat tax, the press pointed out that it would most benefit the rich. Conservatives argued that printing this claim showed that the press had a bias against conservative ideas. Showing the effect of the proposal may have helped Bob Dole, a man who has never been accused of being a liberal, in the Republican primaries, . Speaking about the coverage of his presidential campaigns, Patrick Buchanan admitted:, “I’ve gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage --all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the “liberal media.’ “ Conservative journalist Bill Kristol acknowledged in 2000 “The press isn't quite as biased and liberal. They're actually conservative sometimes,” and told someone else that “The whole idea of the 'liberal media' was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.”

There was even considerable evidence that conservative complaints about a liberal media had intimidated the print and electronic press sufficiently to assure conservatives favorable coverage. Screaming about “liberal bias” has been likened to “working the ref” in basketball and football. It has persuaded the established media that it must sometimes “bend over backward to prove they weren’t liberal after all. “ Former GOP national chairman Rich Bond admitted in 1992 that complaints about the liberal media was a strategy similar how a Little League coach would “work the refs” because “Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”

The strategy of working the ref was implemented by three conservative organizations that screened media output. Accuracy in Media, founded in the 1970s, was founded by Reed Irvine, who looked for items that were favorable to big government or supposedly hostile to business, the family or religion. He later developed the theory that Kenneth Starr had covered up evidence that Clintons were responsible for the death of Vincent Foster. The Media Research Center, operated by William F. Buckley’s nephew L. Brent Bozell, III, is well financed and operates the most highly developed media monitoring operation. It makes no secret of the fact that it is a Republican operation. People from MRC are frequently featured on talk shows, and the press pays close attention to its complaints of unfairness. The Center for Media and Public Affairs is smaller and sometimes more objective than the two larger operations. All these complaints about the media run counter to the fact that huge corporations own the electronic media and that the print media is overwhelmingly in the hands of Republicans. In 2000, twice as many newspapers endorsed George W. Bush as those that gave Al Gore the nod.

These complaints and the impression that the nation is moving to the right has given media content a much more conservative coloration. Media outlets have been rushing to hire conservative commentators since the 1980s. In 2003, an ABC spokesman explained why John Stossel was made an anchor on the program “2 0/20” by noting that the country had become conservative. He said,” the network wanted somebody to match the times.” If this explanation has validity, it would help account for why the press appeared friendly to liberal policies in the years of liberal ascendancy.

No matter how much the media modifies its coverage to answer Republican criticisms, it is doubtful if the complaints about a liberal media will diminish. Such criticisms are very effective in fueling right-wing populism with its sense of victimhood at the hands of an evil elite. People on the New Right feel ennobled by persecution and are energized by just rage. In time, New Right political philosophy would assume, for many of its adherents, the form of a religion for many of its adherents. They blended with it an intense professed patriotism, but often these people who spoke so often of their love of America made it clear that they could not stand many other Americans, particularly liberals who made them fearful for the nation’s survival because these people were to blame for most that ailed the nation. Goldwater and the new conservatives inspired many to enter the political arena, and over three decades they became Republican Congressmen and senators and filled important places in state parties and governments. Some would become staffers in Republican administrations.

American right-wing populism it is very attractive to small entrepreneurs and ordinary Americans, often members of the white working class. In both Europe and America white males from the working class were particularly attracted to populism. They faced job insecurity and declining standards of living, and, especially in the United States, they resented the loss of privileges that had traditionally flowed from their status as white males. Yearning for the restoration of their roles as defenders and providers, some American men even joined militias, extremist organizations that display the repressive dimensions of right-wing populism when it is carried too far.

The New Right fed on the resentments of both conservative church people and the economic frustrations of many working Americans. Very often both forces were at work in attracting people to this new political force, which claimed the banner of true conservatism. Since the early 1970s, more and more workers faced economic insecurity and declining benefits and real wages. Over time a collective emotional state fear and anger emerged and grew among many in Middle America; it was generated largely by economic forces but was most easily expressed in cultural and religious terms. The emergence of the New Right also benefited from more concrete and identifiable factors. There were numerous, well heeled secular backers of the New Right. Some of them were the John Randolph Club, the Progress and Freedom Foundation, and the Council for National Policy. Yet, most of the New Right’s support came from church people. The views of the New Right appealed to religious conservatives because they seemed to be calling for a return to traditional moral and economic principles.

Neoliberal thought, by applying “rational choice” economic models to social policy questions, has preempted areas where religiously based theories of morality once prevailed. There was initially a problem in convincing some religious conservatives that they should see greed as productive and that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth was not necessarily a betrayal of Biblical values. In time they seem to have concluded that the market was a God-ordained force and that greed was a natural force designed to drive economic operations. However, there was also the evangelical Christian view that economics and religion were separate spheres. This made it easier for these believers to ally with the Republicans, and, for a time, overlook policies not to their liking. In time, however, they were to become true believers in new conservative economics. Perhaps the appeal of neoliberalism to conservative Christians is that their God is the historical American Protestant deity who is “the narrowed Lord of persons, not of hosts; he is conspicuously not the Lord of history.”

After 9/11, this traditional Protestant God was enlisted in the war against terrorism but his scope otherwise seems to remain rather narrow. Disappointed by the identification of Christianity with imperialism, militarism, homophobia, and some of the least desirable features of capitalism, a British observer wrote in 2004,”Too many [Americans] who profess to be Christians hold values that I see as inimical to the faith. In fact, America could do with an infusion of godly values.” It may be that the new Republican base can only deal with its fears by attacking foreign enemies. Their insecurities are seemingly of a primordial nature and can only be exorcized if the United States acts as an agent of divine redemption to spread democratic institutions to other places in the world.

Sherman has written African American Baseball: A Brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line at http://www.lulu.com/browse/search

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About Me

Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!