Why the Liberal Media Myth Persists - Part 4
In Part 1 of this series I pointed out that, apart from the role played by the right-wing media, the liberal media myth persists persists largely because of the role currently played by four groups of people: academics, politicians on the left, influential left-leaning opinion columnists/talking heads in mainstream media (especially those who take journalism seriously), and honest front-line reporters and their editors in the mainstream media. I discussed the role of academics and politicians on the left in Part 2 and Part 3, respectively. In this part I discuss the role of influential left-leaning opinion columnists/talking heads in mainstream media (especially those who take journalism seriously).
As I followed the work of Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler (among others) over the years, I came to realize that there are two main types of "liberals" in the mainstream media: those who are more interested in sounding "centrist" (particularly at the expense of facts) - Type A (say), and those who are more interested in the facts (which is not to say they are infallible) - Type B (say).
Of the two, the Type A "liberals" are the most compromised in being able to analyze the media. Let's talk about them first.
The following extract from David Brock's seminal book The Republican Noise Machine (pages 136-138) is illuminating:
Unlike the conservatives, the liberals are unmoored to any cohesive political movement, and they have no symbiotic relationship with politicians. No liberal columns in wide syndication are "sponsored" by partisan think tanks or subsidized by opinion magazines. The liberals either make it in the market or they don't, while the so-called free marketers are on the dole. Nor are the liberal writers known to attend weekly closed-door strategy meetings to forward the agenda of the Democratic party. They are truly independent columnists and, therefore, a much less potent fighting force when going up against the right wing, which plays a different role in the media wars.
The spectrum of opinion is itself out of balance. Ideologically, left-wing voices that were the true polar opposites of those of the right wing - anti-capitalist, anticorporate, populist, or pacifist - long ago had been all but expunged from the nation's editorial pages as the print media became increasingly corporatized and reliant on advertising.24
Liberal advocacy is further tempered by the reality that counterintuitive thinking and criticizing one's own political bedfellows are valued and even celebrated in liberal journalistic circles. By contrast, independence is looked on as disloyalty in the conservative media, which ironically prizes "political correctness." As The American Prospect's Michael Tomasky has noted, "[Liberals] bend over backwards to 'prove' their 'independence.'"
In principle, "independence" is a good thing. But when it comes to the "Type A" "liberals", what Brock describes is really not "independence". To understand why, it's instructive to read Bob Somerby.
Somerby has often highlighted how these so-called "liberal" columnists at mainstream media outlets are so timid and unwilling to actually stand up for the truth (facts), while their ideological opposites leave no stone unturned in their quest to mislead or lie to their readers on a daily basis (acting as a covert or overt propaganda arm of the GOP):
A bit of background: In late November 2002, we marveled at a puzzling piece by the Washington Monthly’s Nick Confessore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/02). Confessore, a fiery liberal, was analyzing a fairly obvious fact. Paul Krugman had become a famous pundit by trashing the Bush Admin’s lying, Confessore said. But for some strange reason, Confessore noted, mainstream reporters and center-left pundits hadn’t chosen to follow Krugman’s lead. The Monthly scribe was puzzled by this. “What makes Krugman interesting, in short, is not just why he writes what he writes. It’s why nobody else does,” the scribe wrote.
Confessore had noted an important fact—the rest of the press corps’ reporters and pundits had left Krugman twisting in the wind. The comedy came when the Monthly scribe tried to explain this situation. Why had others left Krugman hanging? First, Confessore politely explained the failure of mainstream reporters to examine the “facade of lies” surrounding the Bush budget plans:
CONFESSORE (12/02): [I]f dismantling the facade of lies around, say, Bush’s tax cut is so easy to do—and makes you the most talked-about newspaper writer in the country—why don’t any other reporters or columnists do it themselves? Because doing so would violate some of the informal, but strict, rules under which Washington journalists operate. Reporters usually don’t call a spade a spade, unless the lie is small or something personal. When it comes to big policy disagreements, most reporters prefer a he-said, she-said approach—and any policy with a white paper or press release behind it is presumed to be plausible and sincere, no matter how farfetched or deceptive it may be.
Politely, Confessore re-typed a tired old line; reporters weren’t “dismantling the facade of lies” because to do so would “violate some of the strict rules under which journalists operate!” In short, reporters weren’t reporting the facade of lies because they were far too professional! And don’t worry—Confessore’s clowning was just getting started. Having praised reporters for their inaction, the bright young writer politely explained why pundits weren’t echoing Krugman:
CONFESSORE (continuing directly): Similarly, among pundits of the broad center-left, it’s considered gauche to criticize the right too persistently, no matter the merits of one’s argument. The only worse sin is to defend a politician too persistently; then you become not a bore, but a disgrace to the profession and its independence—even if you’re correct. Thus, in Washington circles, liberal Times columnist Bob Herbert is written off as a predictable hack, while The New York Observer's Joe Conason, who vigorously defended the Clintons during the now-defunct Whitewater affair, is derided as shrill and embarrassing. Obviously, conservative columnists and pundits aren't quite as averse to being persistent or shrill. But center-left journalists do not, to put it mildly, take their cues about what's acceptable practice from conservative pundits.
Confessore was describing great moral cowardice—but he almost made it sound heroic. Why were center-left pundits so quiet? Easy! Such pundits “do not, to put it mildly, take their cues about what's acceptable practice from conservative pundits!” It couldn’t be that these pundits were vast moral cowards; instead, Confessore said that they were simply refusing to act like a bunch of conservative hacks! No, this didn’t make any sense. But as he continued, Confessore kept making it sound like the cowardice of his center-left colleagues was a badge of professional honor:
CONFESSORE (continuing directly): That's because liberal journalists and conservative journalists have different value systems. Most liberal pundits—E.J. Dionne, Ronald Brownstein, or Maureen Dowd—came up through the newsroom ranks, a culture that demands shows of intellectual independence from politicians, especially Democrats. Many conservative pundits, on the other hand—Safire, Tony Blankley, or Peggy Noonan—come straight from political careers, a culture that encourages intellectual fealty and indulges one-sidedness. Krugman is not a journalist by training, and he's never held appointive or elective office. But like conservative pundits, he doesn't feel bound by the niceties that professional reporters do. Hence the discomfort with Krugman's methods among center-left journalists.
Confessore’s analysis was utterly laughable—an insult to the intelligence of Monthly readers. According to Confessore himself, Bush was involved in “a facade of lies”—but he made it sound like his “center-left” colleagues were being Top Pros when they refused to pursue that story! They were following their high-minded “value systems.” They were refusing to “violate the strict rules under which Washington journalists operate.” They were showing “cultural independence from politicians” and refusing to be “one-sided.” And they were refusing to “take their cues about acceptable practice from conservative pundits”—from the very conservative pundits Monthly readers correctly dislike. By the time Confessore got done, he had almost transformed his Silent Colleagues into Heroes of Modern Press Culture. What a stud! He praised Paul Krugman for dismantling Bush’s lies. And he praised the rest of his cohort because they hadn’t dismantled them!
Yes, Confessore made a set of silly excuses for the failures of the mainstream press—and in the culture of the mainstream press, such fawning is always rewarded.
Now, I don't know Confessore much and what little I do know of him (while he was at TAPPED) I didn't have much to complain about (interestingly, Confessore now works for the NYT). But I would be disappointed if he looks back at this article of his with much fondness. In fact, I would hope that Confessore himself doesn't believe this abject poppycock wherein "independence" or lack of "one-sided"ness is demonstrated by an unwillingness to cover the facts.
Having read Somerby for years now, I have no reason to believe Confessore is not speaking the truth about the crock that at least some prominent "liberal" columnists believe; I think Brock's comments only support this interpretation. What do their observations suggest? That there is a deep-seated contempt for journalistic values among the "Type A" "liberals", who confuse "independence" with an avoidance of facts - or worse (as the examples in the Appendix show), with a need to invent false balance. While this may not be as egregious as the more routine journalistic malpractice of their counterparts on the Right, it does explain in part, why people like them would have a tough time dispelling the liberal media myth: if you don't like mentioning the facts (or worse, if you invent myths), how can you dispel myths?
The Type B "liberals" are probably best suited to critique the media. But they face a structural problem, which the Right largely avoids. As Brock points out, lefty columnists (or talkingheads) are usually dependent on the mainstream media for their jobs, which makes it more difficult for them to criticize the media's constant misbehavior, even if they took journalism seriously. Their counterparts on the Right, on the other hand, have the benefit of, shall I say, the Affirmative Access Program for Fabulists, not to mention they are more safely ensconsed in the Right-leaning media anyway.
SHAFER (4/8/05): I started writing press criticism at Washington City Paper back in 1986, because as editor I couldn't get anybody else to do it. Writers were frightened that if they penned something scathing about the Washington Post or the New York Times they'd screw themselves out of a future job. Today, the sort of dagger and epee work I used to perform on big media gets done by hundreds of bloggers before I can rise and read the morning paper. Thanks to blogs, we've gone from a culture where few criticized the press to one where it's the new national pastime.
Huh! Indeed, “hundreds of bloggers” are savaging Time for its bizarre product-placement of Coulter. But from within the established organs—from press-connected, professional sites which might even have some actual influence—we largely hear the sounds of silence.
This is sad because left-leaning columnists actually have the most latitude to explore and debunk the liberal media myth - especially because they are opinion columnists. This gives them considerable leverage to educate themselves and their readers about the case against a "liberal media" at every possible opportunity. In fact, this is especially true of the Type A-"liberals" who keep bending over backwards to hide the unpleasant truths about the Right and to downplay the gangrene of immorality represented by its leaders, because they have the additional benefit of pointing to themselves to dispel the myth of a liberal media. However, for this to happen, they (the latter) should show at least a modicum of moral fibre, courage and journalistic integrity to actually take on the media bias in favor of the Right and its long-time malpractice against Democrats and the left. I can't say whether they will choose to do so (although I realize history is not on my side), but they surely have the power. However, because they don't do much, credible, media critiques today, they contribute, in part, to the persistence of the liberal media myth.
(I would have liked to discuss radio and TV in more detail, but other than the flegling Air America radio and scattered liberal radio outlets, there are few really liberal talkingheads on mainstream radio or TV programs. If at least some of the op-ed columnists are willing to do what it takes to critique the media, and, if we can multiply the number of liberal talkingheads on radio and TV, the blogosphere can empower them in meaningful ways. More on that when I get to media reform.)
The following examples, from Bob Somerby, are the epitome of the desertion of journalistic standards by some of the so-called "liberal" columnists (Type A), borne out of a fundamental lack of understanding of the meaning of journalism in this age of fake "fairness and balance".
ANOTHER OUTSPOKEN LIBERAL: And then, of course, there’s Richard Cohen, another of the Post’s fiery “liberals.” Last Thursday, he offered more of the puzzling work that has become his great trademark. Throughout his column, Cohen implied that Donald Rumsfeld gilded the lily about WMDs. But at the end, he drew this weird conclusion:
COHEN: Now elements of the Bush administration, particularly within the Pentagon, are rattling their sabers in the direction of Iran, making some of the same arguments they made about Iraq: links to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, etc. Given what has happened in Iraq, should they be believed?
The answer is yes. But asking whether the Bush administration should be believed about Iran is different from asking whether it will be believed. The question, after all, is not whether the U.S. intelligence agencies are competent but to what uses the intelligence has been put. If, as it seems, information goes into the Pentagon at one end and comes out the other with a political spin, then we are right to wonder about ulterior motives.
“The answer is yes,” Cohen says. “[T]he Bush administration should be believed about Iran.” But in the very same paragraph, he says the administration’s findings will almost surely be dripping with spin. Many readers wrote to complain about the absurdity of this column. But Richard Cohen is a Post “liberal.” There’s no one quite like them on earth.
Somerby on David Broder (a flashback to 1998 just to point out that the problem is not just about inventing "balance" to favor Bush, but it is also about inventing "balance", er, "independence" to bash Democrats like Clinton) [Note: I've indented the Broder quotes even though they don't appear indented in Somerby's webpage]:
BRODER [first two paragraphs]: Leadership by example.
The simple phrase evokes the most basic of values--responsibility, trust, honor and courage. It came into view in dramatic fashion yesterday morning when Bob Livingston, the Louisiana Republican, said he would step aside as the speaker-designate of the House of Representatives.
Broder went on to suggest that Vile Clinton should take the “Livingston challenge”--should think about stepping aside himself, to serve the good of the nation. Quoting the long-since anointed Jim Leach, Broder tossed a gauntlet:
BRODER: “Leadership is a conjunction of good ideas and good character. One without the other is unsustainable.” So Livingston concluded. Does Clinton think otherwise?
Indeed, some of the analysts were audibly sniffling as our public reading of Broder’s column concluded. Some stared darkly off into space, determined to avoid meeting eyes. And the blood was really beginning to boil, as they considered the example that Livingston set, and his selfless decision to leave the House--and the contrast it drew with Vile Clinton.
But finally one of the analysts rose, and spoke to us there in the counsel. Saint Bob had abandoned his speaker quest, he declaimed, when it was clear he would not be elected. And he’d only admitted his rounder ways when Larry Flynt was preparing to limn them. And most important by far, this knowing sage cried, Saint Bob had some Dimmesdale to him. He had watched and said nothing, for the past seven years, while his party slammed Clinton for what he too had been doing. He had watched Vile Clinton be roasted and splayed for conduct he engaged in himself.
Now the analysts began to mutter against the great dean of the pundits. Could he ever describe even simple events without creating vile contrasts with Clinton? What kind of “courage” had it taken for Livingston to give up on a post that would never be his? And as was well known: he’d long planned to resign from the House, if he couldn’t be Speaker, because he wanted to make extra cash.
But life in this celebrity press corps means always spinning stories so they Look Bad For Clinton. No matter what the other guy does, one must craft a vile contrast with Bill. Livingston had cheated on his wife; deceived his party; stepped aside when he had to; slammed his own sins in Clinton. And the pundit dean, seeing Liv was unVile, came up with a word for it: