It's the perfect recipe for conservative apoplexy: On the one hand you have the Politico reporting that journalists are dissatisfied with their access to the president and, on the other, you have Chuck Todd saying the media isn't liberal.
The response has been predictable. "Are you kidding me?" conservatives say. "What difference does access make when you agree with everything the president says? And your kneejerk agreement is proof enough that you are biased."
It's a line of reasoning that folds neatly into a larger conservative narrative: If only the media were doing its job and accurately reporting on the White House we all would be as disenchanted with the administration as they are. If that argument seems familiar to you, it should. We've been hearing it from conservatives for a long, long time.
Back in 1944 Gunnar Myrdal wrote a book on American race relations. One of his theses was that change would come to the segregated South when journalists began reporting on the conditions there. Myrdal's notion was that most Americans didn't understand just how bad things were for African-Americans under segregation, but that once they learned they wouldn't be able to ignore it.
You can argue the merits of Myrdal's work, but one thing that proved prescient was his understanding of the role the media would play in changing public attitudes about segregation. When Northern press turned its attention to the civil rights movement, the stories and photos they published helped shape the national debate about Jim Crow and arguably hastened its end.
The reaction of Southern conservatives to these news reports, however, was a little different. The problem, they said, isn't segregation, it's the way a Northern press infected with integrationist sympathies reports it. Of course, that was hogwash. Segregation was exposed and, eventually, ended. But in the embers of an ideological defeat, conservatives found a handy bit of linguistic Jujitsu. If the facts prove inconvenient, don't argue them. Instead, shift the focus and question the integrity of the fact-finder. If you're successful, then in one broad stroke you may be able to disqualify the facts without ever having to argue them on the merits.
Impugning the motives of those we've entrusted with separating fiction from fact has proven an effective strategy for the right. Don't agree with a judicial decision? Blame the "activist" judge. Think an academic paper might be damaging to your cause? No worries. Academia is "liberal" and "elitist." Worried that global warming might prove nettlesome? It's the product of scientists harboring a "hidden agenda."
And today a news media that might otherwise be making reasoned judgments about what's news and what isn't has become so cowed by conservative complaints that just about any allegation, no matter how outlandish, must receive "equal time." Donald Trump's birther claims are a terrific example. Trump has all the credibility of a squirrel monkey. And the charges he mounted in 2011 were completely bereft of anything resembling a fact. Yet when he was pressing his "questions" about the president's place of birth, the media felt compelled to put him on the air in an endless loop, and to book guests to argue "both sides" of the "controversy." Ridiculous.
But suggest that the media might not be so liberal after all, and you elicit ferocious conservative push-back. Just ask Chuck Todd. Last week, when he said media bias was a myth, the conservative response was perhaps best typified by Greg Gutfeld's 90 second uninterrupted monologue on Fox, which I think can be fairly boiled down to: The media is liberal because the media is liberal and it's preposterous to think otherwise.
There's another way of looking at this, of course. As hard as this may be for conservatives to swallow, it may be that 65 million people voted for the president precisely because they have a clear understanding of his record, and what he wants to do—and they agree with it.
Look, in my work, I have found many occasions to be frustrated with reporters. Sometimes they do a good job and sometimes they don't. But clinging to the notion that they are wittingly or unwittingly involved in some kind of mass liberal conspiracy is a little nutty.
If that's the case, you may ask, how can it be that I sometimes find unflattering coverage of conservative ideas? Well, one might ask in return, have you taken a look at the ideas conservatives have championed over the years? Segregation is the way to go. Women shouldn't work. The government is filled with hidden communists. People on the lower end of the economic spectrum are there because they are lazy. Cutting taxes for the rich is the best economic program for everyone. America is one step removed from becoming a totalitarian state. Etc.
In other words, my conservative friends, it may finally be time to come to terms with the following: Its your ideas that leave something to be desired, not the media's coverage of them.
- Read Penny Lee: Sequestration Polls Show Americans Don't Know What They Want
- Read Robert Schlesinger: The Republicans' Conservative Problem, In One Quotation
- Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.