Lament of the liberals
Rub your eyes. Liberals are complaining that the media are unfair and biased. Former President Clinton attacked the "increasingly right-wing and bellicose conservative press" and said mainstream media are too docile. Al Gore called conservatives in media a "fifth column" (which means they are traitors--and people say President Bush is bad with words). Tom Daschle said he feared being physically attacked because of Rush Limbaugh's shrill remarks about him on talk radio.
A news article in the New York Times, sounding like a parody from the Onion, said worried Democrats are looking for an "angry liberal" talk-show host or perhaps a "brazen and entertaining" version of Limbaugh. (Unleash Phil Donahue!) The Times said liberals may even try to create a new cable channel to serve as "a progressive version of Fox News." On his Internet site, journalist John Ellis said: "If Democrats believe that they are losing elections because the media are not liberal enough, then they really ought to just give up."
Liberal columnist E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post argued that newsrooms now tilt politically toward the right. He said mainstream media are "heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians" because they are intimidated by right-wing complaints. There is even a liberal Internet weblog titled "Take Back the Media" (from the tentacles of the right, that is). Did you ever think you would live long enough to see pro-conservative media bias become a big issue?
But liberal problems can't be solved by great casting (finding someone to play the role of a lefty Limbaugh). Liberals have several big problems, I think. They lack ideas. They are much too committed to moral self-congratulation over past victories. And they haven't come to terms with the reality that America is a much more conservative nation than it was 25 or 30 years ago.
Get real. I hereby offer a reality check. It is a matter of faith among many liberals that talk radio is essentially a haven for "angry white males" and other assorted fogies. This audience is far more conservative than liberal (by 33 percent to 13 percent). But here is the rest of Talkers Magazine 's 2002 survey of this audience: 21 percent black, 46 percent female, 34 percent college grads, 21 percent Republican, 14 percent Democratic, 51 percent independent, heavily middle class. So the "angry white males" turn out to be a rough cross-section of the population. Next question: Why do they trend so heavily conservative?
Political commentators trend conservative, too. For every liberal member of the commentariat there seem to be two or three social conservatives or libertarians. I have no numbers on this, but the conservative trend seems particularly strong among younger columnists and bloggers (Internet commentators with small audiences but rising influence). Many bloggers are very good at ankle-biting the mainstream media over inaccuracy and bias. One argument rippling though the blogging world is that liberals are complaining about conservative media because they lack the skills or will to get out and argue the issues. The RealClear Politics site said this: "Until liberals admit they have been coasting on the backs of a left-leaning national press for years, they have little hope of figuring out how to deal with the battle of ideas that occurs every day via TV, radio, cable, print, and the Internet."
Despite Dionne's portrait of a newsroom tilting rightward out of fear, the newsroom culture remains adamantly liberal. Call it the daily disconnect between the newsroom and the general populace. Huge majorities of Americans oppose racial preferences, want immigration limited, resent benefits for illegal immigrants, support the death penalty, are morally troubled by cloning, oppose gay marriage, look favorably on the Boy Scouts, support parental-consent laws on abortion, and want a ban on "partial-birth" abortion. In the newsroom, huge majorities hold the opposite opinions. When those opinions shine through, as they regularly do in the framing and selection of stories, readers and viewers begin to look elsewhere for their information.
Dionne, appearing on CNN's Reliable Sources, acknowledged that the media have had a bias, "the bias of the educated upper-middle class," which is "not so good," he said, for religious conservatives, unions, and the poor. Yes, and it's also not so good for the military, law enforcement, nonreligious conservatives, and people who are proud of America despite its frequent blunders. Memo to E.J.: 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.
This story appears in the January 20, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.