If we learn nothing else from the war on Iraq and its subsequent occupation, it is that the U.S. ruling class has learned to make ideological warfare as important to its operations as military and economic warfare. A crucial component of this ideological war has been the campaign against “left-wing media bias,” with the objective of reducing or eliminating the prospect that mainstream U.S. journalism might be at all critical toward elite interests or the system set up to serve those interests. In 2001 and 2002, no less than three books purporting to demonstrate the media’s leftward tilt rested high atop the bestseller list. Such charges have already influenced media content, pushing journalists to be less critical of right-wing politics. The result has been to reinforce the corporate and rightist bias already built into the media system.
The main target of this propaganda campaign is television network news programs, but the campaign has also extended into radio broadcasting, newspapers, and other media. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which controls broadcasting outlets and newspapers throughout the world, launched the Fox News Channel in the 1990s as a more conservative rival to CNN and the news programs of ABC, NBC, and CBS. According to the New York Times (April 7, 2003),
In the United States, Mr. Murdoch’s creation of the Fox News Channel has shifted the entire spectrum of American cable news to the right. Convinced that many people found CNN and the major broadcast networks too liberal, Mr. Murdoch and the former Republican political consultant Roger Ailes chartered Fox to be more conservative—or, from their point of view, more centrist. Last January, Fox became the top-rated cable network and it now draws more than 2 million viewers in prime time….From the start, the network displayed an American flag waving on its screen. Its newscasters speak of American and British troops as “we,” “ours,” and “liberators.” After other networks reported setbacks to American and British forces [during the invasion of Iraq], the Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly denounced its competitors as “liberal weenies” who were exaggerating the difficulties of the fight and underestimating the American public’s toleration for casualties.
The current attack on media content is presented as an attempt to counter the alleged bias of media elites. In reality, however, it is designed to shrink still further—to the point of oblivion—the space for critical analysis in journalism. In order to understand the form and content of the conservative onslaught on the media it is necessary to have some comprehension of the role played by professional journalism beginning in the early twentieth century.
Prior to 1900, the editorial position of a newspaper invariably reflected the political views of the owner, and the politics were explicit throughout the paper. Partisan journalism became problematic when newspapers became increasingly commercial enterprises and when newspaper markets became predominantly monopolistic. During the Progressive Era—as was chronicled in these pages a year ago—U.S. journalism came under withering attack for being a tool of its capitalist owners to propagate anti-labor propaganda.* With profit-making in the driver’s seat, partisan journalism became bad for business as it turned off parts of the potential readership and that displeased advertisers. Professional journalism was born from the revolutionary idea that the link between owner and editor could be broken. The news would be determined by trained professionals and the politics of owners and advertisers would be apparent only on the editorial page. Journalists would be given considerable autonomy to control the news using their professional judgment. Among other things, they would be trained to establish their political neutrality. Monopoly control over the news in particular markets was not especially important—so the argument went—since, whether or not there were multiple newspapers, trained professionals would provide similar reports, to the extent that they were well trained. There emerged a professional code that, following The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, might be reduced in its most ideal form to nine principles:
- .Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
- Its first loyalty is to citizens.
- Its essence is a discipline of verification.
- Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
- It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
- It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
- It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
- It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
- Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
Needless to say, such principles are mere ideals in a society where the media are ultimately controlled by those who hold the purse strings. Under these circumstances, the field for the application of journalism’s professional code is narrow, and it has been altered to conform to the political and commercial requirements of the media owners, and the owning class in general. In practice, professional journalism has adopted three biases that have tended to institute an establishment bias: (1) government officials and powerful individuals are regarded as the primary legitimate sources for news; (2) to avoid the controversy associated with providing context, there has to be a news hook or news peg to justify a news story, which further tilts the news toward established institutional actors; and (3) journalists internalize how to “dig here, not there,” as Ben Bagdikian put it. In other words, stories about corporate malfeasance are far less likely to be considered newsworthy than stories about government malfeasance.
To be sure, professional journalists puts a premium on fairness and social neutrality, but such principles are notoriously difficult to define since there is always a question of where to put the baseline. This has created a situation where the standards maintained are skewed toward the controlling business elites. The present rightward drift is making this even more of a reality.
Still, once the notion of professional journalism, however conceived, became dominant, the importance of the views and conduct of working journalists assumed greater prominence relative to the broader institutional determinants of journalism. Mainstream media analysis is mostly concerned with commercial and government encroachment on journalistic autonomy, and with journalists receiving proper professional training designed to lessen such influences. The conservative critique is a variant of this mainstream analysis devoted to showing that establishment journalists, who are seen as primarily left of center, abuse their power by distorting the news to serve their own political agendas—in a violation of the professional code. Such criticism would have been nonsensical prior to the professional era, when journalism explicitly represented the values of the owners, who tended to have the politics of the owning class, and thus were conservative.
The conservative critique is based then on four propositions: (1) the decisive power over the news lies with the journalists—owners and advertisers are irrelevant or relatively powerless; (2) journalists are political liberals; (3) journalists abuse their power to advance liberal politics—thus breaking the professional code; and (4) objective journalism would almost certainly present the world exactly as seen by contemporary U.S. conservatives. For their basic argument to hold the first three propositions must be valid. Moreover, for conservatives to continue to maintain a commitment to professional journalism, the media system would have to meet the standard of “objectivity” expressed by the fourth proposition—this is the unstated assumption underlying their entire argument. But this would spell the end of professional journalism as it is now understood. Indeed, it is our thesis that the conservative critics, while relying on the notion of bias (the violation of the professional code of neutrality) as the basis of their criticism of allegedly left-wing media, are not actually concerned with defending professional journalism at all but with eliminating it—as a no longer necessary concession on the part of those who own and ultimately control the media.
The first proposition is intellectually indefensible and is enough to call the entire conservative critique of the liberal news media into question. No credible scholarly analysis of journalism posits that journalists have the decisive power to determine what is and is not news and how it should be covered. In commercial media, the owners hire and fire and they determine the budgets and the overarching aims of the enterprise. Successful journalists, and certainly those who rise to the top of the profession, tend to internalize the values of those who own and control the enterprise. Sophisticated scholarly analysis examines how these commercial pressures shape what become the professional values that guide journalists. Indeed, the genius of professionalism in journalism is that it allows journalists to adopt the commercial/professional values of the owners, yet, because they are following a professional code, they are largely oblivious to the compromises to authority that they are making. They are taught that there is a legitimate spectrum of opinion, conforming to the range of discussions among those who actually own and control the society. Their professional autonomy, such as it is, does not allow them to go outside that spectrum in the framing of stories—no matter how far this removes the resulting journalism from the realities experienced by a majority in the United States and the world.
In the formative period of professionalism, especially in the 1930s, journalists like George Seldes and Haywood Broun, through their union, the Newspaper Guild, strove to establish a professional code which would be progressive and emphasize the need to advance the interests of those outside the power structure. They fought to keep the hands of the owners entirely off the content of the news. We will not keep you in suspense. They lost. The eventually dominant professional code for journalism was small-c conservative; its call for reliance upon official sources as the basis of legitimate news, and its definition of official sources as those in power meant it could hardly be otherwise. This episode suggests that a more powerful labor movement and, in particular, more powerful media workers’ unions are crucial to protecting the integrity of journalism in a capitalist media system.
The most striking example of the deep flaws built into the professional code comes in the area of coverage of U.S. foreign policy and militarism. The range of legitimate debate in U.S. journalism has been and is the range of debate among the elite. Hence the U.S. right to invade any nation it wishes for any reason is never challenged in the press, because to our elites this is a cardinal right of empire. Likewise, the U.S. equation of capitalism with democracy, or, more specifically, U.S. dominated capitalism with democracy, is also a given among our elites and therefore in professional journalism. For journalists to question these matters on their own reveals them to be partisan and unprofessional, so it is not done. This highlights the severe limitations of professional journalism as a democratic force. With the emergence of global news media, this has presented institutions like CNN with a particular dilemma. If they broadcast their rah-rah U.S. news outside the United States it is dismissed as so much blatant propaganda; if they broadcast critical journalism in the United States it is dismissed as unprofessional. With little sense of irony, during the current Iraq war and occupation, CNN has adopted a two-track approach to its journalism, with the United States and the rest of the world getting very different pictures.
Yet, even with this truncated professional code, the rise of professionalism did grant journalists a degree of autonomy from the immediate dictates of owners. The high-water mark for journalist autonomy was from the 1950s to the 1970s. The great unreported story in journalism of the past quarter century, ironically enough, has been the attack upon journalist autonomy by media owners. Increasingly, the massive conglomerates that have come to rule the U.S. news media have found that the professional “deal” struck in the first half of the twentieth century no longer serves their needs. They have slashed resources for journalism and pushed journalists to do inexpensive and trivial reporting. In particular, expensive and not commercially lucrative investigative and international coverage was reduced if not effectively eliminated. To the extent the conservative critique of the liberal media was based upon a concern about journalists having too much power over determining the news, they have won that battle. Journalists have markedly less autonomy today than two or three decades ago.
In fact, conservatives tacitly acknowledge the transparently ideological basis of the claim that journalists have all the power over the news. The real problem isn’t that journalists have all the power over the news, or even most of the power, it is that they have any power to be autonomous from owners and advertisers. For conservatives, the influence of owners and advertisers is not a problem since they have both the proper political world-view, and unique rights as owners. The conservative critics thus focus on journalists as a kind of fifth column attacking conservative values from within the media. Newt Gingrich, with typical candor and a lack of PR rhetoric, laid bare the logic behind the conservative critique: what needs to be done is to eliminate journalistic autonomy, and return the politics of journalism to the politics of media owners. This also helps to explain why U.S. rightists tend to be obsessed with pushing public broadcasting to operate by commercial principles; they know that the market will very effectively push the content to more politically acceptable outcomes, without any need for direct censorship.
The second proposition of the conservative critique—that journalists are liberals—has the most evidence to support it. Surveys show that journalists tend to vote Democratic in a greater proportion than the general population. In one famous (though highly criticized as methodologically flawed) survey of how Washington correspondents voted in the 1992 presidential election, something like 90 percent voted for Bill Clinton (the favorite of the larger population that year, and hardly a raging progressive). To some conservative critics, that settles the matter. But, the weakness of the first proposition undermines the importance of how journalists vote, or what their particular political beliefs might be. What if owners and managers have most of the power, both directly and through the internalization of their political and commercial values in the professional code? Surveys show that media owners and editorial executives vote overwhelmingly Republican. An Editor & Publisher survey found that in 2000 newspaper publishers favored George W. Bush over Al Gore by a 3 to 1 margin, while newspaper editors and publishers together favored Bush by a 2 to 1 margin. In addition, why should a vote for Al Gore or Bill Clinton be perceived as a reflection of leftist politics? On many or most policies these are moderate to conservative Democrats, very comfortable with the status quo of the U.S. political economy.
Already a problem with the argument is apparent, one that MR readers would observe immediately: the terms “liberal” and “left-wing” are used interchangeably. In the conservative argument, the great divide in U.S. politics is between conservatives and the “left,” a group that spreads unambiguously from Al Gore and Bill Clinton to Ralph Nader, Nelson Mandela, Noam Chomsky, and Subcommandante Marcos. To listen to the shock troops of the current conservative assault on the journalistic profession, support for Gore or Clinton is virtually indistinguishable from being an anarcho-syndicalist or a Marxist. Bernard Goldberg, author of the recent bestseller Bias that purports to demonstrate left-wing media bias, associates, albeit flippantly, political strategists for Clinton with Marx in their contempt for the rich, and adds that, “Everybody to the right of Lenin is a ‘right-winger’ as far as the media elite are concerned.”
To the extent there is any basis whatsoever for such claims, it has to do with the fact that conservatives see any concession to social welfare needs as evidence of creeping socialism. Clinton Democrats and radical leftists become the same because of the conservative measure of what it means to be a leftist. It is based almost exclusively upon what are called social issues, such as a commitment to gay rights, women’s rights, abortion rights, civil liberties, and affirmative action. And indeed, on these issues a notable percentage of journalists (like most educated professionals) tend to have positions similar to many of those to their left. For Goldberg “the real menace, as the Left sees it, is that America has always been too willing to step on its most vulnerable—gays, women, blacks. Because the Left controls America’s newsrooms, we get a view of America that reflects that sensibility.”
But this is absurd. Not only do newsrooms not project such sensibilities for the most part, the real divide in U.S. politics is not about issues such as affirmative action and thus between the liberal and conservative sides of elite opinion, but between elite opinion and those outside the elite, especially the left (using the term to refer mainly to those who challenge the system itself). Traditionally, journalists have had some autonomy to carry out news investigations and raise questions—as long as they stayed within the legitimate spectrum of debate established by elite opinion. The actual record of the U.S. news media is to pay very little direct attention to the political left as outside that spectrum, and this applies not only to socialists and radicals but also to what would be called mild social democrats by international standards. What attention the left actually gets tends to be unsympathetic, if not explicitly negative. Foreign journalists write about how U.S. left-wing social critics, who are prominent and respected public figures abroad, are virtually non-persons in the U.S. news media.
The Achilles heel for this conservative critique of journalist liberalism, and therefore entirely absent from their pronouncements, however, is a consideration of journalists’ views on issues of the economy and regulation. Here, unlike with social issues, surveys show that journalists hold positions that tend to be more pro-business and conservative than the bulk of the population. It is here, too, that the professional code has adapted to the commercial and political concerns of the owners to generate a stridently pro-capitalist journalism. In the past two decades, labor news has all but been eliminated as a legitimate branch of U.S. journalism. In the 1940s and 1950s there were hundreds and hundreds of full time labor editors and reporters on U.S. daily newspapers; today the total of labor journalists in the mainstream media, including radio and TV, runs in single digits. Business news has vaulted to prominence, to the point where it equals and may well exceed traditional political journalism. And the increased attention to the affairs of business has not generated a wellspring of critical investigative coverage of the political economy; to the contrary, much of the coverage approaches the hagiography of a kept press toward its maximum leader. Today most journalists do not consider the affairs of poor people, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and working people the fodder of journalism, whereas the interests (and happiness) of investors are of supreme importance.
Ironically, Bernard Goldberg, the former CBS news insider who has devoted himself to “exposing” the liberal media, is unable to find concrete examples of left-wing bias in the media. He thus has no recourse but to accuse journalists of a liberal-elitist contempt for the poor, which is of course not difficult to prove given the close connection between liberalism (in both its “left” or “liberal” and its conservative variants) and capitalism. According to Goldberg, “Edward R. Murrow’s ‘Harvest of Shame,’ the great CBS News documentary about poor migrant families traveling America, trying to survive by picking fruits and vegetables, would never be done today. Too many poor people. Not our audience. We want the people who buy cars and computers. Poor migrants won’t bring our kind of Americans—the ones with money to spend—into the tent. This is how the media’s ‘Liberals of Convenience’ operate.” This criticism, although undoubtedly correct, is employed in a sleight-of-hand fashion as an indication that the media is too left-wing, rather than not left-wing enough.
Still, there are points at which journalists even under the present system are driven to raise questions about extreme capitalist strategies—and the system of course would not work if it did not make such journalists pay a cost for such transgressions. This creates opportunities for those who want to make a career out of “exposing” their errant colleagues. Goldberg saw a golden opportunity to turn against his CBS News employers, and became an overnight right-wing celebrity, as a result of CBS’s skeptical treatment of billionaire Steve Forbes when he ran for president in the 1996 elections and literally bought his way into the national election contest. Forbes’ flat tax scheme, which was designed to eliminate any pretense of progressivity to the income tax code, was slammed by much of the ruling class, in addition to being rejected by the larger population. So no doubt it seemed safe enough to CBS News executives to raise questions about Forbes. Still, a CBS News report that questioned the sanity of the Forbes scheme so angered Goldberg that he chose to write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal attacking CBS, the major networks in general, and papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post for their extreme liberal partisanship in describing Forbes’ scheme as “wacky.” For Goldberg the irreverent treatment of Forbes, a genuine capitalist, was an outrage. In addition to being biased, he argued, most reporters were complete “dunces” on the economy. If they wanted to know what was what on Forbes they should have consulted, according to Goldberg, Milton Friedman or some other University of Chicago economist.
Goldberg’s choice of this issue as the initial basis for launching his critique of the liberal media was extremely effective. The point of such criticism is not only to mobilize forces on the right that will accuse the media of bias, but also to exploit the contradiction between media owners and the journalists who work for them, so that the owners operating in their own political-economic interests will tighten the leashes of their journalistic employees. Eric Engberg, the CBS reporter who provided the broadcast report on Forbes that was the main target of Goldberg’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece and subsequent book, had committed a cardinal error by ridiculing the economic policy proposals of a wealthy, conservative, corporate leader running for president of the United States. Describing Ralph Nader as “wacky” would have been acceptable, but not Steve Forbes.
Indeed, any serious look at how questions surrounding class and economic matters are treated would quickly free the journalistic profession from any charges of left-wing bias. Over the past two generations, journalism, especially at the larger and more prominent news media, has evolved from being a blue-collar job to becoming a desirable occupation of the well-educated upper-middle class. Urban legend has it that when the news of the stock market crash came over the ticker to the Boston Globenewsroom in 1929, the journalists all arose to give Black Monday a standing ovation. The rich were finally getting their comeuppance! When the news of the stock market crash reached the Globe newsroom in 1987, however, journalists were all frantically on the phone to their brokers. As recently as 1971 just over one-half of U.S. newspaper journalists had college degrees; by 2002 nearly 90 percent did. The median salary for a journalist at one of the forty largest circulation newspapers in the United States in 2002 was nearly double the median income for all U.S. workers. Journalists at the dominant media are unlikely to have any idea what it means to go without health insurance, to be unable to locate affordable housing, to have their children in underfunded and dilapidated schools, to have relatives in prison or the front lines of the military, to face the threat of severe poverty. They live in a very different world from most Americans. They may be “liberal” on certain issues, but on the core issues of political economy, they are hardly to the left of the U.S. population. Populist views are anathema to them by training and they tend to be quite comfortable with the corporate status quo. To the extent that their background and values determine the news, it is naive to expect journalists with their establishment-centered professional training to be sympathetic with anything more than a kind of elite centrism, far away from progressive left-wing policies and regulations.
As for the third proposition, that journalists use what limited autonomy they have to advance liberal-of-center politics, the evidence is far from convincing. One of the core points of the professional code is to prevent journalists from pushing their own politics on to the news, and many journalists are proud to note that while they are liberal, their coverage tended to bend the stick the other way, to stave off the charge that they have a liberal bias and are unprofessional. As one news producer stated, “the main bias of journalists is the bias not to look like they favor liberals.” “One of the biggest career threats for journalists,” a veteran Washington reporter wrote in 2002, “is to be accused of ‘liberal bias’ for digging up stories that put conservatives in a bad light.” It is worth noting that in the current U.S. media environment, few journalists have any such concern about not revealing a pro-conservative bias. Such is done roundly and with little concern about accusations of bias, except from marginalized, ignored, and disgruntled leftists.
Research shows that many journalists may have what might be described as “moderately liberal” politics on social issues (as “left” as Bill Clinton but falling far short of a Ted Kennedy). Yet, those who do, given the limits imposed on even the most moderate criticisms of the power structure as well as the reality of their own position as servants of that structure, are often cynical and depoliticized—like much of the general public, which is similarly marginalized. If they are obsessed with advancing a progressive political agenda, they tend to become freelancers or columnists (good luck supporting yourself!) or they leave the profession, as the professional constraints are too great. However, if journalists for reasons of ideology or opportunism wish to push a conservative political agenda, they find few barriers in the current media environment. After all, anytime a journalist pushes the conservative agenda they are justified because they are balancing the liberal bias of the dominant media!
As for the final proposition, that truly objective journalism would invariably see the world exactly the way Rush Limbaugh sees it, this points to the ideological nature of the exercise. Despite the attention paid to the news, there has never been an instance of conservatives criticizing journalism for being too soft on a right wing politician or unfair to liberals or the left. It is a one-way street. Conservatives sometimes respond to such criticisms that this is what all media criticism is about—whining that your side is getting treated unfairly. In 1992, Rich Bond, then the chair of the Republican Party, acknowledged that the point of bashing the liberal media was to “work the refs” like a basketball coach does, with the goal that “maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.” Honest scholarship attempts to provide a coherent and intellectually consistent explanation of journalism that can withstand critical interrogation. The conservative critique of the liberal news media is an intellectual failure, riddled with contradictions and inaccuracy.
So why is the conservative critique of the liberal news media such a significant force in U.S. political and media culture? To some extent this is because this critique has tremendous emotional power, fitting into a broader story of the conservative masses battling the establishment liberal media elite. In this world, spun by right-wing pundits like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, conservatives do righteous battle against the alliance of Clinton, Castro, bin Laden, drug users, gays, rappers, feminists, teachers unions and journalists, who hold power over the world. As one conservative activist put it, the battle over media is a “David and Goliath struggle.” At its strongest, and most credible, the conservative critique taps into the elitism inherent to professionalism and to liberalism though this right-wing populism turns to mush the moment the issue of class is introduced. To be sure, some conservative media criticism backs away from fire breathing, and attempts to present a more tempered critique, even criticizing the rampant commercialization of journalism.
The main reason for the prominence of the right-wing critique of the liberal news media, however, has little or nothing to do with the intellectual quality of the arguments. It is the result of hardcore political organizing and it takes a lot of financial backers with deep pockets to produce that result. The conservative movement against liberal journalism was launched in earnest in the 1970s. Conservative critics claimed that the liberal media was to blame for losing the Vietnam War. Pro-business foundations were aghast at what they saw as the anti-business sentiment prevalent among Americans, especially middle-class youth, usually a core constituency for support. Mainstream journalism, which in reporting the activities of official sources was also giving people like Ralph Nader sympathetic exposure, was seen as a prime culprit. At that point the political right, supported by their wealthy donors, began to devote enormous resources to criticizing and changing the news media. Around one-half of all the expenditures of the twelve largest conservative foundations have been devoted to the task of moving the news rightward. This has entailed funding the training of conservative and business journalists at universities, creating conservative media to provide a training ground, establishing conservative think tanks to flood journalism with pro-business official sources, and incessantly jawboning any coverage whatsoever that is critical of conservative interests as being reflective of “liberal” bias. The pro-business right understood that changing media was a crucial part of bringing right-wing ideas into prominence and politicians into power. “You get huge leverage for your dollars,” a conservative philanthropist noted when he discussed the turn to ideological work. There is a well-organized, well-financed and active hardcore conservative coterie working to push the news media to the right. As a Washington Post White House correspondent put it, “the liberal equivalent of this conservative coterie does not exist.”
The success of the right-wing campaign in popularizing the view that the news media have a liberal bias has been accomplished to some extent by constant repetition without any significant countervailing position. Crucial to the promotion of the idea that the news media are liberal have been, ironically enough, the so-called liberal media. One study of press coverage between 1992 and 2002 finds that references to the liberal bias of the news media outnumber those to a conservative bias by a factor of more than 17 to 1. It is trumpeted far and wide by the media, such that the conservative complaint is well known to millions of Americans, who view it as the only dissident criticism of the media. It should occasion no surprise, then, that a 2003 Gallup Poll found that 45 percent of Americans thought the news media were “too liberal,” while only 15 percent found them “too conservative.”
The conservative critique is in some respects the permanent “official opposition” cultivated by professional journalism itself, because in a sense journalists have to be seen as “liberals” for the system to have credibility. Were journalists seen as cravenly bowing before wealth and privilege, it would undermine the credibility of the enterprise as an autonomous democratic force. After all, that is a significant part of what led to the rise of professional journalism in the first place. The conservative criticism is also rather flattering to journalists; it says to them: you have all the power and the problem is you use that power to advance the interests of the poor and minorities (or government bureaucrats and liberal elitists) rather than the interests of corporations and the military (or middle America). A political economic critique, which suggests that journalists have much less power and that they are largely the unwitting pawns of forces that make them the agents of the status quo, is much less flattering and almost nowhere to be found. As Noam Chomsky has observed,
In fact, if the system functions well, it ought to have a liberal bias, or at least appear to. Because if it appears to have a liberal bias, that will serve to bound thought even more effectively.
In other words, if the press is indeed adversarial and liberal and all these bad things, then how can I go beyond that? They’re already so extreme in their opposition to power that to go beyond it would be to take off from the planet. So therefore it must be that the presuppositions that are accepted in the liberal media are sacrosanct—can’t go beyond them. And a well-functioning system would in fact have a bias of that kind. The media would then serve to say in effect: Thus far and no further (Noam Chomsky and the Media, 1994, p. 58).
The genius of right-wing critics is that they have taken the fact that the media system works this way—in effect policing how far to the left establishment discourse is permitted to go—to stamp journalists themselves as powerful left-wing agents undermining U.S. society. To raise the issue of affirmative action and to report on the views of NOW has become, within the ever narrowing spectrum of politics visible to American television viewers, an indication of extreme leftism. Generally timid liberals and the journalists who report on them have become the new Communists and the new fellow travelers haunting conservative imaginations. Liberal journalists themselves, however, are much less inclined to see themselves as leftists than as “the vital center,” holding off both right-wing extremists, and the popular hoards that threaten majoritarian democracy.
This rabidly conservative or neoconservative campaign has been successful in making the news media more sympathetic to right-wing politicians and pro-corporate policies. The move of journalism to the right has been aided by three other factors. First, the right wing of the Republican Party, typified by Reagan and now Bush, has gained considerable political power while the Democratic Party has become significantly more pro-business in its outlook. This means that editors and journalists following the professional code are simply going to have much greater exposure through official sources to neoliberal and conservative political positions. The body of relatively progressive official sources that existed in the 1960s and 1970s is of diminished proportions and far less influential today. Second, as we discussed above, the real target for the conservative critique of the liberal media—the autonomy of journalists from owners, referred to by journalists as the separation of church and state—has diminished over the past twenty years. There is less protection to keep journalists independent, implicitly and explicitly, of the politics of the owners. Third, conservatives move comfortably in the corridors of the corporate media. This is precisely what one would expect. Journalists who praise corporations and commercialism will be held in higher regard (and given more slack) by owners and advertisers than journalists who are routinely critical of them. Much has been made of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, which operates as an adjunct of the Republican Party, but the point holds across the board. Progressive radio hosts, for example, have had their programs cancelled although they had satisfactory ratings and commercial success, because the content of their shows did not sit well with the station owners and managers.
In sum, the conservative campaign against the liberal media has meshed comfortably with the commercial and political aspirations of media corporations. The upshot is that by the early years of the twenty-first century the conservatives have won. The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne termed this a “genuine triumph for conservatives.” “The drumbeat of conservative press criticism has been so steady, the establishment press has internalized it.” By 2001, CNN’s chief Walter Isaacson was soliciting conservatives to see how he could make the network more palatable to them. In their quieter moments conservatives acknowledge the victory, though they will insist that the victory is justified. But the general pattern is that conservative pundits dominate in the commercial news media with the incessant refrain that the media are dominated by liberals. The news media diet of the average American is drawn from a menu tilted heavily to the right. Talk radio, which plays a prominent role in communities across the nation, “tends to run the gamut from conservative to…very conservative,” as one reporter puts it. By 2003, a Gallup Poll survey showed that 22 percent of Americans considered talk radio to be their primary source for news, double the figure from 1998. TV news runs from pro-business centrist to rabidly pro-business right, and most newspaper journalism is no better. All told, the average American cannot help but be exposed to a noticeable double standard that has emerged in the coverage of mainstream politicians and politics.
The crucial change in the news media has not been the increased marginalization of the left—that has always been the case—but, rather, the shrinkage of room for critical work in journalism—what was best about the professional system—and the accompanying shift in favorable coverage toward the conservative branch of elite opinion. Looking at the different manner in which the press has portrayed and pursued the political careers of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush reveals the scope of the conservative victory. A Nexus search, for example, reveals that there were 13,641 stories about Clinton avoiding the military draft, and a mere 49 stories about Bush having his powerful father use influence to get him put at the head of the line to get into the National Guard. Bill Clinton’s small time Whitewater affair justified a massive seven-year, $70 million open-ended special investigation of his business and personal life that never established any criminal business activity, but eventually did produce the Lewinsky allegations. Rick Kaplan, former head of CNN, acknowledged that he instructed CNN to provide the Lewinsky story massive attention, despite his belief that it was overblown, because he knew he would face withering criticism from the right for a liberal bias if he did not do so. George W. Bush, on the other hand, had a remarkably dubious business career in which he made a fortune flouting security laws, tapping public funds, and using his father’s connections to protect his backside, but the news media barely sniffed at the story and it received no special prosecutor. His conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol barely attracted notice. One doubts the head of CNN goes to sleep at night in fear of being accused of being too soft on Bush’s business dealings or his past record of inebriation.
The conservative propaganda campaign against the liberal media is hardly the dominant factor in understanding news media behavior. It works in combination with the broader limitations of professional journalism as well as the commercial attack upon journalism. Conservative ideology and commercialized, depoliticized “journalism” have meshed very well, and it is this combination that defines the present moment. Subjected to commercial pressures not seen for nearly a century, if ever, and under attack from conservatives, journalism as we know it is in a perilous state. This may not, however, be a total tragedy, given the fact that such professional journalism has done more to support power than to question it, more to quell democracy than invigorate it. In the wake of the destruction of the old media system it is time to construct a new one. And this time around it should be our media—that of democratic forces—not theirs. In other words, we have to begin the struggle all over again, challenging once again big business domination of the media and the corrosive logic it has produced.