Dec. 15, 2002
A groaning shelf of evidence bears out what many people know intuitively: The American mass media suffers from a left-wing slant. The data come in a variety of forms: classic studies such as "The Media Elite" (first published in 1986) and William McGowan's "Coloring the News" (2001), insider exposÚs like CBS veteran Bernard Golberg's recent bestseller "Bias," a sheaf of industry studies, and no end of public opinion polls. (The web site of the Media Research Center summarizes much of this material in its primer on "media bias basics.")
And yet some liberals have always claimed that the media's liberal predisposition is nothing but a shibboleth.
"It's one of the great political myths," insisted Dan Rather in 1995. "Most reporters don't know whether they're Republican or Democrat, and vote every which way. . . . And also, let me say that I don't think that `liberal' or 'conservative' means very much any more."
Peter Jennings offered much the same argument last year.
"I think it's just essential to make the point," he told Larry King, "that we are largely in the center, without particular axes to grind, without ideologies which are represented in our daily coverage." A few months earlier, to take just one more example, Geraldo Rivera had contended that "people who pretend the media has a liberal bias aren't really listening or reading."
Comes now an even more delusional claim: Not only does Big Media not tilt to the left, it is actually being shoved to the right.
"The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party," former vice president Al Gore recently declared. "Fox News [Channel], The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh -- there's a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires . . . . Most of the media has been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks -- that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what's objective as stated by the news media as a whole."
Gore's motion was seconded by a number of prominent media liberals. Paul Krugman of The New York Times pronounced it "so clearly true." The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne averred that conservatives have won a "genuine triumph" -- "a media heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians." After all, he noted, when Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle publicly denounced Rush Limbaugh, two cable TV talk shows took the unheard-of step of interviewing Limbaugh.
The first thing to be said about this "new" argument is that it's not new at all. The notion that conservative operatives are turning the media into a GOP echo chamber goes back at least six years, when it was an article of faith in the Clinton administration.
Everyone recalls Hillary Clinton sneering away reports of an affair between her husband and Monica Lewinsky as the ravings of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." What most forget is just how gripped by conservatives-are-taking-over-the-media panic the Clinton White House was. In 1995 it produced a 332-page report purporting to prove -- I am not making this up -- that Republican politicians, conservative think tanks, certain "British tabloids," The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and The Washington Times were all linked in an insidious plot, funded by the heir to the Mellon fortune, to get scandalous "fringe stories" about Bill Clinton "bounced into the mainstream media" in order to ignite a "frenzy."
Well, conspiracy thinking is something of an American tradition. Some people believe the CIA funneled cocaine to the Los Angeles slums; why shouldn't others believe Richard Mellon Scaife is the root of all evil? It somehow comes as no surprise to find Al Gore resurrecting the Clinton-era fable about the devilish right-wing tentacles that manipulate CNN, Time, The New York Times, USA Today, National Public Radio, NBC, and all the other influential outlets that make up the national mainstream media. It's not the only dotty theory cherished by the former vice president.
The hard reality, though, is that the media's very few conservative institutional voices -- basically, the three that Gore listed -- cannot hope to overpower the liberal bias that permeates the rest of the media. It is a simple matter of arithmetic. As Michael Kelly noted in a column last week, Fox News Channel's viewers add up to about 3 percent of the ABC-CBS-CNN-NBC-PBS news audience. The Washington Times has one-eighth the circulation of The Washington Post. In the media world, power comes from numbers.
And so does media bias. The national media is largely left-of-center because those who go into the national media are largely left-of-center. "Everybody knows that . . . there's a heavy liberal persuasion among correspondents," Walter Cronkite has said. Inevitably, that liberal persuasion colors reporters' and editors' work. How could it not? When everyone in the newsroom shares a liberal worldview, conservative opinions and ideas are easily dismissed. The result is that on a host of topics, from capital punishment to gun control to tax cuts, Big Media almost always speaks with one voice. It's hard to believe Al Gore can't hear it.