When the Brian Williams scandal broke, conservatives touted it is as a breakthrough moment in their war on media bias. Urging NBC to keep Williams in the "Nightly News" anchor chair, Tom Blumer at PJ Media speculated, “If the network continues to keep a serial fabricator on board, it will convince many of those who still buy what the press is selling that something is fundamentally wrong.” Sarah Palin also cast Williams errors onto the entire news industry, asking, “If they lie about things like this, what and who else do they lie about?”
The leap from one newsman's fictionalized war story to systematic liberal bias in mainstream media is a long one; Williams's apparent flaw was self-aggrandizement, not ideology. But the conservative response is more than just a reflexive use of the right’s most enduring media critique. Conservative activists learned long ago that in order to tear down the MSM, they would have to do more than make a case for bias. They would have to go after journalists’ accuracy as well.
Liberal media bias became a popular charge in conservative circles as early as the 1950s. Though print journalists received special abuse, nightly news anchors became targets, too, with the rise of television broadcasting and network news in the late 1950s. For most Americans, Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” For conservatives he was, in Jesse Helms’s words, “a participant in a vast ultra-liberal mechanism tirelessly dedicated to brainwashing the American public.”
That argument, though, tended only to appeal to other conservatives. No matter how they railed against bias in the news, Americans steadfastly clung to their trust in journalism. A June 1964 poll found that 71 percent of Americans thought network news was fair. Conservatives spent much of that year pointing out instances of media bias against Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, but their complaints never broke through to the wider American public. The problem? Claims of bias were open to interpretation. Until the right could come up with something more concrete, their complaints would go unattended.
By the late 1960s, conservatives switched tactics in their battle against liberal bias. Some, like Edith Efron, turned to statistics, offering hard numbers that offered the appearance of scientific evidence. Others, though, discovered that shifting focus from ideology to accuracy could provide a more solid base for their claims.
In 1969, recently retired from a 26-year career as an economist at the Federal Reserve, Reed Irvine founded Accuracy in Media, a watchdog organization set up to “investigate complaints, take proven cases to top media officials, seek corrections and mobilize public pressure to bring about remedial action.” The name was important. With its focus on accuracy, it betrayed no ideological bent, reflecting instead a core value of objective journalism. As Irvine told Clarence Manion, a conservative radio host, “We felt that since the journalists all profess devotion to accuracy, we would be able to work wonders by simply pointing out to them cases in which they were inaccurate.” Manion would later tout Irvine as a defender of “true, accurate, and unbiased reporting.”
AIM tested its methods on the 1971 CBS documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon.” From the start the documentary, which focused on the military’s public relations tactics, was controversial. Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced it as “a subtle but vicious broadside against the nation’s defense establishment.” Irvine buttressed that claim by detailing the documentary’s inaccuracies in a seven-page report. Rather than framing his complaints in ideological terms, Irvine zeroed in on technical questions, particularly the use of electronic editing to make synthetic quotes.
AIM was joined in 1975 by another conservative watchdog group, the Foundation for Objective News Reporting. Like Irvine’s organization, FONR emphasized objectivity in reporting, acting as guardians of fairness. Both groups did so not because they believed conservatives should be objective—FONR's founders were culled from the ranks of the conservative newsweekly Human Events—but because they believed mainstream media, having proclaimed themselves to be objective, had to be held to that standard.
Even as Americans’ trust in media declined in the 1970s and 1980s, the nightly news anchors still tended to score high marks in credibility. A 1985 Times Mirror study conducted by Gallup showed that, while only 55 percent of respondents said the press “generally [gets] its facts straight,” networks tended to score high in believability. ABC's Peter Jennings topped TV anchormen with a 90 percent believability score. That represented a major hurdle for conservatives. AIM countered by “unskewing” the poll results, leaving Jennings, for instance, with only a 40 percent believability rating.
But as conservatives have learned time and again, unskewing polls doesn’t change the reality. In addition to attacking the networks’ credibility through corrections, libel suits, and Fairness Doctrine complaints, Irvine set his sights on the man he saw as the top offender: Dan Rather.
In the run-up to the 1988 election, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush sat down with Dan Rather for an interview. The segment opened with Rather announcing Bush had refused to be questioned about his role in the Iran-Contra affair and had insisted on a live, unedited interview instead. After a taped segment on the scandal, the camera cut to a clearly angry Bush, who charged, “You’ve impugned my integrity by suggesting that I didn’t tell the truth.” Both men grew combative as the interview went on. At one point, Rather said, “I don’t mean to be argumentative, Mr. Vice President.” “You do, Dan,” Bush shot back, adding, “This is not a great night.”
For conservatives, the interview was clearly an ambush, an attempt both to undercut Bush’s candidacy and to beat up on the Reagan administration. In response, Irvine launched a drive to “Impeach Dan Rather,” which over the next sixteen years evolved into a “Can Dan” drive to oust the anchor.
And indeed, a question of accuracy did end Rather’s career at CBS. In September 2004, in the midst of a heated presidential campaign, Rather reported on “60 Minutes” that President George W. Bush had received preferential treatment in his National Guard service 30 years earlier. As conservative bloggers revealed in the days that followed, the memos Rather relied upon for the report were forgeries. Two months later, Rather announced he was stepping down as anchor and managing editor of CBS News.
For conservatives, the Rather incident was the exemplar of the connection between accuracy and bias. Though AIM trained its sights on accuracy, always implicit—and often explicit—in Irvine’s critique was an underlying argument about liberal media bias. Why did journalists make these mistakes and editors fail to correct them? Because a liberal worldview kept them from questioning assumptions and double-checking information.
The Brian Williams case, with its lack of any overt political angle, represents the next stage in the evolution of the accuracy argument. Conservatives who pillory the mainstream media because of Williams have no need for the bias argument. The point is to continue to degrade mainstream media’s credibility (which has plunged dramatically since the 1990s), making room for their own explicitly ideological models. As Palin put it, the Williams scandal helps “justify our complete turning away from his ilk in the news media” and toward, presumably, sources like Fox News, Breitbart, and talk radio.
This evolution in the media bias argument illustrates how the right has come to use different metrics for conservative media and mainstream media. Inaccuracies in conservative media do not derail conservative personalities in the same way as Williams's inaccuracies have, because an argument can have factual inaccuracies but still be ideologically "true." Lacking those overt ideological claims, mainstream media can be discredited by being factually wrong.
That divergence has consequences, both troubling and absurd. It leads to the bizarre spectacle of people like Palin and the team at "Fox & Friends" holding themselves out as arbiters of accuracy. And the more that journalistic accuracy is associated liberal bias, the more likely it is to become politicized. In an era when ideologues increasingly choose their own facts, the partisan policing of accuracy threatens to do in factuality altogether.
Journalists should be taken to task when they’re wrong, of course. With the blossoming of hyper-partisan media and politics, Americans need news media to get the facts right. But in using the Williams case to discredit the mainstream media altogether, conservatives threaten to move the country further from that goal.