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Victim Politics

Every political movement benefits from nurturing in its adherents the sense that powerful interests are arrayed against them. For American liberals, this is relatively straightforward. As they traditionally represent the economically weak, they regularly find themselves opposed by the economically powerful. American conservatives come to their persecution complex less naturally, particularly given their political ascendance over the past 20 years. And yet, even with lavish industry bankrolling of their ideas and control of the White House, Supreme Court, and half of Congress, conservatives still generally see themselves as underdogs. The bugaboo that most enables this belief is the notion that the media systematically slants news coverage to the left.Liberal media bias occupies a cherished space within the conservative psyche, and every GOP standard-bearer in the last decade has taken it up. The first President Bush made it a sort of motto in 1992--”ANNOY THE MEDIA, RE-ELECT BUSH” read a popular bumper sticker embraced by the candidate. Newt Gingrich railed that “the bias of the elite media” amounted to “a passive conspiracy” to help Bill Clinton; Bob Dole charged that reporters apply “a double standard” to Republican and Democratic candidates because “they just can’t help but see the world through liberal-colored glasses.” Even George W. Bush, who has enjoyed largely convivial relations with the press, recently paraded before reporters toting a copy of Bias--former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg’s memoir-cum-expos about the leftward slant of televised news--which has unexpectedly risen to number one on The New York Times best-seller list. The commercial success of Bias has propelled the debate over liberal bias beyond the conservative press, where it has bubbled for decades, and given it new credence. Among conservatives, Bias has not advanced a new understanding of the media so much as confirmed an old one. On the right, liberal media bias is considered a settled question. “There are certain facts of life so long obvious they would seem beyond dispute,” explained a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. “One of these--that there is a liberal tilt in the media ... continues to provoke hot denials and even rage.” Goldberg’s role in the conservative case against the media is as an eyewitness for the prosecution. His indictment is that members of the media are so uniformly liberal that they “can’t recognize their own bias” and will ruthlessly persecute anybody who dares speak the truth. “Taking on the media elites,” he writes melodramatically, “is a sin. A mortal sin.” There are any number of ways one might test Goldberg’s hypothesis. But for the sake of argument, let us consider media coverage of Bias itself. If Goldberg’s claims--about the media’s hostility to conservative views in general and to criticism of the media in particular--are true, one would expect the press to have greeted Bias with extreme animosity. But nothing of the sort has happened. As Goldberg himself acknowledged on one of his many book-touting appearances on fox news, “I would say ninety percent of what I’ve heard and read about the book has been positive.” Even the review of Bias in The New York Times--an organ that figures prominently in the demonology of conservative media analysis--declares: “’Bias’ should be taken seriously.” The book splashes this quote across the top of its cover, apparently oblivious to the refutation of its own thesis. A similar paradox applies to the book’s most sensational bit of evidence: a conversation that Goldberg claims to have had with CBS NEWS President Andrew Heyward in which the latter confessed, “of course there’s a liberal bias in the news,” but warned the author: “[i]f you repeat any of this, I’ll deny it.” This divulgence is treated as a smoking gun--confirmation of bias from a leading member of the liberal media himself! The same dynamic gives Goldberg’s own testimony more credibility, and the subtitle of Bias (“A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News”) plays upon this notion. But it’s hardly new for journalists to denounce their profession’s bias--indeed, he recycles several old quotes from nonconservative reporters making the same point. And ultimately these confessions don’t bolster Goldberg’s argument; they undermine it. His contention, remember, is that journalists are so ideologically insular that they “can’t recognize their own bias.” By this logic, the best evidence of liberal bias would be reporters denying it or even suspecting themselves of conservative bias. (National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru suggested this phenomenon in 2000, writing that “the press is just sympathetic enough to [Al] Gore to convince itself that it’s biased against him.”) Goldberg and his conservative admirers want it both ways: If journalists admit liberal bias, they prove the charge correct. If journalists deny liberal bias, they prove they’re too ideologically blinkered to see the truth, further confirming their bias. This sort of nonfalsifiability is the great affliction of media criticism. Often it’s simply impossible to separate one’s views about bias from one’s views about the underlying subject matter. Do you think the media’s coverage of the Whitewater scandal exhibited an anti-Clinton bias? Your answer to that question almost certainly depends upon whether you think Whitewater was much ado about nothing or genuinely scandalous--which, in turn, almost certainly depends on your opinion of President Clinton. It’s easy, then, to fall into the epistemological trap of interpreting every news story that jibes with your ideology as obviously true and every story that doesn’t as evidence of media bias. This isn’t to say that everything is relative and that determining what constitutes prejudicial news is impossible. The point is that making judgments about media bias requires an Olympian detachment from one’s own perspective. Alas, it is this very quality that Goldberg most obviously lacks. His account of his tenure at CBS is comically bereft of self-awareness. In Goldberg’s telling, his ordeal began when he wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal attacking as biased a CBS segment on then-presidential candidate Steve Forbes and the flat tax. Obviously, no organization appreciates having one of its employees publicly impugn its integrity. Yet Goldberg recounts every heated conversation, every aversion of his colleagues’ eyes, in the shocked and outraged tones of a man who has barely survived some Upper West Side gulag. (It’s worth noting that after his op-ed Goldberg actually remained at CBS for several years without any reduction in salary.) Goldberg apparently feels he can publicly accuse his colleagues of violating the most basic journalistic principles but feels they have no right to take umbrage, even in private. Without irony, though, he declares them “thin-skinned celebrity journalists who can dish it out ... but can’t take it.” Goldberg describes how he tried to mollify Heyward by pointing out that, in his op-ed, he had not revealed the private conversation in which Heyward allegedly concurred with his views on bias. Goldberg records Heyward’s reaction, using italics for emphasis: “’That would have been like raping my wife and kidnapping my kids!’ he screamed at me.” Goldberg lingers over the phrase, repeating it five times throughout the book, each instance in italics. “Writing an op-ed piece was like raping his wife and kidnapping his kids,” he recounts-- somewhat distorting the view of Heyward, who was describing something Goldberg had not done. “Criticizing, publicly, what I saw as bias in network news was like raping his wife and kidnapping his kids.” You might conclude from this passage that Goldberg has a severe aversion to hyperbolic analogies, even those uttered in extemporaneous anger. But the first few chapters of his book are largely a series of, well, hyperbolic analogies, in which he compares CBS NEWS to, alternatively, the Soviet Union, the Mafia, and a prison in which the producers and vice presidents are “Dan [Rather]’s bitches.” Even in his own account, Goldberg comes off as a man utterly unable to apply a consistent set of rules to himself and others. None of which is to say that Goldberg is wrong when he says the media is biased. But that bias isn’t monolithic. It comes in various forms, not all of them liberal. The trouble is that conservatives, who dominate the world of ideological media criticism, don’t usually distinguish between biased reporting and reporting that contradicts their views. And they don’t usually distinguish between stories that are ideologically biased against conservatives and stories that are biased for other reasons. Take Goldberg’s strongest evidence of liberal bias in the news--Eric Engberg’s February 1996 CBS NEWS segment on the flat tax, which launched Goldberg’s career as a media critic. Goldberg is right that the incident provides an object lesson in media bias; it’s just not the bias he imagines. As Goldberg notes, the segment’s entire tone was critical, but not vehemently so until the very end, when Engberg declared, “Forbes’s number-one wackiest flat-tax promise,” then cut to Forbes proclaiming: “Parents would have more time to spend with their children and each other.” There are basically two questions here--one of tone and one of content. Let’s take the latter first. As Goldberg sees it, Forbes’s claim deserved to be taken seriously. “[W]hat Forbes meant,” he writes, “is that since many Americans--not just the wealthy--would pay less tax under his plan, they might not have to work as many hours.” In other words, Goldberg argues that Forbes’s promise, regardless of its truth, was at least logically consistent. But it wasn’t. The entire rationale of the candidate’s flat tax was that it would cause an economic boom by inspiring Americans to work more. If it caused people to work less, then it would reduce, rather than increase, economic growth. Even by Forbes’s own logic, then, this promise was transparently silly. On tone, however, Goldberg is right that Engberg’s segment was not straight in the usual “Candidate Smith says X, but Candidate Jones says Y” sense. What does this mean? Goldberg, unsurprisingly, sees partisan bias. “There is absolutely no way,” he writes, “that Engberg or Rather would have aired a flat- tax story with that same contemptuous tone if Teddy Kennedy or Hillary Clinton had come up with the idea.” But remember, in February 1996 Forbes was running in the GOP primary against the chosen candidate of the party establishment, Bob Dole, and at the time many Republicans (including Gingrich) were attacking the flat tax as nonsensical and a sop to the rich. The candidate who most benefited from the segment, then, was Dole. What allowed CBS (and the media generally) to treat Forbes’s flat-tax plan so harshly, then, was the fact that the proposal was controversial even within the GOP. One of the guiding conventions of political journalism is that criticism is legitimized when it comes from within a politician’s party as well as from the other party. For instance, the media started describing Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky as an important moral transgression once Democrats acknowledged it. Had Forbes somehow become the GOP nominee, however, a segment like Engberg’s almost certainly could not have run. This is because, for the mainstream media, being even-handed usually means treating respectfully the reigning view in each party. And while this ethos does represent a kind of bias, it’s not exactly a liberal one. One consequence of this bias, as I’ve written in these pages before, is that the press feels obliged to take seriously even those policy claims that are empirically false. Last year, for instance, nonpartisan calculations showed that about 40 percent of Bush’s tax cut went to the highest- earning 1 percent of taxpayers. To counter this, Republicans released a competing estimate, claiming the figure was only 22 percent. But they arrived at this number by explicitly excluding from their calculations those parts of the tax cut--the upper-bracket cuts and repeal of the estate tax--that most benefited the rich. In other words, the GOP figure was objectively and deliberately wrong in ways that were easy to comprehend and explain. Rather than point this out, though, the press generally treated both numbers as equally valid. As The New York Times reported, “the richest 1 percent of taxpayers would get between 22 percent and 45 percent of the tax benefits, depending on how the calculations are done.”; A kernel of truth in Goldberg’s “hyperbolic screed.” A related media bias--which is likewise often mistaken for partisan inclination--is toward ratifying the stereotypes that already exist about each party and its candidates. During the 2000 campaign, for instance, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg (no relation) compared then-Governor Bush’s execution of a murderer, which received widespread media attention, with a similar execution by Clinton eight years before, which received far less coverage. The discrepancy, he argued, proved liberal media bias. But a more plausible explanation is that it reflected the media’s bias toward the established story line: Bush’s rivals were accusing him of excessive fondness for the death penalty, while Clinton’s, by and large, were not. The same dynamic worked in Bush’s favor later in the campaign. In the fall of 2000, reporters jumped all over Gore for making factual misstatements--a shift in news coverage that precipitated Bush’s comeback in the polls--while ignoring various factual misstatements by Bush. Again, this didn’t reflect bias but rather adherence to a familiar script. The rap on Gore was dishonesty, so reporters seized upon his falsehoods. Similarly, the rap on Bush was stupidity; when he flubbed an impromptu quiz of world leaders in 1999, it was considered news. This sort of media bias is maddeningly insipid, but in an equal-opportunity way. It is the reason we invariably see more stories about poverty and environmental despoliation during Republican administrations, and more stories about government bloat and military unpreparedness during Democratic ones. When Goldberg goes beyond his first-person observations at CBS, his media analysis becomes even more simplistic. In fact, he does little more than recycle long-standing conservative complaints. He notes, for instance, that news accounts describe Republicans as “right-wing” far more than they call Democrats “left-wing.” This may sound like a perfectly impartial objection-- mustn’t there be as many left-wingers in American politics as right-wingers? If you consider Clinton a leftist, as many conservatives do, then the answer is yes. But the center of American politics has moved rightward over the last 25 years. By historical standards--not to mention the standards of other democracies--American liberals today are rather conservative. Clinton was probably further to the right on domestic policy than Richard Nixon, and he was almost certainly further to the right than European conservatives such as Helmut Kohl and Jacques Chirac. So from these broader perspectives, it’s entirely natural that reporters would label more contemporary American politicians “right-wing” than “left-wing.” This same rightward drift has made liberalism less fashionable. So, over the last decade, major newspapers have used the pejorative phrase “unreconstructed liberal” more than five times as often as they’ve used “unreconstructed conservative.” Why isn’t this disparity evidence of anti-liberal bias? For basically the same reason Goldberg’s example isn’t. Reporters are more likely to call liberals “unreconstructed” not because they consider liberalism out of date, but because in recent years liberals have indeed felt the need to reconstruct themselves more than conservatives have. To be fair, Goldberg does occasionally venture beyond conservative conventional wisdom about media bias. The problem is that when he does, he generally undermines his main argument. For instance, he devotes a significant chunk of his book to discussing how network news departments twist their coverage to protect their parent corporations’ bottom line--NBC, for instance, buried unflattering news about General Electric. But Goldberg never acknowledges that these constitute examples of conservative bias. Another bias that Goldberg repeatedly notes stems from the crass imperative for commercial success. Ratings, he writes--again, apparently without recognition that he is undermining his thesis--are “the reason television people do almost everything.” But if networks care only about ratings, why do they risk their profits by offending the political views of their audience? Indeed, in a free market, how could an overwhelmingly liberal media even exist? Even though the conservative FOX NEWS network has increased its share in recent years, “liberal” networks like ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC still control the bulk of the TV news market and “liberal” newspapers the bulk of the newspaper market. If you believe that the media tilt left, then you must either believe that the public has no objection to this slant, or that the news business is unaffected by the forces of supply and demand. To avoid such sticky questions, most conservatives ignore the political inclinations of both media owners and media consumers, and concentrate instead on the biases of reporters and editors. And here the right has its strongest case. Reporters, as numerous studies have established, overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. The most famous survey, taken after the 1992 elections, found that 89 percent of Washington journalists had voted for Clinton, 7 percent for Bush pre, and only 2 percent for Ross Perot (as compared with 43, 37, and 19 percent, respectively, for the voters at large). But this doesn’t prove quite as much as one might suspect. Reporters may hold liberal views, but not on everything. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a left-wing media watchdog, polled Washington journalists and compared the results with those of the public. It found that, while reporters generally hold more liberal views on social issues, they often take more conservative stances on economic questions. The public was far more likely than were media elites to think that Clinton’s tax hike for the wealthy didn’t go far enough and that the government should guarantee medical care. Reporters were far more inclined to support free trade and cutting entitlement programs. This should come as no surprise. The views of the Beltway press reflect the ideology of the socioeconomic stratum in which they reside: secular, educated, urban or suburban, liberal on the environment and social issues, moderately conservative on economics. Indeed, the greatest statistical discrepancy in the 1992 voting pattern is not Washington reporters’ lack of support for Bush, but their lack of support for Perot--they were one-fifth as likely as the public to cast a ballot for the GOP candidate, but only one-tenth as likely to support the Texas billionaire. Perot, of course, appealed to the disaffected working class, railing against free trade and immigration. Naturally, this brand of populism held little appeal for the media elite. Reporters and pundits express their prejudices by classifying socially liberal, economically conservative positions as “centrist” or “moderate.” Often this comes in the guise of bland horse-race analysis. How many times have you read in the news that Republicans succeed only when they eschew “divisive social issues”? “Divisive” social issues include even those, like school prayer and affirmative action, on which polls show wide majorities siding with the conservative position. Likewise, on many economic questions, the mainstream press habitually adopts conservative lingo, deriding efforts at redistribution of wealth as “class warfare” and defenses of retirement programs as “demagoguery.” Thus reporters define Republican Christine Todd Whitman--who dissents from GOP dogma on abortion and the environment--as a moderate, but they define Gary Bauer--who dissents on Social Security privatization and the minimum wage--as a hard-core ideologue. During the 2000 election Newsweek did a profile of a classic “swing voter” in Michigan. Even though she described herself as a pro- life Catholic who favored a more activist government, the article still proceeded to describe her as the prototype “fiscally conservative, socially moderate” swing voter--as if the trope were preprogrammed into Newsweek’s word processors. On the whole, this set of biases disproportionately benefits Democrats and liberals. The media’s aversion to the cultural right is more pronounced than its aversion to the economic left, and, since reporters tend to label politicians according to their social views, they’re more apt to consider Democrats moderate. This is the kernel of truth underlying Goldberg’s hyperbolic screed. But there are two important caveats. First, the professional constraints and institutional tendencies of political journalism--which value neutrality, tend to follow compelling story lines, and place a premium on maintaining good sources within both parties--often overwhelm reporters’ ideological predilections. Second, conservative Republicans who understand these predilections can turn them to their own advantage. The recent revelation that the 2000 Bush presidential campaign kept Ralph Reed off its payroll is instructive: The reason, according to the Times, was that associating Bush too publicly with a former director of the Christian Coalition would complicate his efforts to portray himself as a “compassionate conservative.” Bush’s advisers understood that reporters would gauge his moderation largely by his distance from social conservatives. (They also no doubt understood that retaining Larry Lindsey, a fervent supply-sider, as his main economic adviser would set off no such alarms in the press.) Bush outlined his plan to handle the press in a 1999 interview with National Review. “I do think [the media] are biased against conservative thought,” he said in a forum that received little attention outside the right. “And the reason is that they think conservative thinkers are not compassionate people. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve attached a moniker to the philosophy that I espouse, because I want people to hear a different message.” As the Bush campaign understood, reporters are predisposed to seeing conservatives as temperamentally mean-spirited--an idiotic notion (think of Ronald Reagan or Jack Kemp), but a deeply rooted one nonetheless. Therefore, they viewed Bush’s cheerful demeanor and apparent affinity for the poor as evidence that he was not all that conservative, and this conclusion permeated coverage of the entire campaign. During the presidential debates, for instance, moderator Jim Lehrer twice asserted that both candidates shared essentially identical views on domestic issues. “As a practical matter, both of you want to bring prescription drugs to seniors, correct?” he said in the first debate. “[W]ould you agree that the two of you agree on a national patients’ bill of rights?” he said in the last. In fact, the two candidates held very different views on these two issues, with Gore supporting popular legislative initiatives, and Bush--who opposed those initiatives--working like mad to pretend that he didn’t. Essentially, Lehrer made Bush’s case for him, and when Gore tried to lay out the differences (remember the Dingell-Norwood guffaws?), he came across as niggling and disputatious. It’s not that Lehrer tried to help Bush--he merely represented the consensus among the chattering classes. The fact that the media depicted Bush as representing a break from the conservatism of the congressional Republicans was essential to his election. It is ironic, then, that at this moment in history, a book alleging liberal media bias would top the best-seller list. And more ironic still that Bush would give it his tacit endorsement. Conservatives like Goldberg may believe that he overcame the systematic liberal bias of a hostile media, but Bush, surely, knows better.