…the greatest myth in our political culture is the Rush-Limbaugh-generated complaint about the “liberal media.” Other than right-wing fanatics like Limbaugh and his followers (including those in the press), who can review this deliberately one-sided, government-worshipping record — and it is but a tiny fraction, much of it from the “journalists” like Klein assigned to play the “liberal” role — and maintain that “liberal media” myth with a straight face?
The issue of “why” the media behaves this way is complex and completely separate from demonstrating that they do.
The right-wing has been complaining about a liberal bias in the news for so long that it seems somehow dirty to make the same argument in reverse: the media has a conservative, or Republican, bias.
Some savvy observers of the press will readily acknowledge a Republican bias during the Bush years, but will immediately explain it away as a bias in favor of the government in power, and not based in any particular ideology. There are some reasons to believe this. No matter the ideology of a particular administration, the press will face the same challenges. How do they get the big interview, or the best insider sources? It’s only natural for an administration to lavish rewards on reporters that give them good press. Therefore, many reporters will trade objectivity for access and try to maintain as much balance as possible.
If we want to use a semi-hypothetical example, consider Joe Klein. Klein has a Republican source(s) on the House Intelligence Committee.
I may have made a mistake in my column this week about the FISA legislation passed by the House…Democrats say that I was wrong to report that the bill includes a FISA court review of individual foreign terrorist targets who might communicate with U.S. persons, although it does include an annual “basket” review of procedures used by U.S. intelligence agencies to target foreign suspects. The Republican Committee staff disagrees and says my reporting is correct.
This is a he said/she said situation, and Klein knows which side was lying to him.
I have to side with the Democrats. I reported as fact a provision of the bill that seems to be disputable, to say the least.
Having realized that he was provided bad information from the staff of the House Intelligence Committee, Klein has some choices. He is willing to say that he ‘sides’ with the Democrats, but he isn’t willing to go beyond that and say that he was lied to. It’s quite likely that Klein doesn’t want to say he was lied to because he doesn’t want to lose his source(s). It’s the wrong decision, but one can understand the conflict. Developing sources takes a lot of time and it’s painful to throw away all that work.
It’s obvious that Time‘s editors are even more solicitous of Klein’s sources than Klein himself. While Klein was quite clear that he sided with the Democrats, his editors were not willing to go that far.
In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets. Republicans believe the bill can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t.
This non-correction correction is a perfect example of a major news organization siding with the Republicans in a dispute with the Democrats. But the question remains whether they are doing so to maintain sources with the party that controls the White House, or because they actively sympathize with the Republicans and want to help them.
We saw the New York Times hold James Risen’s wiretapping blockbuster until after the 2004 election. We saw Judith Miller go to jail rather than implicate Scooter Libby in the l’affair Plame. We saw Time protect Karl Rove, even to the point of posting denials they knew to be false. We’ve seen Fred Hiatt use the Washington Post to create confusion over something unconfusing…whether Valerie Wilson was a covert officer or a ‘desk jockey’.
Flashback to the Clinton administration. Did the New York Times publish knowingly false denials from the administration on Whitewater, or did they pursue that scandal with uncommon (and unjustifiable) zeal? Did they give the administration the benefit of the doubt in the Wen Ho Lee scandal, or during the campaign finance controversies? Did the press say that Lewsinsky scandal was no big deal, or a partisan witchhunt? Did they write article after article saying the Republicans should back off or the electorate would punish them?
Clinton’s administration was pursued by the corporate press with little mercy, even by news organizations that endorsed his candidacies. And…most of it turned out to be wrong, exaggerated, or unwarranted. How far that is from life under the Bush administration…
When it comes to policy, the story is more mixed. It’s true that the press had a liberal bias in favor of the status quo when Reagan came into office. During Reagan’s first term, the news was filled will news on the homeless, the jobless, and the underclasses that were the victims of Reaganomics. But they learned to change with the times. Today, the press is hostile to welfare, to universal single-payer health care, to affirmative action, to gun control, to higher taxes…and they are pro-free trade, pro-foreign interventionism, pro-Social Security privatization, etc.
The only area where the press seems to have any liberal bias, is in science reporting. They will still side with scientists over energy lobbyists and religious fanatics. Other than that, the press is now biased toward the Republicans and towards the Democratic Leadership Council (Harold Ford, Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton) wing of the Democratic Party. Progressives need not apply. Their ideas are kooky.
The situation is so bad that ostensibly left-wing columnists will advise Democrats to vote for torture, illegal surveillance, no-strings-attached war-funding, the suspension of habeas corpus…or anything else the Republicans deem necessary. And they will lie about the facts when they do it. And they will cover up for sources that lie to them. And their editors will refuse to burn sources that lie to them.
We’ll continue to fight back against this systemic bias, but no one should be confused about whether or not it exists.
The corporate media favors Republicans, and it goes far beyond a desire for access. If it was just about access, things would have been different in the Clinton administration and things would have noticeably improved when the Democrats took over Congress.