What is the purpose of a news organization? Is it to inform the public? Or is it to provide affirmative action opportunities to the right-wing?
OK, I won't keep you in suspense. I'd like to suggest that it's the latter, and that the new Exhibit A is Newt Gingrich.
A few years ago, during W. time, Paul Waldman conducted a couple of studies for Media Matters in which he showed the strong rightward tilt of the Sunday morning political talk shows. Among the lame responses he got from the networks was that, well, the Republicans are in power now, and we have to talk to the people in power.
But "a deep and largely unconscious conservative media bias," as E. J. Dionne has called it, has continued to pervade our information environment, persisting right through landslide defeats for Republicans in 2006 and 2008 and has shown itself immune to the relative political fortunes of Democrats and Republicans. And it has allowed a steady stream of extremists, including Bachmann, Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, Liz Cheney, the would-be Quran burner from Florida and more to garner copious media attention.
What can explain the persistence of this tilt regardless of the relative popularity of the American right, or the political composition of our governing bodies?
For my money, the best explanation is that, for all their complaints about affirmative action, the right-wing is benefiting greatly from what can best be described as an affirmative action media policy, otherwise called "balance." In its mindless pursuit of such balance, the media has created an intellectual quota system, a particularly invidious form of affirmative action. This policy has ensured that no matter how wrong, incoherent, uninformative or unpopular they are -- the first three of which ought to be the basic metrics for merit-based access to media platforms -- right-wing blowhards will continue to get more than equal air time to propagate their nonsense.
Which brings us to Newt Gingrich. Yes, he is a former Speaker of the House. So was Tom Foley and I defy anyone to argue that, no matter how hard he tried, he could ever get his mug to litter the airwaves the way Gingrich's does. Claiming someone is newsworthy is simply circular reasoning. Gingrich is receiving lots of attention because news organizations are giving him lots of attention. Does anyone want to argue seriously that the public as a whole is clamoring to hear what Newt Gingrich has to say? About anything?
It can't be that Gingrich is uniquely positioned to provide informed, cogent commentary on public affairs. Just a small smattering of the incredibly stupid things that Gingrich has uttered in the past eighteen months:
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg of Gingrich's repeated, relentless distortion of fact, inflaming of public sentiment and generally malign and ill-informed "contribution" to our public life.
Yes, I know that Gingrich is now making noises about running for President in 2012 and that recent polling shows that he's fairly popular with the Republican base. But two points:
1) I will bet dollars to donuts that Gingrich ultimately has no shot of winning the Republican nomination in 2012 (much as I would love that outcome).
2) I think it's fair to say that a central factor in Gingrich's being able even to consider running is the absurd level of media attention he's received since Obama became president. In other words, to the extent that he's a remotely viable candidate, this is a function of the attention media have given him. His high profile is an effect of media coverage, not a cause of it.
So if you ever hear a Gingrich lecture about the evils of affirmative action, you can treat it with the same level of seriousness you would a Gingrich lecture on, say, family values and marital fidelity.
Jonathan Weiler's most recent book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published last year by Cambridge University Press.
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