Congratulations are in order. The conservative movement that rules the GOP has successfully undermined a vital American institution -- journalism. Otherwise, Republicans didn't do well in 2012, losing an election, and are at a public-opinion disadvantage in the year's final act, the fiscal cliff talks. But at least they came out on top in their ongoing propaganda campaign against the news media.
According to a recent Gallup survey, Americans' distrust of the media hit a new high, as 60% said they had little or no trust in journalists to deliver the news fully, fairly and accurately. That's up from 55% in 2011 and 46% in 1997. This bad report card shows a real problem for the whole damn country. As Gallup notes, it "poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry."
And why is this public disdain mainly the GOP's doing? Sure, Hollywood has done its share of media denigration. Movies and TV dramas often portray reporters as over-excited creeps out to ruin good people's lives and undermine police investigations. Scandals have besmirched the news profession, from the hacking mess in Britain to fabulists like the New York Times' Jason Blair. But these are occasional.
The right's war against journalists has been constant and ongoing for years, and its tempo has stepped up in recent times. Public antipathy toward the news media has nothing to do with people's individual observations. Not many have the time to do a minute analysis of media coverage. It has everything to do with a juggernaut of conservative anti-media propaganda that has grown more and more powerful. The propagandists repeat the phrase, "biased liberal media," a zillion-fold everywhere. That it is a crock of baloney is beside the point.
Thanks to this endless repetition through a big megaphone, the right has made its charge of liberal media bias a piece of conventional wisdom. This is the permanent mantra of conservative talk radio. Fox News thrives by preaching to GOP stalwarts, with the slogan "fair and balanced," implying everyone else in the media is not. On the right, a well-funded industry has taken root, with books and websites dedicated to condemning the media.
Among many conservatives, it is indisputable that "liberal media bias" poisons how reporters deliver the news. This is a fact like the temperature where water freezes. A good summation of the media-baiting credo comes from Peggy Noonan, the former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, in her Sept. 15 Wall Street Journal column: "Republican candidates for president labor under a disadvantage, and we all know what it is. Mainstream media is stacked toward Democrats and against Republicans, and toward liberalism and against conservatism."
The right's hate of the media has been gathering strength for decades. As a young political reporter in the 1980s, I regularly ran into this sentiment at GOP rallies, where a candidate stirred up the crowd, denouncing the media and sparking angry shouts at reporters. During the 2012 presidential primaries, Newt Gingrich regularly blasted what he called the "elite media" for daring to bring up his sordid past. Crowds booed the press corps.
Media hating is very rewarding for the right. First, creating a powerful nemesis helps unite the rank and file. Second, it serves as insulation for their politicians in a jam. (Witness Gingrich's use of it as a distraction from his own foibles.) Third, it is a good club to bat back aggressive reporting. Rich Bond, chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1992, famously said: "If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."
What makes it easy for them is that journalists usually don't bother to set the record straight. When confronted by the hatred, media people typically shrug it off, evidently due to their standard practice of not wanting to be a part of the story.
The media diffidence has continued from the days of the first vocal Republican media scold, Spiro Agnew. Richard Nixon's vice president in the early 1970s condemned the Washington Post's Watergate reporting as politically motivated and, in a Gingrich-style tirade, slammed the media's leadership as a "tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one." His targets rarely issued a reality check.
This past fall, when GOP figures whined that liberal journos had somehow doctored polls to show their beloved Barack Obama leading the race, the Times' David Carr was one of only a few news people contesting this charge. Carr pointed out that, when the polls showed Mitt Romney gaining after dominating the first debate, reporters trumpeted the reversal of fortune. The media's true bias, he wrote, is "always in favor of news." Most reporters, though, looked the other way.
As a journalist this year, I learn a lot about myself from some conservative Republicans I met. I learned that I am a die-hard liberal activist and that I entered the news business to push my left-wing views. This is an amazing feat of perception, often delivered by someone who doesn't know my work or me. No matter. As Noonan puts it: "we all know."
There's only one problem: None of it is true. I am a die-hard moderate who has voted for both parties' candidates. And I became a journalist because it is fun and interesting. The same can be said for the vast majority of news types.
From experience, three things about the anti-media case are clear:
Reporters are moderates, not left-wingers. The accusation of liberal bias rests on a very thin reed. The haters seize upon periodic polls asking reporters how they voted in a presidential race. The samples tend to be small and the methodology suspect, but the Democratic candidate always gets the most media votes. Putting aside the surveys' accuracy, pollsters never ask about intensity: How deeply do the journalists believe in their election choice? Voting for someone does not equal slavish adherence to the candidate's cause. If I voted for the Republican in 2004, does that mean I was a fiery believer in George W. Bush -- or that I shrugged and made a dispassionate judgment call?
The best survey of media views is by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, which polled 528 working journalists in 2008. It found (on page 18 of the report) that of national media people, 53% self-identified as moderates, 32% as liberal and 8% as conservative.
But if news organizations are such hotbeds of left-wing ideology, then there should be myriad tales of beleaguered conservative journalists fighting this bias in the workplace. Or if some liberal newsroom Politburo intimidates conservative scribes, it's curious we hear nothing about their plight. Journalists are not shy, and love to make their grievances known. Yet tellingly, no such newsroom ideological conflict has occurred.
One rather sly counter-argument to that is journalists are self-deluded into thinking they are moderates. That's the thesis of Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS correspondent who has created a nice second career writing anti-media best sellers. In his 2004 book, Arrogance: Rescuing America From the Media Elite, he contends that journalists think their liberalism is the social norm and trick themselves into believing they really are in the middle of the ideological road. The problem with the Goldberg thesis is that you must believe that news people, some of the most self-critical and widely informed human beings anywhere, are wandering in a fogbound world like the one Nicole Kidman and her children floated through in the 2001 supernatural movie, The Others.
Anyone who has spent time in newsrooms knows that staffers seldom talk about politics, other than as a spectator sport. Table-pounding, bug-eyed partisan rants are unknown. The spirit is one of skepticism toward both sides. True, sympathy with the underdog is rife among the press, but that is hardly a left-wing sentiment. Journalists, from my three decades of observation, do not cotton to any orthodoxy, knowing from covering the real world that nothing is infallible.
Projections of bias onto journalists are long on generalities, short on proof. Dorothy Rabinowitz, in her Sept. 18 Wall Street Journal op-ed, decried the news media for favoring Barack Obama, but failed to cite specific evidence, except for an unnamed Times reporter who supposedly almost wept during the Democrat's 2008 speeches. Rush Limbaugh, in a Sept. 24 broadcast, said that journalism schools are left-wing indoctrination mills: "Everyone coming out of J school is dyed-in-the-wool, propagandized liberal." He neglects to give any backup for that assertion.
Divining sinister media plots is standard among the anti-media crowd. Take the botched NBC report on the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a young black man, in Florida last spring. The network edited the tape of shooter George Zimmerman's 911 call, and it came across that he was racially motivated. NBC issued a statement saying this was merely a mistake.
The haters pounced. Brent Bozell, head of the conservative Media Research Center, labeled NBC's action "a willful distortion" and a "fraud." I called him to ask how he knew this to be true, and that the tape editors hadn't simply jumped to a boneheaded conclusion. Did he have access of transcripts of NBC editorial meetings? Did he talk to the networks' producers and reporters? Bozell didn't return my phone call.
Anti-media critiques are often absurdly one-sided. Their anti-media world is one where you whine about perceived slights to your side and conveniently ignore bad press that Democrats get. Anything that doesn't embrace the right-wing line is, by definition, biased. As Noonan puts it: "we all know."
Often the Times, the bête noire of the right, runs pieces that surely should be banned by any self-respecting lefty newsroom thought police. Here's the headline from a Page One story on Apr. 17: "Disabilities Act Used By Lawyers in Flood of Suits." It detailed how fee-hungry attorneys enlist plaintiffs who haven't been harmed and then muscle small businesses into costly settlements. Yet aren't lawyers and the disabilities law sacrosanct to the left? On July 29, this story ran on the front page: "Doctor Shortage Likely to Worsen With Health Law." Aren't liberal reporters supposed to genuflect before Obamacare? And on Sept. 10, the lead story was: "Employers Say Jobs Plan Won't Lead to Hiring Spur," about the president's latest economic stimulus proposal. Why is the Times knocking its supposed hero, Obama?
The violence at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which killed four Americans, is catnip for the media haters, who claim news outlets played down the story, the better to aid Obama. Typical is a commentary in The American Spectator's website Nov. 2, charging the media with "ignoring Benghazi." In fact, the so-called mainstream media have done tons of reporting about Benghazi. In particular, David Kirkpatrick of Times in an Oct. 15 dispatch, described the origins of the attack, which showed that local terrorists indeed mounted it, sparked by an anti-Islam video in the U.S.
In the 17th century, they all knew that the sun revolved around the earth. The Roman Inquisition forced Galileo to recant his position that the earth was not the center of the universe and placed him in lifelong house arrest. In the 21st century, to hear right-wing critics on the subject, journalists are the heretics for not bowing down before the their dogma.
Larry Light, editor-in-chief of financial website AdviceIQ.com, is a former political reporter with Congressional Quarterly and Newsday.