I had the opportunity to sit down this week with one of America's top economists, Paul Krugman, who of course doubles as an influential op-ed columnist for The New York Times. It's more than a bit surprising when the guy from The New York Times sounds more radical than anyone else in the room...but Krugman and his twice-weekly column have been more consistently surprising and radically different than anything else allowed to appear in the Times (or indeed anywhere else in the so-called 'mainstream media') for so long that even Krugman himself no longer seems surprised by the force of his own outrage.
He certainly pulled no punches during our conversation, stating in a forthright manner his opinions on such controversial topics as truth and lies in the newsroom ("The Big Lies are all on the right"), media bias ("A large part of it is in fact right-wing bias, because they are effectively part of the right wing") and corporate pressure ("It's very clear that when the parent companies of the major news sources have issues at stake before the federal government... this definitely influences the coverage.) Perhaps the fact that he's a tenured professor at Princeton -- and not a professional journalist still on the make - has freed Krugman to speak truth to naked emperors and Times readers on a biweekly basis...
We spoke at the beginning of a national publicity tour for Krugman's latest book, The Conscience of a Liberal, which ranges over the history of the past century to explain what went wrong in America -- and then attempts to point the way to a "new New Deal." Part of what went wrong with America, of course, was the role played in our democracy by the mass media, as Krugman recognized and parsed in one chapter in his book entitled 'Weapons of Mass Distraction.'
ROC: You speak in your book about "movement conservatism," which you call a "radical new force in American politics that took over the Republican Party." What role if any do the media play in movement conservatism?
PK: The media are a very important force in it. They shape perceptions and they conceal issues. Look at the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, where the media were so heavily biased against Al Gore. That's what brought Bush to within a Supreme Court decision of the White House. So if you look at, certainly these last seven years, the role of the media in not telling you reasons why you should be skeptical about the course of the war, for example, it's enormously important.
We have a situation right now in which there are several major parts of the news media that are for all practical purposes part of "movement conservatism" - Fox News, The New York Post, The Washington Times -- and in which other news organizations are intimidated, at least to some extent. I sometimes talk about what I call "asymmetrical intimidation." If you say a true but unflattering thing about Bush or in fact about any other prominent conservative, oh boy! People are going to go after you. I mean, I've got people working fulltime going after me, right? But if you say a false, unflattering thing about a Democrat or a progressive, no risk... And that shapes coverage, no question about it. It's better now, but it's still very asymmetric. The other thing we should mention about the media is their addiction to the trivial. We've got the most substantive election coming up, I think, ever. We've got clear differences on policies between parties. And what are we seeing news stories about? John Edwards' hair and Hillary Clinton's laugh... this is horrifying! And again -- it's asymmetric. I can think of lots of unflattering things to say about any of the Republican candidates - Mitt Romney's saying his sons are serving the country by helping him get elected! - but it doesn't get nearly as much play in the media.
ROC: It sounds like you're saying there's a bias in the media. If you are, what is the bias?
PK: The media's bias, a large part of it is in fact right wing bias, because they are effectively part of the right wing. Fox News... there's nothing like Fox News on other television networks that you can look at. There is no liberal equivalent of Fox News, there is no network that, if a conservative got the Nobel Peace Prize, would have responded the way Fox News did to Al Gore's Peace Prize, by first saying nothing at all, then when they figured out the line, talking about how fat he is.... So there's no correspondence there.
Beyond that, there's two things at least; first, the hatred of substance -- they really want to talk about all that trivia -- and there's also the fetish of evenhandedness. If one candidate says something that's completely false, and the other something that's true, the media will say, 'Some people believe what that guy said was false, and some people say it was true.' Way back in the 2000 campaign, I wrote a piece in which I said that if Bush said the earth was flat, the headline would read: "Opinions Differ on Shape of the Planet." I was thinking specifically about what Bush was saying about taxes and Social Security, which were just out and out lies! But no one would say that, and they still won't. It's better now, a little, but they still won't say it, and that tends -- I imagine in some future environment that might work to the advantage of some dishonest candidates on the left - - but the fact of the matter is the Big Lies are all on the right right now. So it works much more to their advantage.
ROC: Do you think it's possible that economics is driving politics in the media?
PK: The role of economics in driving the media is an interesting one. One question is simply, "Do they respond to what sells?" And to some extent the focus on the trivial is there due to that. And also, by the way, talking heads screaming at each other is a lot cheaper than actually having reporters out in the field doing reporting, so that's one reason why you get that.
I guess the question that you want to ask is "To what extent is news coverage biased by the corporate interest of the parents?" And that's hard to pin down in any direct way, but one of the interesting things that you notice right now is the remarkable reluctance of some of the networks to follow what the viewer ship numbers seem to be saying. I mean, look at Olbermann's show versus anything else at MSNBC, for example. Why aren't there more programs like that? Why is CNN still trying to be Fox Lite, when you clearly can't outfox Fox and there clearly seems to be a bigger market opportunity on the other side? And you really do start to think that -- there probably aren't, at networks other than Fox, there probably aren't memos saying here is how we are going to slant the news today - at Fox there are, everyday. But there's probably this general sort of pressure to go for the views that won't upset the CEO of the firm that controls the network that has a lot of business interests that are best served by one side or the other... so yes, this is a problem.
ROC: So deregulation, consolidation and corporate issues like that might affect news coverage?
PK: Oh sure. It's very clear that when the parent companies of the major news sources have issues at stake before the federal government -- and if one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress and has made it very clear that it keeps lists and remembers who its friend and not-so-friend are -- this definitely influences the coverage. A lot of people I talk to in the media say that they have received pressure in ways that only seem to make sense if you think that at some level management -- not the guys that think about audience shares but the guys who think about broader concerns -- are taking into account the political liabilities. Which is one reason why it is remarkable, although it's still not what I want, that the news coverage has gotten a whole lot better -- funny, no? -- after the polls really turned the other way.
ROC: In your book, you talk about the media's use of "storylines" and what you've called the "Ramobofication of history."
PK: Yes, I'm rather proud of the term "Rambofication." In the years immediately following Vietnam, all of this stuff that now seems so much a part of the story -- that we lost the war because we were stabbed in the back, that the "weak" politicians, the Democrats, can't be trusted on national security -- wasn't very much out there. I actually went back and looked at a lot of polling and what people had to say at the time. In 1977, people still remembered what Vietnam had actually been like, and why we needed to get the heck out of there.
It wasn't really until the 1980's that the history began to be re-invented, so if only we'd let Sylvester Stallone flex his muscles, we could have gone back and won the war. The idea of Democrats as "weak" on national security really got invented then -- and you know there were a couple of events that played into that, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which I really don't think had much to do with Reagan, but helped make the storyline. So when 9/11 came along, the realities of 9/11 were that the Clinton people had been working pretty hard to try to do something about Bin Laden, and the Bushies said as soon as they came in, "We're not interested, we want to think about a war with China." But the storyline that the media fell into was that "We're the tough guys, the other guys neglected it." And that gave them a good run--they won two elections, in '02 and '04, which I think otherwise they would have lost -- by playing on this notion of "We're strong, and they're weak." I guess the sort of good news is that they have done such an incredibly terrible job at all of that that we may have at least a while before all that scare tactic stuff comes back.
ROC: Or we may hear in four years how the Democrats "lost Iraq."
PK: I'm worried, obviously. Clearly, if it's a Democrat who withdraws from Iraq, which it appears likely it will be, then it will be more of the "We were winning, we were on the edge of victory, then they stabbed us in the back..."
ROC: "They spit on our soldiers..."
PK: Yeah, that's amazing, the 'spitting on our soldiers' thing -- because it never happened, there are no documented cases -- but it became part of the storyline. Will that happen again? Certainly they'll do their damndest to make it happen....
I guess I'm more optimistic about the American public, that it will take a lot more than four years, for us to see that again, because it took more than four years after Vietnam, and right now the American public has a pretty good sense of just what a disaster that's all been... I think people have made up their minds that this is a disaster. Maybe ten years from now, they'll have forgotten and be willing to, you know, see movies in which some heroic guy goes back and wins the Iraq war but... not for a while anyway.
ROC: Well, I'm more of a Mencken disciple when it comes to the American public, but I hope you're right.
PK: I hope I'm right too!
This post first appeared here.