James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The "liberal media" shibboleth redux

Candidates for office in 2008 already are in full cry, sadly, and so are the party organizations, conscienceless consultants and tunnel-vision corporate press and television pundits.

We also have an early start on the high-volume touting of myths that have worked for one side or another in the past, and truth be damned.

One of the most effective of those groundless myths is the claim that “the press” is overwhelmingly prejudiced in favor of liberals – or maybe it's against conservatives. Either way, it's widely believed, even by some who work for “the press.”

(I've been trying to point out for some time now that the level of perception in news rooms has tailed off from moderate to dim, mostly in the past decade.)

Even as my home town, once good, newspaper, the Star Tribune, slides its news coverage farther and farther to the right, many right wing true believers continue to refer to it as “the Red Star,” which is, like much of their rhetoric, a throwback to the cold war era, a period for which the old “I Need Sombody to Hate” singers are profoundly nostalgic.

But, hey, the repeated charge works to intimidate reporters and, especially, already right-leaning editors.

If you're someone who appreciates a nicely executed fraud, this one is a truly great scam.

The latest claim for press liberalism, and one likely to do a good deal of harm to truth because of the identity of its author, appeared a few days ago on an interesting and often informative on-line Twin Cities newspaper, the TCDailyplanet (http://www.tcdailyplanet.com) – which frequently also carries my stuff, by the way.

It was written by Eric Black, who spent about as long at the Star Tribune as I did, and who has a carefully nurtured reputation for calm observation and erudition. For years, he wrote analyses of political and social situations and issues with a somewhat scholarly tone.

He's written pretty much the same thing before about supposed journalistic liberalism, as he acknowledged.

Black makes some defense of journalists in his brief essay. He says that liberal reporters “perceive the world differently than conservative reporters do,” and that, he says, “is bound to come across in their work in some way.” But, he graciously adds, “they try to rise above their biases and they generally make considerable progress...”

He hangs his latest claim of reporter liberalism largely on a long piece by MSNBC reporter Bill Dedman. In the piece, Dedman analyzed Federal Election Commission records and identified 144 journalists across the country who made political contributions over the past three years. Of those, 125 gave to Democrats and “liberal causes,” Dedman said, and only 17 gave to Republicans, while two gave to both parties.

Black also mentioned a 1996 survey – I haven't been able to find it – that claimed 89 percent of reporters who cover Congress or who head a Washington news bureau voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. If so, big deal.

The Dedman figures are at the same time undoubtedly accurate and unmitigated bullshit in terms of what they imply to readers.

Both pieces, Dedman's and Black's, will provide considerable fodder for the right wing Republican campaign propaganda mill, however, bullshit or not.

Let's start with the Dedman report:

Wow: 144 journalists gave to candidates or causes, and 125 of those sent their money (how much not stated) to Democrats or “liberal causes” as identified by Dedman. Personally, I don't think some of the causes he lists are all that liberal, but that's a minor point. Most clearly are liberal.

At the time of the research for the MSNBC story, there were somewhere around 120,000 working journalists in the country, not counting stringers for country weeklies and the like. That makes 144 pretty small potatoes. Again: just 144 of roughly 120,000 people made political donations -– far too small a number to be at all meaningful. It simply is not a representative number. If anything, it shows how clean of overt political activity the vast majority of journalists keep themselves.

Secondly, as pointed out June 22 by Jamison Foser, a writer for Media Matters, an outfit that keeps a clear eye on news operations here and abroad, many of the 144 journalistic contributors mentioned in the Dedman piece are in no position to influence political coverage. They include a sports statistician for the Boston Globe, sports columnists for the South Florida Sun-Sentinal and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and a sports editor for the San Jose Mercury News among others removed from any influence on political or social coverage.

Dedman acknowledges that many of the journalists listed as donors "cover topics far from politics" such as food, fashion and sports, but that doesn't change the thrust of the piece for most readers.

Third, the Dedman and Black pieces fail to mention, as Foser does, the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to politicians – Republicans over Democrats by considerably more than two to one -– by publishers, other corporate officers and top-level editors of newspaper and magazine companies. They are, of course, people with the power, often used, to influence coverage.

In a note to me, Dedman said his piece was not an article about liberal bias but about journalistic ethics and so he looked only at journalists and not publishers and other corporate ethics. To my mind, the question of "ethics" and "not bias" is splitting hairs too fine to grow on a human head, but you can make your own judgement on that.

The idea of examining the donations of writers and editors without looking at those of others in positions of great power over the news operations, even though he acknowledged that is what he was doing, is, as I said to him in a responsive note, like publishing a critique of a new car model while ruling out any comment on the engine.

Other factors that show the the B.S. Quotient in reports of “liberal bias” among journalists are not so easily reduced to numbers, but they're more important.

Black says anyone who has spent many years in newsrooms “knows” that most journalists are liberals.

Well, I have 10 or 15 more years in newsrooms than Black, and what I “know” is quite different from what he seems to “know.”

I'll give him this: A majority of journalists – they really don't get out much -- think of themselves as liberals or, more often, “centrists.”

That's even with the unstated distinction between various groups within any newsroom. A sports department in any fairly large newspaper is going to have a much closer balance between liberals and conservatives, for example. Copy editors, who do have considerable influence on what articles say and who write the headlines and also have a voice in placement of stories, tend on average to be considerably more conservative than, say, arts critics and features writers, who have no voice in political coverage.

In any case, given what newspapers or magazines print, you have to ask what kind of “liberals” are those in that self-proclaimed liberal-center majority?

I'll tell you what my 40-plus years in the business showed me:

There's been a considerable move to the right -– they'd say toward that elusive, indefinable “center” -- over the past two-plus decades.

The “center” also has been moved to the right with their active help, by the way.

Today's journalists are solidly upper middle class. They tend to live in affluent suburbs and have dispelled among their neighbors the mistaken idea that journalists are left wingers.

They call rich guys in suits “Mister” and the people who speak for peace organizations and neighborhood groups by their first names.

Like the vast majority of Americans, they are deferential to those in power and firmly believe that this is pretty close to the best of all possible worlds –- that it just needs a little tweaking.

A majority, but on some of these issues a slim majority, believe in abortion rights, civil unions if not the right of marriage for gays, and that it's time for a woman president.

If some candidate now were to push an agenda containing the major goals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, they would consider that candidate “extreme” or “fringe,” and their coverage, what little was granted, would clearly convey their opinion.

On a personal level, the average journalist today espouses some vague plan for improved health coverage and better schools in this country -– but they have health coverage that is about as good as anyone other than a member of Congress gets these days, and their kids' suburban schools still are in pretty good shape and neither of those issues really interests them except in a casual, intellectual way. They sure as hell aren't advocating for action.

While they are aware that under George Bush/Cheney the U.S. tax system has been powerfully skewed to favor the very rich, they're like their neighbors in being a uneasy with talk of fixing the system because, heaven forbid, their own income taxes might rise a little.

(Remember, like Black and Dedman, I'm talking majorities here. There are, to my certain knowledge, journalists who feel differently on all of the issues I mention.)

A very large majority of today's journalists are, without question, “against” the Iraq war at this point -– but don't look for much in the way of passion on that score, or so much concern that it might slant coverage of the war or the Bush propaganda machine's output. Quite the contrary.

Very few of today's journalists have served in the military -- almost all of my generation did – and it is extremely unlikely that their children will serve. They tsk, tsk at the war, but it doesn't affect them personally any more than it does their fellow upper middle class suburbanites. Their objections are distantly intellectual.

What I'm talking about with the war: An editorial writer who left the paper in the latest round of staff cuts wrote a signed piece for the op-ed page at about the time of the Iraq invasion. He was disdainful of peace demonstrators, even though he was “against” the war in some unspecified way. He was too old to be out on the streets carrying a sign, he said, and besides he wasn't about to offend his good suburban neighbors (he made that designation, not me) by performing in such a non-mainstream way.

That, I think, pretty much sums up a majority of today's journalists in terms of advocacy, open or covert.

(I'm more than a decade older than the editorial writer, by the way. I also live in a quite affluent neighborhood, although it is a central city neighborhood. I was out there with signs for quite awhile, starting well before the invasion we knew to be coming even if the “journalists” didn't or pretended they didn't. I was already retired, of course.)

All of those attitudinal quirks play out in the news you see.

Never forget -– and I do mean never –- that the Iraq invasion couldn't have taken place without the complicity of the corporate news outfits. They let the administration perpetrate lie after lie, often knowingly, and continue to excuse their miserable performance on the grounds of “balance.”

The unchanged attitude in the news racket these days is that balance in the news means giving a liar equality of coverage with a truth-telling opponent, even when the lies are easily demonstrable. Reporters simply don't point out even the most blatant of lies, especially from the intimidating right, and when they occasionally slip on that point, the editors see that such “bias” is taken out before a story is printed or broadcast.

As after every recent election, there is an occasional round of admissions of error about the war, even as the news outlets and the reporters who mumble a mea culpa or two continue doing exactly as they have been doing.

Deference to power also means that virtually every issue and every argument is couched in terms chosen by the political right, and especially by the White House.

Recently, an escalation in troop numbers in Iraq is routinely called a “surge,” simply because that's what White House spinners settled on.

Every time the White House and the right wingers in Congress want to make another change to favor their rich individual and corporate sponsors, they call it a “reform.” They have pushed bills to “reform” the electoral system by purging the rolls of minority voters, and many bills to “reform” the tax system, and national land management policies and countless other systems.

The press always –- always -- refers to those moves as the this-or-that “reform” effort, because that's what those with the power call it.

Hillary Clinton, a conservative or, as liberals call her and others of her ilk, a Republican Lite, has been designated as the Democratic “front runner” since the very beginning of coverage of the upcoming presidential campaign. She got that designation as the result of a small poll or two before anyone knew who else might run, and I can't recall seeing any story about the candidates in the past year that failed to give her that designation.

The Washington press bunch decided very early, as they always do, who they'd push and who they would ignore or denigrate, and no facts will move them from their determined effort to give us candidates that they, in their basic conservatism, see as qualified. To change their minds would be to lose face among their colleagues at the Press Club, apparently.

Remember a couple of decades ago when the news was full of references to “activist judges?” Now that we have a truly activist court rewriting our laws to give even more power to the rich and powerful, the term has disappeared. Deference to power.

Whenever someone from what today's journalists define as “the left” tries to blow the whistle on one or another of the countless right-wing scams on the American public, an early reaction in the news outlets is to scornfully chant “conspiracy theory.”
That's true even after dozens of real White House and other Republican conspiracies have been uncovered.

News stories are published, once they hit a level that can't be ignored, but the journalists rarely, if ever, use the word conspiracy in describing the scams. We don't have conspiracies, only conspiracy theories, in their world.

Note over the next months how those “liberal” journalists refer to people who intend to, and will, protest during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

I'll start you off with two examples from the past week.

A story by two Star Tribune staff writers began this way:

“Anarchists and antiwar organizations preparing for the Republican National Convention are planning dozens of traffic blockades, are targeting perceived vulnerable spots in the Twin Cities metro area and are readying to spring from Internet promises to real-world action.”

Anarchists? If there are more than two dozen actual anarchists in the entire country, I'll eat raw toad.

There are some troublesome punks, looking for excitement, who call themselves anarchists, undoubtedly, but they probably couldn't even define the word. And in going “Boo!” about their supposed plans, the Strib writers deeply color the public's perception of all protests and demonstrators even though they undoubtedly know that 98 percent of those who show up to protest the Bush/Cheney actions against this country will be peaceful, average Americans.

And a St. Paul Pioneer Press story on the probability of convention protests said in the third paragraph that the anti-war coalition planning at least some of those protests is made up of 1,400 organizations “-- from activists to communists to pacifists.”

Activists, of course. Communists? Not one in 10,000 likely protesters, but it sure will widen the eyes of readers. Pacifists? Some undoubtedly, but, again, a small percentage of those likely to demonstrate against Bush/Cheney in St. Paul. The focus is on a tiny minority; one would think Karl Rove sent in the notes for the stories.

People who are angered by our illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq are not necessarily or even mostly pacifists in the true sense of that word. A majority of the older male anti-war folks I know, and there are many of them, are veterans of the American armed services, and we're anything but ashamed of that fact.

And here are some other never varying cliches you'll see time and again from those “liberal” journalists: Ralph Nader is driven by egomania. (But not Cheney, Karl Rove or the Bumbler in Chief?) Michael Moore is tiresome and petty. (He's also accurate, but what does that count for?) Remember the campaign-long mocking of Howard Dean for one somewhat over the top action?

In another vein, here's a goody, one of many: Americans don't want a government operated universal health care system.

Right. That was true at the time of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, after the pharmaceuticals, HMOs, insurance companies and other equally objective organizations had spent $100 million or so on misleading and flat-out lying television ads against health care reform. My sense is that right now a majority of our fellow citizens would be delighted to see a real government-run, single payer system installed. Oddly enough, no one seems to have done a survey on that subject recently.

But undoubtedly the worst characteristic of our supposedly liberal news media these days lies in what it doesn't cover. Story after story showing the effects of White House actions, actions by the Republican-led Congress and the powerful corporations that now control large segments of our government as well as our economy go unpublished in most of the corporate media, though they can be found elsewhere.

(Come to think of it, it's time for a partial roundup of some of those hidden stories. Will get to that as soon as I have time.)

The latest celebrity scandal or personal tragedy gets play that used to be reserved for declarations of war, but the real stories are ignored or buried.

There's your liberal news media, folks, and 144 contributors to politicians or social causes hasn't made the tiniest dent in the real nature of the corporate media today.