Dear Reader (Including anyone looking for work as Secretary of Defense),
Greeting from the Great North. I’m up in Alaska for a family-get-together a year after my father-in-law passed away. I’m always glad for the opportunity to be here. I’m never glad for the ordeal of getting here. Because of the time-zone difference – I’m four hours behind the folks who need to cram this thing into the pneumatic tubes – not to mention the bears (they love the smell of whisky and cigar-smoked pundit jerky) I have to write fast.
My column today is on liberal media bias. I have a love-hate relationship with the topic. On the one hand it’s a legitimate issue that I’ve been writing about for most of my professional life (I was an actual media critic for a couple magazines). On the other hand, it can be an incredibly whiny, lame and lazy beat.
One of the reasons I stuck with it was simple annoyance. For years, Dan Rather and other MSM poohbahs would insist that liberal media bias was a “myth.” As Rather once put it, “anybody who knows me knows that I am not politically motivated, not politically active for Democrats or Republicans, and that I’m independent.” This was, of course, before he walked like Sideshow Bob into an endless parking lot of garden rakes smacking himself in the face day after day, all because he was so desperate to “get” George W. Bush. But he stuck with this stuff even after.
As I put it 18 – my God, eighteen – years ago in this old school G-File:
If they’d admit they have a problem and move on, lots of conservatives would just give up on the topic. It’s the infuriating denial that bugs many of us. It’s like the friend who swears he didn’t drink your last beer. You don’t care about the beer, but you just can’t stand him not admitting it. (You took my beer! Say it!! Say it!!!) By denying the obvious, so many pompous elite journalists drive us batty by acting as if we’re imagining things.
This frustration was a big part of the reason conservative media has exploded over the last thirty years. It was the secret to Fox News’ early success. Whatever you may think of the phrase “fair and balanced” it was a brilliant way to brand itself as different from the liberal media hegemony. Liberals may have chuckled at the term, but millions of conservatives and independents were hungry for something that broke with the propagandizing pack mentality of the mainstream media. Rush Limbaugh’s (and that of his many imitators’) meteoric rise tapped into this frustration too. For years, AM talk radio was a kind rebellious underground counterweight to elite imposed orthodoxy. But things are different now. Conservative media was once a vital corrective to mainstream media, now it’s become an alternative to it for many people. This has been bad for both in myriad ways. Let’s walk through a few.
The Media Landscape Today
Just as a diverse diet is better for you than a steady diet of any single food product, a pure diet of conservative – or mainstream media – is deleterious to your health. The polarization of today leads millions of people to buy into single narratives that relegate all inconvenient facts to the category of “fake news” or propaganda of the left or the right.
Traditional media evolved as a counterweight to political power, the “fourth estate” as Edmund Burke referred to it. That was the role envisioned by the founders; a means of truth-squadding the government and other sources of established power. As a result, traditional media always had an adversarial orientation to the status quo, which is why historically it was always more attractive to progressives, reformers, muckrakers and rabble rousers. And while that tendency created problems of bias and excess it also contributed to a deep culture of reporting.
Aspects of modern conservative media served this function too, but culturally it also conceived of itself as a counterweight to liberal journalism. As a result, it inflated the importance – and villainy — of the MSM and developed a kneejerk habit of saying “black” whenever “elites” said “white.” Worse, the more it could monetize its animosity to the media, the more invested it became in inflating the importance of the media. This is one reason why you see so many Trump defenders retreat to media criticism whenever Trump does something indefensible, like there’s some apples-to-apples comparison there. It is possible for The New York Times to be wrong without Trump being right. It’s just increasingly difficult to say so to conservative audiences – the reverse is true for liberal audiences.
Media polarization is both a driver — and product — of social polarization. The rise of Fox News should have been a wake-up call to the mainstream media. When millions of people rush to an alternative product to what you’re selling, that’s a sign of failure or obsolescence. That’s why McDonald’s changes its menus and Coca-Cola updates its product line. But rather than check itself, much of the mainstream media opted to wreck itself, doubling-down on precisely the behaviors that causes millions of Americans to reject it. The mainstream media behaves more like a class or clerisy every day. The result is more groupthink not less. When Dan Rather got that forged memo, if there had been a single journalist in the room who didn’t want the story to be true, they probably would have done their due diligence if only to get the guy to shut up about it. But everyone was bought-in to the too-good-to-check dynamic and now Dan Rather is an old man shouting at clouds on Facebook. Ideological bias is unavoidable, the trick is to use it productively, to fuel skepticism. Instead, vast swaths of the mainstream media work on the assumption that it is their job to protect, defend or rationalize liberal priorities in the culture war and there are precious few people inside these organizations to question basic assumptions.
Much of rightwing media these days is a mirror image of this dynamic. The culture war is everything now, subsuming the political parties, economics and even foreign policy. That’s in part because Donald Trump is, perhaps second only to abortion, the most important touchstone in the culture war. For example, right now, you can see various conservatives struggling to figure out what they want to do about Iran because they want to support whatever Trump ends up doing. It’d be easy if Trump had a coherent and easily understood position on the question. He doesn’t. So yesterday morning, Trump lickspittle Seb Gorka was positively tumescent about Donald Trump’s imminent strike on Iran. Then it didn’t happen. I don’t know what Trump will end up doing – no one does, including Trump – but you can be sure Gorka will hail it as brilliant no matter what. Bismarck may have said “No man is a hero to his valet” but he never met Gorka. To be fair, his sycophancy is cartoonish even for a Trump praetorian, but it is symptomatic of the larger problem.