Victim Politics

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Every political movement benefits from nurturing in its adherents
the sense that powerful interests are arrayed against them. For
American liberals, this is relatively straightforward. As they
traditionally represent the economically weak, they regularly find
themselves opposed by the economically powerful. American
conservatives come to their persecution complex less naturally,
particularly given their political ascendance over the past 20
years. And yet, even with lavish industry bankrolling of their
ideas and control of the White House, Supreme Court, and half of
Congress, conservatives still generally see themselves as
underdogs. The bugaboo that most enables this belief is the notion
that the media systematically slants news coverage to the left.Liberal media bias occupies a cherished space within the
conservative psyche, and every GOP standard-bearer in the last
decade has taken it up. The first President Bush made it a sort of
motto in 1992--"ANNOY THE MEDIA, RE-ELECT BUSH" read a popular
bumper sticker embraced by the candidate. Newt Gingrich railed that
"the bias of the elite media" amounted to "a passive conspiracy" to
help Bill Clinton; Bob Dole charged that reporters apply "a double
standard" to Republican and Democratic candidates because "they
just can't help but see the world through liberal-colored glasses."
Even George W. Bush, who has enjoyed largely convivial relations
with the press, recently paraded before reporters toting a copy of
Bias--former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg's memoir-cum-expos about
the leftward slant of televised news--which has unexpectedly risen
to number one on The New York Times best-seller list.

The commercial success of Bias has propelled the debate over liberal
bias beyond the conservative press, where it has bubbled for
decades, and given it new credence. Among conservatives, Bias has
not advanced a new understanding of the media so much as confirmed
an old one. On the right, liberal media bias is considered a
settled question. "There are certain facts of life so long obvious
they would seem beyond dispute," explained a recent Wall Street
Journal editorial. "One of these--that there is a liberal tilt in
the media ... continues to provoke hot denials and even rage."
Goldberg's role in the conservative case against the media is as an
eyewitness for the prosecution. His indictment is that members of
the media are so uniformly liberal that they "can't recognize their
own bias" and will ruthlessly persecute anybody who dares speak the
truth. "Taking on the media elites," he writes melodramatically,
"is a sin. A mortal sin."

There are any number of ways one might test Goldberg's hypothesis.
But for the sake of argument, let us consider media coverage of
Bias itself. If Goldberg's claims--about the media's hostility to
conservative views in general and to criticism of the media in
particular--are true, one would expect the press to have greeted
Bias with extreme animosity. But nothing of the sort has happened.
As Goldberg himself acknowledged on one of his many book-touting
appearances on fox news, "I would say ninety percent of what I've
heard and read about the book has been positive." Even the review
of Bias in The New York Times--an organ that figures prominently in
the demonology of conservative media analysis--declares: "'Bias'
should be taken seriously." The book splashes this quote across the
top of its cover, apparently oblivious to the refutation of its own
thesis.

A similar paradox applies to the book's most sensational bit of
evidence: a conversation that Goldberg claims to have had with CBS
NEWS President Andrew Heyward in which the latter confessed, "of
course there's a liberal bias in the news," but warned the author:
"[i]f you repeat any of this, I'll deny it." This divulgence is
treated as a smoking gun--confirmation of bias from a leading
member of the liberal media himself! The same dynamic gives
Goldberg's own testimony more credibility, and the subtitle of Bias
("A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News") plays upon
this notion. But it's hardly new for journalists to denounce their
profession's bias--indeed, he recycles several old quotes from
nonconservative reporters making the same point. And ultimately
these confessions don't bolster Goldberg's argument; they undermine
it. His contention, remember, is that journalists are so
ideologically insular that they "can't recognize their own bias."
By this logic, the best evidence of liberal bias would be reporters
denying it or even suspecting themselves of conservative bias.
(National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru suggested this phenomenon in
2000, writing that "the press is just sympathetic enough to [Al]
Gore to convince itself that it's biased against him.") Goldberg
and his conservative admirers want it both ways: If journalists
admit liberal bias, they prove the charge correct. If journalists
deny liberal bias, they prove they're too ideologically blinkered
to see the truth, further confirming their bias.

This sort of nonfalsifiability is the great affliction of media
criticism. Often it's simply impossible to separate one's views
about bias from one's views about the underlying subject matter. Do
you think the media's coverage of the Whitewater scandal exhibited
an anti-Clinton bias? Your answer to that question almost certainly
depends upon whether you think Whitewater was much ado about
nothing or genuinely scandalous--which, in turn, almost certainly
depends on your opinion of President Clinton. It's easy, then, to
fall into the epistemological trap of interpreting every news story
that jibes with your ideology as obviously true and every story
that doesn't as evidence of media bias. This isn't to say that
everything is relative and that determining what constitutes
prejudicial news is impossible. The point is that making judgments
about media bias requires an Olympian detachment from one's own
perspective.

Alas, it is this very quality that Goldberg most obviously lacks.
His account of his tenure at CBS is comically bereft of
self-awareness. In Goldberg's telling, his ordeal began when he
wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal attacking as biased a CBS
segment on then-presidential candidate Steve Forbes and the flat
tax. Obviously, no organization appreciates having one of its
employees publicly impugn its integrity. Yet Goldberg recounts every
heated conversation, every aversion of his colleagues' eyes, in the
shocked and outraged tones of a man who has barely survived some
Upper West Side gulag. (It's worth noting that after his op-ed
Goldberg actually remained at CBS for several years without any
reduction in salary.) Goldberg apparently feels he can publicly
accuse his colleagues of violating the most basic journalistic
principles but feels they have no right to take umbrage, even in
private. Without irony, though, he declares them "thin-skinned
celebrity journalists who can dish it out ... but can't take it."

Goldberg describes how he tried to mollify Heyward by pointing out
that, in his op-ed, he had not revealed the private conversation in
which Heyward allegedly concurred with his views on bias. Goldberg
records Heyward's reaction, using italics for emphasis: "'That
would have been like raping my wife and kidnapping my kids!' he
screamed at me." Goldberg lingers over the phrase, repeating it
five times throughout the book, each instance in italics. "Writing
an op-ed piece was like raping his wife and kidnapping his kids," he
recounts-- somewhat distorting the view of Heyward, who was
describing something Goldberg had not done. "Criticizing, publicly,
what I saw as bias in network news was like raping his wife and
kidnapping his kids." You might conclude from this passage that
Goldberg has a severe aversion to hyperbolic analogies, even those
uttered in extemporaneous anger. But the first few chapters of his
book are largely a series of, well, hyperbolic analogies, in which
he compares CBS NEWS to, alternatively, the Soviet Union, the
Mafia, and a prison in which the producers and vice presidents are
"Dan [Rather]'s bitches." Even in his own account, Goldberg comes
off as a man utterly unable to apply a consistent set of rules to
himself and others.

None of which is to say that Goldberg is wrong when he says the
media is biased. But that bias isn't monolithic. It comes in
various forms, not all of them liberal. The trouble is that
conservatives, who dominate the world of ideological media
criticism, don't usually distinguish between biased reporting and
reporting that contradicts their views. And they don't usually
distinguish between stories that are ideologically biased against
conservatives and stories that are biased for other reasons. Take
Goldberg's strongest evidence of liberal bias in the news--Eric
Engberg's February 1996 CBS NEWS segment on the flat tax, which
launched Goldberg's career as a media critic. Goldberg is right
that the incident provides an object lesson in media bias; it's just
not the bias he imagines.

As Goldberg notes, the segment's entire tone was critical, but not
vehemently so until the very end, when Engberg declared, "Forbes's
number-one wackiest flat-tax promise," then cut to Forbes
proclaiming: "Parents would have more time to spend with their
children and each other." There are basically two questions
here--one of tone and one of content. Let's take the latter first.
As Goldberg sees it, Forbes's claim deserved to be taken seriously.
"[W]hat Forbes meant," he writes, "is that since many
Americans--not just the wealthy--would pay less tax under his plan,
they might not have to work as many hours." In other words,
Goldberg argues that Forbes's promise, regardless of its truth, was
at least logically consistent. But it wasn't. The entire rationale
of the candidate's flat tax was that it would cause an economic
boom by inspiring Americans to work more. If it caused people to
work less, then it would reduce, rather than increase, economic
growth. Even by Forbes's own logic, then, this promise was
transparently silly.

On tone, however, Goldberg is right that Engberg's segment was not
straight in the usual "Candidate Smith says X, but Candidate Jones
says Y" sense. What does this mean? Goldberg, unsurprisingly, sees
partisan bias. "There is absolutely no way," he writes, "that
Engberg or Rather would have aired a flat- tax story with that same
contemptuous tone if Teddy Kennedy or Hillary Clinton had come up
with the idea." But remember, in February 1996 Forbes was running
in the GOP primary against the chosen candidate of the party
establishment, Bob Dole, and at the time many Republicans
(including Gingrich) were attacking the flat tax as nonsensical and
a sop to the rich. The candidate who most benefited from the
segment, then, was Dole.

What allowed CBS (and the media generally) to treat Forbes's
flat-tax plan so harshly, then, was the fact that the proposal was
controversial even within the GOP. One of the guiding conventions
of political journalism is that criticism is legitimized when it
comes from within a politician's party as well as from the other
party. For instance, the media started describing Clinton's
dalliance with Monica Lewinsky as an important moral transgression
once Democrats acknowledged it.

Had Forbes somehow become the GOP nominee, however, a segment like
Engberg's almost certainly could not have run. This is because, for
the mainstream media, being even-handed usually means treating
respectfully the reigning view in each party. And while this ethos
does represent a kind of bias, it's not exactly a liberal one. One
consequence of this bias, as I've written in these pages before, is
that the press feels obliged to take seriously even those policy
claims that are empirically false. Last year, for instance,
nonpartisan calculations showed that about 40 percent of Bush's tax
cut went to the highest- earning 1 percent of taxpayers. To counter
this, Republicans released a competing estimate, claiming the
figure was only 22 percent. But they arrived at this number by
explicitly excluding from their calculations those parts of the tax
cut--the upper-bracket cuts and repeal of the estate tax--that most
benefited the rich. In other words, the GOP figure was objectively
and deliberately wrong in ways that were easy to comprehend and
explain. Rather than point this out, though, the press generally
treated both numbers as equally valid. As The New York Times
reported, "the richest 1 percent of taxpayers would get between 22
percent and 45 percent of the tax benefits, depending on how the
calculations are done."; A kernel of truth in Goldberg's
"hyperbolic screed."

A related media bias--which is likewise often mistaken for partisan
inclination--is toward ratifying the stereotypes that already exist
about each party and its candidates. During the 2000 campaign, for
instance, National Review's Jonah Goldberg (no relation) compared
then-Governor Bush's execution of a murderer, which received
widespread media attention, with a similar execution by Clinton
eight years before, which received far less coverage. The
discrepancy, he argued, proved liberal media bias. But a more
plausible explanation is that it reflected the media's bias toward
the established story line: Bush's rivals were accusing him of
excessive fondness for the death penalty, while Clinton's, by and
large, were not. The same dynamic worked in Bush's favor later in
the campaign. In the fall of 2000, reporters jumped all over Gore
for making factual misstatements--a shift in news coverage that
precipitated Bush's comeback in the polls--while ignoring various
factual misstatements by Bush. Again, this didn't reflect bias but
rather adherence to a familiar script. The rap on Gore was
dishonesty, so reporters seized upon his falsehoods. Similarly, the
rap on Bush was stupidity; when he flubbed an impromptu quiz of
world leaders in 1999, it was considered news. This sort of media
bias is maddeningly insipid, but in an equal-opportunity way. It is
the reason we invariably see more stories about poverty and
environmental despoliation during Republican administrations, and
more stories about government bloat and military unpreparedness
during Democratic ones.

When Goldberg goes beyond his first-person observations at CBS, his
media analysis becomes even more simplistic. In fact, he does
little more than recycle long-standing conservative complaints. He
notes, for instance, that news accounts describe Republicans as
"right-wing" far more than they call Democrats "left-wing." This
may sound like a perfectly impartial objection-- mustn't there be
as many left-wingers in American politics as right-wingers? If you
consider Clinton a leftist, as many conservatives do, then the
answer is yes. But the center of American politics has moved
rightward over the last 25 years. By historical standards--not to
mention the standards of other democracies--American liberals today
are rather conservative. Clinton was probably further to the right
on domestic policy than Richard Nixon, and he was almost certainly
further to the right than European conservatives such as Helmut
Kohl and Jacques Chirac. So from these broader perspectives, it's
entirely natural that reporters would label more contemporary
American politicians "right-wing" than "left-wing."

This same rightward drift has made liberalism less fashionable. So,
over the last decade, major newspapers have used the pejorative
phrase "unreconstructed liberal" more than five times as often as
they've used "unreconstructed conservative." Why isn't this
disparity evidence of anti-liberal bias? For basically the same
reason Goldberg's example isn't. Reporters are more likely to call
liberals "unreconstructed" not because they consider liberalism out
of date, but because in recent years liberals have indeed felt the
need to reconstruct themselves more than conservatives have.

To be fair, Goldberg does occasionally venture beyond conservative
conventional wisdom about media bias. The problem is that when he
does, he generally undermines his main argument. For instance, he
devotes a significant chunk of his book to discussing how network
news departments twist their coverage to protect their parent
corporations' bottom line--NBC, for instance, buried unflattering
news about General Electric. But Goldberg never acknowledges that
these constitute examples of conservative bias.

Another bias that Goldberg repeatedly notes stems from the crass
imperative for commercial success. Ratings, he writes--again,
apparently without recognition that he is undermining his
thesis--are "the reason television people do almost everything."
But if networks care only about ratings, why do they risk their
profits by offending the political views of their audience? Indeed,
in a free market, how could an overwhelmingly liberal media even
exist? Even though the conservative FOX NEWS network has increased
its share in recent years, "liberal" networks like ABC, CBS, CNN,
and NBC still control the bulk of the TV news market and "liberal"
newspapers the bulk of the newspaper market. If you believe that
the media tilt left, then you must either believe that the public
has no objection to this slant, or that the news business is
unaffected by the forces of supply and demand.

To avoid such sticky questions, most conservatives ignore the
political inclinations of both media owners and media consumers,
and concentrate instead on the biases of reporters and editors. And
here the right has its strongest case. Reporters, as numerous
studies have established, overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. The
most famous survey, taken after the 1992 elections, found that 89
percent of Washington journalists had voted for Clinton, 7 percent
for Bush pre, and only 2 percent for Ross Perot (as compared with
43, 37, and 19 percent, respectively, for the voters at large).

But this doesn't prove quite as much as one might suspect. Reporters
may hold liberal views, but not on everything. Fairness and
Accuracy in Reporting, a left-wing media watchdog, polled
Washington journalists and compared the results with those of the
public. It found that, while reporters generally hold more liberal
views on social issues, they often take more conservative stances
on economic questions. The public was far more likely than were
media elites to think that Clinton's tax hike for the wealthy
didn't go far enough and that the government should guarantee
medical care. Reporters were far more inclined to support free
trade and cutting entitlement programs.

This should come as no surprise. The views of the Beltway press
reflect the ideology of the socioeconomic stratum in which they
reside: secular, educated, urban or suburban, liberal on the
environment and social issues, moderately conservative on
economics. Indeed, the greatest statistical discrepancy in the 1992
voting pattern is not Washington reporters' lack of support for
Bush, but their lack of support for Perot--they were one-fifth as
likely as the public to cast a ballot for the GOP candidate, but
only one-tenth as likely to support the Texas billionaire. Perot,
of course, appealed to the disaffected working class, railing
against free trade and immigration. Naturally, this brand of
populism held little appeal for the media elite.

Reporters and pundits express their prejudices by classifying
socially liberal, economically conservative positions as "centrist"
or "moderate." Often this comes in the guise of bland horse-race
analysis. How many times have you read in the news that Republicans
succeed only when they eschew "divisive social issues"? "Divisive"
social issues include even those, like school prayer and
affirmative action, on which polls show wide majorities siding with
the conservative position. Likewise, on many economic questions,
the mainstream press habitually adopts conservative lingo, deriding
efforts at redistribution of wealth as "class warfare" and defenses
of retirement programs as "demagoguery."

Thus reporters define Republican Christine Todd Whitman--who
dissents from GOP dogma on abortion and the environment--as a
moderate, but they define Gary Bauer--who dissents on Social
Security privatization and the minimum wage--as a hard-core
ideologue. During the 2000 election Newsweek did a profile of a
classic "swing voter" in Michigan. Even though she described herself
as a pro- life Catholic who favored a more activist government, the
article still proceeded to describe her as the prototype "fiscally
conservative, socially moderate" swing voter--as if the trope were
preprogrammed into Newsweek's word processors.

On the whole, this set of biases disproportionately benefits
Democrats and liberals. The media's aversion to the cultural right
is more pronounced than its aversion to the economic left, and,
since reporters tend to label politicians according to their social
views, they're more apt to consider Democrats moderate. This is the
kernel of truth underlying Goldberg's hyperbolic screed.

But there are two important caveats. First, the professional
constraints and institutional tendencies of political
journalism--which value neutrality, tend to follow compelling story
lines, and place a premium on maintaining good sources within both
parties--often overwhelm reporters' ideological predilections.
Second, conservative Republicans who understand these predilections
can turn them to their own advantage. The recent revelation that
the 2000 Bush presidential campaign kept Ralph Reed off its payroll
is instructive: The reason, according to the Times, was that
associating Bush too publicly with a former director of the
Christian Coalition would complicate his efforts to portray himself
as a "compassionate conservative." Bush's advisers understood that
reporters would gauge his moderation largely by his distance from
social conservatives. (They also no doubt understood that retaining
Larry Lindsey, a fervent supply-sider, as his main economic adviser
would set off no such alarms in the press.)

Bush outlined his plan to handle the press in a 1999 interview with
National Review. "I do think [the media] are biased against
conservative thought," he said in a forum that received little
attention outside the right. "And the reason is that they think
conservative thinkers are not compassionate people. And that's one
of the reasons I've attached a moniker to the philosophy that I
espouse, because I want people to hear a different message." As the
Bush campaign understood, reporters are predisposed to seeing
conservatives as temperamentally mean-spirited--an idiotic notion
(think of Ronald Reagan or Jack Kemp), but a deeply rooted one
nonetheless. Therefore, they viewed Bush's cheerful demeanor and
apparent affinity for the poor as evidence that he was not all that
conservative, and this conclusion permeated coverage of the entire
campaign.

During the presidential debates, for instance, moderator Jim Lehrer
twice asserted that both candidates shared essentially identical
views on domestic issues. "As a practical matter, both of you want
to bring prescription drugs to seniors, correct?" he said in the
first debate. "[W]ould you agree that the two of you agree on a
national patients' bill of rights?" he said in the last. In fact,
the two candidates held very different views on these two issues,
with Gore supporting popular legislative initiatives, and Bush--who
opposed those initiatives--working like mad to pretend that he
didn't. Essentially, Lehrer made Bush's case for him, and when Gore
tried to lay out the differences (remember the Dingell-Norwood
guffaws?), he came across as niggling and disputatious. It's not
that Lehrer tried to help Bush--he merely represented the consensus
among the chattering classes. The fact that the media depicted Bush
as representing a break from the conservatism of the congressional
Republicans was essential to his election.

It is ironic, then, that at this moment in history, a book alleging
liberal media bias would top the best-seller list. And more ironic
still that Bush would give it his tacit endorsement. Conservatives
like Goldberg may believe that he overcame the systematic liberal
bias of a hostile media, but Bush, surely, knows better.

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