Consumers of American media find themselves in a news world that has shifted toward more conservative reporting. This book takes a measured, historical view of the shift, addressing factors that include the greater skill with which conservatives have used the media, the media’s gradual trend toward conservatism, the role of religion, and the effects of media conglomeration. The book makes the case that the media have managed to not only enable today’s conservative resurgence but also ignore, largely, the consequences of that change for the American people.
About the Author
James Brian McPherson is an associate professor of communication at Whitworth University and author of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. He lives in Spokane, Washington.Sidney Blumenthal is a former editor and writer for the New Republic, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker. A former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, he is the author of several books, including The Clinton Wars and How Bush Rules.
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THE CONSERVATIVE RESURGENCE AND THE PRESS
THE MEDIA'S ROLE IN THE RISE OF THE RIGHT
By James Brian McPherson
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2008
James Brian McPherson
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE NEW CONSERVATISM AND PRIOR MOVEMENTS
In what originally was called one of the first political kidnappings in American history, a man claiming to belong to a group called the American Revolutionary Army grabbed an Atlanta Constitution editor in 1974 and held him for a seven-hundred-thousand-dollar ransom. The kidnapper, who was quickly captured and found to be acting alone, had said the money would be used "to combat excessive liberalism of the press." And though that year-the same year in which Watergate revelations helped end the presidency of Richard Nixon-was one of the high points for American journalism, the Atlanta kidnapper was hardly the only American dismayed by press behavior at the time. The newspaper noted afterward that it had received letters from "nice little old ladies who wrote: 'I am glad you will have to pay the ransom.... The way you have persecuted the President has been awful.... God evens things out.'"
Regardless of the perspective of the Almighty, the so-called liberal press has been a favorite target of conservatives for at least a half century. That criticism continues despite the fact that the mainstream news media (like all branches of the federal government, also targets of conservative complaints) have grown increasingly conservative during recent decades and, in most respects, now are more conservative than liberal. One indication of that conservative emphasis might be seen simply in the use of the contrasting terms: most conservatives take pride in calling themselves conservatives, while, somewhat ironically, many liberals hark back to a major social movement of a century ago and have taken to calling themselves progressives. Of course, few institutions or individuals hold consistent conservative or liberal views on all issues. For example, contemporary conservatives tend to be more opposed than liberals to abortion and more supportive of the death penalty, yet many Americans support or oppose both. Despite some definitive issues and simplistic portrayals by politicians, conservatives and liberals alike usually favor strong families, safe streets, and good schools. President Bill Clinton was lambasted as a liberal by Republican opponents, yet he drew criticism for "stealing" and implementing supposedly Republican ideas such as deficit reduction, international free trade, welfare reform, increased numbers of police officers, and charter schools. "Conservative" president George W. Bush supported a No Child Left Behind education program and the Department of Homeland Security, both originally Democratic ideas.
It also is important to recognize that the meanings of conservative and liberal have changed over time. The founding fathers generally accepted the then-liberal view (now often referred to as classical liberalism) that favored limited government along with individual freedom and responsibility. Their conservative side was expressed through the formation of a style of government that, because of federalism and the separation of powers, made rapid change relatively difficult. For most of American history, conservatives have been those who believed in adhering to the status quo and typically held views sometimes perceived as isolationist, with relatively little use for foreign entanglements beyond business ventures. Both early and modern conservatives have tended to be Christian (joined by conservative Jews in recent decades), concerned about social morality, and promoters of free enterprise. Especially at the national level, conservative republicans once were viewed as probusiness elites who could not understand the needs of blue-collar workers, while in more recent times Democrats have been portrayed as pro-government liberal elites who cannot understand or relate to most Americans. Noting that people use "word weapons" to stereotype their opponents, one legal scholar offers this definition: "critics of media bias generally use 'liberal' to mean people who are reluctant to use military force; support government regulation of the economy; favor programs to aid the poor and disadvantaged; are tolerant of abortion, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage; and are skeptical about institutions such as religion, the military, and the traditional family."
Contemporary neoconservatives have less faith in government-sponsored social programs than do modern liberals but are more willing to let the government legislate "moral" issues such as abortion, pornography, and homosexuality. Conversely, political philosopher Michael Sandel wrote more than twenty years ago, "liberals often take pride in defending what they oppose-pornography, for example, or unpopular views." Sandel also argued that conservatives "sometimes exploit this distinction by ignoring it. They charge that those who would allow abortions favour abortions, that opponents of school prayer oppose prayer, and that those who defend the rights of Communists sympathize with their cause." Today he might substitute the word "terrorists" for "Communists," but otherwise the statement still rings true.
In perhaps the most recent definitional shifts, modern neoconservatives also are somewhat more willing than liberals or more traditional conservatives to use American military force abroad (as evidenced by the George W. "Bush doctrine" of "preemptive war" adopted as part of national security policy in 2002 and used the following year in Iraq). They also seem more willing to trade some of their privacy as individuals for perceived security and to overlook or even favor deficit spending by the government. It also should be pointed out that most political experts differentiate between modern neoconservatives and more traditional conservatives, sometimes called paleoconservatives. In large part because of party divisions, however, that supposed conservative divide essentially has become a distinction without a difference. With most issues, the neoconservatives have won and traditional conservatives have acquiesced. "From the late 1970s on it became increasingly hard to disentangle neoconservatism from other, more traditional varieties of American conservatism, whether based on small-government libertarianism, religious or social conservatism, or American nationalism," wrote Francis Fukuyama, a noted onetime neoconservative who later rejected the movement. According to Fukuyama, "Many neoconservative ideas were wholeheartedly adopted by mainstream conservatives.... But the second reason for this convergence is that many neoconservatives began adopting policy positions of traditional conservatives."
The next chapter further discusses the shift from the traditional conservatism of the 1950s to the neoconservatism that gained prominence in the 1990s. Unless stated otherwise, this book will use contemporary understandings of conservatism and liberalism.
One obvious way in which the media clearly have become more conservative in recent years is exemplified by how much conservatives control the public airwaves. Talk radio programs provide the most obvious example, especially since the arrival of bombastic conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh in the 1980s. Limbaugh freely mixed news with opinion and distortion, delivered with a caustic wit. His popularity spawned numerous imitators, almost all of them also conservatives, and most American cities soon had stations devoted entirely to talk radio. Those programs should be differentiated from the news media, but many Americans-and the networks themselves-often fail to make that distinction. Besides, many of those commentators can be heard, and increasingly seen, on broadcast networks that claim to primarily deliver news. Fox News is the most blatant television example, with its most popular program hosted by Bill O'reilly. Popular conservative Sean Hannity cohosts another Fox show, paired with quieter, less well-known, and more liberal Alan Colmes. Oliver North, who once lied to Congress about the illegal sale of weapons to Iran, has a show on Fox News. Like other conservatives, columnist and radio host Tony Snow regularly criticized George W. Bush for acting too much like a Democrat with some issues. But Snow went from hosting a fox news program and serving as Limbaugh's primary guest host to become Bush's press secretary (and headlining fund-raisers for Republican congressional candidates at the same time, perhaps the first White House press secretary to so actively participate in partisan electoral politics). Though commonly recognized as less conservative than Fox, MSNBC offers one show hosted by noted liberal Keith Olbermann but two programs hosted by conservatives Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough. The same network hired Michael Savage, perhaps the most vicious of the right-wing commentators (Ann Coulter is the possible exception). MSNBC fired Savage less than a year later when he told a homosexual caller: "Oh, you're one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig." Conservative radio personality Laura Ingraham, who once served as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, hosted another MSNBC program. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck began hosting a show on CNN in 2006.
Of course, many political personalities-including not only politicians but also party regulars and some media figures-have learned two keys to enhancing their own popularity. The first is that audiences appreciate simple messages, regardless of how misleading. The second is that almost everyone dislikes some aspects of the media, making the press an easy target. The interesting but troubling result, judging by the widespread popularity of media bashing among some broadcast personalities and by the decreasing number of Americans who read newspapers, is that probably most of the Americans who criticize the "liberalism" of the New York Times have never actually read it. Conversely, based on the Times' perceived influence among those same commentators, and among politicians and academics, it also is a safe bet that the most influential critics who complain about the newspaper's editorial slant still peruse it regularly and probably believe most of what they read within it. National Review, perhaps the most important conservative magazine in the united States for the past fifty years, noted in 1986 that although the magazine's editors "have used the New York Times as our favorite pincushion.... The brightness of the Grey lady, its appetite for the news, for features, for supplements, the sheer universality of its coverage make it the outstanding newspaper in the world." Of course, the National Review could afford to be magnanimous-by then, conservatism reigned in American politics, as it would for at least the next two decades.
That conservative control brings up another key point: conservative critics tend to contradict themselves when making the "liberal media" argument. In their efforts to combat pornography and other "harmful" content, they logically argue that if the media had no influence, advertising would cease to exist. Yet one might reasonably wonder, if the news media are liberal, and if the media have significant influence, how could the united States end up with conservatives controlling all three branches of the federal government and most state governments? it seems that conservative critics either must be wrong about the media having much influence or they must be wrong about the idea that whichever media wield influence are liberal in nature.
In the case of newspapers, most people read local publications that concern themselves more with regional issues than with national affairs, and it is in local and regional issues that newspapers can have the greatest influence. For better or worse, in that way the press may find itself in the same position as Congress: voters commonly give Congress low ratings, but they approve of their own representatives. Similarly, readers and viewers may like their own local news outlets more than they appreciate the news media as a perceived whole. If so, especially if they rely on nonprint media, they may have things backward. After all, the national media know that their mistakes will be caught and highlighted, a situation made truer with the recent rise of internet bloggers. But local media provide much less news and probably less accuracy than their national counterparts, especially for the unfortunate majority of Americans who rely primarily on television for their news. In most regions of the country, local television news has degenerated into a mishmash of lurid but largely irrelevant crime stories, video of fires and car crashes, briefs plagiarized from newspapers, video news releases from government and corporate sponsors, weather graphics, local sports, and on-air "happy talk." Local radio programming has largely disappeared altogether, swallowed up by conglomeration and cost cutting. The lack of meaningful coverage has negative effects beyond the individual news consumers and media credibility. "Because local news avoids a lot of important items, including city council meetings, policy decisions, and local initiatives-in short, the blueprints of local democracy-we are civically poorer," one media scholar notes.
Another problem involves what might be seen as the most important kind of "hard news": what one viewer perceives as good investigative journalism or necessary questioning of authority, another sees as bias. Perhaps that complaint has some basis in fact, considering that one is more likely to find fault (and to seek it in the first place) with one's enemies than with one's friends. When the Chicago Tribune became perhaps the best investigative newspaper in the country during the 1960s, it did so as a conservative newspaper uncovering corruption in the city's Democratic power structure. When the New York Times and the Washington Post fought the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, then as the Post began digging into Watergate, the two newspapers were among the relatively few in the country that would not endorse Richard Nixon's reelection as president. At one time, most American cities had two or more daily newspapers-one might be more liberal, one more conservative. But outside of New York City and Washington, D.C., almost no cities still have competing dailies. In the few cities that have two dailies, typically the two share business operations through a joint operating agreement (discussed in more detail in chapter 7).
Those who complain about a liberal bias among the news media point to surveys showing that most journalists identify themselves as more liberal than their audiences. For example, in one guide to media bias sponsored by the conservative Media Research Center, the authors hyperbolically state: "No one would accept the statement of a Ku Klux Klansman, in line for a judgeship, that he was capable of applying the civil rights laws objectively, without regard to his personal opinions. Yet the argument is advanced by the members of the media that a reporter can cover George Bush fairly even if he believes Bush is a tool of fascist warmongers and racist plutocrats." The supposed members of the media who advance that hypothetical argument are not identified, nor is there any evidence that any mainstream reporter ever considered Bush to be in league with fascists or racists. One also might argue that it is difficult to imagine a Klansman being in line for a judgeship. Still, the central point has some merit-no one is truly unbiased-though as one scholar notes, "Despite claims by the left and the right, journalists do not generally hold extreme political positions, unless we count the extreme center." A 2006 national survey found that most journalists describe themselves as moderates, though very few describe themselves as conservatives. Journalists do tend to lean left, in part because many of them enter journalism as a means to help bring about positive social reform. Even so, most contemporary journalists recognize that bias exists and likely would agree with historian Peter Novick that objectivity is an admirable but ultimately unreachable goal. They try to overcome potential biases by striving for balance or fairness to all sides. In attempting to avoid charges of bias they may even be inclined to bend over backward to be especially fair to those with whom they disagree. Obvious examples of liberal bias can be found, but so can examples of conservative bias-as another media watchdog, the liberal Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, regularly points out. One of that organization's founders also produced a guide to detecting bias, published in the same year as the Media Research Center book, arguing that "mass media are often little more than vehicles through which those in power pontificate to the American public."
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Table of Contents
The New Conservatism and Prior Movements
Roots of Political Resurgence
The Fading of Reform Journalism
Reagan's Cultural Revolution
The Political Process Transformed
The Rise of the Right-Wing Media
Economic and Regulatory Considerations
Redefining the Mainstream
Problems and Possibilities