National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

Liberals fight back

Pack journalism characterizes the media today, which is anything but liberal


The crows have flown again! Walter Pincus, veteran reporter for The Washington Post, has reminded NPR’s press-criticism show, “On the Media,” of Eugene McCarthy’s image of the press as a bunch of crows sitting on a telephone wire. They just sit there until one flutters up and flies to another wire. Then all the others follow.

The press just sat there, not asking any questions, a year ago as the White House drove the country into the Iraq war, imagining that the only postwar problem would be in dealing with the overwhelming love of the Iraqi people.

Suddenly that atmosphere has evaporated. The Sept. 29 issue of The New Republic has two articles on “Bush hatred,” and The Village Voice shows a cartoon Bush taking a whopper punch in the jaw.

Finally, a few weeks ago, one reporter asked President Bush what evidence there was of Iraq’s alliance with Osama bin Laden -- something the administration led 70 percent of Americans to believe. And Bush had to admit there was none.

Symbolically, that reporter was the first crow.

But the stage had been set by three books, with more to come, in which liberal journalists explode the myth of the “liberal” media and spell out the details of overwhelming right-wing dominance -- particularly in newspaper and magazine ownership, talk radio and TV punditry. Then they take on the issues conservatives claim as “theirs” -- like patriotism, family values, running the economy, and national security -- and chop them up.

But the urban myth of the media as dominated by “liberals” has the same credibility as reports of flying saucers and the Loch Ness monster. As our grammar school teachers said: Let’s define our terms.

“Media” does not mean just the middle-of-the-road New York Times editorial page. It includes a vast network of interlocking entertainment enterprises and international corporations -- from porn videos, rap CDs and Christian radio to the Oxford English Dictionary. And we must distinguish between professional reporters and so-called “pundits,” some of whom are scholar-commentators who think before they speak, and too many of whom are mere entertainers who don’t even listen to their own words.

“Liberal” is easier to define. In the Jeffersonian sense, it means trusting the judgment of the people. The Progressive era added civic reform, caring for immigrants, using government to promote the common good; the New Deal and Fair Deal added social security in the broadest sense of that term and civil rights for every citizen. If the majority of journalists are committed to those principles, so are most Americans.

Today’s list of liberal values is longer and more complex -- involving women’s rights, abortion, the environment and the rights of homosexuals and other minorities. But these values cut across party lines. If journalists share them it’s not because they are Democrats but because they are suburban upper middle class.

Along the way these authors -- who now run strong on the bestsellers list -- analyze the influence of the vast and complicated network of financial institutions such as the Carlyle Group, a bank with connections to both the bin Laden and Bush families, and foundations and think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute. The latter subsidizes conservative writers whose work might otherwise not stand up to tough scrutiny: for example, Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, and Denesh D’Souza, who wrote The End of Racism. We meet the behind-the-scenes moneymen like the odd-duck billionaire, Richard Mellon Scaife, whose foundation helps bankroll 111 conservative pressure groups, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, a legal organization that fights against what they call “judicial activism.”

The authors introduce us to the “stars” of the conservative Pantheon -- some, like Ann Coulter, I had barely heard of. Coulter is the author of High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, the current paperback bestseller, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right and, most recently, Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. According to Eric Alterman, she is distinguished by her invective: She called Clinton a “pervert, liar and felon,” Mrs. Clinton “pond scum,” and Pamela Harriman a “whore.”

By Bill O’Reilly
Broadway, 214 pages,
$14 paperback

The others, like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, we could escape only by locking ourselves in the Greek Mount Athos monastery for 10 years. They also try to puncture the “moderate centrist” balloons of pundits generally considered “moderate.” Can Cokie Roberts, for example, accept huge speaking stipends from corporate groups and still report on their activities? David Broder is considered the “dean” of elite journalists. But, in Alterman’s judgment, Broder shies away from tough criticism of the Bush administration in order to preserve “national unity.” What if the appearance of “unity” is not what the nation in crisis really needs?

Then there’s Bill O’Reilly. I bought his book and watched his nightly FOX TV show six times to get a sense of whom these three authors are attacking and why a lot of people -- as he constantly reminds us -- watch him. What stands out are not his ideas, which are conventional. He’s for mandatory prison rehab for criminal addicts, for “family values.” Against: France; an unnamed “weaselette” who worked with him at a TV station; France; the Marist College teacher who gave a lazy black “badass” football player in his class a B+; skin-piercing; abortion; France; and both Michael and Jesse Jackson.

He is a practicing Catholic, but other than a tough-nun story, his opposition to sexual promiscuity and his abortion stand, there’s little evidence of the influence of Catholic ideas. What stands out are his confidence in all his opinions and the way he browbeats his guests.

By Al Franken
E.P. Dutton, 377 pages, $24.95

Just to set the mood, Al Franken starts Lies with a few “lies” of his own. “God told me to write this book,” he begins. Those books by Ann Coulter and Bernie Goldberg, author of last year’s surprise bestselling exposé of the “liberal media,” Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, says God, are “total bull#@*t.” He commands Franken to go after the “liberal bias myth” and then get Bush and his corporate buddies who are “screwing the environment” and @#$ing-off the rest of the world.” God has a mouth.

My first impression was that a “Saturday Night Live” comedian could never write a serious, well-researched book; but Al is way ahead of me. He tells us on Page 1 he didn’t write the whole book. He had a team of 14 Harvard students who did the work just for fun and the reward of their group picture in the back.

O’Reilly’s network, FOX, sued to remove Al’s subtitle “fair and balanced,” but the judge asked whether FOX had a sense of humor. Franken reveals that O’Reilly, who claims to be an “independent,” is a registered Republican and lied about receiving journalism’s prestigious Peabody Award.

Franken has the candor to include a caper chapter that does himself no credit. He and a Harvard boy visit the super-conservative Bob Jones University posing as a father and his son seeking to enroll. Basically, it’s a demeaning comedy shtick in which clever Jews set out to ridicule simple-minded Christians and their backward ideas. It doesn’t work. Even idiot Christians watch “Saturday Night Live” and they spot Franken’s ruse. An administrator tells them this is insulting. He’s right.

By Joe Conason
St. Martin’s Press, 245 pages, $24.95

Joe Conason’s Big Lies is a first class ammunition box, a must-read for candidate Gen. Wesley Clark before he gives too many news conferences, goes on “Meet the Press,” or takes on the other nine Democrats in another debate. A correspondent for the online New York Observer and the online Salon, Conason scores best on the “Chicken Hawks,” the “patriotic” draft evaders -- including Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Trent Lott, Karl Rove and John Ashcroft -- whose party smeared war critics as unpatriotic while they themselves avoided military service and then beat the drums for another war other people’s sons would fight. His analysis of George W. Bush’s failure to fulfill his Texas Air National Guard obligation, which kept him out of Vietnam, should bury Bush’s “Bring ‘em on” routine forever.

Then he impales the “family values” police -- including Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, Bob Livingston and Rudy Giuliani -- whose own private lives are in disarray.

By Eric Alterman
Basic Books, 322 pages, $25

Alterman’s What Liberal Media? is not a campaign polemic but solid scholarship from a Stanford history Ph.D. whose column in The Nation makes him the most honest and incisive media critic writing today. He shows how the Gore-hating press corps turned Al Gore’s minor flubs -- his “founding” the Internet -- into major issues, and, fearing to displease their readers, they have asked no hard questions of the Bush administration.

Meanwhile the best check on a liberal or conservative tilt -- or any violations -- in the news has to be the “watchdog” principle of the profession applied to itself. Some of it happens with the natural competition and bickering of rivals. The New York Daily News recently delighted in reporting that a New York Post reporter, in a would-be investigative sting, bought a newborn lion cub off the Internet and almost killed the poor little pet in the process. If NCR slips up, the New Oxford Review and First Things are drooling to pounce. When the major networks and papers cut their foreign coverage to boost profits, the Columbia Journalism Review and American Journalism Review will hold them responsible.

When the major media go soft on the administration, Alterman goes to his keyboard.

Alterman concludes with an eloquent coda: American journalists must accept their responsibility to protect democracy by telling the full truth about what our leaders do -- and try to do.

Today the American journalist is like a man waking up at noon with a hangover and a dozen empty Old Bush Bourbon bottles on his floor. Maybe he’ll clean up his room and get to work. Or maybe the crows will just take off and fly to another wire.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: