The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: October 31, 2003
Pack journalism characterizes the media today, which is anything but liberal
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
The crows have flown again! Walter Pincus, veteran reporter for The Washington Post, has reminded NPRs press-criticism show, On the Media, of Eugene McCarthys 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 Iraqs 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: Lets 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 dont 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.
Todays list of liberal values is longer and more complex -- involving womens rights, abortion, the environment and the rights of homosexuals and other minorities. But these values cut across party lines. If journalists share them its 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 DSouza, 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.
The others, like Bill OReilly 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 Altermans 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 theres Bill OReilly. 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. Hes 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, theres 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.
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 years 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 didnt 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.
OReillys network, FOX, sued to remove Als subtitle fair and balanced, but the judge asked whether FOX had a sense of humor. Franken reveals that OReilly, who claims to be an independent, is a registered Republican and lied about receiving journalisms 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, its a demeaning comedy shtick in which clever Jews set out to ridicule simple-minded Christians and their backward ideas. It doesnt work. Even idiot Christians watch Saturday Night Live and they spot Frankens ruse. An administrator tells them this is insulting. Hes right.
Joe Conasons 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 peoples sons would fight. His analysis of George W. Bushs failure to fulfill his Texas Air National Guard obligation, which kept him out of Vietnam, should bury Bushs 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.
Altermans 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 Gores 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 hell 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. Peters College. His e-mail address is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003
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