Thursday, January 29, 2009


Here’s the way the media has been biased in my lifetime.

In the 1950s, it had a conservative bias, not totally anti-liberal, as “liberal” wasn’t the pejorative then that it became in the ‘80s under Reagan. But TIME magazine for instance always took the Joe McCarthy line, and even after McCarthy was discredited it still backed more conservative positions (pro-Viet Nam war, etc.).

Even popular culture magazines like LIFE had a conservative bias. I remember an issue during the McCarthy era that had a two page spread of little headshots, like a mini-yearbook, of “fellow travelers” or “pinkos” as they called people who couldn’t be proven to be actual “reds” (i.e. Communists) but seemed sympathetic to causes the “dirty reds” promoted, like civil rights for Negroes, antinuclear proliferation, etc. (one of them was of Norman Mailer!).

The slogan of those days was “better dead than red” and they meant it literally. That we’d all be better off dead than having any communist ideas or sympathies. Pretty extreme and pretty extensive in the media of those times.

It pretty much remained that way too, until the very late 1960s. After Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America” (and the anchorman for the CBS Evening News) said we were obviously losing the war in Viet Nam (after the Tet offensive), the media began to be more aware of the changing tide and began to react a little less Pavlovian like to ideas and actions from the left.

That didn’t mean the media became biased toward a leftist or even liberal perspective, not even close. It just became more moderate and more open to crediting some leftist or liberal viewpoints as at least viable.

Then Watergate happened and made media heroes out of Bernstein and Woodward and the Washington Post in general and suddenly “liberal” perspectives were even more accepted. But that didn’t last long.

Mostly because most media then as now was owned and run by moguls and conglomerates whose interests were and are more aligned with big business and therefore big-business-protecting Republicanism than with liberalism let alone any kind of progressive leftist perspective.

When Carter’s administration began to be undermined by rightwingers in the government in secret collaboration with rightwingers Carter had dismissed from government, the media seemed to swing back to right of center again and credit any anti-Carter spin and discredit any pro-Carter perspective, until it was a given that his ideas and policies were bankrupt, like his idea that there could be peace in the Middle East, despite the reality he brought to back that up with by actually brokering the first real Middle East peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Or his idea that the USA was becoming too dependent on foreign oil and needed to conserve energy and find alternative sources of it.

All that was mocked by the right as weakness and pessimism. And the media went right along with it, mocking Carter’s wearing of sweaters and turning the thermostat down at the White House as a Mister Rogers kind of solution rather than actually examining and fairly evaluating Carter’s policy initiatives.

The right won that outright when Reagan got elected by running against Carter’s idea of the “malaise” gripping the country and declaring a “new morning in America” and that “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem”—the same government that was keeping mentally ill patients housed and cared for and people in low rent apartments and giving workers the right to unionize and unions the right to strike and negotiate for the kinds of wages that allowed workers to send their kids to college and live on one income so mothers could stay home when children were young etc. etc. etc.

Reagan’s administration managed to successfully dismantle all that, so that for the first time in my lifetime, “homeless” became a common term, not just for what were called “bums” and “hobos” when I was a boy, but for entire families, young couples with little children sleeping in their cars and mentally disturbed individuals released from institutions with no alternative to wandering the streets in a haze or worse.

And unions were busted, starting with the air traffic controllers, and real wages began to drop for the first time since the Depression etc. etc. And the media never challenged any of it. It had swung back to the right side of the political spectrum and has stayed there ever since.

Not journalists themselves, who grew up admiring what Bernstein and Woodward had accomplished, but the companies these journalists worked for, their bosses and those who controlled their bosses.

Reagan told many outright lies and was never challenged on any of them until the Iran-Contra hearings and even then the media handled him very gingerly, never examining very closely the contradictions in almost everything he said compared to what he actually did (even including the few good things he did).

Bush Senior got treated a little more roughly by the media, but not for his policies, especially any that were moderate, more for his style and his awkward personality.

Then came the Clintons who couldn’t cop a break from day one. There was more scrutiny put on Clinton’s behavior in the first weeks he was in office than had been put on Reagan in his entire eight years. From haircuts to policies Clinton ran on and was elected to carry out, the media treated almost everything Clinton did as either a joke or a mistake or something to ignore for more important news, like Hollywood celebrities.

When Bush Junior got in, they backed way way off. He could have lobbyists not only in his administration and cabinet, but lobbyists could go to Capitol Hill and actually write the laws that impacted the businesses they were lobbying for! And his team could let the lobbying firms know that anyone who worked for them who had worked for any Democrat had to be fired or had to prove their allegiance to the Republican Party.

All that was covered on either the back pages of the New York Times or in a few alternative media outlets, but the mainstream media concentrated on Britney while Rome burned. Right up until the last year of his presidency, Junior’s administration was let off the hook with scant attention or investigative reporting.

Now comes Obama, who has done more in his first few days in office to turn this country around and get it back on its feet and restore its image to the rest of the world than any president in my lifetime, who is considerate, reasoned and was elected to change the way things have been getting done and even the things getting done, and the media is getting right in line with not just the Republicans but the most rightwing so-called “conservatives” in the media (Ann Coulter on the morning talk shows anyone?) whose ideology has been completely discredited by the last eight years when it was put into practice and failed on every front, but nonetheless, Obama’s stimulus package for example is getting the kind of scrutiny no bill that Bush Junior ever proposed got even one tenth the scrutiny for.

It’s like this, Bush Junior could have one hundred people in his administration who all had been lobbyists, and there would be no news stories about it at all in the mainstream media. At All! But Obama can have one lobbyist out of a hundred people in his administration and already it’s an ongoing story that supposedly discredits his promise to not have lobbyists in his administration.

(What about Junior’s promise to have a “humble” foreign policy, to never get involved in “nation building,” to reduce the size of government, etc. etc.)

The stimulus package can be agreed upon by most economists, by most politicians, by most business leaders and by the voters who put Obama in office, and yet if the rightwingers spew the party line in unison for a day or two, the mainstream media jumps right on board and can’t stop talking about “pork” or just putting the Republican naysayers and their rightwing cohorts on the news shows to spout their opposition in terms that tout returning to the exact policies that caused all the problems in the first place!

And it’s partly the Democrats and liberals own fault. They’re too kind to their opponents. All the rightwing Republicans care about is power, getting it and maintaining it, or in these times, getting it back. They are going to discredit everything the Democrats do, especially Obama, because he’s so popular with mainstream voters right now. But he won’t be for long if the media continues to express their bias in favor of the rightwing Republican perspective over anything more centrist or even, oh happy day, anything from a more liberal perspective.

For example, Obama said yesterday that the stimulus package would bring “immediate relief,” something that seven of the top ten economists I read in the past few days all agree is correct. But all the morning shows I checked out this A.M. had a Republican rightwinger on saying that unless Obama’s idea of “immediate” is in a few years, than it isn’t “immediate”—and the media goes along with that, doesn’t analyze it to see if there’s any truth to it, just lets this jive continue.

If a majority of voters going all the way with someone who is obviously more intelligent more reasoned and more practical than our previous president doesn’t impress the media, what will?

Well, the last and only time the media swung at all toward even a little bit left of center, or at least open to left-of-center positions, was the late 1960s and early 1970s when we almost had a civil war going on at home with people taking to the streets to make their point and get heard and responded to. This is the reason I had hoped Obama’s inaugural speech had been more of a barn burner. To make it clear to his opponenets that he has masses of people on his side, willing to take to the streets if necessary to make sure they are heard at last.

He can be as reasonable and attempt to be as “bi-partisan" as possible, as he has lately been demonstrating, and all he will get is what he got in the House vote on his stimulus package, a united front from the rightwing Republicans to oppose anything that originates with anyone other than themselves, just as they did when they were in charge.

I understand Obama is trying to disarm them and their media attack dogs, but it isn’t going to work, It only eggs them on (heard Rush lately?). Obama should ignore them, the way they ignored not only Democrats but anyone who disagreed with them for close to the last eight years.

[For the naysayers, check out this well thought out analyses of Obama and the press.]

[[And this.]]


JIm said...

Your media bias thesis is unsupported by research. Attached are excerpts from a study, showing clear media liberal bias.
Media Bias Is Real, Finds UCLA Political Scientist "I suspected that many media outlets would tilt to the left because surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democrat than Republican," said Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist and the study's lead author. "But I was surprised at just how pronounced the distinctions are."
"Overall, the major media outlets are quite moderate compared to members of Congress, but even so, there is a quantifiable and significant bias in that nearly all of them lean to the left," said co author Jeffrey Milyo, University of Missouri economist and public policy scholar.
The results appear in the latest issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, which will become available in mid-December.
Groseclose and Milyo based their research on a standard gauge of a lawmaker's support for liberal causes. Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) tracks the percentage of times that each lawmaker votes on the liberal side of an issue. Based on these votes, the ADA assigns a numerical score to each lawmaker, where "100" is the most liberal and "0" is the most conservative. After adjustments to compensate for disproportionate representation that the Senate gives to low population states and the lack of representation for the District of Columbia, the average ADA score in Congress (50.1) was assumed to represent the political position of the average U.S. voter.
Groseclose and Milyo then directed 21 research assistants — most of them college students — to scour U.S. media coverage of the past 10 years. They tallied the number of times each media outlet referred to think tanks and policy groups, such as the left-leaning NAACP or the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.
Next, they did the same exercise with speeches of U.S. lawmakers. If a media outlet displayed a citation pattern similar to that of a lawmaker, then Groseclose and Milyo's method assigned both a similar ADA score.
"A media person would have never done this study," said Groseclose, a UCLA political science professor, whose research and teaching focuses on the U.S. Congress. "It takes a Congress scholar even to think of using ADA scores as a measure. And I don't think many media scholars would have considered comparing news stories to congressional speeches."
Of the 20 major media outlets studied, 18 scored left of center, with CBS' "Evening News," The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ranking second, third and fourth most liberal behind the news pages of The Wall Street Journal.
Only Fox News' "Special Report With Brit Hume" and The Washington Times scored right of the average U.S. voter.
The most centrist outlet proved to be the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." CNN's "NewsNight With Aaron Brown" and ABC's "Good Morning America" were a close second and third.

JIm said...

"the media is getting right in line with not just the Republicans but the most rightwing so-called “conservatives” in the media (Ann Coulter on the morning talk shows anyone?)" etc.

Coulter's thesis is:"that liberals always play the victim in order to advance, win advantages and oppress others."

I assume you do not take issue with that and just do not like her conservative viewpoint and confrontational style.

JIm said...

Could this be an indication liberal Media bias??

Tuesday, Politico broke the news that ABCNews' George Stephanopoulos is currently conducting private, daily phone briefings with Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. CNN's Paul Begala, James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg are also involved.

Imagine the liberal media's reaction if Brit Hume or
Rush Limbaugh had been conducting daily strategy
briefings with George Bush's chief of staff!

Butch in Waukegan said...

For an interesting take on the Democrats' fatal reliance on "bi-partisanship" read the incomparable Glenn Greenwald.

As I've documented many times before, Beltway "bipartisanship" means that Democrats adopt as many GOP beliefs as possible so what ultimately is done resembles Republican policies as much as possible (anyone doubting that should simply review these "bipartisan" votes of the last eight years) [link in original]. 


It's very hard to find any virtuous attribute of the contemporary Republican Party, but one thing that can be said for them is that -- unlike Democrats, whose overarching desire in life is to please the needy harmony fetishists by adopting as many GOP views as possible  -- Republicans are willing to incur criticisms by opposing what they oppose and supporting what they support.

As I see it the only way to break through the obvious wall constructed and maintained by the by the media is for the Democrats to clearly present what they are for and stick to their guns. (This assumes the Democrats are a party in any meaningful sense, an assumption that would be hard to defend.) Obama has the bully pulpit, he should use it.

By the way Michael, I am interested in your assessment of Updike. I suspect your take is more critical than most of the articles marking his passing, but maybe I'm being presumptuous.

Mike said...

Very good historical overview. I concur.