"The notion of a
“liberal” national news media is one of the most enduring and
influential political myths of modern U.S. history...the larger fallacy of
the “liberal media” argument is the idea that reporters and mid-level
editors set the editorial agenda at their news organizations. In
reality, most journalists have about as much say over what is presented by
newspapers and TV news programs as factory workers and foremen have over
what a factory manufactures. That is not to say
factory workers have no input in their company’s product: they can make
suggestions and ensure the product is professionally built. But top
executives have a much bigger say in what gets produced and how. The news
business is essentially the same.
News organizations are hierarchical
institutions often run by strong-willed men who insist that their
editorial vision be dominant within their news companies. Some concessions
are made to the broader professional standards of journalism, such as the
principles of objectivity and fairness. But media
owners historically have enforced their political views and other
preferences by installing senior editors whose careers depend on
delivering a news product that fits with the owner’s prejudices.
Mid-level editors and reporters who stray too far from the prescribed path
can expect to be demoted or fired. Editorial employees intuitively
understand the career risks of going beyond the boundaries..."
The notion of a “liberal” national news media is one
of the most enduring and influential political myths of modern U.S. history.
Shaping the behavior of both conservatives and liberals over the past quarter
century, the myth could be said to have altered the course of American
democracy and led the nation into the dangerous corner it now finds itself.
On one hand, the Right’s long-held conviction that the
media is the enemy helps explain the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of many
conservatives, plus their motivation for investing billions of dollars to
build a dedicated conservative media. That well-oiled media machine now
stretches from TV networks to talk radio to newspapers to magazines to books
to the Internet – and helps set the U.S. political agenda.
On the other hand, the endless repetition of the
“liberal media” myth has sedated liberals who have avoided a commitment to
develop a comparable media infrastructure, apparently out of a hope that one
is not needed. Indeed, if an honest history of this era is ever written, one
of the most puzzling mysteries may be why the American liberal community –
with all its wealth and expertise in communications – sat back while
conservatives turned media into a potent weapon for dominating U.S. politics.
How did conservatives grasp the concept of the “war of
ideas” and the crucial role of media in that battle while liberals were
lulled by the dream that some pendulum would swing back and return the news
media more to the center or left?
Whatever the answer, the “liberal media” myth has
proved so useful to conservatives that they continue to promote it even after
mainstream news organizations – including the New York Times and the
Washington Post – joined in “press riots” over Bill Clinton’s
Whitewater real estate investment and Al Gore’s supposed exaggerations,
trivial issues that paved the way for Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and
Gore’s loss of the White House in 2000, respectively.
One view is that the durability of the “liberal
media” myth is a testament to today's conservative media power – that
simple repetition from a wide enough circle of voices will convince a gullible
portion of any population that a lie is the truth. That’s especially the
case when there are few voices arguing to the contrary.
The "liberal media" myth has survived even
though at its center sits a glaring misconception about how news organizations
The core of the conservative “liberal media” case is
that surveys have shown that a majority of journalists vote Democratic in
presidential elections. Therefore, conservatives argue that a pro-Democratic
bias permeates the American news media. Conservatives then bolster this claim
of liberal bias with anecdotes, such as the alleged inflections of Dan
Rather’s voice on the CBS Evening News or the supposed overuse of the word
“ultra-conservative” in news columns.
But other surveys on the views of individual journalists
suggest a more complicated picture. Journalists generally regard themselves as
centrists with more liberal views on social issues and more conservative ones
on economic issues, when compared with the broader American public. For
example, journalists might be more likely to favor abortion rights, while less
likely to worry about cuts in Social Security and Medicare than other
Americans. [See "The Myth of the Liberal Media," Extra!, July/August
But the larger fallacy of the “liberal media”
argument is the idea that reporters and mid-level editors set the editorial
agenda at their news organizations. In reality, most journalists have about as
much say over what is presented by newspapers and TV news programs as factory
workers and foremen have over what a factory manufactures.
That is not to say factory workers have no input in their
company’s product: they can make suggestions and ensure the product is
professionally built. But top executives have a much bigger say in what gets
produced and how. The news business is essentially the same.
News organizations are hierarchical institutions often
run by strong-willed men who insist that their editorial vision be dominant
within their news companies. Some concessions are made to the broader
professional standards of journalism, such as the principles of objectivity
But media owners historically have enforced their
political views and other preferences by installing senior editors whose
careers depend on delivering a news product that fits with the owner’s
prejudices. Mid-level editors and reporters who stray too far from the
prescribed path can expect to be demoted or fired. Editorial employees
intuitively understand the career risks of going beyond the boundaries.
These limitations were true a century ago when William
Randolph Hearst famously studied every day’s paper from his publishing
empire looking for signs of leftist attitudes among his staff. And it is still
true in the days of Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
The Republican and conservative bent of senior media
management also is not limited to a few “name” publishers and executives.
A survey conducted before Election 2000 by the industry magazine, Editor &
Publisher, found a strong bias in favor of George W. Bush among top editorial
Newspaper editors and publishers favored Bush by a 2-to-1
margin, according to the survey of nearly 200 editors and publishers.
Publishers, who are at the pinnacle of power within news organizations, were
even more pro-Bush, favoring the then-Texas governor by a 3-to-1 margin,
E&P reported. Gazing through the rose colors of their pro-Bush glasses,
the news executives incorrectly predicted a Bush electoral landslide in
November 2000. [See E&P,
Nov. 2, 2000]
Many of these pro-Republican news executives also control
important national news properties.
Right-wing media magnate Murdoch owns the conservative
Weekly Standard, the New York Post and the national cable network Fox News,
which he’s staffed with prominent conservative journalists, such as Brit
Hume and Tony Snow, and star commentators, such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean
At the helm of Fox News, Murdoch put Republican political
strategist Roger Ailes, who became famous in the 1988 presidential race for
advising George H.W. Bush to use tough-on-crime rhetoric to paint
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as soft on violent criminals. But Ailes has
denied that the notorious Willie Horton ads -- featuring a black murder
convict who raped a white woman while on a Massachusetts prison furlough --
were meant to nail down the Southern white vote for Bush.
Ailes also insists that Fox News is politically
evenhanded, true to its slogan “we report, you decide.” Yet, on Election
Night 2000, Fox was the first network to call the presidential election for
George W. Bush, setting in motion other premature calls by other networks.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Ailes returned
to his practice of giving public-relations advice to the Bush family. Via
White House political adviser Karl Rove, Ailes sent a “back-channel
message” to George W. Bush urging him to employ “the harshest measures
possible” in the terror war as a way to sustain American public support,
according to author Bob Woodward’s summary of the memo which is described in
Bush at War, a generally flattering
look inside Bush’s White House. “Support would dissipate if the public did
not see Bush acting harshly,” Woodward wrote, summarizing the memo.
Ailes has confirmed sending the memo to the White House,
but said he “never used the word ‘harsh’ or ‘harshly’ or anything
like that.” [NYT, Nov. 19, 2002]
General Electric Co.’s Chairman
Welch revealed a similar favoritism for Bush while visiting the election desk
of GE’s NBC News subsidiary on Election Night 2000. In front of the NBC
staff, Welch rooted for a Bush victory, asking apparently in jest, "how
much would I have to pay you to call the race for Bush?" according to
Later, after Fox News declared
Bush the winner, Welch allegedly asked the chief of the NBC election desk why
NBC was not doing the same, a
choice NBC did make and then retracted. Though premature, the pro-Bush
calls colored the public impression of Bush's entitlement to the presidency
during the month-long Florida recount battle. Welch, who has since retired,
denied pressuring NBC to call the race for Bush and defended his other
behavior as a reaction to younger NBC staffers who Welch thought were favoring
Welch and Murdoch are far from the
only network chieftains to be ardent Republicans, as columnist Joe Conason has
noted. “So was Larry Tisch when he owned CBS. So are Richard Parsons and
Steve Case of CNN (and Time Warner AOL),” Conason wrote at
“Michael Eisner (Disney ABC) gave to Bill Bradley and Al Gore, but he gave
more to Bush and McCain – and he supported Rick Lazio for the Senate against
Rev. Moon is another media mogul whose publications have
backed Bush and Republicans while attacking Democrats, including printing an
accusation in 2000 that
was “delusional.” A South Korean who regards himself as a messiah
destined to bring
world’s population under his personal dominion, Moon founded and still
funds the Washington Times, the second newspaper in the nation’s capital. He
also started Insight magazine and other publications.
In the 1990s, Moon front groups hired former President
Bush and ex-First Lady Barbara Bush to give speeches at Moon-backed functions
in the United States, Asia and South America. In a 1996 speech in Argentina
launching a new Moon newspaper, former President Bush stood before Moon and
hailed him as the “man with the vision.” [For details, see
Another way to illustrate the fallacy of the “liberal
media” argument is to hypothesize that a survey of editorial workers at,
say, Murdoch’s New York Post would find that most editorial employees voted
Democratic – not an unreasonable assumption for professionals living in New
York City – and a minority voted Republican.
Under the logic of using how journalists voted to
determine the bias of the company where they work, such a survey would
“prove” that the New York Post was a liberal newspaper dominated by
pro-Democratic articles. But it’s a decidedly conservative newspaper
bristling with pro-Republican commentary.
The reason is simple: the woman writing obits or the guy
doing the copy editing or the reporter covering the police beat – the
working stiffs who may have voted Democratic – have only marginal influence
over the newspaper’s slant. The content – and especially editorial
opinions – are determined in the corporate offices by top editors and
executives who report back to Murdoch.
Given the conservative bias among senior news executives,
lower-level editorial employees also understand that critical articles about
Bush and other favored Republicans carry extra risk. So smart employees tend
to do the opposite – write stories that are more likely to get positive
attention from the boss – a natural survival instinct that helps explain why
journalists, who were so eager to bash Clinton and Gore, now would fawn over
Bush. [For an example of how this pattern worked in Central America coverage
in the 1980s, see Robert Parry's 1998 story, "In
Search of the Liberal Media."]
A 'Liberal' History
When looking back historically – from the 1950s through
the mid-1970s – conservatives could make a stronger case that the national
news media reflected more “liberal” views.
In the 1950s, for example, the national press reported
critically about the segregationist policies of the South. A media spotlight
was cast on the lynching of black men, repression of civil rights activists
and violent protests by whites to keep black children out of previously
all-white schools. Indeed, the national coverage of the civil rights movement
could be viewed as the origin of the conservative grievance against the
Northern reporters, for example, descended on
Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, for the trial and acquittal of two white men
for the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a young black man who had boasted about
dating a white woman. The negative press coverage led the state’s whites to
plaster their cars with bumper stickers reading, “Mississippi: The Most Lied
About State in the Union.” [For more on the media’s coverage of the civil
rights movement, see David Halberstam’s The
Fifties. Or Taylor Branch's Parting
Conservatives also accurately noted that television
images of death and destruction in the Vietnam War eroded domestic support for
the war effort in the 1960s. The Right’s additional argument, however, that
the news media slanted its reporting against the war has been countered even
by the official U.S. military history on the press and the war.
“Most of the public affairs problems that confronted
the United States in South Vietnam stemmed from the contradictions implicit in
Lyndon Johnson’s strategy for the war,” wrote U.S. Army historian William
M. Hammond in The Military and the
Media: 1962-1968. “What alienated the American public, in both the
Korean and Vietnam Wars, was not news coverage but casualties.”
Military critics of the press focused too much on
isolated reporting mistakes while ignoring “the work of the majority of
reporters, who attempted conscientiously to tell all sides of the story,”
Hammond wrote in his book published by the U.S. Army Center of Military
History. “It is undeniable … that press reports were still often more
accurate than the public statements of the administration in portraying the
situation in Vietnam.”
Then, in the 1970s, came the final straw when
conservatives blamed shaggy-haired reporters for “hounding” Richard M.
Nixon out of office over the Watergate scandal. Though subsequent release of
Nixon’s own tape recordings proved his guilt in a criminal abuse of his
presidential powers, conservatives have continued to nurse a grudge for more
than a quarter century over Nixon’s forced resignation.
A Catalyst for Action
By the late 1970s, the cumulative impact of those three
examples of “liberal bias” – the battle against segregation, the Vietnam
War and the Watergate scandal – became the catalyst for an extraordinary
historical reaction. Conservatives, led by former Treasury Secretary William
Simon and financed by major conservative foundations, began investing first
tens of millions of dollars and later billions of dollars in building their
own media, think tanks and attack groups. [For a brief history of the modern
conservative media machine, see Consortiumnews.com's "Democrats'
Over the next quarter century, this conservative
infrastructure emerged as a potent force in American politics, becoming
effectively a firewall against the news media challenging key conservative
policies and top Republican politicians.
During the Iran-contra scandal, for instance, the
conservative media counterattacked journalists who uncovered embarrassing
evidence implicating Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in shipping weapons to
both Iran and Iraq as well as their involvement in an illegal scheme to arm
Nicaraguan contra rebels.
The conservative attack machine, often led by Moon’s
Washington Times, later turned on Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence
Walsh, a former Republican judge who tried to pursue the evidence of
Reagan-Bush criminality until he was stopped by then-President Bush’s
pardoning of six Iran-contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992. [For details
about this Iran-contra counterattack, see Walsh’s
or Robert Parry Lost History.]
From playing aggressive defense, the conservative media
machine shifted to relentless offense after Bill Clinton took office in 1993.
The right-wing media pushed story after story about Clinton’s Whitewater
real-estate investment and his private life. The Rev. Jerry Falwell and other
conservative operatives circulated spurious allegations about Clinton’s
supposed role in “mysterious deaths,” including the suicide of White House
deputy counsel Vincent Foster.
During the Clinton administration, coverage by the
mainstream media effectively merged with that of the conservative media, as
mainstream reporters found they could advance their careers by picking up many
of the conservative allegations against Clinton.
Though the Whitewater case was complicated and seemingly
inconsequential, the national press corps went wild over the story. With the
appointment of conservative special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the stage was
set for an unprecedented investigation into the personal life of a sitting
The media momentum against Clinton carried over to a
press assault on Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, when he ran for
president in 2000.
In near perfect harmony now, the mainstream press and the
conservative media struck the same chords about Gore as a “serial
exaggerator” and a phony who would “do or say anything to win.” By
contrast, George W. Bush was perhaps a bit inarticulate but a charismatic
leader who knew his own mind, wasn’t afraid to delegate authority to
seasoned counselors, and would “put the adults back in charge.” [For
details on the disparity in coverage, see Consortiumnews.com's "Protecting
The media’s anti-Gore bias carried over to the Florida
recount battle, where Bush was treated as the legitimate winner although he
had lost the popular vote by more than a half million ballots and fought
furiously against a full recount of Florida votes. Again, the conservative
media – especially Fox News – set the parameters of the debate and the
mainstream press followed.
Ironically, the Bush campaign had been geared up, prior
to the election, for the potential of an opposite result, with Bush winning
the popular vote and trailing in the Electoral College. In that case, Bush
aides planned to activate the conservative media, especially talk radio, to
challenge Gore’s legitimacy and demand that Bush be accepted as the
people’s president. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The
GOP's Popular-Vote Hypocrisy."]
When the tables flipped, so did the media strategy.
Though the story of the Bush plan to use his conservative-media assets had
been reported before the election, it slid into a memory hole afterwards.
During the Florida battle, Gore was the interloper, the
“Sore Loserman” of the printed-up conservative signs. Little attention was
given to the systematic exclusion of thousands of African-American voters whom
Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration had scrubbed from the voting rolls under
false allegations that they were felons.
Instead, Gore was blamed for an effort to exclude
military absentee ballots, though months later it was disclosed that the Bush
forces had engineered a two-tier approach, letting questionable military
absentee ballots be counted in predominately Republican counties and excluding
them in heavily Democratic counties, where many black voters resided. [For
details, see Consortiumnews.com "The
Media Is the Mess."]
With Bush installed in the White House, after five
Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a state-court-ordered recount,
the national media rallied around him again, apparently out of concern that
his fragile claim to legitimacy might undermine American prestige in the
world. In marked contrast to the harsh reporting that confronted Clinton even
before he was sworn in, the national news media treated Bush with kid gloves.
Sept. 11 Fallout
That deference deepened after the Sept. 11 terror
attacks, eight months into his presidency. The media held off on any searing
examination of Bush’s failure to recognize the growing danger from al Qaeda
terrorists despite warnings that his incoming administration had received from
Clinton’s national security aides. As the dangers had mounted and missed
signals accumulated in summer 2001, Bush retreated to his Texas ranch for a
Rather than meting out tough criticism, the national
media couldn't get enough of Bush's decisive leadership and his skill as a
wartime president. Again, the press corps seemed worried that critical
coverage would undermine the U.S. government at a time of crisis and might
open the press corps to the old charge of "liberal bias."
In this post-Sept. 11 climate, leading news organizations
chose to play down the most dramatic finding of their own recount of
Florida’s ballots – that Al Gore won Florida regardless of what standard
of chad was used, whether dimpled, perforated or fully punched through.
Instead of leading with the finding of a Gore victory
based on legally cast votes in Florida, the media companies arbitrarily and
incorrectly decided that so-called “over-votes” – ballots in which
voters both marked and wrote in their choice – would not have been counted
in the statewide recount. By doing so, the news outlets headlined their
stories with Bush still winning a narrow “victory” in the unofficial
That impression was allowed to stand even after later
disclosures that the Florida judge in charge of the recount was moving to
include the “over-votes,” which would have secured Florida and thus the
White House for Gore. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “So
Bush Did Steal the White House.”]
Belatedly, Gore, Clinton and other leading Democrats have
begun to address this media imbalance, though so far their words have not
translated into much action. In an interview with the New York Observer, Gore
noted that the current national news media presented a serious challenge to
the ability of the Democratic Party to get out its message.
“The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and
there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part
and parcel of the Republican Party,” Gore said. “Fox News Network, the
Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh – there’s a bunch of them, and some of
them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make
political deals with Republican administrations. …
“Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the
pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks – that is, day after
day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of
what’s objective as stated by the news media as a whole,” Gore said.
“Something will start at the Republican National
Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the
right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play
this game, the Washington Times and the others. And then they’ll create a
little echo chamber, and pretty soon they’ll start baiting the mainstream
media for allegedly ignoring the story they’ve pushed into the zeitgeist.
And then pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a
so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold , these RNC talking points are
woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist.” [New York Observer, posted on Nov.
Gore’s comments correctly summarized how the media
sometimes followed RNC wording during Campaign 2000, putting Gore’s
statements and background into the most unfavorable light. For instance,
Republican operatives invented the bogus Gore quote in which he allegedly
claimed to have “invented the Internet.” Before long, the made-up quote
was routinely attributed to Gore, though he had never said it.
Similarly, the RNC refined another Gore misquote about
the Love Canal toxic waste cleanup. The New York Times and the Washington Post
started that confusion by misquoting Gore as saying “I was the one that
started it all.” An RNC release fixed the grammar in further distorting
Gore’s comment to become “I was the one who started it all,”
which was then picked up in derivative press reporting.
Gore had actually been referring to a Tennessee toxic
site when he said “that was the one that started it all.” By the
time, the Post and Times grudgingly filed corrections, the misquote had spread
far and wide, contributing to the Washington Times’ assessment that Gore was
“delusional.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al
Gore v. the Media.”]
As Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler has noted, Gore’s
latest comments about the RNC's talking points provoked a new round of
anti-Gore ridicule from media commentators who said they found Gore’s
comments baffling and fresh evidence that he had lost grasp of reality.
"Well, now this is nutty," declared Fox News commentator Fred
Barnes. "I mean, this is conspiratorial stuff." [For details, see
Somerby's Daily Howler.]
After Gore announced that he would not seek the
Democratic nomination, some media executives began acknowledging the obvious:
that the national press corps had operated with a deep-seated bias against
“Somewhere along the line,” said Mark Halperin,
ABC’s political director, “the dominant political reporters for most
dominant news organizations decided they didn’t like him, and they thought
the story line on any given day was about his being a phony or a liar or a
waffler. Within the subculture of political reporting, there was almost peer
pressure not to say something neutral, let alone nice, about his ideas, his
political skills, his motivations.” [Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2002]
The open hostility toward Gore and Clinton – often over
manufactured or exaggerated offenses – was only possible within the context
of mainstream journalists trying to disprove the "liberal media"
accusation. To do so, reporters either followed the lead of the conservative
media or struck out on their own to get ahead of the curve in bashing leading
In the framework of this media dynamic, it made every bit
of sense for journalists to adopt a pugnacious anti-liberal ‘tude. For their
careers, it was all upside and no downside. They protected themselves from
potent conservative media "watchdog" groups, while opening up
potentially lucrative career opportunities from top-level news executives who
already disliked Clinton and Gore.
For Democrats and liberals, however, the political
message should be clear: only by countering the powerful conservative media
machine can they hope to change this dynamic. There is no reason to believe
that simply complaining about the situation will do much to alter the behavior
of the national press corps.
On the other hand, for Republicans and conservatives, the
secret to their continued success will be, in part, to keep the “myth of the
liberal media” alive.
In the 1980s, as a correspondent for the Associated
Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the