In a recent issue of Salon.com, editor David Talbot wrote an article ("All Conservatives All The Time") that rehashes Eric Alterman's thesis in What Liberal Media? What follows is my reply:
Without exception, every major metropolitan newspaper in America -- dominating all local media satellites -- is firmly in the control of political "liberals" or, as I would prefer it, the political left. The New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Sun Times, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the Baltimore Sun, the Denver Post, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Detroit News, the Portland Oregonian, the Seattle Times, etc etc. are by any measure "liberal" papers. They regularly endorse Democratic candidates, their news features are designed to liberal tastes; they ritually celebrate liberal icons and just as regularly taint conservative leaders. Even the Wall Street Journal, whose two editorial pages are often said to be the party organ of the conservative movement, follows the pattern of media liberalism in its news and feature sections.
The same can be said for the major television networks and their hundreds of local affiliates -- an even more important source of public information and political news.
For evidence, Talbot leans heavily on Eric Alterman – in my view a questionable source. In Talbot’s summary Alterman claims that, "Talk radio is dominated by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators, the Web has fallen to Matt Drudge, and cable TV is ruled by Ailes and his wannabes at the rival channels."
Of three claims made in this statement, one is an absurdity and two are half-truths. The absurdity is Alterman’s comment that Matt Drudge rules the Internet. No one rules the Internet. The idea is laughable on its face, even more so coming from a pundit whose employer, Microsoft, is the digital Standard Oil, with tentacles spreading liberal influence throughout the media universe. (For those who like hard statistics, MSNBC. com where Alterman hangs out is rated 42 in volume of traffic among the million plus sites on the worldwide web, while the Drudgereport is rated 346. Slate – another Microsoft product is rated 2. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page – opinionjournal.com – is rated 3,583.) Drudge does not editorialize on his site but posts other people’s news – a point Alterman seems to have overlooked. Moreover, Drudge’s sensational news items often skewer Republican hides.
It is true – but only half a truth -- that Roger Ailes has recently challenged the liberal cable monopoly and is doing very well. The liberal networks, on the other hand, have ten times the cable audience, while CNN is far from dead. Cable also features a lot of Hollywood films that on balance (though not always) reflect prejudices of the political left.
Alterman’s final half-truth is that talk radio is a medium dominated by Rush Limbaugh conservatives. He forgets Howard Stern with 20 million listeners, Mancow and others. But more importantly, he forgets public radio, a taxpayer funded network hijacked by the left that has twelve million listeners and 600 stations which reach into every congressional district, and is far and away the most widely listened to news source by legislators and opinion makers themselves.
There are other forms of media that follow the pattern. The New York publishing industry is an exclusive "liberal" monopoly, and -- with one exception known to me -- all the university presses and journals are run by the political left. The leftwing faculties of the university moreover, are available to subsidize independent "progressive" magazines by providing their editors and writers with academic sinecures, while all the major journalism schools serve as training institutions for media liberals and leftists.
Examples: Nation editor Victor Navasky is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism; Nation columnist Robert Scheer is a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC. I recently had lunch with the dean of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the same institution and he conceded that he could not identify a single member of his faculty who was not on the political left. My friend Christopher Hitchens, only recently departed from the Nation staff is a professor at the New School and currently the I.F. Stone fellow at the Berkeley School of Journalism, whose dean is a well-known Berkeley leftist (and sometime Nation contributor), Orville Schell. Other Nation writers with faculty posts include Adolph Reed (New School), columnist Patricia Williams (Columbia), Philip Klinkner (Hamilton), Jon Wiener (UC Irvine) Stephen Cohen (Princeton), Eric Foner (Columbia), Michael Klare (Professor of Peace Studies at the Five Colleges) – and that’s just off the top of my head. I don’t know of a single conservative magazine with such a university-subsidized editorial board and staff.
Against this juggernaut, Talbot throws up the specter of right-wing money – of course vaguely identified and without the context of its counterparts on the left. To be fair, this is Alterman’s problem rather than Talbot’s (and in fact a common theme of leftwing complaint): "Alterman knows firsthand the way the right built a network of think tanks and publications to nurture young journalists, thanks to the fortunes of ardent conservatives like Richard Mellon Scaife. He started his own journalism career in Washington in the early 1980s, and it was grim enough to send a lesser man to business school. ‘Between 1982 and 1984, I think I earned a grand total of about $500 working as a liberal journalist, for articles in The Nation, In These Times, the Washington Monthly, the Washington City Paper, and Arms Control Today. Meanwhile the bars and softball fields of the capital were filled with young right-wingers living on generous salaries and fellowships provided by the multi-million dollar institutions like the Washington Times, Heritage Foundation, and their various offshoots ... Many of the writers who worship at the shrine of the free market would be lost if any of them were ever forced to earn their living working for it’"
This is pretty unkind coming from Alterman, who received $180,000 from Bill Moyers’ foundation to write his unread book on foreign policy. Alterman whines about a two-year unpaid apprenticeship in journalism twenty years ago and compares his lot with that of think tank staffers (ignoring the comparable salaries of his radical friends on university faculties). If your expectations are high enough, and your vision sufficiently narrow, I guess anything can seem a politically determined hardship. Bill Moyers’ charitable cash cow is only one of more than 100 progressive foundations (I’ve checked this out on the progressive web) that have given tens of millions of dollars to such leftwing media institutions as Indymedia.org, commondreams.org and TomPaine.com. Moyers himself singlehandedly transformed the feeble American Prospect, a little read bi-monthly into bi-weekly force in the Democratic Party with a $5 million grant. I won’t go into all the money that The Nation has soaked up from the capitalist rich and their foundations but all this leftwing largesse, as I have noted, is on top of the vast resources available to "progressives" from the universities they dominate, at the same time that it is denied to conservatives.
To view the conservative think tanks rightly they have to be seen as an alternative universe that conservatives were forced to create because of their exclusion from the universities as a result of the most sustained and successful blacklist in American history – a blacklist imposed and enforced by their leftist antagonists. Even the endowment of the Heritage Foundation, the largest of the conservative think tanks, is a pittance compared to the resources of any university or its leftwing departments. As for the size of the casually overlooked leftwing foundations, MacArthur’s assets alone are three times that of Scaife, Olin and Bradley combined.
Alterman’s suggestion that conservative intellectuals are a bunch of spoiled rich kids drowning in stipends while hard-working leftists have to live on scraps is typically off the mark. Senior editors at a major conservative opinion journal might make $40,000 a year. Contrast this to a progressive lightweight like Cornel West another Nation contributor whose income is at least in the six-figure range and could exceed a million dollars a year. I am not privy to West’s IRS returns, but as a star Ivy League professor he probably makes in excess of $200,000 (his former Harvard boss Henry Louis Gates was already reported to be making $300,000 when he was still at Duke). West has boasted that he gives 120 speeches a year. If got paid for only half of them at the going rate of $10,000 for comparable figures on the left that would be another $600,000. (This, by the way, is privilege denied to most conservatives, since students funds are generally locked up by the left). Then there are additional thousands for the books he writes or puts his name on.
I would think facts like these ought to close the book n the the question of media dominance by the left. On the other hand, a lot of what David Talbot writes in his article in the way of advice to the left is quite good, and sounds like what I have been saying to conservatives for years: stop whining about the other guy’s domination of the media and do something to compete. Roger Ailes finally did that on cable and the results for conservatives are there for all to see. A lot of what David says about the slant in the news, particularly his plea in behalf of the feckless Al Gore I don’t understand and couldn’t without sharing David’s views. There remains one issue between us and by David’s own account it is the main one.
In an e-mail giving me the green light for this response, David had this to say: "I’d love to hear your response. But you’re going to have to work hard to convince me and most of our readers that the major networks and newspapers and other such corporate, centrist institutions have a conscious strategy to advance a liberal agenda."
I understand why David and those who agree with him are not satisfied with a media that is so obviously and overwhelmingly sympathetic to the left. Talk radio and cable food fights represent political combat as they (and I) understand it. That’s where they would like to be – on the terrain where conservatives seem to call the shots.
But I don’t agree with David that the major networks and newspapers are corporate centrists, except in the sense that they are looking for large audiences and therefore don’t want the appearance of narrow and bitter partisanship in their news and features. Think, on the other hand, of the advantages to the left that this brings. Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus and others have documented the way the New York Times has not only editorialized against the war in Iraq but has spun its entire news section to persuade its influential reader base that the Bush policies are a bad idea. To understand how fraternally the Times editors regard the hard left consider the series of sympathetic articles they have run on Kathy Boudin, her family and her criminal cohorts. Boudin was convicted of participating in a robbery of a Brinks armored car with the intention of financing "the revolution." Three people, including the first black policeman on the Nyack force were killed in the course of the robbery, yet the Times has sympathetically followed her appeals and even given front page coverage to her son’s academic career.
Now imagine the Times set about promoting a pro-life activist who had murdered an abortion doctor as a sympathetic idealist who had somehow gone too far. Would leftists take the complacent view of the Times’ "centrism" then that they do now? Recently, the Times did a major puff piece on Leslie Cagan, the head of United for Peace and Justice, without mentioning the fact that she is a Sixties Stalinist who was still a member of the Communist Party after the fall of the Berlin Wall. How many careers of leftwing writers and activists, movements and institutions have been launched and promoted by the "neutral" prose of the New York Times and how many conservative careers truncated or aborted by the same? The Black Panther murderers of my friend Betty Van Patter have been featured as Sixties civil rights activists by the Times, the Washington Post and other major media. The murderers tour college campuses drawing $10,000 fees and promoting more contemporary criminals like H. Rap Brown, whom they portray as a frame-up victim of Atlanta’s (black) legal and law enforcement establishments. Their speeches are even funded by Republican institutions like the Irvine Foundation whose establishment boards are susceptible to persuasion by the authority of papers like the Times.
During the 2000 presidential campaign a spurious leftwing academic study of death penalty reversals was given front-page coverage by the Times and therefore by a large sampling of the nation’s press to the detriment of the Bush campaign. The study was tendentious because it suggested, for example, that two-thirds of California’s death penalty cases were reversed through legal incompetence, concluding that the system was broken and Bush’s death penalty position was therefore unreasonable. The report ignored the fact that the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Rose Bird, had publicly declared that she would vote to reverse every death penalty on principle – which she did, all thirty-nine that came to her for review. California voters recalled Bird and her two cohorts on the bench for precisely this reason. But the report (from Columbia University) ignored this (and many other counter-facts) because its real purpose was to exert a negative impact on the Bush campaign which thanks to the liberal control of the media it did.
The point is that to be able to pose an ideological agenda as information and advance it behind a façade of fairness is a far more powerful weapon than, say, having an angry scowler like Joe Conason, or a sanctimonious pontificator like Mario Cuomo square off against a personable opponent like Sean Hannity. (David sells Alan Colmes short. He is articulate and disciplined and does his homework well, even if he isn’t an ideologue like Conason.)
But is it the case anyway, that NPR, ABC, CBS, NBC, Time-Warner, Newsweek and the metropolitan press advance no ideological agenda? That they don’t for example, editorialize on pivotal issues like race preferences, abortion and the Bush tax refund, which goes to the heart of the systemic debate over the system itself? (If you are against the Bush tax refund you believe that government should take legally earned money from one class of citizens and put in the pockets of another class. That’s a socialist agenda and pretty basic to what makes the left the left.) Does anyone seriously think the media is neutral on these issues, or that it doesn’t place its weight heavily on the left side of the scale?
It feels a little odd to be comforting leftists. It must be the Salon syndrome or something (I have always enjoyed my relationship with this magazine). The fact is that conservatives like me welcome the competition of ideas. We’re not afraid of it, because we are confident that we are right.