ONE OF THE KEY, though underestimated, ways in which America differs from other Western democracies is that it lacks a partisan media system. By this, I mean a complete panoply of openly partisan outlets in every form of media. It has this today only on the Internet, and is acquiring it on television. In magazines, books, and newspapers it has no such thing. In most European countries, by contrast, the press is openly partisan, and people pick up a newspaper expecting its content to represent a certain point of view. This has been a fact of immense significance.
There have been seven principal ways in which the (almost) monolithically liberal media has distorted our political system since WWII:
1. The public at large has been fed a diet of liberal propaganda.
2. Liberals have been able to lie and get away with it.
3. Liberals have been able to conceal things and get away with it.
4. Conservatives have had no means of communicating with their own troops.
5. Conservatives have had no means of conducting their own thinking.
6. Conservatives have been driven out of careers in the opinion-forming industries.
7. The lie of "objective journalism" has conned conservatives into being apolitical and giving up the fight.
The first problem is obvious. What are not obvious are the subtler forms that liberal propaganda can take. When people read editorials advocating liberal policies, they know that this is what they are reading, so this is the least of our problems. But the very fact of a newspaper endorsing an idea, if it does not persuade logically, still establishes the fact that respectable people like newspaper editors believe such things, establishing that the idea is socially, even if not logically, valid. And a newspaper can propagandize without expressing open value-judgments simply by choosing which facts to report. The New York Times rarely (though not never; see Smartertimes.com) prints actual lies. But it can choose which facts it chooses to treat as normal, a category that appears to be value-free but in fact establishes the crucial baseline of what are reasonable expectations about the world, a fact with obvious value implications.
The second problem, outright lying, tends to come up in connection with specific major historical turning points. In the ‘60s, for example, the American media lied to the public that the Tet Offensive represented a military defeat for the U.S. In the ‘70s, they lied that there was an energy crisis. In the ‘80s, they succumbed to an orchestrated campaign by the welfare industry and lied that most homeless people were ordinary families. In the ‘90s, they succumbed to a campaign by gay activists to exaggerate the frequency of heterosexually-transmitted AIDS. In the 2000 election, Democratic activists staged a serious attempt to get them to lie about "counting every vote" et cetera, but Internet media and the Fox TV network made this impossible for the first time.
The third problem, concealment, applies both to specifics like Bill Clinton’s misdeeds, which were hushed up by Newsweek until cracked open by The Drudge Report, and to vast social trends like immigration, which is currently the largest social trend in America but gets less coverage than minor medical advances.
The fourth problem concerns the Right’s inability to communicate with its own rank-and-file voters. Through the long pre-Internet winter, the average Republican voter did not read National Review or even The Wall Street Journal (which, by the way, took less-than-helpful stands on some issues, like Vietnam’s supposedly not being worth fighting for). People’s membership in a political party cannot be meaningfully sustained without being constantly refreshed with reminders of why they support it. Sympathizers cannot be told how to act on their sympathies. Even when they do, as in the case of the vast Young Americans for Freedom rallies that were ignored by the networks in the ‘60s, it doesn’t matter, because nobody hears of it if the opposition controls the means of communication.
The fifth problem, the Right’s inability to do its own thinking, was never as acute as the others because of the existence of narrowly specialist magazines like National Review, which did provide the needed intellectual circulatory system. It does not take all that many writers to hash out the limited number of issues that are important at any given moment. But this narrowness, combined with the barriers to entry of physical magazine publishing, served as a choke-point on conservative thinking and made it dangerously dependent on the competence of a few key individuals. Furthermore, the lack of the vast salary-supported class of journalists and other media professionals that the Left had, thinned the ranks of the Right and caused it to lack depth of manpower.
The sixth problem concerns the exclusion of conservatives from the opinion-forming industry. In Europe, by contrast, the partisan nature of media frequently keeps things balanced. In nations where television is dominated by a state broadcasting company, jobs at that company are often considered political patronage and are therefore allocated to supporters of the various political parties on a proportional basis. America rejected this "spoils system" a hundred years ago in the name of civil service reform, but it does have the decided advantage of preventing all the jobs in public broadcasting from being taken by supporters of one political tendency. What kind of people do you think run PBS, our closest equivalent? Liberals, naturally, simply because that is where they gravitate. Once they gravitate there, they can refuse to hire anyone else. Soon conservatives stop trying and go into investment banking instead.
The seventh problem is perhaps the subtlest. The fundamental problem with "non-partisan" or "objective" media is, of course, that they are not. There is no way that liberals could openly demand control of the media, or openly state that everyone should read liberal newspapers. But under the cover of "objectivity," they can take over while denying that they have done so. They can accuse conservatives of partisanship whenever we fight back. And when liberals can’t find a way to impose their bias, they can resort to a kind of denatured journalism that forces us to discuss everything in "objective," value-free, ways. "Objective" journalism is thus often just a way of silencing debate.
So what should we favor instead? Rank Leninist party-worship and a diet of endless opinion unleavened by facts? No. We should support honest and open partisanship. It is almost always good for us when things are made explicitly partisan, because this forces the other side to concede what they most dread conceding: that there are two sides to the question. It pushes the matter onto the field of debate, a field on which conservatives have the advantage because conservative positions are the rational ones. We can win arguments; we cannot win silences. Because liberalism is the status quo, silence favors it. The value of partisanship was first really understood by Plato, who wrote his philosophy in the form of dialogues, arguments, because this is how one forces the truth to come out. Naturally, one can take things too far and alienate the public, but this is a matter of style and politeness, not of intellectual substance. The other side has mastered the art of seeming non-partisan, while being partisan; there is no reason why we can’t.
It is worth thinking philosophically about the idea of bias for a minute. It is almost a universal law that anything written has a bias. Almost, because there are of course still such things as facts, which can be presented in a manner so simple as to admit of no room for one tint or another. One should not fall for the mischievous argument, popular among post-modernist thinkers, that all assertions are biased, because this entails the idea that all knowledge is relative to the knower and that there is, in the end, no real world. But still, if I write that 2 + 2 = 4 in an American magazine today, this implies that I believe in and respect facts, which is in the present cultural environment a conservative, not a liberal, attitude. It also implies that I think that fundamental facts are important and that clear thinking is possible. So it is very hard to absolutely escape bias, though it can of course sometimes be reduced to a trivial level or better still, be consciously compensated for in the mind of a reader who is aware of it.
The great genius of the liberal bias machine is that after a point, it does not even have to try. It has its people so thoroughly inculcated with liberal ideas that they do not even have to be told to produce biased reportage. This is one of the ways in which they seek to salve their occasionally guilty consciences and deny their own bias: by saying that they don’t do it deliberately. But one must question whether this masterly evasion of intent lets them off the hook of responsibility.
Television is an intrinsically liberal medium. It is usually the case that the liberal position on any issue is the superficially attractive, be-nice-to-everybody, one, and the conservative position the superficially harsh but ultimately beneficial one. Television is more suited to presenting the former, and thus one historical cause of media bias was the dominance of television as the way people got their news during roughly the years 1960-1995. The Internet has, if anything, the opposite tendency, as it is not technically well-suited to delivering vivid images with shallow informational content but is superb at delivering two-sided debates and information in depth. Whether this will remain true as the spread of broadband enables television and its production values to colonize the Internet through streaming video, remains to be seen.
Another effect of the Internet is to shift the balance between for-profit and non-profit media. In the bad old days, only for-profit media could afford to put out a product that was readily seen by the man on the street. FrontPage Magazine, for example, could never have worked. This gave for-profit media an advantage in the dissemination of ideology that it is now gradually losing. The hard Left would like us to believe that this is likely to move the media’s center of gravity back towards their end of the spectrum because the corporate sector is conservative by nature, but most readers of FrontPage are probably savvy enough to realize that big business has been in bed with big government for a long time and in fact tends towards establishment liberalism. Big business also has a weakness for corporate "diversity" initiatives and similar rot. Until the recent rise of Rupert Murdoch, there wasn’t a single right-leaning media conglomerate, and even his is a somewhat equivocal case. What the rise of non-profit media does is take money increasingly out of the equation, which tends to promote an even distribution of media, which is far to the right of how things have been and therefore good for us.
Naturally, the winners under the ancien regime of media aren’t happy about the decline of their power and are fighting back as hard as they can. The prime spearhead of this is AOL-Time Warner. AOL’s dream is that the bulk of the unruly Internet can be recaptured into a packaged product onto which old-style liberal bias can be imposed. They are quite open in their annual report and on their web site about their desire to produce programming that "reflects their values" and to use their company as an instrument of their political agenda. Their hope is that that the economies of scale that AOL possesses can finance the commercial production of enough content to effectively drown out or marginalize the rest of the web. And what they don’t produce themselves, they will have the financial muscle to purchase control over. They will doubtless, one day, produce a kind of denatured "conservative" media product (something like George, maybe?) as a pacifier for people like us to keep us from making real trouble. It follows that the single best thing you can do about all these issues right now is dump your AOL.
What should conservatives aim at overall with respect to the media? Obviously, our ultimate goal should be a balanced media environment in this country in all forms. Having a balanced Internet is nice, but it is likely that in the long run, the different types of media will each find its own preferring audience, and therefore we must reach out in all forms of media if we are to reach the entire nation. We need half the TV channels or half the politically-relevant content on every TV channel. We need half the local newspapers or half their content. We need half the book-publishing industry. And so on. In the short run, the biggest things blocking this are the accumulated personnel of the ancien regime and a shortage of conservative advertisers. Media buyers tend to be liberal and exert an undue influence. Conservative politicians have done nothing to change media bias. If they would only threaten the networks with an annual spectrum auction, that might get their attention.
The battle to reshape the media ranks with the battle to reshape academia as one of the most important parts of the culture war. The media are the nervous system of our public life, and there is no way the body politic is going to move in a conservative direction so long as this nervous system remains liberal.