Guess we should've seen this one coming.
Democrats hadn't even officially won control of the Senate, and Brent Bozell, the conservative press referee, was crying foul, claiming journalists had mugged Republicans and thrown the election. "In 25 years of looking at the national media, I have never in my life seen a more one-sided, distorted, vicious presentation of news -- and non-news -- by the national media," Bozell whined on November 8.
And that was just the opening salvo: "The national press ought to be collectively ashamed of itself. They might as well take out membership in the Democratic national party. They were simply microphones for the party." On and on Bozell droned about how the press doomed Republican chances by purposefully manipulating the news to make the Bush administration look bad.
At least he was on-script. Bozell, who founded the Media Research Center in 1987 in order to rid the nation's press of its liberal bias, is paid to blame Republican woes on the media. And his comforting narrative was repeated robotically over at the MRC's NewsBusters blog, which announced that "the mainstream media chalked up a major victory on November 7." (Neither Bozell nor NewsBusters bothers to explain why Republicans were able to win elections in 2000, 2002, and 2004 while battling the very same liberal media.)
It was interesting to note that after the election, rank-and-file conservatives -- as opposed to paid rabble-rousers -- didn't seem all that eager to embrace the blame-the-media meme. NewsBusters conducted an online poll among its very conservative, anti-press readers, and just a slim majority -- 54 percent -- thought the press won the election for Democrats by tearing down Republicans.
Truth is, the "liberal bias" argument has paid lots of bills for conservatives over the past several decades. It has sustained lucrative careers for people like Bozell, and it's proven to be a boffo fundraising tool for GOP activists. But in the wake of Election Day, we've seen, yet again, how the need to keep the liberal-bias cash machine humming along has surpassed the need to provide authentic and honest media criticism. Instead, lazy conservative critics today knowingly hold up factually solid reports that happen to reflect poorly on Republicans (e.g. President Bush is unpopular) as evidence of a deep-seated bias.
As ABC News reporter Jake Tapper recently noted on his blog, "There are legitimate conservative arguments to make about the media. But not every time someone reports something that doesn't bode well for Republicans is it bias. Sometimes it's called: reality." (Either that, or Stephen Colbert was right and reality does have a well-known liberal bias.)
The right-wing conveyor belt of attacks on the press is often loopy and fact-free, and usually not worth rebutting in detail. But the latest spasm triggered by Election Day losses deserves a closer look, since it represents a preview of the permanent campaign conservative critics will wage as Democrats take control of Congress. In other words, after years of playing defense for the GOP, this is what conservative press critics, led by Bozell, look like playing offense. And, like the hapless Detroit Lions facing a third-and-20, it ain't pretty.
For instance, in a postelection column, Bozell went bonkers on The Washington Post, blaming the daily for Sen. George Allen's loss to Democrat James Webb in Virginia. "[T]he Post completely lost its bearings, treating Allen with left-wing aggression and loathing, as if he ripped out the fingernails of small children every night as a giggly hobby," the press hound whined. Bozell claimed the Post "pound[ed] away day after day from August to November," devoting "front page after front page, editorial after editorial, story after story" to criticizing Allen. Yet I found just three lonely post-Labor Day editorials devoted to criticizing Allen's re-election run, which was actually pretty generous of the Post considering that Allen's Keystone Kops campaign was marked by an almost constant flow of self-inflicted wounds.
Elsewhere, Bozell was certain the Post had committed an egregious sin -- "a display of utter shamelessness" -- when the paper unquestioningly published a campaign dispatch quoting Webb saying, "I don't think it's right to use someone's [military] service directly for a political reason." The problem? "This was ridiculous, and the height of hypocrisy, and the Post knew it," Bozell wrote, because "Webb's TV ads relentlessly mentioned his service in Vietnam and his son's service in Iraq." [Emphasis added.]
Bozell was certain: The Post knowingly misled readers because Webb's ads were flooded with words and images about his military service, as well as his son's.
Note to Bozell -- go here and watch Webb's nine television campaign commercials and count the number that mentioned his service in Vietnam. Then count the number that mentioned his son's duties in Iraq and let us know if you'd like to change the phrasing of your column from "relentlessly" (as in Webb "relentlessly" mentioned his military service) to "rarely" -- since that, after all, would actually be accurate. (In the nine ads, just two referenced Webb's Vietnam days, and only one mentioned Webb's son's current duty.)
In another election-related harangue, Bozell complained that television news teams didn't give the administration enough credit when gas prices began to fall during the summer. "Instead, they ... shamelessly advanced Lyndon LaRouche-style conspiracy theories about how Republicans somehow were manipulating gas prices downward in order to get themselves elected," Bozell wrote.
But that wasn't a LaRouche-style conspiracy theory. According to a Gallup poll released in September, 42 percent of Americans thought the Bush administration was manipulating gas prices for political advantage. Meaning, it was newsworthy. But because it reflected poorly on Bush, lazy right-wing press critics called it bias.
More? Bozell also claimed to have conclusive proof the press had been too soft on Speaker of the House-designate Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and had deliberately soft-peddled her liberal leanings:
Since Pelosi was elected as the House Democratic leader in November of 2002, all the way through to late October of 2006, the networks have not once described her as a "liberal." You read that correctly. Not once. That's not news coverage. That's a four-year masquerade party." [Emphasis in original.]
- "Our issues this Sunday, history: A woman elected to lead the House Democrats. California liberal Nancy Pelosi. What will be her agenda? We'll ask her." NBC's Meet the Press, November 17, 2002. [Emphasis added.]
- "With Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress and the White House, it is not an easy time to be Democratic leader, let alone a liberal Democrat from San Francisco. But Nancy Pelosi is not backing down." NBC's Today, January 4, 2005. [Emphasis added.]
Oh, and how many times during Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert's first four years as the Republicans' speaker of the House did the networks describe him as "conservative"? Answer: just four. So was why it some sort of scandal that the press didn't label Pelosi a liberal at every turn?
Pelosi vs. Gingrich
Nonetheless, Pelosi's press coverage became a key talking point among Republican sore losers. And specifically how the press was being too nice to the speaker-designate in 2006 while the press had been so mean to Newt Gingrich back in 1994 when he steered the Republicans to their electoral routs. Over at the National Review's blog The Corner, Byron York posted alleged proof of the press's lapdog approach to Pelosi:
[T]he front page of the Washington Post's Style section has featured the following headlines in the last two days:
Pride of Baltimore: Nancy Pelosi Learned Her Politics At the Elbow of Her Father the Mayor
Muted Tones of Quiet Authority: A Look Suited to the Speaker
Power Cleaning: As Democrats Take Over the House, Republicans' Perks May Go Out the Window
The front page of the Style section featured the following headlines in the days after the 1994 election:
The Day After: Sifting Through the Wreckage
How the Gingrich Stole Christmas
First, as Paul McLeary noted at CJR Daily, it's a bit odd -- not to mention lazy -- to try to prove media bias solely on the basis of headlines plucked from the Post's Style section. Wouldn't analysis of actual articles from the paper's news section be a better barometer of the newspaper's performance?
But take a look at the articles picked out as proof, particularly from the Gingrich era. If conservative press critics had bothered to actually read the first example, "The Day After: Sifting Through the Wreckage," they would have realized it was a look at the dreadful pounding Democrats took at the polls in 1994; how so many of its longtime stalwarts had gone down to defeat; and how the party, after controlling Congress for 40 years, had lost its grip in stunning fashion. In fact, the very first person quoted in the article was high-profile conservative Bill Kristol. So how, exactly, did detailing the Democrats' embarrassing demise illustrate the Post's liberal bias? The answer, of course, was that it did not.
But what about "How the Gingrich Stole Christmas"? That was obviously proof that liberal insiders on the Post's political beat openly despised the new speaker of the House, right? Truth is, that headline was attached to a humor column by Tony Kornheiser, who made just as much fun of Bill Clinton in the column as he did Gingrich. ("Talk about losers. What's Clinton going to do next, quarterback the Buffalo Bills?")
Meanwhile, back at MRC's NewsBusters, frustrated partisans complained that NBC's Brian Williams had been too friendly with Pelosi in an interview taped less than 24 hours after the Democrats' Election Day victory. (Because really, isn't that the best time to pose caustic questions?)
NewsBusters pointed to a 1994 NBC Dateline piece on Gingrich a week after the elections -- "a negative ten-minute ... hit piece" -- and wondered why NBC's interview with Pelosi didn't have the exact same tone. NewsBusters, of course, was careful to leave out any context that might have explained the different approaches to the NBC interviews.
And that's another favorite, albeit sloppy, tactic of the right: pretend context does not exist, which allows people to make all sorts of phony comparisons. In this case, NewsBusters pretends that Gingrich in 1994 was not a controversial public figure. In other words, complain that Gingrich and Pelosi should have received the exact same press coverage because they were exactly alike.
Well, maybe if prior to the election Pelosi had called the Bush administration "the enemies of normal people," maybe if she had compared Republicans to Stalinists, maybe if she preached family values but tried to finalize her divorce in the hospital while her husband recovered from cancer surgery and then stiffed him on her part of the child support, maybe if she had railed against congressional perks yet bounced 22 checks with the House bank, and maybe if Pelosi's former church minister was willing to go before the NBC cameras and announce she was "amoral when it comes to politics" (the way Gingrich's did), then maybe NBC 's report on Pelosi in 2006 would have been more like NBC's report on Gingrich in 1994.
The discouraging part is that this conservative press nonsense -- this foolery -- seems to work. Meaning, corporate journalists, suffering a perpetual case of rabbit ears, snap to attention whenever the hollow "liberal bias" charges start to fly. Look at the November 12 column from Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell, "Media 'Liberalism' Under the Microscope." In it, Howell earnestly announced the obvious -- conservative readers were really upset because they think the Post has a leftward bias. (Talk about an evergreen.) But the real tell in the column came here:
During my first six months here, I heard more from liberal Democrats who complained that The Post was going easy on the Bush administration. In the past six months, it has shifted to Republicans claiming bias. [Emphasis added.]
What did Howell do during her first six months when she was hearing a chorus of complaints from liberals about the Post's timid Bush coverage? Answer: nothing. A search of Howell's column archives shows that not once did she devote an entire column addressing the concern of liberal readers. But when conservative activists started giving Howell a piece of their minds, the ombudsman quickly fired off a column, patiently assuring them their complaints were being heard at the Post.
Howell, a Beltway fixture for 16 years, was in perfect sync with accepted corporate media etiquette; liberal complaints about the press are dismissed, no matter how accurate and factual, while conservative complaints are lavished with attention, no matter how loony and fact-free.
And that's just how Brent Bozell likes it.