Playing with fire
In 1971, Edith Efron purported to expose the liberal bias of the news media in The News Twisters. The dubiousness of Efron's conclusion was matched by that of her methods, and critical reaction was harsh. But, under orders from Richard Nixon, Chuck Colson spent $8,000 buying copies of the book in order to vault it onto the New York Times best-seller list.
Even before Efron's book was published, undermining the news media was among Nixon's top priorities. In 1969, Nixon aide Pat Buchanan had proposed blunting media reports about Vietnam by accusing the networks of being biased in favor of the antiwar movement. In 1971, Nixon told top aide H.R. Haldeman, "[M]uch more than any single issue that we are going to emphasize, the discrediting of the press must be our major objective over the next few months."[i]
In fact, the discrediting of the media remained a major objective of the conservative movement for the next few decades. The News Twisters was followed by countless other books making similar allegations. Right-wing groups like Accuracy in Media and the Media Research Center thrived. And Republicans at all levels, from president to precinct worker, routinely attacked the news media.
Not that they necessarily believed their own attacks, as the occasional moment of honesty from conservatives over the years demonstrates. In 1972, Pat Buchanan praised news coverage of that year's presidential election as "extraordinarily fair and balanced." Brent Bozell conceded in the 1990s that major newspapers could not be faulted "with a media bias in favor of Bill Clinton" and praised The Washington Post's (deeply flawed) Whitewater coverage. James Baker has acknowledged that "on balance I don't think we had anything to complain about," and Bill Kristol has admitted, "The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures."
That the right's coordinated assault on the media was built on such shaky work as Efron's, catapulted to the best-seller lists through the underhanded tactics of Richard Nixon and Chuck Colson, and carried forth for more than three decades by people who didn't believe what they were saying did not detract from its effectiveness in the least. It was a sham, but it worked -- in no small part because conservative media criticism was often met with silence from the left. A poor argument, rarely contested, carried the day.
The "discrediting of the press" Nixon demanded succeeded in every way he could have hoped. Longtime Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall, now of The Huffington Post, described the effect the right's assault on the media had on journalists:
The conservative movement has been very effective attacking the media (broadcast and print) for its liberal biases. The refusal of the media to disclose and discuss the ideological leanings of reporters and editors, and the broader claim of objectivity, has made the press overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right. In many respects, the campaign against the media has been more than a victory: it has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right.
But no matter how far reporters "lean[ed] over backwards" to appease the right, conservative critics were not appeased. Stoked by the Two Minutes Hate offered up daily by the likes of Michelle Malkin and Rush Limbaugh, conservative distrust of the media remains high.
And that isn't likely to change any time soon. The millions of conservatives who have spent decades learning to loathe the "liberal media" aren't going to change their minds just because much of the news media cover John McCain the way Teen Beat covered Menudo. For reasons having little to do with his reliably right-wing voting record, a sizable chunk of the GOP base has never trusted McCain; the media's embrace of him will simply confirm their doubts about both McCain and journalists rather than warming them to either.
But months of reporters' fawning over McCain will alienate many Americans who have not already tuned out the "mainstream" media. Every year, more and more people lose faith in the news media, not because of trumped-up claims of "liberal bias," but because of a clear pattern, more than a decade long, of reporters (intentionally or not) trafficking in conservative misinformation.
And why not? Since the mid-1990s, we've seen shoddy media coverage of Whitewater and other pseudo-scandals during the Clinton administration, the open hostility of campaign reporters to Al Gore in 2000 and their chummy relationship with George W. Bush, open cheerleading for the Iraq war thinly disguised as journalism, and a primary season marked by sexist and abusive coverage of Hillary Clinton, an infantile and dishonest focus on John Edwards' hair and house rather than his plan for health care, and the endless false innuendo about Barack Obama's patriotism.
In recent years, it has become almost commonplace for journalists to note that since the beginning of the Bush administration, they get as many -- or more -- complaints from liberal readers and viewers as they do from conservatives. Media Matters' Eric Boehlert recently detailed progressives' growing capacity to express displeasure with flawed news reports. Boehlert described a flood of emails (organized by the website Firedoglake.com) in response to an Associated Press article that raised questions about Barack Obama's patriotism:
What prompted the organized outpouring of angst last week against the AP was when the website Firedoglake took action, embraced a new organizing tool, tapped into a wellspring of enthusiasm for Obama, and pointed angry readers not in the direction of the AP itself, but toward their local newspaper clients. Why? Because newspapers are more responsive to complaints filed by nearby readers, and because the newspapers pay the AP's bills as newswire customers.
The results, according to FDL, as of March 3: 14,252, letters sent to 649 different newspapers located in all 50 states, and from 1,735 ZIP codes. That included more than 1,500 letters to The New York Times, 1,400 to both USA Today and The Washington Post -- not to mention 52 to The Denver Post and 21 to the Florida Times-Union.
But while the increased quantity and quality of progressive media criticism in recent years has helped support a growth in activism like the effort Firedoglake led in response to the AP's reporting, public polling has continued to show that more people think the media have a liberal bias than a conservative bias. The increased understanding among progressive activists and leaders of the ways in which the media have benefited conservatives in recent years has not yet taken hold among the broader public.
But that may finally be changing. The New York Times and CBS News recently unveiled the results of a poll in which they asked respondents to compare the media's treatment of John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. Only 8 percent said the media have been harder on McCain than on other candidates, while 28 percent said the media have been easier on McCain. By contrast, 34 percent said the media have been harder on Clinton than on other candidates, and only 8 percent said the media have been easier on her.
Even among Republican primary voters, few think the media have been tough on McCain -- only 11 percent of Republicans said the media have been harder on McCain than on other candidates. Compare that to the 43 percent of Democratic primary voters who think the media have been harder on Clinton than other candidates and the 31 percent who say the same about media coverage of Obama, and it is clear that the public recognizes the favorable treatment McCain has received.
Last year, a Pew Research Center poll that asked respondents if they view the media favorably found a significant gap between Democrats and Republicans. Eighty-four percent of Democrats had a favorable view of network television news; only 56 percent of Republicans agreed. Eighty-six percent of Democrats view their daily newspaper favorably, compared with 68 percent of Republicans. And 79 percent of Democrats viewed national newspapers favorably, while a mere 41 percent of Republicans shared that assessment.
The public's view of the media has deteriorated greatly over the past few decades. At the same time, news organizations are making more and more staff cutbacks. And all of that has happened with 80 percent of Democrats holding favorable views of the media. What will have to happen if that number drops 20 points? If Democrats turn to alternate news sources in droves as a reaction to the media's sycophantic treatment of McCain? If the countless new voters who are engaging in the political process for the first time decide that they cannot trust the traditional news media to treat both sides fairly, to hold both candidates to the same standards?
A large portion of the American public now distrusts the news media -- not because of the press's actual failings, but because of a deeply dishonest, decades-long campaign by conservatives aimed at, in Nixon's words, "the discrediting of the press." But now the media are in danger of losing the confidence of many more people -- those who still believe in the credibility of the press -- and this time, it is because of the media's actual failings rather than a Nixonian scheme.
We've already seen that for many journalists, their fondness for John McCain outweighs their professional ethics. The question now is whether that fondness will outweigh their own instinct for self-preservation.
[i] See David Brock's The Republican Noise Machine for more about the origins of the right's campaign against the media, as well as an explanation of the flaws in The News Twisters and other efforts by conservatives to demonstrate a liberal bias in the media.