It's no coincidence that when members of the media talk about the media these days, they tend to talk about two things: the supposed importance of right-wing media like Fox News, and claims that the rest of the media lean to the left. The two concepts are fundamentally intertwined and mutually reinforcing -- and deeply flawed.
It may seem odd that much of the news media would simultaneously pronounce itself guilty of liberal bias and spend the year after a presidential election won convincingly by the more progressive candidate talking about the importance and influence of a conservative cable channel whose viewership consists of about 1 percent of the nation. But both of those somewhat inconsistent media memes can be explained by journalists' frequent inability to see where the center of the country really is. That inability makes journalists think they are further left of center than they actually are (even assuming they are at all to the left of center). And it makes them inflate the importance of right-wing operatives masquerading as media figures -- people who would have far less influence if actual reporters stopped buying their nonsense.
Their hateful views and adversarial relationship with the truth place the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the far-right fringe of a party and movement that have lost the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections and that holds only 40 percent of the seats in Congress. They are on the far-right edge of a party that is far to the right of the rest of the country.
And, it must be said, they do not tell the truth. They lie about things large and small. They lie to smear their adversaries, and they lie for no real reason at all. Their lies should disqualify them from ever being taken seriously. But instead, the media have decided that if anything they say turns out to contain a sliver of truth, everything they say must be paid immediate attention.
That's what happened when, after years of making absurd claims about ACORN -- remember the lie that ACORN was going to get billions of stimulus dollars? -- some conservative activists induced a statistically insignificant number of the organization's low-level employees to behave badly. The rest of the media rushed to cover the "scandal" -- and to beat themselves up for not having taken their cues from Beck & Co. sooner. The ombudsmen for the The Washington Post and The New York Times, for example, scolded their papers for being too slow to report on Beck-generated controversies and gave credence to conservative claims that the delay was the result of liberal bias.
What few journalists seem to understand is that once you accept someone like Glenn Beck as a legitimate media figure, it skews your view of the rest of the media. This is not a new phenomenon -- not by any means. More than two years ago, I argued that once you accept Ann Coulter, who calls John Edwards a "faggot," as a legitimate guest on shows like NBC's Today, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd -- who merely calls Edwards a "girl" -- seems positively reasonable. Thus the entire media discourse is shoved in the direction of its least legitimate participants.
That's how reporters -- and not just those on Rupert Murdoch's payroll -- come to see the non-Beck, non-Hannity "reporters" at Fox News as fair and balanced. The "news" division at Fox spreads falsehoods and right-wing nonsense round the clock, but many journalists have bought into the idea that while Fox's "opinion" hosts may be conservatives, the rest of the channel plays it down the middle. After all, compared to a crazy liar like Glenn Beck, Fox's "news" programs seem perfectly legitimate and impartial. But judged by any reasonable standard, they are nothing of the kind.
And, of course, if you believe that the rest of Fox News is, as Washington Post reporter Ed O'Keefe put it this week, "straight news shows," that affects how you view other news organizations. Just as America's Newsroom on Fox appears to play things down the middle in comparison to a dishonest demagogue like Glenn Beck, other news organizations appear liberal in comparison with America's Newsroom.
And that's how MSNBC -- which gives three hours of airtime each day to conservative former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough and another hour to Clinton-hating, liberal-bashing misogynist Chris Matthews, employs Pat Buchanan, whose very name has been synonymous with bigotry for decades, and regularly traffics in conservative misinformation and right-wing framing -- comes to be described as "liberal": simply because it also employs the only overtly left-of-center hosts in all of television news.
And that's how you end up with the perverse situation in which newspapers like The Washington Post are described by reporters at the Post and elsewhere as "liberal" despite hounding the Clintons for years over a phony real estate "scandal," harassing Al Gore for lies he didn't tell, handing the 2000 election to George W. Bush on a platter, and trading in their press passes for pom-poms during Bush's march to war with a nation that didn't attack us.
And so we have a poisonous media environment in which the "conservative media" consist of lying conspiracy theorists who are out to destroy President Obama and any other liberal they come across, and the "mainstream press" is considered "liberal" even as it "leans over so far backward to avoid the charge of left bias that it ends up either neutered or leaning to the right."
That's some range, isn't it? From right-wing liars who purposefully traffic in conservative misinformation all the way across the spectrum to frightened liberals who accidentally traffic in conservative misinformation.
That's the real problem with Glenn Beck and Fox News. It isn't that they misinform the 1 percent of Americans who watch their nonsense (the vast majority of whom already agree with them). It's that the rest of the media run to the right in response to Fox -- even while becoming more and more convinced that they are guilty of liberal bias.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.