This chapter, from a forthcoming book on television, had as an alternative title “A Rumor about the Liberals.” This is the title of Steven Eric Bronner’s important and chilling book on the history of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion;” he adapted it from a remark by Theodor Adorno, that “Antisemitism is the rumor about the Jews.” I decided that that title would be too esoteric, but it would not have been inappropriate: much of the literature about “liberal control of the media” has the same character as the infamous “Protocols,” and the same malignant intentions.
THE LIE ABOUT LIBERALS
The most common contemporary account of mass media, that they suffer from “liberal control,” is the big lie of the late Twentieth Century, and if we believed that facts speak for themselves it would be inconceivable that anyone should be able to read such a phrase without laughing (or crying). The nature of this lie as it relates to the television system–the subservience of news departments to the business interests that “own” them; the conservative domination of news and opinion shows (including those on that special target of the smear campaign, PBS) and the prevalence of Republican Party and other right wing spokespersons who deliver a daily, mostly one-sided, mostly unchallenged, barrage of contempt for liberals and liberalism; the exclusion of women-as-feminists from visual media (whereas men speak as masculinists all the time); the relegation of minority spokespersons to the sidelines, unless they deliver conservative propaganda; the fawning reliance of media on government sources during the Reagan and both Bush Administrations contrasted with their skeptical and often sneering treatment of Clinton and his Administration–is a simple matter of record. The record has been established beyond cavil (literally, since no reviewer has yet been able to find a cavil) by Eric Alterman in his definitive account, What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. It can also be found regularly in Extra!, a bimonthly publication of the New York-based media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR). It would be pointless, and mind-numbing, to repeat the examples of right-wing bias and control turned up in its pages; readers must look it up for themselves, and will be amply rewarded. In any event, as we shall see examples are not really the issue.
It ought to be enough to say that since 9\11 an ignorant and wilfully mendacious Republican president has been treated considerably more gently on news television than was his Democratic predecessor. President Clinton and his wife were subjected to the vilest insults, accusations of criminality not excluding murder, and a grossly trumped-up effort to remove him from office, without the faintest demurral from any so-called “conservative;” support for him from millions of ordinary people was treated as mass moral degeneracy, rather than normal respect for legitimate authority. So the Right critique of news media cannot be taken seriously; it is simply partisan, without any redeeming characteristic of intellectual integrity.
Rather than repeat what has already been done more than satisfactorily, then, I’ve found it more useful to address two questions that still leave a sense of puzzlement after one has plunged into the literature on TV “bias.” The first is this: how can the right-wing critics of “liberal” television possibly even be attempting to make a case that is so evidently counter-factual? And the second question is, Why, in a period of long-term conservative triumph, both institutional and ideological, do they have such a burning desire, such a rage, to make a case that denies their own power? How can the ubiquitous Ann Coulter see Susan Sarandon or Sean Penn, as demonized and marginalized as they are, as important threats to the polity? The first is a question of methodology, and is more easily and clearly answered than the second, which is a question about the ambiguities of psyche and identity, to which answers can only be speculative.
As the word “examples” suggests, most accounts of alleged bias on television consist of the piling up of instances, and this poses an immediate problem. An anecdote is not an argument; even a thousand anecdotes do not add up to an argument. For example, piling up quotations from Edward Kennedy and Barbara Boxer and Tom Daschle could make the U.S. Senate sound “liberal”; but it isn’t; it’s just that all the contrary evidence has been omitted. The worst example of this kind of incompetent methodology in action is Bernard Goldberg’s recent addition to “liberal-elite”-bashing, Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite. From a field of thousands, perhaps millions, of available quotations about policy, politics, culture, and power, from “media elites,” Goldberg has managed to find a few dozen that are satisfactorily “liberal” in order to make his case. Some of these are actually defensible arguments or simple statements of fact (check out the quotations from Maria Liasson and Carole Simpson on pp. 125 and 126); some are recycled from his previous book Bias, as though the well of liberal duplicity and “arrogance” has actually run dry; and some are not relevant to anything at all. (At one point Goldberg asks us to match “offensive quotations” with the presumably liberal celebrities who uttered them, under the heading “That’s Entertainment!” What does this have to do with anything? Why shouldn’t there be liberal celebrities? Since they’re all virtually without power of any kind, why should anyone care? On the other hand, anyone on the Left might be glad for this insertion; the quotations from Jessica Lange, Barbara Streisand, and George Clooney at least are straightforward, legitimate, and persuasive critiques of the Bush Administration). Anyone–Eric Alterman, for example–can with ease find an equal or (more likely) far greater number of quotations or behaviors to support the contrary case for conservative “bias” and “arrogance.” (Goldberg actually manages to go on and on about “liberal bias” without ever even mentioning Alterman’s work.) This is simply not the way to make an argument. Where the data set is infinite, and classifications are arbitrary and tendentious (“liberal,” “conservative,” etc.), we need a way to test our characterization of the whole that goes beyond one-sided countings of the uncountable. In this context, anecdotes only become a genuine argument when they can be fitted into the confines of a theory, that is, a hypothesis which accounts for the given examples by showing how the theory they support explains what is happening in all its profusion and variety. In the case of media “bias,” there are indeed two competing theories, though only one of them is usually made explicit.
Theory one may be described as follows: a small number of corporations, and the persons who control those corporations, own and oversee the activities, the institutions, and the organizations of American mass media. Particular media outlets, therefore (and especially visual media outlets, because of their greater concentration of ownership), behave in such a way as to forward the agenda of those corporations and persons. That agenda includes first, making a profit comparable to that made by other similar corporations (and by all corporations generally, since they all compete for funds in the same investment markets); second, ensuring that the profit-making activities–in the case of visual media, audience-pleasing cultural commodities–do not impair the reputation or economic viability of the parent companies, or of important capitalist entities and operations, most importantly the operations of “private enterprise” and “the free market,” in general; third, supporting and reproducing the conditions of economic monopoly that define the visual media field; and fourth and quite definitely last, producing and distributing the kinds of audience-pleasing commodities that the immediate producers (though not the laborers, who Marx would have considered the “immediate producers”) are comfortable producing. We might call this the class/structural model of media control. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Propaganda Model, from their book Manufacturing Consent, is the most worked-out contemporary version of the class/structural model; what distinguishes it from other critiques of the role of intellectual workers is its focus on ownership and control of the media, not on the political or moral beliefs of journalists, teachers, etc.--i.e., "intellectuals." They show how both political leaders and capitalists exercise power and authority to ensure that newspaper and television journalists will in the end not subvert the interests of their masters: the dominant class.
(It is true that sociologists of the media who are not conservative critics have offered a view of journalistic behavior which might seem to undercut the Propaganda Model, since they emphasize the extent to which journalists learn to follow "professional" rules of conduct in determining what is "news," and when. However, "professionalism" itself is defined within the confines of the dominant ideology; one has only to look at how news sources become sources, become quoteworthy, to see this process in action. Chomsky himself, for example, is never quoteworthy on the subject of Israel in the United States, though he is so everywhere else in the world. Moreover, in the information culture, viewers are often devoid of any means for checking the reality of the propaganda to which they are subjected, especially if it is about far-away events. News can be manipulated or suppressed, as by the Department of Energy after Three-Mile Island and the U.S. Military during the Gulf War or the Iraq invasion; or it can fail to become news, as American complicity in the East Timor massacres, or strikes that are not reported except locally).
According to the contrrary second theory, control of the production of cultural commodities rests in the hands, not of newspaper chain proprietors, television network owners, and so forth, but in the hands instead of the immediate producers, including studio executives, visual media professionals, journalists, creative artists, and the mid-level overseers of production and distribution; not economic oligarchs but communications and educational specialists exercise intellectual hegemony. In this account, intellectual hegemony has somehow mysteriously become detached from the actual economic and political hegemons; it rules with a life of its own. Moreover, the elite that incarnates it has the strangely conceived agenda of pursuing its own political and ideological purposes, according to which audience-pleasing as an economic goal is subordinated to the ideological goal of subverting and degrading traditional American values. This approach is a particular version of the explanatory schema best known among social scientists as the theory of "elite domination;” but it is a bizarre version of that theory.
Elite-oriented theories of decision-making come in several forms, but the most well-known, stemming from the work of the modern Machiavellians Robert Michels, Max Weber, and Gaetano Mosca, expounds the persuasive (if arguable) thesis that all complex organizations, including governments and even democratic governments, are necessarily dominated by small groups of activists. These may consist of apparatchniks (Michels), experts and bureaucrats (Weber), or exceptionally ambitious and politically talented men (Mosca and Machiavelli). In any case, it is perfectly clear how they got where they are, and why (if you accept the theory) they have to be there. From the standpoint of classical elite theory it is possible to criticize the society that requires such a form of organization, though all the elite theorists would regard such criticisms as utopian. It is neither required or relevant, though, to impute nefarious motives or behavior to the elites themselves, who are just doing a necessary job. "Who says organization," in the words of Michels, "says oligarchy." In the most complexly worked out of these theories, that of Weber, it is also important to note that “the capitalistic entrepreneur is, in our society, the only type who has been able to maintain at least relative immunity from subjection to the control of rational bureaucratic knowledge.”
Clearly, the kind of right-wing reasoning that sees opposition and subversion as the work of educated and even well-off persons is not the same kind of analysis as Marx’s notion of class warfare; but it is equally far from the reasoning of the classic elite theorists as well. Instead, this neo-conservative critique does impute nefarious motives and behaviors, "the desire of elite groups,” in the unbelievable words of one critic, Stanley Rothman, “to control images and stories, without necessarily converting them into monetary advantage." The most straightforward version of this approach is the one that has been made familiar by some black nationalists and recently an English conservative: Hollywood has been and is dominated by a cabal of Jews. Many of the conservative cultural critics are themselves Jews but, unembarrassed, they adopt this version of elite theory wholesale and simply substitute "liberals" for "Jews" as its core category. This is not a minor event.
The ideology revealed by this move, rather than being that of true elite theory, is the 20th Century European variant of populism, the nationalist ideology which proceeds by dividing society into two camps, the virtuous people and the malignant elite. This rightwing populist ideology--what the British sociologist Stuart Hall has called "Authoritarian Populism”--has always argued for the inherent harmony of self-evidently inharmonious communities by attributing all dissidence and division to a subversive "enemy within." Since the enemy according to this version of ideology is always a deviant subculture (Jews, liberals, feminists, homosexuals, Communists, pornographers, Satanists, the criminal underclass, etc.), we need only expel it from the body politic to produce communal reintegration: conveniently without having to challenge patterns of economic and social elitism, of corporate capitalist power and patriarchalism, in the slightest. In the ominous title of one book of right-wing media criticism, Michael Medved's Hollywood Against America, a classic example of this posture, we can see the authentic hand of the commissar, and smell the deadly whiff of grapeshot. Describing a Hollywood "elite" who are losing the battle of the marketplace by defying conventional American morality, he can only explain this seemingly irrational behavior by postulating an ideological take-over by "liberals" who would rather promote their anti-American ideas than make money (an idea borrowed from Rothman). This would be truly extraordinary behavior, and suggests a frightening degree of ideological dedication on the part of burrowers from within, much like that which was attributed to Hollywood "Communists" in the 1940's; in fact, the vocabulary and imagery has been taken over from previous “red scares” almost wholesale.
The point about these competing theories of the media system is not to proclaim which we prefer, but rather to ask how they help us to understand what actually goes on. For here, suffice it to say that one of them is debatable but plausible. The other–that is, the contemporary, neo-conservative version--is totally implausible, especially in its depiction of a system in which underlings exercise power outside the control of the owners who employ; in which it is better to be Diane English or Steve Bochco than Rupert Murdoch, if one wants to amass ideological power. What is of more moment, however, is the starkly different ways in which these theories amass and use evidence to support their main outlines; this has to do with the method of anecdotalism, and the way it is used to distort the actual facts.
THE LIE ABOUT LIBERALISM
Here, to begin the analysis, are some examples of media bias taken from the publication Extra! during the past decade. A great many of them pertain to ABC News reporter John Stossel who, as Extra! puts it, “enjoys a special position in broadcast network news: Though not usually identified as a commentator, Stossel is routinely allowed to use his one-hour primetime specials and his regular ‘Give Me a Break’ features on 20/20 to explicitly promote his personal ideological agenda–from singing the virtues of corporate greed to attacking child labor laws--a perspective that is distinctly different from the generally muted centrism that pervades broadcast TV news.” Stossel may be unique as an outright propagandist on network news, but it is important to remember that ABC is routinely criticized by right-wing critics as the most “liberal” of the networks. Among the falsifications that this “liberal” news operation has implicitly endorsed are the following: In a special during which he trashed public schools compared to private and religious schools, Stossel claimed falsely that “SAT scores are lower than they used to be” (they’ve been roughly stable for two decades, and anyhow such comparisons are meaningless since the tests are re-normed regularly); and said falsely that public schools have a 49% graduation rate, when in fact it was at least 73% (and probably higher) in1996. In other reports he falsely claimed that Parkinson’s kills more people than AIDS, although the latter kills at least four times as many Americans, and used to kill many more; claimed that factory workers’ wages had risen to match executive compensation, without adjusting for inflation (in fact real wages had fallen in the 1983-98 period he was describing); claimed government spending on the poor was $324 billion, when that figure (borrowed from a work he cited) included Medicare spending, most of it going to non-poor persons, and the biggest item in the data base by far; sneered at an OSHA spokesman’s statement that workplace fatalities had been cut in half since its creation, though that is a simple fact; falsely alleged that an injured home-worker could sue his employer because of OSHA, although OSHA regulations are enforced by the agency, not by private lawsuits; implied that OSHA was spending $200 million a month on ergonomic research, when the real figure was about $32 million; falsified the facts about what he called “the alar (apples) scare;” and turned outside estimates of possible price rises based on putative global warming controls into firm predictions.
Unlike Stossel, PBS’s National Desk, being a “public” entity, is supposed to give voice to all sides of issues, and purports to do so. But this too is a fiction. On a series on “the gender wars,” for example, the three hosts were all well-known conservatives, and allowed virtually no persons of any other viewpoint to respond to their opinions. The opinions, of course, were offered as “facts,” but were nothing like that; plus the series violated all rules of journalistic integrity, in that the various segments were underwritten by four explicitly right-wing foundations, and the show’s promotional material claimed to afford “a look at how the Social Engineers use Government to manipulate behavior–even to the point of fooling with Mother Nature.!” A segment entitled “The War on Boys” included such false claims as that female athletes were given athletic scholarships at the expense of minority boys, and the “experts” who supported the false claims were actually not experts but publicists funded by the very same foundations that were underwriting the program. The same violation of ordinary journalistic ethics marked a program on public education, a la John Stossel, which offered 38 conservative “experts” from (again) the underwriting foundations as well as for–profit and religious school employees. In defense of public education were four guests, two of whom were NEA officials and denigrated as such. None of the 38 offered any credible data supporting the claim that private and for-profit schools offer “a better education.” They did not report on the major current study of vouchers in Milwaukee, a mixed verdict, or on another study showing that reduction in class size, unlike school voucher programs, has produced notable test-score gains for African-Americans; and they allowed one prolific litigator on behalf of conservative causes to assert without rebuttal that public education has been in serious decline for several decades, without offering the faintest evidence (much of which, to be sure, contradicts the assertion).
More tellingly, in the winter of 2002 all major network news programs supported the Bush Administration “fire reduction” plan: a plan based on arguable if not false claims about that fall being the “worst season” ever, as well as false claims about tendency of fires to destroy soil for ever; and as well as quoting a Forest Service report that was repudiated by the General Accounting Office of Congress as being based on incomplete and misleading statistics--but not the GAO’s repudiation of it. At the same time ABC’s Peter Jennings (another supposed “liberal”) gave a special report on the proposed reintroduction of wolves into Idaho; his report suppressed interviews with supporters of the program, who included ranchers as well as environmentalists, and falsely claimed that most Idahoans were against the program. Only in his reply to critics did Jennings acknowledge that by “most” he’d meant “the body politic of the state, responding to the wishes of the livestock industry”–that is, the wealthiest and most powerful industry (and lobby) in the state.
During the invasion of Iraq, Extra! also documented the extent to which all media coverage was completely subservient to the military, accepting Pentagon communiques about hostilities and the existence of and search for WMD’s without question, and putting down anyone who managed to express an on-camera dissent. The reports focused especially on Fox, the most extremely one-sided of all the networks, hosting Bill O’Reilly’s unembarrassed self-contradictions on the Administration’s supposed knowledge about WMD’s, and his outright lie that Hans Blix had accused Saddam Hussein of not letting UN inspectors interview Iraqi scientists (Blix had rather said that the list given to the inspectors was incomplete); as well as reporters who called dissent “treasonous,” or “unpatriotic,” and boasted of being “slanted and biased;” and who spread the ugly lie that foreign journalists who’d been killed in a shelling of the Palestine Hotel had been used as “human shields” by the Iraqis; while the network itself, supposedly a source of “news,” posted scathingly critical signs about anti-war protestors on its New York news building. In this same period the periodical also documented O’Reilly’s racist slurs (a recording group might be out “stealing hubcaps,” “wetbacks” were infiltrating across our borders, the “most unattractive women in the world” are Muslim, black athletes “can’t speak English”). Fox was not alone in its priorities, though. Before the invasion MSNBC had hired talk-show veteran and liberal commentator Phil Donahue, but during the invasion of Iraq they fired him, for reasons documented by Extra!: an internal network study described him as “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace” who would be “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” His program, the study added, could be “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” Prior to his firing, the network managers, according to Extra!, had told Donahue “that he had to have more conservative or right-wing guests than liberals on the same hour show.” For several months no such concerns attended the hate-filled diatribes of Michael Savage on the same channel; eventually he too was fired by MSNBC, only after expressing a literally murderous homophobia on the air. Extra!’s approach to Savage, incidentally, was not to suggest that he should be fired, but to ask why he’d been hired in the first place, when there were plentiful coherent, decent, civil voices (like the “liberal” Donahue) who are never asked to appear on cable TV.
In addition, Extra! also documented egregious conflicts of interest and advertiser control over content, such as WCBS-TV in New York running a newcast that promoted a medical procedure it had advertised on its website; Barbara Walters turning eight shows into paid infomercials for Campbell’s Soup; a Washington state channel presenting an infomercial by the Washington Forest Protection Association, a timber industry group, as though it were a documentary on how the timber industry is “Saving the Salmon;” General Electric’s NBC bashing Oregon’s universal health care initiative with false assertions and propaganda out of the medical industry’s playbook; and other examples from ABC’s The View, and NBC’s Today show. Worst of all, they reported on a Fox affiliate in Tampa that fired two reporters for refusing to report false information about growth hormones in milk; the station did not dispute the facts but simply asserted (with the agreement of a Federal appeals court) that it had a right to discipline its employees for violating orders. Extra! also noted various instances of cross-promotion by so-called news programs, as CBS News promoting the network’s Survivor as if it were a news topic, and NBC doing the same with its Olympic coverage. All these, of course, are just a few among the many instances of conflict of interest it has noted since its founding in 1988.
Two comments about this record (actually, just a tiny portion of it) are critical. First, they aren’t merely anecdotal. That is, and this is crucial, you don’t have to have previously believed the class/structural theory to make sense of them; because of the topics they cover (economic power, the war effort), they suggest it even if you’d never heard of it, and it then in turn explains them. Second, none of the examples I have noted involve differences of opinion about ideas or policies, or questions of appropriate amounts and types of coverage. They are all verifiably about distortions of fact or unethical behaviors, In both these respects Extra!’s coverage differs sharply from that of the Right in the latter’s allegations of “liberal bias.” Ann Coulter’s hysterics aside, the most well-known “documentations” of that “bias” are the two books by Goldberg (Arrogance and his earlier Bias) and L. Brent Bozell III and Brent Baker’s And That’s the Way It Is(n’t), published in 1990 at the height of the “liberal media” scare, and often taken to be some kind of conservative counterweight to the Left critiques of Extra!, or the contemporary collection edited by FAIR’s Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen, Through the Media Looking Glass. In the first place, the right-wing books don’t support the “liberal elite dominance” thesis unless you already believe it; rather, they suggest that there are some “liberals” at work in the media (wow!), and that they produce programs they like and don’t produce programs they don’t like; but not that they have any permanent or structural power. Second, these books are completely different in another important way in their approach to their alleged subject matter.
Bozell and Baker especially make no effort to pursue facts or document critical accounts of news broadcasts. Rather, they begin with an irrelevant review of the alleged political leanings of “journalists;” irrelevant because, despite the Right’s presumption that every thinking person is an ideologue and every statement dependent on a concealed ideology, most journalists are neither politicians nor ideologues nor academics, and their political postures are as fragile and evanescent as mayflys. They then proceed entirely by criticizing news judgments and interpretations that they (and the Right generally) disagree with, as though finding them bore out the implications of the “political leanings” study–a methodology later followed by Goldberg. Instead, these “findings” simply tells us what would have been “the news” had Bozell and Baker been reading it instead of (a favorite whipping boy) Tom Brokaw, but it is impossible to tell why Brokaw’s reading constitutes a particular bias. Bozell and Baker are incensed, for example, because “the news” gave more coverage to human rights abuses in South Africa and Chile than in the Soviet Union, and treated Mikhail Gorbachev as a reformer rather than just another Stalinist tyrant; just as Goldberg is later incensed because television news gives more prominence to the injuries of American women than to those of American men. In fact, there are all sorts of good reasons for the former disproportion, if it indeed existed, and on Gorbachev the “reference guide” is simply wrong. As to the travails of men in schools or divorce courts, Goldberg does not attempt to account for the fact that almost all the people making these decisions about coverage are themselves (white) men, though the most obvious distinction here is that the men whose injuries Goldberg wants covered are mostly lower-class men, and as compared to its focus on the middle and upper classes, male or female, the system has never been comfortable with or much interested in such “victims.” Nor is he himself, apparently, since when he discusses homelessness and AIDS in Bias, his approach is to castigate the media for over-estimating the extent of those conditions, and for “prettifying” the victims when they ought to be blaming them--that is, for showing homeless people as attractive persons instead of drug-ridden down-and-outs; or AIDS victims as white victims of blood transfusions (e.g., Ryan White) instead of black, homosexual drug users. But this is simply disingenuous. “Prettifying” is what television always does, and as a long-time tv reporter Goldberg knows this. He simply refuses to notice “prettifying” when it doesn’t make his point, as in the “prettifying” of giant corporations, or advertised products, or President Bush, or “cops,” or college athletics, or professional football, or male and female news anchors, or the devastation of Iraq...but one could go on and on. It’s sufficient to add here that as AIDS has become a world-wide heterosexual epidemic, television’s avoidance of this topic is ignored by Goldberg. American tv’s isolationism, much more central to its mode of operation than any “liberalism,” is of no interest to its ideologically invested critics.
These criticisms, in other words, are all about being “right” or “wrong” (or “left”), which are totally matters of emphasis and judgment; rather than about “true” or “false,” which are not. To take another example, network coverage during the 1980's allegedly featured more anti-SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars”) than pro-SDI coverage. The former, in a particularly slanderous bit of slanting, is called by Bozell and Baker “the Soviet side,” as though Gorbachev’s insistence that “Star Wars” deployment would unbalance the arms race were not shared by many thoughtful Americans; and the consensus of the expert scientific community, that a workable missile shield was a pipe dream, was not simply ignored. Perhaps the networks were too much slanted toward President Reagan’s initiative in giving it any credence at all; there’s no way of even considering the matter intelligently simply by conducting an arcane count of “mentions” and “instances.” The failure of this method (if it can be called that) is nicely illustrated by a quotation from (an allegedly “gushing”) Tom Brokaw, who said “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Soviets will do something more [in the area of ‘human rights’ reform]. They are very eager to put the best face, of course, on the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.” Bozell and Baker do not even perceive Brokaw’s evident skepticism about the Soviets’ intentions; so intent are they on policing adherence to their own view they can’t recognize neutrality when it’s right in front of them.
The same is true of every other issue their “guide” covers. One study shows that the media had more “focus stories” on the recession economy of 1982 and its aftermath than on the allegedly improved economy of the mid-80's, a discovery very similar to a finding, say, that there were more stories about shark attacks than about shark migration. Somehow the media preference for “bad news” becomes “liberal,” as though the New York Post’s picture of New York City as a place where people mostly get mugged, murdered, or ripped off by one government agency or another, were to make it “liberal.” The guide consistently confuses the journalistic maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads,” with a political ideology. Worse, its ideological posture is not only binary, but Manichean. Everything that is not “conservative” is “liberal”: the Brookings Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Association. Even TV’s failure sufficiently to cover “the killing fields” of Cambodia, an omission that would seem not only explicable but over-determined to just about every journalism professor in the business, becomes evidence of media “bias.” In fact there was coverage of the Cambodian tragedy, just not enough: a shortcoming that would be unsurprising to critics here and abroad who know how insular American news coverage is compared to that of, say, the BBC, or even CNN Abroad.
Perhaps more detailed study of the text than I was able to endure would turn up an actual mistake by one or more of the “liberal media.” It is belaboring the point to say that I was unable to find any. A decade later, critics of “liberal bias” such as Goldberg are still more often than not playing the same game of searching for ideological rectitude and acceptable news judgment as an index for the existence of their unicorn, turning a handful of statements by particular reporters into “the media” and (mis)reading the evidence to suit their own “bias.” To take a particularly salient example, Goldberg in Bias argues at various points–it is his central, even crucial, argument--that television news departments bend over backwards to be uncritical of black people. It is undoubtedly true that millions of American white people–not at all just “liberals”–quite properly feel so much guilt about the history of American racism that they do not trust their own responses to events that could be perceived as negative revelations of African-American culture. But as Eric Alterman points out in his critique of Bias, Goldberg, apparently without realizing what he is doing, quotes supposedly telling remarks from network moguls that actually make the opposite point. In fact, what they say (according to Goldberg himself) is that they look for stories that they think will sell, and downgrade stories that they think won’t sell; and that is the sum of their thinking–most of which is in practice not at all beneficial to African-Americans, whose interests and ideas and problems are on the whole perceived as not saleable.
To be sure, the thought process that produces decisions about what constitutes an interesting story, is undoubtedly influenced by years both of exposure to racial stereotypes and of attempts to rise above stereotypical behavior. That conflict is real in most Americans, and its result can go either way depending on circumstances and the particular person’s various predispositions. But in the media world, all of those are ultimately trumped by the desire to do what will be acceptable to the largest possible audience: a black man killing a white woman is news, a black man killing another black man isn’t, unless the other black man is an undercover police officer. If a wealthy suburban student attending an elite university is killed in Manhattan, or kills someone himself, this is news no matter who did the killing, or who was killed. All such decisions faithfully track rules of choice, alluded to above, that have been built up over centuries of journalism: man bites dog is more interesting than dog bites man; lower is better than upper but wealth is more interesting than poverty; sympathetic victims take precedence over unsympathetic victims; and so on. These occupational prejudices intersect with race, of course, in that people do not come into the world with “sympathetic” or “unsympathetic” marked on their foreheads; where and how they fit into their particular social milieu determines that identification. In this respect we can truthfully say that by their own account most news producers in the tv system make little or no attempt to submit the “popular” determination of what is interesting to their own independent moral interrogation; they give into it, without asking how “the popular” came to be “popular.” From the standpoint of the people making them, then, none of these business-like choices and non-choices are either “liberal” or “conservative.” Those are after-the-fact characterizations; they substitute the critic’s version of what the decision-maker must have meant for the decision-maker’s own understanding, however limited, of what he was trying to do. Thus we could never understand from the ideologue’s perspective why affirmative action programs (another instance of liberal elite favoritism according to Goldberg) have been more entrenched in the corporate world than anywhere else. It could hardly be because personnel administrators and CEO’s are “more liberal”–than whom? No, they simply want to score points with a potentially critical community, avoid lawsuits and government regulation, and thus protect long-run profit potentials–without engaging any of the nagging philosophical questions they’d have to confront if they were, say, academics at a liberal arts college. On the other hand, where no controversy beckons, because any possible oppositional constituency is too weak (either in spending power or in legislative halls) to make itself heard, we can see the system in its true colors; they are not any variation of red. There is, for example, a recent university press book that relates negative views about “welfare” (of the kind that led to its abolition under President Clinton) to the way television has portrayed both welfare costs and welfare recipients; another scholarly work similarly indicts the media’s standard portrayal of labor strikes and protests. (See the book by Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy, and Christopher R. Martin’s, Framed: Labor and the Corporate Media.) Of course the conservative media critics don’t recognize the existence of actual research; their only interest is in each other’s polemics, as though multiplying criticisms makes them more likely to be true. It does not.
THE LIE ABOUT LIBERALISM
In short, the methodology of this search for “liberalism” is worthless; whatever the case might actually be, it can’t be found by substituting interpretations for data, and it can’t be found by giving multiple examples taken only from the body of evidence that can be tweaked to support the case. One collection of pieces from Extra!, in comparison, offers a list of news items that television could have covered, but did not: how agribusiness firms used donations to key congressmen to prevent nutritional labeling on products; how certain congressmen parlay fealty to powerful lobbies into personal riches; how Philip Morris bankrolled a mis-named California initiative for “Statewide Smoking Restrictions;” how industry groups similarly mis-name themselves in order to present themselves as friends of environmental reforms they actually oppose; how “General Electric lobbyists...helped draft the corporate tax law that reduced the company’s taxes to below zero;”and how representatives of “public interest groups” propose legislation that would solve the problem of corruption by big money. Unlike in the case of Cambodia, there is no TV coverage of these issues. Moreover, the authors of this guide are as happy (or dismayed) to find evidence of liberal as well as conservative malfeasance (the list I’ve just adumbrated notes large contributions, fully reciprocated, from the Chairman of Archer Daniels Midland to the campaigns of both George Bush and Bill Clinton). That is because they are looking for “bias” in the news reporting rather than in the reporters. The hated “liberal” Tom Brokaw is a wonderful example of the payoff in looking at all the evidence, rather than just the ideologically acceptable: Bozell and Baker did not find it worth mentioning that Brokaw, with his nightly “America held hostage” report during the Iranian hostage crisis, possibly had more to do with discrediting Jimmy Carter and delivering the ‘80 presidential election to Ronald Reagan than any other individual. Was this a triumph for liberalism, or for ABC-TV’s triumph at having found a way to compete with the Tonight show at last?
The methodological contrast with what Extra! does is complete. The latter, as I’ve said, is published by the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and the notion of “fairness” and “accuracy” that motivates it is that of fidelity to the material. If you see an orange and they tell you to call it a lemon, you must call it an orange; that is the definition of journalistic integrity. The right-wing critique has no interest in fidelity to the material which, though often hard to describe and difficult to interpret, is there. Instead the Right prescribes fidelity to an ideology, that is, an abstraction, or collection of abstractions, that exist only in the minds of various observers. An egregious example from Arrogance is Goldberg’s description of the volubly anti-feminist, and much quoted Christina Hoff Sommers as a “feminist” who “wouldn’t toe the party line” and was sent “to the gulag,” which appears to have set up one of its surprisingly cushy camps at the American Enterprise Institute. (This kind of fraudulent invocation of “victim” status is standard in right-wing media.) Goldberg manages to find a few instances of silly media mistreatment of Sommers, but none of the many instances at all of the fawning treatments received by this anti-feminist; and he makes no effort either to track down the existing critiques of her work that demonstrate, not its ideological deviation, but its own shortcomings. Looking at her work in toto, we find, as might be expected, ambiguity: some of what she says is just, some unjust, and some still needs to be clarified a decade later. But he can only assume ideological correctness: his enemy’s enemy must be his uncriticizable friend. This whole approach, in sum, makes journalistic integrity impossible, for the material that ought to be the source of the observations that follow it, now becomes merely fodder to realize one’s own desires and fantasies. There is no such thing as liberal news or conservative news, liberal facts or conservative facts; there is only what has happened, of which there is so much that it is impossible to reduce “it” to a name, let alone get it all “right.”
Even given that impossibility, however, if we subject these contrasting approaches to the test of how well they function in support of their respective hypotheses, there is indeed something to be found out about “the news.” The “Left” hypothesis fares fairly well, if not decisively so. The priorities it predicts–maximizing corporate profits, reproducing the conditions of monopoly, producing audience satisfaction, and last and least producing personal satisfaction–on the whole seem to be as predicted; though like all Marx-influenced class theory, it arbitrarily assigns popular nationalism to ruling class influence, without considering whether the causal arrow might not at times be the other way around. The blatherings of Fox’s pundits may indeed give personal satisfaction, but they are also very popular with a particular audience (mostly resentful white males), and they comport wholly with the views of the owner, Rupert Murdoch. As to the owner himself, Extra! (and others such as The Nation) point out that despite his ferocious anti-Communism he too surrendered his own presumed personal satisfaction to market imperatives by deleting the prestigious and much-watched BBC World Service from his Sky network, and ordered “his” book publisher Harper-Collins not to publish a book critical of the Chinese regime, in order to satisfy the demands of his putative Chinese hosts and their prospective billion-person audience. Nor does the class/structural hypothesis have any difficulty accounting for the evidence on the other side, such as it is. Thus at the end of one of his books on media, Michael Parenti, an unabashed socialist and perhaps the most outspokenly Left-wing voice among American social scientists, writes that “...the ruling class rules but not quite in the way that it wants. Its socializing agencies do not work with perfect effect, free of contradictions--or else this book could not have been written or published or understood.” There is no reason why some or at times many journalists employed by monopoly capitalists should not be liberals; they rarely bring any harm to their employers; their dedication to any liberal agenda is negligible compared to the dedication of their right-wing counterparts (as Alterman shows, they typically bend over backwards to show “the other side ”); and in their partial professionalism they provide the best possible facade for the claim that the mass media are not under their owners’ thumbs. There are capitalist nations that have been governed by people well to the Left of Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw for decades at a time, yet remain capitalist. None are or have been threatened by the fuzzy, non-mobilizing, and non-threatening ideological stances of professional media spokespersons. What is impermissible in the privatized media in any of those nations, however, is that such persons should tell the truth about the interests and activities of their employers; and this, at least in the United States, does not happen. A comparison of BBC News, even on domestic British matters, with any American television news operation is simply embarrassing.
The “Elite Domination” hypothesis is another story. The factual statement that many news persons are politically liberal can account for some of the instances of one-sidedness highlighted by Bozell and Goldberg–only some, because it is quite possible that the nature of the actual facts dictates the others. But the attempt to turn these instances into the generality “elite domination” fails miserably. Unlike the class/structural analysis, this analysis brooks no quarter; it is impossible to imagine any Right-wing equivalent of Parenti writing such a sentence, or perhaps even thinking it; conservative ressentiment seem to preclude taking any notice of how politically and culturally successful one actually is. Yet nothing in its story about “liberal elites” can account for the documentation to be found in Extra!, not to mention Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, or the work of Robert McChesney, the premier Left media commentator. (See also various special issues of The Nation about who controls the media over the last six years). The hypothesis cannot explain why or how station or network executives kill stories unpalatable to themselves or their bosses or advertisers, and twist the “news” to promote or whitewash associated products; it cannot explain the censorship to which Michael Moore’s satirical show TV Nation was subjected during its brief run in the summers of 1994 and 1995. It cannot explain why there has never been a visibly “liberal” opinion show on either commercial or public television, though many conservative ones on both. It cannot explain the vindictive assault on a more-or-less liberal president, and the salacious prurience on which that assault was based, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It cannot explain, inter alia, the why television gave George W. Bush a free ride about his defects of character, behavior, and intelligence, while mocking Al Gore, during the 2000 election; it cannot explain the medium’s uncritical endorsement of the ideology and hype (and lies) of the most war-like Administration in American history (though to be fair, as I’ve suggested in discussing the force of popular nationalism earlier, this is an observation that also gives class/structural analysis difficulty). Above all, the elite domination hypothesis cannot refute the contrary hypothesis–what an analyst might call the “null hypothesis”–that within structural and institutional limits (as developed by the class/structural theory) the behavior of the “liberal” media commentators is mostly explained by their appropriate but occupationally narrow pursuit of what they conceive to be “the truth.” To refute this counter-hypothesis, the right-wing media critics can as we’ve seen offer only the argument--what they seem to think is a critique–that journalists have “more liberal” views than the population at large.
Most recently, Goldberg in ch. 5 of Arrogance, asserts that “the elites remain in denial...despite the surveys that show that large numbers of Americans consider the elite media too liberal....” There are two serious problems with this accusation, though. The first is its confusion of a word–“liberal”–with a condition–alienation. Of course “large numbers of Americans” are alienated from the media; they ought to be, because alienation is the condition that monopoly domination of mass media creates (or rather, “alienation” is the best description of that condition). That many among that number attribute the nature of the media monopoly to “liberals” tells us nothing except whose propaganda is more successful in “the marketplace of ideas.” The second problem with this reasoning shows up if we ask, does Goldberg really believe that everything “large numbers of Americans” believe is true? In making this move he and his fellow critics insist, as a justification of their own reasoning, on precisely the shallow intellectual pandering that they have already sternly rejected as an explanation of the media’s behavior: “my audience, may it always be in the right, but my audience right or wrong.” This defense of media by its controllers is certainly not offered in good faith (think of the their opposition to the technology that enables the fast-forwarding of commercials). But then neither is the populist attack on liberalism, since it would have to be happy with, even to demand, media endorsement of whatever “liberal” views the majority happens to share--and there are many, according to Rothman’s own data (is the media’s distaste for single-payer health care, let alone the belief that Iraq was behind the attack on the World Trade Center, examples of liberal conspiracy at work?). They do not do this, because intellectual consistency is not what they are after.
The elite domination hypothesis, in sum, is an hypothesis that fails every test, except the ultimate test of being politically acceptable to the men who pay the pipers and call the tune. That such a tendentious, partisan, palpably false, and intellectually superficial argument about the alleged power of “liberals” should have become the conventional wisdom, is the most telling possible refutation of its own claims to truth.
To ask why the right-wing propagandists assert a thesis with such obvious limitations is to waste time; people will say anything that helps them attain power. The more interesting question is why they should believe what they say so passionately, as they obviously do. Given the burial service for liberal politics that has been going on ever since 1968 (at the latest), the frantic concern over a few television commentators seems paranoid. But even paranoids, as the saying goes, have enemies, or at least what appear to be enemies. We therefore want to ask, What is it about the commercial TV system that makes it seem inimical to the conservative, despite all the reasons for dissatisfaction with the system that are evident to persons such as Chomsky, or myself. Some of the answer to that question has to do with the peculiar nature of fiction television, that the most enjoyable narratives proceed by presenting an apparently unconventional view before they conclude in a blaze of conventional glory; but that’s a subject for another essay. The most crucial point here is this: The right-wing critique, unlike Chomsky’s, is in fact not a complaint about the manufacturing of consent, but is rather a complaint about the manufacturing of dissent.
This is a significant difference. The argument of Chomsky, McChesney, and others is that if public space is monopolized by certain kinds of communications with which people are regularly bombarded, then some of those people may be led to believe things that they wouldn’t otherwise believe: would not believe in the presence of truly free, unmonopolized, communications. The right-wing critique is rather that people may be led to dis-believe what they ought to believe, and really do believe in the absence of concentrated dissent. But this is totally implausible. In the first place, it is counter-factual: consent possibly can be “manufactured,” though the experience of the Soviet Union shows how difficult this is. But dissent can never be “manufactured,” it can only be generated. To manufacture it, one would have to control the entire structure and process of communications, and even then success would not be guaranteed. (And how could the people who control the core of a social order possibly want to encourage dissent from it to begin with?) But what is wrong with generating dissent? The right-wing argument is that the people’s true values–patriotism, religion, etc.–are in danger of being subverted; the flak machine, as Chomsky and Herman call it, exists to prevent this subversion. But at the same time the Right denies that people really change their beliefs, at worst they’re confused by liberal lies; and yet the right-wing critics are always quoting “public opinion” to show that the people are really on their side.
What then is the problem? How can people be led to dissent from a truthful account of their material world, if the conservative account is indeed truthful? The answer, and the reason for the discrepancy between the two types of argument, is that the Right’s world is one of ideas and symbols rather than material welfare or ill-fare; the material world hardly counts as such, because our perceptions of it are infinitely malleable. In the 21st Century indeed right-wing politics has consisted to a great extent of outright lies about the material realm–the effects of tax cuts, the causes of war, the nature of environmental problems, etc. (The literature of the Bush Administration’s lies is so extensive by now I’m not even going to begin to mention it). This being the Right’s own view of life, conservatives project this as the real world. “Culture” then stands above the economy and politics; it is all-powerful, because only it, and its images, are really real.
A comparison with Manufacturing Consent is instructive here. Manufacturing Consent is largely a description of structures and processes: “a propaganda model suggests that the ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises. We have sought to show that the expectations of this model are realized, and often considerably surpassed, in the actual practice of the media in a range of crucial cases.” Speaking of Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair, Chomsky and Herman go on to add: “Contrary to the usual image of an ‘adversary press’ boldly attacking a pitiful executive giant, the media’s lack of interest, investigative zeal, and basic news reporting on the accumulating illegalities of the executive branch have regularly permitted and even encouraged ever larger violations of law, whose ultimate exposure when elite interests were threatened is offered as a demonstration of media service ‘on behalf of the polity.’ These observations reinforce the conclusions that we have documented throughout.” And they conclude that “As we have stressed throughout this book, the U.S. media do not function in the manner of the propaganda system of a totalitarian state. Rather, they permit–indeed, encourage–spirited debate, criticism, and dissent, as long as these remain faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus, a system so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness.”
Despite their book’s ominous title, and aside from the initial and concluding generalizations in the above passage (“inculcate,” “internalized”), Chomsky and Herman actually have little to say about the state of people’s beliefs, what they do believe, what they might believe, and especially, what they ought to believe. Their complaint is that the media frame issues in such a way as to diminish the possibilities for achieving fuller and more accurate knowledge about them. The structure is pluralistic and it provides a variety of viewpoints within bounds (the “filters”). Therefore its communications do not falsify most people’s immediate experience, and its main effect is to circumscribe possible interpretations of situations, not to keep them from view (though it sometimes does do that); in this respect also the Left hypothesis does not deny the existence of pluralism, and need not deny it, as long as that pluralism does not encompass system-threatening activities. As big media’s consistently hostile treatment of the anti-WTO 1999 demonstrations in Seattle demonstrates, these boundaries can be policed as firmly as if a Commissar of Information were commanding the media instead of a collection of private enterprises. Indeed, the strength of the propaganda model is that both in theory and in practice it doesn’t require a commissar to explain how this policing takes place.
In a sense, then, the propaganda model is a model of alienation, in which possibilities of authentic knowledge and experience are removed from people’s grasp by the very structure of the situation. But manipulation and deceit are not inevitable (nor alienation). They are not built into the existence of modes of mass communication (as Michels, for example, claimed they were), but only into its existing social relations–its institutions. Therefore, to the limited extent that full knowledge of a state of affairs is possible, we can all come closer to realizing it–but first it is necessary to smash through the limiting frame, to make the structure truly instead of only notionally pluralistic, and that is what they try to do (and by explaining the nature of the situation, to enable others to do). Although they are strong critics of contemporary liberals, in fact theirs is the classic liberal position, as best articulated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. More discussion, more debate, and especially more dissent, are always healthier than less. People can increase their understanding; we can overcome our own prejudice and bias; we can try (at least) to achieve what the philosopher Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” There can never be “too much dissent,” and dissent can never be dangerous, or bad for anyone’s intellectual health: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
“Liberal” and Conservative,” therefore, are not, as is sometimes said, mirror images of each other, or extremes between which a wiser middle position can be located. Mill’s position is the middle position (if we must have a middle), between authoritarianisms of Right and Left (say, Castro, or the Chinese regime) that would squelch one or another kind of dissent; that do not believe that more discussion is always healthier, and that arguments in dissent–the questioning of established beliefs, whether patriotic or religious–are preferable, as Mill argues, to conformity. Thus whereas the Left critique is that there’s not enough dissent, not enough voices questioning the monopoly over words and images in public space, the Right critique, contrarily, is that there’s too much. Even the feeble questionings of a Brokaw or Rather or Jennings, almost never stated with such force as to threaten the seats of authority, are more than can be tolerated.
But how can this be? What is the counter-argument against dissent? It is hard to tell, since it is rarely made explicit. But there seem to be three justifications for the attack against dissent. The first is that it is not really dissent; that established beliefs are not sufficiently available in visual culture. This is manifestly false. The entire media machine, plus of course the primary and secondary school establishment everywhere, the publishers of textbooks, the great majority of churches, and so forth, are dedicated to providing almost nothing but established beliefs. With very few exceptions, having mostly to do with the history of slavery and the conquest of Native Americans (and not even that in large parts of the Union), young people rarely hear anything at all like what Howard Zinn calls “a people’s history of the United States.” As for the visual media, since TV relies mostly on government sources, and secondarily on sources from private business for its news items, it would simply be impossible to make the case that the established view of affairs is slighted. But that’s not really the argument either, for the Right doesn’t want the established view, it wants its own view put forward: sectarian or even theocratic religiosity, “anti-government” positions as a matter of abstract ideology but total fealty to “government” when its own personnel are in power; and punitive, authoritarian nationalism in place of a vaguely tolerant and non-specific patriotism. And this view, its spokespersons clearly think, is under-represented in visual media. However, this argument is also manifestly false either on the facts, or else in its portrayal of the power of the media. For otherwise, the cliches of “liberal media” and “political correctness” would not be mouthed by millions of Americans as though they represented some kind of reality; Americans would have stopped belonging to fundamentalist churches instead of joining them in great numbers; and the various wars the polity has engaged in over the past two decades would have been sabotaged by the populace instead of endorsed by apparently enthusiastic majorities (or substantial minorities). There is no danger of the Right view of the world going unheard; it shouts itself from every radio talk show, every cable TV channel, and most op-ed pages; and dominates the national government (it has won three of the last six presidential elections, and stole a fourth). If, as Mill again argues (and would the haters of liberalism endorse any of his arguments?), the “minority opinion” is always the one that most needs to be heard; then with reference to what’s available on television, as between the opinions of Brent Bozell, Goldberg, Rothman, Tom Delay, and say Sen. Rick Santorum on the one hand, and Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney or the Nation magazine on the other, there isn’t the faintest doubt which one more “needs to be heard.”
But even this is not the gravamen of the right-wing complaint, for when we attend to it closely, we discover that the Right really does believe that criticism of what it construes as “the American way of life” is bad and there ought to be less of it, because its promulgation in any degree leads to disrespect for authority, anti-Americanism, weakening of faith, and the general degradation of society. This is an extraordinary testimony to the power of pundits who are never seen nor heard on the visual media, and magazine that are lucky if their circulation figures reach six figures, or in most cases five. As Alterman notes, in this perspective the New York Times and Washington Post, which (especially the Post) carry many conservative and neo-liberal voices on their op-ed pages and magazine sections (and book review sections), as well as even sometimes in their editorials, become organs of liberal propaganda, whereas the far-right Washington Times, which carries absolutely no dissenting voices at all, is a respectable and even valuable newspaper. The truth is, in other words, that the Right wants the visual media to be more of a propaganda machine than it is; what’s wrong with Chomsky, in other words, is not (as many liberal academics would argue) his description of the Propaganda Model, but his criticism of it. “Manufacturing consent,” it turns out, is exactly what the Right is after, and the failure to engage wholeheartedly in the struggle is a sign not of good, pluralist intentions, but of insufficient patriotism and free-market dogmatism. Cultural imperialism is a social good; we just don’t have enough of it. The standpoint of these conservatives, very simply, is that if they are not allowed to dominate the media, then they are being excluded from it. Anything short of their total control amounts to “liberal bias” or even subversion of the polity. As theory, in other words, the Elite Domination Paradigm itself belongs to the realm of propaganda rather than ideology; it is politically useful rather than intellectually serious. As a political practice within the realm of propaganda it undoubtedly expresses the fondest hopes of ruling groups everywhere: that ideology should be coterminous with propaganda; that all ambiguity or hints of opposition should be leached out of it; and that doing this is the responsibility of those communications specialists who are in their employ. Given the huge outpouring of funds with which right-wing foundations underwrite publications such as The American Spectator, The National Interest, The Public Interest, National Review, and the New Criterion, a whole host of right-wing campus newspapers, and institutions such as the Center for Media Affairs, it is clear that the Elite Domination Paradigm is better understood as the Elite Manipulation Paradigm; and that, if nothing else, it is an accurate account not of what television or movies accomplish ideologically, but of what right-wing funders are paying their own communications specialists to do.
In this light, there is much more at stake than a debate over control of the media or the power of liberalism. The real issue, rather, is the very meaning of the American Constitutional settlement itself. The reason that occasional dissent, skepticism, or even bland neutrality can be read as “liberal domination” is that the contemporary version of conservatism is essentially a fundamentalist religion–a secular authoritarianism that attaches itself to real religiosity in order to validate itself, as the right-wing media critics angrily attack the supposed denial of religion in the media without every uttering a word of religious belief themselves. It is a weapon for them, rather; a weapon with which to beat their secular enemy (rarely do they admit, or confront the implications of, the official opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to much of what they believe). The religious fundamentalist, and his counterpart the secular dogmatist, views all deviation in belief as Error, and the incompleteness of domination by Truth (as of course must always be the case) is taken as the domination by Error. Thus the authoritarian fundamentalist is always unappeasable. Free expression of opinion is the weapon of the enemy, who seeks to establish the “tyranny” of secular pluralism. This is not so much because the political program of this Right wing is totalitarian (though some of it surely is, in its ambition to wipe out all traces of oppositional power), but because its notion of liberty is totalitarian–or, to be more circumspect, authoritarian, as in “authoritarian populism.” As against the liberal democrat Mill, who argues that only the doing of actual harm to others justifies impositions on speech and writing, the authoritarian populist holds that your liberty to speak and write, if it constrains my effort to put my desires into practice, whatever they may be, is a “harmful” constraint on my liberty–in the instant case, on my liberty to monopolize the realm of culture in the name of “truth.” This rage never to be thwarted or opposed, can only be understood in the language of the passions; and liberals, most of the time, are unable to withstand its thrust, or negotiate its demands, because they are non-negotiable, and negotiation is, contrarily, the core of liberal doctrine. Perhaps liberals have their own passions, which they have simply learned too well to repress; but in any event, as the attempts of CNN and MSNBC to compete with Fox demonstrate, the unappeasable can never be appeased.
It is for this reason that the conservative “flak machine” only piles up instances of “error,” that is, of disagreement with its doctrines. It counts up no instances of sycophancy (toward Republican authority figures), but only deviations from it. This is why Bernard Goldberg can write about “Bias” while offering so surprisingly few instances of it, because he has adopted the stance according to which any deviation from proper behavior is “bias;” unlike say Cohen and Solomon, who offer extensive examples of mis-reporting by “liberal” figures, Goldberg does not even mention one instance of the dogmatically pro-market, anti-social-criticism bias of John Stossel, or of the attacks on environmentalists that his network (CBS) engaged in; or of its cozying up to business interests. He (nor Bozell and Baker, nor Rothman) produces no structural account of “liberal bias”–of an institutional weighting against the expression of conventional views–because he couldn’t. Conventional views are all around us, night after night, on channel after channel. Goldberg is like the film critic Michael Medved, who piles up instances of the positive depiction of homosexuality, without bothering to notice that almost everything else around us is oriented toward heterosexuality. (Try to think of one TV commercial that “privileges homosexuality,” or more than a partial handful of series.) When a writer like Adrienne Rich, conversely, refers to the privileging of heterosexuality, she means by this that almost all institutional supports and expressions in any field of culture, are structured in that direction. For the Right, that there is any remainder at all is apparently too much. Virtually nothing, and that only if marginalized, would be a proper indication of not-bias. For Goldberg similarly, the sadly thin attempt of big media (at the verbal level only) to face up to the nature of American apartheid and its destructive effects on African-Americans; or to cover up its own exclusion of women from positions of power with occasional gestures toward a genteel version of “feminism,” is the only “bias” he can deign to notice.
There can be no understanding of the lie about liberalism without an understanding of this basic asymmetry in political philosophy. Tolerance and intolerance, pluralism and the rejection of otherness, freedom for the speech that we hate and freedom for the speech that we approve of, are not “different sides of the same coin,” or two visions of democracy. Advocates of liberal pluralism reject authoritarian populism in principle, but respect its right to speak for itself. Advocates of authoritarian populism do not reject the right of liberal pluralism to speak at all. They merely wish to deprive it of the power to do so, unless its advocates are safely outnumbered, and it is made clear that they are “wrong.” To these power-seekers, the liberal feminist who defends herself against the ravings of Ann Coulter merely illustrates the French proverb that “Cet animal est tres mechant/Quand on l’attaque, il se defend.” (“This animal is very wicked/It bites the foot that tries to kick it”). Every defense becomes a symptom of aggression; every expressed desire to escape from the dominance of white males over information culture (the monopolists of almost every talk show or roundtable discussion, the persona of virtually every news anchor) becomes an example of that helpful evasion, “political correctness.” But the lie about liberalism remains just that: a lie.
Philip Green, Sophia Smith Professor of Government Emeritus, Smith College; Visiting Professor of Political Science, New School University Graduate Faculty
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