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Political Animal

Left Out

By Brian Morton | Posted 7/23/2003

Any time someone starts talking about how a liberal media is "a given," it's probably time to reach for the ipecac.

There are some papers that are reflexively liberal or conservative in their overall editorial viewpoints--you're reading one of them. That's probably one of the reasons it's called "the alternative press." Anyone who thinks The Washington Times has no visible conservative tilt probably ought to give up drinking the Kool-Aid from that establishment's editorial suite. Anyone who regularly reads the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal probably should get a regular colonoscopy, as the ratio of right-wing red meat to reason there is at carcinogenic levels.

You'll often hear the phrase "elite media" when it comes to the broadcast TV networks and the major dailies--usually a term bandied about by the Right when they want to "work the refs," to use the phrase popularized by Eric Alterman, the liberal media critic for The Nation. Think about it: If you parse the phrase "elite media," what are you trying to say? You're trying to drive a wedge between you, the good, ol' God-fearin' ordinary workin' folk, and some unseen effete snob sitting in a New York or Washington newsroom trying to think up new ways to make our hero president look bad before dashing off to warm a wine glass at a cocktail party in Georgetown or on the Upper East Side.

But the fact is, it's a lie. It's just another way to politicize the battlefield between Left and Right--even conservatives, in moments of pure honesty, will admit it. Matt Labash, a senior writer for the proto-conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, admitted as much in an interview with JournalismJobs.com. The Web site asked Labash why conservative media outlets have gotten so popular, and he responded, "We come with a strong point of view, and people like point-of-view journalism. While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective.

"We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be unobjective," Labash said. "It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It's a great way to have your cake and eat it, too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket. I'm glad we found it actually."

Conservatives have made a cottage industry of complaining about media bias, and in recent years, despite the overwhelming dominance of conservative voices on talk radio (a form of media, last we checked), the Right still whines about "the liberal media" as if it has no opportunity to have its voice heard. Well, boohoo.

Right-wing voices are climbing into every facet of media, if only because of the success of the Fox News Channel and its steady diet of slanted right-wing coverage, specializing in treating liberal former politicians like Bill Clinton with the same type of attitude that you find in the gossip columns, where the object of the story is derided with scorn, contempt, and pity. When Al Gore joined the board of Apple Computer, David Zeiler, the Sun's "Mac Experience" columnist, quoted Rush Limbaugh, who opined that Gore (an avowed technophile) had no qualifications to be on the board and would drive the company to ruins. Now ESPN is hiring Limbaugh as a commentator for its NFL pregame Sunday show to, according to the sports network's press release, "provide the voice of the fan." So now even sports isn't off-limits to conservative politicization--and if you think Limbaugh, who has made a career of divisive commentary, can keep his political opinions out of the sports broadcast booth, then you'll have to tell us what football looks like to you through rose-colored glasses.

Anyone who thinks the media are reflexively liberal probably didn't see the pre-Iraq war press conference with President Bush, where questions were cherry-picked across a fawning White House press corps that tossed softballs like a 9-year-old pitcher in the Pee Wee leagues. The so-called liberal Washington Post features media "critic" Howard Kurtz, who, in a blatant conflict of interest is paid by CNN to host a program on the media, yet writes about the cable network in his Post column. Kurtz recently brought up Bill Clinton in his column only to complain that the former president was acting "churlish" and "just can't stand being off the stage for long." Additionally, he was recently quoted in a Los Angeles Times story about how college conservatives are either infiltrating campus papers or starting their own, saying, "I think it's great if more young conservatives are going into journalism." And as Rick Perlstein of Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, the "liberal" New York Times reported that Kenneth Lay of Enron slept in the Lincoln Bedroom as a guest of President Clinton after the famously semiaccurate Matt Drudge ran a story in Drudge Report. The problem? It was both unsourced and untrue. Just what a liberal paper would do, huh?

So when columnists such as my esteemed colleague Russ Smith hyperventilate about the "elite media" or the "liberal media" and how they're "never going to give [George W. Bush or Gov. Bobby Smooth] an even break," remember where they're coming from. Whining about the media is a whole lot easier than doing a job right, making tough choices, or balancing a budget--something neither executive has managed to accomplish yet.

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