It was Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, who fired the first shot (unless you want to go back a few years to Hillary Clinton and her warning about the vast right-wing conspiracy) when he went after every liberal's favorite punching bag, Rush Limbaugh, in November 2002. That was right after the Democrats got hammered in the midterm elections and lost control of the Senate. Daschle accused Limbaugh and other conservatives on talk radio of inciting violence against liberals like himself. How would that work? you ask. Well, apparently Senator Daschle thinks the people who listen to talk radio are a bunch of crazy, drooling, scary rednecks who—if they're in a good mood—merely send out death threats to the liberals Rush was complaining about. If, on the other hand, Rush riles them up—and they're in a foul mood—well, then, who the hell knows what those morons might do?
This was so pathetically lame that it would have just been a one- or two-day story, except up popped Al Gore to stir the cauldron. Gore expanded the target list from Limbaugh to an entire Conservative Axis of Evil—an unholy trinity made up of talk radio, Fox News, and The Washington Times, whom Gore said were nothing more than mouthpieces for the Republican Party. "Most of the media [have] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks," he declared, "that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what's objective as stated by the news media as a whole."
Once Al Gore spoke the gospel of conservative bias, it took only seconds for left-of-center journalists to start hopping on board the bandwagon.
"Al Gore said the obvious," wrote the left-wing New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
"The legend of the liberal media is finally dead," proclaimed Joe Conason, the liberal columnist of The New York Observer.
"Sooner or later, I think we're all going to have to acknowledge that the myth of liberal bias in the press is just that, it's a myth," according to Jack White, one of TIME magazine's liberal columnists.
The true "new bias," according to E. J. Dionne Jr., one of the many liberal columnists at The Washington Post, "adds up to [a] media heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians."
Then on January 1, 2003, a weary world woke up to a page-one story in The New York Times, a story that made it all official. According to the Times, liberals are so sick of being beaten up by pro-conservative media, like talk radio and Fox News, that they are looking to create liberal outlets of their own for "balance"—everything from "progressive" radio talk shows, as the Times described it, to "a cable network with a liberal bent."
This seems like a good place to state the obvious: Yes, Republicans do indeed have friends in some conservative places like talk radio, Fox News, and The Washington Times, whom I'm sure they use to get their talking points out. But what Al Gore and his pals in the media forget to mention is that Democrats also have friends, in some very powerful liberal places and the Democrats use them to get their talking points out. Places like major newspapers in every big city in the country, big-circulation mainstream news magazines, television networks with their millions and millions of viewers—all very large platforms that journalists use, intentionally or not, to frame the national debate on all sorts of big important issues, in the process creating "conventional" and "mainstream" points of view. That is what media power is really about.
The fact is, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and The Washington Times might not even exist if weren't for the routine (and the generally unconscious) liberal tilt of the mainstream media. Liberal journalists may indeed try to keep their biases in check (as they keep telling us), but—mainly because they don't even recognize that their liberal views are liberal—they often don't succeed. As I once told Bill O'Reilly, he should send a case of champagne to Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings with a nice little note that reads, "Thanks a lot, guys, for sending over all those viewers."
Why do you think liberals like Mario Cuomo, who had a Saturday morning show on radio, and more recently Phil Donahue, with his nightly show on television, flat out failed as talk show hosts, along with a bunch of other liberals including Jerry Brown and Jim Hightower and a few more you probably never heard of? Why do you think there's no current liberal talk show host in the entire United States of America who comes within light-years of Rush Limbaugh's or Sean Hannity's ratings? The Left, self-servingly, says it's because conservatives (unlike civilized liberals, of course) are loud and angry and make complex political and social issues moronically simple for their moronically simple listeners, many of whom, of course, live in simple-minded Red State country. Here's another theory: Maybe liberal talk shows keep failing because the American people don't think they need yet one more media megaphone coming from left field. Maybe they flop because the American people are saying, "We already have plenty of those, thank you." Or as Jay Leno put it one night: "A group of venture capitalists are in the process of developing their own liberal radio network to counter conservative shows like Rush Limbaugh. They feel the liberal viewpoint is not being heard—except on TV, in the movies, in music, by comedians, in magazines and newspapers. Other than that, it's not getting out!" The joke got a great big laugh, which ought to tell us something, since the audience wasn't made up of the Young Right-Wing Conservatives of America—just your regular Middle-American types. You think maybe just about everybody by now thinks it's funny when the Left complains that, "the liberal viewpoint is not being heard"?
But the success of conservative talk shows isn't just about America's disaffection with the liberal media; it's about America's disaffection with liberalism itself: with liberals' abiding respect for diversity (except, of course, diversity of opinion); with their reflexive tendency to blame America first for whatever is wrong in the world; with their deep suspicion of America's military; with their titanic hypocrisy (as in their enthusiastic support of affirmative action (as long as it doesn't adversely affect their own kids); with their self-righteous support for "art" seemingly designed to do nothing more than offend sensible people, often sensible people of faith. Remember Piss Christ and that other masterpiece that portrayed the Virgin Mary surrounded by elephant crap?
This is why liberal talk on television and radio has failed. And far more important, it's also why liberalism in our culture—once such a great American treasure—has lost so much of its luster over the years. Half the time I find modern-day liberalism sad; the other half, I just find it silly.
So, in the world of media, if Republicans have The Washington Times, a relatively small second newspaper in a two-newspaper town, the Democrats have the most influential newspaper on the planet, The New York Times, whose editorials—and recently even some of its news stories—sound an awful lot like Democratic talking points.
And we're supposed to fret about conservative influences on the news?
No matter. While the Left gears up to start its own national liberal radio talk show network (and maybe a liberal cable TV network, too, possibly starring Al Gore), using seed money from fat-cat Dem-ocratic Party contributors, this is the new mantra, the number one talking point for all those solid thinkers who for so long have denounced Rush Limbaugh's ditto-heads as mindless automatons: "There is no liberal bias in the news, but there is a conservative bias."
Yes, it seems that right-wingers these days not only control Big Oil and Big Tobacco and Big Tires and Big Business in general and the military-industrial complex and the White House and both Houses of Congress and on some days the Supreme Court of the United States . . . but now those conservative SOBs also control Big Media!
The very sound of it is comforting: "There is no liberal bias in the news, but there is a conservative bias." Say it enough times and, who knows, maybe it will actually start to be true.
Perhaps the charge liberals have been making most often to back their claim of conservative bias is that the media have given George W. Bush a free ride on some very important issues involving foreign policy and national security. For a while you could hardly open up a liberal magazine or go to a liberal Web site without finding some bitter screed about how the press was sucking up to the president on everything from the war in Iraq to supposed civil liberties abuses at home. But the truth is, all the news media were doing was what the media always do in times of war: They were rallying 'round the flag. September 11 had a devastating impact on the national psyche. America had been attacked—not at our embassies in Africa and not even at Pearl Harbor. We had been attacked in New York City and Washington and Pennsylvania. The way the media covered the president wasn't proof of a conservative bias so much as it was evidence of a post-September 11 pro-American bias. This may not please some on the Left, but that's the way it's always been. And, just for the record, this misplaced sense of patriotism, as some on the Left saw it, didn't stop those lapdogs in the press from challenging President Bush on a million other issues, from environmental policy to the always popular "massive tax cuts for the rich."
"Well, what about all those media outlets with right-wing points of view?" the guy in the conference room wants to know, repeating what his friend (who doesn't think there's a liberal bias in the news) told him. "There's Bill O'Reilly; there's talk radio; there are a bunch of conservative syndicated columnists...."
I'm not sure if he or anyone else in the room notices that my eyes are rolling around my head in lazy circles. I have heard this one about 40 million times.
I find it both tiresome and disingenuous when liberals say, "Stop your whining about liberal bias; you've got plenty of conservatives in the media." Of course there's a conservative media. There's Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and George Will and Robert Novak and Cal Thomas and Fred Barnes and Bill Buckley. But let's not forget that just about every editorial writer and columnist at the big powerful mainstream news outlets like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Boston Globe are liberals! So conservatives have clout in the world of opinion and liberals have clout in the world of opinion. Wonderful! But, fundamentally, that's not the point. The point is that opinion is one thing and news is another. So telling me that there are all those conservative commentators out there and that I should stop my whining doesn't make me feel even the slightest bit better about the liberal bias of supposedly objective news reporters. News reporters are supposed to play it straight. It's that simple!
But even beyond that, in the media world, power and influence come from numbers. So consider these: The evening newscasts on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS total about 35 million viewers a night compared to Special Report with Brit Hume—Fox's evening newscast—which (right before the war in Iraq) was averaging about 1.3 million viewers. (Over an entire twenty-four-hour news cycle, Fox averaged about 1.058 million viewers; again, that's just before the war began.) Yes, it's true that Brit Hume brings certain conservative sensibilities to his newscast, but then Dan Rather brings certain liberal sensibilities to his. So, let's review: 35 million for the supposedly mainstream, nonliberal, nonbiased media, and just over a million for conservative Fox News. I repeat my earlier question: And we're supposed to fret about conservative influence on the news?
Bernard Goldberg was a CBS News Correspondent for 28 years and published Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News in 2001. This is excerpted from Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite, by Bernard Goldberg. Copyright © 2003 by Medium Cool Communications Inc. and published by Warner Books. Excerpted with the permission of Warner Books. You can buy Arrogance (in hardcover or audiobook) at Amazon.com.