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One of the most successful conservative tactics in the media war has been to compare conservative media institutions with neutral media institutions and declare that because the neutral institutions are not conservative, they must be liberal. Take just two examples.
The Fox News Channel has built its large audience by generating intense loyalty among conservatives. The network does have some very good reporters and the occasional (always outnumbered) liberal commentator. But its most important voices, from professional fire-breathers Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity to the more reasonable Brit Hume and Tony Snow (a former Bush I speechwriter and columnist), are conservatives. Snow, by the way, eventually moved on to other endeavors and was replaced by the less ideological Chris Wallace, a veteran journalist. The decision to hire Wallace instead of another well-established conservative suggested that liberal media criticism, when applied with the same vigor as conservative media criticism, might have an effect even on the Fox network.
The network is run by Roger Ailes. He is a tough and brilliant political consultant who has spent much of his life advising Republican presidents and presidential candidates. It is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose publications worldwide tilt to the right—and work unabashedly on behalf of his financial interests.
Though one could wish that Fox would not try to claim that it is "fair and balanced," there is nothing wrong with having a conservative network. But it would be better for democracy if Fox were balanced by a comparably liberal network. Conservatives claim that there is a "liberal" alternative and that it's CNN. This claim is silly. There is not a single program on CNN that can be seen as liberal in the way that, for example, Bill O'Reilly's program is conservative. There are no anchors on CNN as liberal as Hume and Snow are conservative. Two of CNN's biggest stars are conservatives Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson. To the extent that liberals and Democrats appear regularly on CNN, they are balanced by conservatives. Crossfire and The Capital Gang, the network's major argument shows, are set up as 50-50 deals.
But by attacking CNN over and over again as liberal, conservatives have clearly had an effect. When Walter Isaacson, the veteran Time magazine journalist, took over as head of CNN in the summer of 2001—he later moved on to the Aspen Institute—he held a widely publicized meeting with Republican congressional leaders to hear their views about the network. Can one imagine the head of a network calling a comparable meeting with Democrats?
The conservatives also claim that Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators merely "balance off" National Public Radio. How does one even imagine comparing a radio news network that spends millions of dollars sending correspondents around the world with a single host in a studio who does nothing but spout conservative opinions? The answer for conservatives is: Easy. "You know," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in 1995, "the liberals have NPR all day. We have Rush. We pay for Rush through advertising. They pay for NPR through our taxes."
Gingrich's effort to beat back funding for public radio and television failed in the end. As the late New York Daily News columnist Lars-Erik Nelson wrote at the time, public broadcasting enjoyed support from "the overwhelming majority of the American people—even conservatives, who see nothing particularly liberal in National Public Radio, nothing ideological in Masterpiece Theater and nothing satanic in Barney."
But the conservative claim that conservative talk radio is simply a balance to NPR just keeps on coming, as they say on radio. "Whatever audiences Fox and Rush and the capitalist ruffians have rounded up are the product of competition," declared conservative columnist Zev Chafets in the Daily News. "NPR got its franchise the old fashioned way—by government fiat. NPR claims to be nonpartisan. In fact, it is a predictable organ of left-leaning news and views."
I may be said to have a bias in this matter because I have had an association with NPR for the last several years. But my experience proves my case. As a liberal, I have been free to express my views on All Things Considered, but partnered up with my smart conservative friend David Brooks or (when he couldn't be there) another strong conservative voice. (A truly left-wing network might have had me engage with someone to my left.) NPR lets liberals express their views—as long as they are arguing with conservatives. That's just fine with me. I like Brooks, and I prefer balance. None of this is the sign of a campaigning "liberal" network intent on twisting the news to fit the interests of a cause or a party.
The relentless pressure and impressive inventiveness of the right have had their effect. The case can now be made that if there is a bias in the political media, it is to the right.
It's important to be clear that there once was something like an "establishment liberal media"—back in the 1960s, when there existed something like a "liberal establishment." As Jack Shafer wrote in Slate, "Most influential papers happily drifted with the Kennedy liberal zeitgeist," although Kennedy had his share of critics among publishers and he once canceled his subscription to the New York Herald Tribune, an influential liberal Republican daily. Republicans and conservatives had a fair complaint against the press for its treatment of Barry Goldwater during his 1964 campaign. "The bias against him was palpable," Shafer wrote, and he is correct to note that the "way we argue about press bias took its modern shape in 1964."
There were other things going on. Segregationists in the South were furious over the national media's sympathetic coverage of the civil rights movement. Richard Nixon unleashed an effective anti-press campaign with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew as the point man. Agnew attacked "the nattering nabobs of negativism," a line penned by William Safire, who was to become a columnist for what the right viewed as the quintessentially liberal media outlet, The New York Times. Safire's hiring in the middle of the Nixon years was itself a response to the conservative campaign against the liberal media. Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger decided he needed a conservative voice on an op-ed page that featured such liberal lions as Anthony Lewis and Tom Wicker.
"The press wasn't Nixon's only intended audience," Shafer notes. "He wanted to communicate a political message directly to the public: that the liberal press was out of touch with what he called middle America. Or, to put it another way, he used the age-old resentment of the press to punish the liberal elite. Nixon's message helped propel him to a landslide victory in 1972." The key to Nixon's landslide reelection was his success in bringing together his own minority share of the 1968 vote with the 13.5 percent won by the populist-segregationist Democrat-turned-Independent George Wallace. Nixon's anti-press campaign was part of a larger effort to capture the populist right.
The 1970s saw the coming together of a series of protest groups on the right animated by opposition to 1960s liberalism and radicalism. There were movements against school busing to achieve racial balance across traditional neighborhood district lines. A new anti-feminist movement led by Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative whose book A Choice, Not an Echo was the bible of the Goldwater right during the 1964 campaign, rose up to fight for a traditional view of women's roles. A strong movement against abortion was organized after the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. And a new Religious Right protested against the rise of what it saw as a dangerous and immoral relativism and the lack of respect shown to traditional, religious people. It can be argued that all these groups were strengthened when Nixon fell. Though rhetorically conservative, Nixon was a moderate Republican. In 1976, Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, acknowledged the power of the right by dumping the liberal Republican hero Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president. Ford's subsequent defeat by Jimmy Carter opened the way for Ronald Reagan and the right to achieve dominance in the Republican Party. In his brilliant book The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin lays heavy stress on the alienation this New Right felt from what it viewed as the establishment's control over the means of communication. Remember, Kazin here is writing about a movement with its roots in the 1970s:
Like Richard Nixon, the grassroots Right was convinced that the mass media was a hostile force that might be manipulated but could not be persuaded. To get its message out, the new conservative movement turned to other outlets, some of them fresh creations, that "moral Americans" could both own and control: direct mail, radio talk shows, cable television stations, right-wing magazines and newspapers. Direct mail received the most attention—because of its emotional, polarizing style as much as for the funds it generated. Political copywriters had to alarm readers into reaching for the checkbooks instead of their wastebaskets. A letter from Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, for example, named the television producer and liberal activist Norman Lear "the number one enemy of the American family." A solicitation for Senator Jesse Helms warned: "Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade school education that teaches our children [that] CANNIBALISM, WIFE-SWAPPING and the MURDER of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior."
Kazin quotes Richard Viguerie, who pioneered conservative direct mail in the 1960s and early 1970s, expressing the right's sense of estrangement from established institutions. "The liberals have had control not only of all three branches of government, but of the major universities, the three major networks, the biggest newspapers, the news weeklies and Hollywood," Viguerie said. "So our communication has had to begin at the grass roots level—by reaching individuals outside the channels of organized public opinion."
Conservatives delivered a powerful one-two punch. Steadily, with the support of the White House when Republicans were in power, conservatives gained ground in the mainstream media, which regularly responded to criticism from the right. In the meantime, conservatives built their own network of communications. What is striking is that while conservatives were constructing new institutions, liberals were complacent, acting as if they believed the conservative claim that the establishment media were on their side.
The new conservative media made no pretense to "objectivity" or "fairness." On the contrary, their goal was to mobilize the conservative grassroots and create a new majority. The establishment media, on the other hand, were living by the older rules and norms of journalism. Their task was not to mobilize but to inform. The right knew which side it was on. The established media claimed to take no side, and usually did not. Ronald Reagan got a rather good press in 1980 simply because many reporters liked him personally and, at the time, felt little warmth for Jimmy Carter.
The anti-press campaign by conservatives yielded tangible results, beginning in the 1970s. White House speechwriter Safire went to the Times. George Will, a thoughtful conservative political philosopher and former Republican Senate staffer, became a columnist for The Washington Post and a major voice on the ABC News program This Week. Former Nixon staffer John McLaughlin pioneered cut-and-thrust political television with The McLaughlin Group, giving prominent roles to conservative pundits Pat Buchanan (another Nixon staffer) and Fred Barnes. The extent to which Nixon's anti-press campaign helped his former aides to important media positions is remarkable. In the meantime, the conservative columnist Robert Novak became a major figure on CNN.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University. This is excerpted from Stand Up Fight Back, by E.J. Dionne Jr. Copyright © 2004 by E.J. Dionne Jr., and published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Stand Up Fight Back at Amazon.com.