Your liberal media


On Bill Moyers Journal, shortly after Obama’s first election, NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen and author/blogger Glenn Greenwald sat down to discuss the future of media and the promise of the Obama administration. Looking back on it now, this snippet is quite striking:

Moyers: I think you wrote on your blog that Dave Brody from the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson’s outfit, will, one Sunday, show up on Meet the Press but Amy Goodman of Democracy Now will never show up on Meet the Press. What’s behind that phenomenon?

Rosen: I think that part of the reason is that if Amy Goodman came on Meet the Press, she would say all sorts of things that not only challenge the people on the program but challenge what they have been saying over the years, would go back in a sense and discredit the narrative that’s been building up for a long time. And even though it’s maybe not wholly conscious, the idea that there’s a kind of building narrative that’s more or less accurate, that we kind of tell you what’s going on in Washington, is a common assumption in the press. And people who would completely shatter that, don’t [subscribe to that assumption].

Greenwald: I think that’s exactly right. It’s all about the content of views. Rush Limbaugh can depict himself as being this insurgent outside, but he supported the wars of the last eight years, he supported the tax policy that Ronald Reagan essentially instituted as conventional wisdom, that we need to lower taxes, reduce government spending. All of the conventional clichés that the media airs frequently and doesn’t need much time in order to explain are ones that Rush Limbaugh and the furthest fringes of the right essentially embrace. And so to include them into our discussions is not very disruptive at all, whereas if you had people on from the left who were advocating things like the United States’s responsibility for its unpopularity in the world, the fact that we wage wars and bomb other countries and invade and occupy other countries far more than any nation on the planet…to include somebody like that would not only threaten the vested interests of everybody who’s participating in these conversations, it would disrupt the entire narrative, as Jay said it would. It would almost sound foreign, as though these views are unserious views [that] don’t belong in mainstream, serious shows because these views are never heard, they’re stigmatized, they’re demonized as being things that don’t really deserve a platform, so you can’t really include advocates of these views in these shows.

Rosen: You know what’s really striking to me about this is: Lawrence Wilkerson, who worked for Colin Powell, when he retired from the government, he said that the people in power, Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfeld, especially, were in his view radicals. That the radicals were the people actually running the government. And this idea, that the people in power were kind of outside the sphere of normal government, never made its way into the establishment press at all.

In my last post, I promised that I would discuss one of the components of the Republican war on media: notably, how the Republicans have silenced liberal/leftist voices in the press. But, as Rosen and Greenwald note, the principal problem is not the Republicans; it’s instead the media’s self-policing of leftist content.

Rosen elaborated on this aspect of the philosophy (or perhaps religion) of establishment journalism in this excellent post. (See also here for Rosen’s adumbration of the “ideology of the press”.) Rosen discusses the three “spheres” of journalism. First is the sphere of consensus, consisting of the propositions that journalists expect everyone to agree with. Second is the sphere of legitimate debate, consisting of the issues that the (two) parties argue about: tax cuts, abortion, etc. And third is the sphere of deviance, consisting of the viewpoints that no serious person should agree with, and that journalists either deride or simply ignore. When Rosen complains that Amy Goodman (an investigative journalist and progressive activist) will never appear on Meet the Press (a Sunday politics show in which the mainstream press spouts conventional wisdom), he is essentially complaining that Amy Goodman lies in the sphere of deviance for the establishment press. And when Greenwald savages the idea that believing that the United States is responsible for its own unpopularity in the world is an “unserious” notion, he is lodging the same complaint. Thinking that Bush and Cheney are conventional politicians is serious – that viewpoint lies in the sphere of consensus. Believing that they are radicals is unserious – that viewpoint lies in the sphere of deviance. (Related, of course, is the concept of the “Overton Window”)

The oft-quoted criticism that the “mainstream media is liberal” is true to some extent. I’d wager that the majority of journalists at the New York Times and CNN and the Washington Post voted for Clinton instead of Trump. But the criticism relies on a peculiar definition of liberalism. While there are no opinion writers at the NYT who supported Trump, there also appear to be none who supported Sanders. The “liberalism” that establishment journalism embodies is upscale, urbane, well-educated, slightly left-of-center liberalism. It is much more liberal on social issues than economic or foreign policy-related ones (on the latter, it is probably right of center). And, even within the sphere of establishment journalism, there are plenty of social conservatives (e.g., almost everyone at Fox News).

In other words, vague progressivism sits comfortably within the “sphere of legitimate debate” for the mainstream media. But leftism does not, and as such is usually silenced: often by the media itself, but occasionally with an assist from the right-wing noise machine. This story has hardly changed between the Bush years and the Trump ones.

Take, for instance, the depressing case of Phil Donahue. Donahue hosted a reasonably popular show on MSNBC but was fired in 2003 after expressing anti-war sentiments. (Recall that this is the supposedly “liberal” cable news network.)

Here’s Donahue’s reflecting on his firing:

Well, I think what happened to me, the biggest lesson, I think, is the—how corporate media shapes our opinions and our coverage. This was a decision—my decision—the decision to release me came from far above. This was not an assistant program director who decided to separate me from MSNBC. They were terrified of the antiwar voice. And that is not an overstatement. Antiwar voices were not popular. And if you’re General Electric, you certainly don’t want an antiwar voice on a cable channel that you own; Donald Rumsfeld is your biggest customer. So, by the way, I had to have two conservatives on for every liberal. I could have Richard Perle on alone, but I couldn’t have Dennis Kucinich on alone. I was considered two liberals. It really is funny almost, when you look back on how—how the management was just frozen by the antiwar voice. We were scolds. We weren’t patriotic. American people disagreed with us. And we weren’t good for business.

According to an internal memo that leaked after Donahue’s firing, MSNBC wasn’t worried about Donahue’s ratings; it was instead afraid that Donahue would represent a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” He was replaced by Michael Savage, a right-wing conservative who MSNBC believed would provide “compelling opinion and analysis with an edge”. Savage was fired shortly after his show began for this exchange with an (apparently) homosexual caller:

Oh, so you’re one of those sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig; how’s that? Why don’t you see if you can sue me, you pig? You got nothing better to do than to put me down, you piece of garbage? You got nothing to do today? Go eat a sausage, and choke on it. Get trichinosis. Now do we have another nice caller here who’s busy because he didn’t have a nice night in the bathhouse who’s angry at me today? Put another, put another sodomite on … no more calls? … I don’t care about these bums; they mean nothing to me. They’re all sausages.

So, on the one hand, telling a “sodomite” to “get AIDS and die” lies in the sphere of deviance, but on the other hand, so does criticizing the war in Iraq. See, clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right!

According to Donahue, the memo was precipitated by a focus group organized by MSNBC; it was outsourced to a Republican consulting group that recruited mostly Republican voters, who, unsurprisingly, vehemently disagreed with Donahue’s beliefs.

Donahue’s story perfectly encapsulates why there are almost no leftist voices in the establishment media. There are three factors. First, most of the establishment media is corporate-owned, and both economic liberalism and anti-war ideology tend to be bad for business. (The same isn’t true of social liberalism, which is why it is tolerated to a much greater extent.) This excerpt from a Mother Jones article about Bernie Sanders’ contentious relationship with the press is salient:

While conservatives howled about their own treatment in the press, at least they had friendly talk shows. “[D]espite the fact that 15 million Americans are trade unionists, there isn’t one national television program exclusively devoted to discussing the goals and problems of the trade union movement, and the needs of American workers,” Sanders complained. “In fact, most Americans have never seen even one prime-time television show on the positive role that trade unions have played in protecting the lives of working Americans.” (When Ed Schultz, a major union advocate, lost his MSNBC show in July, Sanders tooks [sic] the unusual step of releasing a statement, saying he was “disappointed that Comcast chose to remove Ed Schultz from its lineup.”)

Second, there is the ideology of the press, which celebrates “seriousness” and “savviness” and “realism” and rejects anything that can be construed as idealism or unseriousness. And believing that capitalism should be smashed or that diplomacy is preferable to war is decidedly unserious.

And third, there is the Republican attack machine. Take, for example, Ward Churchill, erstwhile professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Churchill, much like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, invoked Malcolm X’s “chickens coming home to roost” idiom to argue that the United States brought 9/11 upon itself. (Interestingly, this is also the example that Greenwald provided of an “unserious view” that would “disrupt the entire narrative”.) He also compared workers at the World Trade Center to “Little Eichmanns” – people who contribute to and are complicit in a system that gives rise to hatred and violence, even if they might not be actively malevolent themselves.

Despite their deep-seated love for free speech and anti-political-correctness, the Republican media went after Churchill savagely. (I wonder why?) Here’s Bill O’Reilly:

Now Churchill’s viewpoint is just hateful. He believes the USA is an evil country and terrorists are justified in attacking civilians. Again, in my view, Churchill’s simply a traitor, a disgrace to the University of Colorado, a man to be scorned.

All Americans have an obligation to this country. Dissent is necessary. Loyal opposition of policies you feel are wrong is commendable. And you’re not required to participate in any civic activity except pay taxes.

But justifying terrorist attacks on your fellow countrymen? If you do that, you’re a traitor. And Churchill’s doing it.

Eventually, Churchill was fired by the University of Colorado, although whether this was prompted by the “Little Eichmanns” comment is unclear.

It’s worth reflecting on what, since the early 2000s, has changed. Has the corporate stranglehold over the establishment media loosened? No. In fact, the trend may have gone in the opposite direction, as many local newspapers have gone out of business and media (print, radio, etc.) has consolidated around larger players. Have establishment journalists stopped celebrating savviness and seriousness, or at least updated their definition of what “deviance” is? Also unlikely. And, finally, has the right-wing attack machine gotten any less vicious? (We all know the answer to that.)

So the obvious conclusion is that leftism in journalism in 2017 is exactly where it was in 2001: with a faint heartbeat, if not completely dead. Although I think there’s an argument to be made for that position, there are some countervailing indicators that I find promising. First, although the establishment media has consolidated, media as a whole has fragmented. This has contributed to the polarization of politics (mostly due to the extreme polarization of one of the parties), but it has also led to more vibrant leftist journalism, including once-withering liberal magazines reinvigorated by money from post-Trump-election subscriptions, new news organizations like Talking Points Memo, and a whole host of alternative media for leftists like comedy shows, blogs, and Twitter. Even though leftism is still basically absent from establishment journalism, the important of establishment journalism has declined (which is both a good and bad thing).

And second, as Jay Rosen explained in his original post,

Journalists aren’t the only actors here. Elections have a great deal to do with what gets entered into legitimate debate. Candidates—especially candidates for president—can legitimize an issue just by talking about it. Political parties can expand their agenda, and journalists will cover that. Powerful and visible people can start questioning a consensus belief and remove it from the “everyone agrees” category. And of course public opinion and social behavior do change over time.

On this score, I am somewhat heartened (ignoring, of course, what Trump’s election has done to define deviance down). If there is a reason I supported Bernie Sanders in the first place, it was to shift the terms of “legitimate debate” leftwards. And on that front I think he had remarkable success. Just compare the policy positions of Bill Clinton in the 1990s with those of Hillary in the 2010s. Bill supported welfare reform, NAFTA, bank deregulation, and telecom deregulation (the last of which contributed heavily to the consolidation of media over the last 20 years). Hillary, I believe, either has rejected or would reject all of these positions. It’s not that Hillary has evolved by her lonesome: we, the Democratic base, have forced her to evolve because we have demanded true liberalism, not neoliberalism. And, as we continue to push leftism in politics, I believe leftism in media is bound to follow.


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