What’s the nastiest name you’ve ever been called as a journalist? Liar? Miscreant? Bloodsucker? Liberal?
For many of us, it’s probably that last word: liberal. That modern-day epithet has been fired at me—and the newspaper I edit, The Roanoke Times—with increased frequency during the last few years. Maybe it’s the war in Iraq or the post-September 11th world or the still-stumbling economy, but the name-calling has lately taken on a more vicious tone. In my mind’s eye, I see readers sneering over the phone lines or through e-mails, their fangs bared, dripping with venom, certain that editors are at the hub of a vast left-wing conspiracy that is bent on undermining our nation’s values and destroying the fundamental freedoms of America as we know it.
Perhaps that’s going a bit far. But while the hyperbole is way over the edge, my point is made. The press or, more broadly, the media (how I hate that piece of jargon), are under fire as a bastion of liberal bias, and those of us in the craft are not quite sure what to make of it, or how to answer the charge.
Media: A Liberal Bias?
That’s exactly what Eric Alterman tries to do in his book, “What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News.” In this exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—book, Alterman argues that the media are not guilty of exercising a liberal bias; in fact, the reality, he says, is quite the reverse. “The idea that the media might,” Alterman writes, “for reasons of ownership, economics, class, or outside pressure, actually be more sympathetic to conservative causes than to liberal ones is widely considered to be beyond the pale.” But it’s true, he says. The notion of the media’s liberal bias, he contends, is a widespread and useful myth, one that’s easy to buy into and especially hard to dismiss.
Alterman works hard to shatter this enduring belief. For five decades, he says, the Republicans have kvetched about a conspiracy of liberal media bias, so much so that almost everyone, particularly those in media, now believes it, though it’s not true. Some smart conservatives have even confessed it’s a lie, Alterman writes, as he quotes influential neoconservative William Kristol. “I admit it,” says Kristol. “The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.”
Alterman then goes on to cite, at excruciatingly great length, evidence of conservative domination of the media: Rush Limbaugh’s influence on talk radio; the rise of Fox News as a burgeoning TV powerhouse; a bevy of conservative commentators in print and on TV; the media’s harsh treatment of President Bill Clinton, along with its clear distaste for White House aspirant Al Gore; the media’s fumbling of Election Night 2000 and the Florida recount; its kid-glove treatment of George W. Bush, and on and on.
Alterman makes some excellent points, particularly when he traces the influence of Richard Mellon Scaife, whose wealth fueled an anti-Clinton feeding frenzy, and James Cramer, whose stock market shenanigans helped inflate the 1990’s financial bubble. But his bristling polemic pushes him into the same absolutist trap of conservatives who bemoan a vast left-wing conspiracy. The media universe is neither that simplistic nor that Manichaean. Although it’s easy to view this world in pure black-and-white terms, the reality is far more complex. A vast swath of grays predominates, which means the media’s biases—and there are many—cannot be easily reduced to bumper sticker slogans.
To his credit, Alterman tips his hat to the notion that the media is not monolithic. “The media make up a vast and unruly herd of independent beasts,” he notes in one of the more profound lines of his book. But his shrill, defensive argument that the media actually suffer from a conservative and not a liberal bias undercuts the truth-telling evident in that single sentence.
Looking Behind the Words
So perhaps it makes sense to start at a more fundamental point: What do we really mean when we utter the words “conservative” and “liberal?” Are these words really as bad as everyone seems to think they are? The word “liberal” finds its root in the Latin liberalis, or liber, which means free. Webster’s New World College Dictionary offers this definition, among others: “Favoring political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual; progressive.” Given that cast, liberal sounds more like a concept the Founding Fathers would embrace rather than a description of some clan of pointy-headed evildoers who are regularly excoriated on talk radio.
Maybe being called “liberal” isn’t as bad as it seems.
Examine the roots of the word “conservative.” It comes from the Latin conservativus and is defined as “tending to preserve established traditions or institutions and to resist or oppose any changes in these.” It’s about protecting and preserving the fundamental values of what is right with the world. That doesn’t seem so bad, either.
It requires a little deeper digging to figure out what the fuss is all about. If conservative means protecting the established order and liberal means challenging that order, then the conflict is between preservation vs. change or tradition vs. reform. So it’s a power struggle about who controls the future. The forces of change or the forces of tradition? No wonder people get their underwear so tight in the liberal vs. conservative tug of war.
By getting sucked into this maelstrom, the media find themselves caught in the middle of a battle for control of the future. Both camps jockey hard for position, trying to win us over to their side. The harder we work to extricate ourselves from this battle, the more entangled it seems we become. There’s plenty of irony here: Journalists are held hostage by the power of labels. We, the labelers, have become the labeled, and we’re trapped by the ways in which people perceive the words “conservative” and “liberal.” That’s a terrible predicament for people who fancy themselves as independent observers.
Understanding Our Biases
So how do we avoid this trap? For starters, we need to think and act more like journalists. Remain independent. Verify the facts. Question assumptions. Challenge authority. Dig, dig, dig. Strive for context in our reporting. Avoid easy answers. Be curious. Question those in power. Be a watchdog. When we do these things well, it’s harder for someone to stick a meaningless label on us, no matter how hard they try.
But sidestepping these labels requires more. It involves understanding our biases and blind spots, as a group and as individuals.
Our institutional biases seem clear. As journalists, we like engaging stories. We seek out conflict and controversy. We’re skeptical, if not cynical. We’re intensely interested in what’s new and different. (That’s why we call it “the news,” after all.) We work hard to be accurate and fair. We try to pursue the truth, though we don’t always find it. We are drawn to what is entertaining and exciting. We prefer to tell stories in blacks and whites, since working in shades of gray makes us uncomfortable.
In addition, we’re well-educated and, therefore, in many cases, elitist. We’ve lost touch with ordinary, blue-collar folk. We’re drawn to people who look and act and think like us. We run like a pack, particularly when we smell blood. We seek out scandal. We love underdogs. We sometimes have a problem thinking independently.
We also bring personal prejudices to the job. For example, I’m a middle-aged, well-educated, white male from the South. I view the world through a lens of cultural privilege. I’m comfortable with authority, and I suffer from blind spots that I once thought never existed. For example, despite intentions and words that I think are quite clear, my race and age often silently undercut my efforts to recruit a more diverse newsroom. Every journalist must come to terms with these personal biases because, when you don’t, the biases have a way of owning you. The last thing any good journalist wants is for anyone or anything to own him.
So back to where we started. What should you do the next time someone blasts you as being a liberal?
Here’s my plan. First, I’ll turn the question back around: “What do you mean by liberal?” Then I’ll listen to the answer, challenge its assumptions, discuss the definition, and then patiently explain that, while I may have a set of journalistic biases, they aren’t liberal or conservative. My job as a journalist, I’ll explain, is to keep a close eye on the powerful—be they liberal, conservative, or in-between—and to work to hold them accountable.
It’s that notion that brings us to Alterman’s eloquent final chapter, the highlight of his book and another place where he gets it right. “People are not angels,” he writes. “Power requires watchdogs. Powerful people will often abuse their authority if they believe no one is watching. That, in a nutshell, is why we need journalism.”
And that’s why we need journalists, and the good ones are getting harder and harder to find.
Mike Riley, a 1995 Nieman Fellow, is editor of The Roanoke (Va.) Times. Before that, he was a correspondent and bureau chief for Time and executive producer of allpolitics.com.