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A Grand Media Bargain
Rathergate offers a chance to redraw the media's political lines.


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Stanley Kurtz

I’d like to propose a deal. Our media wars have gone on long enough. We can and should put an end to this ongoing source of national division by negotiating a historic media agreement between liberals and conservatives. John Kerry and his advisers are aficionados of the “grand-bargain” approach to foreign policy: They believe that both Iran and North Korea can be induced to dismantle their nuclear programs in return for a comprehensive, negotiated resolution of all major outstanding differences between these two countries and the United States. When it comes to nuclear proliferation, I happen to think the grand-bargain approach is a naïve and dangerous thing. Yet when it comes to ending America’s media wars, I believe a grand bargain will work.

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We need to arrange a trade. This nation would be released from continuous conflict over the question of media bias if our major news outlets were roughly equally divided between liberals and conservatives. So to put this needless battle over media bias behind us, I propose that we convene a summit of liberal and conservative media leaders. These distinguished representatives of both ideological camps could solve our national dilemma by dividing up the media pie on a far more equitable basis. Just as the Congress of Vienna was able to apportion territory so as to establish a stable balance of power in Europe after the fall of Napoleon, so a congress of American media notables can establish a stable balance of power between liberals and conservatives in the newspapers, magazines, and airwaves in the wake of the Rather Affair.

To negotiate on behalf of conservatives, I nominate Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page; Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News; Rich Lowry, editor of National Review; William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; and Rush Limbaugh, dean of conservative talk-radio hosts. To represent the liberal media, I suggest Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger, chairman and publisher of the New York Times; CBS news president Andrew Heyward; Peter Jennings, news anchor at ABC; NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr; and Al Franken, aspiring deacon of liberal talk radio.

The basic terms of the agreement that must be reached are fairly clear. At the moment, conservative perspectives are essentially shut out of all three major television networks, as well as the news pages of virtually all major newspapers with national reach or reputation. (True, conservatives control the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, but this does not include control of the news pages. In any case, the Journal concentrates on economic matters. It is not a comprehensive source of news.) Conservative perspectives are also largely shut out of news coverage in the major national news magazines. On the other hand, with the important exception of NPR, liberal views are largely absent from talk radio. These are the imbalances that need to be redressed at a congress of media notables. (Internet blog sites are already sufficiently balanced, although Glenn Reynolds and Joshua Micah Marshall might perhaps attend the media congress as consultants and observers.)

I would suggest the following steps as a rough outline of a resolution of our national media conflict. Conservatives need to control at least one major broadcast television network news division; at least one, and possibly two, major national newspapers; and at least one of the two major national news magazines. In addition to their current control of NPR, liberals need to be granted ownership of at least one-third of all existing talk-radio stations in the country. So, for example, we could solve the media-bias problem by giving ABC News, the Washington Post, USA Today, and Newsweek over to conservatives, while allowing Al Franken to dispense about one-third of all talk-radio stations to his allies. With the successful completion of such a grand bargain, America’s media-bias problem would be effectively solved.

A HORRIFIED FASCINATION

Of course, the greatest barrier to this bargain is the requirement that the Left give up so much more than the Right. However much liberals may covet a presence on talk radio, no one seriously believes that these radio stations are remotely as prestigious or influential as the major television networks, national newspapers, or national news magazines. So my purpose here is to reach out to liberals and explain why it is ultimately in their interest to accede to such an apparently unequal bargain.

The truth is, both sides in our media wars have paid a considerable price. No matter how confident conservatives may sound in their media redoubts, the persistent stigmatization of their viewpoints in prestigious circles has left them embarrassed and lacking confidence. Liberal command of the mainstream media not only undercuts conservative influence on politics and culture, it is downright humiliating. Conservatives are livid about Dan Rather because his egregious actions speak boldly and openly of a bias they are tired of enduring in the softer daily drumbeat of media news.

Apparent conservative glee over the Rather fiasco is actually closer to obsessive fascination, relief, and terror. It’s a bit like having a doctor cut out and show you a tumor you knew was inside you, but never imagined was so ugly, dangerous, or just plain real. You’re riveted, revolted, happy, and scared all at once. To see displayed so openly the bias and treachery conservatives always knew was under the surface of network news is both a relief and a warning. In short, the conservative obsession with Rathergate is not so much a political tactic as an index of just how much the mainstream media spook the Right.

PRETENDING NO MORE

No doubt, being able to mess with conservative minds is a big part of why liberals love sitting in the media catbird seat. So why should they ever give it up? Maybe because even liberals pay a price for their lopsided control of the media. It’s often been pointed out that the liberal media echo chamber tends to lull Democratic candidates into error and overconfidence. Dukakis might have answered attacks by the first George Bush, and Kerry might have thought twice about focusing his race on Vietnam, had they been given early warning of what was ahead by the comments of mainstream-media conservatives.

Then there’s the lure of simple relief at no longer having to pretend to be fair. Imagine the effort it must take to create a patina of balance and objectivity when your very reason for being a journalist is to help move the country leftward. True, the authority conferred by a reporter’s apparent objectivity is a major asset in any attempt to influence the voting behavior of a trusting public. Yet it’s no longer clear that liberals want or need that pretense. A bestseller list dominated by angry attacks on President Bush, along with the embrace of Michael Moore by even the most respectable senior Democrats, suggest that nowadays liberal reporters might as well let their bias show. Once the media are divided into two openly partisan camps, liberal journalists would be free to serve as political advocates. That would be a personal relief for them, and just might turn out to be more politically effective than the journalistic deceit so commonly practiced today. Liberals, as noted, are famous for wanting to defuse seemingly interminable conflicts by fair and comprehensive negotiated solutions. So why not take that step here? Why not show fairness to all?

No doubt, several further objections will be raised to my proposal. Conservatives will complain that it smacks of an artificial attempt to manipulate the market. And even if we wanted to reapportion ownership of various media outlets along the lines of a political deal, how could we get station owners and publishers to cooperate? The most profound objection of all may be that the barons of the liberal media will never surrender their control for the flimsy reasons I’ve suggested so far.

NO TIME FOR PRINCIPLED OBJECTION

After all, if the liberal media actually believed in liberal principles, we wouldn’t have the problem of media bias to begin with. Reporters would make more of an effort to be fair to conservatives, and news outlets would be as keen to hire journalists with conservative leanings as those with liberal ones.

Yet here is the beauty of my proposal. The fact that conservatives would have to betray their principled belief in free markets in order to get this deal is another major carrot to lure the Left into an agreement. From the moment this deal is made, liberals will be able to taunt conservatives for their hypocrisy. What a trump card the Left will have in political arguments: “How can you conservatives jabber on about free markets when you accepted the grand media bargain of 2005?” Liberals will torment conservatives for years to come with this question. And that is why my grand media bargain is in the selfish interest of the Left.

As for conservatives, I believe we are sufficiently desperate to surrender our fundamental principles in order to gain a comprehensive media deal. If Dan Rather actually survives this controversy, there will be a serious downside for conservatives. We will have exposed the depth of media bias, but also our own powerlessness to do anything about it. That humiliation will be too great to bear. For the sake of achieving balanced media for the foreseeable future, I believe conservatives must jettison our free-market principles–just this once.

SHATTERING ILLUSIONS

As for the practical problems of transferring ownership, they are surmountable. The negotiators for both media camps are obviously very prestigious people. They will speak for their respective halves of the country, and will command the respect and cooperation of many wealthy and powerful people and institutions in both political camps. By appealing to patriotism, offering financial compensation, and threatening legal and financial strong-arming when necessary, the negotiators will be able to get the relevant owners to cede control of the stations and publications in question. And don’t forget that for dispossessed journalists on each side, there will be a chance of gaining a new position at one of the radio stations, newspapers, or magazines received from the opposite camp.

One final set of objections to this deal remains. Perhaps in some fundamental sense I have misjudged the liberal media. I have claimed that left-leaning journalists actually know themselves to be biased, and would therefore relish the chance to discard the pretense of fairness and turn into open political advocates. But couldn’t it be argued that what most characterizes today’s mainstream liberal journalists is the illusion that their own prejudices are indistinguishable from fairness itself? And doesn’t this illusion actually depend upon the exclusion of conservative perspectives from any serious consideration? If that were true, then the trade I propose could never be successfully consummated. That’s because, for liberal journalists, to acquiesce in such an exchange would be tantamount to confessing a bias they are incapable of acknowledging, even to themselves.

A MATTER OF DAYS

I reject this challenge to my proposal. It is impossible that a respectable liberal journalist might actually confuse his own political biases with fairness itself. To believe that liberal journalism (and by extension, American liberalism itself) is this far gone, we would have to believe that Dan Rather was incapable of acknowledging how profoundly he has betrayed his own journalistic principles. Yet I know that within just a day or two, Dan Rather will wake up to the fact that he is actually a biased liberal journalist, will say so publicly, and will voluntarily resign. And I know that liberal journalists in general will soon begin to treat the Rather fiasco not as a silly distraction from the election campaign, but as a critically important sign of just how troubling the problem of media bias has become. When all of this happens (as I’m sure it will within days), the grand bargain I have outlined here–so badly needed by our country–will at last be achievable.


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