I must have the most intellectually adroit, steadfastly Zionist, Atari-Democrat mailman in America. At least that’s what I assume from the fact that my copy of The New Republic usually arrives about eight days late. I figure he’s so addicted to Yossi Klein Halevi’s Israel coverage and TNR’s (Harvard) Crimson rage over the Laffer Curve that he only delivers it once he’s done with it.
I bring this up because I only just now got around to reading Jonathan Chait’s cover story on Bernard Goldberg’s New York Times bestseller, Bias. Chait’s piece — as much as it pains me to say it — is actually pretty good. I don’t think he’s altogether fair to the book. But he takes it seriously and makes quite a few good points.
More importantly, he doesn’t dismiss out of hand the basic reality of the media’s liberal bias. Instead, he concedes just enough reality so as to not make his arguments dismissible. Don’t get me wrong, I think Chait is wrong about many things (in fact, I have to check, but I think that might actually be in section 7, paragraph 6 of the National Review editorial charter; “Jonathan Chait is wrong about many things.”). But he doesn’t secrete the sort of condescending or indignant denial you might find from Eric Alterman or the zealots at FAIR.
Chait’s most interesting concession — and a point which has been made by myself and many, many, others in the past — is that the media isn’t so much willfully biased as inclined to follow certain story lines. Republicans are portrayed as mean or selfish. Democrats are depicted as intellectually incompetent or soft. For example, Poppa Bush was “shocked” by a supermarket scanner (he wasn’t, but the Times deceitfully said he was), while Michael Dukakis released murderers and looked stupid in a tank (apparently designed in a lab to be the worst presidential candidate in history, Dukakis spoon-fed his opponents this storyline).
“This sort of media bias is maddeningly insipid,” concedes Chait, “but in an equal-opportunity way.”
“It is the reason,” he goes on, “we invariably see more stories about poverty and environmental despoliation during Republican administrations, and more stories about government bloat and military unpreparedness during Democratic ones.”
What’s interesting is that Chait seems to think this is “equal opportunity” bias. It’s only equal opportunity if this transgression manifests itself in equal proportions and does equal damage. If you smack me in the head with a tire iron ten times a day while I bop you in the head with a NERF bat 10 times a day — or 100 — that’s hardly being equal opportunity.
In other words, Chait assumes that being called heartless, cruel, and greedy is somehow no more unfair or damaging than being described as too concerned about the needy. The fact that conservative policies are so likely to be described as stemming from selfish or nasty motives does a lot more to discredit our arguments than the minor headaches liberals have to endure for being described as overly humanitarian.
Indeed, the moral of almost every biased media story — including the ones Chait considers biased against liberals — make liberal goals de facto moral obligations. If we could only afford to do what the liberals want, says the conventional wisdom, we would do it. For example, the typical story line is that liberals are determined in their efforts to do “the right thing” on education but are stymied by conservative penny-pinchers. Giving everybody a free college education would be government policy in a “perfect world.” But the fact (or, at least, the conservative position) is that it wouldn’t be a good idea to give everybody a free college education, a free home, a guaranteed job whatever, even if we had the money to do it. If your father says, “Son, if we could afford to buy you a Corvette we would,” does that mean if Dad could afford it, that suddenly it’s a good idea for him to by his nose-pierced layabout kid a hotrod? Of course not.
Alas, too many conservative politicians argue from frugality instead of principle in public debates, but that’s in part because that’s the only sort of argument the allegedly “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” media will treat with respect.
A CONSERVATIVE BY ANY OTHER NAME
There are plenty of other stolen bases in Chait’s argument as well. He dismisses the conservative complaint that the media uses phrases like “hard right,” “far right,” “ultra right,” “extreme right,” and “right-winger” far more than it ever uses phrases like “left-winger,” “far left,” etc. His first explanation is that the country has moved so far right that journalists are simply reporting objective fact. “[T]he center of American politics has moved rightward over the last 25 years,” he says. “So from these broader perspectives, it’s entirely natural that reporters would label more contemporary American politicians ‘right-wing’ than ‘left-wing.’”
This sounds reasonable, but in fact it’s daft. First of all, this complaint is far, far older than a quarter of a century. Recall the reporter who, upon hearing a few minutes of Barry Goldwater’s nomination speech in 1964 declared, “My God he’s going to run as Goldwater!” Irving Kristol, for example, noted this bias in labeling more than 25 years ago. It was Spiro Agnew’s complaints about the liberal media that got William Safire a job as an ostensibly conservative columnist. In fact, largely because of conservative complaints I would say it happens less today than it did 25 years ago. But, it still happens. A lot.
Second, we are supposed to believe, according to Chait, that simply because Democrats have moved to the right that hardcore lefties shouldn’t be described as “left-wingers.” Pat Robertson is described as an extreme right-winger — I would guess — 10,000 times more frequently than Jesse Jackson is. Maxine Waters, Ralph Nader, Sheila Jackson Lee, Paul Wellstone et al: These people are all rarely described as “hard left” by the mainstream media.
I’m willing to concede Chait’s point that they are less relevant than, say, Tom DeLay. But does irrelevance mean they shouldn’t be accurately described? By that standard, members of the Black Panthers and the KKK should be described as community activists. And what about the hordes of insanely left-wing academics and feminists (as Bias points out) who are regularly cited as respected “experts” by the press. Why are they immune from truth-in-labeling rules?
Chait does note that some liberals are described as “unreconstructed liberals.” Indeed, he says “over the last decade, major newspapers have used the pejorative phrase ‘unreconstructed liberal’ more than five times as often as they’ve used ‘unreconstructed conservative.’” Therefore, he asks, “Why isn’t this disparity evidence of anti-liberal bias?”
One might answer, simply, that they don’t use “unreconstructed conservative” because so many more pejorative phrases are available — “zealous,” “inflexible,” “ideological” etc.
This no-doubt meticulously researched “five times as often” assertion reminds me of an exchange between Kent Brockman and Homer Simpson on Smartline.
Brockman: Mr. Simpson, how do respond to the charges that petty vandalism such as graffiti is down eighty percent, while heavy sack-beatings are up a shocking nine hundred percent?
Homer: Aw, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.
Anyway, my big problem with Chait’s analysis in this essay — and in many others by him — is that he’s a dedicated economic liberal. More to the point, he writes as if the defining difference between liberals and conservatives is primarily an economic one. He begins by saying that liberals represent the “economically weak” while conservatives speak for the “economically powerful.”
Obviously, there’s more than a little truth to this characterization. But, it also reveals Chait’s bad faith or his own biased thinking. Most of the economic conservatives and libertarians I know honestly believe their/our policies are better for poor people than liberal policies. That’s absolutely true of the school-voucher crowd led by the likes of Clint Bolick. Those guys have to fight on two fronts: teachers’ unions and rich, white, suburban Republicans who want to keep the riff-raff out of their schools.
Still, the real change in the last 25 years hasn’t so much been the move to the right as the ever-growing importance of cultural, as opposed to economic, divisions. Red States vs. Blue States isn’t about capital-gains tax cuts (indeed the chief beneficiaries of such tax cuts live in blue states). Indeed, the story of American politics since Richard Nixon is the growth in importance of social issues.
Chait’s obsession with economics makes him seem more than a bit otherworldly. He is convinced, for example, that the concessions some network-news shows make to their corporate owners is a sign of “conservative bias.” Maybe there is some doctrinaire economic conservatism involved in that, though I hardly see it very often.
But the idea that corporations are serious engines of conservatism, economic or cultural, is a conviction clouded by nostalgia for the days when Thomas Nast drew the captains of industry as fat pigs eating at the trough of the trusts. Corporations are worse than useless when it comes to fighting the culture war and only occasionally helpful in fighting regulations. ABC’s parent company, Disney, is a huge champion of gay rights and a sparring partner of the Christian Right. The former owner of CNN, Ted Turner, is the U.N.’s biggest booster and fond of saying nasty things about America, the Pope, Christians, etc. Corporations, as a rule, are ahead of the U.S. government on affirmative action and give mightily to Planned Parenthood and PBS. These “heartless” multinational corporations swallow all sorts of regulations because they know they are barriers to entry from would-be competitors and they can pass the costs of these mandates to consumers.
Bill Gates is not a Carnegie or Rockefeller — would that he were. Hell, the Rockefellers aren’t even Rockefellers anymore.
I should leave it there. In fact, I planned to just write about Chait’s piece today. But last night I saw the two-hour special on ABC’s Primetime Live on Rosie O’Donnell and her decision to come out of the closet. This illustrates perfectly the myopia of Chait’s analysis.
I cannot remember the last time I was more outraged by a “news” program. “Rosie O’Donnell: For the Sake of the Children” was a sustained, manipulative piece of propaganda for the benefit of making O’Donnell seem like a hero for being gay and to legitimize gay adoption. But unlike a John Stossel special, this pretended to be a dispassionate analysis of the facts. It was subtitled “For the Sake of the Children” for Pete’s sake! That sounds like a Simpsons’s parody.
Diane Sawyer spent two hours relentlessly implementing some memo from O’Donnell’s publicists. Rosie was cast as a reluctant hero who was willing to make her own sexuality a public issue only because some HIV-positive children might have to leave their gay foster parents in Florida. If you’re saying, “Huh!?” You’d be amazed by how much sense it made to the producers. Apples, oranges, pears, cinderblocks, and the square root of pi — to stretch a metaphor to the snapping point — were mixed alongside each other to make it seem like no rational person could have a problem with gay adoption or Rosie O’Donnell.
This cacophony of dishonest arguments and baffling non-sequiturs made the viewer feel like a villain of Dickensian proportions for even questioning O’Donnell’s motives or the insinuation that the problems of foster care could be solved through gay adoption. Every form of liberal media bias was present — from framing a broad debate in terms of one unique circumstance to constant smirking at, and selective editing of, social conservatives. The only thing missing was any discussion of tax breaks for corporations, which may be why Chait can’t see the bias in it.