[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]
. . . [E]very one of these candidates says, “Obama’s weak, Putin’s kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out.” And then it turns out, they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators. If you can’t handle those guys, I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
Thus spoke President Obama, who, along with Hillary Clinton, has refused ever to participate in a debate on Fox News, presumably because Democrats quake in fear of questions from Megyn Kelly.
After the laughable, unprofessional performance by CNBC “moderators” (“extreminators”??) during last week’s Republican debate, there’s been a lot of discussion about changing the rules for future debates. There was even a summit outside D.C. bring together representatives from most of the presidential campaigns, to work out a set of rules/demands such as a ban on “gotcha” questions (however one defines the term).
It’s not the first time people have considered reforms of a broken system, in which leftists and partisan Democrats (the vast majority of political reporters at the national level) ask mostly supportive questions at Democratic debates and, at Republican debates, try to make the candidates look silly or extreme. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (for whom I worked as senior researcher in the 2012 campaign) once suggested that the candidates themselves conduct the back-and-forth during a presidential debate, with a moderator present only to keep things moving along.
The problem of news media bias has been obvious for years—decades—but, in the context of the debates, it wasn’t dealt with at an earlier point because the Republican Party hierarchy has been focused on its main priority, preventing the nomination of a candidate from the mainstream/grassroots/Reagan/Tea Party wing of the party. GOP bigwigs fiddled with the debate system for this election, but with the intention of ensuring that the nomination would quickly fall to a candidate with high name ID and lots of money. (The plan was to help Jeb Bush or, if he failed, another Establishment candidate, but that plan didn’t work very well in the Age of Trump.)
The Left dominates the news media (along with the entertainment media, the academic/pseudointellectual world, and the Too Big to Fail businesses that depend on government cronyism and are perfectly willing to cut deals with the Obama/Clinton/Sanders crowd if money is to be made). News media bias provides the Left with a tremendous advantage, one akin to a sport team having all the game officials on its side. Every activist on the conservative, libertarian, or free-market side has to deal with this bias throughout the day every day.
At least there are alternative sources of information today. In the dawn of the conservative movement, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, liberals could slime conservatives to their hearts’ content without fear of being contradicted in the media. Conservatives were usually ignored in the media, and when they weren’t ignored, they were depicted as bigots and fascists.
In 1964, when Republicans gathered in San Francisco to nominate conservative Barry Goldwater for president, CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr suggested on the air that Goldwater’s upcoming trip to a U.S. military installation in Germany was part of an effort to hook up with likeminded Nazi sympathizers. Drew Pearson, the leading investigative columnist of the day, noted that “The smell of fascism has been in the air at this convention.”
It’s no surprise that California Governor Pat Brown said he detected the “stench of fascism” in the air, adding: “All we needed to hear was ‘Heil Hitler.’” Or that George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, said he saw “a parallel between Senator Barry Goldwater and Adolph Hitler.” But most of the news media actually took such insanity seriously and passed it along as if such comments represented sanity, just as today they take seriously the GOP’s War on Women, the GOP’s War on People of Color, the GOP’s War on Science, and so on.
Cast study: Oklahoma City
Flash forward 31 years from 1964, to 1995, and we saw the madness of the media in the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing, perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who had no coherent political philosophy.
Supposed white supremacists, they committed the bombing in revenge for the deaths of members of the Branch Davidian cult—most of whom were “people of color.” McVeigh, who today is often cited as an exemplar of Christian terrorism, was an agnostic. He was also a supporter of animal rights and a critic of free trade, but, despite massive efforts, no one has been able to attach to him any sort of coherent philosophy. Nevertheless, the Left pounced, with President Clinton attempting to blame the bombing on talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh. The media did their part to help [quotes collected in 1995 by the Media Research Center].
“In a nation that has entertained and appalled itself for years with hot talk on the radio and the campaign trail, the inflamed rhetoric of the ’90s is suddenly an unindicted co-conspirator in the blast.”
— Time Senior Writer Richard Lacayo, May 8, 1995.
“Mr. Panetta [White House chief of staff Leon Panetta], there’s been a lot of anti-government rhetoric, it comes over talk radio, it comes from various quarters. Do you think that that somehow has led these people to commit this act, do they feed on that kind of rhetoric, and what impact do you think it’s had?”
— CBS’s Bob Schieffer, April 23 Face the Nation.
“The bombing in Oklahoma City has focused renewed attention on the rhetoric that’s been coming from the right and those who cater to angry white men. While no one’s suggesting right-wing radio jocks approve of violence, the extent to which their approach fosters violence is being questioned by many observers, including the President. . . . Right-wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Bob Grant, Oliver North, G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Reagan, and others take to the air every day with basically the same format: detail a problem, blame the government or a group, and invite invective from like-minded people. Never do most of the radio hosts encourage outright violence, but the extent to which their attitudes may embolden and encourage some extremists has clearly become an issue.”
— Today co-host Bryant Gumbel, April 25.
“The Oklahoma City attack on federal workers and their children also alters the once-easy dynamic between charismatic talk show host and adoring audience. Hosts who routinely espouse the same anti-government themes as the militia movement now must walk a fine line between inspiring their audience — and inciting the most radical among them.”
— Los Angeles Times staff writer Nina J. Easton, April 26.
“The bombing shows how dangerous it really is to inflame twisted minds with statements that suggest political opponents are enemies. For two years, Rush Limbaugh described this nation as `America held hostage’ to the policies of the liberal Democrats, as if the duly elected President and Congress were equivalent to the regime in Tehran. I think there will be less tolerance and fewer cheers for that kind of rhetoric.”
— Washington Post reporter David Broder in his April 25 column.
“It seems to me that you have angry white men here, sort of in their natural state, and you know, gone berserk . . . This is the essence of the angry white men taken to some extreme, some fanatic extreme, and I will grant you that. But it’s the same kind of idea that has fueled so much of the right-wing triumph over the agenda here in Washington.”
— Washington Post reporter Juan Williams [now Fox News] on CNN’s Capital Gang, April 23.
“To what extent, if any, do you think the political rhetoric to which you just referred has helped cause a climate in which people could go in that direction? In other words, the rhetoric which says, not just against big government, or liberal government, or dishonest government, but `I’m against government, government is the enemy?’”
— Sam Donaldson to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Morris Dees, April 23 This Week with David Brinkley.
“Unless Gingrich and Dole and the Republicans say `Am I inflaming a bunch of nuts?’, you know we’re going to have some more events. I am absolutely certain the harsher rhetoric of the Gingriches and the Doles . . . creates a climate of violence in America.” [referring to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole]
— Columnist Carl Rowan, April 25 Washington Post story.
“Public antagonism toward government has been one of the principal themes of American political discourse for nearly two decades, growing in shrillness in the past year. This sentiment has been voiced and amplified by the new Republican House, which just this month completed its 100 days of action, much of it aimed at paring back the growth of the federal government. But now that an attack on a government building has left scores dead, including children, the allure is coming off the anti-government rhetoric.”
— Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief David Shribman in a front-page “news analysis,” April 25.
“If the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing really view government as the people’s enemy, the burden of fostering that delusion is borne not just by the nut cases who preach conspiracy but also to some extent by those who erode faith in our governance in the pursuit of their own ambitions.”
— Time Senior Political Correspondent Michael Kramer, May 1.
“Who has played the politics of paranoia better in this country in the last twenty or thirty years? Answer? Republican Party . . . Politically, starting with Richard Nixon in 1968, the Republicans have very skillfully exploited fear.”
— Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas on Inside Washington, April 29.
The Giffords smear
It’s a pattern we’ve seen again and again. When U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona) and others were shot by a Bush-hating madman in 2011, it was blamed again on the rhetoric of conservatives and their allies. Specifically, it was blamed preposterously on Sarah Palin, on the ground that one of the staffers at her PAC had used printers’ registration marks, resembling crosshairs, to make “target districts” where Republicans might pick up seats in the next election. (The marks did not target individuals, as was obvious from the fact that one of the targets was a district where the Congressman was retiring. And, of course, “targeting” states or districts is something that every party does in every election; the term is akin to, say, a restaurant chain “targeting” families as potential customers.)
The smear of Palin was particular vile in that, as I reported that day, it was led by people from the left-wing Daily Kos website, which had recently declared Giffords, in a headline, “DEAD TO ME” for supposedly betraying her party by voting against radical Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. Yes: The closest thing to a death threat against Giffords was issued by the people who, within minutes after the shooting, falsely blamed Palin for issuing what they claimed amounted to a death threat. And the major media not only accepted the Palin smear as reasonable, and repeated it endlessly, but they made it the focus of all the major Sunday morning “news” interview shows that followed the tragedy.
The fact is that the elite media are themselves far outside the mainstream of American thought. There has always been media bias – reporters helped cover up FDR’s loss of mental faculties and JFK’s pathological recklessness – but, in the past, even the highest levels of the media included a few conservatives. Today, decades of blacklisting (banning conservatives) and graylisting (hiring them only on very rare occasions) have left us with countless newsrooms in which opinions range from liberal to Far Left. Diversity has vanished from the newsroom, replaced with pseudo-diversity—people with different skin colors who pretty much think alike.
From 1970 to 2013, the Washington Post has an ombudsman, someone whose job was to serve as an in-house critic and to represent readers in dealing with the paper’s content creators such as editors and writers. In one of the last columns by the last ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, he dealt with readers’ allegation of bias on the issue of same-sex marriage (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/patrick-pexton-is-the-post-pro-gay/2013/02/22/fab8235c-7c53-11e2-a044-676856536b40_print.html ).
I get a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls from readers who assert that The Post has a “pro-gay agenda” and publishes too many “puffy” stories about gay marriage, and that it even allows too many same-sex couples to appear in the Date Lab feature in Sunday’s WP Magazine. [In Date Lab, the Post sets up and covers a couple on a blind date. —SJA]
“The conservative, pro-family side gets short shrift,” as one reader recently put it, and The Post “caters slavishly to Dupont Circle.” [That’s the famously gay neighborhood in D.C. near CRC headquarters. —SJA]
Indeed, that reader got into a vigorous three-way e-mail dialogue with a Post reporter and me over the issue, an exchange that goes to the heart of the question of whether The Post, and journalists in general, are hopelessly liberal and genetically tone-deaf to social conservatives.
Here are excerpts from that dialogue, with the reader’s and reporter’s names kept out of it at their requests.
The reader wrote that Post stories too often minimize the conservative argument: “The overlooked ‘other side’ on the gay issue is quite legitimate, and includes the Pope, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, evangelist Billy Graham, scholars such as Robert George of Princeton, and the millions of Americans who believe in traditional marriage and oppose redefining marriage into nothingness. … Is there no room in The Post for those who support the male-female, procreative model of marriage?”
Replied the reporter: “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”
The reader: “Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.
“Good journalism also means not demeaning conservatives as ‘haters.’ ”
The reporter: “As for accuracy, should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn’t marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn’t be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right?
“Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness,” the reporter continued. “The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.”
That discussion is most revealing about journalists.
Most journalists believe that through writing about life as it is, showing people’s struggles and contradictions, we get closer to the truth. The democracy, being more fully informed, then makes better decisions, and perhaps people’s lives improve as a result.
Alongside that do-gooder instinct is a strong desire for fairness because, being out in the world, reporters encounter a great deal of unfairness. We want to expose that and even rub your noses in it. In a way, we’re shouting, through our stories: “This is unfair! Somebody do something!” Conservative and liberal journalists alike feel this way.
And because our profession lives and dies on the First Amendment — one of the libertarian cornerstones of the Constitution — most journalists have a problem with religionists telling people what they can and cannot do. We want to write words, read books, watch movies, listen to music, and have sex and babies pretty much when, where and how we choose.
Yet many Americans feel that allowing gay men and lesbians to marry diminishes the value of their heterosexual marriages. I don’t understand this. The lesbian couple down the street raising two kids or the two men across the hall in your condominium — how do those unions take anything away from the sanctity, fidelity or joy you take in your heterosexual marriage? Isn’t your marriage, at root, based on the love and commitment you have for your spouse, not what you think about the neighbors?
That’s why many journalists have a hard time giving much voice to those opposed to gay marriage. They see people opposed to gay rights today as cousins, perhaps distant cousins, of people in the 1950s and 1960s who, citing God and the Bible, opposed black people sitting in the bus seat, or dining at the lunch counter, of their choosing.
Still, just as I have written that The Post should do a better job of covering and understanding the anti-abortion movement, The Post should do a better job of understanding and conveying to readers, with detachment and objectivity, the beliefs and the fears of social conservatives.
In other words: We don’t have same-sex marriage opponents in our newsroom ’cause we don’t hire bigots. But don’t worry: Our lack of bigots in the newsroom won’t stop us from covering the same-sex marriage issue fairly.
Regardless of what one thinks on the issue of same-sex marriage, those comments reveal the Post newsroom’s lack of diversity—true diversity, including political orientation. How many Posties are Republicans, or traditionalist conservatives, or supporters of the Tea Party movement? (The issue is not just political orientation. For example, I wonder how many Posties come from Baptist families. Do you think it’s close to Baptists’ 11 percent of the population? Ha!)
When you watch something like the CNBC debate, and you see nothing but contempt directed at Republican candidates, while, at Democratic debates, a socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and an on-the-take pathological liar are treated as serious, thoughtful candidates for the nation’s highest office, you shouldn’t be surprised.
And when their stories depict Republicans as weirdo extremist creeps and Democrats as saviors of the planet and lovers of the downtrodden, they’re just being objective, just reflecting the reality in which they live.