Who controls the media -- liberals or conservatives? As someone familiar with the view through both ends of the political telescope, I am endlessly impressed by the elusiveness of this question and the absence of data hard enough to convince partisans on either side. Like the guilt or innocence of Mumia Abu Jamal or which party tried to "steal" the 2000 presidential election in Florida, it's a debate that seems to defy resolution.
To a former radical like myself, whose youthful productions once graced the front pages of the New York Times Book Review, but who now might as well be a missing person, the case is open and shut. Yet my politically contrarian friend, Salon editor David Talbot, is confident that just the opposite is true. In his recent Salon article, "All Conservative, All the Time," he wrote that the idea of liberal media dominance is a myth and it is conservatives who rule the airwaves. Salon has given me an opportunity to provide the counterargument.
Without exception, every major metropolitan newspaper in America -- dominating all local media satellites -- is firmly in the control of political liberals or, as I would prefer it, the political left. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Philadelphia Inquirer, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Detroit News, Portland Oregonian, Seattle Times, and San Francisco Chronicle -- among others -- are by any measure liberal papers. They regularly endorse Democratic candidates, their news features are designed to liberal tastes; they ritually celebrate liberal icons and just as regularly taint conservative leaders. Even the Wall Street Journal, whose two editorial pages are often said to be the party organ of the conservative movement, follows the pattern of media liberalism in its news and feature sections.
The same can be said for the major television networks and their hundreds of local affiliates -- an even more important source of public information and political news.
For evidence, Talbot leans heavily on Eric Alterman -- in my view a questionable source. According to Talbot's summary of his new book, "What Liberal Media?" Alterman claims that, "Talk radio is dominated by Rush Limbaugh and his imitators, the Web has fallen to Matt Drudge, and cable TV is ruled by Ailes and his wannabes at the rival channels."
Of three claims made in this statement, one is an absurdity and two are half-truths. The absurdity is Alterman's comment that Matt Drudge rules the Internet. No one rules the Internet. The idea is laughable on its face, even more so coming from a pundit whose employer, Microsoft, is the digital Standard Oil of its day, with tentacles spreading liberal influence throughout the media universe. (For those who like hard statistics, MSNBC.com, where Alterman writes a media column, is rated 42 in traffic volume on the Web, while the Drudge Report is rated 346. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page -- opinionjournal.com -- is rated 3,583.) Drudge does not editorialize on his site but posts other media outlets' news -- a point Alterman seems to have overlooked. Moreover, Drudge's sensational news items often skewer Republican hides.
It is true -- but only half a truth -- that Fox News chief Roger Ailes has recently challenged the liberal cable monopoly and is doing very well. The three liberal networks, on the other hand, have 10 times the cable audience, while CNN is far from dead. Cable channels also feature a lot of Hollywood films that on balance (though not always) reflect prejudices of the political left.
Alterman's final half-truth is that talk radio is a medium dominated by Rush Limbaugh conservatives. He forgets Howard Stern with 20 million listeners, Mancow and others. But more importantly, he forgets public radio, a taxpayer-funded network hijacked by the left that has 12 million listeners and 600 stations which reach into every congressional district, and is far and away the most widely listened to news source by legislators and opinion makers themselves.
There are other forms of media that follow the pattern. The New York book publishing industry is an exclusive liberal monopoly, and -- with one exception known to me -- all the university presses and journals are run by the political left. Since the left dominates the American university, many "progressive" editors and writers are rewarded with academic sinecures, while all the major journalism schools serve as training institutions for media liberals and leftists.
Examples: Nation publisher and editorial director Victor Navasky is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, left-wing syndicated columnist Robert Scheer is a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC. I recently had lunch with the dean of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the same institution and he conceded that he could not identify a single member of his faculty who was not on the political left. My friend Christopher Hitchens, only recently departed from the Nation (and still a progressive at heart), is a professor at the New School and currently the I.F. Stone fellow at the Berkeley School of Journalism, whose dean is a well-known left-wing journalist (and sometime Nation contributor), Orville Schell. Other Nation writers with faculty posts include Adolph Reed (New School), columnist Patricia Williams (Columbia), Philip Klinkner (Hamilton), Jon Wiener (UC-Irvine) Stephen Cohen (Princeton), Eric Foner (Columbia), Michael Klare (professor of peace studies at the Five Colleges) -- and that's just off the top of my head. I don't know of a single conservative magazine with such a university-subsidized editorial board and staff.
Against this juggernaut, Talbot and Alterman throw up the specter of right-wing money -- of course vaguely identified and without the context of its counterparts on the left: "Alterman knows firsthand the way the right built a network of think tanks and publications to nurture young journalists," writes Talbot, "thanks to the fortunes of ardent conservatives like Richard Mellon Scaife. He started his own journalism career in Washington in the early 1980s, and it was grim enough to send a lesser man to business school. 'Between 1982 and 1984, I think I earned a grand total of about $500 working as a liberal journalist, for articles in The Nation, In These Times, the Washington Monthly, the Washington City Paper and Arms Control Today. Meanwhile the bars and softball fields of the capital were filled with young right-wingers living on generous salaries and fellowships provided by the multi-million dollar institutions like the Washington Times, Heritage Foundation, and their various offshoots ... Many of the writers who worship at the shrine of the free market would be lost if any of them were ever forced to earn their living working for it.'"
This is pretty unkind coming from Alterman, who received $180,000 from Bill Moyers' foundation to write his unread book on foreign policy. Alterman whines about a two-year unpaid apprenticeship in journalism 20 years ago and compares his lot with that of think-tank staffers (ignoring the comparable salaries of his radical friends on university faculties). If your expectations are high enough, and your vision sufficiently narrow, I guess anything can seem a politically determined hardship. Bill Moyers' charitable cash cow is only one of more than 100 progressive foundations (I've checked this out on the Web) that have given tens of millions of dollars to such left-wing media institutions as Indymedia.org, commondreams.org and TomPaine.com. Moyers himself single-handedly transformed the feeble American Prospect, a little-read bimonthly, into a biweekly force in the Democratic Party with a $5 million grant. I won't go into all the money that the Nation has soaked up from the capitalist rich and their foundations.
To view the conservative think tanks rightly, they have to be seen as an alternative universe that the right was forced to create because of its exclusion from the universities as a result of the most sustained and successful blacklist in American history -- a blacklist imposed and enforced by their leftist antagonists. Even the endowment of the Heritage Foundation, the largest of the conservative think tanks, is a pittance compared to the resources of any major university or its left-wing departments. As for the size of the casually overlooked left-wing foundations, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's assets alone are three times that of Scaife, Olin and Bradley combined.
Alterman's suggestion that conservative intellectuals are a bunch of spoiled rich kids drowning in stipends while hardworking leftists have to live on scraps is typically off the mark. Senior editors at a major conservative opinion journal might make $40,000 a year. Contrast this to a progressive lightweight like Cornel West, whose income is at least in the six-figure range and could exceed $1 million a year. I am not privy to West's IRS returns, but as a star Ivy League professor he probably makes in excess of $200,000 (his former Harvard boss Henry Louis Gates was already reported to be making $300,000 when he was still at Duke). West has boasted that he gives 120 speeches a year. If got paid for only half of them at the going rate of $10,000 for comparable figures on the left, that would be another $600,000. (This, by the way, is a privilege denied to most conservatives, since student funds are generally locked up by the left.) Then there are additional thousands for the books he writes or puts his name on.
I would think facts like these ought to close the book on the question of media dominance by the left. On the other hand, a lot of what Talbot writes in his article in the way of advice to the left is quite good, and sounds like what I have been saying to conservatives for years: stop whining about the other guy's domination of the media and do something to compete. Roger Ailes finally did that on cable and the results for conservatives are there for all to see. (A lot of what Talbot says about the slant in the news, particularly his plea in behalf of the feckless Al Gore I don't understand and couldn't without sharing Talbot's views.)
There remains one issue between Talbot and me and by his own account it is the main one. In an e-mail giving me the green light for this response, Talbot had this to say: "I'd love to hear your response. But you're going to have to work hard to convince me and most of our readers that the major networks and newspapers and other such corporate, centrist institutions have a conscious strategy to advance a liberal agenda."
I understand why Talbot and those who agree with him are not satisfied with a media that is so obviously and overwhelmingly sympathetic to the left. Talk radio and cable food fights represent political combat as they (and I) understand it. That's where they would like to be -- on the terrain where conservatives seem to call the shots.
But I don't agree with Talbot that the major networks and newspapers are corporate centrists, except in the sense that they are looking for large audiences and therefore don't want the appearance of narrow and bitter partisanship in their news and features. Think, on the other hand, of the advantages to the left that this brings. Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus and others have documented the way the New York Times has not only editorialized against the war in Iraq but has spun its entire news section to persuade its influential reader base that the Bush policies are a bad idea. To understand how fraternally Times editors regard the hard left, consider for example the series of sympathetic articles they have run on Kathy Boudin, her family and her criminal cohorts. New Left radical Boudin was convicted of participating in the 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored car in Rockland County, N.Y., with the intention of financing "the revolution." A security officer and two policemen, including the first black officer on the local force, were killed in the course of the armed robbery, yet the Times has sympathetically followed her appeals and even given front- page coverage to her son's academic career.
Now imagine if the Times set about promoting a pro-life activist who had murdered an abortion doctor as a sympathetic idealist who had somehow gone too far. Would leftists take the same complacent view of the Times' "centrism" that they do now? How many careers of left-wing activists, writers, movements and institutions have been launched and promoted by the "neutral" prose of the New York Times and how many conservative careers truncated or aborted by the same? The Black Panther murderers of my friend Betty Van Patter have been featured as 1960s civil rights activists by the Times, the Washington Post and other major media. These murderers get book deals and tour college campuses, where they draw lucrative fees and promote the cause of another former '60s militant convicted of killing a (black) police officer, H. Rap Brown, whom they portray as a frame-up victim of Atlanta's (black) legal and law enforcement establishments.
The point is that to be able to disguise an ideological agenda as unbiased news is a far more powerful weapon than, say, having an angry scowler like Joe Conason or a sanctimonious pontificator like Mario Cuomo square off against a personable opponent like Sean Hannity. (Talbot sells Hannity's liberal sparring partner Alan Colmes short. He is articulate and disciplined and does his homework well, even if he isn't an ideologue like Conason.)
And it's not only the Times that cloaks its liberal point of view with an appearance of fairness and objectivity. Time, Newsweek, the news departments of ABC, CBS, NBC and the metropolitan press in general all editorialize on pivotal issues like race preferences, abortion and the Bush tax refund. (The Bush tax plan is a politically defining issue, because if you are against the refund you believe that government should take legally earned money from one class of citizens and put in the pockets of another class. That's a socialist agenda and pretty basic to what makes the left the left.) Does anyone seriously think the media is neutral on these issues, or that it doesn't place its weight heavily on the left side of the scale?
It feels a little odd to be comforting leftists, assuring them that they don't have to lose sleep over the nightmarish vision of a right-wing takeover of the media. It must be the Salon syndrome or something. (I have always enjoyed my relationship with this magazine.) The fact is that conservatives like me welcome the competition of ideas. We're not afraid of it, because we are confident that we are right.
-- David Horowitz