Partisans of Neutrality
A review of Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media by L. Brent Bozell III
The Republican Noise Machine: Right Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy by David Brock
This presidential election brings with it the near-simultaneous publication of two books radically different in their understanding of the political influences in today's mass media. Brent Bozell and David Brock are both well known to conservatives, although Brock's star has fallen since he turned left. Brock first came to public attention with his "Troopergate" exposes in The American Spectator, chronicling the sexual escapades of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, and later with his book The Real Anita Hill. Bozell has headed an organization called the Media Research Center since 1987, which dedicates itself to exposing liberal media bias. But one should not make the mistake of lumping them together as hit men with different targets.
And this is not simply because Brock has changed sides. Sometime after he was outed as a homosexual (although not necessarily because he was outed), Brock chose to become an enemy of conservatives. He makes that clear in The Republican Noise Machine, his attack on conservative attempts to influence or dominate the media, and on conservatism itself. While Bozell's Weapons of Mass Distortion is critical of the liberal media (the existence of which Brock vehemently denies), it is not as comprehensive or unrelenting in its attack as Brock's Machine. It is perhaps most accurate to say that, despite serious political differences between Bozell and Brock, Bozell is more deferential to what he (rightly) identifies as the liberal media, than Brock is even remotely respectful of conservatives.
Dividing his book into three parts, Bozell addresses the media's self-understanding, the issues they promote, and the events they attempt to influence. While hardly pathbreaking (liberal bias has been dissected at length since the late Edith Efron of TV Guide made a quantitative study of liberal bias in the 1968 presidential election in her News Twisters), Weapons brings readers up to date on everything from media arrogance, double standards, and bias in general to specific instances of these in the 2000 presidential election and President Clinton's impeachment battle. If one is a conservative, convinced of liberal bias in the media, one will find ample supporting evidence here.
But that is where ennui may set in. How many times, one might ask, is it necessary to prove the obvious? How discerning does one have to be to notice that Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings (not to mention CNN) slant their reports to favor the Left and disfavor the Right? Answers: "Never enough" and "not very." Perhaps reports on, say, the Vietnam War or Watergate-era bias are just "old news" for many people who habitually affirm or deny liberal bias, just as they continue to vote Republican or Democrat.
The findings of liberal media bias by Efron, Bozell, and numerous other media critics, have enraged conservatives, or confirmed them in their impressions. Equally perennial have been liberal denials of media bias, which seldom go much beyond scorn or ridicule, and rarely anything like serious refutation. Of course, the burden of proof is on the conservative critics of the media. As much as there is to admire in Bozell's significant work, I think it's too much under the influence of both journalistic conventions and liberal pretensions.
Bozell is generous to liberal journalists almost to a fault (e.g., Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson) and is even somewhat star-struck by the media, as the following incident reveals. In 1986 this erstwhile media critic agreed to an interview with Ellen Hume of the Wall Street Journal concerning John T. ("Terry") Dolan, founder of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), who was successful in several 1980 U.S. Senate races in which prominent liberals went down to defeat. What interested Hume was the fact that this conservative bete noire had contracted AIDS, and Bozell, having once worked with Dolan, was a useful interview subject. Bozell agreed to an off-the-record interview that focused on Dolan's playful sense of humor that was transformed into an article about how gay conservatives like Dolan had "hijacked" the conservative movement. When asked for an explanation of the radical change in tone, Hume said that she simply changed her mind. Her boss, Al Hunt, told Bozell he should have known better.
How many times have conservative Charlie Browns been fooled by liberal Lucys? Many conservatives, in fact, who have agreed to be interviewed, in print or on television, have been massacred in the liberal media. Many of those same conservatives are content to limit themselves, as Bozell does, to holding liberal journalists to their own "professional" standards. But that approach has not yielded serious results in over 30 years. Far more productive have been efforts to penetrate and compete with the liberal media. Most recently, internet bloggers rigorously analyzed and discredited "memos" allegedly typed in 1972 and purporting to reveal young George W. Bush's favored status in the Texas Air National Guard. This has significantly helped to expose the liberal media's not-infrequent hoaxes to an increasingly skeptical public. It may indeed, as Bozell says, portend the impending media "meltdown."
According to Bozell, the evidence of liberal bias does not rest on counting the number of conservative commentators, because "news commentary isn't even the issueit is in news reporting that the journalist must strive for objectivity." Conservative commentators, conservative media owners, a few conservatives' denials of liberal bias, or even Al Gore's defeat in 2000, Bozell contends, do not disprove his thesis. You name itabortion, taxes, the environment, religion, gay rights, gunsliberal journalists report the news to favor their views and slam the opposition's.
Like his anti-liberal bias predecessors, Bozell takes it for granted that journalistic objectivity is within anyone's well-intentioned reach. One's politics are beside the point. Hence, there is no reason why liberal partisans cannot be impartial in covering "the news." But this presupposes that "the news" is some sort of noncontroversial reality that political opinions have nothing to do with determining. That is manifestly not true. Irving Kristol was right when he wrote in 1968 that journalism lies impaled, like a floundering whale, on the questionable notion that a desire to "get it right" and "tell it straight" is sufficient for informing the public. Moreover, journalists assert that, whether it is a three-alarm fire or a revolution, the "news-gathering" technique is fully sufficient. Journalism's willful blindness arises from its deliberate turning away from the actual cause that makes an item "news" in the first place. If Aristotle was right that man is by nature a political animal (and he surely was), then that cause is the regime. It is the regime which informs human souls and thereby forms standards of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust, even of the pitiable and contemptible. It is the regime, whether correctly or incorrectly understood, which indicates what is news and what is not. The shopworn conventions of journalism (prominence, significance, timeliness, consequence, etc.) cannot grant an outside perspective by which anyone can become an "objective observer" of the human scene.
A better rule of thumb for critiques of journalism is never to forget that journalism is always political, whether or not its practitioners succumb to the more crude forms of partisanship (of which Bozell provides numerous examples). But he should not be surprised that "when reporters blur the line between journalism and political advocacy, their outrageous actions prompt no response." The quarrel with the liberal media is not its political advocacy (including its frequency, virulence, and ubiquitousness). It is with the media's political principles, which embrace the administrative state at home and international organizations abroad. For liberal journalists, facts either do, or must, support their presuppositions because their politics are not, for them, essentially controversial. What is controversial is the opposition to them. Their critics are "partisans" and "ideologues," from their point of view. Their progressive views put them beyond that.
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Brock's Machine perfectly exemplifies this liberal self-understanding. His no-holds-barred attack on conservatism in and out of the media makes no distinctions between conservativespolitical or journalistic, academic or partisan, prudent or reckless. He reminds one of the historical subject of William Safire's political novel Scandalmonger, one James Callender, who, for the right price, could level his journalistic artillery at, and at the behest of, both Federalists and Republicans in the first partisan battles after the adoption of the United States Constitution. Brock, whom Bozell calls "a highly suspect source, to say the least, for he is an accomplished liar," underwent a "bizarre ideological transformation" that made him a darling of the liberal Left. The man who had been a pariah with his "Troopergate" and Anita Hill tales, found favor among liberals with his later, more "enlightened," work.
And Brock is formidable. Not interested merely in rebutting conservative critiques of the media, he directs his fire primarily at the big political sin, which is conservatism itself. From Brock's point of view, conservatism is not about constitutionalism or limited government or national defense. It is actually about class privilege, religious fanaticism, jingoism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. To prove this, he goes back to the reactionaries who opposed Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and links them to all conservatives since. Although he attempts to debunk Efron's work, whom he suspects of inspiring most conservative journalistic shenanigans, he leaves the task of unmasking conservative media distortions largely to others, such as Al Franken (author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, and now a struggling liberal talk show host) and The Nation's Eric Alterman (author of What Liberal Media?, itself a response to Bernard Goldberg's Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News). Brock has bigger fish to fry.
Brock wants to discredit the entire conservative movement. Throughout Machine Brock crudely refers to conservatives as "right wing," "far right," "extreme right," "Clinton bashers," and the like. If that's not enough, he debunks all conservative pretensions to scholarship or political thought. Editors, consultants, and fellows on the conservative side are always called into question by the use of scare quotes. And they are invariably in some rich man's pay. Except for a begrudging (and passing) respect for William F. Buckley Jr., even the most prestigious conservatives (if "conservative" is the right word) are put down as hacks, including Allan Bloom, Irving Kristol, William Kristol, Thomas Sowell, Charles Krauthammer, and Charles Murray. They are no different than Father Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith, Joseph McCarthy, Robert Welch, Carl McIntire, G. Gordon Liddy, or Michael Savage. And, of course, all conservative politicians, including Robert Taft, Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich, are enemies of liberal progress. For Brock, brickbats substitute for argument. The techniques are mostly name-calling, epithets, and a multitude of "facts" casting doubt on conservatives' credibility.
Thus, there is something sinister in everything that conservatives say and do. And they have been poisoning political and journalistic wells for years. These efforts have culminated in a powerful right-wing media that has intimidated the (not really) liberal media, many of whom have failed to grasp the full extent of the damage. The attack began during the Nixon Administration, when in 1969 Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked the three major television networks, along with the New York Times and Washington Post. Brock links every modern critic of the media in a vast, interlocking right-wing directorate, including Patrick Buchanan, Edith Efron, Lewis Powell, Terry Dolan, Richard Mellon Scaife, Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, Henry Regnery, Robert Novak, Peggy Noonan, Phyllis Schlafly, Matt Drudge, Rupert Murdock, Roger Ailesthe list goes on and on.
As the names indicate, the right's "noise machine" has been busy. It has produced "toilet papers" (the "Moonie" Washington Times), "fifth columnists" (George Will), "scandal sheets" (Human Events, as well as the internet), publishers of "dirty books" (Regnery), "talking heads" (Crossfire), "shock jocks" (Morton Downey Jr.), "unfair and unbalanced" cable television (Fox News), and "hate" radio (Rush Limbaugh). This catalogue of horrors (actually, chapter headings) typifies Brock's broad brush technique that fails to make any meaningful distinctions.
Brock sees the lame attempts to stem the conservative media tide by both liberals and journalists (in spite of his assertion that there is no link between them) as almost pathetic. These worthies make too many concessions, such as the outrageous idea that conservatives should have equal time with liberals, because in fact those liberals (if they are liberals), are primarily journalists with professional standards and a habit of tolerance for dissenting ideas (excluding conservatism). Not surprisingly, Fox News rates very low in Brock's estimation, for that kind of journalism, he says, does not belong on the air. But CNN is almost as bad for mistakenly inviting too many conservative commentators, particularly when they are juxtaposed with those liberals who really are journalists.
In distinguishing mainstream media journalists from conservative upstarts, Brock says that only the former "aspire" to objectivity in news reporting. But such "aspiration" is simply another word for good intentions and, as Samuel Johnson actually said, "Hell is paved with good intentions." Like Bozell, Brock denies the real political content of the mass media. He stridently insists that nothing but ignorance or malice could possibly lead one to question those good intentions. But in questioning the political motives of conservatives who criticize the media, he has a point. According to Brock, Bozell laid out his "propagandistic vision" for the Heritage Foundation in 1992:
Imagine, if you will, a future wherein the media willfully support the foreign policy objectives of the United States. A time when the left can no longer rely on the media to promote its socialist agenda to the public. A time when someone, somewhere in the media can be counted [on] to extol the virtues of morality without qualifications. When Betty Friedan no longer qualifies for "Person of the Week" honors. When Ronald Reagan is cited not as the "Man of the Year," but the "Man of the Century.
Assuming the accuracy of Brock's quotation of Bozell, we can be sure that no conservative would object to this "vision," and would not label it as "propagandistic." Why does Brock? Because, to state the obvious, he is not a conservative. But, more to the point, the reason why conservatives do not and should not object to the "vision" that horrifies Brock is that there is nothing wrong with it. Certainly, no conservative who holds this vision could claim to be neutral. A claim to objectivity (which Human Events has made for years) is another matter entirely. If what the founders called "self-evident" truths really are self-evident, it is reasonable to deduce from them that a foreign policy which preserves the American regime and a domestic policy which engenders good morals and avoids socialism are objectively good for the United States and the American people. Similarly, those statesmen who best promote these objectives should be honored, and those who do not promote them should not be honored. As hard as it is for liberals (or "moderates") to concede these positions, all partisans believe that sound public policy and public judgment proceed from correct premises. The only question is, what are the correct premises? No political order is sustainable without this conviction. Of course, reasonable people can disagree (not to mention unreasonable people) about these things, and they do. But the moment we succumb to the nihilism implicit in modern "neutral" journalism, we have lost our most basic rudder.
Bozell and Brock are opposing partisans whose notion of objectivity consists in a neutrality among opposing views, which in practice turns out to be unsustainable. But objectivity in America and other free regimes has a different source, and that is the self-evident proposition that all men are created equal.