In Bob Dole's remarkably inept campaign for the presidency, he could nonetheless count on one surefire applause line to rouse even the most dispirited audience: an attack on “the liberal media.” (He made a particular target of the New York Times.) Dole obviously enjoyed sticking it to the press, but there is no reason to doubt his sincerity in raising the issue. All politicians, whatever their differences, have one thing in common. They are all convinced that the press is irresponsible and that it is out to do them in. And, on both counts, they are right.
The political press in America—both print and broadcast—does its job, on the whole, quite badly, and in being so much less good than it ought to be it does a continuing disservice to the American people. The generally poisonous air of our politics owes much to the press and its characteristic way of reporting what goes on in our public life.
Part of the problem is ideological. The classic study in the 1980s by Robert and Linda Lichter and Stanley Rothman of the media elite (major reporters and executives at ABC, CBS, and NBC news, Time and Newsweek, and the New York Times and Washington Post) confirmed what everyone who pays attention to such things had already known: the men and women who give us the news are, as a group, politically more liberal, morally more permissive, and religiously more indifferent than the general public. Various studies since have confirmed the Lichter/Rothman findings. All of which means that the average citizen receives a version of political reality created by people whose views of the world are considerably at odds with his own.
How much difference this makes is a matter for debate. Defenders of the press argue that reporters' liberal instincts do not necessarily translate into liberal bias in handling of the news. It is true enough that most reporters want to be fair and do make more-or-less conscientious efforts not to allow their own preferences to intrude into their professional activities. We have fortunately got beyond the media mood of the sixties, when for a time the pernicious idea spread that, perfect objectivity being impossible, reporters should discard timid ideals of balance and impartiality and engage openly in “advocacy journalism.” Few reputable journalists ever succumbed to that heresy, and virtually none would advance it today (at least not in public).
Yet there was an element of truth in the advocacy heresy (as there is in most heresies), and it bears on the question of the relationship between what reporters privately believe and how they do their jobs. Perfect objectivity, whether in journalism or any other form of intellectual activity, is beyond attainment, and even the most scrupulous reporter will find it impossible to keep his reporting entirely untainted by ideology.
The world of reality never comes through to us unmediated. Facts acquire meaning only as they are selected, arranged, and interpreted. That process of taking on meaning is shaped for each of us by the distinctive worldviews we (explicitly or implicitly) live by, and so it follows necessarily that, to some degree, liberal reporters will produce liberal news. Whether, for example, one views committed pro-lifers as heroes or fanatics will depend on prior judgments regarding abortion. (This reality should in no way weaken journalists' attachment to the ideal of objectivity. We all know—or ought to know—that moral perfection is beyond our reach, yet most of us do not derive from that knowledge the conclusion that it is pointless to aspire to virtue.)
Liberals inclined to minimize the significance of a leftward inclination among the media elite might test themselves on the point by asking how they would react if the situation were reversed—if, in fact, the world taken for granted by the nation's leading reporters and news executives tilted to the right rather than the left. Having done so, they might be less likely than they now are to dismiss conservative fears on the subject as paranoid imaginings or instances of a know-nothing inclination to “blame the messenger” for bad news—as if journalistic “bad news” were not, at least in part, an artifact constructed of the subjective interpretations of the message-bearer.
All that said, I suspect that ideology is not the primary problem in the less-than-adequate job that the press does in transmitting the news. America is plagued less by advocacy journalism than by adversary journalism. The press has somehow concluded that its proper stance over against government and politics is one of opposition. Our political life is made to look worse than it is not so much because journalists oppose any one tendency in politics as because they have come to oppose the political class in general. We are the victims of a chronically—often mindlessly—antiestablishment press. It hounds Democrats in the White House almost as mercilessly as it does Republicans. Its notion of fairness is to act as equal-opportunity fishwife.
This habit of mind has deep roots in American history. The populist tradition, with its instinctive mistrust of government and conventional politics, goes all the way back to the nation's origins. Many, if not most, Americans have found it natural to assume that they are governed by knaves and fools, and so the press, in harping on that theme, merely reinforces prejudices that are already second-nature to its audience.
It was the Watergate scandal that hardened an habitual suspicion into an enduring article of belief. In Richard Nixon, it turned out that we had a President who, while certainly no fool, most assuredly was a knave. His successors are still paying for Nixon's sins. The press played a role—though a less significant one than it likes to imagine—in ferreting out the Watergate crimes, and it has never recovered from those moments of glory. Significant elements within the media continue to act as if they constituted a permanent and not-so-loyal opposition to the government of the day.
This most commonly takes the form of what one might call a naive cynicism toward the behavior of those in power. (The press has overlearned Lord Acton's maxim. Power may corrupt, but the exercise of power is not in itself a corruption.) So it is that actions or comments by major political figures are invariably accompanied (especially on the network news) by analyses that take the form of exposing the real reasons—always self-serving in nature and always carefully concealed—behind the words or deeds themselves. The audience can hardly miss the meaning: no politician ever quite means what he says or ever does anything except for reasons of self-aggrandizement. Politicians, to be sure, often do succumb to the temptations of power and we need to keep them on a short leash. But if they are no better than the rest of us, it is only a sentimental populism which insists that they are immeasurably worse.
No one disputes that the press exercises a necessary and often valuable watchdog function. But those in the media frequently act as if we had no judicial system or no institutionalized political opposition. The primary function of the press is to report and inform, and if it gives opposition politicians the coverage they deserve, we can assume that the job of keeping a careful watch on those in power will not go unattended.
There is no precise way to measure the damage that the prevailing negativism of the press does to political comity in America, but it must be considerable. The governing of a democratic society is a difficult enterprise, grounded in ambiguity and uncertainty, inherently controversial. Given a citizenry inclined to a lazy cynicism, the American press could advance the public interest by giving some sense of the relentless and unappeasable pressures under which democratic leaders operate. Instead it feeds a populist self-righteousness and antipolitics animus that reflect our political culture's least attractive qualities.
It is not the role of the press to provide us good news, but neither is it to compound our bad news.