The Conservative Mainstream Media

Sarah Palin loves to wink and proclaim the evils of the “liberal lamestream media”. She has kept her dubious career in politics alive largely by her ability to fall back on the “media hates conservatives” theme with impunity. In fairness to the Ex-Half-Term, she didn’t create the theme; the idea of a liberal media has been around for decades now. The great threat to our democracy now, however, is not Sarah Palin’s excuse making or Rush Limbaugh’s labeling. The real issue is that the major media outlets have taken the myth to heart.

For years, major media was dominated by big newspapers, entities that were controlled by powerful men who used them as tools in support of their business or political ambitions. Yellow journalism, or the use of sensationalism with little factual anchors, rose in parallel to investigative journalism. The public’s eventual negative reaction to yellow journalism led to TV news that focused on sober recitation of news items, and a new newspaper organization that relegated opinion largely to the back pages. Opinion and bias are inescapable, journalists are humans after all, but there was a real tradition of reporting what was seen and heard in context.

By the 1970’s, what was seen and heard, in context, was increasingly unfavorable to conservative politicians. Large commercial interests did not appreciate journalists who exposed backroom shenanigans, or backwoods waste dumping. Libertarians did not appreciate stories about popular programs like Medicare or Social Security. Republicans were less than flattered by the media coverage of Richard Nixon’s often unsavory tactics. When the FCC under President Reagan began to take apart the Fairness Doctrine, the potential for broadcast news to  return to the tactics of yellow journalism was unleashed.

Beginning in the 1980’s, conservatives on the air began a relentless attack on the major networks and periodicals like the New York Times and Time Magazine. The goal was nothing less than a traditional branding campaign. Led by Rush Limbaugh and other major personalities, conservative pundits and politicians constantly used the label “liberal media” to describe major outlets. They also adopted the practice of responding to arguments raised by those entities by attacking the entities themselves. Conservatives and liberals alike resort to ad hominem attacks when they are walked into a corner, but this strategy of branding relied on ad hominem attacks as a primary tool. Rather than responding to a factual argument with a factual counter, conservatives attacked the source.

The results of this decades long effort are plain to see; the major media outlets now bend over backward to find and show “both sides” of every story. The problem is that stories don’t have sides, they have a set of facts and a context. Journalists are tasked with reporting the facts, and the context, and are protected in this venture by the First Amendment. In the last two years, major media outlets have worked overtime presenting the “conservative point of view” on the birther movement, death panels, health care polling, the response to the Big Spill, and the estate tax. In every case, they regularly omitted or failed to report critical facts in their rush to display two sides to the story.

Mainstream media outlets, in the era of declining market share, have become so fearful of charges of bias that they have become biased against the facts. As a result, the most absurd themes of our time have become enshrined in the public mind. We live, friends, at a time where a significant percentage of our fellow citizens believe that one or more members of major media are, in fact, in a conspiracy with President Obama to install a communist, Islamic government in the United States. The absurdity of publicly traded firms worth billions giving up on capitalism is so extreme as to make many rational folks ignore it. But the notion persists.

The mainstream media has, almost reflexively, become an instrument of conservative political instruments. Republican politicians are allowed to go on the Sunday shows and discuss issues without a scrap of evidence to back up their points and allegations. Meanwhile, the same major media outlets have made a habit out of responding to every outrageous charge leveled by conservative bloggers against President Obama and his family. The President’s vacation days, his golfing, his cheeseburgers, his Memorial Day schedule, indeed everything he does is evaluated in the lens of conservative pundits rather than in the context of what previous presidents have done.

The conservative mainstream media has taken over the thread of our national discourse on democracy and, as such, has contributed to the thirty year decline of the American working class. The point elements of the CMM are hard at work building a false case for privatizing both Medicare and Social Security. They are hard at work attacking the competitive salaries and pensions of working class Americans employed by state governments. They are hard at work attacking the regulations that ensure that America is both safer and cleaner than those “Third World” nations we so often look down our noses at.

Conservative themes, unsupported by verifiable facts, dominate the opinion mediums of talk radio and cable news. Conservative themes have taken root in major newspapers, and the big three broadcasters are afraid to report facts in context. The conservative mainstream media is busy reporting the alleged decline of the United States, as caused by Barack Obama, even as it facilitates the evolution of the United States into a land of waste and ignorance dominated by a handful of big corporations.

Sarah Palin’s ability to walk through a world of her construction, one detached from reality and devoid of principle, is becoming the norm for our society. We have begun to justify ignorance and misunderstanding instead of confronting them. We have begun to accept lower standards of truth and fact in an attempt to shield ourselves from painful reality. The conservative mainstream media was initiated by conservative pundits, but it is fueled and maintained by a lazy and directionless public. This means that there is a bright side to this story. A motivated public that demands facts would mean a quick death for partisan journalism. And that fact, my friends, would be fun to report.

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2 Responses to “The Conservative Mainstream Media”

  • hzane says:

    You seem to be falling into the conservative trap of intoxicating nostalgia. The media has always been a bias right wing instrument of the state. We find this time to be most repugnant because this is the time we live in. I can say with confidence that progressive thinkers of the 50’s, 70’s and 90’s had a different host of grievances with the mainstream media. One positive aspect to today’s environment over previous is the availability of information. Not just on the internet but publishing and broadcasting alike have redefined and expanded their limits. Also I do not see how the birther movement of today is anymore destructive than McCarthyism was. This is how the right objects to social empowerment or minority protection. By screaming communist over and over again. It’s not a new strategy.

  • stephen says:

    No medium is isolated from the other media, and we must put all of this shift in journalistic practice into context: radio journalism, television and video journalism, print journalism, internet journalism all co-exist and compete. The effect of the medium and the effect of the content can each differently impact the recipient, as the author of the phrases “global village” and “the medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan, so eloquently postulated. I think we should all take time to read Marshall McLuhan’s books again and see if our present dilemma in journalism makes more sense, especially Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964); and The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967) and From Cliché to Archetype (1970);. His other major works are also worth reading: The Mechanical Bride:Folklore of Industrial Man (1951); The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962): the Making of Typographical Man (1962); War and Peace in the Global Village (1968); and the posthumous publication, by his son, of Laws of Media (1988).

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