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The End of News?

In late September, the Government Accountability Office—a nonpartisan arm of Congress—issued a finding that the Bush administration had engaged in “covert propaganda,” and thereby broken the law, by paying Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, to promote its educational policies. The GAO also faulted the administration for hiring a public relations firm to distribute video news segments without disclosing the government’s part in producing them.1 The auditors’ report, which followed a year-long investigation, presents chilling evidence of the campaign that officials in Washington have been waging against a free and independent press. Only months before, it was revealed that Kenneth Tomlinson, the President’s choice to head the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, had paid a Republican operative to monitor the political leanings of guests on Bill Moyers’s show Now, as part of a broader effort to shift PBS’s programming to the right.

The Bush administration has restricted access to public documents as no other before it. According to a recent report on government secrecy by OpenTheGovernment.org, a watchdog organization, the federal government classified a record 15.6 million new documents in fiscal year 2004, an increase of 81 percent over the year before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Spending on the declassification of documents dropped to a new low. What’s more, 64 percent of Federal Advisory Committee meetings in 2004 were completely closed to the public. The Pentagon has banned TV cameras from recording the return of caskets from Iraq, and it prohibited the publication of photographs of those caskets, a restriction that was lifted only following a request through the Freedom of Information Act.

The restrictions have grown so tight that the normally quiescent American Society of Newspaper Editors last fall issued a “call to arms” to its members, urging them to “demand answers in print and in court” to stop this “deeply disturbing” trend. The conservative columnist William Safire, usually a supporter of Bush’s policies, complained last September that “the fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before.”

But the campaign against the press is only partly a result of a hostile White House. The administration’s efforts have been amplified by a disciplined and well-organized news and opinion campaign directed by conservatives and the Christian right. This well-funded network includes newsletters, think tanks, and talk radio as well as cable television news and the Internet. Often in cooperation with the White House, these outlets have launched a systematic campaign to discredit what they refer to disparagingly as “MSM,” for mainstream media. Through the Internet, commentators can channel criticism of the press to the general public faster and more efficiently than before. As became plain in the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry, to cite one of many examples, an unscrupulous critic can spread exaggerated or erroneous claims instantaneously to thousands of people, who may, in turn, repeat them to millions more on talk radio programs, on cable television, or on more official “news” Web sites. This kind of recycled commentary has become all the more effective because it is aimed principally at a sector of the population that seldom if ever sees serious press coverage.

Partly as a result, newspapers find themselves less popular than ever before, at a time when the newspaper industry itself is losing readers while struggling to cuts costs and meet demands for ever larger profits. Today’s journalists, meanwhile, when compared to their predecessors, often seem far less willing to resist political pressure from the White House. In the 1970s, for example, The Washington Post refused to buckle under intense White House pressure during Watergate, and The New York Times did not shrink from publishing the Pentagon Papers. Recently, in contrast, the Times had to apologize for uncritically publishing false government claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and Time magazine released the notes of its journalist Matthew Cooper to a government prosecutor without his consent. Conservative commentators and the administration have also been able to intimidate publications into shunning investigative reporting, as when, for example, Newsweek promised to crack down on its use of anonymous sources after being criticized for its story about the mishandling of the Koran by the US military, and when CBS forced the resignation of four news employees after questions were raised about the 60 Minutes broadcast on Bush’s record in the National Guard. With the President’s poll numbers down and infighting among conservatives more visible, the coverage of Washington has sharpened of late, but overall the climate remains hostile to good reporting.

1.

In 1969, when Vice President Spiro Agnew gave a series of speeches attacking the TV networks and top newspapers as liberal and elitist, only one small organization outside the government was pursuing similar aims. Accuracy in Media was run out of a modest office in Washington by a reactionary gadfly named Reed Irvine. He published a newsletter that singled out journalists whose reporting he found objectionable, insinuating that they were soft on communism and on leftist dictators, if not entirely disloyal. Such charges caused conservative newspaper readers to question the fairness of some news accounts, but Irvine’s politics were so extreme that most editors dismissed him as a crank.

In 1979, conservatives discovered a new basis for criticizing the press when S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman released a study purporting to show the leftist leanings of national journalists. Of 240 journalists surveyed, eight out of ten said they voted Democratic in presidential elections from 1964 to 1976. Nine out of ten said they supported abortion rights, more than half said they saw nothing wrong with adultery, and few attended church. In 1985, Lichter and his wife Linda, with the financial support of such conservative foundations as Scaife and Olin, formed the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research institute that, while presenting itself as nonpartisan, sought to document instances of liberal bias on the networks and in newspapers. Its reports helped complement the Reagan administration’s efforts to portray the press as out of step with “mainstream America.” The impact of these efforts was apparent in journalists’ often uncritical coverage of such issues as supply-side economics and the abusive activities of the Salvadoran military, the Nicaraguan contras, and other forces allied with the US in Central America. (There were exceptions, however, such as The New York Times‘s investigation of the CIA’s relations with Panama’s Manuel Noriega in the late 1980s.)

An even more consequential, though much less visible, change took place in 1987, with the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine. Introduced in 1949, this rule required TV and radio stations to cover “controversial issues” of interest to their communities, and, when doing so, to provide “a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints.” Intended to encourage stations to avoid partisan programming, the Fairness Doctrine had the practical effect of keeping political commentary off the air altogether. In 1986, a federal court ruled that the doctrine did not have the force of law, and the following year the FCC abolished it.

At that point, stations were free to broadcast whatever they wanted. In 1988, several dozen AM stations began carrying a show hosted by a thirty-seven-year-old college dropout named Rush Limbaugh. Advertising himself as “the most dangerous man in America,” Limbaugh attracted listeners by combining political jokes, thundering polemics, and outrageous overstatement. He spoke, he said, “with half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair, because I have a talent on loan from…God. Rush Limbaugh. A man. A legend. A way of life.”

The eternal enemy, he claimed, is “liberalism…. It destroys prosperity. It assigns sameness to everybody.” On his show, he has described feminists as “feminazis” and referred to the prison in GuantĂĄnamo as “Club Gitmo,” a place where the conditions are so plush as to resemble those of a country club. Limbaugh appealed to conservatives who felt no one else was expressing their resentments with such satisfying vehemence; soon hundreds of stations were carrying the show, which by now, according to Media Week, has generated well more than $1 billion in revenue.

Limbaugh’s success, in turn, has inspired “a vast new armada” of right-wing talk show hosts, according to Brian C. Anderson in his book South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias.2 A senior editor at City Journal, a magazine published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York think tank, Anderson is so sure of the press’s liberal slant that he makes only slapdash efforts to document it. He claims, for instance, that press bias is “at its most egregious in war reporting.” A prime example, he claims, is the “defeatist coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars,” each of which was portrayed by CNN and the daily press as “another Vietnam.” Anderson overlooks the nearly unanimous support of editorial boards for both those conflicts, the credulous acceptance by national news organizations of the Bush administration’s claims regarding Iraq’s WMDs, and the triumphalist coverage of the US military’s push into Baghdad.3 He takes no note of the thoroughly conventional views of most of the guests on CNN’s talk shows, the network’s heavy reliance on retired military officers for commentary, and Wolf Blitzer’s often obsequious and usually predictable questioning of administration officials.

But South Park Conservatives does give a concise account of the right’s successful assault on the mainstream press. “Drive across the country these days,” Anderson writes in a chapter on talk radio, “and you’ll never be out of range of conservative voices on the AM dial or satellite radio.” The list of the top twenty talk radio shows nationwide is thick with conservatives. The most popular is Limbaugh, whose daily three-hour show attracts an estimated weekly audience of around 14 million. Next comes Sean Hannity, whose show, carried on nearly four hundred stations, attracts 12 million weekly, and who is also the co-host of Fox News’s nightly TV program Hannity & Colmes. “Dr. Laura” Schlesinger, who inveighs against feminists and homosexuals, has eight million listeners, as does Michael Savage, who ridicules the handicapped and considers Arabs “non-humans.” Laura Ingraham, the author of Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America, has five million. Other popular right-wing hosts include Bill O’Reilly, William Bennett, G. Gordon Liddy, and Michael Medved. (The liberal Air America is now carried on sixty-eight radio stations nationwide, but its daily audience is puny compared to that enjoyed by the right.)

As Anderson makes clear, these shows not only provide their own slant on the news, but also work ceaselessly to discredit what they call “liberal” news organizations. Day after day, talk radio echoes and magnifies the criticisms of the press made by the White House, charging The New York Times and The Washington Post, CBS and CNN with being for big government and against big business, for abortion rights and against gun rights, for Democrats and against Republicans.

  1. 1

    See GAO reports to Senators Frank R. Lautenberg and Edward M. Kennedy, “Department of Education—Contract to Obtain Services of Armstrong Williams” [B-305368] and “Department of Education—No Child Left Behind Act Video News Release and Media Analysis” [B-304228], September 30, 2005.

  2. 2

    Regnery, 2005.

  3. 3

    The reporting of Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau was one of the few exceptions to this trend. See my articles in these pages, “Now They Tell Us,” The New York Review, February 26, 2004; and “Unfit to Print?The New York Review, June 24, 2004.

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