Preserving Democracy

A man made the case to me, in a recent conversation, that those who are conservative are so because they have fallen under the sway of corporate owned conservative media. FOX News was singled out in particular for ‘regulation’ because of its ‘egregious’ conservative bias.

What's most disturbing about his line of thought is that it hints at a true belief in the efficacy of brainwashing; the idea that political ideology can be molded as a result of control of the media. To me, it's a tacit admission of a model the left has been following for far too long.

The idea that people could choose and be logically persuaded to be conservative did not seem to enter his mind at all. How could it? Once you have the full truth of liberalism, all opposing ideologies are false by definition.

Enter Mary Mapes and Dan Rather. (You can get a copy of the CBS report here.) How could this document scandal have happened?

In short, as Bernie Goldberg outlines in his book, Bias, mainstream 'professional' journalism is a predominantly liberal population. When all those around you have the same assumptions you do, and are taught that those assumptions are the definition of pure objectivity, it becomes all too easy to produce a slanted political hit piece that is timed for an election, based on forged documents, put forth as unimpeachable, and illogically defended as "fraudulent but true".

Exhibit A, the testimony of Walter Cronkite, as he explains that most journalists naturally lean to the left, but only because of training and their crusading nature.

I believe that most of us reporters are liberal, but not because we consciously have chosen that particular color in the political spectrum.

More likely it is because most of us served our journalistic apprenticeships as reporters covering the seamier side of our cities -- the crimes, the tenement fires, the homeless and the hungry, the underclothed and undereducated.

We reached our intellectual adulthood with daily close-ups of the inequality in a nation that was founded on the commitment to equality for all. So we tend to side with the powerless rather than the powerful.

To be liberal is to side with the victims of the powerful. Even if unconsciously arrived at. It follows then that to not be liberal is to side with the oppressors of the powerless. Even if unconsciously arrived at.

Walter Cronkite goes on to explain why it might seem the evening news has a bias to the left... coincidentally it is the same excuse the CBS report claims led them to air the Guard Memo story with fabricated evidence-- not enough time. Journalists apparently do not have enough time to be fair, or balanced, or objective.

The perceived liberalism of television reporters, I am convinced, is a product of the limited time given for any particular item. The reporter desperately tries to get all the important facts and essential viewpoints into his or her piece but, against a fast-approaching deadline, he or she must summarize in a sentence the complicated story.

That is where the slippage occurs and the summary too frequently, without intention, seems to emphasize one side or the other.

Just as the Democratic Party dominated congress for thirty years from FDR until Newt Gingrich, the media has by and large been predominantly liberal for the last thirty years. It's just a fact. FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, The New Deal, Camelot, The Great Society, all shaped our society and journalism reflected that political landscape. Today, America is not as liberal as it once was. In fact, it is becoming more conservative. In a free society, it would be expected eventually, that Journalism and the media would begin to reflect that as well.

Yet, some do not see it that way. They see a free market of ideas as another place where competition is ok in theory but not in practice. They see the trend of media and news that challenges their assumptions and does not pass neatly through their world-view filters as, 'endangering democracy itself.'

Howard Dean let this slip in a December 2003 interview on Hardball when asked if he'd like to break up FOX news. He replied yes, he certainly would like to, "on ideological grounds."

Ah, you gotta love free speech to defend it that vigorously.

MATTHEWS: Are you going to break up the giant media enterprises in this country?

DEAN: Yes, we're going to break up giant media enterprises. That doesn't mean we're going to break up all of GE [MSNBC's parent company].

What we're going to do is say that media enterprises can't be as big as they are today. I don't think we actually have to break them up, which Teddy Roosevelt had to do with the leftovers from the McKinley administration.


MATTHEWS: ... regulate them.

DEAN: You have got to say that there has to be a limit as to how-- if the state has an interest, which it does, in preserving democracy, then there has to be a limitation on how deeply the media companies can penetrate every single community. To the extent of even having two or three or four outlets in a single community, that kind of information control is not compatible with democracy.

MATTHEWS: How-- how far would you go in terms of public policy?


MATTHEWS: This is not-- what you describe is not laissez-faire.

It's not capitalism.

DEAN: It is capitalism.

MATTHEWS: How would you-- what would you call it?

DEAN: I am absolutely a capitalist. Capitalism is the greatest system that people have ever invented, because it takes advantage of bad traits, as well as our good traits, and turns them into productivity.

But the essence of capitalism, which the right-wing never understands-- it always baffles me-- is, you got to have some rules. Imagine a hockey game with no rules. Hardball, Dec. 1, 2003

"...if the state has an interest, which it does, in preserving democracy,..." Well, if Democracy itself is at stake, by all means, do whatever is necessary to control media ownership and enforce your version of free speech 'balance'. How can someone who claims that the first amendment is sacrosanct reconcile the idea of controlling and regulating how many 'media outlets' there are in a given city? Or how popular or successful a media company can be?

This is inevitably where the liberal idea of media regulation leads, to ideas like bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. Essentially enforcing their views through the power of the state-- for the preservation of democracy of course. I believe this stems directly from Walter Cronkite's explanation of how reporters become liberals. Rather than seeing an opportunity to increase freedom for all, they propose measures to decrease it for some (the oppressors) in favor of others (the oppressed). The problem with that being who decides who the oppressor is and who is oppressed? What constitutes 'being downtrodden'? That the cable company charged you too much? That you only have 500 channels and there's nothing on TV? That there's only one pacifica network radio station heard in your town, but there's three that have conservative talk shows?

My view is that political ideology cannot be kept out of political discourse. Inevitably, reporting on politicians and political events becomes a part of the political discourse. (Consider, what news or event, however small or trivial, cannot be seen as political from someone's point of view?) We are all entitled to our points of view, in fact, the very nature of being human means we must have a world view in order to live, to make decisions.

If therefore, the main underlying purpose of journalism is to inform the public, wouldn't more information be better? For instance, wouldn't the fact that a reporter has beliefs which guide his thought process and give him a matrix through which he views the world be additional meta-information you might like to know along with the facts he or she is stringing together in 'objective' fashion?

In a free society, monopolies are like snowmen. The spring always comes. Today, there are more sources of information available than ever before. Reporting and information dissemination is even now being taken out of the hands of the elite few and given to the many. Let's keep going in that direction.

Posted by Eric Simonson at January 11, 2005 4:08 AM