Outside Voices: Tim Graham On What Conservative Media Critics Are And Aren't

(Tim Graham)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week we turned to Tim Graham, Director of Media Analysis for the Media Research Center. From his conservative media watchdog perch, Graham (a frequent commenter on Public Eye) answers some of the questions he's often asked, and gives his take on the differences between right and left media critics. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Take it away, Tim:

If a conservative were to start a career in the field of politics with the goal of gaining maximum exposure in the "mainstream media," probably the last thing he or she would do is sign up with a conservative media watchdog group. Conservatives of a certain pre-Internet vintage knew it was hard enough getting your name in the paper without picking a fight with the media giants. But since Public Eye was kind enough to solicit this "outside voice," let's explore a few questions we are often asked:

1. Are you anti-journalist? Left-wing media-watch groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting make a show of how they're "pro-journalist," as if we at the MRC are not. Surely, Dan Rather is not on our Most Admired list. But we have a deep, geeky love of the news. Several of us can remember being grade-school age and watching Vietnam stories with 'VIA SATELLITE' graphics on screen, when the technology was new and exciting. At 17, I was a little late for my dishwashing job the night Walter Cronkite did his last newscast.

We know the value of reporting done right, but we also warn of the harm of reporting done wrong. We're media critics in part because we're angered by media unfairness, inaccuracy and even injustice in reporting on our ideas and our think tanks, on our political leaders and our historical heroes, on our religious faiths and our traditional family upbringings. But the great majority of what we watch and read is not noticeably unfair or inaccurate. If we were asked the recent CBS poll question, "How often do the news media tell the truth," we would answer "most of the time." So much of the news our patient analysts review every day is focused on subjects without earth-shaking political impact: who won at the Olympics, wildfires and church arsons, low-fat diets and teenage alcohol consumption, missing white girls and Britney Spears neglecting to belt up her baby. We don't suspect the networks are twisting or omitting facts for a political agenda in these hours.

After decades on this beat, we're familiar with the workings of journalism (in my case, I had a recent stint in the White House press corps) and we're willing to consider that many stories we don't like, like the Cheney frenzy this week, are undeniably news. (We may not like the "flood the zone" number of stories, or the tilt within, but would concede it's a story.)

2. Are you cheerleaders for corporate conglomeration in the news business? Conservatives are clearly capitalists, but if there's one thing that left-wing and right-wing media critics can agree on, it's that TV news is too dumbed-down and focus-grouped and concentrated on cheesy stories of the nanny-shook-the-baby-too-hard variety.

For liberal media critics, these stories obstruct the media from having a political impact – what Danny Schechter calls "serving democracy" and displaying "conscience" instead of goosing commerce. As conservative media critics, we can understand how a day heavy on News Lite is a day for high fives at the Bush White House. But it was also a pleasing vacation from scandal stories for the Clinton White House as well, from the O.J. Simpson trial forward.

Media critics of both varieties can easily be accused of being snobbish, of wanting more spinach for viewers, so that more Americans might be able to identify who is Secretary of State or who is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or understand what is a conference report or a health savings account.

3. Are you only happy when conservatives get to dominate the news? This reminds me of an old Bill Moyers quote from 1991 in the public-broadcasting newspaper Current, complaining about David Horowitz trying to balance out PBS: "He and his ilk do not want 'fairness and balance' -- they want unanimity. They don't want 'media integrity' -- they want media subservience to their ideology. To him and his reactionary allies, criticism equals subversion, opposition equals treason, and liberalism is a personal affront."

Liberalism at its most arrogant assumes that "dissent" is narrowly defined as heroic disagreement with stodgy conservatism and "speaking truth to power" is the same as exposing conservatives as reckless and ridiculous. But when the president or the Senate leader is a Democrat, doesn't the definition of power change? It's not just elected leaders. To conservative media critics, the established media elite aren't speaking truth to power – they are the power. They are not dissenters, but the authority the dissenters are challenging.

I would argue that in the modern TV-news era, ever since Edith Efron first tagged the media for liberal bias in "The News Twisters," that it's easier to suggest that it's liberal media poobahs who have more accurately lived up to the Moyers accusation – that have wished for liberal unanimity, and the voicing of conservatism is a personal affront. They have told liberal media friends it made no sense to balance sweet liberal reason and truth with the misinformation of conservatism, a dark creed beyond the pale of civilized discourse.

I have interviewed TV news producers who've bluntly told me they had no interest in "ping-pong matches" from differing ideological poles, that it only "confuses" the audience. The scientist who's skeptical of global warming forecasts, the quiet protester praying the rosary in front of an abortion clinic, the conservative Christian expert who argues "gay marriage" will broadly undermine stable parenting for children: these people are not welcome to sit at the liberal media table. They are shunned as the voices of subversion and unreason.

For an echo of unanimity, look no further than last week's piece by Danny Schechter, who denounces Bernard Goldberg as a "liberal turned renegade" on a bender of "personal bitterness." He is saying Goldberg's dissent from his old network is a personal affront. Yet he embraces disgraced Mary Mapes for her "highly detailed tell-all tales." There's no "personal bitterness" or misinformation from this Bush-hating partisan?

The Danny Schechters of the world, weaned on sixties radicalism, have the network resumes. He's worked at ABC, at CNN, and made documentaries and series for PBS. Most of us as young conservative journalists never considered sending a resume to these outlets. Those now accused of being TV news conservatives – say, John Stossel, or Brit Hume – certainly weren't hired at the networks with conservative activism on their resumes.

4. How can you advocate objectivity, when you're not objective? It's amazing how many people think the argument over liberal bias can be ended in ten seconds by insisting that right-wingers are hardly objective, so they can't insist on objectivity for the media elite. No person can be objective, but a news outlet can certainly strive toward an objective method.

Personally, I'm amazed that liberals think they have the more idealistic position on media bias. The conservative position is for fairness and balance and debate, for each side getting a say. You can argue that conservatives are merely tugging the media rightward in their nefarious demands for balance, but the location of these poles demonstrates convincingly that the media today is not on the right, but located noticeably to the left of the Squishiest Middle and somewhere to the right of the rarefied radical air around Ramsey Clark.
  • Vaughn Ververs

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