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Conventional Wisdom

This column was written by Fred Barnes.
Conservatives are justifiably proud of the alternative they've created to the mainstream media — the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, big regional papers, TV networks, and the national news magazine. Last year, conservative talk radio, websites, and bloggers forced the Swift Boats vets story onto the national media agenda and instantly destroyed 60 Minutes' case against President Bush and his Texas Air National Guard service. But conservatives shouldn't get triumphal. The mainstream media still rules.

We see this every day. Consider the case of Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who recently called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. The mainstream media treated this as a shot out of the blue by a defense hawk who suddenly concluded that the war was unwinnable. Conservatives knew better — namely that Murtha had been criticizing the war for many months and that his call for withdrawal was utterly irresponsible.

The mainstream media view prevailed. Murtha was treated as a pro-war hawk who had reluctantly — and more in sorrow than in anger — turned against the intervention in Iraq. Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" gave him an "up" arrow, and indeed that reflected media opinion about Murtha and opposition to the war in Iraq. The dissent by the conservative media barely registered.

Despite all the good done by the alternative media, the mainstream media is still able to impose its interpretation on news events. It has no qualms about creating out of whole cloth national figures it likes. And the mainstream media continues to hold to a double standard, one for Democrats and liberals, another for Bush and Republicans.

I don't mean to diminish the alternative media. It's simply that the mainstream media is far bigger and much, much stronger — and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Talk radio, websites and bloggers don't report. They can only react to the reporting of the mainstream media.

Fox News has dozens of reporters. It's not really part of the alternative media. True, it's far more welcoming to conservative commentators (I'm one of them) than any of the mainstream broadcast outlets and this gives Fox a conservative tilt. But Fox also has many liberal commentators. And its reporters, in my view, are fairer and less partisan than most mainstream media reporters.

A good example of the mainstream media's power is Cindy Sheehan, the left-wing mother of a soldier slain in Iraq. She showed up in Texas last summer demanding to see the president, who was on vacation at his ranch. The mainstream media elevated her stardom, rarely mentioning that she had already met once with Bush and had allied herself with far-left activists.

Cindy Sheehan was created out of whole cloth. Having talked to Bush in person since her son was killed, she had no special claim on his time. Nor, as an antiwar protester, was she representative of parents of slain GI's — quite the contrary. But the media embraced her. Sadly for Sheehan, her protest near Bush's ranch over Thanksgiving was a flop. Why? Because the mainstream media had moved on, presumably without informing her.

The conservative alternative media has vigorously challenged the mainstream media's take on many stories, but has rarely changed it. Consider the CIA leak case. The conventional story line is that the Bush White House sought to punish a brave whistleblower, Joseph Wilson, for publicly refuting a Bush claim about Iraq by outing his wife, a CIA agent. In truth, the Bush White House merely sought to knock down Wilson's story because it was false.

The mainstream media line has survived. We see it repeated endlessly. The alternative media has cataloged Wilson's numerous lies — with little effect. When Wilson appeared recently on 60 Minutes, he was treated a man who spoke truth to power and suffered for it.

On Iraq, the mainstream media have been relentlessly negative. And this has had a clear impact on the public, whose support for the president's Iraq policy has nosedived. The alternative media has played up the many examples of good news and optimistic assessments of Iraq. It's not difficult to see who has been the dominant force on that issue.

Last year, the mainstream media went into a frenzy after the president was accused of being AWOL during his National Guard duty. But the same media was uninterested when scores of Swift Boat veterans who served with John Kerry challenged his heroic account of his Vietnam service. And when it finally took up the Kerry story, the mainstream media's focus was primarily on discrediting the vets, not Kerry.

This year, the same double standard applies to the Democrats' attempt to market the story that the president lied about Iraq intelligence before war. With rare exceptions, Democrats are not required to justify their charge with evidence. Bush, though, is being called on to defend his innocence.

On top of all that, the mainstream media likes to throw its weight around, often at Bush's expense. When he attended the Summit of the Americas in Argentina earlier this month, Bush met with American reporters to answer a few questions. The first four (of five) were about whether he would fire senior aide Karl Rove, apologize to the American people, combat the notion he's untrustworthy, or try to give his presidency a fresh start. Only one dealt with his policy toward Latin America.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

By Fred Barnes