For those on the left, the more operative words these days are “mainstream,” “establishment,” or “traditional.” And if one is feeling particularly aggrieved, the description of choice is increasingly — and surprisingly — “conservative.”
Gone are the days when only the right howled about bias and malice from network anchors and star political reporters. What began roughly a decade ago as frustration from Democrats over coverage of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and adulterous escapades has morphed into an informally organized rapid response network, ready to pounce on any and all perceived media slights against Barack Obama.
Clearly, bloggers aren’t a monolithic group. But it’s fair to say that liberal bloggers — and the more activist-oriented members of the netroots within that group — have been calling out the media’s campaign coverage with far more regularity than just four years ago. And it’s not simply because there are more activists who know how Moveable Type works.
Pushback against the media has been aided by the growth of more sophisticated liberal news sites, such as Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post. In 2004, TPM founder Josh Marshall didn’t have any paid staffers; this year he has nine. And Arianna Huffington’s arsenal of nearly 2,000 bloggers didn’t exist until President Bush was already six months into his second term. Not to mention, liberal watchdog group Media Matters — which provides ammo to many bloggers — has grown in that time from about 20 staffers to near 100, according to a source familiar with the organization.
Criticism from the left can take a variety of forms, including fact-checking, aggregating links and sometimes original reporting. Also, similar to the right’s strategy over decades of “working the refs,” there are left-leaning bloggers who provide a knee-jerk dismissal of whatever’s on the front page of the Times or making the rounds on Sunday chat shows.
Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, who co-authored with Jerome Armstrong the seminal Netroots tract, “Crashing the Gates,” said in an e-mail that he’s found political coverage to be “utterly vapid, devoid of context, frequently wrong, and wedded to narratives that defy all logic and reality.”
Trolling a handful of the top liberal blogs, it’s obvious that Moulitsas’ critique isn’t isolated.
Liberal bloggers often raise the issue of how Al Gore and John Kerry were treated by the press and have adopted a “never again” approach to the 2008 race. Bloggers raise a ruckus when they believe the media is focusing too heavily on superficial issues rather than policy. Some examples: bloggers cried foul when the national press kept writing about whether Obama wore a flag lapel pin, as well as the various narratives discussed as clouding his chances in November — inexperience, overly eloquent, arrogant, too skinny, too black or not black enough. And don’t mention Bittergate, Obama’s now infamous thoughts about Americans who own guns and go to church, to a left-of-center blogger, either.
“Liberals believe that they can’t get a fair shake from the media anymore,” said Eric Alterman, media critic and author of the 2003 book “What Liberal Media?”
So when liberals feel the media is misrepresenting something important, Alterman said, they respond quickly. “That’s an exact mirror of what the right did with talk radio,” he added.
Alterman, like several liberal writers interviewed, said that he consides the majority of Beltway journalists to be socially liberal but “corrupted by their need to be part of the establishment.”
It’s that seeming coziness to power — on display during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner or when a slew of Pulitzer Prize winners took the stand in the CIA leak trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby — that has stuck in the left’s craw.
Alterman said there were three moments that led to the current dissatisfaction with the national press: the Clinton impeachment proceeding (which spawned MoveOn.org), the media’s handling of the 2000 election recount and the run-up to the Iraq war.
“One of the hallmarks of Netroots culture was a complete disconnect from history — meaning, basically, anything that had happened before 1998,” New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai wrote in “The Argument,” his 2007 book on the modern Democratic Party.
“So burning was [the Netroots’] contempt for ‘Washington insiders’ and the ‘mainstream media’ that they were moved to dismiss not just the individuals who fell into these categories, but all the knowledge such people had accumulated,” Bai continued.
Having spent a considerable amount of time with constituents of what former presidential candidate Howard Dean had described as “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” Bai said he found that “the disdain for the media is a central tenant of the philosophy. It’s one of the boxes to check.”
Other chroniclers have reached similar conclusions. The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, in an 8,000-word article on the movement last year, wrote that the “Netroots look upon this great right-wing apparatus with unconcealed envy,” following in the footsteps — operationally, not ideologically — of conservative activists such as Grover Norquist who have turned attacking the media into a pastime.
And like their conservative brethren, the new left has, in Bai’s words, “a fury at institutional media like The New York Times.”
It’s not hard to find liberal bloggers calling out the Gray Lady in today’s political media environment. Earlier this month, when The Associated Press described the Times as belonging to the “liberal media,” one Daily Kos writer asked, “Since when does anyone besides toolbag Republicans consider the media to be liberal?”
Of course, the Times isn’t alone in being skewered by the left. The Washington Post — once lauded by liberal Democrats as the paper that took down President Richard Nixon — is also a target.
Dana Milbank, the former New Republic writer-turned-Washington Post columnist, has seen his share of catcalls.
“I think we’ve reached a point where, by volume, there’s far more on the left,” Milbank said regarding criticism of his work. Although the “media criticism industry was dominated by conservatives,” he added, it’s been tilting left since 2004.
For instance, the liberal blogosphere became inflamed by Milbank’s July 30 column in which he wrote that Obama was shifting from “presumptive nominee” to “presumptuous nominee.” In that article, Milbank quoted Obama as saying in a meeting with House members that he had “become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” The following day, additional context was revealed, indicating that Obama might actually have been speaking more humbly.
While the right lauded the column, the left reacted with headlines including Daily Kos’ “Dana Milbank is a Class-A Moron.” TPM produced a nearly 10-minute video compilation of overheated pundit reactions to the column. And six different Huffington Post writers weighed in with pieces such as “Context, Schmontext a WaPo” and “Obama's Good Day and a Columnist's Bad One.”
But Milbank’s not the only Post staffer who’s been dropped from the left’s Christmas card list.
“I used to get a lot more on the right,” said columnist Richard Cohen, who broke with liberals when he supported the Iraq war. More recently, the left has picked apart columns that are perceived as being favorable to John McCain.
“If you’re a little bit critical of Barack Obama, you get really a pie of vilification right in the face,” Cohen said, adding that his liberal critics “were born too late, because they would have been great communists.”
Matt Stoller, a political consultant and editor of OpenLeft, agreed there’s more pushback than in the last cycle, “because we’re just better at it than we were four years ago.”
“The people on the left no longer see the media as a third-party intermediary,” Stoller said. “They just see it as part of the political campaign. You go after media figures as if they’re part of the opposition campaign. It’s how they need to be treated.”
Veteran political reporter Joe Klein learned about such treatment when he began blogging in January 2007 for Time magazine’s new feature, Swampland.
When asked about criticism from bloggers, Klein responded in an e-mail that he’s getting more from the right these days, but has “certainly taken my share of hits from the left on FISA and other issues.”
“I find that intemperance is intemperance from whichever direction it’s coming,” Klein said. “The methods used are always the same: quotes taken out of context or chopped apart with ellipses, ad hominem attacks, etc. But I do find the broad-brush dismissal of the mainstream media very frustrating, especially at this moment when we’re staggering toward the boneyard.”
Besides Klein, there are several other frequent targets, such as The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney. On the television side, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who once helped Clinton get elected president, has become persona non grata among many liberal Democrats in 2008, following his co-moderating of a Democratic debate in April. (Incidentally, more than 20 Huffington Post bloggers wrote on the matter, even calling his performance “shameful”).
But it’s not only the mainstream media taking hits, but even sites that might represent a new “mainstream” among the left. Similar to the right’s willingness to call out their own when straying from the flock, liberal bloggers have acted accordingly.
MyDD’s Armstrong, often referred to as the “blogfather,” said many liberal bloggers don’t remember the 1990s or the two previous presidential campaigns. “From my perspective, Obama’s got it pretty good,” Armstrong said.
An enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries, Armstrong said that “even on MyDD, which is a liberal blog, every time I criticize Obama, I get a huge amount of slack from his supporters.”
Indeed, that morning, Armstrong wrote that “Obama is definitely the weakest nominee that Democrats have put up this decade.” Commenters quickly pounced, saying Armstrong was “factually wrong,” “ridiculous,” and promoting his “usual BS.”
“It’s like I’ve been a traitor to the Democratic Party,” Armstrong said.