Commentary Magazine


Who Created the Gerrymandered Media?

New York Times media columnist David Carr thinks its shocking that some smart people don’t want to read his paper or the Washington Post. He was amazed to learn in a New York magazine interview that Justice Antonin Scalia a man who is widely acknowledged, even in the saner precincts of the left, to be an intellectual giant, won’t read either of them and that his daily sources for news are limited to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and conservative talk radio. Carr presents this as evidence that denizens of the right wing echo chamber are not just “a bunch of narrow-minded, politically obsessed characters who send mass e-mails from their mother’s basement.”

To understand this problem more fully, he then asks our John Podhoretz about the problem. John is introduced to the Times readership as a conservative but one that should rate some respect because he recently criticized the architects of the government shutdown tactic. John rightly dissects the shrill nature of some of the most popular cable news programs and points out that the bifurcated ideological media don’t just disagree but make anyone who disagrees with their point of view unwelcome. That helps gin up the intensity level and manufactures a level of vituperation that has caused the two sides to largely insulate themselves from opposing points of view.

Carr deserves credit for acknowledging this problem rather than merely rehearsing the usual liberal complaints about conservatives but there is something important missing from the piece. What he fails to acknowledge is that his own newspaper is as good an example of the media echo chamber as anyone on cable television or talk radio. Indeed, if we have a gerrymandered media that has helped to exacerbate political differences it is to no small extent the responsibility of institutions like the Times whose liberal bias made the creation of conservative alternatives inevitable as well as necessary.

Carr writes that the Wall Street Journal is, “a really good newspaper that tilts right on its editorial page and sometimes in its news coverage.” But anyone who reads the Times regularly knows that its news pages, especially its front pages are often littered with “analysis” pieces that are thinly disguised op-eds. Whatever criticisms might be made about the Journal, by comparison it is model of Olympian objectivity. The Times editorial section isn’t merely almost uniformly liberal, even its letters column rarely includes criticism of the paper’s content from a conservative point of view.

But the problem is bigger than the shortcomings of the Times. The origins of the media divide must be traced to what it was like before the rise of Fox News and talk radio. If liberals lament the current split, it’s not just because they claim to despise the nasty, partisan nature of much of the contemporary media, but because they remember how much they liked it when there was no such diversity. The “golden age” of television news was one in which the three major broadcast networks were as uniformly liberal in their presentations as the Times and the Washington Post were in theirs with no competition from cable, the Internet or a talk radio market that was largely inhibited from political commentary by the so-called “fairness doctrine.” The enormous success of Fox News and talkers like Rush Limbaugh is the product of the fact that they filled a niche that was ignored by the mainstream media prior to their development. The bad news for liberals is that it was an underserved niche whose target audience was composed of approximately half of the American people who were begging for an alternative to the left-leaning monolith that had been forced down their throats for decades.

Even worse, was the conceit of these unaccountable liberal news institutions that they were not biased. The power of media icons like Walter Cronkite (who would later admit that he had slanted the news on his broadcasts to conform with his political opinions) was based as much on their pose of objectivity as it was on their lack of competition. As unfortunate as the divide between the hysterical liberals of MSNBC and their conservative antagonists, at least more journalists today are honest about their politics. Any discussion of this topic must note that among the most irresponsible and contemptible holdouts on this point have been Carr’s colleagues at the Times.

I agree with both John and Carr that it is too bad that nowadays we are a nation largely split between those who read the Times or the Washington Post, listen to NPR and watch the broadcast networks or MSNBC and those who read the Journal, listen to Rush and watch Fox. Both sides bear some responsibility for this state of affairs but it’s obvious that Carr is primarily interested in profiling why conservatives don’t read, listen or watch liberals rather than to examine why the liberal media does its best to drive conservatives away. That stance is consistent with the position of President Obama and his cheering section on the Times editorial board which sees liberalism as reasonable and its opponents as inherently irresponsible or extreme. But if he really wants to know why the country is split, he should look in his own mirror and examine what is wrong with a mainstream media that has never been able to be honest about its liberal bias.