In the months since I vacated the blue fringes of the electoral map, I sometimes check in to see what the elite media celebs up North are picking out of their navels. Who can resist the occasional bit of literary porn: Is irony dead or alive this week? Have Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky kissed and made up? Is Susan Sontag the token female intellectual of the moment? Has another novelist declared himself above Oprah's Book Club? What media insider is waging war on his former employers?
This week, Bernard Goldberg's new book Bias is all the rage. Goldberg supposedly exposes a "liberal elite" slant at former employer CBS, as well as NBC and ABC, where I'd think John Stossel might balance out Peter Jennings. And I do mean rage. You don't call Dan Rather a left-wing mafioso without raising all sorts of neck hairs inside the Fourth Estate. And like the patriotism police over at Drudge, Rush, FOX, the White House press room and the Cheney residence, Goldberg has timed his jihad perfectly. Bush's approval ratings are at shock-induced highs; now's the time to hold the media hostage to conservative propaganda.
Watching from my Dixie perch surrounded by miles and miles of red conservatism &endash; didn't someone get that red-blue color scheme backward? &endash; it's clear that Goldberg's charges could silence the media even further on vital issues. Despite the trivialities, the "liberal elite" charge may resonate in Middle America just the same, causing the network execs (whom Goldberg defends) to pull back coverage even more. On CNN, the talk mostly centered on whether Goldberg's treatise was "personal," not on concrete examples of so-called liberal bias. (Someone in a CBS editorial meeting once called Gary Bauer "the little nut from the Christian group," Goldberg charges. Wouldn't you like to be a fly on the FOX walls when the name of, say, Gloria Steinem or Sontag comes up?) Let's just say one person's freedom-fighter is another's wingnut.
This is an old dog, of course, and one conservatives will kick every chance they get. In the most "red" areas I've lived in &endash; Colorado Springs leading the pack &endash; it was common to hear comments like: "There's just a bunch of pinkos out there in New York City writing all those stories." "That New York Times is just a liberal rag." "All the movie studios and networks are run by Jews anyway."
I've been accused often enough of being biased (by both sides) because I actually included a response from the other side. I know where these bias labels usually originate: from bias and dogma. Besides, anyone who pays attention to American media can see that we are being fed the news for the most part by a bland corporate-run media that isn't willing to rock too far either direction (although it sniffed out the Clinton scandal like a starving bloodhound). And it is still overwhelmingly a white, male, Ivy League media elite that hasn't improved its minority hiring since the post-race-riot Kerner Commission report recommended in the 1960s that the press damn well figure out how to hire and cover people of color.
Note that Goldberg is upbraiding the same Dan Rather that reduced the answer to "Why does the world hate us?" to "jealousy" on the Letterman show. We're not exactly talking about the vanguard of the left here. And in this complicated world, how exactly does one define a "liberal" journalist: Pro-Israel? Zionist? Pro-Palestinian state? Pro War on Terrorism? Pro War on Iraq? Against the PATRIOT Act? Pro union? Pro all unions? On the issue of zero tolerance, for instance, I disagree with the teacher's unions and am with the Rutherford Institute, as I was on the Paula Jones case. What does that make me?
Truth is, today's media are so trapped in our "objective" lockbox that it's hard to get good investigative stories into print. We fill columns and airwaves with sound bites rather than vital information that actually matters. We're supposed to give the same weight to "both sides" &endash; even when overwhelming evidence supports one position and not the other (like, say, over the ineffectiveness of zero-tolerance policies in the schools). We're told to hide our biases (now, that's honest). I like to refer to this superficial American journalistic approach as "he said-she said crap" (a phrase I proudly lifted from a Salt 'N' Pepa song). We make it easy to accuse us of liberal treachery.
This liberal backlash proves that the extreme right has managed to encroach on the middle and convince too many Americans that somehow the right's corporate interests and archaic social ideas are going to make them richer, I guess. It's a lie, of course. The right wants to use laws and federal courts to force the country to return to the "family values" of the 1950s when Jim Crow reigned and women couldn't afford to leave abusive husbands and screenwriters were blacklisted for refusing to sign loyalty oaths. And if Americans won't just turn and follow them back, they want to use the media &endash; or the schools, in Lynne Cheney's case &endash; to propagandize us back there.
I dare say this in print: Today's political conservatism is not a nice thing. It is not compassionate. It is not fair. It supports corporations over individuals and small business, oil over the environment. It gives tax breaks to the wealthy. In the name of "freedom" and safety, it is spiking our true freedoms &endash; the only advantage the US really has. It demands a racist War on Drugs. It treats people of color differently in the criminal-justice system. It is retaining apparently innocent people, based on their religion and skin color. It seeks to hide what I presume to be circumstantial evidence beneath the cloak of military tribunals. We must report this stuff.
I have a good idea which side history, and perhaps the Almighty if you go that route, is going to frown hardest on, and "Ashcroftism" will be there somewhere. Thus, I'm right happy living by "liberal" ideals, even if I don't always agree with my lefty counterparts. And I have no qualms over being calling a "liberal" journalist, especially when you examine the motives of the folks who tend to call me that. I am comfortable in my belief that the media should serve the greater good, not corporations. I openly agree with John Stuart Mill that unions, equal rights and freedom of the press (yes, even from patriotism) are worth fighting for.
By focusing on liberalism in the press, critics miss the big picture: The media elite &endash; liberal, conservative and "objective" &endash; is the problem. It's too white, it's too Eastern, it's too buttoned-up, and it's too beholden to corporate interests. As a whole, it never bothered to define the true meaning of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" before the election; it ignores the schemes of Washington think tanks; it purposely talks down to Middle Americans. It's too concerned about sounding too "folksy" to really speak to folks in America.
Most telling, the elite was broadsided by the red-blue divide in the last presidential election. I loved that, writing in the December Atlantic Monthly to the elite, author David Brooks (Bobos in Paradise), er, analyzed the country's cultural divide. He got in his car in Bethesda, Md., and drove 65 miles across his "Meatloaf Line" to Franklin County, Pa., which he seems to consider the microcosm of Middle America. My family happens to own a guest house there in Waynesboro: The area entertains a colorful mix of Reagan conservatives, Clinton moderates, gun enthusiasts and pacifist Brethrens, quirky old-timers and city refugees who read the New York Times. There's a jam-packed used bookstore on Main Street where de Tocqueville sells alongside Harlequin romances (our Brethren preacher uncle owns it). In the town, in November, we saw the following sign in front of a local pizza joint: "God Bless the World."
Let's just say Brooks should have ventured a little farther inland to get a real snapshot of the redlands. Perhaps he had something more important to do.
Donna Ladd is a writer in Jackson, Miss. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.