Does the Media Really Savage Social Conservatives?

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Rick Santorum defenders say his beliefs cause him to be attacked. Actually, it's his high poll numbers and culture warrior stances.

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In his latest column, National Review Editor Rich Lowry argues that social conservatism, as embodied by Rick Santorum, is "a standing affront to the sensibilities and assumptions of the media and political elite," who are "constantly writing the obituary for social conservatism, which is supposed to wither away and leave a polite, undisturbed consensus in favor of social liberalism." For this reason, "the media has unleashed the hounds on Rick Santorum," he argues.

I don't buy it.

It is surely true that the employees of many mainstream media organizations are personally put off by social conservatism, and bias against folks who subscribe to that belief system assuredly exists. But the personal biases of the media elite aren't in fact driving coverage in the 2012  primaries.

The professional biases of journalists are more relevant.

Think about the GOP contest so far. If stereotypes about what liberal media workers believe drove coverage, Buddy Roemer, the champion of campaign finance reform, and Gary Johnson, who is pro-choice, pro-immigration, and anti-drug war, would've gotten more favorable press coverage. In reality, they were kept out of debates even when they met the pre-determined criteria. Lowry would also have us believe that the media won't put up with Santorum's "unforgivable opposition to abortion," but the media darling of this cycle, Jon Huntsman, was just as pro-life

Forget what media types believe. What they regard as savvy is what they'll cover. In the 2012 election cycle, press coverage has been driven substantially by the horse race, and then by real or perceived gaffes. Mitt Romney, the presumed frontrunner, has been written about most. Over the course of the campaign, as various candidates seemed to eclipse him, they were vetted in succession, with reporters delving into their records and opinion writers savaging them for their weaknesses. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich: they all occupy different places on the spectrum of social conservatism, but all were treated basically the same by reporters and editors at the moment when they seemed like viable candidates.

The same goes for Rick Santorum. I'd guess that if anything, his social conservatism erroneously persuaded a lot of editors that he wasn't a viable candidate, and therefore not worth vetting as thoroughly as Gingrich even after his Iowa upset earned him national headlines.

Now that it seems like he could -- just maybe -- win the nomination, everything is different.

It's also worth mentioning that it isn't just liberals in the media who are "constantly writing the obituary for social conservatism." Lots of conservatives are doing that too, and for good reason: social conservatives keep losing. They can take some heart in public opinion about abortion among the younger generation, though it is almost certainly going to remain legal indefinitely. Medical researchers are going to keep using stem cells. Contraception is widely thought to be good. Hip hop music is mainstream. Gay marriage is spreading every year. The notion that women should stay home with their kids rather than participating in the workplace has been abandoned even by the hard right. Discomfort with Islam is causing many on the European right to rethink how much accommodation the state should afford to orthodox faith communities. And Republican presidents never focus on social conservatism when they're elected. If its premature to publish the obituary for social conservatism, it's only prudent to commission a draft. It would make a great NR cover story if Obama beats Santorum in a landslide. Social conservatism wouldn't then cease to exist. But its influence would be less than it is now.

In fairness to Lowry, I do think that if Santorum wins the nomination, he'll garner more negative press attention than did John McCain circa 2008, or George W. Bush circa 2000, for they ran as "uniters." Santorum is more likely to be treated as Palin was, for he too is running as a culture warrior. Lowry says that "Santorum's social conservatism brings with it an unstinting devotion to human dignity," and while human dignity is a thread that runs through his system of beliefs, it isn't consistent. Santorum originally angered the liberal elite, among others, for an analogy about gay marriage that wouldn't have been uttered by a man eager to grant homosexuals dignity. Folks looking to tease out how much antagonism to Santorum is due to his temperament and personality and how much is due to his social conservatism might compare his treatment to that of another social conservative, media favorite Mike Huckabee. This stuff is seldom about substance.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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