The New Liberal Media

Chait-Mania '07 is over, but like Will Wilkinson, I want to make one last point. It concerns a secondary thesis of Jon's book - his argument that the Republican Party, and particularly the Bush Administration, has been able to disguise the radicalism of their agenda by effectively gaming the press corps. Jon fingers two tendencies in the press that have played into Republican hands: First, the persistence - particularly among the David Broders of the world - of a misplaced faith in the old center-left consensus, and a concomitant belief that the best way to get anything done in D.C. is for Democrats and Republicans to split the difference; second, the tendency of reporters seeking balance to report every debate about policy as "he said, she said," even when what he (i.e., the Republican supply-sider) says is either implausible, mendacious, or both.

Without getting too deep into the weeds, I wanted to advance a slightly different hypothesis about the press in the age of Bush - namely, that the current Administration was the beneficiary of a long overdue, but probably temporary attempt by the (yes, liberal) media to take conservatism seriously, after years of hoping that the whole Republican majority would just blow away in a strong wind. I don't quite agree with this Jim Henley post, but he's on to something when he writes, in response to an Atrios remark about the absurdity of believing in a liberal media:

Dear Atrios: I’m about twelve years older than you. When I was a teen and you were a toddler, and for a time after that, the media was very liberal. How do I know? I remember! Also, there used to be no ATMs. We had things called “traveler’s checks” that you bought at the bank before going on vacation instead of taking cash. In fact, an important part of vacation planning was deciding how many traveler’s checks to buy.

Now, I don’t think “the media” as such is liberal any more. I think the transformation completed itself early this century. In fact, I think the media is now as out of touch with popular sentiment from the right as the earlier media used to be out of touch with popular sentiment from the left - I’m thinking of the period from Ronald Reagan’s first campaign in 1980 to the Republican congressional takeover of 1994. I’d go so far as to say that the period in question convinced the honchos of newsrooms that “We’re out of touch with America and we have to change.”

Henley's wrong about the extent of the media's rightward turn, but he's right, I think, that somewhere in the late 1990s and early '00s, and particularly amid the rise of Fox News and the blogosphere, the MSM finally realized that they had lost a large chunk of their audience by being completely out of touch with the political changes at work in post-Sixties America. Their response was to hire more conservative columnists, inject a little more balance in their reporting, and generally change the tone with which they covered right-wing ideas and politicians. These efforts were patchwork and sometimes a little bit silly (like assigning a reporter to the "conservative beat"), but they reflected a real attempt to improve on the frankly embarrassing way that the national media had often written about figures like Reagan and Gingrich, or movements like the religious right. And they coincided with 9/11, and the rally-round-the-flag spirit that followed, which would have delivered a Republican Administration better-than-usual coverage no matter what.

But this turn also coincided with the intellectual exhaustion of the current Republican majority, and the accession of what turned out to be a highly dysfunctional and incompetent conservative administration - which meant that the press began treating the Right with slightly more respect at precisely the moment when it probably deserved less. Which in turn bred outrage from liberal partisans and the rise of the "what liberal media?" line in the left-blogosphere and elsewhere - and that, in turn, created what you might call the Klein-Klein effect, where young, new-media liberals like Ezra Klein, who came of age in the era of Bush, put pressure on older, MSM liberals like Joe Klein, who came of age in the era of Reagan, Gingrich and Clinton, to act more like the liberals they are.

How this will all shake out remains to be seen, particularly as the media landscape continues to fragment. But for now, it looks like potentially bad news for the Right. The old MSM was biased, sure, but it thought of itself as a high-minded establishment, not a partisan force, and a disciplined and cohesive conservative movement could often run circles around the cocoon-swaddled liberalism of, say, the New York Times. But if the emerging "movement liberalism" can succeed in using the Klein-Klein effect to push the national media leftward, the result could be an MSM that's actually more partisan - and more unashamed about its role as a liberal political actor - than it was before the conservative movement first started complaining about liberal bias, lo these many years ago.

Or put another way: It took twenty years of conservative successes for the liberals in the press corps to set aside their biases and treat the Right with respect, it may have taken one bad conservative administration to undo those gains, and leave the Right worse off than when it began.