15 July 2009

The Conservative Media: A History Lesson

I don't mean to pick on Eric Alterman, but the same issue of The Nation that saw him feuding over the reputation of I. F. Stone finds him in his own column drawing comparisons between President Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Alterman believes that Obama should emulate FDR's pragmatic boldness, his willingness to experimentation without regard for ideology. At the same time, he notes what he sees as an important difference between Roosevelt's time and Obama's.

FDR did not face an army of lobbyists seeking to thwart his every move. Perhaps more important, he did not have to succeed in today's media environment, in which nut cases like Limbaugh/O'Reilly/Hannity manage to set the terms of debate. As sage Washington Post pundit E. J. Dionne Jr. explains, the MSM's ["mainstream media"] proclivity for giving the 'right wing's rants ... wall-to-wall airtime' gives its ignorance and recidivisim legitimacy despite its failure under Bush as well of its lack of support among the larger public.

Without commenting on Alterman's policy recommendations, I have to correct his implication that conservatives weren't prominent in the "MSM" of the 1930s. If anything, the mainstream media of the time, the press, had a much stronger conservative bias than the MSM of today. My authority for this claim is the midcentury press critic A. J. Liebling, the man who coined the famous statement, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." I'm currently looking through the latest Library of America edition of Liebling's works, which includes a collection of articles on the news media itself. In his account, Republican or conservative bias in the press during the FDR years and after was overwhelming. He cites statistics from the American Newspaper Publishers Association showing that 84% of newspaper publishers as of 1953 were Republicans -- many of whom angrily denied charges of bias during the last Presidential election. Publishers' concern for maximizing profits while dealing with militant unions, Liebling explains, inclined publishers to the right even if they started to the left. He quotes Joseph Medill Patterson, the founder of the New York Daily News, who described a career arc for papers and publishers that Patterson followed himself.

Newspapers start when their owners are poor, and take the part of the people, and so they build up a large circulation, and, as a result, advertising. That makes them rich, and they begin, most naturally, to associate with other rich men -- they play golf with one, and drink whisky with another, and their son marries the daughter of a third. They forget about the people, and then their circulation dries up, then their advertising, and then their paper becomes decadent.

I don't know to whom Patterson married off his own children, though I do know that the Daily News is still going, maybe even strong, today, but he was right about his own eventual tilt to the right. The paper is no longer conservative (except on certain details of foreign policy), but when I was growing up it was still pretty rabid on the Right. Something did change during the 1970s that created the impression that the news media had developed a liberal bias. It may have had something to do with the mergers and closings of so many papers during the period Liebling describes. He feared that the consolidation of the press business would only reinforce the Republican bias he decried. But as more towns and cities became one-paper territories, there was probably commercial pressure on all papers to lose their partisan identity in order to maximize readership by attracting former readers of dead papers. As journalists tell it, this trend encouraged greater objectivity rather than bias. But what they called objectivity proved in practice to be an adversarial relationship to the Powers That Be that became apparent when the news media turned on Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Nearly all media were inclined to knock the party in power, or at least the party leaders, and since the Republican party dominated the White House through most of this period (it held the Presidency for 28 of the 40 years from 1969 through 2009) the GOP came in most often for criticism. I won't deny that an influx of journalism majors from sometimes radicalized colleges influenced the content of journalism during this period, but publishers had no motive to discipline or simply crush the new generation the way the press barons of previous generations would have.

In the FDR years, newspapers were more obviously mouthpieces for their publishers or owners than they are now. Press barons like William Randolph Hearst were as much celebrities in those days as people like Rush Limbaugh are today. Hearst became an extremely reactionary critic of FDR and had newspapers and newsreels all over the country to disseminate his opinions. The weekly news magazines like Time were similarly biased, with Time's Henry Luce nearly as severe a reactionary as Heart. Hearst differed from Limbaugh mainly in the fact that he relied on others to speak or write for him. But the pre-eminence of people like Limbaugh may signal a reversion of the news media back to an earlier state of partisanship. On a business level, Limbaugh isn't as powerful as Hearst because he owns no radio stations (nor any media except, I presume, his own website) and must always negotiate with others (albeit from a position of strength) in order to broadcast his opinions. But the rise of political talk radio in general revived the commercial potential of overt bias in news commentary, a potential now tapped by liberals as well as conservatives with Keith Olbermann in the lead. Whether or not Limbaugh or other critics were right that ideological bias pervaded the news media of the 1980s, he might agree that whatever "liberal" bias he perceived wasn't commercially motivated, while his own is. I don't mean that Limbaugh affects conservativism only to make money, but that he realized that there was a market for his own conservative bias that wasn't being satisfied, but could satisfy his own ambition for fame and fortune. In any event, my point has been that, as Alterman probably knows, Limbaugh's emergence was something new only to the extent that he relied on radio rather than print media. He is Hearst without any middlemen, without the expense of detailed reporting or the expensive mechanics of printing ink onto paper. Hearst himself was just the latest of generations of publishers who started papers primarily for propaganda purposes, dating back to the birth of the Republic.

Every so often someone digs up a quote from some hysterical contemporary critic of the New Deal warning of the disasters that FDR's "socialism" was going to inflict on the country. These are usually dug up by Democrats and liberals who want to refute by analogy today's reactionaries who accuse Obama of "socialism." Those quotes ought to have convinced people that Limbaugh and Hannity had their counterparts seventy years ago. Columnists like Alterman may want to argue that Limbaugh and his ilk are worse or at least more stupid than the reactionaries of the 1930s, and I can understand the anger that drives them to say so, but I see no reason to believe them. If he offers the prominence of the radio talkers as an excuse for Obama's failure to experiment as boldly as Alterman would like, I think he should try again.

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