“Liberalmedia.” That’s the word conservative leaders use often when they talk about the mainstream media (outside of AM radio, of course, which is dominated by thsoe same conservative leaders and pundits). The words are no longer separated in their minds, but are now one compound word: liberalmedia. This is their explanation whenever reports do not fit their concept of reality (as Stephen Colbert pointed out in his superb satirical presentation at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner “reality has a well-known liberal bias”).
I used to think that the epithet was merely sour grapes, or a self-deluding mantra with which to console themselves when facts didn’t go their way. However, Eric Alterman has suggested another alternative. In his book, What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News, Eric relates conservative charges of liberalmedia bias to the ref baiting. In sports, it isn’t uncommon for coaches and fans to accuse referees of bias against their teams, haranguing the referees for perceived slights and errors. Referees are only human, and there is a very real possibility that the repeated haranguing may make them more gunshy in the future, or willing to give the home team the benefit of the doubt in the future. Coaches understand this, and some will bait the refs with very deliberate, calculated intent in order to gain favorable treatment for their own team. Alterman suggests that leading conservative politicians and media figures have adopted the exact same strategy in their treatment of the media. Its an interesting theory.
Whatever the reason for the pretense, the concept of the liberalmedia is false. The foundation upon which they build that contention is quicksand. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t any bias in the media. The reporters, editors, and owners who make up the media have their own sets of biases. Additionally, the media as individual units and as a group as a whole are subject to influence from outside sources. They are only human.
Bob Francis of Sojourners discusses how the media were very successfully influenced by the Right to support the conservative agenda and that of President Bush’s administration after 9/11 in his essay “Can You Help Me Find the Free and Independent Press?” And he is right on the money. The media were willing, if typically unwitting, accomplices in the deceptions perpetrated upon the American people. The voices who challenged the administration’s claims—and there were many—were largely excluded from the mainstream media.
Despite what conservatives may think, it isn’t the role of the media to accept the statements of the establishment at face value, or to play “nice” with people in power—conservative or liberal. The role of the Fourth Estate is to challenge the established powers, to look for contradictions or fallacies, and to permit a voice to the dissenting perspectives which the political powers would ignore or repress. It is by filling that role that the Fourth Estate can help check ambitious men from expanding their power beyond acceptable limits and exercising unrighteous dominion (such as warrantless wiretapping, provisions in the Patriot Act challenging our civil liberties, using political influence to alter scientific data to suit their own political agenda, and most importantly, taking a nation into war under false pretenses). As Francis suggests, when we needed an aggressive and determined Fourth Estate most of all, they were nowhere to be found.