Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press

Jun.
14
That it’s easy to describe the ideology of the press is a point on which the left, the right and the profession of journalism converge. I disagree. I think it’s tricky. So tricky, I’ve had to invent my own language for discussing it.

What is the actual ideology of our political press? There are two camps on this question: one is huge and includes almost everyone who has declared a position. The other is tiny; it includes almost no one. I’m in the tiny camp, not completely alone but— well, there aren’t too many of us. (And if you’re one, raise a hand in the comments.)

The big camp includes everyone who thinks it’s easy to describe the ideology of the political press in the United States. Most on the progressive left, most on the conservative right, and almost all of the people in the press itself think this way. Of course, they would describe that ideology very differently, but that it can be done in a sentence or two… about this they have little doubt.

(Now I’m generalizing here, okay? This means I’m aware that there are exceptions and that I am overlooking certain nuances that divide observers within camps.)

The left says: Look, it’s very simple. The political press ultimately serves the interests of the people who own it— the corporate capitalists, the ones with money and power and “access” to politicians, the people who run things and always have. Those who are unwilling to make peace with this fact don’t make it very far in political journalism.

The right says: Look, it’s very simple. Press coverage reflects the bias of the people who produce it— and they’re liberals! Conservatives who are against abortion, suspicious of gay rights, skeptical about global warming, against the redistribution of wealth and instinctively wary of government regulation don’t make it very far in political journalism.

Look, it’s very simple, our journalists say. The press isn’t on the side of the left or the right. Of course, journalists are human. They have passions, they have interests, they have opinions. But these are irrelevant to the way they define and do their job, which is to find out what’s happening and tell the world about it. Ideologues don’t make it very far in political journalism.

In the puny camp that I’m a part of the first sentence is: This is complicated…

Political journalists are cosmopolitans

For example: If we were able to survey their opinions on the issues that divide left and right, we would undoubtedly find that the people in the political press—the Gang of 500, as Mark Halperin calls them—are much more liberal than the population as a whole. We would also find that they are typical of the population in the cities where they work, which formed the basis for this famous column by Daniel Okrent: Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?

But if we were able to engage our political journalists in a deeper discussion we would also find that most of them are skeptical about changing society in any fundamental way. And they are big believers in the law of unintended consequences. So: liberal or conservative? My answer: it’s complicated. One thing we can definitely say: political journalists are cosmopolitans, and they will see the world through that lens. They may also stop seeing it as a lens, and that’s when it becomes an ideology.

But even if we had an x-ray machine that gave us perfect information about the beliefs of the journalists who report on politics, the ideological drift of the work they produce wouldn’t necessarily match the personal beliefs or voting patterns of the reporters and editors on the beat because there are other factors that intervene between the authors of news accounts and the accounts they author.

Take for instance the way professional journalists try to generate authority and respect among peers, or, to state it negatively, the way they flee opprobrium. Here it is important for them to demonstrate that they are not on anyone’s “team,” or cheerleading for a known position. This puts a premium on stories that embarrass, disrupt, annoy or counter the preferred narrative—the talking points, the party line—of one or both of the sides engaged in political battle. An incentive system like that tends to be an ideological scrambler, which doesn’t mean that it scrambles consistently or symmetrically across political lines. It means what I said earlier… this is complicated.

“True believer,” a term of contempt

Related to the scrambler effect is the delight most reporters take in inconveniencing with reported fact and discomfiting questions those who represent a particular point of view: whether they are office holders, spokespeople, activists, or committed ideologues. Important fact: “True believer” is a universal term of contempt in newsrooms, skeptic a universal term of praise.

Also involved is the one bias most journalists will admit to exhibiting (which doesn’t mean the only bias they have.) I refer to the love of a good story, and the glory of being credited for breaking that story, which causes them to look for revelations that will capture attention, provoke reactions and dominate a given news cycle. (A recent example.) Here is the late David Shaw, media beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times, with a view I’ve heard many times since he expressed it in 1988:

The one thing a journalist prizes above all else in his professional life is a good, juicy story, and most good stories offer bad news -scandal, war, disaster, murder. Most journalists I know would rather write an expose than a flattering profile, regardless of whether their subject is liberal or conservative. That may reveal something unhealthy about journalists’ psyches, but it doesn’t say anything about their partisanship.

Each of these factors cuts different ways in different circumstances. There are ideological implications to all of them. For example: one of the consequences of the contempt for true believers is that street protests and marches aren’t taken very seriously in political journalism. Also, religious leaders getting involved in politics have a huge hurdle to overcome. Third effect: Ironists do better with the press than idealists. None of these things is “neutral.”

Friends on both sides but friend to neither

Ed Henry is CNN’s White House correspondent. In March of 2009, he had a chance to pose a question to President Obama at a White House press conference. In a follow-up he asked why Obama had waited days to express outrage about the bonuses granted to executives at AIG (after a government rescue package that totaled $180 billion.) “Because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak,” Obama said, with some edge in his voice. Henry later gushed about the exchange on CNN.com:

I waited patiently and then decided to pounce with a sharp follow-up. From just a few feet away, I could see in his body language that the normally calm and cool president was perturbed.But it’s in moments like that we sometimes find out what’s really on a president’s mind. In this case, he’s not happy about the scrutiny on AIG. So he did slap me down a bit.

Anderson Cooper said later half-jokingly that yours truly was “nursing his wounds.”

Even more comical to me was the flood of e-mail I got from Democratic and Republican sources.

Invariably, my Democratic friends tweaked along the lines of “how’d you like the smackdown” because they were pleased the president pushed back.

But my Republican friends hailed me by saying essentially, “Thanks for doing your job— he never answered the question.”

So the exchange was a great political Rorschach: Each party saw their own talking points in the reflection of the back-and-forth.

What do I think? I’ve got no hard feelings toward the president and I assume he feels the same, but I can’t worry about that. I was doing my job — and he was doing his

It delights Ed Henry to provoke these responses. He has produced a moment of theater that gets people “on both sides” (a magic phrase in pro journalism) cheering and jeering. He gets a warm glow from being “slapped down” by Obama because you only get slapped if you ask a tough question, inconveniencing the power holder in his effort to sell the nation on an image of mastery. (“Tough” is another universal term of praise in newsrooms.)

His Democratic friends love it because Obama showed a flash of anger. Take that, Ed! His Republican friends love it because Henry annoyed Obama. Way to go, Ed! Ed loves it because the narcissistic reactions of both sides prove how mature and professional and detached he is: just doing my job, folks. He has friends on both sides but in his mind he is friend to neither. And this is where we must try to locate his ideology.

Moderates, mavericks and pragmatists

Dana Milbank is the Washington Sketch columnist for the Washington Post. To me, Milbank is one the most extreme ideologues in the business. I say that because of lurid passages like this

On Tuesday, I learned that I am a right-wing hack. I am not a journalist. I am typical of the right wing. I am why newspapers are going broke. I write garbage. I am angry with Barack Obama. I misquote Obama. I am bitter. I am a certified idiot. I am lame. I am a Republican flack.On Thursday, I realized that I am a media pimp with my lips on Obama’s butt. I am a bleeding-heart liberal who wants nothing more than for the right to fall on its face. I am part of the ObamaMedia. I am pimping for the left. I am carrying water for Obama. Lord, am I an idiot.

I discovered all this from the helpful feedback provided to me in the “reader comments” section at the end of my past four columns on washingtonpost.com

The conceit of Milbank’s column is that he had never read the comments before, but on the advice of an editor he finally went sewer diving. “As a sociological experiment, it was fascinating.” He discovered that everyone’s a bitter ideologue— except him, the columnist who by duty observes the foibles and excesses and pure BS of the hotheaded believers on both sides. What I mean by an “extreme” ideologue, then, is that Milbank is extremely likely to see the world is this hyper-symmetrical and self-congratulatory way.

In political journalism there are almost always two sides, not two-and-a-half, three or four. Inhabitants of the “it’s complicated” camp place a good deal of importance on this maniacal two-ness. The two party system and the journalist’s method of pushing off from both sides to generate authority fit perfectly together. That’s ideological. More from Milbank:

On April 10, I wrote a column about an Obama appearance urging Americans to refinance their mortgages— a fairly gentle piece pointing out that the president sounded like a LendingTree.com pitchman. The comments compared me to Bernard Goldberg and Glenn Beck. One complained that “I gave Bush and the Republicans a pass.”Actually, a National Review column called me “the most anti-Bush reporter” in the White House press corps, but never mind that. “Uh oh, Milbank,” wrote commenter “farfalle44.” “Now the Obamabots have labeled you an Obama hater— watch out!”

For Thursday’s column, I criticized the “tea party” outside the White House. Conservatives left hundreds of indignant comments—I was an Obama “lap dog” and “licking Obama’s shoes”—but that didn’t buy me credibility with the left.

The man is simply compelled to tell the truth no matter who’s offended by it, so he is popular with neither side— and of course there are always and only two. But in order to keep up this image (for that’s exactly what it is, an image, similar to John McCain’s brand as a “maverick”) Milbank must continually locate “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,” as that bouncy song from the 70s put it.

What this means ideologically is that the people with political sense in press treatment will usually be the moderates, mavericks and “pragmatists,” a word that in political journalism has almost no content beyond, “opposite of true believer… ideologically flexible… not a purist.”

High Broderism and its heirs

This belief—that political sense, as well as reality, as well as the winning strategy in most elections resides in the center, while “the extremes” on both sides are equally extreme, deluded and irresponsible—has come to be called High Broderism, after the famous Washington Post reporter and sage, David Broder, for many years the “dean” of the capital press corps. And since High Broderism is a belief, there are true believers for it within the press corps. But this is one case where fundamentalism is perfectly acceptable.

It’s always been interesting to me that after Broder retired from daily reporting he was given a column on national politics by the Washington Post. It lives in the Post’s opinion section. But as far as I know, Broder has never openly declared any political opinions. (I kind of assume he’s an Eisenhower-style Midwestern Republican, but I don’t know that.) He continues to write as if he has no politics himself, even though he is fully licensed to express his views as a columnist for the op-ed page. What his column is really about, then, is the ideology that is baked into political journalism by years of practicing it at an elite level. (Correction: Broder’s column began well before he retired from reporting.)

One of the purest statements of this ideology came from a leading heir to Broderism: Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek. This is from a November, 2009 column on Sarah Palin as a star in the Republican sky:

What Obama advisers privately refer to as “Palinism” has created a climate of ideological purity inside the GOP. To deviate from the anti-Obama line at all—that is, to acknowledge that politics is the art of compromise—risks the censure of the party. Pure ideologues will argue that this is a good thing; others like, say, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close friend of Palin’s onetime champion John McCain, think differently. Graham was denounced last week by the Charleston County Republican Party for working with Democrats on issues such as climate change; the senator’s office replied by invoking President Reagan’s belief that “elected officials need to find common ground and work together to solve difficult problems.”

Note the contempt for purists, the praise for moderates, and the fuzzy pragmatism that is also called “bipartisanship.” These signify. Meacham goes on:

Reagan realized that movement conservatives like him needed moderate conservatives to win and ultimately to govern. In 1976, in his challenge to President Ford, Reagan announced that he would run with Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, a Rockefeller Republican. It never came to that, but four years later, in Detroit, Reagan seriously considered only two men for the ticket: Ford and George H.W. Bush, both men from the middle, not the far right, of the Republican Party. It is difficult to imagine the 2012 nominee choosing a more moderate running mate, not least because there are so few moderates left in the GOP. Even those of centrist inclinations are finding it virtually impossible to work with the administration for fear of a backlash from the base.We have been to this movie before, when the unreconstructed liberals of the fading New Deal–Great Society coalition obstinately refused to acknowledge the reality that America is a center-right nation, and that Democrats who wish to win national elections cannot run on the left. We are at our best as a country when there is something approaching a moderate space in politics. The middle way is not always the right way—far from it. But sometimes it is, and a wise nation should cultivate a political spirit that allows opponents to cooperate without fearing an automatic execution from their core supporters. Who knew that the real rogues in American politics would be the ones who dare to get along?

In Meacham-land “center right” is the right place for politics to be played not because the center-rightists have the best answers to the nation’s problems but because “the reality [is] that America is a center-right nation.” Now we’re near to the beating heart of the ideology that holds our political press together. That is when journalists try to win the argument not by having better arguments but by standing closer to a reality they get to define as more real than your reality.

Trust me on this: If you try to factor in the behaviors I’m describing, you will soon find that we don’t have a ready language for the kind of politics that is operating. What we have is an exhausted critique of media bias. In my own criticism I’ve tried to remedy this. Re-description has therefore been my aim.

Terms that don’t easily scan

So here are some of the key terms in the strange language I’ve had to invent in order to separate myself from the “it’s simple…” camp. My terms don’t scan easily. They have to be explained, which is the whole point of using them.

1. The Church of the Savvy. This is my name for the actual belief system that prevails in political journalism. I’ve been keeping a kind of public notebook on it via my Twitter feed.

Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passon, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. As I wrote on Twitter the other day, “the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you… They say: I am closer to reality than you. And more mature.”Now in order for this belief system to operate effectively, it has to continually position the journalist and his or her observations not as right where others are wrong, or virtuous where others are corrupt, or visionary where others are short-sighted, but as practical, hardheaded, unsentimental, and shrewd where others are didactic, ideological, and dreamy. This is part of what’s so insidious about press savviness: it tries to hog realism to itself.

2. The Quest for Innocence, which is the agenda (I say) the press must continually serve, even as it claims to serve no one’s agenda.

Innocence [is] a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved… The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade.

3. Regression to a Phony Mean, an especially dubious practice that is principally about self-protection.

Journalists associate the middle with truth, when there may be no reason to… Writing the news so that it lands somewhere near the “halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone” is not a truthtelling impulse at all, but a refuge-seeking one, and it’s possible that this ritual will distort a given story.

4. The View from Nowhere, the taking of which journalists associate with their claim to legitimacy.

Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for “vocal critic,” and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism. It can’t be that simple, that beautiful, that symmetrical… can it? Temptation says yes.When you have an obligation to remain outside the arena, it is also tempting to feel above the partisans who are struggling within that arena. (But then where else are they going to struggle?) You learn the attractions of a view from nowhere. The daily gift of detachment keeps giving, until you’re almost “above” anyone who tries to get too political with you, or at least in the middle with the microphone between warring factions. There’s power in that; and where there’s power, there’s attraction.

5. He said, she said journalism, a formation I have been trying to bust up by pushing for more fact checking.

“He said, she said” journalism means…- There’s a public dispute.
– The dispute makes news.
– No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
– The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
– The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

When these five conditions are met, the genre is in gear.

6. The sphere of deviance. The power to place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere is one of the most ideological things journalists ever do.

In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible…Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate

This post is too long, so let’s wrap it up. Consider:

It’s very simple. The press ultimately serves the interests of the people who own it…

vs.

It’s very simple. Press coverage reflects the bias of the people who produce it…

vs.

It’s very simple. The press isn’t on the side of the left or the right…

vs.

This is complicated! You’ve got the Church of the Savvy, The Quest for Innocence, the View from Nowhere, Regression to a Phony Mean, He Said, She Said, the Sphere of Deviance. These form the real ideology of our political press. But we have to study them to understand them well.

You can see, then, why my camp is so tiny.