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Blasting The Myth Of The Liberal Media
Cheryl Seal

I was lucky. When I started my career as a journalist in 1987, I was taken under the wing of veteran editor Kent Ward of the "Bangor Daily News"--a crusty 60-something elder statesman of the newsroom affectionately known as "the Old Dawg." Kent, who was a staunch Republican and conservative, did not believe that news should have any slant--political or otherwise. He took me on as a stringer (regular freelancer) because he liked my ideas--purely and simply. He told everyone who ever wrote for him, regardless of their political passions, that he would defend their right to say anything, as long as they said it well and supported their facts. During our nearly eight-year association, I did a lot of writing and Kent did a lot of defending.

But even in the 1980s in rural Maine, the growing power of the corporate dollar was being felt. I remember the time I did a piece on horses in Maine--innocuous enough, right? But an embarrassed Kent was forced to tell me that an unflattering reference to the John Deere Tractor Company had to go. I had simply mentioned the historical fact that in the 1930s, the company had lured farmers to "trade in" their work horses for new tractors by promising a pastured retirement for the horses when in fact the horses were actually taken promptly to the "glue factory." However, John Deere was one of the BDN's long-time advertisers.

Later, when I wrote a three-part investigative report on the health care crisis in Maine, which included a tough look at the sweatshop labor practices of the state's biggest hospitals, Kent had to sneak the series onto page one during Christmas week (1987) when all the paper's "higher ups" were away on vacation. We both felt the repercussions from “above” for weeks--even though the series helped foment some needed changes in the state's health care sector. A few months later, Kent was ordered to turn down another investigative report I did on the state's solid waste issues because the topic was considered too much of a "political hot potato." Naïve me--I had always thought the main purpose of a free press was to serve and dissect such hot potatoes! The series was published instead by a smaller paper, and helped derail a multi-million dollar expansion of the state's largest solid waste facility--an expansion designed to accommodate toxic sludge trucked in from out of state. It was one of the biggest blows to my faith in the media that the BDN would have suppressed coverage and let that happen to preserve corporate peace.

When I decided to focus most of my efforts on environmental issues, I ran into the densest brick wall of all. I soon had to leave the BDN and instead wrote regularly for "The Maine Progressive," a tiny independent monthly. That was when I discovered just how desperate dedicated activists are for news stories that present reliable, usable facts. Many of my stories--which, thanks to the exhortations of the "Old Dawg" in my formative years, were well-researched and full of well-supported facts--were disseminated to legislators and town officials when related issues came up for votes because they could not be dismissed as "emotional diatribes."

Because of the methodical blackout by the mainstream media of investigative pieces on "political hot potatoes" such as the environment, industrial practices, or the dubious background of corporate-sponsored political candidates such as G.W. Bush, information on these topics are relegated to "opinion piece" status or must be published in "fringe" publications. As a result, the general public does not see serious, in-depth treatments of these topics. Instead, what they are allowed to see, at best, are emotional diatribes in the letters to the editor. This is by design, make no mistake. Through this strategy, the media's corporate/political puppeteers can perpetuate their favorite myth: that environmentalists and liberals of any type are the "hysterical fringe element."

Meanwhile, the media remains free (not to mention well-remunerated) to present whatever "serious news story" on a topic that suits their immediate purpose. A classic example of this strategy is the inauguration coverage. While NO mainstream media outlet showed the extent of anti-Bush protesting or just how empty some of the bleachers reserved for pro-Bushers were, stories and images of protesters and police run-ins abounded in independent publications such as the Indymedia website. While it is great that we have these independent outlets, they unfortunately play into the hands of the corporate media, who can then push the myth that such outlets are all run by troublemaking radicals who exaggerate. After all, who saw any of that stuff on the six o'clock news?

At the same time, to attract consumers, the corporate media pads out its content with an overabundance of nonpolitical sensationalism (sex, violence, and "real life" free-for-alls). This allows the politicos on the right to tout these programming decisions as proof of the wantonness of the liberal media. As a result, the public is given the following message: A: The media is full of sex, violence, fluff, and irresponsible content, which means B: The liberal media is full of sex, violence, fluff, and irresponsible content, which means, C: Liberals represent sex, violence, fluff, and irresponsibility. If challenging stories do appear in the mainstream media, they are decried as examples of the liberal media.

The bottom line is this: There is no such beast as the Liberal Media. It was created and perpetuated by the right-wingers, born of post-World War II paranoia and gaining great steam during the McCarthy era. But, lest I be accused of making a “hysterical diatribe,” consider the following facts:

Today, of the 25 most prominent political columnists (a list that includes George Will, Ellen Goodman, etc.), only six can be described as liberal, while 15 are classed as conservative (the rest are considered moderates). While the conservative columnists share over 3,000 regular clients between them (newspapers, radio stations, etc.), liberals share only 850, and moderates a little less than that. Of the dozen or so most popular radio talk show hosts, all but two (Howard Stern and Tom Stephan) are conservatives, the majority of them on the extreme right. This hardly adds up to a "liberal media."

In the past 16 elections (1940-2000), the overwhelming majority of newspaper endorsements went to Republican candidates in all but three elections, and in most cases by an overwhelming number (on average about two to three times more endorsements for the Republican candidate than the Democratic candidate). In 1992, Clinton was the first Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to receive more endorsements from national newspapers than a Republican candidate. When this happened, the Republicans went after their roaming lapdog the media with a vengeance. Bob Dole made "liberal media" bashing a primary feature of his 1996 campaign. When that failed, the Republicans used the full spectrum of manipulation open to them via the corporate media. They created a salacious scandal, then pushed it for months like a tacky version of "Survivor," while blocking most positive coverage of the President, or any serious investigation of Starr's witch hunt. What ran in abundance, of course, were easily dismissed op-ed pieces.

And if any of this fails to convince, then, for a week or so, try routinely comparing the coverage of major stories in the U.S. with coverage of the same stories by the BBC and other non-U.S. news sources, or the live coverage of political events on C-SPAN with what actually gets reported on the news that same night.

The fact is, until the freedom of the press is wrested away from the clutches of corporate interests, the true majority--liberals and moderates--will face a disproportionately uphill battle. I believe a push should be made by the Democrats now on Capitol Hill to create legislation that will insure the separation of press and corporate interests as surely as the Constitution has insured separation of church and state. As it stands now, thanks to the lack of separation between the former, there may soon be a lack of separation between the latter.