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In Search of the Liberal Media

By Robert Parry
Reprinted from the July/August 1998 Issue of Extra!

In my two decades as a Washington reporter, I’ve often wondered where the legendary “liberal media” resided.

Clearly, there were a few modest-sized journals of the left – The Nation, for instance – which had one or two underpaid correspondents in Washington. There were a few moderate liberal talking heads on the Washington pundit shows – like Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift – often sitting as a minority amid pundits of the right.

But where was the powerhouse “liberal media,” the one that supposedly controlled the national debate and needed Rush Limbaugh as “balance”?

The traditional thinking was that the “liberal media” lurked somewhere in the editorial offices of the Washington Post and other major publications. The liberal agenda was pushed, too, by the subtle inflections of TV anchormen and the clever placement of stories by TV producers, the theory went.

My problem with the theory, however, was that in my years at the Associated Press, Newsweek and PBS’s Frontline, I sat in many of those offices, I met a number of senior editors and producers, and I have never known a single one to consciously promote liberalism. Indeed, whatever their private opinions, they seemed far more inclined to bend over backward to appease conservatives.

I came to realize that there was a practical reason for this behavior. Mainstream journalists lived with a constant career dread of being labeled “liberal.” To be so branded opened a journalist to relentless attack by well-funded right-wing media “watchdog” groups and other conservative operatives. It guaranteed that a reporter’s career would be at least damaged, maybe ended.

So, contrary to the theory of a liberal media agenda, I found the opposite. Since the principal career danger came from offending the right – and there was almost no danger from upsetting the left – Washington journalists positioned themselves and shaped their work from a rational perspective of self-preservation, sometimes consciously, sometimes instinctively.

Fear of a Liberal Label

This little-acknowledged reality of Washington media explains why editors so often water down stories that might upset conservatives and why TV producers weigh down their talk shows with conservative pundits. On the Washington Post’s op-ed page, supposedly the heart of the “liberal media,” conservative and neo-conservative opinions dominate in the columns of Robert Novak, James Glassman, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Samuelson, Michael Kelly, etc.

Fear of the liberal label also explains why the Washington press corps shied away from many of the most dramatic stories of the 1980s. One might have thought that a “liberal media” would have welcomed the stories about scandals in the CIA’s Central American covert operations, for instance. It didn’t.

In part, that was a tribute to President Reagan’s hardball “public diplomacy” strategies. In the early 1980s, he added government “public diplomacy” specialists to the already aggressive conservative media “watchdog” groups.

This example of public/private cooperation tag-teamed reporters who dug up information that put Reagan’s policies in a harsh light. A story critical of a Contra atrocity in Nicaragua, for instance, could mean State Department “public diplomacy” officials visiting your bureau chief to complain about your shoddy work, your bias and your suspect loyalties – arguments against you that might be reprised by Accuracy in Media, the Washington Times and a host of conservative magazines.

At another level, many senior editors and publishers personally favored Reagan’s foreign policies, especially the Contra war. These conservative executives did not take kindly to their reporters undercutting those efforts. The combination of high-level pro-Reagan sympathies inside and administration pressure outside proved very intimidating.

In the 1980s, I wrote a number of the articles that helped expose the Iran-Contra scandal, including disclosures about Oliver North, Contra drug trafficking and the CIA’s role in the secret war against Nicaragua. But at AP and later at Newsweek, I confronted editors whose reactions ranged from fearful to openly hostile.

Other reporters who worked the same territory experienced similar problems. Jefferson Morley and Tina Rosenberg described the phenomenon in a Rolling Stone article [Sept. 10, 1987] on coverage of Central America: “[Reagan-Bush] Administration pressure created an atmosphere in which reporters were reluctant to publish sound stories for fear of being attacked,” they wrote. “While reporters felt obliged to print even the most preposterous predictions or information from administration officials, critical stories required far more evidence.”

In 1987, when Time’s Laurence Zuckerman couldn’t get his report on Contra-cocaine allegations through editors, he was told by a senior editor: “Time is institutionally behind the Contras. If this story were about the Sandinistas and drugs, you’d have no trouble getting it in the magazine.”

Karen Burnes of ABC News recalled that the Reagan administration pressure was so intense that she took time off from covering the Contra policies in Washington to work on famine stories in Ethiopia. “It was a relief,” she commented. “I’ll take a civil war any day before working in this city.”

Pavlov's Reporters

Though the fear of offending conservatives might have peaked in the 1980s, it did not recede much in the 1990s. Instead, it transformed into a kind of permanent reflex, a Pavlovian response to rewards and punishments, even when some of the administrators of those inducements had left the scene.

This was particularly true for the journalists who had played it smart and advanced their careers in the 1980s. They internalized the lesson that slanting stories to the right was the safe way to go. But, understandably, these journalists also were defensive about any reminders of their timidity during the 1980s.

That shame helps explain the mainstream media’s excessive attacks on Gary Webb’s 1996 San Jose Mercury News series, which revived the Contra-cocaine scandal by revealing its real-life damage on the streets of Los Angeles. Webb’s series jabbed a painful nerve for many thriving Washington journalists who had shirked their responsibilities to the American people.

The slant-to-the-right self-interest also can be seen today in the eagerness of the Washington media to hype the so-called “Clinton scandals.” By bashing President Clinton on relatively petty issues – compared to the grievous scandals of the 1980s – the successful journalists again can insulate themselves from the “liberal” label. There’s also the additional benefit of looking tough on the White House.

So the search for the “liberal media” is a fool’s errand. Whatever private opinions reporters might hold or whoever got their vote in the last election, Washington journalists have learned a far more important lesson: how to survive professionally at the national level.

[Reprinted from the July/August 1998 issue of Extra!]

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