The Shrill and the Marginal: The Left’s Criticism of the Media

Readers of this blog know that it’s the personal opinion of the writer that the mainstream media are hurt by the years-long perception, among Republicans and conservatives, that the media are unsympathetic to their views.  Given their large and growing numbers, and the availability of competing sources of news and commentary, this perception seems like both a journalistic and a business problem for the MSM.

This said, we’re always on the lookout for those people who view this matter differently, even where they represent only the most marginal points of view.

Thus it is that we’ve come across a piece in The Nation magazine (than which nothing’s more marginal), by Eric Alterman.  Titled “The Problem of Media Stupidity,” the thrust of the thing is that journalists, unwitting victims of a so-called “cult of balance,” are much too fair to Republicans.

As Alterman so elegantly puts it:

There is a specter haunting America today.  It is the specter of stupidity.  A few months ago, I wrote a column I called “The Problem of Republican Idiots.” Believe me, this problem has not gone away.  No less alarming is that this stupidity is apparently contagious.  The men and women who inhabit the upper reaches of the U.S. media (and pull down the multi-million dollar salaries) appear to believe that to do their jobs properly, they must make themselves behave like idiots in order to be “fair” to the Republicans and their idiot ideas.

In support of this thoughtful view, Alterman cites the progressives’ favorite wordslinger, Paul Krugman, and quotes from an interview David Gregory did with Rick Santelli – seven months ago – on “Meet the Press.”

Santelli’s comments, this one especially, figure large in Alterman’s argument: “If the country is ever attacked as it was in 9/11,” said Santelli, “we all respond with a sense of urgency.  What’s going on on the balance sheets throughout the country is the same type of attack.”

Never mind that Gregory didn’t respond to Santelli, as other guests on the show jumped in with their own observations, it’s Alterman’s opinion that for Gregory even to countenance such a comment without criticism is proof of a kind of intellectual rot among mainstream journalists.  “On America’s most respected television news program,” he wrote, “it is apparently OK to equate a problem with your fiscal balance sheets with terrorist mass murder.  Here again, we see the ‘cult of balance’ destroying the brains of our press corps.”

Given the modest dimensions of his own intellectual attributes, one suspects more people will be struck by the chutzpah of Alterman calling other people idiots than will be put off by Santelli’s remark, in which the CNBC personality was obviously equating not the acts (9/11 and the nation’s balance sheets), but the societal impact of the two, and the need for the kind of urgent action re the latter as was the case with the former.

Still, there remains the larger issue raised by Alterman’s rant: Are the MSM too evenhanded in their treatment of Republican and Democratic policies and politicians?  Do they, as Alterman suggests, show undeserved respect for Republicans?  And if we wanted to test this hypothesis, how would we go about it?

It’s a tricky thing, this business of calling people idiots.  Dostoevsky titled one of his novels The Idiot, though in that case the subject of the pejorative, Prince Myshkin, was likened favorably to Christ, something that is probably not the way Alterman sees Republicans.  Clearer still is that Alterman is no Dostoevsky.

Which is just to say that, as a practical matter, we can’t vet Alterman’s claim just by taking his word for it, any more than we could subject it to the opinions of like-minded leftists, or conservatives for that matter.  This, because whatever “evidence” any of them might conjure up, it’s going to be tainted by their own subjective view of the world, by their ideological IDs, so to speak.

One way, perhaps, of getting around this problem is by looking at whatever evidence there is, anecdotal or scientific, indicating that Republicans themselves feel privileged by the quality of their media coverage, something one would expect to find if Alterman’s claim is true.

Unfortunately for the gentleman’s thesis, Republicans seem not to have gotten the memo. Whether measured by public opinion polls, the public statements of Republican politicians or conservative commentators, or simply by letters to the editor written by Republicans or conservatives, it’s pretty clear that the overwhelming majority feel, much to the contrary, that the media are largely in the camp of Democrats and liberals.

Perhaps, though, there’s another way of looking at this matter.  Call it, depending on your own political leanings, either the “democratic way" or the "way of the marketplace.”  I refer to the percentages of people who, as measured over the years by organizations like Gallup, classify themselves as liberals, conservatives, or moderates.  If, one could argue, these statistics show a much larger number of liberals than conservatives, media coverage of Republican policies might fairly be criticized if it could be shown that such coverage was at the expense of the larger number (of readers and viewers) who are liberals.

As it happens, though, the exact opposite is the case.  As shown by a Gallup poll conducted just last month, conservatives outnumber liberals by two-to-one, and in fact outnumber self-described moderates as well. Even more telling, for purposes of assessing Alterman’s accusation, is the poll’s percentage breakdown of those people who call themselves conservative or very conservative, in contrast with those who say they are liberal or very liberal.

Here are the numbers, as broken down by Gallup’s poll of national adults: Conservative, 30%; Very Conservative, 11%; Liberal, 15%; Very Liberal, 6%.  Apart from the much larger numbers of conservatives vs. liberals, the datum that is uniquely relevant to Alterman’s claim is the tiny percentage of people who consider themselves very liberal.

Why is this important?  Because Alterman, like all of the editorial contributors to The Nation, would admit to being “very liberal,” if not further to the left.  And as shown by the Gallup poll results, very few people share his views!

Seen this way, one can confidently say that whether one believes that the media, in a democracy, should proportionately represent the will of the people, or understands the need for the media, as for-profit businesses, to cater to the majority of their viewers and readers, there is as little evidence that they need to veer further to the left as there is that they need to take instruction from Eric Alterman.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.