Have you ever wondered who the so-called “ liberal news media” are? You won’t find them unless you’re looking for them, like Keith Olbermann’s Countdown on MSNBC. Almost all of the major national mainstream news media are owned by conservative individuals like Rupert Murdoch (FOX “News” and The Wall Street Journal) or conservative corporations like General Electric (NBC) and Westinghouse (CBS). News anchors, editors, and reporters know who they work for.
It was Richard Nixon who made lambasting the imaginary “biased liberal press” a Republican tradition. Even after Nixon and his corrupt vice president Spiro Agnew took office in 1969, he continued to hide his illegal activities by demeaning the news media as being one-sided. Even though, virtually every newspaper in the country endorsed his re-election in 1972 – happily, the late Arkansas Gazette was one of the few exceptions!
For many years, the “fairness doctrine” required those receiving broadcast licenses from the FCC to present any controversial issue in an honest and balanced manner. Republicans had been trying to get rid of it ever since it began in 1949. They finally succeeded when Ronald Reagan vetoed its renewal in 1987. Since the Republicans’ right-wing supporters already controlled most of the news media, I feared that no Democrat could ever be elected president again. Fortunately, Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 proved me wrong. However, the so-called “liberal news media” quickly joined the Republican effort to destroy him.
How many times have you heard Republicans claim that Bill Clinton gave us the biggest tax increase in our history and never be asked to qualify what they were talking about? Now they’re claiming that Barack Obama plans to do the same thing. Even the interviewers on a program with a reputation for objectivity like The McNeil-Lehrer News-Hour (now The News-Hour with Jim Lehrer) on PBS, rarely, if ever, challenge(d) them. Why not ask, “Aren’t you referring only to those making $250,000 or more?” News programs should exist to inform the public, not to mislead.
Also, during the Clinton Era, Paul Duke retired as the moderator of PBS’s excellent Washington Week in Review. He was “replaced” by Ken Bode, who turned the program into a Clinton-bashing roundtable. One night, a first-time guest from England spoke well of Clinton’s performance in European matters. He was smirked at by all the other reporters and was never invited back. Gwen Ifill, a regular on the show, eventually seemed to have had all she could stand. One evening she kept repeating, “Come on now …” and would contradict what others had said. At the end of the program, Bode reprimanded her: “Gwen, you’ve been real contrary tonight.” I thought that would be her last time on the show. She was indeed missing for several weeks. When she finally returned, she was the guest moderator! She’s still there, and the show’s objectivity has been restored.
In contrast, during the 2008 Republican primaries, the “liberal news media” appeared to be giving a different Arkansan, Mike Huckabee, a free ride. Before the former preacher left the governorship, he had the hard drives of 91 government computers crushed. I asked a friend and former colleague, who is quite a computer “genius,” why Huckabee may have gone to such an extreme. He said that the only way to be sure that something on a computer is never recovered is to physically destroy the hard drive. I’ve always wondered what it was that Huckabee was so concerned about. As a presidential candidate, he appeared on the Sunday morning interview programs on NBC, CBS, and ABC. You would expect that at least one of the interviewers would have had the curiosity to question him about crushing those hard drives.
Both the late Tim Russert (NBC’s Meet the Press) and George Stephanopoulos (ABC’s This Week) gave him a pass. My real hope was Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation. Schieffer was the only one of the moderators who hailed from the Watergate Era – with Nixon’s secret and career-ending Oval Office tape recording system. Unfortunately, Schieffer, too, gushed over what a “nice man” Huckabee was. Not one of them ever mentioned the hard drive issue! This was a time when we had the most secretive administration in American history, and we needed to be looking for something better! It seemed as though all three interviewers were competing for a job at what is laughingly called FOX “News.” Now we learn that it was Huckabee who was “auditioning,” and he did receive his own show on FOX!
The national media loved John McCain and liked to depict him as a maverick within the Republican Party. Sometimes he really did appear to be: he publicly opposed Bush’s use of torture, and he endorsed action against global warming – but, he usually takes these positions when he knows his party will never let anything be done. When Bush trashed the anti-torture bill with one of his 700 signing statements, where he illegally singles out items he doesn’t plan to enforce, McCain never complained. Because he wanted the Republican nomination for president, rather than vote against any environmental issue he supposedly supported, in 2007 he just never showed up to vote on any of 15 important environmental bills. Otherwise, he has voted with Mr. Bush over 90% of the time.
Mr. McCain had a chance to be a true maverick on February 19, 1999, but how did he vote in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton? The constitutional crisis was never the possibility that Clinton would be removed from office. The crisis was the Republicans’ incredible desire to impeach him and their devoting six years harassing Clinton in an effort to find a reason to do it. Then, rather than censure Clinton for lying under oath about his sexual relations, they astoundingly used that as an excuse to impeach him!
They trivialized and abused the constitutional impeachment process for political reasons. The immediate purposes were to make Clinton an ineffective chief executive and to weaken the Democrats’ election chances in 2000. The long-range purpose, I still contend, was to lessen the chances that a future Nixonian president like George W. Bush would ever be impeached. Five Republican senators refused to go along with their party’s diabolical scheme and voted against conviction, but not John McCain. He was planning to run for president in 2000 and followed his party. McCain, to me, has always been first and foremost a loyal Republican.
Republicans consider the “liberal news media” to be any source that informs the public about issues the Republicans don’t want us to know about. There aren’t very many, but three programs on PBS are good examples: Bill Moyers’ Journal, Now, and Frontline. The Public Broadcasting System is probably the only one of the mainstream national media that Republicans haven’t yet been able to dominate. But, like with Ken Bode, they are trying.
by David Offutt
Revised October 15, 2009 : A version of this essay was published July 3, 2008,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.