Argument over media bias doesn’t go quite far enough

J. Peder Zane Author, Design in Nature
Font Size:

The arguments over media bias are not just tiresome – they don’t go far enough. In fact, much of the mainstream media, especially in their opinion pages and talking-head analysis, have crossed the line into propaganda. Where bias reflects a particular way of looking at the world that emphasizes some facts over others, propaganda is an echo-chamber effort to skew facts in order to serve a larger “truth.”

A recent example of the rise of propaganda is the glowing coverage lavished on  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s commencement address at Harvard last month. In it, Souter defended the liberal view of the Constitution as an evolving document as opposed to the “orginalist” view furthered by conservatives Justices, especially Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Intellectually, it was an unremarkable speech. Souter’s arguments were familiar even to those with only a passing knowledge of the Court. But, from the liberal perspective, he hit all the right notes. And so, in the New York Times’ Opinionator blog on June 3, former Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse (funny how just about every Times reporter who becomes a columnist – Rich, Friedman, Kristof & Egan – turns out to be a hyper-partisan liberal) aligned Souter’s speech with the most historic commencement addresses of the 20th century. Greenhouse wrote:

“As a matter of immediate impact, this was not a speech to rival Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s announcement, in his Harvard commencement address in 1947, of his plan for the reconstruction of postwar Europe. Nor is it likely to attain the resonance of Winston Churchill’s declaration the previous year, upon receiving an honorary degree at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., that the cold war had begun and that ‘an iron curtain has descended’ across Europe.”

Pause for a moment to consider the absurdity of her backhanded suggestion that his speech just might rival Churchill’s prescient description of the post-war struggle that would dominate the West for the next half-century. This isn’t bias. This is propaganda, as Greenhouse miscasts a common argument into a turning point in history.

And the party line was set. The very next day – without concern for originality (or charges of plagiarism), the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, parroted Greenhouse’s gaseous spin, with even more hyperbole:

“George Marshall’s call to rebuild Europe was delivered at Harvard in 1947; Dwight Eisenhower’s plea to students to resist the “book burners” was uttered at Dartmouth in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era; Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave his searing critique of Western society at Harvard’s graduation in 1978. To that short list of great commencement addresses should be added last weekend’s eloquent exposition on the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in American society, delivered again at Harvard, this time by former Justice David H. Souter.”

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post pushed this line in his nationally syndicated column, proclaiming that Souter’s speech “should become the philosophical shot heard ’round the country.”

Repeat a lie enough and it just might become the truth.

Just as troubling is the fact that Souter’s speech also engages in propaganda, offering a false reading of American history to serve his larger “truth.” To prove that the Court should have the latitude to reflect changing mores, Souter compared two pivotal civil rights cases. The first was Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in which an 8-1 majority ruled that separate-but-equal facilities for blacks and whites was Constitutional. The second was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which reversed that case.

Souter declared: “One argument offered in Plessy was that the separate black car was a badge of inferiority, to which the court majority responded that if black people viewed it that way, the implication was merely a product of their own minds.”

He continued: “The members of the court in Plessy remembered the day when human slavery was the law in much of the land. To that generation, the formal equality of an identical railroad car meant progress. But the generation in power in 1954 looked at enforced segregation without the more revolting background of slavery to make it look unexceptional by contrast.”

The idea that the Plessy majority truly believed it was acting out of an enlightened sense of progress would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. It was during the 1890s and early 1900s that Jim Crow laws were formalized, reversing many of the gains African-Americans had made during and after Reconstruction. It is, frankly, astounding that Souter would mention – must less accept – the majority’s bogus claim, which was throughly debunked in Albion Tourgee’s arguments representing Plessy and in Justice Harlan’s dissent.

Just as astounding is the fact that Greenhouse, the LA Times, Dionne and Souter’s other admirers not only failed to call him on this piece of sophistry but endorsed it through quotation. In the propaganda game, ours is not to reason why. And, of course, Souter’s tendentious misreading of history, serves the larger “truth” that progress was only made through a liberal reading of the Constitution.

In fact, Souter’s argument could be construed as a powerful argument against this view. It seems more likely that the Plessy majority, believing the Consitution to be a living document, felt the right to interpret in accord with the contemporary mores of many white Americans – the 13th and 14th amendments be damned.

I am not arguing that Souter’s hagiographers should have endorsed that view. But any fair effort to think critically about his remarks should have raised it.

But that was not their story – and they’re sticking to it.

J. Peder Zane is journalist who has worked at The News & Observer of Raleigh and The New York Times. His writing has won several national awards including the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.