After a bruising primary season, the GOP establishment is trying to come to terms with a Tea Party movement that enjoys the loyalty of thousands of activists across the country. Tales of infighting are already starting to circulate. But while the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party are sniping at each other, they can at least agree on something: the mainstream media remains overwhelmingly biased in favor of the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama.
But while Republicans have defined the problem, they have failed to provide a solution.
Complaints about media bias are not mere sour grapes — conservatives have reason to be upset. The Project for Excellence in Journalism published a study in 2008 demonstrating how stories covering Republican presidential candidate John McCain were largely negative, in contrast to more positive stories on then-Senator Obama. Ordinary voters are aware of this imbalance. Prior to the 2008 presidential election, polls of likely voters showed just 9% thought professional journalists wanted Senator McCain to be elected president.
Conservatives, however, should beware exaggerating the problem. As far back as 1986, professors S. Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda S. Lichter found that journalists preferred Democratic to Republican candidates by a large margin. That did not stop President Ronald Reagan from winning two elections. Likewise, more recent surveys have shown media professionals are more supportive of left-wing candidates over conservatives. Hence the candidacies of Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry were, according to such sources as the Freedom Forum, supported by the majority of journalists. Yet each of these candidates failed to be elected president. Such evidence should help convince irate conservatives that American voters are largely immune to alleged media bias.
Even so, the data suggests a troubling trend. The US Constitution safeguarded the principle of a free press, and to see it controlled by huge majorities of like-minded people is a cause for concern. While great strides have been made in racial and sexual diversity, major newsrooms show a stunning lack of diversity in political thought. Even the most trenchant liberal must concede that such a situation is alarming.
But if conservatives have grasped the problem, they have failed to find a suitable response. The overwhelmingly positive coverage of the left is not the fault of any liberal conspiracy. It is the fault of the conservative movement itself.
After years of complaining about declining standards in journalism, the response of conservatives has been woeful. Conservatives have resorted to retreating into their strongholds: talk radio, conservative magazines, and various online message boards where they complain to one another at length. Such a move insulates conservatives from larger media outlets at a time when their message needs to be heard. Complaining about the media, while steadfastly refusing to engage with it, will not cure the ills manifest in American journalism.
Mark Levin, for example, had excoriated segments of the media for questioning the background of Christine O’Donnell, the newly-minted Republican candidate in the Delaware Senate race. But he misses the point — in questioning O’Donnell’s bona fides, the media is not lashing out at her political beliefs, but rather asking her to account for troubling past deeds. If O’Donnell does not address these valid concerns through the media, doubts about her self-efficacy will continue.
In response to this increased media interest, Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, has advised O’Donnell to “speak through Fox News.” While Fox remains a center of high journalistic integrity, O’Donnell would be foolish to follow such advice — she would open herself to charges that she is hiding from the wider media.
This is precisely the foolish course of action chartered by Sharron Angle, the Republican Senate candidate in Nevada, who last month lashed out at the media for not “asking the questions we want to answer.” Such behavior smacks of immaturity. Another Republican out West, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, has refused to participate in any more debates with her Democratic challenger after her famous on-air meltdown two weeks ago. It is hard for conservatives to ask the media for fairness when GOP candidates behave in such a manner.
A second difficulty is that those conservatives who work in journalism seldom make any pretense of objectivity. They revel in controversy. Right-wing commentators are therefore reduced to the status of token conservative, a blinkered partisan which liberals can lampoon with ease. Conservatives should remember that America is poorly served by replacing a liberal bias with a conservative one.
When conservatives bring their politics and grievances into the newsrooms of various media, they reinforce the perception of many on the left: those on the right are short sighted, easily angered, and apt to confuse the difference between glib punditry and hard-nosed journalism.
Recently, there have been encouraging signs of change within the conservative movement. Groups like the National Journalism Center and the Leadership Institute are offering training programs, internships, and scholarship funds designed to give aspiring journalists the edge in a highly competitive job market. Hopefully such moves will reverse the decline in journalistic standards.
Liberal editorializing skewed the narrative of the 2008 election. But the situation is not beyond rescue. The perennial hero of the right — Ronald Reagan — was, after all, the Great Communicator. By actively engaging with the mainstream media, conservatives will start to redress the imbalance. But if conservatives simply resort to the ways of old, offering the media either no conservative response or else a slew of incensed blowhards, liberal bias will go unchallenged. If conservatives do not set about addressing this challenge with sincerity and maturity, they will do a disservice both to their cause and their country.
Dan Whitfield is a British writer living in Washington, DC. A veteran of over a dozen election campaigns in both the US and UK, Dan has been active in American politics since he arrived in the country in 2005.