The Media Isn't Liberal, And It Hasn't Learned Anything From Trump Or Iraq
It's Time To Give Up On This Lost Cause
60 Minutes and Lesley Stahl were putty in the hands of Marjorie Taylor Greene and her in-progress makeover, and it was the most predictable thing in the world. Greene is a deranged person who spouts nonsense and conspiracy every time she opens her mouth.
The idea that one of America’s premiere news shows would conduct a soft focus profile of a person like that, rather than a hard-edged investigative piece, should be way out of bounds. But this behavior is well within bounds for the mainstream media over the last 30-plus years.
Oliver Willis Explains is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The pattern is very clear: Elevate right wing garbage, and either the press doesn’t push back on it, or make a so-so attempt at correction, or the move that is the default, elevate very normal mainstream speech from Democrats and liberals to argue that “both sides” engage in extremist behavior. If the media was truly liberal, as conservatives have asserted without evidence for over 50 years, they wouldn’t behave like this.
The reality is that the mainstream media is an extremely friendly place for conservatism. From the New York Times to CBS News to the Associated Press and Washington Post, the various flavors of conservatism have what amounts to an open-door invitation to spew.
The press loves to tsk-tsk liberals over spending, embracing the nonsensical tropes of “small government” conservatism with alarmist stories about Social Security running out and concern trolling about spending on social programs, never mind the outrageous spending on the military industrial complex, low taxes for the ultra wealthy, and the shameful wealth inequality in the United States.
Similarly, the right’s nativist and racist rhetoric has not been a bridge too far for the mainstream press. When Donald Trump smeared Mexican immigrants as rapists, called for a ban on Muslim travel, pursued the racist “birther” conspiracy theory, and referred to countries with nonwhite majorities as “shit holes,” it didn’t give the mainstream press much pause. They continued chugging along, giving him hours of unopposed media coverage during the 2016 cycle, reporting on his offenses with a straight face during his presidency, and churning out book after book after book about the gossip and infighting of his administration, ignoring the very real effect the conservative movement’s backing of bigotry has had on the country.
This behavior is unfortunately not new or merely a reflection of the Greene and Trump wing’s ascendancy within the conservative movement.
Twenty years ago it wasn’t Fox News that helped George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their inner circle to launch the Iraq War. It was NBC’s Meet the Press and the front page of the New York Times, who have far more credibility with normal Americans than the axis of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
Bush’s people knew that offering up half-baked theories about weapons of mass destruction would work, because that same team had sold the media the narrative of “cowboy” Bush versus “boring” Al Gore just a few years before.
The mainstream media has been thoroughly worked, as I first saw Eric Alterman lay out in his book “What Liberal Media?” (released in 2003). The idea, using the metaphor of a boxer complaining to the referees during a match to create the condition that he ends up getting favorable calls, can be seen in how the press operates.
The individual members of the media may personally hold some positions that are identified with liberalism, such as supporting diversity and not being open bigots, but their work product shows the signs — over and over again — of people overcorrecting in favor of conservatism or just nakedly profiteering from producing material that is friendly to the conservative cause.
When I joined Media Matters for America at the organization’s launch in 2004 as one of the first employees, I believed that this dynamic could be fixed. I believed that getting a good-faith course correction, the media could be led to provide better coverage of these important topics.
That is never going to happen. The lesson that has been learned, from airing WMD lies to emphasizing Al Gore sighs to airing hours of Trump’s open microphone and to giggling alongside Marjorie Taylor Greene is to keep doing more of a bad thing. The mainstream press doesn’t want to get better and when liberals offer up even tepid criticisms, the backlash is a sight to behold. Meanwhile they bow subserviently to right-wing criticism, and in the case of the Times, frequently elevate it in a way they never would with its liberal counterpart.
There is no hope left here. The mainstream press isn’t going to have a moment of reflection or shame when they realize what they have collectively done to wound America’s legacy. Not when there are more extremists to “both sides” and more six and seven-figure book deals to be signed (be sure to hold off on reporting on the real news so you can scoop it in your book!).
The liberal response to this disturbing end point should be twofold.
Stop holding fire on the media. Criticizing the press isn’t the same as Donald Trump declaring them the “enemy of the people.” Press criticism is a long-held American tradition and while it is unlikely to produce real change in the underlying dynamic, it at least educates others about the media that is being consumed. Most politically active Americans are terrible at media literacy and don’t understand that a lot of this coverage is bad. They wrongly view the press as neutral and give the people pushing Greene and Trump and the rest too much of a benefit of a doubt.
Promote progressive media and progressive breakthroughs in the mainstream media. Liberals don’t need the equivalent of Fox News, digital cults devoted to worshipping Republican politicians. But there isn’t anything wrong with a fact-based news outlet with a progressive point of view (and yes, I work for one). Similarly, it is worth it to reward progressive breakthroughs within the mainstream media with attention, showing political leaders that their messages can work while showing mainstream media gatekeepers that it isn’t only right-wing coded stories that can add to their bottom lines (the only thing they really care about).
But hoping for the mainstream press to see the error of its ways and go back to a place where it challenged nonsense and bigotry is not only a false memory of a past that never was, but it is a fool’s game. They aren’t going to get better. They are only going to get worse. What seems like the bottom is only the beginning.
If you like this newsletter, please consider becoming a paying subscriber by clicking here to join. I won’t be putting any of my regular columns behind a paywall and they will always be free. Thanks to everyone who has subscribed so far!
Follow me, Oliver Willis, on Twitter @owillis
Exclusive Kal-El Photo
Kal and I pose for our unreleased rap duo album.
They cannot resist the opportunity to put lipstick on a pig, never mind that it amounts to dropping their reputation into the manure of the sty.
Yeah, you're right!
I'm over 70, I could go on, and on, about this crap.