"What Liberal Media?" blared the monster headline atop the full-page ad in The New York Times. Its author was Eric Alterman of The Nation, who has a book out of the same title.
There was a touch of irony in Alterman's choosing the Times to place an ad declaring liberal bias to be a "myth." For that paper has lately been embroiled in the greatest scandal in its history, the Jayson Blair affair, caused by its almost blind devotion to liberalism's god of "diversity" in the newsroom.
And, as a judge of bias, Alterman is poorly situated. He is so far left he considers network anchors Dan Rather and Peter Jennings to be conservatives. Moreover, he argues from exceptions to prove his rules. Because the Times endorsed New York Gov. George Pataki over a hapless black Democratic nominee, Alterman argues, the Times is not really reliably liberal.
If this issue of media bias is to be discussed, there is a need for some standard of left-to-right. Let me suggest a simple one. If Al Gore is center-left and George Bush center-right, one measure of whether a publication is liberal or conservative would be whether it endorsed Gore or Bush -- and which party's presidential candidate it almost always endorses. And if being pro-life and in favor of Bush's tax cuts is conservative and being pro-choice and against the Bush tax cuts is liberal, what then constitutes the liberal press?
Answer: All three major networks, PBS, NPR and virtually all major U.S. papers -- Boston Globe, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Los Angeles Times. While the Wall Street Journal editorial page is neoconservative, USA Today -- the nation's largest newspaper -- is left of center.
Not only are the editorial pages of most major papers liberal, the news staffs are overwhelmingly so. At the annual White House correspondents dinners, conservatives are a tiny minority. Opinion surveys of the national press found 80 percent to 90 percent voted for McGovern and Mondale, though Nixon and Reagan both carried 49 states. How many celebrity journalists can you name who support Operation Rescue?
If the network news anchors are liberal, so, too, are the hosts of the morning shows, Matt Lowry, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson. The anchors of the Sunday interview shows are Tim Russert, off Pat Moynihan's staff, and George Stephanopolous, from Bill Clinton's staff, and Bob Schieffer of CBS, whom no one has ever accused of being a Dixiecrat.
Alterman does, however, have a valid point about commentators. Following Spiro Agnew's attack on the national press in 1969, most major newspapers -- realizing they had lost touch with millions of readers -- began creating op-ed pages and opening them up to conservatives. Today, columnists on the right are fully competitive and many are more widely syndicated than their liberal colleagues.
After the breakthrough by conservative columnists came the breakthrough in talk radio. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Neil Boortz, Ollie North, Gordon Liddy, Michael Savage, Michael Reagan and other conservatives dominate talk radio, nationally and locally. It is hard to name a liberal who has succeeded in national radio.
Among the magazines of politics and opinion, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Human Events and The American Conservative have a combined circulation far higher than The Nation and The New Republic.
In cable TV, Fox News, which is now predominant, tilts toward Bush, but CNN, whose anchors are Judy Woodruff, Wolf Blitzer and Aaron Brown, lists heavily to port.
Conclusion: Big Media remains a fortress of liberalism, but in the populist and democratic media -- the op-ed pages, the Internet, cable TV, talk radio -- where people have a variety of voices from which to choose -- conservatives prevail. With this caveat:
The House of Conservatism is a house divided. Conservatives of today are not the conservatives of yesterday. Many embrace the foreign policy of Wilson, the trade policy of FDR and the immigration policy of LBJ. They have made their peace with Big Government.
Can anyone name a federal agency George W. Bush or his father shut down, or a single federal program they ever abolished?
Many of today's conservatives would have been called liberals in the 1960s. Indeed, some were liberals then. And their progeny have come to accept foreign aid, the Department of Education, even the National Endowment for the Arts.
They call it compassionate conservatism.