Reed Irvine, R.I.P.

Posted: Nov 24, 2004 12:00 AM

 Reed Irvine, the founder and central figure of Accuracy in Media, the first conservative media watchdog group, died on Nov. 16 at the age of 82. For inventing the field of professional conservative media criticism -- to fight not just the liberal bias within the media but also its attendant arrogance -- the entire conservative movement, and American journalism in general, owe him a debt of gratitude.

 In its infancy, network television news was a rip-and-read enterprise, 15 quick minutes of wire service copy. But as TV news divisions recognized their own political power, they began actively to steer a national audience toward a political worldview of their liking.

 Sometimes it was as simple as covering something, or refusing to cover something. Armed with slogans like "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" "-- a calling based on political motivation, not journalism -- they used their dominance of the machinery of public opinion to preach one message and one definition of "news." It also became the most hypocritical of professions. Wrapped in the fig leaves of "objectivity," "fairness" and "balance" was a deeper truth. Neither the conservative perspective nor its leaders were to be granted credibility by serious journalists. 

 In the fall of 1969, after a number of years as an economist at the Federal Reserve, Reed Irvine began a second career, this time to become one small David against the liberal media Goliath. Immediately he was dismissed as an unserious critic because, proclaimed the scribes, Reed Irvine wasn't part of the working press. Lost in that argument was its reverse postulation: How, then, are reporters qualified to cover fields wherein they can't document professional experience? 

 But Reed Irvine was a pioneer who wouldn't be silenced. His courageous example showed that the American news consumer was just as intelligent and qualified to judge the coverage of news as those hired to report it.

 When he started in 1969, the time for media watchdogs was ripe. That November, Vice President Spiro Agnew had delivered his famous speech in Des Moines decrying "a small group of men" at the networks settling on the 20 minutes of film and commentary the American people would see, with the result being "a narrow and distorted picture of America often emerges from the television news."

 Agnew quoted Walter Lippman lamenting that the networks had "a virtual monopoly of a whole medium of communication." He would follow with the famous "nattering nabobs of negativism" haymaker against the media, for their perpetual sourness toward conservatives, and for the next 35 years, Irvine's Accuracy in Media organization would document, relentlessly, that truth.

 Reed confessed naivete at the beginning. He thought that if AIM's critiques were accurate and well documented, surely the media brass would "insist that corrections be made and remedial action taken to prevent repetitions of the flawed reporting. It didn't work that way." What Irvine received instead were nasty and vulgar rebuttals, the most famous being then-Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee suggesting that Reed had, shall we say, a unique way of going to the bathroom.

 Reed Irvine was the pit bull of modern conservatism, dogged in his pursuit to correct the historical record if distorted by the press. His most important battleground was their skewed and long-lasting take on the subject of Soviet communism, right down to the last day of the USSR, and even beyond.

 The media regularly vacillated between maddening moral equivalence and actually touting communism as the superior system of social organization, both morally and economically. Irvine and AIM met them head on, exposing the truths about the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua and countless other communist dictatorships, fighting the good fight in untangling the disinformation and Soviet propaganda that seeped into the bloodstream of the American press corps.

 All this is part of the public record about Reed Irvine. But what is less known, and deserves underscoring, is that he was also one of the most selfless warriors in the modern conservative movement.

 As the head of another organization critiquing the media, oftentimes I've been asked if there wasn't some form of competition between our organizations, "competition" being a euphemism for the contentious relations between those vying for finite funding dollars. That question required me always to recount a story.

 The day the Media Research Center opened its doors, one of the very first calls I received came from Reed Irvine. He first welcomed me to the battle, then shocked me by offering me the use of his donor file to help the MRC get off the ground, a gesture I eagerly accepted.

 If Reed Irvine were the calculating sort, the intent would have been to buy my everlasting appreciation. But Reed didn't have a Machiavellian bone in his body, and didn't need one to achieve the same result.