JOHN KERRY had a complaint. Six months after winning more than 59 million votes in his bid for the White House, the Massachusetts senator was lamenting to a roomful of columnists and editorial writers that voters can't hear Democrats above the roar of the GOP spin machine.
The right, he groused, is far more effective than the left at making itself heard. To peddle their ideas, Republicans and conservatives have assembled an elaborate communication network, one that relies on the likes of "Cato and Heritage and Grover Norquist" two think tanks and a well-connected Republican lobbyist to make sure its messages get plenty of attention.
"Several times a day, their message is amplified," grumbled the former Democratic standard-bearer. "We don't have anything like that."
Now, where have we heard this before?
Well, last year we heard it from Democratic operative Rob Stein, creator of a much-discussed presentation called "The Conservative Message Machine's Money Matrix." As The New York Times Magazine summarized it, Stein "essentially makes the case that a handful of families Scaife, Bradley, Olin, Coors, and others laid the foundation for a $300 million-per-year network of policy centers, advocacy groups, and media outlets that now wield great influence over the national agenda. The network, as Stein diagrams it, [is] . . . linked to a massive message apparatus, into which Stein lumps everything from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to Pat Robertson's '700 Club.' "
In 2003, we heard it from Eric Alterman, whose bestselling What Liberal Media?" claimed that the press, far from tilting leftward, is actually infected with a pervasive right-wing bias. "Conservatives have spent billions . . . to pressure the mainstream media to move rightward," he wrote. "Unbeknownst to millions of Americans . . . liberals are fighting a near hopeless battle in which they are enormously outmatched."
In 2002, Al Gore declared, "The media is kind of weird these days on politics, and there are some major institutional voices that are, truthfully speaking, part and parcel of the Republican Party." He indicted several by name. "Fox News Network, The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh there's a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires . . . Most of the media has been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks."
Earlier still, first lady Hillary Clinton pooh-poohed reports of an affair between her husband and Monica Lewinsky as the delusions of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." As far back as 1995, the Clinton White House was compiling a 331-page report meant to prove that "right-wing think tanks," British "tabloids," Republicans in Congress, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and The Washington Times were all part of a cabal to get "fringe stories" about Bill Clinton "bounced into the mainstream media."
If nothing else, the Kerry-Stein-Alterman-Gore-Clinton complaint makes it clear that the paranoid style in American politics is alive and well. Thirty years ago, it was Richard Nixon who fumed at the media and compiled an enemies list. Today it is in the upper ranks of the Democratic Party that unflattering news coverage is blamed on "conspiracies" and subversive "fifth columns."
But there is a difference. Nixon really did a face an overwhelmingly hostile press corps. Kerry, Gore, and Clinton, by contrast, benefit from a news media that is overwhelmingly liberal, as countless surveys have shown. To cite just one: When a New York Times reporter polled journalists covering the 2004 Democratic National Convention, those from around the country favored Kerry over Bush by a ratio of 3 to 1. Among the Washington press corps, the results were even more lopsided 12 to 1 pro-Kerry.
What Kerry and the others object to is not that there are only conservative voices in media circles these days but that there are any such voices. The right-of-center Fox News cannot hold a candle to the combined left-of-center output of ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and PBS. Scaife, Bradley, and Olin money helps leverage Republican messages, but its impact is dwarfed by the Ford, Rockefeller, Pew, Heinz, MacArthur, Carnegie, and Soros fortunes. The Washington Times is conservative? Yes, but The Washington Post is liberal and its circulation is eight times as large.
But for Kerry, Gore, and Clinton, even a few conservative outlets are too many. They grew up in the era before cable TV, talk radio, and the Internet the age when liberal dominance was unquestioned. Now Democrats have to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and voters don't seem to be buying what they're selling. Is it any wonder so many are grumpy?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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