You fellows got a great ballgame
going. As soon as you’re through. . .
we’re going to do a story on all of you.
—Former Attorney General John Mitchell to Carl Bernstein, 1972
Americans enjoy precious little in the way of cultural consensus, in our feverishly fragmented, post everything new millennium. But we do know one thing: The media are not to be trusted. The press is like a plague of locusts upon the republic: elitist, biased, and forever ideological.
This axiom of public life commands universal assent, from virtually every point along the political spectrum. Its dominant variant comes from the American right and is, by now, wearily familiar. The lords of the press, we are told, use the machinery of mass persuasion to mint a steady stream of agitprop briefs for the liberal order. So widespread has this plaint become that, in a paradox worthy of a Howard Beale, vilifying the elite liberal media has become the fastest path to elite media success. Even though Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, for example, has written the best-selling political book of the year 2000, commands a market share in the cable talk world rivaled only by Larry King, and recently signed a six-year contract for $24 million, he still claims that he devotes himself to “things not presented in the elite media.” For good measure O’Reilly also likes to point out that he drives “a 1994 automobile” every day to work. (Forced to concede that the vehicle in question was a Lexus, he protested, “But you know it’s a 1994—it’s got some dings in it.”)
Not even the most significant facts are capable of derailing the liberal bias myth.
O’Reilly is wrong about many things, but he is right to suppose that his credentials as an opponent of all things elite can be established by referring to his personal bearing and taste preferences. It’s not, after all, that O’Reilly or anyone else accuses the “liberal media” of ramming home some identifiable tradition or system of thought. That is never the charge. No, the malevolent liberalism that is so frequently found to taint the operations of the press always turns out to be a matter of “bias,” of the character and image of the news’ deliverers. The very terminology of the indictment is revealingly personal and pathological in its overtones: Before the late Sixties, “bias” was largely a clinical term from the social sciences, used to describe the irrational attitudes held by bigots, discriminators, and the generally backward. Bias was an involuntary or irrational impulse, to be brought to light and then duly diagnosed, treated, and cured.
In the view of the right, liberalism was the real bias that infected our culture. And the underlying disorder of which liberalism was a symptom was that most loathsome of social dysfunctions, class snobbery. Liberals were liberal because they were self-important know-it-alls, insulated in their Eastern seaboard from the real-world consequences of their bad ideas—and for that matter, from the real world generally. They adored militant blacks and protesters, but wouldn’t let them near their fine homes (or their privileged daughters.) They wanted to desegregate the schools, so long as they could raise their own kids in lavishly funded lily-white suburban districts. The only workers they encountered were in Peter, Paul, and Mary’s rendition of “Joe Hill.”
This key plank of the bias complaint proved to be its greatest political legacy: a readily deployed, infinitely adaptable rhetoric of pseudo-populism. Although the “media elite” in question—reporters, news readers, editors—weren’t owners or plutocrats in the way that traditional populist villains were, the idea that the anchorman’s unflappability or the journalist’s questioning were merely markers of “snobbery” of a detestable sense of superiority, caught on immediately and has never left us.
Not even the most significant facts, in other words, are capable of derailing the liberal bias myth. In view of this samurai—like devotion to the bias critique in all its solemn, pointless varieties, it’s high time to furnish some historical grounding to the whole gaseous phenomenon. The bias complaint is, after all, but a recent offspring of our political scene. Over the course of most of its commercialized, modern career, the press was quite straight forwardly taken to be an instrument of reactionary vanity—owned, operated, and strategically leased by the titans of industry and lovingly molded into whatever image of the country’s body politic they happened to prefer. Think of the storied press lords of prewar vintage—the good and great Messrs. Chandler, Hearst, or McCormick, whose papers bestraddled the nation’s great metropolises through the first half of the twentieth century—and you have summoned the shades of some of the nation’s most bloodthirsty, most unapologetic paleo-cons. And even at the height of the Republican outrage over liberal bias, the nation’s newspapers endorsed Richard Nixon over George McGovern by a ratio of 753 to fifty-six.
But that sort of thing has never mattered much in the fury-filled world of the backlash. The emergence of the liberal bias critique was, indeed, a sort of willed act of secession on the part of the right—the first flourish of what would be a thirty-year cultural counterrevolution. And so powerful did the bias indictment prove to be that during the Seventies (and Eighties, and Nineties, and probably the Oughts too) it got worked up into an all-purpose assault on every leading institution of cultural authority—the university, the judiciary, Hollywood, the literary establishment—all of them now dismissed with the blanket epithet of “the New Class.”
From Idiot Box to Ideology Box
In its beginnings, the bias complaint was, as befits the Age of McLuhan, a question of medium, not message. Horrified by the unruly tumult of Sixties antiwar and civil rights protests, conservatives saw a decade’s worth of happy Cold War consensus slipping away, and concluded that the culprit was. . .television.
The argument is almost plausible on paper. A new medium matures into a mass information organ—indeed, the leading source of news, by the time of the Nixon years. It traffics, both for formal reasons of genre and commercial considerations of audience maintenance, in oversimplification and colorful visual sensation. At the same time, dramatic new forms of social discontent sweep across the land—in particular among the country’s privileged young, who have spent enormous quantities of time laying about absorbing vast undifferentiated swaths of the cool blue medium’s nightly output.
Ergo, they must be getting their marching orders from the networks! It was unthinkable, after all, that the civil rights movement had incubated among black church leaders, union representatives, and crusading attorneys ever since the cruelly broken promises of Reconstruction. And certainly no reputable American leader or opinion maker would have decided on their own to question the principles of Cold War containment then on singularly grim display in Vietnam. Reasoned, historically grounded dissent from consensus Americanism was simply not imaginable.
So all the compass points on the question of the press were demagnetized nearly overnight. Suddenly the stolid array of station managers, big city press lords, and fledgling TV barons who had done so much to foment uncritical Americanism, shore up civic boosterism, and (last but not least) break the back of organizing drives in their own sunny open shops became, via the sort of polemical alchemy that is only possible in America, “the liberal media.”
These “men can create national issues overnight.”
For all practical purposes, the Magna Carta of the liberal media critique is Spiro Agnew’s firebreathing November 1969 speech, “The Television News Medium,” which he delivered, significantly, in Des Moines, Iowa. Taking as his text a recent TV address on Vietnam strategy by his boss, Richard Nixon, the vice president deplored the “instant analysis and querulous criticism” doled out over the airwaves by “a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts, the majority of whom expressed their hostility to what [Nixon] had to say.” Warming to his subject, Agnew dubbed the influence wielded by this petulant band of naysayers “a concentration of power over American public opinion unknown in history.” These “men can create national issues overnight,” Agnew declared, and by supplying a thumbnail profile of this sinister cadre, he left little doubt as to the quality and timbre of the “issues” they were inventing for nightly broadcast. “Of the commentators, most Americans know little other than that they reflect an urbane and assured presence seemingly well-informed on every important matter,” Agnew claimed, his words dripping with populist contempt. “We do know that to a man these commentators live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City, the latter of which James Reston terms the most unrepresentative community on earth.”
Representative or no, New York and all of its coded rhetorical baggage—liberal, decadent, educated,
elite, and (hardly inconsequential in these matters) Jewish—proved to be just the sort of symbol that the American right needed. If the media were minting student radicals out of the suburbs and lavishing black militants with air time and book contracts, why, then, the solution was to demonize the media. All of Agnew’s most reliable applause lines—“the impudent snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativity”—were aimed to smear the press as a haughty band of high hats. And they resounded magnificently, much more so than any strategist could have dreamed. After all, the surest path to saturation coverage in the media is to assault the media—as subsequent generations of right-wing media baiters, from Dan Quayle to Newt Gingrich to Dick Armey, have found in the long decades since.
More importantly, the Agnew assault also produced a dramatic new topography of American politics, forever muddling the all-important mythos of social class. According to the bias critique, the blue-collar hardhats and the owning class were part of the same persecuted cultural majority, united by their shared marginalization in the press. In the backlash vision, owner and worker stood together in defense of the besieged values of Americanism; whatever differences they had were dwarfed by the colossal arrogance of the real class enemy, the media.
Agnew took pains to assure his listeners on that day in Des Moines that by attacking the dastardly liberal media he was not advocating censorship. Instead, as he put it, he was simply “asking whether a form of censorship already exists when the news that forty million Americans receive each night is determined by a handful of men responsible only to their corporate employers and is filtered through a handful of commentators who admit to their own set of biases.”
Of course, the answer to Agnew’s question was “no.” Not only was the vice president here confusing censorship—the suppressing of news—with news judgment, with the reporting of news (news that’s sometimes unwelcome in official quarters), but he was also assuming, as nearly every critic of liberal bias has ever since, that the media are a simple manufactory of political boilerplate. This entailed a great deal of political distortion in its own right, hinging upon a pair of breathtakingly contradictory claims. American citizen-viewers were, on the one hand, taken to be as suggestible as obedient puppies, schooled by the sheer repetitive force of soothing liberal voices into questioning the day’s ration of napalm raining over the Vietnamese countryside. On the other hand, however, Agnew’s populist reform prescription held that networks should rightfully be reflecting the magisterial will and tastes of the common man, held but moments ago to be helplessly transfixed by daily doses of liberal sophistication.
But all squares are circled under the inviting master narrative of bias: Broadcasting is censorship; viewers are both dupes of the elites and omnicompetent citizens; the executive branch of the world’s most powerful government is oppressed by a small band of fast-talking New Yorkers. It is all, you see, a matter of ideology. And ideology is an agent capable of producing every imaginable social distortion. Throughout his indictment, Agnew supposes that the stealth bacillus of ideology travels untainted and unfiltered through each layer of the bureaucracy hulking behind every network news logo. Of necessity, news copy must bear the fatal imprint of the political proclivities of whatever decision-maker finally looses it into the broadcast booth.
That this is not an accurate depiction of how network news broadcasts are conceived and redacted is to understate things, well, exponentially. Just consider, for example, the world of presumption squeezed into Agnew’s abbreviated disclaiming clause, “responsible only to their corporate employers.” Those employers were not merely old Cold War propaganda hands such as CBS’s William Paley, but more generally—and far more depressingly—earnest gray men of the company, conditioned to regard ideas and opinions of any ideological or, indeed, merely controversial pedigree as nothing short of business-destroying sedition. This is not to say they were engines of right-wing ideology, either—just that they were, and for the most part, continue to be stunningly idea-resistant. As Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News, famously told TV Guide in the late Sixties, “Our reporters do not cover stories from their point of view. They are presenting them from nobody’s point of view.”
For the paranoid Richard Nixon himself, the conflict had a personal edge.
No conspiracy of sinister cosmopolitans is required to explain this state of affairs. Rather, the enterprising media critic only needs to reference the blinding truth that any casual viewer of TV instantly grasps in a good ten minutes of viewing time: All network content is designed to serve as a lubricant for the streamlined transmission of advertising. The last thing advertisers want are audiences absorbing and pondering systematic political analysis—which is why, in the network bazaar of ad buys, the longest advertising dollars go either to the most lurid or most vacuous fare. Network news broadcasts function primarily as audience placeholders, as gateways to the main programming events in primetime, where the biggest ad buys reign. As such, they strive not to emphasize or screen out facts according to some neo-aristocratie imperative, but just the opposite: to achieve a programming tone of deathly noncommitment, a sustained, numbing impression of authorial absence.
Agnew, however, saw a political opportunity amid all the strategic no-speak of the network news. “As with other American institutions, perhaps it is time that the networks were made more responsive to the people they serve,” Agnew announced, and went on to note that the people’s own humble servants—the leaders perched at the executive branch’s very pinnacle—now served at the whim of the network commissariat: “Every elected leader in the United States depends on the media. Whether what I’ve said to you tonight will be heard and seen at all by the nation is not my decision, it’s not your decision, it’s their decision.”
With this felicitous bait and switch, political reasoning had gone through the looking glass—and not simply because Agnew’s speech got lavish coverage the next day in both the print and broadcast media. Cloaked in the sonorous language of objectivity, fairness, and neutrality, what Agnew delivered was a call for representation: a demand that the media supply a map of right-wing opinion corresponding precisely to the broad ideological profile of the national electorate.
As Agnew successfully framed the question, what was important about the media wasn’t such tedious, empirical matters as affiliate licensing, cable regulation, and local broadcast fiefdoms; no, it was all about cultural attitudes, about the haughty bearing and perversely “urbane” views of a “small band of men” ensconced at strategic points along the country’s Eastern seaboard.
Revolt of the Burghers
The liberal bias plaint may be largely imaginary, but the ability of journalists to disrupt or discredit certain initiatives of the executive branch has always been real. For the paranoid Richard Nixon himself, the conflict had a personal edge as well. Long willing to remind any and all listeners of his bitter resentment at being “kicked around” by the American press, he took the first chance he could to declare war. When the general subject of the press came up, Nixon was once able to announce to his cabinet, straight-faced, that “We’ve got a counter-government here and we’ve got to fight it.” Yet Nixon faced a delicate logistical problem as he went into battle against the media. There was little hope of demonizing an institution that was draped in the sacrosanct protections of the First Amendment—and that, as a practical matter, was fully capable of conducting its own greatly public counterattacks.
So Nixon took up the fight with the trademark divide-and-conquer strategy of the backlash. His targets were the network execs so reviled by Agnew, and his allies would be the rock-ribbed Republicans who owned most TV and radio franchises. By setting the interests of one against those of the other, Nixon could both silence troublemakers and enrich his supporters. In his first term in office Nixon set up an “Office of Telecommunications Policy”—a cabinet-level outfit that sprang from no clear White House organizational or policy mandate. The agency’s chairman, Clay T. Whitehead, proceeded to translate Agnew’s outbursts into a series of carefully crafted policy grenades, which he lobbed over the heads of the local franchise owners and into the jittery boardrooms of the “small band” of network executives. Whitehead laid much of the groundwork for the cost-cutting moguls’ playground we now call the telecommunications industry. According to the 1971–1972 Alfred J. DuPont-Columbia University Survey of Broadcast Journalism, Whitehead “called for all the things the broadcasters had been clamoring for over the years and a few they wouldn’t have dared mention: the deregulation of radio, the scuttling of the Fairness Doctrine, getting the government out of programming by revising the license-renewal process, and by implication the rewriting of the Communications Act of 1934.”
Even though the last of these would not be enacted until the Clinton administration and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the foundations of today’s digitally driven media cartel were being built in those heady early days of the backlash.
All this hectic deregulation and deal-brokering was sold to the public not as a way to build more monopolies and media billionaires, but instead to liberate broadcast journalism—and the impressionable public—from its unmanly thrall to elite liberal groupthink. As Whitehead sternly chided the annual meeting of the press fraternity Sigma Delta Chi in 1972, “The First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press was not supposed to create a privileged class of men called journalists, who are immune to criticism by government or restraint by publishers and editors.” No, this was a class war in which the interests of the common people were to be protected by corporate management. For, as Whitehead continued, “Who else but management … can assure that the audience is being served by journalists devoted to the highest professional standards? Who else but management can or should correct so-called professionals who confuse sensationalism with sense and who dispense elitist gossip in the guise of news analysis?”
But who, exactly, was this “management”? Despite Whitehead’s ringing evocation of the solid corporate citizen, “management” remains the missing link in the endless culture wars over media bias. It was, however, quite easy for his audience to grasp the simple point Whitehead was making: The “management” Whitehead was invoking was perched atop the hundreds of local TV affiliates that bestride our great nation. These mid-market executives were—and for the most part, still are—the runty, right-wing tails that wag the supposedly all-powerful network dogs; they control the places that register the first, and certainly the most influential, uproars over “controversial” TV fare, be it an unseemly or unpatriotic investigative piece, a perceived slight to believers, or a lesbian kiss.
Few of the professional critics of the liberal media take note of the network affiliates. This is because doing so would be pretty much fatal to the sport of deriding the remote, out-of-touch cultural elites who are thought to manipulate the levers of network transmission. In his 1973 book, News From Nowhere—still by far the most rigorously researched and documented study of the production, distribution, and strategic vetting of network news—Edward Epstein pointed out that the real power in broadcasting is held by the networks’ local affiliates. Not only did they possess legal authority over broadcast content, but they were also the building blocks by which networks sold national audiences to national advertisers, generating those corporate goods that were such supposed anathema to liberals—profits and operating revenues. And who, exactly, ran these affiliate operations? As one network vice president confided to Epstein: “Affiliates tend to be owned by people in another business—newspapers, automobile dealers, Coke distributors—and run by salesmen and former announcers. Their politics are Republican, their ideals are pragmatic and their preoccupation with return on invested capital and the safety of their license to broadcast is total.”
As a result, any network-produced news feature that strayed too far into unseemly political controversy—most notoriously the 1971 CBS documentary on Vietnam PR initiatives, “The Selling of the Pentagon”—would send affiliate owners rising up to denounce it, and (more importantly) refusing to air it, producing an uncomfortable reminder to already hard-pressed network news divisions of how costly controversy can be. Not to mention how politicized: During a congressional inquiry into that documentary’s production, CBS president Frank Stanton actually went to jail for denying Congress access to footage edited out of the broadcast. (Nor was this the most dramatic affiliate-inspired foray into the nation’s politics: An ambitious manager of the Raleigh, North Carolina, ABC affiliate named Jesse Helms made liberal bias a central plank of his maiden Senate run in 1972, demanding that network news divisions be dismantled outright, and the airtime for national news relegated entirely to local markets.)
None of this affiliate/network animus was lost on the policy-making arm of the Nixon White House. Indeed, followers of the administration’s high-profile war with the media must have been astonished by the number of occasions the White House took to romance local broadcasters. In June 1972, Nixon hosted thirty local station owners and executives at a White House dinner at which he assured his guests that he would stabilize the process of license renewal and suppress a troublesome FTC proposal to force fraudulent advertisers to run “counter-advertisements” confessing their wrongdoing. The following week, 110 local on-air news personalities turned out for a White House briefing and reception. All this activity bore out the shrewd 1971 appraisal of the unnamed observer who said, after the administration called for the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the overhaul of the 1934 Telecommunications Act, “If I were the Republican National Committee, I’d set up about fifty dummy committees to handle the broadcaster contributions that are going to be coming in.”
Thus we propose, as a general axiom of the American culture wars: Any time officialdom begins laying into remote and manipulative elites, see if the burghers start to nod their assent.
The right’s war on the media paid off handsomely. For conservative politicians, it yielded a potent variant of populism they could call their own. For the affiliate owners, prosperity came with the waves of deregulation that followed in the wake of the new populists’ electoral victories. The campaign donations rolled in—not just to Nixon, but to his market-happy successors Reagan and Bush, and in good time, the broadcasting donor class got everything it paid for. First came children’s television, which was transformed under Reagan FCC chair Mark (“Television is just a toaster with pictures”) Fowler into a long parade of badly animated advertorial features, produced by cheap overseas syndicates. Then came the local news revolution, loosening the FCC’s already rudimentary fairness and standards-and-practices regimes and bringing forth the rich ferment of depoliticized ghoulishness and happy talk that is today duplicated with eerie sameness in every major market.
In addition, the cable explosion produced robust new revenue streams for local owners—and eroded network viewership to the point that the Big Three no longer command the attention of a majority of the country’s viewing households, a development that renders the media bias complaint even more objectively idle than it was thirty years ago. The still cheaper and far more ideological medium of talk radio, meanwhile, is experiencing explosive market growth. And with deregulation, cable and radio have been bundled together into enormous audience-delivery systems for advertisers—and for overtly ideological broadcasting moguls of the right such as Rupert Murdoch. (Indeed, the thought of any of today’s network or cable presidents landing in the hoosegow for shielding their news operations from hostile government scrutiny, as CBS’s Stanton did in 1971, can call forth nothing but a torrent of bitter guffaws.)
As a result of these dramatic market shifts, it is quite impossible to name more than a handful of avowedly liberal commentators on the burgeoning broadcast empires of cable and talk radio combined. On the right? Let’s see. . .Tony Snow, Brit Hume, Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly, John McLaughlin, Mary Matalin, Sean Hannity, and Alan Combs. And that’s just cable; talk radio has coughed forth such lovely specimens of temperate debate as Das Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Gordon Liddy, Larry Elder, Bob Grant, Ollie North, Don Imus, and Neal Boortz. Nor does any of this take into account the obscenely lavish spectrum giveaway known as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is sure to launch another tidal wave of low-cost conservative commentary as it, too, efficiently graduates a new class of broadcast burghers into New Economy moguldom—but that is a tangled, grimly instructive policy tale for another occasion.
The Culture Snub
All these quantum rightward realignments of the media market have taken place as the right has steadily insisted, in shriller and shriller tones, that the media is getting worse and worse. In the first flush of the Reagan era, the networks would be reviled as fonts of “secularism” and doyennes of decadence by newly ascendant prophets of the right (many of them, such as Brothers Falwell and Robertson, commanding sprawling regional media empires of their own). Neoconservatives would deride the networks for downplaying the Soviet threat, indulging the sexual and feminist revolutions, and mollycoddling criminals in news broadcasts. And come the Nineties, the right would appropriate the elastic lefty epithet of “political correctness,” and the sham war against the liberal media elite would start all over again.
This seems, at first, a paradox: The more the right controls the economic structure of the media, the more freely do its leaders bandy the fiction of their cultural persecution. But such is the twisted logic of culture warfare. By honing in on programming content and sidestepping the media industry’s economic structure, conservatives are able to endlessly restage all the classic battles of the founding chapter in our culture wars, in the manner of a power-mad chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Those endlessly debatable matters of attitude, language pitch, and representation, they have found, always trump mundane questions such as ownership and allocation of corporate resources.
Not that conservatives shun the quantitative approach altogether. On the contrary, over the years they have transformed bias spotting from a matter of spare-time grumbling into a curiously positivist undertaking, a profession for scholars and think tanks. Strictly speaking, this grant-sopping enterprise dates back to the 1971 publication of the frenetic bias classic The News Twisters, by former TV Guide editor Edith Efron. It was the tireless Efron’s conviction that the dread operation of liberal insinuation was performed not by formal content, editorial decision, or even production values. Instead, she sought to document bias much as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sought to document victory in Vietnam: By ruthlessly toting up the day’s margin of advantage by each opposing side. But whereas McNamara counted body bags, Efron counted individual words, words that, in her clumsily conceived “content analysis,” bore meanings that threatened to upend the very foundations of the American republic. To encounter one of Efron’s copiously annotated bar graphs contrasting the number of words broadcast “for” and “against” some hot-button issue or constituency—“black militants,” “the Vietcong,” and “violent protesters” on the one hand; the quietly noble “white middle class” on the other—is to behold a peculiar form of right-wing dadaism, an unwittingly arch commentary on the bipolar wasteland that we now accept as political reality.
It’s tempting to dismiss Efron’s divinations of universal liberal bias as the delusions of a lone crank with a foundation grant. But from her kernel of empirical affront—the timeless plaint that the networks stubbornly refused to see things like she did—sprang the mighty oak, and countless swarthy branches, of conservative media demonology. Like the ghost of Tom Joad, this weird epistemology of media persecution has surfaced everywhere over the last thirty years that neoconservatives, New Rightists, Moral Majoritarians, Reaganites, Dittoheads, and Gingrich devotees have sought out a public hearing.
Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media, founded in 1969, continues to promulgate elaborate conspiracy theories on such pet right-wing hobby horses as Vincent Foster’s death and the Elián Gonzales raid. Meanwhile, L. Brent Bozell superintends the Media Research Center, which carries on over all manner of broadcasting slaps at the good and the faithful, tirelessly tabulating such outrages as the moment when “actress Christine Lahti heralded on HBO how [sic] Hillary has ‘a huge amount of compassion for people’”; the various reasons to believe that CNN’s Christiane Amanpour may be soft on Cuba; and—I hope you’re sitting down—an episode in which a CNN commentator expressed actual “sarcasm on anti-communism.”
The MRC has a book-publishing division as well, which, alongside a parade of paranoid accounts of Clinton’s Rasputin-like hold on the media, has issued one of the most inadvertently entertaining diatribes in the history of media criticism: Out of Focus: Network Television and the American Economy, by Burton Yale Pines. The book chronicles a grim period in 1992, when Pines and an MRC research associate sat down before a pile of videotaped network and cable broadcasts and took diligent stock of the networks’ failure to broadcast flat-out laissez-faire propaganda as news. Like most right-wing media critics, Pines detects a torrent of covert anti-market messages smuggled into network entertainment programming. The affronts are tabulated with ruthless, Efronesque efficiency: “In total, businesspersons accounted for sixty-six of the 154 criminals, or 43 percent” of the law-challenged characters appearing in the sample of TV entertainment Pines so diligently monitored. Among the cruel caricatures: “A classic car dealer fronted for thieves who stole Bonetti’s car in the January 31 episode of CBS’s Tequila and Bonetti”; “Minton, a liquor distributor in the August 8 episode of ABC’s MacGyver, was a gun supplier and murderer.”
Loosed in the harrowing sanctums of the entertainment Moloch, Pines evidently couldn’t bring himself to admit that he’s uncovered nothing more sensational than the age-old device of giving TV villains, you know, day jobs. But things get stranger still when Pines trains his unsparing, bias-mad vision on the nightly news. After reviewing a CNN report on a nationwide high in teen fatalities at fast-food restaurants, for example, Pines starts in with some actuarial caviling: “More teens could have been dying in fast-food restaurants … not because the jobs were more dangerous than others, but simply because more teens were working in fast-food restaurants than anywhere else.”
You know how it is: Put enough teenagers anywhere, and it’s just a matter of time before they start keeling over. But such sentimental oversights are not the heart of the problem, in Pines’s view: Again, the media is reproached not so much for its active distortions, but for its telltale ideological silence. Pines scores the downbeat focus on workplace death for its “failure to ten viewers about the extraordinary role played by fast-food chains in preparing huge numbers of inner-city teenagers for the working world. . . .Rather than being dead-end, low-skilled employment for these teens, fast-food outlets have become apprenticeship launching pads to better jobs.”
Even if this sunny claim were demonstrable, it would have little actual bearing on the question of on-the-job safety—unless Pines were to blithely contend that the 139 teen corpses are a small price to pay for procuring access to these “launching pads” of young urban entrepreneurship “whatever the dangers of the job.” (One could make a similar argument on behalf of the illegal drug trade, after adjusting for higher body counts in tandem with higher net revenues.) And it’s hard to avoid noting another painfully obvious irony here: Even as the right hysterically fingers the media as the de facto stage manager of the late-Nineties outbreak of school shootings, it can apparently shrug off three-figure body counts when a poorly regulated market regime is the obvious culprit.
But such brutal empirical concerns have never been the real point of compulsive bias-spotting. The goal is to feed, water, and nurture cultural resentment in every venue where it can conceivably take root. And in so doing the sport of bias-cataloguing has produced a fine historical irony all its own. Pawing through great heaps of masscult for the most outlandish of ideological affronts, the commandants of the Kulturkampf have overlooked the key consideration that ideology has never mattered less than it does in our own market-addled age. In successive, self-destructive feints of cultural warfare, the American right has found itself exactly where it previously scripted the scheming liberals in its pet passion plays: Despising the country’s dominant culture, shrilly insisting on the politicization of private life, composing tract after tract teeming with cranky alarmist persecution, setting themselves up as professional know-it-alls. The titles alone betray this sense of pure and utmost exclusion: The Tempting of America, The Death of Outrage, The Re-Moralization of America, Experiments Against Reality.
Meanwhile, according to the right’s own reckoning, the basic terms by which the old logic of “bias” operated—all-powerful network elites cunningly orchestrating the behavior of the credulous masses—have fatally broken down. By the magic of the market, Americans now enjoy the right to have their intelligence insulted by the cable broadcaster of their choice. And as a New Economy has replaced the old regime that sought to regulate market growth, it has rendered irrelevant the old criteria of balance and fairness even to their one-time enforcers. Joel Klein, the former trustbuster so reviled by libertarians for his dogged pursuit of Microsoft, now labors for the Bertelsmann culture conglomerate. All of the last five chairmen of the FCC now work, as either CEOs or attorneys, for brave new Net startups. The most recent convert, Reed Hundt, the Clinton appointee who left the commission in 1997, has even composed his own New Economy memoir, You Say You Want a Revolution. He also possesses a multimillion-dollar stock options fortune, gathered from various fledgling digital enterprises; in 1999, he brokered a deal in which Paul Allen, Microsoft’s cofounder, poured $355 million into Allegiance Telecom, one of the many corporate boards that has bid frantically to include Hundt in its ranks. Hundt’s predecessor in the Bush administration, Alfred C. Sikes, is now president of Hearst Interactive Media, with similar portfolio-pleasing experiences. Yesterday’s regulators have become tomorrow’s populists of the market. The revolt of the burghers is complete; Spiro Agnew, RIP.