In Defense of the Liberal Media

In early 2009, Tucker Carlson was a man unmoored. At the turn of the century, Carlson was a bow-tied, boyishly-coiffed gadfly of cable news commentary, with an impressive resume as a magazine journalist; a decade on, however, he was coming off a particularly embarrassing turn on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars (voted off in the first week, ahead of other such non-dancers as Jerry Springer), and his mononymic talk show Tucker had been canceled by MSNBC, in what Carlson said was the result of the network moving away from him politically, leaving the remaining landscape inhospitable to an upper-crust conservative with a slight contrarian bent. Months later, he would be hired by Fox News Channel as an on-air contributor, but in February of that year, Carlson—having ditched the bow tie, yet still sporting the shaggy hair—went to Maryland to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Five weeks after the inauguration of Barack Obama, Carlson addressed a similarly-adrift party as it grappled with its own recent electoral drubbing.

The year 2009, however, also marked the 40th anniversary of an infamous speech by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew. In an attempt to deflect from antiwar criticism of his boss, Richard Nixon, Agnew gave a barn-burner of a dissertation to a crowd in Des Moines, IA. Agnew railed against the President’s opponents of all stripes, but focused specific acrimony at the news media—at the time just 3 major networks and a handful of national newspapers—deeming them “elites,” “effete intellectuals,” and perhaps most memorably of all, “nattering nabobs of negativism.” He charged that “this little group of men” who “live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City…do not represent the views of America.” Four years later, both Agnew and Nixon would be cashiered from office as a result of separate sagas of impropriety, uncovered through the dogged reporting of just those same scoundrels that Agnew had excoriated. Nonetheless, perhaps more than any other singular event, Agnew’s fiery oratory kicked off a tradition on the American right of intrinsic distrust of the media writ large, believing it to be monolithically liberal and inherently biased against conservatives.

When Tucker Carlson took the stage at CPAC, among the topics he addressed was the mainstream media—although, not in the way one might have assumed. “The New York Times is a liberal paper,” he said. “It’s [also] a paper that cares about accuracy… At the core of their news-gathering operation, is gathering news—and conservatives need to do the same… They need to go out there and find what is happening…[and] not just interpret what they hear in the mainstream media… Don’t just comment on the news, but dig it up and make it!” Put simply: don’t just complain about the New York Times, be better than the New York Times.

For his stance, Carlson was…roundly booed. Carlson’s conciliatory message found no purchase among a crowd steeped in 40 years’ worth of conservative anti-media rhetoric, and he was openly heckled. He closed with, “thank you for indulging me,” before leaving the stage; he was followed by a video from conservative blog Pajamas Media which openly mocked “fact” journalism, in favor of “analysis,” essentially repudiating Carlson’s entire message. In the ensuing decade, of course, Tucker took a rather different tack than his high-minded rhetoric would have seemed to indicate: less than a year after the speech, he and Neil Patel, a former advisor to Dick Cheney, launched the Daily Caller, an online news site intended to be the right’s answer to the Huffington Post, but which has since become little more than an aggregator of conspiracy theories and a repository for white supremacists and white nationalists to contribute. More recently, Carlson began hosting a show on Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, in which he has shown his own demonstrable shift toward white nationalism, and along with his primetime partner Sean Hannity, creates an obsequious feedback loop to reinforce all of President Trump’s worst impulses.

Herein lies the tragedy of the situation: 2009 Tucker was absolutely correct. If conservatives feel that the New York Times or the Washington Post is biased against them, then the solution is not to hermetically seal themselves in an echo chamber and deflect criticism from their “tribe”—it is to start their own serious publication and do their own investigative journalism. When the Washington Post published allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, of sexual misconduct with underage girls, conservatives focused their ire on the messenger: Steve Bannon, having left the White House and returned to the helm of Breitbart News, campaigned for Moore in Alabama and asked the crowd to consider, “The Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post that dropped that dime on Donald Trump [by releasing the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016] is the same Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post that dropped the dime this afternoon on Judge Roy Moore. Now is that a coincidence? That’s what I mean when I say opposition party, right? It’s purely part of the apparatus of the Democratic Party.” There’s no reason to decide whether the allegations are true, when you can just write off the source because you perceive its ideology to be counter to your own.

At this point, it would be easy to say that conservative media outlets do do this, they just do not receive the same attention or acclaim as the “traditional” sources—in the 2009 speech, Carlson even cited Fox News as a good example of what he was talking about. This, however, is patently untrue: the vast majority of the stories that Fox covers, including the ones is considers to be insufficiently covered, are broken by other outlets. When it came out that the church Barack Obama had attended for many years in Chicago had a controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright, prone to racially charged rhetoric, Sean Hannity covered it unrelentingly: in a May 2012 Slate article, Dave Weigel pointed out that Hannity had mentioned Wright in nearly 300 television segments since Obama’s inauguration! Hannity’s grouse was that the issue was not fully covered by the liberal media, but despite Hannity’s claims to the contrary, the Reverend Wright issue was not broken by Hannity, or even by Fox; it originated in an ABC News segment.

Similarly, conservatives have gotten plenty of traction out of the sexual assault and abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and the fact that he is a longtime contributor to Democratic politicians—for example, Fox News ran hours of coverage, and chairwoman of the Republican National Committee Ronna McDaniel tweeted about it multiple times with obvious schadenfreude. As much as Carlson or Hannity may accuse Democrats and the media of “covering for” Weinstein, however, it is also because of the investigative reporting of two of the most mainstream of media sources—the New York Times and the New Yorker—that we even know the true extent of the allegations against Weinstein. It is not hard to imagine that, in a different world, a conservative media apparatus focused on actually breaking hard news could have come up with such a scoop.

But there is the rub: they could have been doing that all along. Fox News is the most profitable arm of an already very profitable media company, and yet instead of producing award-winning journalism, they analyze the news that has already been reported elsewhere, through their own prism; hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer could start his own magazine or newspaper, and staff it with talented investigative journalists of a conservative bent, but instead, he gave upwards of $10 million to Breitbart News and reportedly helped finance the attempted comeback of self-described provocateur and white supremacist-friendly Milo Yiannopoulos.

Yes, it can be argued that the media has a liberal bent, perhaps even a bias, indicative of the type of people who typically staff such media outlets. However, as a soon-to-be Fox contributor once said, many of them also care about accuracy; in fact, the previously mentioned stories about Roy Moore, and Harvey Weinstein, each won Pulitzers for their respective publications. It is not difficult to imagine a world where conservative outlets do the same–but instead, they use their resources to reinforce their own beliefs, and they cast aspersions at any news they do not like.

Further reading on the subject: technology writer Julian Sanchez, on the epistemic closure within the conservative movement, from all the way back in 2010.

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