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MEDIA
Raw meat versus mush from the wimps
BY DAN KENNEDY

Journalist Michael Tomasky has managed to quantify what many liberals feel in their bones: that though the mainstream media may be liberal in some broad cultural sense, they just can’t compete with the disciplined warriors of the conservative media when it comes to matters of politics and ideology (see "Don't Quote Me," News and Features, March 14).

Tomasky, a columnist for New York magazine who will become a top editor at the American Prospect this fall, has written a report for the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, titled "Whispers and Screams: The Partisan Natures of Editorial Pages." A fellow at the Shorenstein Center this past spring, Tomasky studied how the editorial pages of the liberal New York Times and Washington Post and the conservative Wall Street Journal and Washington Times opined on the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

It is a sign of how muddled the ideological debate has gotten that Tomasky would include the Post, whose fiercely pro-war editorials in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq would appear to call into question its status as a liberal newspaper. But never mind.

Tomasky’s basic findings should be unsurprising to all except the most deluded of conservative partisans. Essentially, he found that though the editorial pages of the liberal papers criticize Bush harshly, as the conservative papers did with Clinton, the rhetoric of the Journal and the Washington Times tends to be far more colorful than that of the Post and the New York Times. In addition, the liberal papers were far more critical of Clinton than the conservative ones are of Bush. To wit:

• "The liberal papers criticized the Clinton administration 30 percent of the time. By contrast, the conservative papers criticized the Bush administration just seven percent of the time."

• "The liberals praised the Clinton administration only 36 percent of the time (the balance were mixed). The conservative papers, on the other hand, praised the Bush administration 77 percent of the time."

• "The liberal papers criticized Bush 67 percent of the time. The conservative papers criticized Clinton 89 percent of the time."

"Clearly, these liberal and conservative editorial pages represent different models of journalism," Tomasky writes. "The conservative editorial pages are more likely to think of themselves as being ‘on the team,’ as it were, supporting a Republican administration, while liberal editorial pages do strive for more independence, evidenced especially by their willingness to criticize Clinton, as compared to the conservative papers’ great reluctance to criticize Bush."

What makes these findings especially striking is that Tomasky sought to exclude "extraordinary events and circumstances" that would skew the results one way or the other. Thus, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, during which Clinton took a beating from liberals and conservatives, is not considered in his study; nor is the aftermath of 9/11, a time when Bush received near-unanimous praise. Rather, Tomasky considers mundane events such as the nomination battles over Zoe Baird (Clinton’s first choice as attorney general) and Linda Chavez (Bush’s nominee for labor secretary), and over the two presidents’ first-year budget proposals.

To illustrate the type of language you’ll find only on the right, Tomasky offers this, from the Wall Street Journal of February 19, 1992: "The Clintonites, like pod people from a ‘Star Trek’ adventure, have peeled off the thin layer of centrist rhetoric that they wore for the presidential campaign. We now learn that they are people genetically bred to inhabit the private sector. Their oxygen source is the moisture of taxes, which are remitted by the aliens in the public sector."

What’s striking is that Tomasky is able to make his case without a single reference to the most important weapons in the arsenal of the Republican attack machine: the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show. The Wall Street Journal, after all, serves an elite audience, and the Washington Times is read primarily by DC readers who can’t stand the Post. By contrast, Fox and Rush cater to mass audiences, and there are absolutely no liberals to counter them in television news or in talk radio.

While conservatives are serving up raw meat, consumers of liberal media just keep getting more mush from the wimps.

Tomasky’s report is online at www.ksg.harvard.edu/presspol/news_events/centernews.htm


Issue Date: August 8 - 14, 2003
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