While the mainstream media often fail to live up to their own standards, their committed pursuit of neutrality and objectivity is crucial to the quality of American journalism. That commitment is the main reason the mainstream press is so intensely sensitive to allegations of bias. The refusal of mainstream media executives to acknowledge the ideological leanings of their staffs has produced a dangerous form of media guilt in which the press leans over so far backward to avoid the charge of left bias that it ends up either neutered or leaning to the right. This happened at The Washington Post and was reflected in weak and sometimes fawning coverage, first of the opening years of the Reagan administration, and even more so during George W. Bush’s first term—when not only the lead-up to the Iraq invasion but key domestic initiatives went largely unexamined, with disastrous consequences.
So, to quote Lenin on behalf of the mainstream media, What is to be done? There are a few things.
An important first step is to abandon the notion, popularized by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, that white working class voters are suckers, willing to cast ballots against their economic interests because corporations and evangelical Christians have scared the bejesus out of them with phony issues like gay marriage, abortion, government takeover of the healthcare system, and distribution of condoms in the schools.
These voters are not stupid. Unlike upscale youngsters in Cambridge, the Upper West Side, and Berkeley, who are equipped financially and psychologically to go with the sexual flow, the children of folks casting ballots for Republicans often get into big trouble when they get pregnant (see, Sarah Palin’s daughter) or tell their teacher to go to hell. To many of their parents, the school system has no business handing out condoms, in effect encouraging early sex. The overwhelming majority of Republican voters already have health insurance and they have genuine concerns about the damage to that coverage that government might do. These are people who arguably lose some of what they have when resources are redistributed under policies mandating, for example, affirmative action and busing. The mindset that perceives these voters as dumb jerks is what permitted a reporter and a series of Washington Post editors to let a description of evangelical Christians as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command” go unquestioned into a front-page story.
Along the same lines, reporters might consider carefully the question of why the party of the left in this country, the party that claims to represent Jane and Joe Sixpack, has such trouble winning the votes of the white working class. The answer may lie more in the issue of redistributed benefits than in a right-wing conspiracy.
Reporters might also attempt to think outside the prism of their own experience. Why did so many fail to see the news value when they learned from Glenn Beck that Van Jones, Obama’s environmental czar, had signed a 2004 petition accusing the Bush administration of deliberately allowing the 9/11 attacks to occur, calling for an “immediate inquiry,” and noting that a survey of New Yorkers showed 41 percent believed “US leaders had foreknowledge of impending 9/11 attacks and ‘consciously failed’ to act?” Similarly, what form of ideological myopia prompted the mainstream press to miss for days the story of ACORN staffers advising a self-proclaimed pimp and prostitute on ways to illegally get federal grants and to falsely fill out loan applications?
One of the virtues of liberalism is its empathy and its willingness to see the good in human nature. Empathy, however, can run amok, as it did in a front page Washington Post story from 1991 that sought to balance the good side of Henry “Little Man” James, age sixteen—he’d give the mothers of his kids cash, diapers, and other caring gestures—with the bad side—riding in the backseat on 295, he told his buddies he felt like “bustin’ somebody,” rolled down the window, and shot Patricia Diann Bigby Lexie, age thirty-six. James had already been accused of two random, motiveless shootings, was described by police as running a violent crack cocaine ring in his neighborhood, and was implicated in a third shooting. The day after his arrest, 200 neighbors signed a petition asking that he be kept in jail without bail. The Post headlined the story “Conflicting Views Of I-295 Suspect; Teenager Seen as Mean, Nurturing,” The response of many readers was outrage.