As the recent scandals surrounding the green-jobs advocate Van Jones and the community organizing group ACORN have shown, even under a Democratic White House and Congress, the conservative media have an ability to place a story on the national agenda. Those episodes have also prompted some mainstream media outlets to examine their own practices. A recent column by Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander reported that the paper’s executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, pressed his staff for more ACORN coverage; Brauchli was also quoted expressing the concern “that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It’s particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view.”
This relationship between “conservative issues” and national issues more broadly is one that’s been of interest for some time to Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland and Before the Storm. A leading liberal historian of the conservative movement, Perlstein’s work has won respect from some leading conservatives; writing for CJR, he once praised the late journalist Paul Cowan for his sensitivity to the “dignity and value” of conservative subcultures. But Perlstein has also chastised the media, in the pages of the Post, for being too sensitive to conservative criticisms.
CJR assistant editor Greg Marx corresponded yesterday with Perlstein via phone and e-mail. An edited transcript appears below.
Greg Marx: I’m interested in your thoughts on Marcus Brauchli’s comments about mainstream coverage of conservative concerns in particular, and also in this issue more broadly.
Rick Perlstein: I read what Brauchli said, and what he was paraphrased as saying, and it almost suggests to me that Matt Drudge is becoming his assignment editor. I mean, why would a newspaper like the Post be training its investigative focus on ACORN now? Whether you think well or ill of ACORN, they’re a very marginal group in the grand scheme of things—and about as tied to the White House as the PTA.
The real story is that millions of Americans don’t consider a liberal president legitimate, and they’re moving from that axiom to try to delegitimize the president in the eyes of the majority. And one of the ways they do that is, frankly, by baiting the hook for mainstream media decision-makers who are terrified at the accusation of liberal bias. It really looks like Brauchli is falling for that.
GM: So what do you think would be a more appropriate way to handle this? In your recent op-ed in the Post, you wrote that “even the most ideologically fair-minded national media will always be agents of cosmopolitanism.” So is there a legitimate way to understand other perspectives?
RP: Well, the ACORN story is the story of a marginal group that made obvious mistakes, but also, equally obviously, does important good in very marginal communities where services are few and far between. So what other groups of equal stature are they doing investigations of? The whole Republican narrative about ACORN is that of the tail wagging the dog—the tail being ACORN, the dog being the Obama White House and the Democratic Party.
Let me give you an example of what might be responsible for the media to report. They could report that one of ACORN’s big crusades in 2004 was a Florida ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, and a lot of political scientists found that, indeed, it increased political participation in Florida. Some of the people who came out to vote for it actually voted for Republican candidates. But the Kerry campaign had no liaison with this—it’s not that they didn’t want to, it was just that the Democratic Party was completely disconnected from this.
In the conservative imagination, the idea that ACORN is working on a ballot initiative and that it might increase turnout for a Democrat is taken as prima facie evidence that ACORN and the Democratic Party are working hand-in-glove to distort the electoral process. But the Kerry campaign didn’t even seem to be aware of ACORN’s effort in this case.
So if Brauchli wants to do an investigation of ACORN, he should be able to justify it to the extent that they’re important in the grand scheme of things. And they’re important in the grand scheme of things now because the Republicans are yoking them to a narrative about the legitimacy of the president—that is the story, that is the event that brings ACORN to the forefront. Compare, say, the Chamber of Commerce’s ties to the Bush Administration—Bush’s head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission was a former executive with the Chamber of Commerce—to ACORN. Has an ACORN staffer ever made it anywhere near an executive position in the Obama administration? The scale of connection is infinitesimal.