Pressing the Advantage

The media bashing is starting to get unnerving. Apparently it's not just conservative mudslingers like Michelle Malkin: Yesterday the Los Angeles Times reported that though the public antagonism hasn't yet attained Vietnam-era levels, "'treasonous' and 'traitor' are words aimed at the news media with increasing frequency these days." Each time newspaper correspondents file I-was-there pieces from the ground in Afghanistan, it seems, they get angry letters threatening that they're putting U.S. troops at risk.

Much of this full-court-press against the press is political in nature -- yet another crusade against the "liberal media." It has been stoked by conservative commentators and outlets like Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, which recently accused ABC of paying too much attention to supposed pictures of civilian carnage caused by U.S. bombing. How fitting, then, that conservatives are now coming to the rescue with an idea for bringing about a d├ętente between the media and the public. Their answer? Make the media more conservative.

That's the gist of a recent reconciliationist column by Mark Tapscott, director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy. "Two groups with little good to say about each other for too long -- conservatives in the public policy community and members of the national news media -- would do well to realize how much they need each other before it's too late," writes Tapscott, sounding sublimely above the fray.

But really, Tapscott feigns a state of all-out media crisis in order to call for Fox News-style reforms. He cites a recent First Amendment Center survey that found that, in his words, "public esteem for the press has sunk so low that a near-majority of Americans believe the government should screen news articles prior to publication." This means, he believes, that popular media hatred could become a threat to the First Amendment.

Tapscott never says, incidentally, exactly how this might come about legislatively. Presumably Congress won't be considering the First-Amendment Amendment any time soon. But let's take Tapscott at his word that almost half of Americans support media censorship, and that this is an urgent problem. Well, it's largely a problem of the right's making. Want to bet that this censorious impulse has something to do with the right's longstanding war against the media? Want to bet that those who consider mainstream journalists "traitors" are the same bunch that listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News?

Tapscott admits that conservative attacks on the media haven't always been helpful. But he stresses that news outlets ought to start respecting conservative opinions, as if they somehow don't already. In other words, the right should be further rewarded for whipping the public up into a frenzy about media bias by being granted a more conservative media. This despite the fact that the original media bias critique is a thoroughly partisan one that erroneously presumes that just because most members of the mainstream media have liberal political views they cannot be objective. On the contrary, a strong case can be made that Fox News is far more systematically biased than CNN or the New York Times could ever be.

Nevertheless, Tapscott writes:

For journalists, the task is to realize that achieving diversity in the newsroom means conservative critics must be listened to as seriously as those from minority and other communities. Protecting the free press requires giving conservatives a legitimate voice in the news process.

A great place to start is recruiting from the staffs of the dozens of independent conservative campus newspapers like the Dartmouth Review, the Harvard Salient and the Virginia Advocate. Many of these students know all about how lonely it can be for the journalist "speaking truth to power" while trying to cope with those who trash newspapers they don't like.

This is an attempt to turn the current anti-media moment to conservative advantage, and turn the "liberal media" critique into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It's also rather unfair. As if conservatives don't speak regularly in the mainstream media, and aren't sought after to balance every story. As if top newspapers won't hire talented journalists -- and not just offensive screed writers -- from conservative college newspapers. Do conservatives now want an affirmative action plan for media hirings?

If there's really a significant contingent in this country that wants to take down the First Amendment, then we all ought to welcome this battle of principles, and prepare to defend the freedom of the press. But capitulating to conservative tantrum throwing about media bias is the last way to keep our information channels free and independent.

The Corrections. In last week's "Idea Log," I took Michelle Malkin to task for referring to the University of California at Berkeley as the "People's Republic of Berkeley." I called Malkin's reference ad hominem. Scores of e-mails then informed me that Berkeley has been known, at times fondly, as the "People's Republic" for years -- something I really should have thought of, considering that I recently spent a year of my life living in the People's Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I still think Malkin's comment was meant in an ad hominem way, but I definitely could have chosen a much more clear-cut example.