Liberal Press Critic Hails 'Voice of Opposition' Media

Liberal press critics are quite the paradox. Most such writers like Eric Alterman, Michael Wolffe, and Michael Massing, are pretty sophisticated about the media in non-political matters, but when it comes to politics, they can't help repeating a slightly toned down version of rhetoric you'll find over at the Daily Kos. They deny the press is tilted toward the left (ignoring scores of content studies and surveys of reporters) and yet they cheer when the media chooses to favor the left, as if that's the media's natural role. Which it is, of course--if you're a liberal

This line of thought is far too common among left-wing media critics. In an interview with the Huffington Post, writer Michael Massing provided a textbook example of it, arguing that the press has properly began pushing back against the Bush Administration while also saying that conservative critics are fundamentally wrong in their opinion of the media:

My working hypothesis on all this, which I have mentioned in some of those articles, is that the more powerful the President, the more timid the press. There's an inverse relationship between the popularity of the President and the willingness of the press to challenge him. And right now, Bush's popularity is very low. I think we're seeing the press pushing back in a very strong way. If I were writing an article today about what's been happening, I would say more about how the press has been pushing back. And I think there's a big appetite for this among readers. The Bush administration is so beleaguered and has done so many things that have upset the public that the press sees an opening and has been moving to take advantage of it.

So I've actually been encouraged by what's been happening. If you look at The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times - probably our three top newspapers - it's pretty extraordinary what they've been running. The New York Times has in some ways become the voice of the opposition in this country. Day after day, I've been looking at the Times and have been struck by how much they've been willing to run stories exposing incompetence and wrongdoing and documenting things that have been going wrong around the world.
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And I should just add that TV always lags behind the press, so we're seeing much less pushing back there. I was encouraged when Katie Couric opened her first show on the CBS Evening News with a very strong piece by Lara Logan about the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the show soon gave way to the usual fluff and flaccid reporting. In her first week, Couric seemed to go out of her way to provide plugs for the Bush administration's war on terror. [...]

I think the NSA story in The New York Times was a watershed type of story. The decision of the Times to run it was a very important development for them, because they knew that they were going to get attacked for it. And they were in fact attacked. Not only were they attacked, but the Bush administration used that story as part of a well-considered campaign to try to intimidate the Times and the press more generally, [with] talk of prosecution and even treason by some right-wing talk show types. I thought it was a very calculated effort to try to squash this type of journalism. Not only did The New York Times not back down but it has continued to expose things that have been going on, including Katrina and post-Katrina activities, the continued chaos in Iraq, and corporate malfeasance.

I still wish more were being done on the way money is converted into political influence, which in turn is used to shape the political system to benefit the wealthy. But even there, I think the Times has done a better job than in the past.

I feel a little funny speaking this way because I've been critical of the Times, but I have to give credit where it's due. [...]

You've talked a lot about a network of conservative outlets - talk radio show hosts, cable news hosts, political pundits, bloggers - who have severely damaged the press's credibility by constantly tagging the press as liberal and out of touch with regular people. How should the press respond?

I think that the main way they have to deal with all that is to try to ignore it. I've sometimes thought, "Why doesn't The New York Times do more to, say, cover Fox News?" Here we're getting into an area that's been another bugaboo of mine, which is the media coverage by papers like The New York Times. The Times has more of it than ever, and some of it's quite useful, but it's also weak in a lot of ways. And one of the ways it's weak is [in] covering the actual programming and content of the news media. Their stories tend to be so business-oriented, whereas what's shown on Fox News provides an incredibly rich source of information about what's going on on the right, how they're presenting the world, how they're going after the media. And I think it would be great, in many ways, for The New York Times to write about that, or to write about the talk radio world.

For one of the articles that I did for The New York Review, I was like an anthropologist going out into a foreign land and listening in to those raving right-wing talk shows. It was extraordinary what I learned about how these shows worked, about what they're saying. You can see how the perceptions of many people in America are molded by them. So I think there should be much better coverage of that. That would be one way, in a sense, of documenting the excesses of what gets aired. I heard Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Michael Savage say things that made my jaw drop, because of their ugliness, inaccuracy, or extremity. It would be great if the Times had a regular column or some reporter covering that world.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013