Why there’s no such thing as “liberal media bias”

I am not a conservative (I’m a formalist), but I read a lot of conservative blogs. You’ll see many of them linked on the sidebar.1 And there are others, such as Little Green Footballs and Power Line, which for various reasons don’t meet the high linking standards of UR, but which I swing by occasionally just to get a feel for what’s up.

The reason I read conservative but not progressive blogs is pretty straightforward. I was raised in the Brahmin caste, studied at Brahmin universities, and live in a Brahmin city. Since progressive-idealism is of course the belief system of the Brahmins, I’m about as likely to encounter surprising new progressive-idealist ideas as Ted Kennedy is to learn something new about Catholicism.

Whereas the world of American conservatism is a foreign country to me. I’ll never be entirely fluent in its language, and that’s just fine. I am not a Christian, and I have no particular problem with abortion, rampant homosexuality, ear grommets, “rock music,” etc. Not that I don’t respect and understand the conservative loathing of these phenomena, or even understand the connection between them and cultural decay—which I do deplore. It’s just that I think of the kinds of issues that most annoy conservatives as symptoms, rather than causes, and I neither have a visceral emotional reaction to them, nor think attacking them will do much to solve what I see as the underlying disease.

It’s hard for me to escape the general conclusion that conservatism is a losing cause. In fact, I think it plays more or less the same role that the Generals did for the Globetrotters. The name of the game is American public opinion, and American public opinion on any issue you can name in 2007 is far—really, really far—to the left of where it was in 1957.

To progressives, of course, this is no more than progress. In fact it’s scandalous that change has been so slow and halting. This is due to the cowardice of the corrupt corporate media, not to mention those shills at PBS.

To conservatives—I’m really not sure how conservatives conceptualize this fact. If I was, I might be a conservative.

And this is why the conservatives are like the Generals. They never seem to notice that they’re always losing. No one seems to find this odd at all. I have never heard any conservative suggest that the American political system is fundamentally and incurably anticonservative. Presumably, considering the trend of the last 50 years—heck, the last 200 years—you’d think this thesis might occur to someone. But no. Of course, conservatives believe in America, so why would it?

The idea that the “mainstream media” suffers from “liberal bias” is very typical of the conservative pathology. This idea is a pure loser. I think if we examine it for a moment we’ll get a very nice understanding of why conservatives can’t lay a finger on Meadowlark Lemon.

Of course, anyone with an IQ over 80 knows that the “mainstream media” is in fact the US’s official press. No, the New York Times and CNN are not formal government agencies, like the BBC or Tass. Technically, journalists are corporate serfs like the rest of us. But in fact, as Walter Lippmann pointed out in 1922, who controls public opinion has the nation by its balls, and woe unto any mere CEO who dares to screw with them. Journos run the world—they are, in other words, responsible—and if American journalism were in fact reorganized into a Department of Information, as Lippmann suggested, their jobs would hardly change.

From the conservative perspective, this is hardly the end of the world. The problem is just that almost everyone who works for the Department of Information is, for some reason, a liberal. So the solution is just to have conservative voices in the media. Or even a new conservative media—Fox News, the Washington Times, the New York Sun. After all, just as many Americans are conservatives as liberals, so they should have a right to get the story from people they agree with.

This is exactly why conservatives keep losing. They see their problems as solvable. True, they never seem to get solved. But it can’t hurt to keep trying, can it? Well, actually, it can, because it maintains the illusion that the game is competitive.

To see why it’s not, it’s interesting to look at progressive views of the same problem. For example, you can read Eric Alterman or Alexander Cockburn or Ben Bagdikian.

From the perspective of all three of these gentlemen—and they are not at all exceptional—the media is actually hopelessly conservative. And when you read them you understand why. It is conservative because it is more conservative than they are, and since they are right, this can only be explained by insidious media monopolies, which have reduced the supposedly independent, courageous crusading journalist to a mere corporate shill.

This viewpoint is actually quite reasonable. First of all, everyone thinks of himself as right. To think otherwise would be inconsistent. So if you believe, for example, that George W. Bush let 9/11 happen so that he could crown himself Duce 2.0, and some vice-president of news tells you that, no, you cannot pursue this story, you have every reason to think that he or she is concerned about how the advertisers would react. As he or she probably is.

The nut of the problem is that little word, mainstream.

As Lippmann pointed out, in a democracy, who controls the mainstream controls the state. The idea that any changes in public opinion must be due to some mysterious cosmic rectitude, vox populi vox dei, is the reason I consider democracy a form of Idealism, and specifically a sect of Christianity. In a democracy with a free press, the press is the government. Public opinion on any subject will naturally shift toward the opinions of those who explain that subject to the public.

And it’s not just that. In the English language as we use it now, words like “progressive” and “conservative” are actually relative designations. “Progressive” means “left of the mainstream” and “conservative” means “right of the mainstream.” When the mainstream shifts, these words have to shift as well, and the result is that many of the radical left-wing ideas of 1907 would be radical right-wing ideas in 2007.

So when we say the “mainstream media” has a “liberal bias,” what we’re actually saying is that it’s to the left of itself. This claim is obviously false, and Alterman and company are on perfectly safe ground in ridiculing it.

And this is why conservatives fail. They fail because the real problem is much too large to solve with any of the tools at their disposal. So instead, they invent a fake problem, which is unsolvable because it doesn’t exist. This gives conservatives something to do, and it gives people who don’t like the system someone to vote for.

But the whole conservative movement serves the same purpose as the toy opposition parties of East Germany—or, again, the Washington Generals. Of course, it works better than either of these entities, because it actually does its job. It convinces Americans that their government is the product of a competitive, adversarial process.

The real problem is that US public opinion is managed by a cradle-to-grave information system—the apex of what I call the Polygon—consisting of the media, schools and universities. It is very difficult even to tell what lies this system has inculcated in its purported customers. If it is in fact telling any lies at all, we all grew up believing in them. And so probably did our great-great-grandparents. Progressivism is to the Polygon as monarchism is to the King, and progressive education is not a new idea.

Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that a stable democracy cannot exist without a such an information system, because democracies in which different groups of voters have different versions of reality tend to be rather violent. In fact, since the Internet is starting to route around the Polygon, both to the left and to the right, such pleasures may await us as well. As Trotsky put it, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

Conservatism, at least as presently constituted, is about as capable of solving this problem as Jar-Jar Binks is of defeating Emperor Palpatine. And this is why I’m not a conservative.

Of course, UR is about as capable of solving it as C3PO is of defeating Emperor Palpatine—I don’t even have a pair of huge meat dreadlocks with which to beat him about the head and shoulders. But at least I have a knack for protocols, a wiry midriff, and no illusions.

1. The sidebar was removed as part of the transtion to unqualified-reservations.org.