The New York Times Campaign Stops

By Nicole Hemmer

Just last week, Newt Gingrich delighted observers on both the right and the left when he slammed Fox News for “bias” and “distortion.” Gingrich claimed that the conservative news channel slanted its coverage to favor the less conservative establishment candidate, Mitt Romney. At first this seemed to be just another example of the former speaker’s ability to unabashedly embrace contradictory ideas. This is, after all, a man who saw nothing inconsistent about inviting reporters to the “private meeting” with Delaware Tea Party leaders where he made his comments.

But accusing Fox News of pro-establishment bias is not simply a quirk of the Gingrich mind. In mid-March, Rick Santorum (like Gingrich, a former Fox News contributor) accused the network of boosting for Romney. “He has Fox News shilling for him every day,” Santorum grumbled to Fox News Radio host Brian Kilmeade. “No offense, Brian, but I see it.” The conservative journalist Robert Stacy McCain called out Fox for “a clear bias toward front-runners.” He was backed up by a pair of columnists who reported concerns “that Fox News is morphing into just another liberal leaning voice.”

Nor do conservatives reserve the bias complaint for Fox News. When National Review promoted the candidacy of Mitt Romney in mid-December, it stoked outrage among the base. Rush Limbaugh dismissed the magazine as part of the “Republican establishment media.” The promotion of Romney, the nephew of National Review’s founder claimed, “proves only that this is no longer the magazine of William F. Buckley, Jr. My uncle would be appalled.” Commenters on National Review Online unfurled the nickname National Romney Online, which soon began popping up on other conservative sites.

The funny thing is that this role reversal is the end product of a process that was set in motion by the conservative media. Having spent decades promoting the charge of bias, they have helped strip it of meaning. These days, bias translates roughly to “reporting something I don’t like,” a reflexive defense against stories that cut against conservative interests. (Liberals claim bias, too, but here we’re focused on the curious spectacle of right-on-right crime.)

That definitional drift entered new territory in 2008, when the mere fact of reporting on Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin became a hostile act. When the story broke about Palin’s pregnant daughter, the Republican National Convention transformed into an airing of grievances against liberal media. Most memorably, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee thanked “the elite media” for unifying the Republican Party behind the ticket, calling their coverage “tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert.”

A few weeks later Katie Couric asked Palin what newspapers and magazines she regularly read, only to get a fumbling “all of them” in response. This episode led conservatives to lambaste Couric for her anti-Palin slant. Only those with a very elastic concept of bias could interpret asking a vice-presidential nominee about her reading habits as lobbing a mortar-round rather than a softball.

The 2008 election involved an unusually expansive use of media-bias claims, but they didn’t start there. To trace their roots requires going back to the 1950s, when modern conservative media first appeared. In the midst of an anticommunist liberal consensus, a new conservative movement emerged. The messengers of that movement — a group of men (and a few women) — developed publishing houses, periodicals and radio programs dedicated to rolling back the liberal tide at home and the communist threat abroad. They sought to uproot the liberal anti-communism of the day, which called for containing communism where it was. The right militated against this policy, seeing it as both morally and strategically flawed. How could America be content to simply contain an evil enemy bent on eradicating free nations everywhere?

Conservatives saw established media as the major obstacle to advancing political alternatives. Existing media, they believed, professed objectivity but in fact shored up the liberal establishment. The new conservative media made no bones about their own tilt. The newsweekly Human Events called itself “objective” but “not impartial,” explaining that the publication “looks at events through eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise and individual liberty,” principles that “represented the bias of the Founding Fathers.” This story is more familiar at National Review, with its central purpose “to counteract the reprehensible journalistic trend toward a genteel uniformity of opinion” that “permeates our Liberal press.”

They had a point. Mid-century American media reflected the liberal consensus of its day. Not uniformly, of course. The Chicago Tribune sustained the Midwestern conservatism of Robert Taft long after the hero of the hard-nosed, isolationist Republican Right died in 1953. And to say the press reflected liberalism is not to say it did so consciously or conspiratorially, as many conservatives claimed, nor to say it stifled only one type of opinion. Try being a socialist or anywhere to the left of Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and 1960s and you would quickly find the limits of media’s leftward lean. Still, the bias charge, which equated “liberalism” with “the establishment,” was rooted at least partly in reality.

That factual basis turned media-bias accusations into a potent weapon, one whose influence trickled up to the presidency when Richard Nixon took office in 1969. The media had long been Nixon’s bête noire. The day after he lost his 1962 gubernatorial race, Nixon blasted the press for supporting his opponent. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, gentlemen,” he growled, “because this is my last press conference.”

It wasn’t: his October 1973 press conference was a master-class in attacking journalists. After lashing out at the assembled press for “outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting” on Watergate, Nixon added, “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger. You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.”

Yet Nixon hardly invented complaints about the news media. Such complaints were practically a presidential rite of passage. They stretched back at least to 1805, when Thomas Jefferson spent a healthy chunk of his second inaugural address protesting the press’s assaults on his administration. “The abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted,” he said, lamenting that the press that so bedeviled him had managed to escape the “wholesome punishment” of defamation suits.

But a hostile press was not the same thing as a biased press. When Vice-President Spiro Agnew took a swipe at “a closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one” in a 1969 speech on Vietnam, he triggered a national conversation about bias. The attack troubled members of established media. “My feeling is that the White House is out to get us, all the liberals in the media,” one CBS commentator worried. “We’re in for some dangerous times.”

For conservatives, however, Agnew’s words signaled that their message was breaking through. Right-wing media reverberated with praise for the vice-president. On the conservative radio program “The Manion Forum,” Red Motley, the publisher of Parade magazine, called Agnew’s indictment “timely, and proper.” Buckley declared that the vice-president had “done an extremely useful service” in unleashing what National Review saluted as “a counterattack in the struggle for public opinion.” The right then set about providing evidence of the bias Agnew condemned.

Edith Efron, a writer for TV Guide, began documenting liberal bias for a book called “The News Twisters,” which appeared in 1971. With research funds that Buckley made available, Efron compiled what purported to be a scientific study of liberal bias. Her method? Watching news coverage of the 1968 election and tallying up favorable and unfavorable comments about Richard Nixon.

This methodology was clearly susceptible to confirmation bias, and sure enough, Efron concluded network news followed “the elitist-liberal-left line in all controversies.” (An internal review by CBS in response to the book found, also unsurprisingly, that its coverage was balanced and largely neutral.) Despite its weaknesses, Efron’s book won accolades across conservative media. “The News Twisters” soon became a best-seller, thanks to Nixon. The president ordered Special Counsel Charles Colson to get the book on the best sellers list of The Times, which Colson managed by buying out the stores used to determine sales numbers.

Efron’s slipshod, self-confirming method reveals one of the weaknesses of the bias argument, as well as the reason Fox News has fallen prey to the accusation from its right. The words “liberal bias,” “establishment” and now “lamestream media” have become a sloppy shorthand for an entire system of beliefs. This has its parallels on the left, where reflexive cries of “rigged elections” and “Faux News” create the same divisions. For both sides, the world can be easily split into us and them, conservatives on one side, liberals on the other, locked in a pitched ideological battle for political power. When it’s us, it’s truth; when it’s them, it’s bias.

So when the anti-Romney crowd started seeing Fox News and National Review as “them,” it could only mean one thing. Though long considered bulwarks against pro-establishment (read: liberal) bias, these once-trustworthy media outlets were now hopelessly riddled with it. When everyone not with you is against you, the world becomes a bleak place indeed.

This is the dynamic Newt Gingrich exploited in Delaware. After his scornful rebuke of CNN’s John King in a January debate, it’s unlikely the former speaker meant it when he told the gathered Tea Party crowd that “CNN is less biased than Fox.” By deploying the media-bias charge against an institution developed to combat it, Gingrich demonstrated just how meaningless the indictment has become.