what the Journolist kerfuffle suggests
This whole Journolist fracas that has been kicking around lately has again dredged up some of my suspicions about how the right really views the institutions they consider to be on the left. Look, I don’t think it’s a big secret that similar listserves exist for right-of-center commentariat types, and indeed, there are also investigative (and thus supposedely neutral) journalists on those as well. I know a person or two on a list or two like that, and while I won’t out anybody about it, it’s not exactly a grand secret, either. So why such consternation from many on the right about Journolist when similar listservs exist for conservatives?
Partly, I think that this is a reflection of the conservative tendency to always see themselves as the minority, or as underdogs. This is in some instances a perfectly natural and human reaction to the genesis of conservatism and to the blanket assumption of unanimity that certain liberals have. Sometimes it’s the result of the self-mythologizing that has come to infect the conservative movement at almost every level, the kind which assures young movement conservatives that they are brave soldiers valiantly striving against an intractable, immoral force…. One way or another, though, I do think that it becomes a bit of a problem. This little imbroglio shows why. I don’t want to wade into the “liberal media” wars here, but suffice it to say that there are many conservatives in the upper echelons of the mainstream media, and they do have considerable power and influence. When many conservatives complain about something like the Journolist showing that conservatives just can’t get a shake, I know they are being sincere and genuinely see inequity there. But I don’t think that they have an accurate reflection of just how many powerful conservatives there are within media.
I think that there’s something else going on here, though. I think that this fracas shows the sense in which many conservatives pillory liberal institutions (or what they perceive as liberal institutions) and yet take them more seriously than the conservative analogs, and hold them to a higher standard.
Why, for example, does the right constantly harp on the supposed bias of the New York Times and yet ignore the overt bias of FOX News– a network that has been credibly accused of literally receiving daily talking points from the Bush Administration? Why the importance of media bias and neutrality when it comes to the NYT but not to FOX, or any other liberal/conservative media pairings? The boilerplate is that in fact FOX News isn’t biased, it just seems that way in relation to the biased mainstream media. More, though, I think the reason conservatives get genuinely nonplussed by what they see as favoritism by the NYT towards Obama comes from the fact that, for all their complaints, many conservatives know that the New York Times is a fantastic paper, and they take it seriously as an institution, in a way that they simply don’t take FOX News seriously, as much as they might like to. PBS is a very loaded example– a lot of conservatives don’t think there should be public broadcasting, and the fact that public money is being spent on what they see as biased programming increases the frustration. But my suspicion, and it’s only that, is also that conservatives quietly know that PBS puts out some high quality programming, and they look to PBS for balance because they know the institution has the quality and intellectual rigor necessary to deliver it.
You see this in education as well, by the way. As Michael Berube ably pointed out in What’s So Liberal About the Liberal Arts, conservatives have railed for years about the horrible decadent Marxism of elite universities, created alternative institutions like Liberty University (et al.) to combat the indoctrination and bias of our educational system– and yet still send their kids to the Harvards and Yales, even the Wesleyans and Oberlins and Bards. Conservative power brokers hate our top schools but still want their kids to go to school there, and if they are looking for legitimacy for their top scholars or ideas they look for that legitamcy to be conferred by the lefty academy. And it is worth asking why the quieter and implicit biases at these colleges are a problem while the far more obvious biases at schools like Liberty University go unchallenged by the conservative media. Is it really just that they see no bias at hand at your average conservative university? (I am quite confident that it’s harder to be a liberal student at Partrick Henry University than it is to be a conservative at Sarah Lawrence.) Or is it they they just don’t hold conservative universities to the same standards that they do universities they perceive as liberal?
The great unanswered question is what the relationship is between the perceived bias of these media and academic institutions, and the greatness that makes them worth complaining about in the first place. Is the New York Times a great paper that happens to be too liberal, so those interested in unbiased journalism or conservative politics should push it towards the center? Or is there some causal relationship, in one direction or the other, between the quality of the paper and its seeming leftward bent? And is it even fair to call the NYT a liberal paper at all, given i’s seeming bent in favor of globalism and its habit of supporting unilateral wars of aggression? Is Harvard a great university that somehow drifted leftward, to its detriment? Or is its standing as a great university in some way a product of its liberalism, or vice versa? All of these questions, I think, are difficult to sort through, but have interesting implications for how exactly we perceive institutional bias.
So with this whole Journolist issue, I find that part of what makes the discussion difficult is the unspoken fact that many conservatives simply are holding these liberal journalists and pundits to a higher standard. I don’t know for sure, I could be wrong. But I find a fury in much of the commentary about this issue that seems out of place with the realities of similar closed-door conversations among conservatives. I can’t help but wonder if what goes unsaid by those complaining is “you’re supposed to be better than this….”