What would a liberal media look like?
Since Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, he has come under unremitting attack from rightwing media, and in usual fashion, the rightwing media has complained that all of his actions have gotten a pass from the so-called liberal media. Whether pundits of the right really believe this to be true or are consciously lying or both—and hence engaging themselves in extraordinary displays of doublethink—is beyond the point. The chief complaints from the right against Obama tend to fall into either A) criticisms of his universal healthcare plan, dubbed ‘Obamacare,’ with charges of expropriationist socialism, or B) fear of violations to the second amendment, whether it be the mild reaction of concern to the banning of civilian ownership of assault rifles or the overblown belief all guns will be stripped from civilian hands. The liberal media, so they charge, does not take these threats of leftwing totalitarianism seriously, indeed supports them, and instead makes a mockery of rightwing concerns and, as usual, attempts to forward a liberal agenda.
A similar case is made by those who wish to expose the media’s leftward tilt by positing whether liberal outlets would have reported on certain issues differently had a Republican been in office. To cite a popular example, how would supposedly liberal newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have reacted to the Benghazi attacks had a Republican been in office? So often the problem with the questions posed (with the right wing largely posing them) is that they tend to ignore the mountains of evidence easily found with almost minimal effort and tend to address non-issues; in the case of Benghazi, charges of failure to report, covering up information, or giving the president a ‘pass’ altogether by downplaying the event’s significance are trumped by the more than 800 articles and essays these publications printed since September.
Nevertheless, it’s beside the point in this essay whether rightwing media such as Fox fail to report, for example, that John McCain, a leading critic of the administration’s response to Benghazi, missed the intelligence meetings on the subject which he requested. Regardless of the right’s hypocrisy, any honest leftist will recognize his own hypocrisy should be dealt with before concerning himself with the hypocrisy of the opposition, and he should admit that the right has raised a good and interesting question, even if it’s right for the wrong reasons: Has the media given the president a pass? More specifically, how might the media react if a Republican were in the White House? Assuming no one has forgotten that the ‘liberal’ media did great services to Bush, Jr. by withholding vitally important information and failing to pressure administration officials more stringently with regards to both wars along with myriad other issues, I would proffer we alter the question a bit to one I find honest and accurate: What would a liberal media look like? Or: Would a liberal media react to the matters stepping outside the bounds of liberal ideology? A liberal media should connote one that is free to report as it wishes, not burdened by pressure outside the editing room (i.e. government officials, ownership, advertisers, etc.), and willing to call into question the morality of certain actions instead of seeking a middle ground from which ‘both sides’ (as though political matters only ever had two sides) can be accurately assessed. A liberal media would not willingly surrender itself to servitude to power, and we would expect it to defend classically liberal beliefs, namely equality and human rights. Thus if this is what we expect of a liberal media, would we find one so compliant as to either ignore or largely act neutrally to the following topics?:
1) The prolonged imprisonment, torture, and possible death sentence of whistleblower Bradley Manning. (Note both the NY Times and Washington Post ignored Manning’s information, one reason he turned to Wikileaks.)
2) The Obama administration’s use of the Espionage Act to silence and imprison whistleblowers, with more uses by this administration than all other administrations combined since the law’s inception in 1917.
3) The months-long imprisonment of several anarchists who have yet to be formally charged with any offense, whose imprisonment is based solely on failure to comply with grand jury testimony demanding information about other anarchists on the west coast.
4) The expansion of the PATRIOT Act.
5) The prolonged drone campaign: attacks in eight sovereign nations, a policy of determining whether targets are terrorists or not after they have been killed, and casualties in the thousands (the full number undisclosed), many of whom were civilians—particularly children.
6) The use of drones in the United States for surveillance purposes in at least eight cities.
7) The execution of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan without a trial.
8) The execution of US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen without a trial.
9) The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012, which includes the provision Title X, Subtitle D, subsections 1021 and 1022, stating the government has authority to indefinitely detain people it suspects of terrorism without a warrant or guarantee of trial.
10) The Obama administration’s announcement that it reserves the right to execute American citizens on American soil (or anywhere in the world) without charges or trial.*
Smaller media outlets, activist organizations, and individual journalists and writers have helped to shed some light on these problems, some of them pursuing them vigilantly. But their combined efforts, while helpful and essential, do not reach broadly enough to prove the claim by rightwing pundits that the American media are liberal. That rightwing pundits themselves have largely ignored the above suggest they are either A) in agreement with the president and his administration and therefore in agreement with the liberal media, or B) complicit in the conspiracy of advancing the liberal agenda of a media they so despise.
Since both sides have muted responses to the above concerns, what might we conclude?
We might conclude the media would not act differently were a Republican president in the White House. For example, the Obama administration pointed to the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) to show the president already had the authority granted in the NDAA, and that the introduction of the provision into the NDAA was merely to gain congressional approval. AUMF was signed by Bush on September 18, 2001. Other examples could include the Military Commissions Act, passed in 2006, which stated that those whom the government deemed ‘enemy combatants’ could be detained with suspension of habeas corpus. This was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and amended in 2009, though both instances drew little notice from the media.
We might conclude that since most, if not all, major media outlets are owned by a very small circle of large, powerful conglomerates that they unsurprisingly tend to represent the views of concentrated power whose interests manifest themselves more often than not in government policy. In accordance with Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s thesis of a propaganda model as outlined in their book Manufacturing Consent, we might also factor in other filters such as advertisers, et al.
But most of all we might conclude that a liberal media failing to express concern on matters that address the very core, fundamental tenets of classical liberalism isn’t liberal at all, and that what is meant by a liberal media is obviously not one that advances the causes the left sees as vitally important, but one that is willing to serve at any given time at least one half of American political power, namely the Democrats, though it also has a history of lying down to the other half. That the liberal media often serves the interests of these two factions, and therefore serves the private entities that in part fund these two factions (not to mention own and fund the media itself), it winds up being the laziest, most worthless, most un-liberal media one might imagine.
* We might also note many more topics could be included in the above list—particularly nuclear proliferation or global warming, though the right is so vehemently opposed to addressing the latter as anything other than an elaborate hoax, and this list, more or less, attempts to find abuses of power that those who call themselves conservative might find egregious. Whereas the ‘liberal’ end of the media spectrum has been accused both of being overly critical of Bush and light on Obama in respect to their abuse of power, the right has defended Bush’s excision of power and has remained unusually silent with regards to Obama’s, the two examples noted at the beginning being exceptions at the difference.