I’m beginning to wonder if journalists have been bending over backward so far to disprove the “liberal media” narrative that they have unwittingly become advocates for conservatives and, more importantly, have been misinforming their audiences at critical junctions of our country’s recent history.
And it’s not just that we spent more time detailing every aspect of the Hillary Clinton email “scandal” than we did all of Donald Trump’s numerous questionable dealings combined during the 2016 presidential election cycle. The recent news about Ivanka Trump using private emails to do official business is a case in point. It isn’t getting as much attention as Clinton’s emails use because it shouldn’t—and because federal officials using private email to conduct public business is widespread, something we knew before the story surfaced that Clinton did, too.
No matter. Our collective decisions hurt a top Democrat while essentially giving a high-profile Trump administration official a pass.
I suspect it is because many more journalists identify as liberal, or liberal leaning, than conservative. According to figures from 2013, 28 percent of journalists were Democrats, while only seven percent self-identified as Republican. The reality of that imbalance has been banged into our brains for the past few decades. It’s had a real, if unacknowledged, effect.
It showed up in 2002 and 2003, when several major news outlets were led by the nose by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war. As an industry, with few notable exceptions, we disbelieved those who were highly skeptical of the WMD claims and ignored the large number of anti-war Americans—who were literally marching in the streets—and believed the Bush administration about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.
That was followed a year later by a New York Times decision to hold a bombshell report about the Bush administration’s secret warrantless wiretapping program, only to publish several months after he had won re-election. Whether you side with the editors, who thought it best to hold it pre-election, or the writers, who believed the story was ready for primetime, the result is the same: the decision helped a Republican president who may have not won a second term had a journalistic decision gone the other way.
And who can forget the decision by CBS News to consider adding conservative firebrands such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, or Matt Drudge to a journalistic panel convened to determine how a “Dan Rather Reports” story in September of 2004—mere weeks before Election Day—about Bush had gone so wrong. The story involved CBS’s reliance upon allegedly phony documents proving Bush got preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard in order to avoid the combat zone in Vietnam. After originally defending the story, CBS retracted it, saying they had been “misled.”
In 2008, after Barack Obama had emerged as the first black person to lead the presidential ticket for a major party in U.S. history, for weeks much of the media zeroed in on comments made by Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. An out-of-context clip of one of his sermons, in which he declared “God damn America”—not because the military veteran hated the country, but because he believed the country would face a reckoning because of the way it treated its most vulnerable citizens—was put on a seemingly non-stop loop on cable news. It was aired repeatedly elsewhere and launched a thousand stories in print and online. Even if you excuse it as typical hyper news coverage during a presidential election cycle, it hurt the Democrat, who was forced to give a now-famous speech on race to save his candidacy.
In 2009 and 2010, it was a ream of misleading stories about allegedly millions of health care plans being cancelled because of the Affordable Care Act.
In 2014, it was an overhyping of the threat of Ebola in the lead-up to the midterms which, again, hurt a Democratic president and helped Republicans sell fear of brown-skinned people, something the media does all too well, unfortunately, even when there is no pending national election.
In 2016, it was Hillary’s emails.
In 2017, it was the media elevating struggling white Trump voters nearly into sainthood status by a near-constant stream of stories detailing their plights, as though their voices matter more than the struggling black non-Trump voters who were most under threat from the policies and rhetoric coming from the Trump administration.
In 2018, it was the media being suckered by President Donald Trump, whose 11th-hour attempt to keep a “blue wave” at bay included making numerous false, ugly claims about a caravan of migrants traveling several hundred miles on foot to seek asylum in the U.S.
And even after Democrats took back control of the House by flipping 40 seats—and winning the popular House vote by a historic 8 percentage points, a higher margin than the 2010 Republican landslide—we get stories like the one we got from the Times on November 24 headlined: “Across South, Democrats Who Speak Boldly Risk Alienating Rural White Voters.”
In other words, when Democrats lost in 2016—even though the party’s presidential candidate won the popular vote by nearly 3 million and it had a net gain of seats in the House and Senate, we took that as evidence Democrats needed to focus on white, conservative-leaning voters. When Democrats won big two years later—we took even that as evidence that Democrats need to focus on white, conservative-leaning voters. Neither time did it matter that the party has been able to pull together the most diverse coalition of voters and elected officials in history.
This is not an exhaustive list; neither is it comprehensive. Conservative journalists can, and have, noted times when misleading or overwrought media narratives have advanced liberal causes and agendas. But this list includes massively important, generation-shaping events that kept being decided in a conservative way.
That matters. That should not be ignored. It can’t just be coincidence.
It’s also likely why we’ve done so little soul-searching about our role in unwittingly helping Russian operatives undermine our election process two years ago. I suspect that’s because it hurt a Democrat, rather than a conservative, a result that can help ease our guilt about being labeled “liberal” so often.