Media Disconnect from America: It's the Geography, Stupid

Resting at home in Montana, I've been marveling at the slew of stories from Washington pundits demanding Democrats sell out their own voters and the majority of public opinion. Now, with a bit of time off here for Thanksgiving break with my family here in another "red" state, Indiana, I've had some time to really ponder the propaganda, and think about an important question: How is it that there is this fake "center" defined by Washington that is totally and completely different from the actual center of American public opinion? I mean, really: How does that actually happen? What are the mechanics of it?

I thought about this question for a long time. Some of it clearly has to do with the major media conglomerates having a financial/corporate interest in making sure the political debate in this country stays within boundaries that do not challenge the status quo. A media company, for instance, doesn't want anyone talking about reevaluating telecom deregulation. But financial self-interest cannot be the only reason for the media's opinion being so disconnected from public opinion - it has to be something more simple. And after surveying the people who are actually making this opinion, it suddenly occurred to me: a lot of it is simple geography.

By any honest definition, America's political opinion/propaganda machine is comprised primarily of the Washington Post Writers Group, the New York Times columnists, the LA Times columnists, and Creator's Syndicate. There are certainly others who contribute to opinionmaking. But looking at these institutions is a good way to survey the world that is the Punditocracy, especially because through media consolidation, the Sunday/cable chat shows that nationalize these pundits' message, and the modern wonders of syndication into local papers, these opinionmakers' tentacles now reach into almost every community in America.

These companies, because they claim to represent "national" opinion, could choose to present diverse voices. But when you look at this large group of pundits, what do you know, almost every single one of these columnists lives in Washington, D.C. or New York City.

This is no exaggeration, and unlike most of the commentary in the news, it is not a fact-free opinion: it is cold, hard truth. By my informal count, every single Washington Post Writers Group columnist covering domestic politics lives inside the Beltway or in the Big Apple, except for Ellen Goodman who lives in Boston and Ruben Narvarette who lives in San Diego. Similarly, at least six out of the 8 New York Times columnists live in Washington D.C. or New York. LA Times? Same thing. Every single one of their national political columnists except Meghan Daum and Niall Furgeson live in Washington, D.C. Then take a gander at one of the biggest syndicates - Creators. By my count - which is only an eyeball count - roughly half of their entire stable of columnists lives in Washington or New York. In all, I can find almost none of these people who actually lives somewhere other than one of the coasts of the country - real-life proof that the media Establishment really does see the heartland as "flyover country" to be ignored.

Some may claim that of course the opinionmaking machine draws almost all of their writers from just two cities because that's where all the smart people live, that's where all the political action is, and at least for the Post and Times, those are the only locales they say they cover.

The first argument about New York and Washington being the center of the universe drowns in its own arrogance. Last I checked, there are 50 state capitols, and countless other major cities where much of the real political decisions that affect ordinary people's lives are made. The self-described Gang of 500 in Washington and New York can keep telling each other reassuring fairy tales about how they are supremely important and that the world cannot turn without their input. But the Washington cocktail party circuit and Upper West Side's self-therapy is an embarrassingly transparent justification for laziness, cultural elitism and dearth of geographic diversity.

The second argument about New York and Washington being the place where all the smart people are - yeah, right, there's no other smart people in America. And yeah, right, we've gotten so much smarts out of the traditional Washington-New York conventional wisdom these days. All those smart people pushed the Iraq War and trumpeted trade policies now gutting the American economy. Yeah, America needs more "smart" people like that.

On the final argument about the Post and Times being based in D.C. and New York and thus having an excuse for their geographic uniformity - come on, are you serious? These two papers brag about being "national" papers, have various bureaus all over the country, and syndicate their material to publications throughout America. Put another way, they may be based in those two cities, but they brag to the world about speaking for this country - when clearly their pervasive opinion machine does not.

This doesn't mean all of these columnists who live in the Washington-New York corridor are bad, dishonest or misguided - not at all. For instance, one of them, Bob Herbert, consistently tries to raise questions about taboo subjects like economic inequality and race in his writing. A few others write valuable stuff as well. But that's not really the point, because while there are some decent opinion-setting pieces from this group, occasional examples cannot overcome the overwhelming geographic uniformity and what naturally comes with that uniformity: a strong, consistent stream of destructive, unrepresentative biases against the rest of America.

That's right folks, the stereotype is, by and large, factually true: coastal elites are trying to impose a very narrow world view on the rest of the country - and people sense it because the opinionmaking machine is so uniform, and the media so consolidated, that this very narrow world view is being jammed down our throats everywhere. Hell, I can see it right there in my face when I sit down for a bagel at my local coffee shop in Helena, Montana, and open the local paper's commentary section, which - like many local papers' opinion pages these days - is now dominated by "national" pundits. On any given day, I see pieces from George Will trumpeting a New York City billionaire for his Wall Street conservatism. Or, I see right-wing Washington nobody Mona Charen and her latest screed demanding that all Jews adhere to neoconservatism as proof of their religious devotion. At best, if I'm lucky, I get a David Broder piece telling me how anyone who thinks our economic policies should serve middle America is a "protectionist" worthy of being tarred and feathered.

These professional political pontificators have barely ever bothered to even visit the middle of the country. Worse, the very top topics they address are way beyond merely unreflective of opinion in small towns like Helena: they have absolutely nothing to do even with what is important to our community. The people who spew these views are, in short, trying to impose their warped opinions and priorities on the rest of us.

This narrow world view, mind you, spans the partisan divide. Remember, conservative columnists like John Stossel, Bill O'Reilly, Max Boot and George Will are among this group of coastal elites. The world view, in other words, is not really partisan: it is about power. Almost all of these columnists, with a few exceptions, worship power rather than challenge it, and disdain the very concept of change coming from ordinary Americans, who they see as the "great unwashed" (by the way, this explains why these people so often use their platforms to attack the netroots). Almost all of them, with few exceptions, believe America's great source of wisdom comes from inside the Beltway from what Duncan Black calls The Serious People - no matter how many times the Serious People hurt the country, no matter how far out of touch these Serious People are with what the vast majority of the country wants and voted for. And worst of all, almost all of them, with few exceptions, push a definition of the political "center" that has nothing to do with the actual political "center" in the country.

Think about how unrepresentative this situation really is. There are about 10 million people in Washington and New York City combined. There are roughly 300 million people in the United States. Thus, upwards of 90 percent of the major political opinion in the national media is coming from people that represent a whopping 3 percent of the total population.

Are we actually to believe that it is simply impossible for the major national media to find more opinion from the other 290 million Americans in the rest of the country? Of course not - the geographic divide is not an accident and is not due to a lack of able voices in the heartland. It is motivated by the obvious factors: insiderism, cronyism, a love of conformity and a view of the heartland as an uncivilized place that offends a punditocracy which sees itself as above the so-called "bewildered herd" who are supposedly the rest of us out here in America. It explains not only why there are so few media voices from the rest of America, but all the rest of it. Want to know why it was perfectly acceptable for Washington creatures like James Carville to attack someone like Howard Dean for having the nerve to invest Democratic Party resources in the heartland? Because the DNA of the Washington-New York political elite is coded to applaud disdain for the rest of the country and champion a person like Carville whose current claim to relevance is being friends with fellow Washingtonian Tim Russert rather than a person like Dean whose claim to relevance is having built a massive outside-the-Beltway grassroots constituency.

To understand how this geographic and consequently cultural divide plays out on the key political decisions of the day, consider this excerpt from a piece by Howard Kurtz in 1993 right after NAFTA passed:

"From George Will and Rush Limbaugh on the right to Anthony Lewis and Michael Kinsley on the left, most of the nation's brand-name commentators led the cheerleading for NAFTA...Meg Greenfield, The Washington Post's editorial page editor, said her op-ed page reflected the fact that most of her regular columnists supported the agreement. 'On this rare occasion when columnists of the left, right and middle are all in agreement . . . I don't believe it is right to create an artificial balance where none exists.'...Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a NAFTA critic, said The Post had published 63 feet worth of pro-NAFTA editorials and columns since January, compared with 11 feet of anti-NAFTA commentary."

As economist Jeff Faux notes in his book The Global Class War, the punditocracy's blackout came at the very time polls showed the public had serious reservations about NAFTA. Yet people like Greenfield justified the blackout by claiming she would have had "to create an artificial balance where none existed." She was probably right, at least when it came to the columnists she dealt with because the class of professional political pontificators comes primarily from elite Washington, the place where lobbyist-written trade pacts are seen as just swell, no matter how many jobs they kill, how much they hurt wages or destroy pension/health care benefits. As columnist Mark Shields admitted to Kurtz at the time: "One reason for the press unanimity is that there are no $35-a-week Tijuana bureau chiefs" to steal their jobs. Most pundits, he said, "are more worried about whether they're going to the Vineyard next year."

That same thing can be said today. Want to know why the media portrays national opinion as opposed to putting serious labor, wage and human rights provisions into trade deals at the same time the public supports these provisions? Because that media portrayal is coming from New York and Washington. As fair trade leader Senator-elect Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said, "Reporters and editors in Washington have always hated my position on trade [but] out here, they don't feel that way." That's the divide - the New York-Washington elite vs. "out here."

It's the same on the other issues. Want to know why the political opinionmaking industry almost uniformly opposes a national, universal health care system at the same time polls have long shown the public would support such a concept? Want to know why the professional pontificators almost uniformly attack as crazy those who raise questions about inequality and overconcentration of corporate power? In Mark Shields' words, it has something to do with the fact that most political opinionmakers personally "are more worried about whether they're going to the Vineyard next year." They all talk to each other, they are all friends with the same politicians, they all go to the same parties, they all vacation at the same elite locales, they all look down on those not part of their clique - and above all else, they all feel threatened by anyone who challenges their arrogance and their power-worshipping orthodoxies, because such fact-based challenges humiliate them.

So the next time you, one of the other 97 percent of the non-Washington/New York population read something outrageous from a national columnist or see some pundit arrogantly bloviating on television in a way that would get them a knuckle sandwich in your local bar, ask yourself: Are you really surprised? Is it any wonder that the Establishment's definition of the "center" is so totally and completely divorced from America's? Is it really a shock that when one of these columnists wrote that "voters shouldn't be allowed to define the choices in American politics" none of his fellow opinionmakers said anything, and in fact, many probably agreed? Are you really stunned that one of these columnists recently wrote with a straight face that the recent election means Democrats must shed all of their ties to pro-choice voters, unions and minorities?

And perhaps most important of all, ask yourself: are the majority of Americans really wrong when they say the media does not actually represent this country's mainstream and, in fact, has, through its leading opinion voices, shown a severe disdain for the very "national" perspective it purports to represent?