Yahoos Within the GOP Coalition Challenged on their Media Think

For conservatives who have actually been in power, the liberal media thesis is a bit like the theory of intelligent design is for Rich Lowry and Peggy Noonan: an intellectual embarrassment.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

If you've been paying attention you know that Mike Huckabee's rise is bringing out the contempt for social conservatives and evangelicals among the conservative elite and its ecosphere, as Mark Ambinder calls it. John Cole ("Enjoy your new GOP, folks...") and Andrew Sullivan ("This is their party. And they asked for every last bit of it...") pounced on the squirming shown as Huckabee climbed in the polls during December. Arianna has written about the reaping and sowing. Steve Benen and Kevin Drum too.

Watching this pattern, The Atlantic's Ross Douthat defined Huckenfreude as "pleasure derived from the outrage of prominent conservative pundits over the rising poll numbers of Mike Huckabee." (And "Huckenfreude" is fun to say.) Some particularly good examples of that outrage are Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal and Rich Lowry in the National Review. But also see James Joyner.

"For the purpose of bringing down the Bush administration."

I would like to report on a different--and perhaps subtler--instance of this same contempt by conservative elites for yahoos in their own coalition. My case involves not the views of Republican candidates but attitudes toward the press.

Some of the attitudes I have in mind were well expressed by John Hinderaker of the conservative blog Powerline in December of 2005. I think it is accurate to call this a political passion among a portion of the Republican coalition: the new media right, or that part of the base that has its own microphone. The context was this article in the Washington Post featuring military blogger Bill Roggio that badly mangled some key facts about him. Good, solid flashpoint material...

The Post's reporters are part of a lavishly funded and monolithic media effort to misreport the Iraq war for the purpose of bringing down the Bush administration. Notwithstanding their near monopoly, the liberal media's reporting is so patently biased and inaccurate that the mere presence of a reporter on the scene who is not part of their guild, and does not share their commitment to the well-being of the Democratic Party, sends them into a panic. Pathetic.

The virtues of direct speech: The press is monolithic, liberal, dedicated to bringing down Bush, and committed to the well-being of the Democratic Party. Hinderaker in 2006: "The liberal media are determined to drag the carcass of the Democratic Party across the finish line, come Hell or high water."

"How do you deal with them when they're all liberal?"

Compare that attitude, versions of which are a commonplace for the online right and talk radio worlds, to the observations of Dan Bartlett, formerly one of Bush's closest aides, in a recent interview with Texas Monthly upon his return to Austin and private life:

I get asked the question all the time: How do you deal with them when they're all liberal? I've found that most of them are not ideologically driven. Do I think that a lot of them don't agree with the president? No doubt about it. But impact, above all else, is what matters. All they're worried about is, can I have the front-page byline? Can I lead the evening newscast?

News is traveling from the Bush team to the base. "Most of them are not ideologically driven; they just want to get on the front page." Bartlett wouldn't even throw a conceptual bone in talk radio or TownHall's direction, where the notion that reporters are both liberal and ideologically driven is part of the political religion of your new GOP: a common grievance, which, when joined with other grievances similarly shaped, forms a flexible politics of resentment that candidates can tap.

Bartlett's broad portfolio included White House communications and press policy; he was speaking from experience when he told the base that its common sense was cracked because it didn't account for the motivations of reporters. And that's not all he said that was a bit contemptuous. Texas Monthly asked Bartlett whether he would respond first to Dan Balz, the top political reporter for the Washington Post, or Chris Cillizza, political blogger for the Post. Bartlett said he would favor Balz because he is on more platforms, and thus more influential. And then...

Bartlett: The question might not be as much Chris versus Dan as maybe, "Is it Dan Balz or one of the guys at Power Line?"

Yeah, or what if Hugh Hewitt called?

Bartlett: That's when you start going, "Hmm . . ." Because they do reach people who are influential.

Well, they reach the president's base.

Bartlett: That's what I mean by influential. I mean, talk about a direct IV into the vein of your support. It's a very efficient way to communicate. They regurgitate exactly and put up on their blogs what you said to them. It is something that we've cultivated and have really tried to put quite a bit of focus on.

"They regurgitate exactly!" No filter. No back talk. We like that. We cultivate that. But when it comes to Hugh Hewitt's and Powerline's core beliefs about the "elite" media and the way it operates, all the "wing of the Democratic Party" talk, Bartlett acknowledges the popularity of it, but says: no, that's not how it works.

Then he more or less affirms a view journalists have of themselves! In culture war terms, this is like joining the other side. Leonard Downie, editor of the Washington Post, put it this way, "The most common bias I find in our profession is the love of a good story." That's what Bartlett says he found. Reporters want something with a certain "pop" that will land them on the front page or the top of the newscast. That's their bias.

"I'm not sure I've talked about the liberal media."

Karl Rove did the same thing when asked about the cultural right's operational view of the press. He refused, then endorsed the profession's view of itself. In 2005 Rove gave a lecture at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. It was named for Richard Harwood, former editor and ombudsman at the Washington Post. The theme was the executive and the press corps. The Post's Dana Milbank was there.

"I'm not sure I've talked about the liberal media," Rove said when a student inquired -- a decision he said he made "consciously." The press is generally liberal, he argued, but "I think it's less liberal than it is oppositional."

The argument -- similar to the one that former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer made in his recent book -- is nuanced, nonpartisan and, to the ears of many journalists, right on target. "Reporters now see their role less as discovering facts and fair-mindedly reporting the truth and more as being put on the earth to afflict the comfortable, to be a constant thorn of those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat," Rove said.

"Less liberal than it is oppositional [to] those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat." No one is more of a warrior than Rove. Attacking those who lean liberal, that's his political bread and butter. And yet here he is breaking with the base when it would have cost him nothing to support its common sense of the matter, just as it would have been easy and unremarkable for Bartlett to agree: "Sadly, an ideologically-driven press has been against us. They've always resented president Bush because he doesn't treat them with the proper deference... " Piece of cake!

Like Bartlett, but more so, Rove takes the view Washington journalists have of themselves: tough ("oppositional") on everyone, Republican or Democrat. He even used the pro newsroom's own cliches: "afflict the comfortable." Appreciating the nod to ancient wisdom, Dana Milbank replied in kind: Karl, your view is nuanced, nonpartisan and, to the ears of many journalists, right on target."

"We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop."

What's going on here? (You tell me; that's what comment threads are for.)

One answer would be, for conservatives who have actually been in power, the liberal media thesis is a bit like the theory of intelligent design is for Rich Lowry and Peggy Noonan: an intellectual embarrassment. It's important to have those who passionately believe in it as part of your coalition; and they can do some serious damage to the opposition, so you also want them "on" their game and active. But you can't operate with their press think. Like the social conservatives who get a seat on the bus but aren't allowed to drive it, the yahoos who think the press is a tool of the Democratic party are needed but should not be heeded by conservatives in power.

Another answer is that Bartlett and Rove think like the Washington Post's Leonard Downie because they have become (Washington) insiders themselves. And look, Newsweek just hired Rove as a columnist, so the cycle is complete.

I lean toward a slightly more complicated explanation. It starts with the words of David Addington, describing the expansion of executive power led by Vice President Cheney: "We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop." The important thing about the press was to keep it from becoming that larger force. But it's not hard, Rove and Bartlett were saying.

Having a pipeline directly to your supporters in new media is vital. They carry the message down the line. And when they pound on the liberal media for bias, it's great for our side, because it does put the press on its heels and raise the cost for challenging our public story. Meanwhile, we're going about the infinitely more important business of giving the president the powers he needs. Opposing that would be hard; the press would have to connect a lot of dots, keep at it for years, and risk charges of being one-sided and unfair if the coverage continued.

Reporters need to feel "oppositional" to both parties, a thorn in the side of office holders everywhere, but they also love a juicy story their rivals don't have, and they have a weakness for the inside-dopester, savvy style. By learning these simple things about them we can keep them from trying to stop us on the much larger plane of action where the White House has to be seriously engaged: the information battlefield in the global war on terror.
* * *
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the blog, PressThink. He is also co-publisher with Arianna Huffington of Huff Post's OffTheBus.

Go To Homepage

Before You Go

Popular in the Community