Dear Atrios: I’m about twelve years older than you. When I was a teen and you were a toddler, and for a time after that, the media was very liberal. How do I know? I remember! Also, there used to be no ATMs. We had things called “traveler’s checks” that you bought at the bank before going on vacation instead of taking cash. In fact, an important part of vacation planning was deciding how many traveler’s checks to buy.
Okay, so this blog takes a backseat to no one's in its admiration for, and use of, the early middle-aged palsied gran'pa Why Back In My Day There Weren't No HBO, Sonny routine. It's comedy gold. But, assuming everybody on the Internets is telling the truth, which we do, twelve years on Mr. Black gives one a DOB around 1960. Which may have occasioned, depending on locale, a trip in Mama's arms to see them new-fangled flying machines, but it hardly qualifies as being there! and knowing! liberal bias.
What it does mean is that Mr. Henley was still a couple years shy of working the TV Guide™ crossword when the Nixon administration attacked the Librul Media (we know! we were there!), and thus might just have his recollection goggles tinted Pinko by the times, and not The Times. Assuming an abiding interest in The News by age ten--the Librul Media meme is already established, the Silent Majority speech already given--our young reader has already entered a world where the bias, or charges of bias, were both being brutted about and addressed. The networks almost immediately responded to the Nixon attack by labeling commentary Commentary. It was the beginning of both faux balance and the Pore Forelorn Republican Washington Outsider routine (Reagan would play one for two terms) which would lead, by the time Mr. Henley could buy a legal drink, to a PBS shoutfest for Father John McLaughlin, SJ, CIA; George F. Will's inclusion on This Week as "balance" for notorious liberal and gentleman farmer Sam Donaldson; Evans and Novak, bottom feeders in anyone's idea of an aquarium, with their own show on CNN; and noted alcoholic crackpot and columnist James J. Kilpatrick with five-minutes' Prime Tiffany Network Spouting Time each week. Meanwhile the notion of Teevee Liberal went from Nick von Hoffman to Shana Alexander, Hughes Rudd was replaced by The Unshakably Happy Morning Show That Might Cover Some Icky News At The Top Of The Hour (Cover Your Eyes!), and from there it was just a small step to Mark Shields, Margaret Carlson, and partially hydrogenated, partly melted carob-flavored ice milk. By the time Mr. Henley was paying taxes the only place you could find The Left on television was Firing Line.
We're not suggesting conspiracy here. We're suggesting that there is a lot to be learned from James Thurber's mighty semester-long Freshman Biology struggle to see something through a microscope, and how, when that happy day finally dawned, he wound up drawing his own eyeball. A lot depends on what we expect to see, and newspapers will always be a mixed bag (though we direct the curious onlooker to the sort of Librul coverage the Civil Rights Movement received, or the stovepipe coverage of Vietnam, Cuba, "Red" China, and the Commie World in general, in the 1960s), but if the question is television then no, coverage did not suddenly veer Right in the mid-90s in belated and begrudged response to the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s (in fact some of us can, depending on which number bourbon it is, be counted upon to make a reasonable case for their cooperation in the whole Morning In America bullshit, but we are trying to remain objective-ish). It responded to a press-hating Nixon in the late 60s by "reforming" itself in response to one side of the debate, by beginning the shift to faux balance, which would in its turn shift almost unnoticed into filtering by framing, and the rise of national programming consultancy in both radio and teevee would lead to the Happy Talk news format, News Divisions swallowed by Entertainment, half-lettered commentary replacing reportage, and Barbara Walters.
We do not believe that The News is biased one way or another along the simple fault lines of internet partisanship, excepting individual cases. We believe that in terms of today's divide there came a time when anti-liberalism became a fertile ground for political horticulture, staked out by Johnny Milhouse Cottonseed, followed by a brief Romantic period post-Watergate--one which on its reverse showed the rise of the Million Dollar Anchor--which was marginalized by the late-70s Corporate Takeover Of Anything That Moved, during which, with untold billions lurking around the corner in new technologies, especially the monopolistic Cable, Rocking the Boat became the quickest way to throw your ownself overboard. The frame today is not explicitly "Conservative", and it is certainly possibly to carve out a niche at the leftish end of the spectrum, but the script is explicitly pro-status quo, and it portrays the Republican party as the only one in touch with Real Americans, a message approved by the iron-hearted leaders of news conglomerates and brought to you by careerist talking hairdos with no pretense to journalism.
Of course our paths have already diverged. This sort of thing is not taken as bias on the Right, which views unfettered capitalism as Freedom and ardent rectal courtship of one's financial superiors as patriotic duty. But then even as we glance down at our paper and realize we've drawn our own Baby Blue--again--we ask those who were there! to tell us which was more thoroughly covered: Iran-Contra or the five serial investigations of Whitewater? Which garnered more ink in the '88 election: Willie Horton or the S&L crisis?
How does someone come to the conclusion that Christian America rejects Darwinism, opposes equality of sexual preference, and supports war, rather than the accurate view that 50% of Christian Americans are liberal, if not via skewered reporting? Why are pedophilia or sexually transmitted diseases news, but condom ads controversial? Nobody ever seems to complain there's only bad sexual news on teevee. Which, in the liberally-biased mid-70s, did John Chancellor report as news: an HEW study which found that marijuana smoking actually strengthened the immune system, or the claim that long-term male smokers might develop womanly breasts? If it's clear today when disaster strikes a major American city that the vast majority of our news operations have no one in any position of authority who understands the first thing about being poor, what makes anyone imagine it was different thirty years ago, when there was a great deal less diversity in those newsrooms than today?
And who benefits from endless car chases and slicker-coated idiots standing in a downpour? That one's easy. None of us.