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Equal Media Rights for Conservatives : THE COMING BATTLE FOR THE MEDIA Curbing the Power of the Media Elite<i> by William A. Rusher (William A. Morrow: $16.95; 228 pp., illustrated)</i>

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As a longtime publisher of National Review, William A. Rusher was present at the creation of the modern conservative movement. Over time--specifically the last 25 years--that movement has seen the modern mass media as one of its principal political adversaries.

It is, then, no surprise that Rusher has produced a book dedicated to the proposition that “the principal media in the United States, responding to liberal intellectual trends once dominant but now much less, have aligned themselves with those political forces promoting liberal policies (meaning principally the Democratic Party), and have placed news reportage at the service of those policies.”

What may surprise readers, particularly those who know Rusher as a frequent and voluble participant in television confrontations, is that his argument is presented cogently and more or less reasonably.

Despite his unswerving credentials as a man of the Right, “The Coming Battle for the Media” cannot be brushed aside as political special pleading. It deserves attention and respect.

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And when the bulk of his argument falls, as I believe it does, it falls not so much from political ax-grinding as from a misreading of recent political history.

Rusher, in my judgment, has commited a fallacy common to journalists and to many of their critics across the political spectrum: He has invested in the modern mass media a degree of power and consequentiality that simply is not there.

Rusher is on firmest ground when he argues that the “media elite"--the major news networks, Time and Newsweek, the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal--are dominated by liberals.

He relies not on one study, but on half a dozen of them, including those of the Brookings Institution and The Los Angeles Times, neither of them contemporary bastions of Right-wing thinking.

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What do they show? That reporters and editors who work for the “media elite” vote in overwhelming numbers for Democratic Party candidates for President, support such welfare-state notions as a guaranteed right to a job, favor permissive social policies on abortion and homosexuality and otherwise embrace many if not most of the tenets of what passes for modern-day liberalism. (Rusher is careful here to acknowledge that there is little if any support for the “Hard Left” positions of socialism and overt affection for America’s adversaries abroad.)

He fleshes out these studies with lists of the job-hoppers who have moved from liberal causes in publications to mainstream media elite outlets: Ken Bode from Morris Udall’s 1976 campaign to NBC News; Sidney Blumenthal from the Nation to the Washington Post.

(As a one-time speech writer for Robert Kennedy who now labors for ABC News, I feel somewhat slighted at my omission, but let that pass.)

So far, so good: The working press, despite the change in income and status from the days of the “ink-stained wretches,” is as inclined to liberalism as it was half a century ago, when the first surveys of the Washington press corps were undertaken.

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The intriguing question, of course, is not what reporters and editors believe in their hearts, but whether “the media’s demonstrated liberalism influences their handling of the news.” Rusher clearly believes that this is so, but his efforts to demonstrate that proposition, in my view, run aground on the rocky shoals of sketchy anecdotal evidence.

Rusher cites examples of what he regards as clearly biased reporting; and some of them are at least plausible, such as the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades and their fight during the Spanish Civil War. The stories, Rusher notes accurately enough, did not adequately come to grips with the Soviet Union’s domination (and ultimate betrayal of) the Democratic forces in Spain.

I could add examples of my own, particularly in the coverage of social and religious matters. For example, the stories about the Reagan Administration’s efforts to notify parents when their minor children sought birth control information was widely treated as an example of right-wing anti-sex hysteria.

As the parent of an adolescent daughter whose school requires parental consent for a trip to the opera or the giving of an aspirin, I have a different view of the issue.

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But is that kind of evidence enough to demonstrate systematic bias? Hardly. There are a wealth of examples of bad press coverage in which the “official” Establishment story has been taken as a given--for example, the failure to cover adequately state-sponsored terrorism on the part of our allies, or the Time magazine cover story on President Reagan’s popularity that was little more than a celebration.

More insignificant, Rusher’s notion that the media are kinder to liberal political figures than they are to conservatives is simply ahistorical. He darkly suggests, for example, that John Kennedy was the last President to be treated kindly by the media (“The Washington press corps fell unashamedly in love with a President for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt.”)

To be sure, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the spread of the “credibility gap” and the general attenuation of trust between press and politicians has given all subsequent Presidents headaches of a new sort. But did that lead the press to a double standard based on ideology?

Ask George McGovern what happened in 1972; ask Ted Kennedy, widely scorned by the Right as the “liberal media darling,” what happened to him in his 1980 campaign. Ask Gary Hart whether the press backed away from his private life because he was a youngish, media-hip liberal; ask liberal Joe Biden how the press treated his mistakes.

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Fundamentally, Rusher falls into the trap of assuming what his own career has helped to disprove. During the last quarter-century, the conservative movement in America has gone from an intellectual guerrilla force to a movement that not only has won respect but the power of the White House.

Conservatives now get at least equal treatment as experts and insiders on the coverage of politics, foreign policy and economics precisely because they have emerged from public isolation and moved full force into the arena of debate and policy.

Indeed, it is clear that a whole younger generation of writers and thinkers forged in and around the Reagan Administration--the Terry Eastlands, Peggy Noonans, John Buckleys, Ben Elliotts--will be among the principal media voices of the 1990s and beyond.

At root, “The Coming Battle for the Media” is a call to a non-existent confrontation; something implicitly recognized by the half-hearted, almost throwaway “reforms” prescribed here: tightening the libel laws, perhaps a statutory right of reply, more “jawboning.”

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In the face of this presumptively all-powerful, all-liberal media, the Right has grown and prospered during the last two decades. If the Left does the same in years to come, it is much more likely to flow from shifts in political reality than from what the media say or do.

Rusher has done those of us in the press a service by calling us to account for what we do and how we do it. But, in the end, he can rest easy; we are not nearly as significant as he, or we, sometimes think.


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