Left jabs

Neal Gabler is the author of many books, including "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" and "Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

Oh, those crazy journalists. You know the ones I’m talking about. The one who described John Kerry as “French-looking” and made up some silly locution to show how out of touch he was -- “Who among us doesn’t like NASCAR?” -- even though he never said it. Or the one who taunted Al Gore for claiming that he and his wife, Tipper, were the models for “Love Story” when Gore said no such thing. Or the one who described Bill Clinton as an “overweight band boy” and Hillary Rodham Clinton as “inauthentic.” Or the one who tabbed Barack Obama “Obambi” and said that when visiting him at his office, she felt like Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” having to teach a bullied schoolboy how to box. Or the one who kept pressing Obama at a debate to fess up to his relationship with a 1960s terrorist.

Of course, what do you expect from right-wing nuts who will do and say anything to demonize Democrats? Except for one thing. All these examples -- and there are hundreds more -- were uttered not by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, David Brooks or any of the other Republican mouthpieces in our newspapers and on our airwaves. They were all said or written by liberal journalists, and even in a few cases by onetime Democratic operatives turned journalists, such as Chris Matthews and George Stephanopoulos. Indeed, the worst offender by far, the “Ingrid Bergman” in the example above, has been the New York Times’ liberal columnist Maureen Dowd, who has never met a Democrat she hasn’t disparaged.

And that is the point. Democrats wading into this year’s rough media surf don’t really have to fear the right wing because the right has staked out its own beach with its own folks and not many Democratic voters go there. For instance, only 7% of regular Fox News watchers voted for Kerry for president in 2004, according to Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. What the Democrats generally and Obama specifically have to fear is what the liberal media -- pundits, TV commentators and even some reporters at reputedly leftish newspapers -- will wind up doing to them. That’s because, far from delivering the kind of spirited to-the-death defense that even the widely unpopular President Bush gets from most right-wing commentators, the liberal media almost always eat their own.

It wasn’t always this way. As recently as the 1970s, there were liberal columnists like Carl Rowan and Charles Bartlett who defended the liberal point of view, conservative columnists like James J. Kilpatrick and Roland Evans and Robert Novak who stood up for conservatives and their principles, and those like David Broder and James Reston who stayed in the middle -- and the right and the left were equally forceful. But as conservatism gained strength during the Nixon administration, it perpetrated a powerful idea that remains an article of its faith and that has served as one of its most effective political weapons: the idea that the media are really a liberal cabal. This was the essence of Richard Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s war against the media. How could Nixon possibly get a fair shake when the pointy-headed journalists in New York, Washington and Los Angeles were against him?


Liberals being liberals, it only took this nudge to lead to some soul-searching. As Rick Perlstein describes it in his book “Nixonland,” Joseph Kraft, an old, unregenerate liberal close to the Kennedys, was among the first to wonder aloud if Nixon wasn’t right. Maybe the news media had wandered too far from heartland American traditions and values of which Nixon presented himself as exemplar. Maybe journalists had become too insular, snooty and condescending. These kinds of ruminations tended to push the left-wing media toward the center as their way of proving that they were honest, objective and not beholden to anyone. This certainly accounted for the relentless bashing of Bill Clinton by the liberal press during his administration.

But if the fear of seeming to be overly partisan was generated by the right, there was another fear the left itself created: the fear that in an increasingly ironic and youth-oriented society, it would never do to be earnest. It might be seen as square and uncool. This may have accounted for the left’s attitude of snarky superiority when it came to Gore, whom many hammered for being square, and Kerry, whom they ridiculed for being stilted, too sincere and elitist. For some left-wing media stars -- Dowd especially -- earnestness was a sin. They preferred -- or at the very least respected -- candidates who knew how to manipulate them, who knew how to game the system, who were cleverly insincere, even if those candidates were ideologically anathema. In 2000, Bush got much better press than Gore -- from the left. For instance, the idea that you should want to have a beer with a candidate -- a test that Gore supposedly failed -- was spread largely by the liberal media, especially Matthews but also by Joe Klein, who wrote a book about Democratic elitism.

Yet there’s a deeper reason than cultural or political fear that may be driving the liberal media to eat their own: professional fears of marginalization. At the same time that the U.S. was lurching rightward politically, the ethos of the media was changing. Thirty-five years ago, journalists perceived themselves as public servants whose mission was to inform their readers and viewers. The best reporters simply got the facts right. The story was the star.

In the mid-1970s, that began to change, for a host of reasons. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein proved that reporters could be stars. Such writers as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson won fame and riches by slathering their personalities all over their reportage. A general cultural trend toward celebrity bled into journalism. The rise of cable television generated a 24-hour news cycle and personalities to go with it. And, perhaps most of all, the news media had to compete for the public’s attention with other available entertainment. In that competition, the news media quickly saw the advantage of star journalists, and some journalists quickly saw the advantages of being stars rather than nameless fact-collectors.


So what does this have to do with an illiberal streak in liberal journalists? Just this: One of the surest paths to stardom in movies, television and politics has always been the guise of Everyman -- the person who purports to be one of us and with whom we can readily identify. That guise became even more effective once Nixon had successfully rebranded the Democratic Party from one that protected the working class to one that seemed increasingly elitist and divorced from American mainstream values. Combine the two and the result seems almost inevitable: the Everyman journalist for whom career advancement trumps political loyalty.

What we get, then, is a bunch of wealthy journalistic stars bending themselves into pretzels pretending that they are down-to-earth working stiffs vastly different from the politicians, at least from the highfalutin’ liberal ones they cover. This was certainly a large part of the appeal of the late Tim Russert, who frequently mentioned that he was a poor Catholic kid from Buffalo, N.Y., where his father was a sanitation worker. Matthews and Dowd, among others, have also prattled on demagogically about their humble beginnings even as their stars have risen and they have become even less connected to the rest of us.

And it is the liberal politicians who continue to pay the price for the liberal journalists’ self-promotion cum self-preservation. Beating up on well-educated, well-spoken liberals is probably the surest means of proving one’s Everyman credentials and protecting one’s personal brand without also, by the way, losing one’s Beltway bona fides. Going on about faith and religion is another.

Which is all the more reason why Democrats’ expectations of a favorable November should be tempered by the cold reality that Obama will be taking heavy fire from both sides. After all, hasn’t left-leaning Newsweek already told us that this election pits arugula against beer?