Racism and That Liberal Media

by Henry Farrell on December 4, 2006

Two interesting arguments about the press and the 1960’s backlash against civil rights.

First, David Greenberg in a book review in _The American Prospect._

If the civil-rights movement represented one of American journalism’s finest hours, it carried a cost. It’s a shame that Roberts and Klibanoff don’t explicitly state the conclusion that much of their evidence suggests: Today’s right-wing bogeyman of “the liberal media” originated in this struggle. Coverage of the movement convinced much of the white South that the networks, papers like the Times, and magazines like Time and Newsweek were hostile and biased interlopers that told only one side of the story. … Roberts and Klibanoff also detail more subtle ways in which hostility toward the national media was voiced. In one fascinating section, they relate a conspiracy hatched among white Southern editors who belonged to the Associated Press to try to force the wire service to write about crimes by blacks in the North as avidly as it spotlighted the violence of the white South. Ultimately, politicians — notably Alabama Governor George Wallace — capitalized on this resentment. Wallace cited journalists alongside pointy-headed intellectuals and the Supreme Court in his litany of elitist villains who were screwing the little guy. Richard Nixon, too, picked up the strategy, which he bequeathed to men like Roger Ailes and Karl Rove.

Second, “Rick Perlstein”:http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w061127&s=perlstein112906 (free reg required) in _TNR._

Since the late ’60s, however–not coincidentally, around the time Kevin Phillips rose to fame–a new, unspoken set of rules evolved. It happened in a moment of trauma. After the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, all the top news executives sent a wire to Mayor Richard J. Daley protesting the way their employees “were repeatedly singled out by policemen and deliberately beaten.” Such was their presumption of cultural authority they couldn’t imagine how anyone could disagree. Then Mayor Daley went on Walter Cronkite’s show and shocked the media establishment by refusing to apologize to the beaten reporters: “Many of them are hippies themselves. They’re part of this movement.” Polls revealed 60 percent of Americans agreed with Daley. For the press, it triggered a dark night of the soul. In an enormously influential column, the pundit Joseph Kraft, shaken, wrote, “Mayor Daley and his supporters have a point. Most of us in what is called the communication field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans–in Middle America.” That air of alienation–that helpless feeling that we have no idea what’s going on out there–has structured elite discourse about the rest of the country ever since. A set of constructs about what “the great mass of ordinary Americans” supposedly believes–much more conservative things than any media elitist would believe, basically–became reified. Pundits like Kraft–a social class that spends much of their time among people like themselves, inside the Beltway–learned to bend over backward to be fair, lest they advertise their own alienation from everyone else. On subjects that chafed them–say, the relevance of certain ugly folkways of the South in electoral politics–they just had to bend harder. Or ignore the matter altogether.

Now the historical origins of a set of institutions and practices don’t necessarily dictate their current content. Much of the discourse around social welfare in the 1930’s had an unpleasant racist edge. But there does seem to be some continuity between what Greenberg and Perlstein (both of whom are excellent historians who are intimately familiar with their source material) document, and the ways that journalists tiptoe around the political importance of racism in the South today. Comments?



Steve LaBonne 12.04.06 at 1:35 pm

Doesn’t seem to explain why they continue to bend over backwards to avoid reporting on the economic problems their beloved Middle Americans face, often as a result of precisely the center-right economic policies for which the punditocracy cheerleads so relentlessly. The “reporting what their corporate paymasters want to hear” theory appears to encompass a much broader range of their behavior than Pearlstein’s.


Rasselas 12.04.06 at 2:33 pm

It’s pretty depressing that “bend[ing] over backward to be fair,” which is what one (and by “one,” I mean “I”) thought was traditionally expected of right-thinking guilty white liberals, has become our tar pit.


DavidB 12.04.06 at 2:47 pm

Actual serious social science surveys of media people, by Rothman, Lichter, et al., consistently show that people who work for major media outlets are far more liberal than the average American, with, e.g., Democrat presidential candidates getting 80% or more of the vote in all recent elections. Occam’s razor suggests that the bogeyman of the “liberal media” exists primarily because the media is indeed liberal by American standards, though of course those on the far left rightly, from their idiosyncratic perspective, think the media is “conservative.”


Steve LaBonne 12.04.06 at 3:04 pm

Actual serious logic consistently shows that what they write matters a lot more than what they think in private or how they vote.


P O'Neill 12.04.06 at 3:07 pm

They are better historians than I am but I think the “liberal media” construct has long strayed from its 1960 moorings, although I think Perlstein is getting closer to it in his quote. One thing that feeds the media bashing is that likelihood that many members of the pundit class think of themselves as “liberal” and therefore they’re on the defensive when it’s thrown at them. But their definition of their self-liberalism is dubious: it encompasses a select range of social issues: birth control, related life/death issues (e.g. abortion, stem-cell research), and generally feeling bad when they walk by a homeless person on the street. But they’re not liberal in any broader sense. They like low taxes. They like not paying a dime of social security on their book advances. And they love Washington process, because it makes their jobs easier to do — you just report the latest machinations and doings rather than doing any real analysis. Talk to the editors at the NYT or WaPo. I bet they’re still proud of their reporting on the impeachment of Bill Clinton.


Walt 12.04.06 at 3:26 pm

David: What percentage of the people who write the check are liberal? 0% Yet somehow, they have no influence over what appears in the media?


engels 12.04.06 at 3:54 pm

Since when did “Occam’s razor” say that if a large number of rightwing Americans think something, then it has to be true?


abb1 12.04.06 at 4:05 pm

What exactly is the thesis here, anyway?


dq 12.04.06 at 4:09 pm

re: comment #1, one way this might happen is that reporters/pundits do all that “leaning over backward” in the areas where their trusted sources (right wing operatives) for what the great (un-washed?)middle-american-hordes supposedly think tell them to do the leaning – on social issues. and the reporting/punditing classes appear to have been so undermined in their own sense of where public sentiment lies, that they swallow hook line and sinker the idea that all those middle americans hold notions regarding social issues that are in fact *not* held by the majority of us citizens, see the regulation of a woman’s right to an abortion, for example.

add the observation by subsequent posters that the economic self interests of many reporters/pundits are not particularly in line with the rational economic self interest of the average wage earner, and the pervasive mass-delusion among most u.s. citizens regarding their *future* economic prospects/self interests, and you get much irritating silliness.


Jayson Blair 12.04.06 at 4:13 pm

“What percentage of the people who write the check are liberal? 0%”

You might want to look up the Sulzbergers.


Bruce Baugh 12.04.06 at 4:22 pm

P. O’neill hits on something important, I think: more reporters think of themselves as liberal than actually are liberal in any meaningful way. What they’ve got as a standard culture is the Schlesinger/Hofstadter-era idea of the vital center, but without any checking of the content of the ideas they’re propounding. They also (as nearly as I can tell) tend to treat the score of proposals made and enacted and so on as much more important than the content, in almost every case that doesn’t bear direclty on their self-interests. I see this particularly in the work of young pundits like the American Prospect crowd, but if it’s not corrected early, then they settle into a Thomas Friedman-like condition.

But basically, they peddle a mix of claims they have good reason to know are lies and claims they lack the ability or interest to investigate because there’s no penalty for doing it.


Henry 12.04.06 at 4:33 pm

Bruce – I think you’re absolutely on target with your broader argument, but I don’t think it’s fair in re: the TAP crowd. Rosenfeld, Yglesias and Klein, who are the three that I pay most attention to, are all well to the left of the journalistic conventional wisdom on issues like Social Security, health care etc, and pretty knowledgeable on the ins and outs of the policy debates surrounding these. While I don’t agree with them on everything, I don’t think that you can seriously claim that they’ve drunk the Kool Aid.


aretino 12.04.06 at 4:55 pm

Of course, the actual contemporary press coverage of the civil-rights movement was far from sympathetic. Taylor Branch documented a lot of this in Parting the Waters and, especially, Pillar of Fire. There’s a strangely familiar appeal-to-moderateness fallaciouness to the press coverage of that era. Plus la change …


Brendan 12.04.06 at 5:04 pm

‘I think: more reporters think of themselves as liberal than actually are liberal in any meaningful way’.

Which is why most journalists LOVED Clinton and, until recently, adored Blair. Both of them were ‘socially liberal’ (or at least Blair was, or was perceived to be, until very recently) and yet made absolutely no changes to the (excuse my language) power structures that enable rich (or at least upper middle class) white male journalists to stay rich and powerful and sit round dinner party tables talking about the sort of things rich white men like to talk about.

(British) journalists only began to lose faith in Blair about the time of Iraq, not specifically because of Iraq per se, but because he was perceived to be too close to Bush, whose ‘I speak for the little man’ Texan act cuts no ice across the Atlantic.

Even now, Blair gets cut far more slack than I recall John Major being given (Major was perceived as a buffoon, which was true enough, but part of this was class based. Blair, who went to a ‘good’ public school and the ‘right’ University, can talk to public school educated journalists in their own language). The ‘Cash for Peerages’ thing is a major major scandal which could bring down the government but journalists just haven’t got their teeth into it in the same way I recall them getting their teeth into equivalent Tory scandals.


novakant 12.04.06 at 5:24 pm

because the media is indeed liberal by American standards, though of course those on the far left rightly, from their idiosyncratic perspective, think the media is “conservative

if the people criticizing the American media for being essentially conservative are on the “far left” and idiosyncratic where the hell is Western Europe and indeed most of the world’s population?


jonny-boy 12.04.06 at 5:58 pm

Greenberg and Perlstein seem a tad self-indulgent to me. 60s media coverage wasn’t THAT much a special thing, per se.

No, it was more about the combination of the long near-freezing-out of conservatives from TV news channel voices until Murdoch took over Fox, and the particularly paranoid approach of one President in particular, Nixon. The combination lead to TV media ignoring Nixon being caught in a riot, a rather disturbing thing if you think about it.

At this point, of course, the unfairness is mostly a myth, since conservatives have good access to both TV and blogs and better access to talk radio, but those media are used to carry the meme anyway. An interesting irony – that the ending of the unfairness should lead directly to its popularization.


Shelby 12.04.06 at 7:07 pm

where the hell is Western Europe and indeed most of the world’s population

It’s hard to say where the population lies on such a scale. Most of the media in Western Europe is quite far-left by centrist-American standards; in, say, Russia or China I don’t think that metric can be rationally applied. But to pretend the media accurately represents popular perception or viewpoints is absurd.


engels 12.04.06 at 7:34 pm

Shelby, what is absurd is your idea that the job of the media is to “accurately represent… popular perception[s]”. The role of the American media is to inform Americans, not to pander to their prejudices.


novakant 12.04.06 at 8:11 pm

Most of the media in Western Europe is quite far-left by centrist-American standards

most of the governments, including the conserbative ones, are quite far-left by centrist-American standards – just take their stances towards, say, abortion, religion, universal health-care and the use of the military in foreign olicy; the US has, always been an outlier among modern, democratic, industrialized nations, but until recently there was enough common ground and understanding to let everyone be happy their own standards and ignore the occasional proselytizing by the US. The disconnect between the US and large parts of the rest of the world, however, is something genuinely new. Unless the US recognizes that what passes there as centrism currently is actually quite radical, I don’t see much hope for reconciliation in the near future.


DeWayne 12.04.06 at 8:31 pm

What’s liberal? Not wanting to stomp on cute kittens? People who write about a liberal media are pretty much against both certain political persuasions and the mass media as unmasking truth.

Distinguish between the national media and local media. A few years ago one of the dailies in Lexington Kentucky ran a front page story apologizing for not covering the civil rights movement. And the national media viewed antiwar folks and hippies with a great deal of suspicion and disdain.


Matt Weiner 12.04.06 at 10:19 pm

Which is why most journalists LOVED Clinton

Is this true? I remember David Broder saying “He came in here and he trashed the place and it’s not his place,” and a lot more could be said about the media’s treatment of him; the whole Hunting of the President deal.


Daniel 12.05.06 at 2:16 am

Most of the media in Western Europe is quite far-left by centrist-American standards

Similarly, most countries are quite far north, by centrist-Antarctical standards.


Justin 12.05.06 at 9:49 am

Lets not forget other costs: When the Moynihan Report was published, Moynihan was attacked and called a racist for speaking the truth: the number one cause of poverty is the breakdown of the family. That was in the era when the National Welfare Rights Organization was actively recruiting black women to put them on welfare. Believe it or not, this was how people in the 1960’s would *fight* poverty. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Conservatives like Thomas Sowell correctly predicted that these programs would not work. But it isn’t just liberals who believe in them – a lot of regular folk think these programs should work. So when they fail, they encourage racist thinking. How else could blacks, who have all these wonderful government programs working for them, no t succeed?


engels 12.05.06 at 10:02 am

most countries are quite far north, by centrist-Antarctical standards

Ignorant anti-antarcticism! Of course you would say that, if you get your “news” from the BBC, an organisation in which penguins are criminally underrepresented.


Brendan 12.05.06 at 10:15 am

‘When the Moynihan Report was published, Moynihan was attacked and called a racist for speaking the truth’.

Uh huh. And how does this ‘truth’ relate to the fact that poverty has declined in the UK recently, and yet the ‘breakdown’ of the family has continued (and, I believe, accelerated?)?


Matt Weiner 12.05.06 at 10:22 am

Justin, I’m not sure how what you say is supposed to be connected to the topic of the post, and I’d rather you not explain; but the Moynihan Report was issued in March 1965 and the NWRO was founded in 1966 or 1967 (depending on how you count) so that can’t possibly be true.


Barry 12.05.06 at 10:31 am

“What percentage of the people who write the check are liberal? 0%”

‘Jayson Blair’: “You might want to look up the Sulzbergers.”

You might want to review the NYT’s coverage of (a) the run-up to the Iraq War, (b) the persecution of President Clinton.


Justin 12.05.06 at 10:36 am


Yup, but realize that the years of mid-1960’s was the founding of Great Society. There was a very naive belief in the power of government to cure poverty. The Moynihan Report was an unwanted reality check in a very naive time period.


That is a good point. But realize that there are two different pathologies of out of wedlock childbirths. In one case you have middle class, college educated couples (and single women) in their 20’s choosing to have children out of wedlock.

In another case, you have a single women who are still in the process of getting an education having children. Realize that about half of all *first* out of wedlock childbirths are to teenage women. This switches those womens to a different life track.

In the more socially liberal Europe, you have many couples who are not bothering to get married – but at least they are waiting to have children until after their education is complete. But even this will catch up with their children. The research of liberal sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur (in their book ‘Growing up with a single parent’) showed that fatherlessness is an independent variable that results in higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, bad grades, and substance abuse. And about a third of single cohabitating parents tend to split in two years. And even those that marry, have a higher rate of divorce.


Matt Weiner 12.05.06 at 11:11 am

Thank you for not trying to explain.


engels 12.05.06 at 11:23 am

Would it be possible to make your spam filter more sensitive to the word “wedlock”?


dave heasman 12.05.06 at 11:38 am

“showed that fatherlessness is an independent variable that results in higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, bad grades, and substance abuse”

Therefore having two fathers..


Bruce Baugh 12.05.06 at 1:13 pm

Henry, I’m sorry if I came across too harsh on the TAP crowd. I think they do a lot of immensely valuable research and reporting along with the punditry and all, and have much respect for their labor. I meant to say that I think they sometimes lapse into the intellectualized detached gamesmanship, but that with them it’s lapses rather than the way of life it is for so many others. Thanks for the gracious poke and chance to correct. :)


Doug 12.05.06 at 1:41 pm

(Henry, if you’re still here, Chickering gets name-checked in the next thread over, the Holbo one. Very interesting thought.)


Henry 12.05.06 at 2:34 pm

Bruce, fair enough.

Doug, I saw this and commented on it – it is a very interesting parallel. May be some mileage in it …


Jim S. 12.05.06 at 2:42 pm

Just a couple of comments:
Once upon a time-before the 60’s, to be exact-the U.S.A. had 90% top income tax rates, a nearly 40% unionized workforce, half of the public utilities under public or cooperative operation, a government corporation that was the largest single investor in the U.S. economy (it was called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation), etc.
Could it be that the conservatism that has gripped America may be of relatively recent provenance-and due as much to the inability and incompetence of the Left in supplying alternatives that are viable, democratic, and humane?
And come to think of it, could not the same be said of the entire rest of the world-the failure of the Left to come up with an alternative to capitalism in the wake of communism’s collapse, that is.


Andrew 12.05.06 at 5:04 pm

Not just the south, but in the south west and west in general too. There is a LOT of racism here toward Latinos and I think that drives a lot of the conversation away from more social programs.


Rick Perlstein 12.05.06 at 5:12 pm

You’ll see a great deal about this in Nixonland when it comes out. A short excerpt from Chapter 18, the same section from which the above material is drawn: “When NBC held meetings to plan their new news magazine program, First Tuesday, someone asked what the three biggest stories in the country were that they should cover. “The war, the blacks, and the economy,” someone responded. Someone else shot back, I don’t want to see a single black face on First Tuesday.”‘


Josh 12.06.06 at 9:22 am

As someone who decided not to be a journalist, electing to go back to school after a relatively short period of working professionally, I find the argument above (X-percent of journalists are liberal compared to something-less-than-X-percent of the public; therefore the press is overwhelmingly liberal in practice) to be very uninformed.
First, you need to understand how the media process works, in terms of how stories are chosen, approved, and researched. At nearly all points along the path, with the exception of a handful of “name” reporters who can essentially do as they please, editors — who are always in direct contact with their (usually conservative) publishers and are also often in contact with the advertising department — get to shoot down/approve/make “suggestions” about a reporter’s stories.
I can see small-scale biases creeping into stories during the writing process, but major violations of the publisher’s wishes and, at bad publications, advertisers’ wishes, never make it to print. The most important stories are often shot down before they get going, sometimes simply because important stories take a lot of time and resources.
The most important effects are those of the “self-censorship,” if you want to call it that, of journalists. What I mean by that is: journalists generally know what will fly with their publisher and editor and what “the line” is on certain topics or dealing with certain advertisers or public officials. Generally, if the journalist in question wants to keep his or her job (or choice assignments, etc.), he or she stays away from that line. (The best, though dated, explanation of this process can be found in: Warren Breed, “Social Control in the Newsroom: A Functional Analysis,”Social Forces, Vol. 33, No. 4, May, 1955)
Finally, any problems with reporter-bias pale in comparison with the normal, easy, “fair” journalism (“Quote-a-Dem, quote-a-Rep, I’m done”) most reporters use today, which really does a disservice to everyone of all political persuasions.


Russ 12.06.06 at 9:40 am

I’m a transplant from the midwest to southern California and have been substitute teaching at a variety of towns of different size. In the smallest schools there isn’t a shred of racism towards Latinos. The larger schools. like the one my son goes to, one can see more racism, but its still small compared to big city standards. My son, a 7th grader, noticed a big change this year after the big illegal immigration uproar. Great site by the way. I have been reading it for a few weeks now.


Crystal 12.06.06 at 1:47 pm

I think that Jim S. (# 35) has a good point. The Right, along with ideologies like racism, have rushed in to fill a vacuum that the Left has so far been unable to fill on a practical level.

I do not think it’s a coincidence that the outcry against illegal immigrants and demands for a fence, etc. have occurred during a poor economy. During the boom years of 1997-2000, I honestly recall more tolerance and sensitivity. All debt and no salary makes Johnny racist.

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