Viewpoint: Freedom's Fair Weather Friends


In the aftermath of the Grenada liberation—"invasion," the networks called it—one sensed that the news media slipped in public esteem because they kicked up such a fuss about being excluded from the military operation. More of the public than not supported the Reagan administration in this decision, which mimicked Prime Minister Thatcher's restriction of the press during the Falklands War. As Irving Kristol said in the Wall Street Journal, "It is generally advisable to have one's troops confront only one enemy at a time." If New York Times editors want to know why their reporters were initially excluded from Grenada, they should take a look at their own editorial page some time.

I know that some of my conservative friends are pleased with this increased public skepticism about the press. (I gather that both CBS News and the Washington Post received a lot of critical mail, post-Grenada.) Nevertheless, I would urge those who are fed up with the press to proceed with circumspection in this touchy and important area. Because the press is increasingly unpopular, there is bound to be increasing sentiment to bring it to heel in coercive ways. Some well-known New Right figures have already shown a fondness for media regulation by arguing that the Fairness Doctrine (applicable to radio and TV only) should not be rescinded, as has been proposed.

The twist I want to add is that many on the liberal left, now occupying influential positions within the media establishment, are not particularly enthusiastic about an unregulated press either, their frequent brandishing of the First Amendment notwithstanding. Exhibit A might well be Ben Bagdikian's recent book, The Media Monopoly, which calls for the breakup of media companies in much the same way that the Federal Trade Commission tried (unsuccessfully) to break up the cereal companies. An alumnus of the Washington Post, Bagdikian is not some fringe figure. A book reviewer in the Washington Journalism Review identified him as "this nation's best press critic."

Many in the news media today enjoy the illusion of being advocates of press freedom because their main critics are the same New Right figures who like the Fairness Doctrine. In defending against the New Right, the liberal left appears to be defending the principle of an unregulated press, when in fact it is defending the current reality of liberal control of press content. If the liberals ever begin to suspect that they are losing this control in influential places (currently maintained by peer pressure more than anything else), I believe they will not hesitate to invoke government intervention to shore up their sagging position.

Here is one rather dismaying illustration of this point. Recently I addressed a conference of well-known pollsters and journalists—the people who do the polls for the main newspapers and networks and those who write the stories based on these polls. After speaking—fairly critically of polls in general—I stayed on for the next session, which indeed was interesting. It turns out that pollsters and media are greatly exercised about the use of phone-in polls by ABC-TV. (Normally, pollsters call you.) After the Grenada operation, for example, Nightline conducted such a poll, and it measured public sentiment in favor of Reagan's action by a margin of eight to one.

The polling and media folk charge that these polls are not "scientific." (Those who phone in are "self-selecting," and they have to pay 50 cents for the call.) But I think there's something else. I believe the pollsters see their control of the response sample, the questions, thence the answers—and ultimately of public opinion itself—slipping out of their grasp.

And here's something else about these phone-in polls. The public opinion that they purport to measure is consistently to the right of that elicited by the professional pollsters, with their "scientific" samples and carefully worded questions—questions that in 1980, for example, represented the American people as being hostile to tax cuts.

Anyway, it became clear at the conference that phone-in polls have a number of media people unhappy, too, not just the pollsters (who understandably don't want to lose "market share" to new competitors). A New York Times reporter quite openly suggested that one of the ways in which to bring pressure to bear on ABC would be for the pollsters to sue for equal time under the Fairness Doctrine every time ABC does a phone-in poll. Not much enthusiasm for an unregulated news media from that corner of the press.

My point is a conventional one but needs to be stressed. Segments of the US press have developed markedly anti-American tendencies, and as a result the press is increasingly unpopular. The liberal left will favor press freedom as long as they control its content, but not a moment longer. Elements of the New Right leadership would like to muzzle the press right now. So the constituency for an unregulated press may be shakier than we think.

A few days after the US operation in Grenada, a Reuters story told of a political prisoner, Leslie Pierre, whom US marines had freed. He had been in jail for two years, but now he was hoping to "reopen the Grenadian Voice, a newspaper he published for two issues in 1981 before his arrest." On the same day, our media heroes were howling that now we were no better than the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Tom Bethell is a freelance writer, a contributing editor of Washington Monthly, and a columnist for National Review.