Like some monstrous parody of a pay-it-forward good deed scheme, a story on media bias is pretty much guaranteed to get people moving. Make a claim of a liberal or conservative slant in the news and you'll generate a daisy chain of responses. Allies will cheer the proof that they were right all along about prejudicial news coverage. Enemies will scoff that the whole notion of bias (the other guy's notion of bias, at any rate) is a load of crap. Helpful commentators and partisans will rush in with assistance. Reason's publisher will spend money that might have gone into my Christmas bonus running up the company's Nexis bill.
This has been the case with Jimmy Rutenberg's New York Times story about Democratic efforts to counter the influence of conservative media. The spectacle of Democrats blaming their electoral woes on Bill O'Reilly and The Savage Nation invites richly-deserved ridicule, and with the possibility that Democratic leaders may be looking to flush away tens of millions of dollars in an effort to develop media stars in the tradition of Jim Hightower and Phil Donahue, it's clear that the November elections were not the end of the good news for Republicans.
At the risk of dragging out fault's-on-both-sides clichés, it bears noting that there's fault on both sides. Liberals continue to see their disengagement from the hotter regions of media as the fault of the messengers rather than the message. A party that offers nothing in the way of new ideas, that retains its fondness for failed policies and worn-out platitudes, should at least be able to draw some lessons from the November debacle. The need for more exciting anchorpeople is not one of those lessons.
If liberals are guilty of mulishness, the conservative approach to media bias is a litany of delusions. First, there is the problem of competing self-satisfactions. Ann Coulter's success, in the face of silence from the respectable news media, is frequently trotted out as proof that the American people are hungry for an alternative to the institutional media. Michael Moore's equal success, in the face of the exact same challenges, is not. Nor is the argument that The New York Times' adjectival choices or Dan Rather's intonations (and by the way, why is it always Dan Rather who gets picked out as the TV straw man?) mark them as anything other than centrist media terribly persuasive.
There's also a more basic journalistic question. If Fox News and the Washington Times just balance out the partisanship of CNN and The New York Times, shouldn't it count for something that the latter have far more extensive news-gathering capacity? It may be an old-fashioned concept that going into the field, getting documentation, calling people for comment, and other forms of legwork still count as important tools of journalism, but to pretend none of this matters because of the hidden biases of the reporters is to give in to the kind of relativism conservatives are supposed to be against.
The problem of media bias generally comes down to disgruntlement that the vast majority of the country prefers its ideology, and its news, right down the center. This disgruntlement cuts across ideological lines; witness The Nation's complaints that Paul Begala represents himself as being "from the left" on CNN's Crossfire when he is actually more of a centrist (as if affable mainstreamer Tucker Carlson is some kind of raging Father Coughlin figure by comparison). I myself am fully convinced that if all the blinders came off, the American people would assert themselves as staunch isolationists and drug war deserters who support elimination of four-way stop signs and the drinking age just like I do!
The most painful admission for any believer is that all those Dicky Flatts out there aren't brainwashed by the corporate or liberal media; they're not hungry for alternatives to liberal/conservative propaganda; they just don't share your views of where the middle of the road should be. By marketing itself effectively to the right, Fox News can attract the 1/270th of the American population needed to make a media splash. If an openly partisan lefty news network opened up, it could (maybe) do the same. And by aiming for the middle those hated news institutions maintain their dominant-if-dull positions.
Fortunately, the rise of media that appeal to conservatives hasn't just created interesting niche programs to look at or listen to. It demonstrates how effectively the market can fill a philosophical demand. As Benjamin Compaine's survey of media consolidation makes clear, even back in the days of W.R. Hearst, the media were not particularly good at driving ideology. But they were, and are, well-suited to meeting demand.
There are reasons to be skeptical of the Democrats' plan to establish an effective fellow-traveler network. If nothing else, the belief of several Demos in the Times story that the vast right-wing conspiracy is being centrally directed by Grover Norquist and the Heritage Foundation indicates the kind of faith in top-down ideology that has helped get their party into its present pickle. (Not that conservatives' love for the self-selecting powers of the free market is unconditional either.) The most astute comment in the Times story came not from a Democratic party regular but from RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser: "There is a hole in the market right now. From my personal standpoint, holes in the market are opportunities." This is the right assessment of the situation. Good luck to the Democrats in filling that market need. But when it comes to winning elections, they'll still have to do that on their own.