The Media Aren't Liberal

Prop. 19 highlights the authoritarian tendencies of the mainstream press.


For the last few months, my colleague Matt Welch has been tracking the positions of California's newspapers on Proposition 19, the ballot measure that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. At last count, 26 of the state's 30 largest dailies (plus USA Today) had run editorials on the issue, and all 26 (plus USA Today) were opposed. This puts the state's papers at odds with nearly all of California's left-leaning interest groups, including the Green Party, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Service Employees International Union, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; progressive publications such The Nation, Salon, and The Huffington Post; and a host of prominent liberal bloggers. According to a CNN/Time poll released last week, it also pits the state's newspapers against 76 percent of California voters who identify themselves as "liberal."

On this issue, the state's dailies are also to the right of conservative publications such as The Economist and National Review, prominent Republicans such as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a growing portion of the Tea Party movement, and even Fox News personality Glenn Beck. (Beck has said he favors marijuana legalization, although he has been typically schizophrenic on Prop. 19.) So who are the newspapers' allies? Nearly all of California's major elected officials are against the measure, and the No on Prop. 19 campaign has been funded mainly by contributions from various law enforcement organizations, including the California Police Chiefs Association, the prison guard union, and the California Narcotics Officers Association.

It's telling that the loudest voices opposing pot legalization are coming from the mainstream media, politicians, and law enforcement. The three have a lot in common. Indeed, the Prop. 19 split illustrates how conservative critics of the mainstream media have it all wrong. The media—or at least the editorial boards at the country's major newspapers—don't suffer from liberal bias; they suffer from statism. While conservatives emphasize order and property, liberals emphasize equality, and libertarians emphasize individual rights, newspaper editorial boards are biased toward power and authority, automatically turning to politicians for solutions to every perceived problem.

Because the left traditionally has looked to government to enforce its preferences more than the right, and certainly more than libertarians, it's easy to see how someone might get the impression that the news media lean left. But you see the editorial pages' lust for authority on issues like campaign finance reform, where unlike left-leaning groups such as the ACLU and the Sierra Club they almost uniformly support restrictions on political speech, despite the fact that their profession is inextricably tied to the First Amendment. This deference to authority was also on display in the Kelo v. New London case, where the Washington Post and New York Times editorial boards jettisoned traditionally liberal principles such as equality and fair play in favor of a broad government power to forcibly transfer property from people of modest means to wealthy developers. That position separated those papers from traditionally progressive groups like the NAACP and the AARP, which argued that eminent domain too often enriches developers at the expense of powerless groups.

But newspaper editors' elevation of government power above other liberal concerns is clearest on criminal justice issues, where editorial boards' deference to police powers aligns them with conservatives about as often as with liberals. To the extent that the criminal justice system treats minorities differently than it treats the white majority (which is a legitimate problem), you'll find newspapers registering concern along with the left. But while liberals traditionally have sought to address this sort of problem by protecting individual rights, editorial boards tend to stop at expressing concern, generally opposing any reform that would put significant limits on government power.

Welch pointed to a good example last week. In October the Drug Policy Alliance and the NAACP released a study showing that blacks and Latinos in California are several times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite survey data showing that whites are more likely to smoke pot. The Los Angeles Times dutifully registered its concern in an editorial but felt compelled to add that "Proposition 19 is not the answer." As Welch explained, if we need to do something about the fact that blacks and Latinos are arrested for marijuana possession more often than whites, but that something does not entail arresting fewer pot smokers, the Times can only be advocating that we start arresting more white people. That's the solution proposed by law-and-order conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, who once said the disproportionate racial impact of the war on drugs means "too many whites are getting away with drug use"; the answer, he said, "is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them, and send them up the river too."

Editorial boards' objections to Prop. 19 generally boil down to two arguments: Legalizing pot will 1) increase consumption and 2) intensify the drug policy battle between California and the federal government. The first argument is little more than contempt for individual freedom, and it is particularly revealing when applied to a relatively benign drug like marijuana. Pot doesn't make users violent. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose. The least healthy thing about the drug is that it's most commonly ingested through smoking. The objection that "more people would use it" is based on a belief that people aren't responsible enough to be trusted with intoxicants—that they're too weak to put down the drug if it begins to interfere with their lives.

The second argument is equally telling: We can't expand freedom for Californians because doing so would undermine the federal government's authority. This concern was conspicuously absent in the debate between the Bush administration and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over whether California should pass emission standards that exceeded those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Editorial boards seem to think it's fine to defy the feds if it means giving a state more regulatory power. But defying the feds in a way that gives Californians more freedom to make their own decisions about what they put into their bodies? Well, let's not go tipping apple carts.

Similar priorities were evident in the reactions from major newspapers' editorial boards after the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Gonzales v. Raich, which upheld the federal government's power to enforce its laws against marijuana, even in states that have legalized the drug for medical use. The lead plaintiff in the case was Angel Raich, a woman with ailments that included an inoperable brain tumor and wasting syndrome. Her doctor said homegrown marijuana was keeping her alive. While The Washington Post's editorialists sympathized with Raich, they worried that a broad ruling on her behalf might have undermined the federal government's Commerce Clause authority to protect obscure cave-dwelling insects. That isn't a caricature. The Post actually made that argument in an editorial titled (no kidding) "Not Just a Win for Bugs." While "medical marijuana and cave-dwelling insects may not seem to have much in common," the paper said, "federal authority over both depends on the same constitutional principle: Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce."

Liberals, even in the modern American sense, won't sacrifice equality, compassion, or lifestyle freedom for government power. They are suspicious of government power at least when it comes to policing, and they tend to value individual freedom, at least until it bumps up against their notion of equality. The editorial boards of our leading newspapers have different priorities. If there's a guiding principle you can reliably extract from the average newspaper editorial, it's that people can't be trusted to act in their own best interest. They need experts, politicians, and regulators to craft laws that steer them from peril and help them fulfill their potential—even if that means locking them up them until they learn.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.