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Left jabs

Why do liberals keep knocking themselves out?

June 29, 2008|Neal Gabler | 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.

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