Before and after the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) was established with Congressional funding in the late Sixties, right wing ideologues were on the attack. PBS was, in their view, a radical, leftist television network. Reaction: PBS took on a weekly discussion show hosted by William F. Buckley which continues to this day. There is still no weekly program hosted by a liberal counterpart to Buckley. But there have been long series by conservative Milton Friedman and neo-conservative Ben Wattenberg.
In the past four Reagan years, a steady drumbeat of right wing criticism has been directed toward the “liberal, elitist, tear America down” three television networks, with extra focus on CBS. In a pre-emptive strike last year, ABC hires conservative columnist activist George Will as a regular commentator on the World News Tonight with Peter Jennings The order to put Will on came not from the news show, but from ABC’s executive suite.
One day earlier this year George showed his mettle by urging Reagan to overthrow the Nicaraguan government with whom we have full diplomatic and trade relations. Will, who fancies himself a political science scholar, did not invoke the constitutional delicacy of asking that Congress first declare war, so that his television message come across as other than an incitation to international criminal behavior. There is no one on ABC evening news to provide an alternative commentary to the man who quietly used to help write some Reagan speeches and then praise them in print and on the air.
I cite these two examples to show that right wing intimidation of the media works. Even the Washington Post’s columnist page shows a distinctly right-wing tilt in a city whose readership is heavily liberal.
Recently, the pioneering ABC News Viewpoint, shown four times a year with Ted Koppel as moderator, displayed the success of winning through intimidation by the right wing. Its April 17th show was titled “Viewpoint — Duty, Honor, Country — Deadline” and explored the questions: “Is the press unpatriotic? Tearing down the moral fabric of society? Out of touch with American goals and values? Overly adversarial? Liberally biased? Out to “get” Ronald Reagan?”
One could get the impression from Koppel’s guests that the overwhelming amount of criticism of the media comes from right wingers The panel of critics was comprised of James Watt, former Secretary of the Interior, William Rusher, publisher of Buckley’s National Review, and ultra-conservative Rep. Philip Crane (R-IL). The three defenders from the media were Sam Donaldson, Nodding Carter and Eleanor Clift. During the audience question period, aides screened questions, they said, to weed out duplicative or non-topical inquiries. Somehow, out of about 20 questions, two were by liberals. The rest came from the likes of Phyllis Schlafly who asked Donaldson why the liberal media keeps referring to President Reagan’s “High Frontier” as Star Wars, or an assistant editor of a military journal who challenged the media defenders to explain why there was so much emphasis on $1000 pliers end other negatives.
Viewpoint’s representatives later explained the tilt as exactly the purpose of the show which was to focus on “conservative attacks.” “They are the accusers These are the people who have been discussing takeovers and getting letters written. The other groups just are not powerful,” said the man in charge of Viewpoint’s audience relations.
The man is being candid, at least. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) was shown pouring vitriol on the media during a clip on the Show along with Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media, Inc. I have now seen the some Helms clip seven times on network television in the past three months. So bluster, outrageous assertions of unpatriotic bias and the power of corporatist money backing Helms and Irvine get these men on television and provoke shows like the latest Viewpoint.
Though the audience relations person claimed that Viewpoint has had earlier shows dealing with attacks “from the other side”, I somehow can locate neither them nor the rabid liberal assault team Instead I recall gentle Ben Bagdikian, former Washington Post national editor and now professor of Journalism at the University of California (Berkeley) who received little television or news coverage for his highly critical book called The Media Monopoly (1983)f Liberal criticisms of the media ranging from its softness toward the Reagan White House to its self-censorship on advertising-sensitive corporate issues abound But they are nowhere as mean, organized and well-financed as the right-wing’s calumny.
By responding only to the most loud and least documented, the media is effectively blocking out other more measured critics who believe that the media is too indentured to established powers Result: the media, in its ever concentrating mode of mergers, becomes even more profitably part of the established powers. So maybe not so deep in the media’s subconscious, the Helmsmen and the Irvinites are pushing the media to go in the direction of its own goals Lesson for liberal media critics -blessed are the meek for you will inherit the blackouts.