Conservative exasperation with media bias is a tired refrain, a waste of energy. Complaints of bias start from the premise that press coverage ought to be fair and objective. But is this the premise on which today's mainstream media is based?
It's not. The premise that now guides the mainstream media is something we haven't seen before in this country - thus the never-ending consternation of conservatives at the blatant bias of the media and the nonchalance of its practitioners when caught in the act. We have seen press behavior like this before, though - not here, but in China and the Soviet Union during their classical Leninist eras.
When studying Chinese and Soviet politics back in the 1960s and 70s, I lived on a constant diet of the People's Daily, Pravda, and their companion publications. It was clear from the first day that the press in Communist China and the Soviet Union was fundamentally different from ours. It had a different purpose, a different relationship not only to the political power structure, but to the truth itself. Railing at Chinese or Soviet media bias the way that today's conservatives whine about ABC or the New York Times would have been foolish. Instead, it was necessary to understand the assumptions and objectives that underlay media that was under Leninist control. How did they see their role in society? What did they see as proper and improper practice?
There are rules about how a Leninist press works - its operational code. When reading People's Daily and Pravda with these rules in mind, the controlled press made perfect sense. What's the point here? Troublingly, these same rules fit today's American mainstream media - and the media's relationship to the Democratic Party - nearly to a T.
But you be the judge. Here are the rules, as I discerned and formulated them. "Party" here refers to the governing Communist parties of China and the USSR, in their 20th century heydays.
- The press is part of the Party establishment, not an independent or adversarial entity. The press does not think of itself as a prisoner of the Party, resentfully forced to abandon objectivity in favor of propaganda. Rather, it sees itself as fulfilling a critically important role in supporting and expanding Party rule. Writers are not journalists in the classic Western sense, but are political activists or functionaries.
- The Party decides what is news, what is not, what will be reported, and what will not. The press is used to convey Party positions, and politically correct thinking, to the population. Grass-roots activists read, heed, and promote everything carried in the press. The general populace barely reads it, but has no other source of information or worldview, so tends to passively accept the press's messages.
- Articles must carry the interpretation of events that the Party wishes to convey, without regard to objective accuracy. The press evinces utter certainty of the wisdom and correctness of the Party's motivations, worldview, and policies; no differentiation - much less opposition - is allowed.
- From time to time, the Party uses the press to agitate the populace in a motivational campaign, aimed either at accomplishing a major goal (such as the Great Leap Forward), or criticizing a domestic Party opponent or a foreign country.
- The Party's leading individuals always receive deference, reverence, approval, even adulation. No criticism or adverse reflections on Party leaders are allowed. Senior Party figures have unrestricted access to press coverage. Investigative journalism is rare, and unthinkable if directed against Party organizations, leaders, programs, or policies.
- Individuals opposed to Party rule are selected as targets of disapproval, usually to the point of demonization. Criticism usually extends to allegations of personal corruption, wickedness, or barbarism. Terms used to vilify Party opponents are formulaic, seeming to draw from a lexicon developed for the purpose; there is little if any verbal creativity in criticism of Party-designated targets. Critics or independent thinkers who are not demonized become non-persons, ignored in all articles related to their areas of expertise or attention.
- Fabrication of events, quotations - even people - is permitted in furtherance of Party objectives. Historical facts, or previous Party positions, may be omitted or reshaped to fit current political requirements. The press will report no past error by the Party or its leaders, except when a leader or faction has fallen afoul of the current ruling Party group - then reporting takes the form of demonization.
- National security topics are viewed exclusively through the prism of Party interest. Threats will be ignored if the Party is not worried about them, or if in some way they reflect badly on the Party's performance in foreign affairs. Conversely, bogus threats will be touted if doing so is in the Party's interest.
- Independent media outlets are either forbidden, or permitted only if they address topics of no political impact.
When we look through this Leninist prism, the behavior of today's American mainstream media becomes quite comprehensible. Where conservatives see dishonesty, double standards, and deception, media practitioners see themselves as fulfilling their role in consolidating Party power in pursuit of a socialist utopia. They have fundamentally different ideas of the media's role in society.
How did this happen? Unlike the China or Soviet Union of the 1950s, there is no explicitly Leninist curriculum in the journalism schools, nor have the Democrats formally appointed political commissars on television and newspaper editorial staffs. Yet the effect is clearly apparent. There seems to be a natural, organic affinity between a political party with dictatorial ambitions and the press, and this makes formal indoctrination or routine enforcement unnecessary.
More interesting, what does this Leninist model predict for the mainstream media and its fealty to the Democratic Party? Today's media adhere closely to all the above rules except the last one: exclusivity. NBC or the New York Times may enforce ideological uniformity within their organizations, but what about independent, conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh or National Review?
Democrats have been explicit about plans to revive the Fairness Doctrine, whose implicit goal is to drive conservatives off the talk-radio airwaves. There is no reason to think that a new Fairness Doctrine would not also be festooned with prohibitions against public "hate speech," defined as anything critical of the Left's political program or personalities. Hate speech prohibitions could also be extended to the Internet, targeting conservative opinion sites and blogs. A compliant Supreme Court is only an appointment or two away.
Nor is direct government ownership of media outlets out of the question. We already have the Public Broadcasting System, and this model could be applied more broadly. In this era of government bailouts, how hard is it to imagine a national icon such as the New York Times, crippled by shrinking advertising revenues, seeking government support "in the public interest"?
David G. Muller, Jr. is a writer in Northern Virginia.