Who Speaks For America?

Wesley Pruden, the avowedly conservative editor-in-chief of the right-wing Washington Times, has spent a cold decade in the shadow of The Washington Post. So it should come as no surprise in these days of Republican ascendancy that Pruden takes special pleasure in needling his storied crosstown rival. "I get the feeling that since the election, the top editors at The Washington Post are wandering around like a duck hit on the head with a wooden spoon," Pruden says in his deep Arkansas drawl. "They're still trying to figure out what happened."

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. responds that his head feels fine, thank you. "That's just silly," he says of Pruden's snipe, insisting that the Post's Capitol Hill coverage has been thorough and aggressive since November. Still, during the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, it is widely acknowledged that Pruden's paper has often had better sources among the GOP than its competition. Circulation has jumped an estimated 9% over the past year and so has its prestige.

Downie is quick to point out that average daily circulation of 94,223 for the Times remains puny compared with the Post's 840,232. And despite the Post's lack of growth over the past year, there's little question which paper the great majority of Washingtonians turn to every morning. Yet Pruden's momentum demonstrates a key point about the business of delivering news these days: Many people--conservatives in particular--are convinced that traditional media are not meeting all their needs. And their discontent is seeding a new crop of information sources that have growing pull and power.

Indeed, there's plenty of evidence that TV networks and Establishment newspapers are quickly losing their elite status as the nation's favored opinion-makers. In a free market for information, Rush Limbaugh and Oliver North are competing effectively for time and influence against Establishment news outlets such as The New York Times and NBC News. While there's no doubt the old media remain extremely influential, Americans no longer rely on a beloved "Father Cronkite" to tell them what is news. "The gatekeepers have a lot less power than they used to," says Howard Kurtz who covers media for The Washington Post.

This has become a vexing source of controversy--especially in light of the tragedy in Oklahoma City. On the one hand, many of the new media are giving voice to ideas that large swaths of people feel are neglected by traditional outlets. Media such as talk shows and the Internet offer a tantalizing populist ideal: a chance to participate in the news. But in the Wild West atmosphere of new media, where journalistic conventions often don't exist, responsible news analysis too often devolves into polemical ranting. For every conservative gripe that the traditional media are too liberal there is a corresponding sense of unease that talk shows empower fringe groups and magnify their unchecked rage.

PANIC AND THREATS. This line of reasoning, of course, is as old as the soapbox. Did Abbie Hoffman's liberal rantings inspire the radical Weathermen in the 1960s? Does Ice T's gangsta rap incite violence in urban youth today? The fugitive letter bomber who killed a timber lobbyist in California appears from his writings to be a left-wing environmental anarchist. Was he (or she) influenced by some green polemic on the spotted owl? There is no answer to any of these questions. But the fact remains that the First Amendment prevents even the government from tampering with the market forces that shape media. Panic and threats--the President's notwithstanding--do little. A popular backlash against G. Gordon Liddy's instructions on how best to shoot a federal agent would more likely sober much of the talk radio world.

The important thing to remember is that the new media--from The Washington Times to the ubiquitous voice of Limbaugh--exist in response to consumer demand. Our information sources mirror ourselves. Technology, from the growth in the number of cable-TV channels to the satellite distribution of syndicated radio shows to the proliferation of desktop-published newsletters, has led to a boom in alternatives to the status quo. The interesting thing is that most of them share certain characteristics: They are often interactive, they are unambiguous politically, and they pride themselves on being "other." "The mainstream media tend to say, `This is the way the world is,"' posits Terry Eastland, editor of Forbes Media Critic. "To the extent that people have gotten tired of that, they've become candidates to go somewhere else."

In defense of the traditional media, most critics agree that the big urban dailies and the networks remain the most professionally run, objective sources of news available. Despite endless griping to the contrary, there's little hard evidence that they truly do exhibit a "liberal" bias in everyday political coverage. During the turbulent first 100 days of the 104th Congress, for instance, the independent Center for Media & Public Affairs found that the networks slammed House Speaker Newt Gingrich 61% of the time. President Clinton got hammered 62% of the time. Says the Post's Kurtz: "While I think there is bias toward conflict and bad news, it is not ideological. Everybody gets bashed."

Nevertheless, it's clear that Americans in increasing numbers feel misunderstood by the traditional media. And in some cases, the media do exhibit a bias toward what they understand most, their status quo. In an increasingly diverse country without a monolithic set of values, blind spots are an occupational hazard. Critics say demographics alone lead to an inevitable disconnection between media and audience. The elite press corps, they point out, consists mostly of well-paid, highly educated urban professionals. They often have a secular, cosmopolitan outlook and tend to socialize with people like themselves. "If you ask a Washington journalist who his friends are, he'll say other journalists," says the Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess, who has studied the Capital press corps extensively.

Conservative critics contend this gives news coverage an urban, secular sensibility. On social issues such as gay rights or abortion, journalists sway to the left. On economic coverage, they stay at the center or swing slightly right, as befits their economic circumstances. This leads to occasional mistakes. In 1990, for example, The Washington Post failed to cover a huge pro-life march on the capital that got plenty of attention elsewhere. Post editor Downie's apology included the admission that not many Post staffers were pro-life. Few, he added, had spent much time with anybody who was.

FIGHTING BLINDNESS. David Frum, a former Wall Street Journal editorialist and the author of Dead Right, believes that most liberal bias in newsrooms stems from this lack of empathy for conservative points of view. "Most reporters, when covering the rise of the religious right, can make no human connection with these people," he says. "They see them as dangerous." Downie, for one, says he actively fights such blindness: He points proudly to a Post series last year that took a close look at the religious right and its concerns.

Covering a group like the religious right, however, is different from catering to the religious right. And the space in between is what gives editors headaches. Partly because it has a large audience interested in gay issues, The New York Times assigns a reporter to cover gay and lesbian topics. In March, the paper ran a story headlined "In Sickness and in Health: Building Loving Relationships When One Partner Has HIV." To many Americans--including religious conservatives --such stories would not only be uninteresting, they would be offensive. "If they want to run stories like that, that's their business," says Pruden. "But I know our readers, and they don't want those kinds of stories."

Increasingly, that's the point. Despite their best efforts, the traditional media can't please everybody all the time--and they shouldn't have to. It's easy to forget that already, more people around the country each day read The Wall Street Journal with its polemical right-wing editorial page than any other newspaper. The new media tend to satisfy consumer demand for information sources that confirm their own leanings. "We're on the edge of a new era in journalism," says critic Eastland. "It's more populist and more pointed."

As the Post's Downie points out, many of the new outlets don't even pretend to aspire to the same paradigm of impartial news gathering that mainstream media cling to. Being different is precisely why they draw an audience. Pruden, for instance, makes no attempt to mask his conservatism. Like any editor, he says, he insists on balance within stories. But what gets played on the front page is likely to reflect right-wing thinking. "Our conservative outlook shows up in story selection," Pruden says, "not in the way stories are structured."

Talk radio--most notably the version practiced by Limbaugh--takes this thinking to another level. It doesn't try for balance at all, and Rush's 20 million weekly listeners don't seem to ask for it. A recent Harris Poll found conservative talk-show hosts outnumber liberal hosts 2 to 1. A 1993 study by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press found that regular talk-show listeners are twice as likely to be conservative as liberal. Fact and opinion become a blur on most of these shows. But listeners with a pent-up desire to join the debate flock to their phones.

The medium is exploding both in terms of numbers and influence. According to the M Street Journal, a radio industry publication, the number of stations with a dominant talk format has grown to 1,028 from 308 since 1989. Analysts generally credit Limbaugh and the right-wing drumbeat emanating from these stations with turning the conservative tide in the 1994 elections.

SWITCHEROO. And if there's any doubt about the opportunistic nature of this rush to conservative media, witness the transformation of KSFO, a station owned by Capital Cities/ABC Inc. in San Francisco. Until January, it aired liberal talk aimed at Generation X. But then came the election, and management switched to Hot Talk, a scorchingly conservative format complete with hosts calling for the quarantine of AIDS patients and bounties on illegal immigrants. It is notable that KSFO Operations Director Jack Swanson, a liberal, years ago launched San Francisco's first gay talk show.

Conservative and right-wing populist voices are everywhere. Cable station CNBC, run by former Bush media maven Roger Ailes, now airs evening talk shows featuring right-winger Cal Thomas and former Bush campaign manager Mary Matalin. (It also runs liberal talk shows.) In book publishing, "you can't throw a brick into a gathering of conservatives without hitting someone who's got a book contract," says Frum.

Downie says he welcomes the proliferation of new voices. "The more media the better," he says. Indeed, he feels the Post and other traditional media will flourish by remaining the most impartial and authoritative of the alternatives. "We need to be credible--not biased--thorough, and investigative," he says. "We need to be everything those new media aren't." Clearly, however, consumers are also demanding everything the new media are. And in a country devoted to a free press, we'll just have to live with the consequences.

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