The glass wall of media coverage

Sam Smith


Dana Milbank’s snotty attack on critics of White House behavior as revealed in the Downing Street memos illuminates a carefully concealed truth about the media: its definition of objectivity stops at the edge of anything left of center. Standard Democratic policy is okay, even a liberal quote or two, but anything further to the left is simply excluded from coverage unless – as in Milbank’s case – it is there to ridicule.

Milbank’s dislike for the left began long ago and writes of it in a style that might be called unmaturated preppie. For example, in September 2000 the Washington Post reporter said one of the presidential candidates, Ralph Nader, that his “only enemy is the corporation.” Skull & Bonesman Milbank also described Greens as “radical activists in sandals.” Since your editor was soon to speak with Nader at an event in Washington, I brought along a pair of sandals so Milbank’s description would not be totally false. Of course, he didn’t show up because Nader and the Greens fell into that classic media category: important enough to scorn but not important enough to cover.

Being among the last progressive journalists in the capital I am conscious of the massive disinterest of the rest of the media in anything left of center. When I started in 1964, my work was appealing enough to mainstream journalism to be offered jobs at the New York Times and the Washington Post. I was frequently called by journalists wanting to know what was going on in the civil rights or anti-war movement. These calls were seldom hostile: the left was a reality that needed to be covered and even the Post had some good reporters on the case. I tried, then as now, to serve as an helpful interpreter rather than as a rhetorical advocate and even developed a few friends along the way.

But these days I rarely get calls from the conventional media. Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, down the hall from my office, reports a similar phenomenon. Two guys with decades of history and background about progressive politics that is considered totally irrelevant by establishment Washington. The left, progressive movements, and social change are simply not thought to be worthy subjects by the corporate media – or by NPR for that matter.

Being a stat freak, I have some proof of this. I keep a record of every interview or call from a journalist. In the early 1990s the number of these calls began to increase, peaking in 1998 at 98 for the year. The following year, the calls dropped by a third, in part, I suspect, because I had been included (among a number of others) in the Clinton do-not-call list given to friendly reporters. (I had already been blacklisted by CSPAN and banned from the local NPR morning show). By 2001 – with the inauguration of a GOP president – the calls were down two-thirds from three years earlier, dropping to a mere 16 last year.

This is only a minor example of a major phenomenon. Every day, for example, I check about 75 websites. From the NY Times to Wonkette, the left is considered just not worth mentioning.

Worse, the exception is that it is generally presumed amongst the media that progressive are fair targets for mockery. In a recent article in the faux hip Vanity Fair on Jeff Gannon, David Margolik and Richard Gooding offered as a positive that Gannon “balanced off some of the left-wingers in the room such as Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, and a Naderite, who once asked McCellan whether, given the administration’s support for the public display of the Ten commandments, President Bush believed that the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ applied to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.”

The fact that the authors considered that a stupid question tells much about the sorry state of Washington journalism. Further, Russell Mokhiber often tells more important truths in one column than Vanity Fair does in a whole issue.

The trend is also confirmed by Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian who has published a list of a score of political blogs that DC journalists like. Not one is to the left of Democratic Party liberalism, which these days means saying, “right on” to whatever conservative Democrat is in charge. Of the 20 sites, only two are on my list – the libertarian Hit & Run and the poll-heavy Real Politics. The common characteristic of many of the others is their utter predictability.

Put simply, the media doesn’t like the left, social change, Greens, or progressive thought. It deals with them by ignoring them or mocking them, in either case excluding them from its own perverted definition of objectivity.

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