Several months ago I quit my blog. A tangled decision. I had a number of health issues, long ignored, to tackle. (FYI, total knee replacement is one of those experiences that devour you mind, body and soul—for awhile.) Also, I felt I had nothing left to say about politics & media. Why should I continue to weigh in when all of us are inundated with too much information and commentary, as it is? I don’t know about you, but increasingly I am finding the noise tedious and wearisome.
And most importantly, the great adventure of my life had been the campaign trail of 2008. Try to imagine how it must have felt to discover, at age 60, the work for which you had been born. And then to have that job no more. Humorous side note: if you know media, then you appreciate the irony here. I lived for the trail, punditry not so much. And yet most reporters on the road yearn for that promotion to columnist.
Yet here I am in 2012, prompted by the current Republican convention in Tampa, finding that I have something else that I feel needs saying. This is going to be a several-days rumination on the question of whether or not the big, major, mainstream media—however you want to nominate it—has a liberal bias. Jon Voight’s comments in Tampa (“a formidable liberal bias in the American media”) and the recent resignation comments of Arthur Brisbane as Public Editor of the New York Times (“a kind of political and cultural progressivism . . . bleeds through the fabric of The Times”) just now are reinforcing this belief in the bias.
Let me get straight to the point: from my observation, up close and personal, mainstream media does not have a liberal bias. But what is happening in media right now—well, it’s complicated. Nothing is as simple and straightforward as we humans would prefer. Hence my taking some time to explore the subject. I’m thinking three essays, the last of which will tackle the Times specifically, in detail—both because it is still the most important newsgathering institution in the United States and because I have had considerable personal experience with its reporters and pundits.
I dedicate this series to my dear friends in the South—all of you mean much to me now—who are wise about many things, but the disposition and intent of journalism is not one of them. Knee replacement surgery leads to thoughts of mortality, and so please regard this as my legacy, in part, and think of me as that traveler who was able to visit and report back on a world you likely will never see.
Thinking that all of you might not make it through the entire series, I am going to begin with the most important issue. A journalist’s great gift (should he or she be fortunate) is to know the right question to ask. “Does American media have a liberal bias?” That is not the question.
The real question: what has gone wrong with American media? Why has the fourth estate lost our trust?
I can best answer that question with a story. The 2008 Republican Convention in St. Paul. The night Sarah Palin gave her speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination. It was one of the strangest nights of my life. I suspect it will be with me always. I am going to share with you a small part of that evening.
The conventions have a media filing room where lower-rung reporters (we’re not talking about the David Brooks and Peggy Noonans of this world here) can work, write, phone and meanwhile watch what’s going on nearby on the convention floor via a large screen TV. Not much happening just then. I was working on my next piece for The Huffington Post. Maybe a dozen young reporters—all men, probably in their early thirties—stood near me, chatting desultorily.
On the convention floor, the delegates stood and began to sing the national anthem. The camera moved from face to face—mostly white, mostly older. This was the Republican Convention, after all. Around me, the guys laughed and pointed. They snickered about it all—more than a few nasty comments—a denigration of a moment that meant something, clearly, to the conventioneers.
My reaction? I felt I had been stabbed through the heart. Know this sounds corny—a bit of overwriting. If I weren’t sixty-six and telling the goddamn truth, I would not share. But now, if not the truth—what’s the point?
Here’s the thing. I love young guys. Maybe because I never had a son. Most young reporters are men, and they can be at various times silly, rude, sexist and full of self-importance. Assholes, generally. And they can revel in the role. Unlike some of my female peers, I have never been bothered by the antics of the male jejune. Generally, I find them amusing. If anything, sometimes I am sad, knowing that some of them will grow into humility and wisdom and others will pay, and often pay dearly, for their actions. The pattern here, if there is one weaving together this unfairness in life, is beyond human ken.
But that night in St. Paul I was stricken. I was witnessing a dramatic action—the kind of thing that in small so well captures the large—a measure of the depth and width of the chasm between the fourth estate and the American people.
Soon Sarah Palin took the stage. In her speech, she quoted not once but twice from my work. I could not quite wrap my mind around the irony. One of the most significant pieces of reporting in 2008 was mine, and here I was, too small a figure to be allowed a journalist pass to the convention floor.
I wandered out into the hall and hovered near a hot dog stand—empty of customers now. Along with the vendor, several convention volunteers and janitors, I followed the rest of Sarah Palin on the hall screen. Two janitors gave up their chairs to the women, and so I sat and watched.
Still I could not let go of the irony. Then I realized that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. The reporting from the trail that had meant the most to me, what I considered my best work, had arisen from encounters with people, like me, who do not get special treatment at conventions.
Then I realized something else. It was weird that I was the only reporter out there, watching TV not in the media filing room but Out There, sharing an important moment with strangers, but completely comfortable with them, because, for one thing, beyond the janitorial courtesy, we were all Americans.
A lasting gift to me from the campaign trail has been an abiding sense of patriotism (one that began sometime earlier, with visiting my daughter in Queens—but that’s another story). I know just what candidates mean when they talk about their great good fortune in meeting our fellow Americans. But patriotism, at least in my experience, and certainly in many aspiring politician’s experience, is something you grow into. Therefore, it’s not the callow young reporters’ lack of appreciation for a patriotic St. Paul moment to which I am pointing, exactly.
What has gone wrong with American media? There is now too great a gulf between reporter and subject. How to understand, on the one hand? To trust, on the other?
If there is to be a connection, specifically in this instance a communication between reporter and reader/listener, it must rest upon something lacking in those young reporters in St. Paul: a sense of a shared humanity and the social awareness that preservation of dignity is the action that binds.
Next up: what pundits do that’s probably well-paid but worthless: a few examples from Tampa. Some great reporting from Tampa. Liberal media—yes, it exists—but that’s not the issue. The conundrum is moral choice: when is the moment a Bonhoeffer one, when is it merely the reporter trying to influence outcome according to his or her own preferences? Another story here, how Obama campaign coverage went down in the 2008 North Carolina primary race, and the consequences of the choice we Obama reporters made. This might end up two pieces. Then the final bit on the NYT.