Think Again: “Working the Refs”

Coverage of stolen emails debunks (again) myth of “liberal media”


While there is a definitely a lot of excellent reporting on climate science, the dreadful reporting by big media outlets threatens to swamp it — click here for the good and mostly bad in recent years.  The NY Times reporting on the stolen emails is a case study of how not to report on climate science.  And here’s a particularly bad piece by CBS News. This miscoverage has motivated me to reprint the opening statement by CAP’s Eric Alterman at a 2005 Congressional forum on entitled, “From the Newsweek Controversy to the Downing Street Memo: Media Bias and the Future of Freedom of the Press.”

For the past five decades, Republican politicians, writers, television pundits and think tanks have been remarkably successful at convincing the American people of a “liberal bias” in the media. Using the very same media outlets that they complain don’t give their cause a fair shake to lodge their complaints, they know that slamming the other side is little more than a way to get their own ideas across, while drowning out opposing voices. Some have even admitted as much. During the 1992 presidential race, Rich Bond, then chair of the Republican Party, outlined the right’s game plan, saying that “There is some strategy to it [bashing the ‘liberal’ media]. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”

Even William Kristol, undoubtedly the most influential Republican/neoconservative writer and publisher in America today, is on record as saying that the “liberal media” canard is often used by conservatives as an excuse to cover up for conservative failures. Despite this, Kristol’s magazine, The Weekly Standard, joins its colleagues in the conservative media in trotting out the liberal bias canard virtually every chance it gets.

Looking at the media on a case by case basis, the conservative claims about liberal bias completely fall apart. Newspapers, for example, so often the brunt of the right’s criticism, are hardly lacking for conservative voices. In fact, conservatives own outright some of the country’s largest newspapers – or at least their editorial pages. The Washington Times, The New York Post, and The New York Sun are all unabashedly conservative, while the influential Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, recently graced with its own PBS program including a $5 million taxpayer subsidy, is populated by some of the most rabidly far-right columnists working in this country today.

And the equivalent of this on the left? Some would point to The New York Times, which counts two conservatives, David Brooks and John Tierney, on its page, and which until recently ran a column by William Safire. How about another right-wing whipping boy – The Washington Post? They run columns by George Will, Robert Kagan and Charles Krauthammer. Hardly writers who sympathize with liberal values. The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and Washington Times can’t say that they have anything remotely comparable to the diversity of opinion that can be found on the pages of the allegedly “liberal” New York Times and Washington Post.

In the magazine world, two of the right’s favorite targets – Time and Newsweek – run columns by Krauthammer and Will, respectively. Speaking of magazines, there is certainly no dearth of conservative titles to choose from, with selections including Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative, Kristol’s The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, National Review, Commentary, etc=, etc.

On the cable news networks and Sunday shout fests where conservatives love to pull the “liberal bias” charge out of their bags when confronted with facts they don’t like, you would be hard pressed to find much liberal representation. It’s odd that of most prominent liberals writing in the nation’s newspapers and opinion magazines – E.J. Dionne, Robert Kuttner, Paul Krugman, Hendrik Hertzberg, Molly Ivins – not one has ever been given a regular slot on television, like say, Bob Novak, Fred Barnes, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Tony Blankley, Pat Buchanan, Bill O’Reilly or Brit Hume. Even PBS of late is populated by more journalists of the extreme right than of the moderate left. Indeed, one is hard pressed to come up with a single journalist or pundit appearing on television who is even remotely as far to the left of the mainstream spectrum as most of these conservatives are to the right. Indeed, if the current leadership of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets its way, PBS will one day be difficult to distinguish from Fox News or even Sinclair Broadcasting.

And yet, conservatives complain about the “liberal media” from within the confines of their own ideological media empires. In other words, the right is most defiantly working the refs. And it’s working. Much of the public believes the myth about the so-called liberal media, and the media themselves have been cowed by conservatives into repeating this lie virtually nonstop – lest they too be branded “liberal.” The pundits who are given so much air time and ink to cry foul about their lack of representation are the very same ones who are pulling this massive bait-and-switch on a public that apparently doesn’t see the irony of someone on television complaining that his side isn’t being heard.

Meanwhile, the non-right-wing media must, on a daily basis, come face to face with an administration obsessed with secrecy, and which belittles and browbeats reporters at every opportunity. Note how quickly Scott McClellan blamed Newsweek for the rioting in Afghanistan last week. Despite the fact that his bosses presided over the invasion of Iraq and the well-documented abuses at Abu Ghraib and Bagram, the administration – along with a whole host of ready-for-prime-time conservative talking heads – pounced on one sentence in a short blurb, claiming that it caused irreparable harm to the “image of America” in the Muslim world.

But this has become par for the course. Conservative media outlets long for moments such as these, pouncing on any journalist who falls out of lockstep with their rigid ideological framework. In other words, they attack what in previous generations had been known as honest journalism, by throwing up the discredited but nevertheless effective accusation of “liberal bias” in order to protect their ideological fellow travelers from scrutiny.

In the end, the “liberal media” accusation is just one of many tools in the conservative arsenal. They are, as Bond admitted, “working the refs” and it works. Thanks to their tireless efforts, the American people have lost faith in a cowed media that finds itself constantly trying to deflect charges that have no basis in reality.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

See also this Crooks and Liars post (where I got the above photo), “Working The Refs: Will Bunch Explains Why ‘Liberal’ Media Bend Over Backwards for Conservatives.”

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11 Responses to Think Again: “Working the Refs”

  1. Leif says:

    Right on “Guest.” I have just started rereading “1984” where all of the above is lived out in graphic detail. Spooky.

  2. Steve H says:


    Even more scary is the number of despots and totalitarian regimes that have used “Animal Farm” as a how-to manual.

  3. burk says:

    Don’t forget Ross Douthat, who is also a very conservative NYT columnist, though like Brooks, often by throwing up chaff rather than by making a direct case.

  4. James Newberry says:

    Also see the books Climate Cover-Up, J. Hoggan, 2009; Toxic Sludge Is Good For You; and The Tyranny of Oil, not to mention several classics like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451.

    The price of opposing corporate fascism (the belligerent merging of state and business interests), whether foreign or domestic, is eternal vigilence (thank you Thomas Jefferson).

  5. Chris says:

    Indeed. And while the big newspapers and networks protest that there’s no room to get into the complexities of climate change, there’s always somehow space for the complexities of Tiger Woods’ marriage or the aspiring careers of the gate-crashing Salahis.

    What this means for climate change is that most of the public’s information about it comes not through those rare long-form pieces but the more common skirmishes, like the recent leaked emails controversy.

    Imagine how ridiculous the leaked emails story would be if the topic were some other well-established theory, like, oh, say the Round Earth theory… What’s needed more than point-by-point refutations to conservative spin on climate change are short and humorous rebuttles that expose the ridiculousness assumptions underlying them.

  6. SecularAnimist says:

    I think this idea of “conservatives” working the refs is much overrated.

    It assumes that the media is impartial to begin with, and then is somehow manipulated by “conservatives” into favoring a “conservative” point of view.

    But “the media” is NOT impartial to begin with.

    In the USA, virtually all of “the media” from which most Americans get most of their information is owned by a handful of giant corporations.

    And the purpose and mission of the corporate-owned media is NOT to impartially and accurately inform and educate the American people about important issues, as some sort of idealistic public service. Rather, it is to propagandize the American people in furtherance of the agenda of the giant for-profit corporations that own and control the media.

    These corporations don’t disseminate so-called “conservative” propaganda because they have been pressured or manipulated or otherwise “worked” by conservative ideologues. They do so because it suits their purposes — they do so because Americans who are hammered relentlessly with so-called “conservative” propaganda are more likely to favor the interests of the ultra-rich corporate aristocracy vs. the interests of everyone else.

    So-called “conservative” ideologues are not “manipulating” the media — on the contrary, if “conservative” ideologues didn’t exist, the corporate media would have to invent them, because they are valuable tools in the propaganda component of the corporate aristocracy’s class warfare against the rest of us.

    And, in fact, inventing corporate ideologues is exactly what the corporate media does. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity et al are not “outsiders” who are manipulating the corporate media — they are creations OF the corporate media, and they exist to serve its purposes.

  7. Chris says:

    @SecularAnimist – True, the ownership of big media and the fact that it’s commercial means it’s inherently conservative to a large extent. And of course this affects how the news is made, and what even counts as news.

    But when you get down to the level of editors and reporters, there is a more sincere belief in the media as government watchdog. Ownership leans conservative, and reporters lean liberal. And editors are pulled from both ends. So there is a struggle there, editors do make decisions that are affected by commercial forces, their own politics/ideals, and inevitably, the players on the field who want all the calls to go their way.

    And as long as media remains a largely corporate enterprise, conservatives will continue to scream more loudly and more often, even if most of the calls are already going their way.

  8. Dan K. says:

    Here’s the link to Kristol saying liberal bias is an excuse:


  9. Bob Jacobson says:

    For all the indignation expressed here, the fact is that someone broke the law, and not just a weak American anti-hacking law. They broke the EU’s extremely tough privacy law and for this they stand to pay a very stiff price when found out.

    Who, I ask, would have the temerity to challenge the EU — which has used its laws and vast power to force economic concessions from Microsoft and Yahoo, and not by playing nice — in this blatant way? The penalties for violating privacy are far harsher in the EU than in the US and its prosecution definitely more determined. The hackers knew this when they committed the act. So who were they?

    I leave it for you to ponder. But let me suggest:

    1. The hackers were probably alerted to the existence of the target files, or possibly even directed to them, by those in the know whether legally or illegally.

    2. The actual hacking probably took place far from the storage media itself, to protect the hackers. Distance, diplomacy, and substantial amounts of money from corporations and individuals will act as a legal flak jacket for the hackers — who may be in Moscow, Buenos Aires, or Shanghai — keeping the EU’s law enforcers at bay.

    Sadly, when it comes to thwarting the climate “debate,” the other side will stop at nothing to distract the public, defame its opponents, and derail the anti-climate change movement. This is just one more example. In addition to bashing the media, which is tempting because it is so obvious and easy, we need also to focus on the illegalities that have being committed in the name of … what?

    Remember, Watergate was a symptom of bad politics. But what brought down Nixon was the fact that his bozos committed theft.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Well, I have had some small success with simply pointing out that the central aspects of climate science have not changed since the 1979 Charney et al. NAS.NRC reprot on CO2 and climate:
    long before CRU or much in the way of e-mail even…

  11. Lane says:

    This all would be interesting if we could define “neutral” and “bias”. What would constitute neutral journalism? That would lead to a definition of what would constitute deviation from neutral. The question isn’t asked as often as it should be.

    I consider myself a Democratic-leaning journalist, FWIW. I would bet, myself, and I would bet that the vast majority of American journalists would bet, that the large majority of American reporters and editors and editorialists are Democrats. Seriously. Take a blind poll, or ask journos to bet their own money, and you’d get the same answer every single time: without any hint of a whit of a shadow of a doubt, Democrats outnumber Republicans in American newsrooms. This is not an open case really.

    A fair reply would be “but mere headcounts aren’t where it counts.” OK, is maybe the upper tier of journalism right-leaning? Or at least not left-leaning? Here, the case for no-liberal-bias is stronger. But I’d still guess that the majority of editors-in-chief, editorial writers, and top news managers at the networks, are Democrats. Maybe not a huge majority, but a clear majority.

    What about in pure opinionating? Here the case for no liberal bias gets much stronger; Democrats’ advantage in most TV newsrooms plus the cable nets plus the New York Times and its class is balanced by conservative mags, conservative papers, Fox and blogs. Opinion being virtually free (as opposed to news-gathering), there is an almost infinite supply of it. Since about half of Americans are Republicans in any normal year and opinion is in infinite supply, you have 1/2 x infinity = lots of Republican opinion (and lots of Democratic opinion) virtually everywhere, always.

    Finally, one last definition. I think the place the liberal tilt in media is clearest, even if it isn’t overwhelming, is in story choice. Liberals assign stories on starving children in poor countries, welfare moms beat up by the system, big business raping the little guy, an so on. Republicans assign stories on dads coming home from Iraq, the fireman who also serves as deacon, and how small businesses and farms and churches are the backbone of the country. A knee-jerk response might be “but the first set of stories are *real* news, real investigative spadework, and the second class are rah-rah values BS.” I wouldn’t even necessarily disagree; but remember, as soon as you say that you are basically confessing that you think that Democratic-leaning stories are real journalism and Republican-leaning stories are BS.

    Just my $.02.