July 7, 2005
For the most part, conservatives and libertarians have cheered the decline of the liberal media establishment over the past two decades.
But if that liberal establishment falls completely – if reporters are threatened with jail for doing their jobs – there will be occasion for second thoughts, as we are reminded that the ultimate enemy of freedom is the unchecked power of the state.
Beginning in 1969, with Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attack on “nattering nabobs of negativism,” the right has seen the press – epitomized by two liberal icons, The New York Times and CBS News – as a foe more powerful than the Democratic Party. It was the liberal media, after all, that energized Watergate, smeared the entrepreneurial Reagan ’80s as the “greed decade,” and helped derail the Gingrich Revolution of the mid-’90s.
Often the right felt helpless against the Main Stream Media (MSM) as it frog-marched the country to the left, particularly on social issues such as gay rights and abortion.
But a long-simmering backlash had been set in motion. In 1970, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” debuted on, ironically, CBS. The anchorman character, Ted Baxter, was simultaneously handsome, stupid, full of himself and not very nice. Yet, because the shoe fit so nicely, Baxter established the popular paradigm of the TV “news” figure – obsessed with ratings and oblivious to the truth. The fictional Ron Burgundy (from the 2004 movie “Anchorman”) and the nonfictional Jon Stewart (from “The Daily Show”) owe much to the original Baxter character.
While other works, such as “All the President’s Men,” mythologized reporters, a major movie such as “Network,” which trashed behind-the-scenes executives as well as on-air talent, further cemented the negative perception. And that was before the wave of scandals – Janet Cooke, Tailwind, Jayson Blair.
So when new technologies – cable TV, 800 numbers for nationwide talk radio, the Internet – made it possible to create alternatives to the MSM, as bloggers call it, just about everyone rushed in to fill a huge, unsatisfied demand, especially for populist conservatism. In addition to millions of bloggers, thousands of talkers, list-servers and other spielers began to blast the MSM.
Without question, the new media in aggregate are much more representative of the true ideological diversity of the country. So what’s not to like?
Only this. The decline of the MSM has led to the rise, in terms of relative power, of the federal government. And while the institutional Right might be happy about that as long as George W. Bush is president, surely everyone who leans starboard will feel differently when, say, President Hillary Rodham Clinton sits atop the commanding heights of state power. If a right-leaning Federal Communications Commission can use “decency” as a hammer against Howard Stern today, what’s to stop an imaginative lefty lawyer from smashing Rush Limbaugh tomorrow?
But the immediate flashpoint is the case of Valerie Plame, the “outed” CIA agent and wife of a former diplomat critical of U.S. policy on Iraq. In a nutshell, two reporters, Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time magazine, were threatened with jail for not revealing their sources and telling a federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, what they learned about Plame from the White House – perhaps from Mr. Big himself, Karl Rove.
The two reporters had tried to invoke traditional “shield” privileges, but Fitzgerald aims to pierce that shield. And the public, for its part, has seemed uninterested in the case. In an era of downsizing and market segmentation, no MSM entity has the resources to wage a long struggle against the government. Cooper has agreed to testify, while the sturdier Miller has gone to jail.
Thus the new landscape: The government is bigger and stronger than ever. The media are fragmented. It’s a perfect formula for the government’s divide-and-conquer strategy. So the state can curl its fist anytime it wishes, confident it can smash any single one of us, one by one by one.
James P. Pinkerton’s e-mail ad- dress is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.