Why the Press Irks the GOP

Monday, October 30, 2000

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ou cannot understand Republicans without understanding how much the media irk them. The GOP may have held the White House for half the postwar period and controlled both houses of Congress for the last six years, but resentment of the media remains as basic to the identity of Republicans as does resentment of the English to the identity of the Irish.

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The Republican attitude toward the press is easy enough to demonstrate. All you have to do is talk to a Republican. Shortly after he left office, Pete Wilson, the Republican governor of California, and I had breakfast together. My notes indicate that it took no more than eight sentences for Pete—he insisted I call him by his first name—to begin railing against the press. As governor, Pete supported Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative under which the state of California would have denied all but emergency services to illegal immigrants. (The measure passed by large margins but was set aside in 1999 as the result of arbitration.) Pete told me that he had supported Proposition 187 on strict grounds. The federal government, which had failed in its duty to control the state’s border with Mexico, had no right to force the state’s taxpayers to provide illegal immigrants with the $3 to $4 billion in health care, education, and other services that they used each year. Yet the press had twisted Pete’s position, making it seem racist. Pete shook his head in exasperation. “It’s the darndest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.


There you have the authentic voice of the Republican. Pete Wilson’s political career spanned three decades. He served as a member of the California Assembly, as mayor of San Diego, as a United States senator, and as governor of the most populous state in the union, never losing a general election. What came to mind when he reflected upon his long and distinguished life in public service? Those SOBs in the press.

The liberal press is no mere chimera of the Republican imagination. It exists.

The governor had a point. Every poll of the press produces the same result. By a wide margin, the press is liberal. This bears repeating. The liberal press is no mere chimera of the Republican imagination. It exists. Consider just a few studies.

  • In 1988 a newsletter called the Journalist and Financial Reporting surveyed 151 business reporters from more than 30 publications. The respondents were business reporters, mind you, the ones you’d expect to be as conservative as any reporters ever are. By an overwhelming majority, the reporters described themselves as “liberal.”

  • In 1989 the American Society of Newspaper Editors surveyed 1,200 reporters and editors at 72 newspapers. Those who identified themselves as “liberal” outnumbered those who identified themselves as “conservative” by three to one.

  • In 1995 the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press published a study that compared the attitudes of the press with those of the public. Among the public, 40 percent called themselves “conservative.” Among the press? Five percent.

  • In 1996 the Freedom Foundation and the Roper Center released a survey of 139 reporters and bureau chiefs in Washington, D.C. Four years earlier, in 1992, the study found, 89 percent of the reporters and bureau chiefs voted for Clinton, only 7 percent for Bush. The proportion who identified themselves as registered Democrats? Fifty percent. The proportion who identified themselves as registered Republicans? Four percent.

If you eavesdrop on Republicans when the subject of press bias comes up, first you’ll hear them express their anger. But if you keep listening, eventually you’ll hear them express something that sounds a lot like insecurity as well. Reporting, fact checking, analysis, writing—all the jobs that the press performs require considerable intelligence and skill. Republicans know that. If the press is composed of such bright, talented people, Republicans often wonder, and sometimes even ask out loud, then why don’t they like us?

After years of trying to figure out why the press is biased against Republicans, I’ve collected just three explanations. Each contains some truth. Yet each suffers from limitations.

The first is that it’s simply the nature of the press to be adversarial. As the old saw puts it, the job of a reporter is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Since Republicans tend to be better off than Democrats—one of the most persistent patterns of American politics is that the higher a voter’s position on the income distribution, the more likely he is to be a Republican—the press regards Republicans with suspicion.

The problem with this explanation? The new economy. There are now well-established high-tech and entertainment plutocracies, large groups of very, very rich people who tend to be Democratic, not Republican. But the press doesn’t exactly line up to take them on.

It’s worth noting that the press is liberal in every Western democracy in the world.

The second explanation is that the structure of the news industry reflects the larger class structure of America itself. Reporters and editors get pushed around by Republican publishers, so they develop an antagonism for Republican bosses in society at large.

The trouble here? The explanation is decades out of date. Nowadays publishers are at least as liberal as their news staffs: Katherine Graham when she ran the Washington Post, Otis Chandler when he was still at the Los Angeles Times, the Sulzbergers at the New York Times. As Hoover Institution fellow David Brady put it, “These people aren’t Republican oppressors. They’re liberal saints, for Pete’s sake.”

The third explanation is that Republicans make for bad copy. This explanation has always struck me as the most compelling. The Republican agenda, after all, is often quite negative. Smaller government, fewer programs, lower taxes. If a Republican like me had his way, the three-ring, Barnum and Bailey—sized federal government would be reduced to the scope of a flea circus. But what would the press write about then?

In 1992, just a few weeks before President Clinton took office, I had lunch with a friend who writes for the New York Times. He could hardly wait for the Bush administration to end. As he saw it, nearly all that Bush had done was give boring speeches, hold press conferences in which he mangled the language, and produce budgets in which he did nothing more inspired than split his differences with the Democrats. Clinton promised instead to give stirring speeches, hold quotable press conferences, and undertake dozens of dramatic policy initiatives. You might think my friend was talking like a liberal. He wasn’t. He was talking like a reporter. What he saw was a simple set of truths. Bush equals bad copy, Clinton equals good copy.

The problem with this explanation? Ronald Reagan. Reagan equaled good copy—for most of the 1980s he equaled better copy than almost anyone else on the planet. He cut taxes, rebuilt the military, and held a series of summit meetings with Gorbachev, providing the press with one huge story after another. But I’d be willing to wager that even fewer members of the Washington press corps voted for Reagan than voted for Bush.

It’s worth noting that the press is liberal in every Western democracy in the world. “Look,” David Brady told me, “the reason the press is liberal is one of those deep questions that combines history, psychology, and for all I know, anthropology and half a dozen other disciplines. Why are WASPs Republicans?” David asked. “Why are the Irish Democrats? Who the hell knows? Sure, you can come up with this or that explanation, but none of them even comes close to a complete answer. You just have to take it as one of the stipulations of democratic politics. The press is liberal. It just is.”

Hence the Republican predicament. They’d like the press to like them—they really would. But it doesn’t—and no matter how hard they try, Republicans can’t quite figure out why.

The Experiment

Tony Dolan, President Reagan’s chief speechwriter and the author of the phrase “evil empire,” always told the speechwriters in the Reagan White House not to worry about the press. “If the American people really believed all they read in the newspapers,” Tony would say, “the country would be communist by now.” What Tony was talking about, of course, was the long term, the period over which the good judgment and common sense of the American people will always prevail. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. The trouble is, that still leaves the short term. This is the period over which even Tony worried about the press. As above the fray as Tony liked to appear, if you had walked into his office one evening after the president had given a speech, you would have seen Tony scrambling to get into the fray. He would have been on the telephone, dialing again and again to get through to Lou Cannon of the Washington Post and Jerry Boyd of the New York Times before their deadlines. When he reached them, Tony would have pleaded, wheedled, cajoled, and begged—anything to dissuade them from reporting the president’s remarks in a negative light. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and Republicans are convinced that whenever it can, the press does just that.

Of course Republicans are seldom able to prove this proposition. How could they? Would the election of 1992 have been different if the press had reported on the economic recovery when it began, midway through the year, instead of continuing to report on factory closings and unemployed workers even after the recession had ended? Would George Bush have been reelected president? Would the GOP have picked up seats in Congress? Republicans think so. They think they know so. But they are hardly able to experiment with history, holding other elements of the campaign constant while they change the press.

Every so often, however, history provides an experiment of its own. Consider the 1984 vice-presidential debate between George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro.

When they saw the debate for themselves, Americans reached one conclusion. When they saw the debate through the medium of the press, they reached a different conclusion. It was, to use Pete Wilson’s phrase, the darndest thing.

I helped prepare Bush for the encounter, sitting in on the mock debates that were held to give him some practice. The mock debates took place in the third-floor auditorium of the Old Executive Office Building, the ornate granite structure across West Executive Avenue from the White House itself. Bush stood behind a lectern on one side of the stage while Lynn Martin stood behind a lectern on the other. A Republican member of Congress and a friend of Bush’s, Lynn Martin impersonated Geraldine Ferraro. It proved a tough assignment. Not that Martin lacked the talent. She was at least as combative and funny as Ferraro herself. But the vice president had no idea how to confront a woman. First he would prove gentlemanly to the point of passivity, as if the code of chivalry required him to lose the debate. Then he would shift to the attack, appearing, well, ungentlemanly. When Bush was passive, Martin had to goad him. When he grew aggressive, she had to scold him, telling him to settle down. Goad, scold. Throughout the mock debates, Martin kept at it, striving to even out the vice president’s performance.

It worked. At least I thought it worked. So did most Americans—at first. And this is my point. Polls taken immediately after the debate showed that George Bush had trounced Geraldine Ferraro—one survey declared Bush the victor by 19 percent.

Then the press went to work. It harped on a single exchange. Suggesting that Reagan was no tougher on terrorists than Carter had been, Ferraro had compared the 1983 bombing of our embassy in Lebanon with the 1979 taking of hostages in Iran. Replying, Bush had attempted to draw a distinction between the two incidents, beginning his answer, “Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.” Ferraro had grown indignant, accusing Bush of patronizing her. The television commentators replayed the exchange again and again, describing the vice president’s demeanor toward Ferraro as if he had been a Viking and she a nun. Within an hour the polls began to change. Bush’s margin of victory narrowed. A poll on Nightline showed that Bush had won by only 9 percent. Later polls showed Bush’s margin of victory shrinking still more. By the following morning, the Washington Post was able to report no clear winner.

Politicians don’t go looking for contributors to whom they can sell themselves. Contributors go looking for politicians who already hold views they find amenable. Policy comes first. The money follows.

As a demonstration of the effect the press has on voters, the incident could hardly have been neater if it had been designed in a laboratory. When they saw the debate for themselves, Americans reached one conclusion. When they saw the debate through the medium of the press, they reached a different conclusion. It was, to use Pete Wilson’s phrase, the darndest thing.

Flak

Pondering the relationship between Republicans and the press, I reached the conclusion that campaign finance reform will never be enacted as long as Republicans can stop it. Permit me to explain.

As we have seen, Republicans are convinced that the press skews the political contest against them. Consider, for example, John Morgan, the friend who used to work across the hall from me when I was writing speeches for Vice President Bush. John is now a political consultant. Although the GOP has the support of the great mass of ordinary Americans, John believes that the press remains a serious tactical problem. “We’re like a vast army,” John says. “But we have no air coverage because we don’t control the media. The media comes over and sweeps down like dive-bombers, and it scatters us.”

In study after study, political scientists have found that officeholders vote according to two factors, the views they themselves hold and the views their constituents hold. The sources of their campaign money play no demonstrable role.

What flak can Republicans put in the air to combat the media dive-bombers? The answer is simple. Advertising. “If we as Republicans don’t get our message delivered properly through the national media,” Congressman Christopher Cox of California told me, “then we have to make up for that fact with paid advertising.” Republicans believe they have no choice. They must resort to selling themselves the way Coke sells soft drinks or Procter & Gamble sells soap. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich put it this way: “Republicans are on defense for one year and ten and a half months out of every two-year cycle. It’s only when you go to paid advertising in the last six weeks [of campaign season] that Republicans are able to be on offense.”

There’s just one problem with paid advertising. You have to pay for it. In every election cycle, Republicans thus find themselves in need of a great deal of money. Under the current regime of election laws, they’re able to raise it. But under the reforms now being proposed, they wouldn’t. So? So Republicans block the reforms. There is a second and nobler reason for opposing the reforms than the damage they would do to Republican electoral prospects: as the Supreme Court has held, political money is essential to political speech, so the reforms would pose a direct threat to the First Amendment. Republican officeholders do make this argument. They make it every time they vote to block or water down another campaign finance reform. But even as they’re talking about free speech, it is easy to suspect, they’re thinking about all the money they still need to raise before election day.

“Republicans are like a vast army,” according to John Morgan. “But we have no air coverage because we don’t control the media. The media comes over and sweeps down like dive-bombers, and it scatters us.”

The exception, of course, is Senator John McCain of Arizona. McCain, as everyone knows, is ardent in the cause of campaign finance reform. He has said that “all of us have been corrupted by the process . . . where big money has bought access which has bought influence.” No doubt McCain believes this assertion. But he cannot adduce any evidence to support it. In study after study, political scientists have found that officeholders vote according to two factors, the views they themselves hold and the views their constituents hold. The sources of their campaign money play no demonstrable role. Perhaps the most famous studies are those that examine the voting patterns of senators and representatives after they announce their intention to retire. No longer in need of campaign money, these officeholders suddenly find themselves in the position of congressional monks, owing allegiance to no one but their maker. Yet none changes his voting patterns. Either the officeholders in these studies go on voting to please special interests for the fun of it, an obviously dubious proposition, or they were never voting to please special interests in the first place. Politicians don’t go looking for contributors to whom they can sell themselves. Contributors go looking for politicians who already hold views they find amenable. Policy comes first. The money follows.

“I like John,” Pete Wilson said to me about McCain. “But his reform would destroy our party.”

Since Senator McCain’s home state of Arizona is one of the few places in the country in which the press lacks the usual liberal bias—to this day, for example, the Arizona Republic, once owned by Dan Quayle’s grandfather, Eugene Pulliam, remains moderate to conservative—John McCain might find that he could win elections just as easily after the passage of campaign finance reform as before. Very few other Republicans would fare as well. “I like John,” Pete Wilson said to me about McCain. “But his reform would destroy our party.”

Journal Entry

Today I received a letter from former president Bush.

I had written to him to check my memory of the 1984 vice-presidential debate. After making it clear that our memories match—“I think we clearly won that debate . . . but the spinmeisters went to work”—Bush added a postscript. It describes an incident that had always puzzled me.

The incident took place the day after the debate. Bush visited the New Jersey docks to shake hands with longshoremen. While there, he said of his encounter with Ferraro that he “kicked a little ass.” The press presented his remark as another instance of Bush’s hopelessly patronizing attitude toward women. It created a furor. Watching the evening news back in Washington, I had been perplexed. The remark sounded so out of character. In public Bush was always as prim in his use of language as the dean of an Episcopal prep school. What had gotten into him?

“One of the longshoremen,” Bush explained in his letter, “showed his support by holding up a sign. The sign said, ‘You Kicked Ass.’ Yes, that patriot followed me all around the dock, his self-written sign proudly displayed whenever a TV camera came into view. As I climbed into my VP limo at the end of the visit to the docks, I did say to him quietly, ‘Yes, we did kick a little ass.’ I had not seen the boom mike held over my shoulder. The national press went crazy—as if none of them had ever heard such a pithy sporting expression before.”

I should have known. An ambush. By the press.