TCS Daily


Welcome to the Post-Progressive Era

By James Pinkerton - October 11, 2004 12:00 AM

When I first heard about that memo from ABC News political editor Mark Halperin, urging his colleagues to hold George W. Bush more "accountable" than John Kerry, I didn't quite believe it.

After all, why, a month before the election -- and the Rather fierce controversy over media bias -- would a TV newsman put his name to a document that clearly took one side over the other? Halperin accused Bush of trying to "win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions." As Halperin elaborated, "The current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done." By contrast, Halperin continued, "Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win." Translation: the Democrat might be a liar, but the Republican is a bigger liar -- even a much bigger liar.

But ABC confirmed the memo's authenticity. So much for my first reaction.

My second thought was this just another "smoking gun," the latest in a long line of lefty-smokers demonstrating the liberal/Democratic tilt of the major media. Groups such as Accuracy in Media and the Media Research Center have been making this argument for decades, and they've been proven mostly correct, despite all the major-media denials. So now comes Halperin proving the AIM/MRC point all over again: "It's up to Kerry to defend himself, of course. But as one of the few news organizations with the skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest, now is the time for all of us to step up and do that right."

Step up. Do the right thing. Explain reality to the voters. Tell them what they need to know -- what they would know if only they understood the issues as well as the experts in the Fourth Estate. As the radical French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau explained more than two centuries ago, enlightened leaders must sometimes "force people to be free."

But in a leaky world, I asked myself, "How could Halperin be so dumb, handing media critics yet another sword? Couldn't he have just winked and nodded to get his pro-Kerry point across?"

But then I thought to myself, Halperin's not dumb -- just the opposite, in fact. He simply has a lot of opinions, and maybe, like anyone else who's opinionated, he wants to get them out. For years now, as a sort of pro-bono undertaking, Halperin has overseen the publication of "The Note", a free daily e-blat that's required reading for Washington's political junkietariat. "The Note" is full of news, but it's also full of angles and asides. And as Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, observed on the Fox "News Watch" show this weekend, "The Note" pretty much acknowledges the basic liberal bias in the MSM -- "mainstream media."

So maybe, I concluded, Halperin, smart and opinionated as he is, simply decided that he was going to push his views out there a little bit more -- maybe a lot more. Maybe he's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. He sees things about the 2004 campaign -- especially the Bush campaign -- that he doesn't like, and he wants to do something about it. So he writes a memo in which he damns all the torpedoes, because he wants to go full speed ahead.

Is that so bad? Aren't people these days supposed to express themselves? Free to be... you and me?

It all depends on what line of work you're in, and when.

In the 18th and 19th century, the press was unabashedly partisan and ideological, on one side or the other. That is, everything that the Federalists did was great, everything that the Whigs did was terrible -- or vice versa. To this day, there are still a few newspapers with names such as "Republican" or "Democrat" in their titles. And a few active bastions of this polarized and pugilistic era still survive: The Manchester Union-Leader runs front-page editorials; The New York Post never hesitates to let its opinions percolate through the whole paper.

But for the most part, beginning around the turn of the 20th century, newspapers have operated according to different rules. This was the work of the Progressives, the bipartisan movement -- including, as its great champions, presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson -- that remade America from 1890 to 1920. The Progressives wanted to clean up corruption and patronage, but that was just for openers.

The Progressives were, in fact, much more than reformers. They were more elitist and paternalistic than democratic; their goal was to use new tools, such as bureaucracy and regulation, to bring predictability and "efficiency" into society.


The American Medical Association, incorporated in 1897, was an emblematic Progressive institution; it sought to professionalize medical education and to improve medicine -- and also, critics noted, to illegalize folk practitioners and alternative providers, such as chiropractors or midwives. Which is to say, the Progressives had a certain vision of the Great Society. And woe to those who disagreed.

The same Progressive ethos conquered journalism. The Columbia Journalism School, founded in 1912, was designed to bring the new science of professionalism and objectivity to the bloody-knuckled, as well as ink-stained, wretches of newspaperdom. The new idea was that journalists, educated and inculcated in the latest thinking, would seek out the truth and bestow it upon the masses, for the general betterment of all.

That was the pattern for the new century. Journalists, working from big and quasi-monopolistic newspapers, scanned the horizon for all the news that was "fit to print." There was one huge catch in this media approach, of course -- it was boring. In the 19th century, The Times of London earned the nickname, "The Thunderer," for its lightning-like excoriations of British politicians; plenty of American papers, too, prided themselves on savaging their foes. But in the new Progressive era, such invective was seen as unprofessional. And so hot, populist, passionate copy was mostly consigned to a few columnists or, more often, exiled completely to the tabloid nether realm. So the news became, in a word, dull. Slightly left-of-center, of course, but still dull.

Later, the print-establishment was joined by, and eventually superseded by, television. But TV news, infected with Progressive thinking and further constrained by the Federal Communications Commission, was dull, too.

This paternalistic, hegemonic order -- of trained and credentialed journalists, administering the news -- survived into the early 90s. Yes, it was pious and smug, but what else was there to watch? And if these media-priests gave reality a little shove -- favoring certain stories, such as civil rights or AIDS -- well, that's the way it was. After all, who was around to complain, except Spiro Agnew, who sought to defend Republicans against "nattering nabobs of negativism" until he was forced to resign the vice presidency in 1973?

Finally, in the 90s, came effective new voices, spurred by paradigm-shifting new technology -- Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Matt Drudge. Ever since, as everyone knows, the mind- and market-share for the Old Media plummeted.

It didn't have to work out like this, of course. The Media Establishment could have seen which way the market-winds were blowing, and set its course differently. Just a few years ago, the big outlets could have snapped up the talents of, say, Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, or Matt Drudge. But they chose not to do so.

Why? Two reasons. First, as a matter of ideology, the bigsters didn't want conservative or libertarian voices crapping up their familiar cozy liberalism. And second, just as important, they were still influenced by the lingerings of elitist Progressive ideology -- where did this Limbaugh person go to college, anyway? And as for Drudge, he didn't even attend college. Columbia, the Society of Professional Journalists, and all the other media mandarins would have looked askance at any such uncouth, undiploma-ed hires. And so peer pressure kept Manhattan mavens from making potentially lucrative programming choices.

For their part, if these conservative outsiders couldn't join the Media Establishment, then they'd just have to go out and beat it. And they did. Not so long ago, the broadcast news shows pulled in a third of the nationwide audience; now they are lucky to get a tenth. To be sure, even a shrunken audience can be a profitable audience, and so the not-so-Big Three hang in there, sticking to their standards and their familiar ideology.

But now, the hemorrhage has gotten so bad -- Fox is now starting to beat the broadcast nets on big-news occasions -- that I believe the legacy nets have decided, "enough is enough." The people who work for the big media have figured out that if they are going to be accused of liberal bias no matter what they do -- and they can't help themselves, they are mostly liberal -- then they ought to at least go down fighting. Yup, if they're going to lose market share, no matter what, to the likes of Sean Hannity, then why not at least fire back with the same ammo? If TV and radio talkers throw around right-wing red meat, why should ABC be serving liberal sherbet? Why not fight corpuscles with corpuscles?

So I think that's what happened with ABC's Mark Halperin. On October 8, the date of that memo, he had his Howard Beale moment, and that was that. So he crossed his personal Rubicon and tapped out those fateful words, knowing that they would be leaked. And if he didn't know consciously, he knew unconsciously -- like a cheating husband who wants to get caught.

Conservatives howled at Halperin, of course, but then they seem always to be to be mad at ABC.

For its part, ABC seems on board with Halperin's new tone; officials say that there are no plans to discipline him, or even take him off the presidential campaign. In other words, he is free to continue "evaluating" Bush's many evil errors.

And let me say, for the record, that I don't think anything should happen to Halperin. He's a talented and creative fellow, and he has strong opinions about politics. Good for him. He's been, as we all know by now, outspoken about his opinions. Moreover, since he's remaining in the bosom of ABC, we now all have a better sense of ABC's politics. This is called transparency and full disclosure -- again, all to the good. No more hiding behind threadbare Progressive-era pseudo-objectivity. Now, finally, we are back to old days of partisan blasting and counter-blasting. Let Halperin be Halperin, let ABC be ABC.

Of course, at the same time, nobody has to watch ABC. People have all the constructive notice they need about ABC, and so they might take their viewership elsewhere. But maybe 100 million adult Americans are left or center-left; then ABC might do just fine ratings-wise -- better, even, by letting their coverage rip. Rip Bush and the Republicans, that is.

This let-it-all-hang-out prescription applies to other traditional media, too. Farnaz Fassihi, for example, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, assigned to cover Iraq; recently she wrote an e-mail to "friends" that has rocketed around the world, thanks to its extremely critical description of the violent and deteriorating situation in that country. As she put it, "I heard an educated Iraqi say today that if Saddam Hussein were allowed to run for elections he would get the majority of the vote." Pow! Take that, "liberty century" and all the other optimistic locutions of the Bush administration. Fassihi could never have gotten such words into the Journal, so she went around the paper, straight to her audience. Thanks to the Internet, her unedited pessimism has received a thousand times the attention than her edited words would have had on the front page. Once again, good for her, speaking her mind. To be sure, there's no rule that says that the Journal has to keep her -- that's another part of freedom, or should be.

But if we go back to an earlier era, before the Progressives, won't all this tough talk be polarizing? Maybe. But the country did OK in the 18th and 19th centuries. But better honesty than hypocrisy. The truth, no matter how bitter its birth, will set us free. For those who want to see things with no filter whatsoever, let them watch C-SPAN.

This new era -- call it the Post-Progressive Era -- is just beginning. And yet while conservatives might cheer, they might also be surprised in the future. Because while the right-tilting media has surged in the last ten years, their fortunes could change over the next decade, as the Halperins, Fassihis, and all the rest are unleashed at last.

Yes, the conservative blogosphere won "Rathergate." The bloggers proved that an army of fact-checkers and scrutinizers, operating like Linux programmers in their spontaneously cooperative order, can take down a tall tale.

But what about "Bushgate"? That, for lack of a better term, is the Net-based accusation that the President has been receiving transmissions or instructions from offstage coaches during his public appearances. An outrageous charge? An insult to our President? That's what it's all about in the everything-old-is-new-again realm of Post-Progressive media politics. These websites accuse -- http://www.isbushwired.com/, http://www.cannonfire.blogspot.com/, http://www.dailykos.com/ -- you decide.

Halperin made his choice, and he put it out there, for all to see. Now all media-consumers, and all media-makers -- who are, increasingly, the same thing -- can make their own choices, too. It's not Progressive at all, in the historical sense. But it's progressive as hell, in the techno-political sense.


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