The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

21 October 2004

New Op-Ed Piece

Think the Elitist Liberal Media Will Change? Guess Again.

By Brian Maloney

I can't help but wonder what goes through the minds of television viewers now as they channel-surf in the early evening hours. What do they think as they glimpse Dan Rather still anchoring CBS's Evening News, weeks after he and CBS producer Mary Mapes, saw their phony Bush National Guard documents story fall apart? Disbelief he is still there? Anger, frustration or outrage at the sight of Rather?

It's just one more piece of evidence, this one especially blatant, that no matter how much some of us want it to, the elitist media environment isn't about to undergo significant reform anytime soon. No matter how much public pressure, ratings losses and resultant revenue shortfalls, newsroom leftists will remain in command of day-to-day decision making. To them, personal ideology is king, and these considerations are ignored.

Sure CBS will be issuing the report of a two-person panel investigating the story and Rather himself might retire at some point in the near future. But his head most certainly wasn't immediately on a platter as a result of public outrage.

Were conservative alternatives in talk radio, magazines, Internet sites and blogs created in the belief that they could change the mainstream media, to force a greater level of fairness, or simply provide an alternative voice? If it was the former, this a hard lesson for the new media dissidents.

In the Rather case, bloggers and talk show hosts succeeded in getting the word out and it was a blog that made the initial assertion that Rather's documents were suspect.

But the CBS players in this story all remain in their positions. And it's likely to stay that way. In fact, to this point, I am only aware of one media casualty: myself, fired as a radio commentator from Seattle's KIRO-AM, a CBS affiliate, after I delivered a lengthy and severe tirade against the network and Rather for its handling of the story (the station later denied this was the reason for my termination).

The most ominous moment came when Rather's competitors backed him publicly and chastised the new era messengers. The unfortunate truth is that cracking the inner shell of the media structure is going to be much more difficult than the new media rebels have anticipated.

For leftists in journalism, newsrooms provide a sheltering, cocoon-like environment where there is safety in numbers. Despite all of the charges, often brought by these same liberals, that the corporate suits are in control of the content, in reality it's at the newsroom level where the day-to-day decisions are made.

Their concern is with pushing an agenda, not reporting facts, most certainly with defeating President Bush at all costs. It's a kamikaze mission and ratings, revenue and the public be damned. I first witnessed it as a UC-Santa Cruz student in the early nineties, where campus newspaper reporters openly professed in print, the need to use "advocacy journalism" on "moral" grounds. Then I watched as several of these students graduated and took reporting positions at various major publications around the country.

For conservatives, what simply doesn't compute is how this situation continues, even as viewership, circulation and listenership drop. Aren't the newsroom hacks concerned about their paper or station's future? The answer is partly that these people don't function with the same free-market mindset. And when things do get really bad, they try to deflect the blame somewhere else.

One big example is that of the ultra-leftist Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. For several years, the paper's daily circulation has been in near freefall, from near the 200,000 level to today's 150,901. The more moderate Seattle Times actually gained slightly.

So how has the P-I, as it is known, responded? By remaining as defiantly liberal as ever, moving even further that way. Other leftists, in so-called "alternative" weekly papers, defended the P-I, and accused the Times of engaging in dirty tricks to hurt the paper. Still others blame the Times switch to morning publication, competing head-to-head with the P-I, but that can't account for more than a small percentage of the readership loss. Why is it so hard to admit that readers might not want to support a paper they don't find fair or balanced?

At KIRO radio, (once home to Mapes herself, working on the TV side, when the two stations were joined together), one especially liberal news editor admitted to me that he never looks at the station's ratings, even when copies are placed around the newsroom. When I asked him whether he realized that the station's move toward much more liberal news and talk programming in the last two years had severely hurt our once high ratings, it was like I was speaking a foreign language. Around the same time, I had a meeting with a lower-level manager, who wouldn't even admit to me that the station had gone in a leftward direction.

When bias does cloud a reporter's judgment, they rarely seem to face internal punishment. As The Wall Street Journal's John Fund noted recently, Mapes was involved in a highly questionable smear against the Seattle Police Department while at KIRO through a story featuring a fishy source. Fund can't find any record of Mapes having faced sanctions at the time for her actions. Who would pursue Mapes or her counterpart in any newsroom? The other liberals that work around her?

In the Rather case, his newscast viewership declined from 266,000 to 160,000 in New York City alone in the two weeks after the public became aware that the documents were fake, according to the New York Post. Nationally the story was similar. It helped to shatter an old myth: that any publicity is good in broadcasting, because it increases ratings.

Do viewers and listeners really credit programming they hate (and probably aren't watching either) in ratings diaries? They know they are essentially "voting" in a popularity contest, regardless of the instructions given to them by the ratings firms.

Beyond ratings, even significant stock price declines don't seem to get tied to political partisanship. Clear Channel, the largest American radio station owner, has seen its share price drop to near multiyear lows at the same time a number of their stations are being converted to Air America's still unproven "progressive" programming. In this case, it's a corporate-level decision, one celebrated by the newsroom hacks, who immediately stopped attacking Clear Channel as the Wal-Mart of the radio business.

While Franken alone has done well in two cities for two ratings periods, four quarters of strong Arbitron ratings are considered the industry standard for adequately gauging a radio program's success. Overall, the full Air America lineup is seeing flat ratings as compared to the previous Caribbean programming on New York City's WLIB, with all listeners aged 12 and over. Could the Air America decision be part of Clear Channel's problem as one wonders where revenues will emerge from this untested format change? Remember that while Rush Limbaugh proved his worth at the local level first, Franken & co. walked in off the street in the radio business.

The liberal media is going to do everything it can to fight reform at the newsroom level. They simply don't care about public complaints, ratings declines, revenue and share price drops, unless they are forced to change. There aren't any internal consequences for behaving the way they do. And now, for whatever reason, some corporate managers may be backing their ideology, rather than pushing for change. How proper reform would ever come about is Rather unclear.


  • I know many people in my local media market, though that has nothing to do with my own work. I think that it is true that the media tends to be more liberal than the general population, but it it probably a function of education. After all, the media in general tends to support the findings of our best scientists, even if they contradict a book that was written during the bronze age.

    I think it is time that we get beyond the division of right and left, conservative and liberal, and confront the isuues that challenge our view of fact and fantasy.
    The peanut-munchers might scream in terror, but it's the best thing for the world as a whole.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 20 December, 2004 05:02  

  • Sorry about the typos, guys, or possibly- guy! Who reads this anyway? But it's late, and my typing is never very good even at its best. Peace, Brian.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 20 December, 2004 05:06  

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