The American Conservative’s Daniel McCarthy on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Photo: Judd Weiss

Do you see the mainstream media as generally biased, and if so, do you think the right or the left has more reason to complain about it?
The mainstream media certainly has a centrist bias, or an insider-versus-outsider bias. So I do think the right has more grounds to complain than the left does. [And] there’s a tendency for the media to give a boost to the conservative who is most similar to their own sympathies: “Well, Marco Rubio’s really the guy that conservatives should be supporting,” as opposed to Donald Trump.

How do you think that affects the way the elections go?
There’s a counterintuitive effect with the Republican primaries. I think it actually leads more grassroots conservatives to support some of these candidates that may not be considered respectable by the mainstream media. That’s one of the things that Donald Trump has benefited from. By voting for him, I think some voters see it as a way to stick it in the eye to everyone who is in charge of polite opinion in this country.

As far as the general election, let me put it this way: Mitt Romney’s not a candidate who fits the elite media’s ideal of what a president should be. Obviously there’s a preference for Obama over Romney. However, Romney’s not someone who fits the grassroots conservative ideal of who a president should be either. And so you get someone like Romney who does prevail in the Republican primaries and goes into the general election and there’s an internal psychological problem of identity there, where he can’t quite figure out what media profile he wants to present, what his public image is.

And in a weird way, I think the media sets that up by the way it presents and reflects the images of candidates. So it winds up being very ironic, because Mitt Romney is someone who’s basically pretty centrist as far as the Republican Party goes, certainly compared to a lot of other possibilities. And yet he is presented by much of the media as being a kind of hard-right guy during the general election. And then he sometimes tries to almost do the Trump thing, tries to take advantage of that, but winds up not being able to because, of course, that’s not who he is.

So I think there is a complex psychological effect here that does harm Republicans in general elections.

Now certainly, on the Democratic side, sometimes there also is a tendency to be fighting against stereotypes that the media may have promoted: examples being that Democrats are weak on foreign policy, or pacifistic, and also soft on crime. But you see less of that stereotyping. It’s less of a problem for Democrats than it is for Republicans, who automatically, I think, are presented by the media as heartless and cruel and unsympathetic.

Take what we’ve seen in several recent election cycles, where you’ll have a Republican running in Indiana or Kentucky who says something about women’s rights or abortion or rape that is completely goofy and offensive, and that becomes a symbol for the entire Republican Party. And I don’t think you see the media doing the same thing when you have Democrats who say silly things in reelection campaigns, especially in Democratic areas.

It sounds like your prevailing theory of why that happens is that most journalists come from these left-of-center backgrounds.
That’s right. And I think that’s more insidious, in a way, than willful bias or desire to tilt the election in one way or the other. That would certainly be bad, that kind of deliberately putting one’s thumb on the scales, but you can detect and correct people who are putting their thumbs on the scales. It’s much harder when it’s simply a matter of a built-in filter, or a matter of fundamental perceptions of social values in the world.

When people send me stories from The Daily Caller or Breitbart or Fox News, those stories often have this idea of a monolithic left, which everybody to the right of John McCain is part of.
It’s crazy to see Obama or Hillary Clinton described as a socialist. Certainly the conservative media presents those very inaccurately. It misses all those gradations. And it also leads people to believe in these stereotypes.

I think one of the problems of the media, both on the left and on the right, is that it tends to want staged battles. I mean, it really is like professional wrestling, where you have one good guy — the face — and one bad guy — the heel — and it’s meant to be very sharply defined.

If a media figure, a writer for example, goes on television or radio, there’s a tendency for producers to expect that person to present a party line, and to present a contrast with other guests that will be best for — again, a staged fight, a sort of professional wrestling match. And not actually have views that will be orthogonal to what’s expected, and create a more interesting and perhaps more informative discussion. You saw this during the Iraq War, for example. There was a tendency for conservatives who were actually very critical of the war for conservative reasons; they weren’t simply liberal Democrats, they had their own perspectives — if they had regular appearances on the media, or if they were invited on shows, they were often expected to just be defending the George W. Bush line. So that’s a stark example, but this doesn’t just apply to things like the Iraq War.

Your own magazine’s history is bound up with the problem of how conservative perspectives on Iraq were aired to the country.
I think it was a tendency to present the question as a consensus versus a fringe question … Admittedly, it’s not that there were a huge number of conservatives and libertarians who were really outspoken in opposing the Iraq War at the time. But there were some, and you’d think the issue was serious enough — whether the country was going to go to war, whether to send troops into a combat zone — that you’d want to have, not just for the sake of political representation of a variety of viewpoints, but for the sake of just having people on to discuss a political issue in an intelligent way.

I think about how Ron Paul, in that Republican debate in 2007, started talking about blowback, saying, “These people don’t hate our freedom — they hate us because we’re occupying their countries.” It seemed to me that he articulated a way that it was possible for people of a conservative persuasion to be against George W. Bush–style foreign policy. That option had always been there, but you didn’t hear people talking about it in the Republican debates. Occluding that point of view seems to limit what voters perceive to be their options.
What Ron Paul did — I was on the campaign in early 2008, so we knew the backstory here — he didn’t do in a calculated way. In fact, the people on the campaign were as surprised as anyone in the audience when he said that. And even Ron Paul had this feeling himself to some degree, that this was probably a political mistake, that he was probably going to be damaging the campaign. And of course that turned out not to be the case; once somebody pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, once someone spoke what had been unspeakable but was true, it turned out to be actually the lifeblood of the campaign. It turned out to really energize and create a whole new political movement. I think if more of these kinds of views had an opportunity to be heard, voters would choose different things, and the electorate would choose different things.

If you have just a very shallow presentation of issues and controversies in the media, for the time being the public may go along with the way things are presented, but eventually the degree of alienation they feel and frustration they feel of always getting the same stereotyped image leads them to go in a direction that the media is suddenly very surprised by. I think the Trump phenomenon is one example of that.

The media gave Donald Trump all this attention in the primary, while also saying he was beyond the pale. In a away, that helped him — but might hurt him in the general. Do you think that amounts to a colossal disservice to conservative voters?
Yes, I do. I don’t think the media covered the Republican primaries with the seriousness they should have. The sensationalism that surrounded Trump coverage tended to drown out discussions of substance. Now, admittedly, there’s a limit to how much substance you’re getting from any professional politician these days. And you can see why, if you have one professional politician who is saying things that may not have a real basis in policy that can actually be achieved, and then you have Trump saying things that are not realistic but are much more flamboyant and interesting, and get ratings — then, to a certain extent, it’s understandable that the media would prefer the nonsense from Trump as opposed to the nonsense from a sort of gray politician, or even a politician who’s meant to be exciting by politician standards but not exciting by Donald Trump standards.

So it’s partly the media’s fault, yes, but it’s also very largely the fault of candidates themselves. For a long time, the candidates have wanted to become celebrities. I mean, Ted Cruz did a number of stunts as a senator that were really about trying to focus the media spotlight on himself. If they’re going to play that game, they can’t be surprised when they lose against someone like Donald Trump.

What about media coverage of the Democrats?
I think there’s a tendency for the mainstream media to react to Republican hype by ignoring these things that actually shouldn’t be ignored. So a couple examples right now are the Benghazi matter and the Hillary Clinton server issue. It’s absolutely true: Republicans are trying to get political advantage out of these things. They’ve hyped the issues a great deal. And yet, there are whistleblowers who go to jail for much less than what Hillary Clinton did with a private server. And when a U.S. ambassador gets killed in a combat zone, that’s a pretty significant thing, and there are questions that should be asked about why we were in that part of Libya to begin with, which really haven’t been explored. And I fear that the media, because they see Republicans making political hay out of it, think, “Well, this is now just a political issue, and we can therefore ignore it because we don’t want to play along with the Republican narrative.”

These are very serious matters that get a lot of people in deep, deep trouble. But the secretary of State seems to be immune to that for some reason.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Daniel McCarthy on the Media