Posted: March 27, 2006
ot that long ago, the liberal media simply "was the mass media," writes Brian Anderson, senior editor of City Journal, in his South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias. As recently as the Reagan era, a George Will here, a William Safire there, and a few lonely bastions like National Review were the only counters to the biases and assumptions pervading every half-hour segment and column inch of the nation's networks, newsmagazines, and high-profile daily newspapers.
How all that changed, how Rather and Moyers gave way to Hewitt and Hume, is a well-known but worthwhile story, and Anderson offers an engaging account of the rise of the right-wing media, and the sputtering, stupefied reaction from the liberal establishment as conservatives gate-crashed their garden party. The Right has come far enough in the last 20 years that it's useful to remember how it all began—with Brian Lamb founding C-Span and Newt Gingrich taking advantage of it; with the repeal of the unfair "Fairness Doctrine" that prohibited one-sided political talk radio and the subsequent debut of Rush Limbaugh's "talent on loan from God"; with Ted Turner promising to squash the fledgling Fox News like a bug and instead watching his network eat Roger Ailes's dust. It's useful, too, now that many reporters have all but acknowledged their political biases, to be reminded of how an illiberal liberal media spent decades insisting that it enjoyed a monopoly on fairness and balance.
What isn't clear from Anderson's look backward, however, is whether conservatives have come quite as far as he thinks they have. South Park Conservatives, as its title suggests, isn't just concerned with the rise of right-leaning media—it aspires to cover the entirety of the culture wars, from late-night comedy to the groves of academe. And once Anderson moves beyond talk radio and Fox News, his examples of cultural counterrevolution don't always bear the argumentative weight he ascribes to them. At times, he hedges his bets, remarking sensibly that "it's too soon to tell" if even the modern, media-savvy Right is doing more than merely holding its own. But a tone of breezy triumphalism pervades much of the book, and too often Anderson only skims the surface of things, shying away from the harder questions that loom beneath.
For instance, many of the developments that he insists favor conservatives—from the declining influence of the mainstream media (MSM) to the anti-P.C. inclinations of cable television—have less to do with the Right's advance than with larger, post-1960s trends toward cultural fragmentation. This breakdown has been good for conservatives in certain ways: the genteel and biased liberalism of, say, Walter Cronkite or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., no longer infuses every nook and cranny of the public sphere. But it's worth wondering whether trading in a Cronkite for a Paris Hilton—that is, stultifying old-guard liberalism for vulgar libertinism—really represents such a great victory for the Right.
True, the current Republican majority probably wouldn't exist without the alternative media universe that conservatives have created amid the rubble of the old establishment. But South Park Conservatives is supposed to be about culture, not Congress, and once you move to the realm of arts and ideas, manners and mores, the impact of Fox News and talk radio is harder to gauge. The new conservative media infrastructure is ideally suited to rapid-response punditry and rallying the base, but it's not really an alternative to the major cultural institutions—the big dailies, networks, universities, and Hollywood studios. Talk-show hosts and bloggers criticize the mainstream media's excesses, but rarely do any reporting of their own. Conservative think tanks provide a corrective to Ivy League liberalism, but aren't in the business of actually educating undergraduates and churning out Ph.D.s. The O'Reilly Factor can give a right-leaning movie a much-needed boost, but aside from a few outliers like The Passion of the Christ, it isn't clear that Hollywood has become any more hospitable to conservative values and themes in the last decade or so.
Anderson tries to make the case that in certain areas, the Right is moving beyond parasitism to parity: he celebrates the emergence of conservative publishing imprints like Crown Forum and Sentinel, and the appearance of right-leaning academic institutes like Princeton's James Madison Program. But the fact that publishers have discovered the money to be made in right-wing books doesn't necessarily tell us anything about whether conservative writers have succeeded in escaping the intellectual ghetto—especially when many of the right-leaning imprints hailed by Anderson seem more interested in turning up the next Ann Coulter than an heir to Allan Bloom or James Q. Wilson.
Similarly, the climate in the American university may be less politically correct, and less politicized in general, than in past decades, but a turn away from P.C. isn't the same as a move toward conservatism. "The Left's iron hold on academe is beginning to loosen," Anderson insists, but the case he makes is long on anecdotes, mostly from conservative students and activists like David Horowitz, and short on compelling evidence. College students today are unquestionably more hawkish (at least prior to the Iraq war, whose aftermath has pushed many doveward) and less stridently socialist than a generation ago (not least because of the size of the salaries they'll be earning after graduation), but their politics are more centrist and Clintonian than they are conservative. The institutional culture at most elite schools is still unremittingly hostile to conservative ideas, and there's little sign that the liberal ice is cracking in faculty lounges and administrative offices. A few conservative professors and campus newspapers do not a counterrevolution make. The '60s Left actually took over academia, remember, whereas the 21st-century Right seems content merely to lob stones through the university's more vulnerable windows.
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Then there's the ever-more-libertine pop-culture scene, from the Maxim-Britney axis of hedonism at the lowbrow end to the self-satisfied lifestyle liberalism of highbrow novels and Oscar-bait movies. "Many young people" may be turning "to family values (at least in theory) with the enthusiasm of converts," as Anderson says, but you wouldn't know it from the youth-culture trends in movies, music, clothes, and magazines. Even South Park, Anderson's prize example of right-leaning pop culture, is more anti-liberal than pro-conservative. The show gleefully mocks liberal pieties, but does so, one suspects, as much from expediency as conviction, for those happen to be the pieties that dominate the lives of Comedy Central's target audience, well-off teens and twentysomethings. This makes for superb satire, and conservatives shouldn't feel bad about laughing along with it, but the adolescent libertarianism that South Park promotes isn't anything like a real conservatism.
Anderson might retort that you don't look for Burkean messages in a scatological television show. But in that case, he needs to provide a few solid, non-South Park examples to back up his assertion that "a right-leaning news and culture junkie could flick across the television channel array these days and never feel alone." Sure, there's Fox News and c-span and perhaps the History Channel, but on the creative side of the dial, Anderson quickly finds himself celebrating the lousy and the obscure, claiming preposterously that Dennis Miller's dreadful, since-cancelled CNBC show was "riveting television," or heaping praise on mediocrities like Colin Quinn and deservedly marginal figures like Republican stand-up comic Julia Gorin, just because they have a flair for the politically incorrect. For decades, conservatives have rolled their eyes at liberal critics who confused political correctness with artistic merit, whether it was Toni Morrison winning the Nobel Prize orAmerican Beauty taking home Best Picture. Anderson has no business falling into the same trap.
This kind of cheerleading suggests a danger for conservatives that South Park Conservatives scarcely addresses, the danger of cocooning. The old liberal media establishment was often described, all-too-accurately, as a left-wing echo chamber, rarely penetrated by the clamor of reality. Now the Right has its own mini-establishment, which likewise runs the risk of becoming less a forum for original ideas than a museum case for stale assumptions.
You can already see this echo-chamber tendency in the right-wing bloggers and pundits who eagerly pounce on every liberal folly, however minor, while passing over conservative blunders in silence, or frantically spinning GOP dross into gold. Confident that the Right has won the war of ideas, too many conservatives don't bother to grapple with liberalism as it actually exists, preferring instead to train their fire on straw men and minor-league extremists. And secure in the knowledge that the hated MSM will always misinterpret the world, conservatives—including, by his own account, the current occupant of the White House—often close their ears to the things that the liberal media gets right, preferring to filter their news through more congenial outlets.
Anderson is no exception to this disquieting trend. Seen through his red-state-colored glasses, the rise of the blogosphere is an "explosive change that is shaking liberal media dominance"—a claim that might have been tempered by at least some mention of how the leftist blog Daily Kos or the Deaniacs easily turned the internet to left-wing ends. He seems to have no enemies to the right: in Anderson's telling, an embarrassment like Michael Savage becomes a "firebrand," while the Swift Boat Veterans' patchwork of largely baseless accusations was an "explosive anti-Kerry book" that treacherous Borders employees tried to squash. And he uncritically celebrates the blogs and pundits who attacked every negative report from Iraq as "relentless pessimism and antiwar spin"—even though, two years on, the pessimistic MSM dispatches hold up better than the glass-half-full assumptions of many right-wingers. Every political party and administration needs its cheerleaders, of course, but Anderson is far too smart to play this kind of knee-jerk role, and it's a shame to see him lapse into it so easily.
None of these failings makes what South Park Conservatives has to say, in the main, any less important or any less encouraging. It's a good thing that conservatives are fighting back against the biases of the mainstream media. It's a great thing that an illiberal liberalism no longer dominates the national discourse. It's marvelous news that political correctness seems to be on the run. But having spent a generation complaining about liberalism's less-than-intimate relationship with reality, conservatives need to think hard about whether they're in danger of spinning themselves a similar cocoon.