The most devastating takedowns of last night’s Republican presidential debate—”the Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC; it’s called the mainstream media” (Marco Rubio); “the questions that have been asked so far at this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media” (Ted Cruz)—were directed not at candidates, but at the people covering them.
There are, in fact, legitimate reasons why this line of attack plays so well with Republican voters. The legacy press tends to give the liberal establishment a pass while scrutinizing Republicans much more closely. Consider, for example, how the media might have covered the Libya debacle if it was undertaken by a hawkish Republican, or how increasing poverty among African Americans would be spun under President Romney, or how campaign finance coverage might be different if the press scrutinized Hillary Clinton’s megadonors the same way it scrutinizes the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson.
Many conservatives charge that reporters have a conscious left-wing bias, but the reality is probably more subtle. After all, left-wing Bernie Sanders fans, and the outlets that cater to them, like the Nation, have a legitimate claim that the “corporate media” ignores many of their interests as well. In our view, part of the rationale for the press’ apparent bias against the Republican Party over the past few decades has to do with the demise of the blue social model and the way this has affected the media’s institutional interests. As Walter Russell Mead wrote in 2012:
Back in the glory days of the blue social model, the journalistic establishment was stable and stratified. The three television networks of the day (ABC, NBC and CBS for you younger readers) held a virtual monopoly on national television news. The Time-Newsweek duopoly included the only two genuinely national sources of weekly news in print. There were, in those days, no national newspapers. Each great metropolitan area was served by what was usually a slowly decreasing number of newspapers, three local network affiliate television stations and, if you were lucky, a public station (no cable or internet, kids, so you could only get the TV stations within range) and a somewhat larger number of AM and FM radio stations. […]
The press was a part and a very important part of the leadership of blue era America. The elite national press at that time was deeply grounded in the assumptions and ideas that shaped the progressive society of the Fordist era and played a significant role in shaping the dominant political ideas of the time.
Journalism is one of the elements of our society that has been most profoundly affected by the decay of the blue social model and the rise of the information age. Old worries about news monopolies in local markets seem almost quaint when so much information from so many sources is so easy to get and when online startups (including blogs) are so easy and cheap. The erosion in the power of the great media companies of the past and the efforts of the great media enterprises to rethink their franchises for the new era have transformed the industry almost beyond recognition.
The national elite press does not, on the whole, welcome the decline of blue model America and, like academics and others whose interests, self-image and power in the world are adversely affected by the reshaping of American society, it naturally and almost inevitably interprets many of the changes taking place through the conceptual model of the Grim Slide from the time of Ronald Reagan to the present day. The changes in American society look like the systemic erosion of the social achievements and protections of the progressive era, and the economic misfortunes, falling wages and declining job security of many old media journalists reinforce their dark forebodings about what the transformations mean.
In other words, it may be that the establishment press pines for the blue consensus around high regulation, high taxes, and a stable corporate-government alliance, and is fearful and skeptical of the market-oriented economic changes that have unseated it from its midcentury role as the supreme authority in American political and cultural debates. The press’s instincts are still to try to triangulate and report from the “center,” but the center it settles on tends to be that of the liberal establishmentarians—the ideological successors to blue-era elites.