The fat is in the fire on the issue of media bias, and that is a good thing. It's time to revisit a matter on which the conventional wisdom is, roughly, 180 degrees off.
You hear the conventional wisdom all the time from shrewd conservative commentators who understand that political pressure, relentlessly applied, usually achieves its purposes. They have sold the view that the media are dominated by liberals and that the news is skewed against conservatives.
This belief fueled the construction of a large network of conservative institutions -- especially on radio and cable television -- that provides conservative viewpoints close to 24 hours a day. Conservatives argued that hopelessly left-wing establishment news sources needed to be balanced by brave, relentless voices from the right.
But the continuing attacks on mainstream journalists have another effect. Because the drumbeat of conservative press criticism has been so steady, the establishment press has internalized it. Editors and network executives are far more likely to hear complaints from the right than from the left.
To the extent that there has been a bias in the establishment media, it has been less a liberal tilt than a preference for the values of the educated, professional class -- which, surprise, surprise, is roughly the class position of most journalists.
This meant that on social and cultural issues -- abortion and religion come to mind -- journalism was not particularly hospitable to conservative voices. But on economic issues -- especially free trade and balanced budgets -- the press tilted toward the center or even toward moderate conservatism. You might say that the two groups most likely to be mistreated by the media were religious conservatives and trade unionists.
But even that view is out of date, because the definition of "media" commonly used in judging these matters is faulty. And that's why you are beginning to hear liberals and Democrats make a new argument. Earlier this week, former president Bill Clinton contrasted what he called an "increasingly right-wing and bellicose conservative press" with "an increasingly docile establishment press." A couple of weeks back, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle lashed out at radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. He said Limbaugh's attacks were so "shrill" that "the threats against those of us in public life go up dramatically, against us and against our families."
Note the response of the so-called liberal media. Rather than join an outcry against Limbaugh, the establishment commentary was mostly aimed against Daschle and picked up the conservative cry that he was "whining." Limbaugh was invited for lengthy and respectful interviews on CNN's "Reliable Sources" and Tim Russert's show on CNBC.
Now, television hosts are free to invite anyone they wish (they've even had me on), and cable networks long for a piece of Limbaugh's large audience. But that is the point: Limbaugh's new respectability is the surest sign that the conservative talk network is now bleeding into what passes for the mainstream media, just as the unapologetic conservatism of the Fox News Channel is now affecting programming on the other cable networks. This shift to the right is occurring as cable becomes a steadily more important source of news.
All this constitutes a genuine triumph for conservatives. But rather than rest on their laurels, they continue to pound away at any media deviation from their version of political correctness. When Katie Couric had the nerve to ask some tough questions of EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman on Monday's "Today" show, the ever-alert conservative Media Research Center trashed Couric for bias. When the Chicago Tribune ran an unflattering picture of President Bush on its Nov. 14 front page, it was assailed for a lack of patriotism. Editors who worry about conservative criticism are not paranoid. You just wonder: Where have the liberals been?
It took conservatives a lot of hard and steady work to push the media rightward. It dishonors that work to continue to presume that -- except for a few liberal columnists -- there is any such thing as the big liberal media. The media world now includes (1) talk radio, (2) cable television and (3) the traditional news sources (newspapers, newsmagazines and the old broadcast networks). Two of these three major institutions tilt well to the right, and the third is under constant pressure to avoid even the pale hint of liberalism. These institutions, in turn, influence the burgeoning world of online news and commentary.
What it adds up to is a media heavily biased toward conservative politics and conservative politicians. Kudos to the right. Now, what will the rest of us do about the new bias?