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Wants and Needs

From the January 6, 2003 Dallas Morning News: Democrats need ideas, not more microphones.

11:00 PM, Jan 6, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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SINCE THE NOVEMBER ELECTION, prominent Democrats have said what prominent Democrats have said in past years--namely, that we have to do something about the much too powerful conservative media. Now, Democrats actually are doing something--or starting to. So we learn from the New York Times.

In a front-page story on, of all days for new beginnings, January 1, the Times reported that "influential Democrats are scouring the nation for a liberal answer to Rush Limbaugh and the many others on the deep bench of Republican friends."

The story related Democratic worries about the appalling influence of Limbaugh (with 20 million listeners weekly), the Fox News Channel (with the largest cable news audience), the editorial pages of the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal, web sites like the Drudge Report, and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation.

The story regarded media "with a conservative slant" as, if not "the vast right-wing conspiracy" of Hillary Clinton's fevered imagination, "a circuit" through which "a disciplined message of the week gets repeated attention." As though that were how it actually works.

The story was unintentionally revealing. No one who looks at "conservative media" (a Times phrase) can fail to see their emergence (not to mention their daily operation) apart from "established media" that are officially nonpartisan but have been known to lean left. Indeed, conservative media see themselves as insurgents against that establishment, which encompasses the news divisions of the three networks and several national newsmagazines and newspapers, the most important being . . . the New York Times. Yet the Times can report on "conservative media" without mention of--this is how it might have been put--"what conservatives see as the established media."

The Times' failure to locate Fox (and ideological friends) within a larger media environment serves to inflate the influence Democrats perceive conservatives have. Last month, the Times actually pronounced Fox "the establishment," citing survey data showing that cable news is a leading source of news for more than half of the country and that Fox has the largest audience among cable news providers. But while Fox averages 1.3 million viewers nightly, the three networks reach 27 million. That is down from the 45 million of two decades ago, but it still is an audience that dwarfs the viewership of the cable news programs.

Meanwhile, newspapers like the Times continue to be read by producers at the three networks (not to mention Fox and CNN), and what the papers say is news in their morning editions often appears on later TV newscasts. Is that influence or not?

To judge by the Times' story, though, Democrats believe conservative media are so influential that they absolutely must respond in kind. Can they do so successfully? Money shouldn't be a problem, for liberal plutocrats no doubt can be found to fund something so (relatively) inexpensive as a think tank ($20 million to $30 million) or even a cable network (hundreds of millions). And higher education has a surfeit of liberals who could be hired to produce working papers and perhaps become talkers on radio as well as television.

No, the problems the Democrats face concern temperament and ideas. Temperament, because they have been in power for so long that they aren't accustomed to being what they would need to be to succeed in the new media environment--insurgents, and merry ones at that. If Democrats are to catch up, they can't do so with players who resemble Al Gore--writers and talkers who are smug and dull.

As for the problem of ideas, it is a serious one. Writing in the current issue of Commentary, Daniel Casse points out that throughout 2002 Democrats "tried to seize upon every possible issue by which to create a clear distinction between their own priorities and those of the White House." Yet their positions didn't lift them to victory in an election where history says they should have picked up seats.

If you think Democrats are ready to grapple with their positions and thus the ideas behind them, consider what an unnamed Democratic Party official told the Times: "If you start from the premise that the message was right, which we do, then the problem was that it wasn't getting out to the people." In other words, the problem is purely one of communication.

So long as Democrats think that, they will be destined for another disappointing election day.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.