The “Liberal” Media and American Foreign Policy

A recent article by Robert Naiman (Al Jazeera, Jan. 9) examines the New York Times’ current coverage of Iran’s nuclear program. In it he exposes a disappointing but unsurprising mishandling of the facts. References to the paper’s shameful prewar reportage on Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s regime are appropriate. But if the Times is indeed liberal, why the repeated adoption and promotion of misleading, hawkish assumptions?

The New York Times could probably be fairly described as liberal. The term has lost much relevance and meaning in recent years, along with its counterpart designation “conservative.” But if we apply the label generally to mean mildly progressive and roughly approximating the political center, one could reasonably assert that the Times falls within range of the liberal framework. (I would argue it’s right-of-center, but will remain general for present purposes.) The paper’s editorial positions on domestic issues and social policy are safely categorized as such. When it comes to gun control, abortion, gay rights, immigration and so on, the paper is in the vicinity of the center (it is important to bear in mind that liberalism is a centrist philosophy, not a leftist one). Moreover, key members of the paper’s staff – former executive editor Bill Keller, former public editor Daniel Okrent – have openly admitted as much.

Naturally, the New York Times’ orientation reflects, for the most part, the opinions and attitudes of those who work for the paper and those who read it. According to the Times’ media kit, their readership tends to be educated, has a median age of 49, and a median household income of $99,654; of the paper’s 4.78 million readers, 12 percent are “C-suite/top management.” The nation’s third largest daily newspaper, the Times offers a window into the professional and intellectual culture(s) in the United States. In other words, and taken broadly, the paper reflects the view of the class running the country – at the managerial level – as well as playing a considerable role in influencing opinion. When rightwing commentators dismiss the Times as catering to the East Coast liberal Establishment, in a way, they are not totally out of bounds. The professional-managerial-academic culture tends to be liberal in its positions on domestic social policy. But then there are matters of state.

The New York Times’ coverage during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq (i.e., weapons of mass destruction) was largely in-step with the Bush II administration. At the time, similarly woeful coverage could also be heard on National Public Radio, another news outlet safely described as liberal. In both cases, the two proportionally increased their support for the White House and State Department rhetoric concerning post-9/11 policy. Even when the United States is not about to invade and occupy a country, coverage of official Washington’s core interests is generally gracious. Discussing same-sex marriage, or in-depth features on race, poverty, or the environment are well and good – and, it should be noted, politically inexpensive – but the principal doctrines of US state power are usually treated gently, with criticism taking place within acceptable limitations: talk of tactical matters, mistakes, misjudgments, and lack of planning instead of fundamental issues like international law, human rights, misuse and mistreatment of the military, economic burden, and further inspiration of terrorist reprisal.

Simply put, this change in behavior represents the liberal parameters of American political discourse: basically progressive on domestic issues; basically compliant on matters of statecraft and foreign policy. This too, again taken broadly, reflects the thinking of the class reading the New York Times. Given the connections between government, the corporate sector, and academia – and the frequent migration between the three – it is somewhat predictable that there be a measure of uniformity in the thinking throughout. Upbringing, schooling, social groups, competition for positions: members of the professional class grow up being taught the assumptions that point to and/or serve class interests, or that at least allow one to blend in. Going along and getting along are essential to advancement.

The population, on the other hand, is less constrained in its thinking and represents the true political center. Its majoritarian views are comparably liberal in the domestic-social realm: between 60 and 75 percent on most policy issues, not including gun control and the legalization of non-medicinal marijuana. And the public’s progressiveness continues into the domain of foreign affairs.

So an otherwise liberal newspaper handling foreign-policy issues in a manner not dissimilar to those news organizations owned and operated by authoritarian states, is sadly to be expected. But it needn’t be tolerated. If we are to better understand issues like the Middle East, we need better information. Among the Times’ class of readers exists a pride in belonging to an enlightened, progressive social stratum – a personal observation made over now many years. This is not to suggest they are bad people; they’ve just never been told anything else. Much like the subject of Iran, the ingrained orthodoxies prevail. However, to truly progress beyond the demarcations of acceptable liberal discourse, the barrier between the domestic and foreign spheres needs to be dismantled. In this endeavor, the public has the lead. In this endeavor, the population is the vanguard.

GREGORY HARMS is an independent scholar focusing on American foreign relations and the Middle East. He is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (2nd ed., Pluto Press, 2008), and  Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: US Foreign Policy, Israel, and World History (Pluto Press, 2010) and the 2012 forthcoming It’s Not about Religion (Perceval Press).