When Dan Rather retired a year early as anchor of CBS Evening News this March, his departure symbolized the end of an era of liberal media dominance and the onset of the new media era that is proving far friendlier to the ideas and arguments of the Right. Gone are the days when the Big Three networks, plus the New York Times and the Washington Post, decided what was newsworthy, usually with a liberal spin.
Even if intrepid bloggers hadn’t debunked Rather’s specious September 60 Minutes II scoop that President Bush shirked his National Guard duties decades ago—a humiliation to CBS that hastened the anchor’s departure—the liberal media’s power was dwindling. Ten years back, 60 percent of adult Americans regularly watched one of the Big Three evening newscasts; now only a third do. Worse still for the networks, the typical Big Three viewer is 60 years old, with less than 10 percent of the viewership between 18 and 34, the age group that advertisers covet—and the nation’s future leaders. “All three programs, with their repeated focus on health issues, interspersed with commercials for products like Mylanta and Viagra, reflect this,” observes New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta.
The big liberal dailies have taken heavy hits of late too, especially the Times, whose front-page Bush-bashing has dented its reputation. In 2004, Pew Research found that just 21 percent of those it surveyed felt that the “paper of record” reliably conveyed the truth, a figure below the reliability ratings of the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, and other news outlets on the same poll.
Increasingly, Americans are turning to new media sources for news. Around one in five now gets news from talk radio and 38 percent from cable TV broadcasts. But it’s the Internet and the blogosphere that have won most of the attention of late, and rightly so: around 30 percent of Americans now get their news online, up dramatically from 15 percent in 2000. A new Gallup poll finds that 12 percent of Americans now read political blogs, roughly 26 million people using a medium that didn’t really exist five years ago. “That may not make blogs a ‘dominant’ news source,” says blogger and pollster Mark Blumenthal, “but one American in ten adds up to a lot of influence.” Blog readership is 21 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds, 16 percent among 30- to 49-year-olds, and just 7 percent among the 65-and-older set—“a complete reversal of
the typical age pattern for news consumption,” notes Gallup. The blog readers are wealthy and
well-educated, too, and break down about evenly between liberals and conservatives. If the networks are losing sway, these numbers show that the blogosphere is gaining it, fast.
Significantly, none of these new media is a liberal preserve. Conservatives still rule the radio dial; Right-friendly Fox News is the cable-news colossus, beating all its competitors combined in audience share; and many of the most influential Internet sites and blogs lean right, including the Power Line guys who helped sink CBS News.
Liberals have greeted these historic changes with fear and loathing. Fox News is a “fifth column,” blusters Al Gore. Conservative talk radio is “niche entertainment for the spiritually unattractive,” sneers New Yorker political writer Hendrik Hertzberg. The typical blogger is someone “sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing,” charges former CBS executive and now head of CNN’s news group Jonathan Klein. On and on the insults come, suggesting the degree of panic that the Left feels about the loss of its media monopoly.
Technology will only accelerate these trends. Not long from now, we’ll be able to sit down at the breakfast table with a bigger, thinner, lighter version of today’s Blackberry, boasting a more reader-friendly screen and—crucially—a wireless modem, and we’ll scan, say, Drudge, RealClearPolitics, and Arts & Letters Daily. When you don’t need to have a printed morning paper propped in front of you to get the news (still a morning ritual for lots of Americans), liberal media power will shrink even more.
The battle for “mind share” in the new media era, in other words, will get ever more fiercely competitive. And that’s a good thing for America’s politics and culture, however much teeth-gnashing you’re hearing on the Left.