“I’m Not a Leftist, but I Play One on TV”

An excerpt from Jeff Cohen’s new book, Cable News Confidential (coincidentally the subject of our latest contest):

For two decades, I’ve been preoccupied with one issue above all others: that both ends of the political spectrum get their say in the media. One reason (among many) that I worked so hard to retire George W. Bush in 2004 was my nightmare that a defeated John Kerry would be hired by cable news to represent “the left” day after day on a TV debate show.

Fox News Channel often gets blamed for the standard format that pits forceful, articulate rightwingers against wimpy, halting liberals. Fox’s pairing of righty heartthrob Sean Hannity with back-pedaling, barely left-of-center Alan Colmes is a prime example of this lopsided format.

But it’s wrong to blame Fox for television’s center-right, GE-to-GM spectrum. That format was firmly in place years before there was a Fox News. The real culprits: CNN and PBS.

Take Crossfire, started by CNN in 1982 as the only nightly forum on national TV purporting to offer an ideological battle between co-hosts of left and right. Crossfire’s co-host “on the left” for the first seven years was a haplessly ineffectual centrist, Tom Braden, a guy who makes Alan Colmes look like an ultraleft firebrand.

In CNN’s eyes, Braden apparently earned his leftist credentials by having been a high-level CIA official—ironically enough, in charge of covert operations against the political left of Western Europe. Braden was paired on Crossfire with ultrarightist Pat Buchanan. During the Braden-Buchanan years, LSD guru Timothy Leary told a reporter that watching Crossfire was like watching “the left wing of the CIA debating the right wing of the CIA.” It may have been Leary’s most sober observation ever.

I guested several times on Crossfire with the tired 70-something as my alleged ally. Once as I took my seat on the set, seeing Braden totally caked up with makeup, my first impulse was to reach over to take a pulse. My second impulse: flee the studio.

In a 1988 Crossfire appearance, when I criticized the conservative tilt of TV punditry and debates restricted to right vs. center, Buchanan could mount only a feeble defense of Braden: “What do you think is sitting next to me? What do you think this is, a potted plant?”

“A healthy Ficus,” observed a Mother Jones writer, “would add more balance.”

The taboo against genuine progressives as hosts was even clearer when Crossfire needed substitutes “on the left” and CNN chose Beltway centrists like Jodie Powell (President Carter’s press secretary) and Morton Kondracke (yes, the guy now on Fox . . . and no, he was no more progressive then). These were men who would never declare themselves to be “on the left” in real life; they seemed to wince when CNN made them say it on television.

On both CNN and PBS, one of TV’s longest-running stand-ins for the left has been Mark Shields, even while his promo material denied any ideological leanings: “Mark Shields is free of any political tilt.” When John Roberts became our country’s chief justice, Shields wrote a scalding attack. . . not on the right-wing judge (whom he actually praised) but on a feminist leader who opposed Roberts. Shields is a smart, articulate guy—but he’s no more an advocate for the American Left than Mel Gibson is an advocate for reform Judaism.

Seeing liberals on TV back-pedal night after night in the face of the Buchanans and Hannitys helps create a public image of the American Left as weak, evasive, lacking in values—and the American Right as clear, firm and moral. Pundit TV has defined not only a skewed spectrum of debate but a road map for defeat of liberal politicians.

Imagine if the American Right had been represented year after year on TV not by the Buchanans and Hannitys, but by Republican pundits allied with Christine Todd Whitman and Arlen Spector—moderates dismissive of their party’s activists.

Now imagine that the American Left had been represented on TV not by the Bradens, Kinsleys and Colmeses, but by progressive pundits like Barbara Ehrenreich and Jim Hightower.

Neither scenario is easy to imagine—which says a lot about the real bias of TV news.

Jeff Cohen can be contacted via his website.