William Rusher: The Coming Battle for the Media

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: William Rusher
Title: “William Rusher, the Coming Battle for the Media”
VTR: 1/14/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Before he was deposed as Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew hit the jackpot it seems to me, with his famous ghosted description of the press, labeling, though I think not libeling, journalists as “the nattering nabobs of negativism”. That seems squarely enough to nail many of the 4th Estate’s practitioners, print and electronic alike. For mostly they do embrace – or at least report to us almost to the exclusion of everything else – that which is salacious and negative and scandalous and unpleasant and surely murderous. Hobbesian, so many of them, journalists seem largely to find life mostly “Nasty, poor, brutish and short”…and persistently report it as such. Good news is no news, and all that. Like the muckrakers of old, they so consistently look down in the dirt as they labor, not up…to the higher uses of mankind.

Besides, journalists too frequently just aren’t trained or careful enough to play with our minds as they do, being the guardians, if not the creators, of that most precious element in our too precariously balanced world: public opinion. They aren’t good enough: that’s at once the harshest and truest indictment, it seems to me, of so many of our media gatekeepers. Yet my guest today seems to think, perhaps, far worse of them: that they are, most frequently, outrageously biased ideologues, too. Liberals, god help us…to raise the specter of the “L” word again.

And so I have invited back to The Open Mind my old friend William Rusher, the recently retired but never retiring longtime publisher of the National Review, to elaborate upon his conservative’s case against the media in his new William Morrow book, “The Coming Battle for the Media – Curbing the Power of the Media Elite”.

In his insistence that an overwhelming liberal bias is the curse of modern media – rather than simply and indiscriminately an untutored lack of concern for always practicing professional standards of fairness and balance – Mr. Rusher makes no bones about his own profoundly conservative bias. How could he? And, in berating liberal journalists, perhaps, he does believe that the world would be so much better off if only his bias prevailed, rather than theirs.

Whatever, in his farewell address, Bill Rusher told his brethren at the National Review that “the election campaign just concluded demonstrates all over again how bankrupt liberalism is (that “L” word again)”…urging them “to demonstrate in our national political life how well conservatives understand the profound imperatives of human nature, the proper design of of human society in the light of those imperatives, and the (limited) role of government in the ongoing drama of mankind”. Well, that’s quite a mouthful, of course, and I want to ask my guest if, in that “limited role” of government there’s really room for a fairness doctrine to press our media colleagues into a better service to mankind. Bill?

Rusher: I certainly hope not, it isn’t my prescribed solution for this problem, Dick, and to go back to one point that you raised, speculatively, a little bit earlier, while naturally I would be more pleased if the media were conservative in their bias rather than liberal, no I don’t think that that would be a solution. It isn’t what I’m seeking either.

Heffner: What is it that you’re seeking?

Rusher: Balance is what I’m seeking, simple, ordinary balance. A little fairness in this business and I don’t think, to answer your perfectly fair question, that government is the best place to turn. But I w ill say this, that there is not to my knowledge any sector of society which is totally beyond the reach of the people as a whole. Although I think that many of the media think that by some happy chance they are precisely that sector. And that if there is nothing else that can possibly be done then there is certainly going to arise, and understandably arise, a demand that somebody, on behalf of the people, perhaps the government must do something about it. I don’t think that’s a solution we have to come to. I certainly don’t think it’s the most desirable solution, but i want to call attention to what I think is an extremely serious unbalanced, biased performance by our major media elite today.

Heffner: Look, I understand that as a good conservative, as a person who tries desperately hard over the years to keep government out, that that’s not a first choice of yours, but in reading The Coming Battle For the Media” I noticed there, too, the Fairness Doctrine, the promise or threat of a Fairness Doctrine arises. Now you don’t disclaim it now, but you want something else. You want the media to do it themselves.

Rusher: Precisely. I want the media to reform themselves. I don’t want to bring back the thumbscrew and the rack, and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. Their pretentions are so high, there isn’t anything so impossible about them looking in the mirror occasionally and seeing what’s there. It’s no mystery.

Heffner: Yes but now you were one of the founders, one of the first members of the National News Council…

Rusher: Yes.

Heffner: …and you know that that went down the drain…

Rusher: Yes sir.

Heffner: …that potential for being a substitute for governmentally imposed Fairness Doctrine now it didn’t work. It wasn’t supported so that it didn’t work, and the Fairness Doctrine itself is gone. I know I hear what you say you want, what’s your bet as to what we’ll get?

Rusher: Ah, well that’s something different, although in fairness to the National News Council, as I say in the book, I think it came along at exactly the wrong time. It got started in the wake of the Agnew attack on the bias in the media. But then, just as it really got started and pulled together and began holding its meetings and looking into the fairness of the media, you had Watergate and the resignation of first Agnew and then Nixon, and the media were riding high. So that the National News Council’s testing period came right in the heyday of a media that thought itself perfect, and it wasn’t about to share the function of criticism, if there was going to be any, with anybody else. The New York Times to take the most spectacular example, gave us the back of its hand. When they reported what happened there at all it was back in the shipping news, and in little items. They wouldn’t even answer the letters that we sent reporting complaints and asking for their comments. This was Abe Rosenthal’s view, he’s entitled to his view, but it was a time when the media were at their most arrogant and I am inclined to think the time may come when a National News Council might get a better reception.

Heffner: but then I ask you my question again because when I asked it the first time, a little hesitancy as if “well, that’s something different”. What’s your bet as to what’s going to happen? I understand you’re saying “times are different” and perhaps, what’s your bet?

Rusher: Well, you know…you remember that in the book I have a chapter called “Scenario” which is fictional.

Heffner: It is fictional.

Rusher: It imagines a situation in which a President of the united states gets into a military operation, which the liberals happen to disapprove of, and which they propose to bring to its knees, whether he likes it or not, and I leave it, at the end of the chapter, lady or the tiger, who is going to win? The question is just who runs America? And to answer you…you asked me what’s my bet. I think it’s a very near thing, but my guess is that at the last the media don’t. They’re going to find out that the American people, through their representatives, still run America.

Heffner: Meaning, through legislation?

Rusher: Through legislation if there is no other way to do it, yes.

Heffner: Well, your scenario, it was Grenada, right?

Rusher: Well, it was a Grenada, but at a longer haul. The trouble with Grenada, as an example, was that it happened so fast that it was over before the media got there or formulated an opinion. This imaginary chapter has to do with an invasion in Nicaragua which takes longer than it was expected to take, and starts generating casualties that it wasn’t expected to generate; and the media get able to do the kind of thing they do so well, photographing of the corpses, the switch to Rochester, New York and the interview with the mother of one of those corpses, she break down and cries on television and you really have got an emotional situation going. Now that kind of thing, carried out over a period of weeks and months, can unsettle the nerves of the Congress very severely even if they were for the invasion in the beginning.

Heffner: But, Bill, I want to go back to the question of…I state to start the program and i have that prerogative and I use it, I state my own belief that it’s not a matter of liberal versus conservative, it’s a matter of ineptitude on the part of those who are…

Rusher: I’m familiar with the argument and I reject it, I must tell you. Let me, let me take you through a little bit of the argumentation here and I think you’ll recognize it. I don’t know where you stand on the old question “are, in fact, most members of the media elite liberal?” But the guy who reviewed my book for the New York Times, David Shaw, the media correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, said “Of course they are”. He gave that one away in sentence number one of paragraph number of the review.

Heffner: And I give away, too.

Rusher: Alright, now you come, however, to the question that Fred Barnes asked, and I quote in the book, what would the media tell us if some judge said “Well, it’s true that I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan or I was until I stepped down to take this…but I won’t let this interfere with my decisions on any cases that come up before the court; I keep my private opinions strictly separate from my professional conduct, like you gentlemen of the media”. How long would he last on the court, do you suppose? Zip seconds, is how long he would last, and rightly so in my opinion. Because, in point of fact, they don’t leave their professional opinions aside, and it isn’t almost human to expect that they would. I never ask in this book for some chalice of perfect objectivity. Lord knows I’m not one (Laughter). And I’m not asking that other people should be. I said at the beginning of this program, I’m asking for balance, and why the sam hill isn’t there balance?

Heffner: Yes but Bill, the thing that puzzles me, making that same concession, if indeed…strike that, it’s not a concession, I insist in terms of my own experience, that what you say about the political persuasion of most of the people you and I know in the media…

Rusher: It’s been statistically established.

Heffner: …is politically liberal. Well, statistically established, that’s something else. Let’s just say you and I agree in our belief on that. The fact also is that I, as a certified, initial cap, Liberal also have found the same concerns that you have found in reportage, the same concerns that you have expressed in terms, not of the bias of the media, but in terms of the unfairness of the media. So that i…that’s why I don’t find it a matter of Right/Left, but wrong/wrong.

Rusher: You are saying that anybody that studied the performance of the media, and we’re not talking the East War Hoop Daily Gazette…we’re talking about what are called the “media elite”, the big papers in the East, the news magazines, the wire services, the television programs of the commercial networks, that kind of thing. Anybody who studied those would find, over time…yes, unfairness, but roughly equal unfairness, everybody gets bounced around about the same, is that what you’re saying?

Heffner: No, no, no, no. I really wouldn’t say that. I’m concerned…

Rusher: Glad to hear that.

Heffner: …that at any time there is inadequacy in reportage, that at any time and any place, and I’m not interested in a calculus of Left or Right…

Rusher: Damn it, I am.

Heffner: …but why are you, Bill? Wouldn’t you be just as much concerned, you as a lawyer, maybe even more than as a journalist, wouldn’t you be just as much concerned if there was an imbalance…

Rusher: You’re right.

Heffner: …and inadequate reporting that favored your political point of view?

Rusher: Yes, because what I have said, what I’m after is not a Right Wing media, I’m after balance. But I can cite and I have cited in this book, case after case after case involving the major media, and important and powerful occasions on which the balance has not been there. And I can cite them until this program is over and long after the credits have gone on and they’re on some other program.

Heffner: And I think I’d probably agree with you.

Rusher: well then, does this have to happen? Why is balance so impossible?

Heffner: Now, that’s…

Rusher: Why is it never even sought?

Heffner: That’s what I want to ask you, you’re the expert. Why is balance so impossible to achieve?

Rusher: Well, it isn’t impossible to achieve.

Heffner: Why haven’t we?

Rusher: We haven’t because nobody is trying, or at least very few people are trying very hard. Most people don’t mind consulting their biases just a little bit. Let me…I know the great terror or reading statistics and so on, but this isn’t going to last long. I wish I had emphasized it more than just less than a page in the book, I picked a rather wonderful group down in Washington, a new group called Mediawatch, picked Senators Jesse Helms and Ted Kennedy, the absolute polar opposites, their ratings on everything are zero and 100 and 100 and zero, respectively. And then because we have now gotten through the Nexus computer system ability to count things that we didn’t used to have, they asked simply for Nexus to give them every reference to Helms and Kennedy in the New York Times, in Time magazine, in the Washington Post and in Newsweek, in the years 1984 and 1985. And through the wonders of modern science, there came the references, and then they just sat down and they counted the number of times in which those four publications had described Helms as “arch-conservative” or “ultra-conservative” or something like that, and Kennedy as “ultra-liberal” or “far out liberal” or something of that sort, and the statistics come out as follows. In the case of news magazines Helms was labeled, in one way or another as a conservative 44% of the time in Newsweek, 47% of the time in Time magazine, Kennedy received comparable treatment in 5.6% and 3.5% of the time. Now is that sloppiness? Is that carelessness? No, that is bias, my friend.

Heffner: You see I was very familiar with those figures because I had read them, and very much impressed with them, and I come back to you with it is damn inadequate journalism…

Rusher: Of course it is.

Heffner: …and that’s the most important thing.

Rusher: But why? You can’t just say “it’s sloppiness”, sloppiness would result in surely some kind of more even statistical treatment. Why 3.5% versus 47%? How is that sloppy? That’s bias.

Heffner: Well, you see I’m not going to argue with you the presence of the bias.

Rusher: alright, if you’re not then that’s another matter.

Heffner: What I’m concerned about is that you’re aiming a cannon at the wrong place but because, by gosh, if the bias were otherwise, we’d be in just as much trouble in terms of the gatekeepers not being adequate to the task that they have before them.

Rusher: Why do…why do we have to confine ourselves to imaging either that there is a liberal bias or that there is a Right Wing bias? Why can’t we get together and tell the networks, and tell the Time and Newsweek that this kind of performance is disgraceful and that we want a little better balance?

Heffner: Well, I’m a little puzzled as to…no I’m not puzzled, I’m a little concerned that you want, in answer to my first question, and again the element, the same element is In the book, that when it comes to saying that our national standard is fairness and balance that you don’t want that said by the only place where It can be said…

Rusher: Oh it can be.

Heffner: …consistently, and nationally, and in terms of an expression of the American people, and that’s in…I would have preferred that there not need to be legislation, but we’ve eliminated the Fairness Doctrine…

Rusher: I don’t think for a moment that because of the danger of government control is unquestionably there that, therefore, there can be no further discussion of bias in the media. I think the media have gotten away with murder. I think they’re still getting away with murder. I think they got away with it in this last campaign, you can’t tell me that night after night, and I know the difficulties they labored under, because they knew who was going to win the campaign, and they had to report the elections certainly. Bu t night after night, and this will come out in the statistical treatments that were already made, you may be sure that all of these news programs were carefully taped. Now, thank heavens, the studies are at last being made, and what you would get would be two reports, one first generally from the Bush campaign, John so-and-so is out there with the Bush campaign, and what do you hear? Well, John so-and-so comes on voice-over and there’s a shot of Bush waving from a bus…and the next thing you see is a Jesuit priest being dragged, protesting, out of Bush’s speech. And that was the story from…”And this is Larry Liberal with the Bush campaign in Grand Forks, Nebraska”. Now we switch to the Dukakis campaign, and what do you hear? You get a tight-in shot of Dukakis, the three best sentences he’s got, by him, no voice-over this time, from the reporter, no interference at all. Just you and Dukakis on there for the time of the sound byte, followed by the kiss-off and back to the studio. Now there were not…there were quite true, times when this didn’t happen, when he demanded that we keep foreigners out of American industry in front of an Italian (Laughter) owned manufacturing company up in Massachusetts, that kind of thing happened. But I tell you that in terms of balance, the balance wasn’t there.

Heffner: Bill, when you and I stand before those Pearly Gates and we have to answer in terms of this discussion for the nature of the coverage for the 1988 Presidential campaign, totally, and I shouldn’t have used the word “coverage”, the nature of the television presentation of the 1988 campaign, I dare say that if I could muster statistics as well as you do, I don’t know that it would come out quite with the same quality that you’ve just described.

Rusher: Well, it doesn’t…I don’t need to use the 1988 campaign. It’s recent and it’s in our memories and there are much better examples. I would say this, I think that the jawboning that has been done by people like myself is slowly beginning to have some effect, and had some even on the media coverage of this campaign, bad as I think it was.

Heffner: Well let me talk about “jawboning”. Let me ask you because time marches on, I want to ask you about how satisfied you are that the result of the campaign, the new President is, will be what you want from a President? Is that an unfair question? I know you rejected some supposedly traditional conservative journalists, you don’t have such good things to say about George Will, about William Safire, even about Vermont Royster…

Rusher: I said that none of them would regard themselves, or be regarded as Movement Conservatives in the sense in which that term is now widely used and understood.

Heffner: How about George Bush?

Rusher: I don’t think that George Bush would consider himself a Movement Conservative in the sense that I think finally Ronald Reagan did. I have my…I wondered in the beginning what Reagan thought. I came to have no doubt that he did consider himself a Movement Conservative. But, and to some extent perhaps that lowers my expectations of Bush, but not seriously. I don’t demand that kind of thing. I think Bush is off to a very good start. I think there’s something about the style of the man in just the recent weeks that we’ve seen him which has been very encouraging. This is a man who sounds and acts as if he knows what he wants to do, and where he wants to go. And that is the principal function of the Presidency, leadership.

Heffner: And what will people like Richard Viguerie do, do you think?

Rusher: They will complain, I imagine. Richard Viguerie I’ve known for many years, he’s a friend of mine, but he couldn’t stand Ronald Reagan and there is not the chance of a snowball in the familiar spot that he could stand George Bush. It will be only a matter of time, I would judge months, before he has had it up to “here” with Bush, and then goes back into the direct mail business, crying “Doom” which is what you do. I don’t mean he’s insincere about it, he’s in the business he belongs in. but I don’t expect the impossible of Presidents of the United States. I…as far as I’m concerned Ronald Reagan was, in many ways, the Golden Age, I’ much more forgiving of him, even than my colleagues at National Review, who had very considerable reservations sometimes about him.

Heffner: When you talk about “Golden Age”, it really means something in the past.

Rusher: Yes.

Heffner: Now do you feel we’re in, in your terms, for trouble?

Rusher: No. what I meant was when I said “Golden Age” that the young Conservatives coming along who couldn’t stand Reagan’s occasional tergiversations or reservations or hesitations, did not understand how complex life is, and they are going to find out and what will then look, in retrospect, like the “Golden Age” was Ronald Reagan. No, we’re in…life is full of trouble, and we will have our share of it, but I have no doubt at all that the conservative analysis that I described, that you were kind enough to read, of society and of human nature, and of the limited role of government in respect of it, is the best understanding we have. I think Liberalism has shot itself in the foot so many times that the foot is for all practical purposes, gone.

Heffner: Bill, then the question comes up and it’s asked of you many times, if the conservative approach to life, to the nature of human nature is correct, as you assert, if the media are liberal and have had such great power, how do we reconcile the fact, that as you stated in your farewell address to the National Review, this has been a period, some decades now, from the triumph of conservatism.

Rusher: Well what’s happened is that there has been a shift, a progressive shift…

Heffner: Despite the media?

Rusher: Despite the media. No question…and in the teeth of the media. There are things, thank heaven, the media cannot do, and one of them is dictate the presidencies of the United States. The American people reserve that to themselves. But the media can get all, I call it “air control over the beach head” in lots of smaller circumstances and situations, and distort a great many things and confuse a great many issues that ought not to be confused. They cannot, this is perfectly clear, and thank the lord for it, they cannot force down the throats of the American people a president the people don’t want.

Heffner: So you’re, in the final analysis, not as worried about them as I am because…

Rusher: I don’t know how worried you are about them.

Heffner: Very much so, but you’re saying that your side has won.

Rusher: No. the title of the book is “The Coming Battle for the Media”.

Heffner: For the media. But in terms of American political life, you state…

Rusher: Yes, I think that the liberalism is a thoroughly discredited solution and we see now, even in the wider world, the whole Socialist principle being fled from in even the Soviet Union and china.

Heffner: Bill we have one minute. In the coming battle for the media, what’s going to happen to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States?

Rusher: God willing and with any kind of judgment on the part of both the media and the people, it will be there when it’s over in very much its present shape. It may not be, and it doesn’t deserve to be the only clause in the Constitution that some people ever hear about, or ever care about, or ever pay any attention to. There are other things in the Constitution that are protected and that deserve protection, and I hope that they will be protected too. The First Amendment has a role to play, and notice as I do mention in the “Scenario” it beings with the words “Congress shall make no law”. There is the fundamental limitation upon Congress making laws. There are lots of things that go on in this country that do no t involve Congressional laws. Judicial interpretation, Presidential prerogatives, these things have their part to play as well.

Heffner: That’s a point at which, maybe some people are fearful, but I’m just going to say that’s all the time we have for today, Bill Rusher. Thank you so very much for joining me, and tremendous good luck in what is supposedly retirement.

Rusher: Well, it won’t be much retirement, I promise you. Thank you.

Heffner: Thanks Bill. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A Wein; the New York Times Company Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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