THE PUNDITOCRACY in our country has been so one-sided for so long that we hardly notice the routine tilt anymore. It seems like the dandelions in spring, to be the natural order of things.
Sometimes, however, a political moment of unusual clarity reveals the profound imbalance that's been there all along.
Tune in to TV pundit programs or radio talk shows or read an op-ed page these days and you'll behold vociferous attacks echoing against conservative Republican leaders. But the verbal onslaught isn't coming from the left; it's coming from the voices who've reigned loudest for years in media commentary - the hordes of right-wing pundits.
On television, pundits such as George Will ridicule Republican leaders as timid moderates and insinuate that Newt Gingrich may actually be America's "most powerful liberal." In syndicated columns, rightists such as Cal Thomas bellow that Gingrich, Sen Orrin G. Hatch and other top Republicans are abandoning conservative principles.
On talk radio, you hear a deafening roar of attacks on Republicans as cowardly moderates and sell-outs; host Michael Reagan recently used his show to announce that he was leaving the GOP because of its "retreat" from "conservative values and beliefs."
The recent barrage should remind us that dozens of America's most prominent commentators - folks like Will, Thomas, Patrick J. Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh - are more right-wing than the most conservative GOP leadership we've seen in decades. These powerful voices have far more allegiance to right-wing causes then they do to Republican leaders.
But commentators from the opposite end of the political spectrum are virtually excluded from the national discourse, especially on network television. Go hunting for the left wing of American punditry and you're lucky to find even a few loose feathers.
You don't see dozens of prominent left-wing talking heads in national media denouncing the moderate policies of President Clinton. You don't hear powerful pundit voices who owe far more allegiance to causes of the left - workers' rights, consumer rights, civil rights, ecology - than to Democratic leaders.
Instead, what you get is a lot of apologizing for the president's ideological maneuvers. Sure, the tepid liberals who represent punditry's "left wing" on national television sometimes wish that Clinton weren't so undisciplined or vacillating or sloppy with facts. But they've been almost unanimous in supporting his "New Democrat" politics of hewing to the center and abandoning the old Democrat, old-fashioned New Deal.
On TV, proponents of "the left" are selected to be Clinton defenders. George Will pillories Republican leaders for alleged betrayals of conservatism on ABC's "This Week" - but there's no leftist on that program to attack the president for his betrayal of long-standing Democratic principles. Certainly not longtime Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos.
Advocates "from the left" on CNN's "Crossfire" are aggressive defenders of Clinton and the Democratic leadership - but Buchanan gives his loyalty first and foremost to right-wing principles, and uses the show as a platform for his political campaigns against the GOP leadership he deems too moderate.
Due to the marginalization of unabashed leftist commentators, television's lopsided pundit spectrum extends basically from a baby step left of center to a giant step to the right of Gingrich - the self-styled revolutionary who, lest we forget, pushed the GOP steadily rightward for the last 10 years and promoted the most conservative legislative agenda in decades.
Given the skewed pundit spectrum, TV viewers miss out on political insights, while being bombarded with wrong-headed cliches - such as the myth that Clinton is really a liberal at heart. Many Americans may not know that activist leaders and politicians in the left wing of the Democratic Party have mistrusted Clinton since 1991. Or that they blame the president for undermining (and corporatizing) the Democratic Party - to the point of handing over even the issue of campaign finance abuse to Republicans.
Indeed, many civil rights and labor activists blame Clinton for so disorienting and demobilizing the party's base - through unpopular policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement - that the way was paved for the Gingrich victory of 1994.
These insights won't be heard regularly in national television discourse until bona fide left-wing commentators are invited to sit alongside right-wing and centrist ones. Till that happens, we'll have to suffer through the absurd spectacle of seeing Clinton and Gingrich denounced as liberals.
Jeff Cohen is the director of FAIR, a national media watch organization based in New York - and co-author of "Through the Media Looking Glass."
Pub Date: 3/30/97