Many of those nice enough to comment on my post yesterday on CNBC’s awful presidential debate performance have attributed the often abusive questions posed by the moderators as evidence of liberal/Democratic media bias. And that’s what some of the Republican candidates charged as well. My response? I wish the fundamental problem was that obvious – and therefore that correctable, at least in theory.
Instead, what the network’s evident mindset represents is the much more insidious development of a national political class homogeneous enough to share fundamental values, assumptions, and positions (with all too superficial variations) and powerful enough to ignore and, when necessary, keep out of the governing system against-the-grain views.
Part of this analysis reflects my own experience as a frequent CNBC viewer – and not only as background noise during the workday. I think the network’s coverage of finance, business, and economic headline developments is acceptable, and it at least mentions major breaking news in other spheres. Yes, I could watch Bloomberg, or Fox Business. But as my father used to say, we’re all creatures of habit, and my sampling of the newer competition has not yet persuaded me to change the channel permanently. Nor have I yet found any other continuous sources of reasonably serious hard news.
And when I hear or see the letters, “CNBC,” my first reaction isn’t “Democrats.” Quite the opposite. Even with the blatantly partisan Larry Kudlow gone from daily programming, the network clearly is tailoring its material towards the investment community and the steadily shrinking pool of American retail investors – groups not known for progressive leanings. In fact, with the latter ever more skewed toward the upper income strata, it hasn’t been surprising to see CNBC broadcast more and more segments that openly celebrate the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” That’s of course on top of the broader tendency of the business press to create and glorify the “Superstar CEO” – a practice that (amazingly? or not?) has survived the financial crisis and ensuing recession.
When it comes to policy – overwhelmingly economic policy, of course – CNBC is firmly in the free market camp. Minimal taxation and regulation are constantly touted, as are free trade agreements, un- or barely fettered immigration policies, and the supposedly iron, unchangeable, undeniable realities that make them necessities – the historically inevitable and beneficent globalization of business; the equally inexorable triumph of capitalism worldwide; and the resulting supreme imperative of participating in and growing foreign market opportunities. And when the focus is domestic, CNBC therefore places on a pedestal “business-friendly” states, which unlike their more neanderthal (usually Democratic governed) counterparts are supposedly wise enough to spare companies of nearly all the costs of public goods and services – and to discourage unions.
It’s true that much else that’s central to CNBC’s worldview isn’t very consistent with free markets. But institutions like activist central banking are accepted not so much as regulatory exceptions to a more liberal rule, but as fixtures without which the economic landscape would be unrecognizable, and therefore literally inconceivable. Similarly, although the bailouts of non-financial companies were positively scorned, the bailout of Wall Street was (a little sheepishly) accepted because, well, it beat global destruction.
These exceptions to free market norms have convinced many that CNBC is extolling not genuine market capitalism, but crony capitalism, in which the biggest, most politically connected businesses manipulate government to serve their own selfish purposes and especially to marginalize newer, less influential competitors or even prevent them from forming. I agree that the network isn’t inclined to assail this form of corruption. (Of course the pugnacious Rick Santelli is a prominent exception.) But another implicit assumption needs to be added here to flesh out the full CNBC worldview, and it concerns the ostensible virtues of what I’ve referred to as “boardroom liberalism.”
This is a school of thought identified by New York Times reporter Noam Scheiber, and he put it better than I ever could:
“It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on high—one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.”
Scheiber used the term to describe the outlook of President Obama, and obviously it holds for Clinton-style Democrats, too. Just as important, because the most powerful ideologies and worldviews can accommodate a fair amount of diversity, it’s easy to imagine a conservative version of “boardroom liberalism,” and in fact, between the two of them, they dominate the perspectives of the establishment politicians, senior bureaucrats, media figures, and so-called policy intellectuals that in turn dominate American politics and discussion thereof.
In my view, this is the perspective that reigns at CNBC, and throughout the establishment media. And although it’s surely closer to the Democratic Party mainstream than to the Republican rank and file, and reserves special contempt for the Tea Party faction (as well as religious conservatives), it doesn’t hold much affection for Bernie Sanders and the Occupy Wall Street crowd, either. (History-induced guilt typically inspires more indulgence for Black Lives Matter.)
I’m sure it’s clear why an ideologically uniform press corps is as big a threat to a democracy worthy of the name as an ideologically uniform party system. But an even greater danger is posed when the same precepts unite those media and political worlds – along with their colleagues in think tank ranks and academia. Conventional wisdoms become completely ossified and the decision-making apparatus becomes almost impervious to fundamentally new ideas – even in times of crisis.
When powerful challengers from utterly alien universes do loom on the horizon (e.g., a Donald Trump or a Ben Carson, Tea Party-ers uninterested in politically convenient compromises), all the major occupational groups and ideological sects comprising this polyglot establishment rush to join forces against the invaders. And they employ all the (predominantly verbal) weapons they can muster, ranging from slanderous invective to loudly professed indifference to chortling condescension to outright ridicule. This counterattack, moreover, is conducted with unusual vehemence when the outsiders make perfectly clear that they have no use, much less respect, for the conventional wisdom-mongers.
On the one hand, it’s comforting that a lively alternative media-verse has emerged in recent years – precisely in response to the power, intolerance, and resulting arrogance of the establishment. On the other hand, the establishment still seems firmly ensconced – in journalism and in both parties. Since it’s still early in the 2016 presidential cycle, this year finally being different can hardly be ruled out. But as Yogi Berra once said, “It gets late early out here.”