One of NewsBusters' favorite conservative commentators is Charles Krauthammer.
We had the privilege of sitting down with him at last month's Republican National Convention to discuss amongst other things our favorite topic - liberal media bias.
Our conversation began with Charles telling us about how he started with the Washington Post:
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: In 1984, I was approached by the Washington Post editorial page editor, Meg Greenfield, about writing a column for them and I said, “I'll do it on one condition: I only write one column per week.” Up until then, just about nobody wrote a once a week column. And as far as I know, there had never been a successful once a week column. It has to do with the economics of the business which I've never quite understood. But the smaller papers prefer to have twice or three times so they have copy that they can rely on. So I said, “I can only do one a week.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because I don't have two ideas a week. Sometimes I don't even have one, but I can fake one. I can't fake two.” So she said, “Okay.” And I started it, and it worked out. I now have 290 newspapers.
Charles then gave us a bit of a scoop:
KRAUTHAMMER: The New York Times offered me a column in the winter of 2007-2008. Same condition, once a week, Fridays, which they said yes to. And in the end I had to decide whether to stay with the Post or go with the Times. And I finally decided to stay with the Post. To put it succinctly, the Grahams had always been very, very gracious to me. It was a nice offer by the Times, it was an honorable offer. A tough decision. I just found it hard to leave the Post, but I considered the offer very seriously.
Asked about how he views bias in the media from an historical perspective, Charles said:
KRAUTHAMMER: It hasn't changed. I think the editorial page of the Washington Post is the best in the country. I think the editorials - considering it's a liberal town, liberal constituency and from the liberal tradition - I think it's the best editorial page around. It's quite balanced. I disagree with a lot of their positions, particularly on domestic issues, but I think that they're well-argued and respectful.
I think Fred Hiatt, who runs that page, is incredibly fair-minded. I disagree with the page more than half the time, but I read it, whereas there are a lot of editorial pages that I don't read because I know what's in them before I read them. And the Post op-ed page I think is terrific. George Will, E.J. Dionne, it's got this tremendous mix of left and right.
Nobody's ever edited a word I've written (for content) in 26 years. Ever. Except once. I got a call in the early '90s from Meg Greenfield. Just to be ornery, I wrote a sentence where I used the word “gay” to mean “happy.” Early '90s. It hadn't quite entered the lexicon. Meg says laughingly: You didn't really think you get that past me, did you? I said: No, but I thought I'd give it a shot.
So, they changed it to "happy." I wasn't going to make a Custer's last stand on that. I was being a little whimsical.
Look, the mainstream media, the Times, newspapers, the networks, NPR, PBS, you go down the line, CNN, MSNBC of course. Uniformly liberal. Then you've got academia, the foundations, you've got museums if you want to go that far, the way they do their exhibits. I've written pretty tough columns about the Smithsonian and what they've done with American history. So they've got all the major institutions – what Lenin called “the commanding heights” -- of culture. That's what they have. It's always been that way and always will be that way.
Charles then gave an example:
KRAUTHAMMER: Some time around 2000, CNN came out with a 22-part documentary on the Cold War. I wrote two columns on how it was just appallingly slanted. It was actually very good journalism. It had great video clips, covered a lot. But the bias was remarkable. They had one episode on repression during the era: the gulag and McCarthyism. So you had the Hollywood Ten and hundreds of thousands of slaves in Siberia as moral equivalents. It made me nuts.
Then I said to myself and my friends, “Why the hell don't conservatives do this? Where's the conservative history of the Cold War?” We won it. We had the right ideas. They got it completely wrong, and now they're writing the history. Churchill said, “History will treat me well – I intend to write it myself.” So, they write the history.
NEWSBUSTERS: Can there be just history without someone's bias?
KRAUTHAMMER: I don't think there can be. There have been how many biographies of Lincoln? Five hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? There will be endless biographies of Churchill. There isn't one history. Let's say somebody wrote your history. There'd be ten ways you could write it. So, I don't believe that there's one. Now, I'm not saying that they're all equally true or untrue. Some are obviously false. But it depends because you can get a different approach.
You can write a history of Churchill as a man who sent the English language into battle. You can do Churchill as a politician. You could write about how he was with his family. There are 50 ways in which you can write a Churchill biography. There's no objective truth in that sense. There's no single history of anything, but it doesn't mean that all his histories are the same. Some are very good. It depends how you approach the subject. But the CNN documentary I found was technically very good, very informative, but the moral judgments it made along the way were just appalling politically. And the problem is why didn't we conservatives do it?
Now, we do have NewsBusters. We're beginning to get some balance. The same way that the think tanks were the conservative answer to the universities. Conservatives couldn't work at such universities, so they decided to make their own. Best part – think tanks don't have any students. I see what you folks are doing at NewsBusters is the same kind of beginning, a cohort of anti-establishment media elements and analysis that become sort of the counter-establishment in the same way that the think-tanks were the counter-establishment.
NEWSBUSTERS: How did you come to your current political views?
KRAUTHAMMER: I was a Great Society liberal on domestic issues. People ask me, “How do you go from Walter Mondale to Fox News?” The answer is, “I was young once.” End of answer. But I was. That was my tradition. Grew up in a Democratic household. But on foreign policy, I never had any illusions. I was pretty hardline. You have to remember that the Democratic Party of then was not the Democratic Party of today. It had a lot of Cold War hard-liners. You start with Harry Truman and John Kennedy. The Truman Doctrine was pretty tough stuff. Kennedy took us to the missile crisis showdown over Cuba. There was a Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, and they actually had these organizations. Coalition for a Democratic Majority, Committee on the Present Danger, these were Democrats. So I was part of that.
I worked for Mondale. I was his speechwriter. After Carter/Mondale lost, I was hired by the New Republic. I had written a few articles on politics when I was working for the the National Institute of Mental Health. They liked them and offered me a position.
I had never changed my views on the Soviets. When the nuclear freeze happened, the Democrats, now out of power, went completely nuts and became totally irresponsible. I wrote the lead editorial for the New Republic -- unsigned -- attacking the freeze, which was a huge liberal cause. And I remember the editorial meeting after that. I was told my editorial caused more subscription cancellations than any piece in the history of the magazine. After four weeks or so in journalism, I was very proud.
At that same meeting, I suggested that every week we should choose the worst letter to the editor that the magazine had received -- and canceled that person's subscription. And I would write the letter saying, “You are unworthy of reading the New Republic -- and, no, you're not getting a refund.” That suggestion was not taken up, for some reason.
NEWSBUSTERS: What did you think about the recent Newsweek cover-story by Niall Ferguson which attacked Obama while endorsing Romney/Ryan. Why did they do that?
KRAUTHAMMER: To sell magazines. Lazarus was healthier than they are.
NEWSBUSTERS: You had an interesting encounter recently with the Obama administration over the whereabouts of Churchill's bust.
KRAUTHAMMER: It made no sense. Within hours of my column being published, they had this furious blog post. “Rumors unsubstantiated.” “100 percent false.” “We wouldn't normally deign to treat these things, but because...” It was so supercilious. It was odd because I wasn't the first person to write about this. I was the fiftieth. But who were the other 49? They didn't want to attack Time magazine which had mentioned it, or all of the other papers. Maureen Dowd had it in a column, said the same thing.
No, they decided – I'm guessing why they chose me – some guy there, the head of their communications office, decided that my scalp would be a nice thing to hang on his office door. And here he had it. He had the picture of the bust in the White House. So they wanted to destroy my credibility as a writer. But they made a mistake. They got it wrong. That's my only explanation because it wasn't as if I was the first to say that the Churchill bust had been moved out of the White House. In fact, it's 2009 when it happened.
And then they wouldn't let go when the British embassy said it had been returned. And then the White House Blog did an update about which Andy Rosenthal, to his credit, New York Times editorial page editor, most liberal guy in the country, wrote. He had jumped on their bandwagon at the beginning believing the first White House post and joining in the attacks on me – and he realized he had been swindled. So he said, “My mistake was relying on Dan Pfeiffer” [the White House communication director who had attacked Krauthammer's column].
Rosenthal criticized the update – that “weaselly update” - that refused to acknowledge the basic fact that their blog post was false. Those were his words. And I think that's what did it – when the New York Times editorial page editor attacks them for being weaselly with their update, instead of just saying, “We got it wrong.”
Then when I wrote my column on Monday, and said, “You got it wrong guys – I want an apology” - because the update was no apology – I asked for a retraction. So I get this email the next day, which is the one you saw posted. But it was private. So I wrote back and said, “That's very gracious, but also puzzlingly private. You attacked me in one of the most public places you can – the White House blog. Don't you think you ought to publish this retraction in the same place?” They finally did.
NEWSBUSTERS: This episode seemed illustrative of how the White House actually believes it doesn't get favorable press.
KRAUTHAMMER: They live in such a bubble that they actually think that the press is unfair to them. This tells you in what planetary system they live, because I don't think they're faking it. I really think that's what they think. I guess their baseline is 2008. To them, that was fair coverage, which as we know, there'd never been anything like it. Jake Tapper said the media then was pretty pro-Obama. But I think they live in another universe. I have heard from these people and they actually think the Washington Post is unfair. As you know, I see a lot of that on Inside Washington.
NEWSBUSTERS: Well, let's talk Inside Washington. Gordon Peterson is a fair moderator.
NEWSBUSTERS: But it ends there, doesn't it?
KRAUTHAMMER: I think it's rather amusing. I like the show. I've done it forever. The whole thing is quite liberal though. You notice I occasionally attack the moderator and the producer for how they introduce topics. I figure I have to police everything. They're mostly liberal, but Evan Thomas is a middle of the road guy. He's a historian with a 30,000 feet view, which is always interesting and I think pretty fair. But that's fine. I don't mind going into a liberal lion's den. That's where you test yourself.
NEWSBUSTERS: Why do you think the format is two or three liberals and a host and Charles?
KRAUTHAMMER: I really don't know except that I tell them, “This is tag-team wrestling, except that I don't have a team.”
NEWSBUSTERS: Well, it's also tag-team wrestling and you're normally winning.
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, when I went into this business, I left medicine, which was a pretty good life. My dad never quite understood why I did it. He was great to me about it, but it's not exactly upward mobility to go from being a doctor to being a staff writer for a magazine. There's only one reason to do it: You think you have something to say that you really believe, and you say it. If you're going to say anything else, then what the hell are you doing in the business, and why aren't you back doing medicine?
And there's this wonderful line, I think from Graham Greene: “He preferred to tell the truth – it was easier to memorize.” I believe in what I believe, and I think after all these years I've heard a lot of arguments, and I'm convinced by the superiority of the arguments that are made on the conservative side. I think that's a better way to run a society.
So, I don't mind how many there are on the other side. I think if we end up arguing Medicare, arguing foreign policy, or arguing other things, I have an ideology -- which I don't think is in any way a pejorative, even though that's how the term is generally used in Washington -- I am guided by this set of ideas developed over many years, I feel confident that if I can think straight, I can make the case.
NEWSBUSTERS: There are times when sometimes their facts are totally wrong. Do you get the sense that they're either just instinctively echoing Democrat talking points?
KRAUTHAMMER: No, they believe what they say. I give them credit for believing what they're saying. I don't think it's by any means impossible to be a sincere liberal -- why, I was once was a liberal myself! I'm open to empirical evidence, particularly having been a physician. The empirical evidence in the end was that the Great Society, urban initiatives, welfare -- of these things were all very well-meaning, and they had bad consequences. He destroyed a generation. They did terrible things unintendedly -- fundamentally, I think, because they misunderstood human nature.
So, I think they believe this. I give them credit. They say the same stuff every week. They're wrong every week. I correct them every week. It's great fun.
NEWSBUSTERS: How much do you think the news media are going to aid Obama at the polls this year?
KRAUTHAMMER: They sure are trying. There's something about the American people, though, that they seem to be able to shrug the media off. The media are so overwhelmingly liberal, yet before Fox, before talk radio, the American people elected Nixon twice, Reagan twice. If you go back, starting from the end of the New Deal, there's been a majority of Republican presidents. If you start from 1968, I think it's seven out of eleven presidential elections that went Republican. So, the media are overwhelmingly liberal, and yet the wonder of wonders – it's enough to make you have deep faith in the bedrock commonsense of the American people - is that it's just water off the back of a duck.
Thanks, Charles. Keep up the good fight.