Monday, May 16, 2011

David Frum on the Fourth Estate

Since I'm dredging up memories of Canada, perhaps a bit unfairly, I sometimes wonder if David Frum benefits from the fact that next to nobody in this country knows who his mother was. In fairness, among U.S. conservative political commentators, nepotism reigns supreme. By moving to the U.S. Frum gave up the direct advantage of having a famous mother, although I expect that his family's political and media connections provided him with a significant boost even after he crossed the border.

Perhaps I need to take a couple of steps backward. Who is David Frum? He's a conservative commentator, originally from Canada, and son of the late and highly respected Canadian journalist Barbara Frum. I remember Barbara Frum most clearly from her role as host of "The Journal", a news magazine that came on after "The National", the evening news programming on CBC television. Despite watching The Journal for a period of years, I didn't get a sense of Frum's politics. Based upon David's politics I suspect that she, her husband, or both were relatively conservative by Canadian standards, but while on the air she didn't push an ideology.

Once he stopped personally attempting to impose ideological litmus tests on conservatives, and once he was cast out of the inner circle of conservative commentators, apparently for his suggestion that the Republicans erred by attempting to stonewall healthcare reform, Frum adopted the public position that conservative litmus tests can be counter-productive and started to speak out against the dominant Republican media personalities, and their influence on the Republican Party.

On a recent episode of Real Time, Frum made a comment to the effect that we don't want media figures influencing political decision-making. His statement was not specific to the Republican Party, but was offered as a general statement about the way things should be. It did not appear to occur to Frum that he is essentially a media personality who would very much like to influence the political debate. But I think it's important to point out that there are no media figures on the left who compare to Limbaugh, and even with his declining influence there are none that compare to Beck. The last comparable media figure who comes to mind would be Walter Cronkite, a man credited with helping to extract this country from the Vietnam War.

Now you can make an argument that politics don't belong in the media, or that news figures should be careful not to influence policy debates, and... well, growing up in Canada Frum perhaps didn't have much exposure to the First Amendment, its origins and purpose, but he should be sufficiently familiar with journalism to recognize that you cannot keep opinion out, that opinion can actually contribute positively to a debate, and that responsible journalists can reasonably assert that one side in a debate has a better argument, or that the other side has its facts wrong. (For all of The Journal's objectivity, the joke song about Brian Mulroney that I mentioned here was aired on that show, aired as part of a brief recurring segment devoted to political humor.) Frum must be familiar with the Canadian news magazine show, "The Fifth Estate," something of a Canadian "60 Minutes", and even if only out of that exposure it's difficult to believe that he's unaware of the concept of the media as the "fourth estate", an unofficial societal or political force.

If you accept that the media can responsibly take issues on controversial subjects of the day (as news magazines routinely do, by choosing which subjects to cover and what position to advance), you can draw a distinction between the media figures that Frum is willing to name as having a corrosive impact on political culture and those that might act responsibly, but whose work might advance a political agenda inconsistent with Frum's preferred policies. Or, for that matter, to admit that he's a media figure and to reconcile his own work to advance a specific political agenda through the media with his implication that doing so is a bad thing.

[Edited to correct some data corruption from the Blogger outage.]

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