Monday, February 23, 2004

Coverage of the just-concluded Parliamentary elections in Iran — which gave control to Islamic hard-liners — terminologically mischaracterized the event. Throughout the election, news organizations used the term “conservative” to denote the radical, hard-line Islamic candidates supporting the absolute rule of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and “liberal” to denote the reformist candidates favoring a dilution of the ayatollah’s power and a loosening of Islamic restrictions.

By design or default, the use of such terms for parties outside U.S. borders carries connotations into American living rooms; linking Iranian hard-liners to the ideological lineage of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan; placing Iranian reformers in the peerage of Lyndon Baines Johnson and Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The distortion is doubly wrong.

The absolute power of the Iranian ayatollahs is an anathema to all conservatives, fearing as we do the power of big government to take the small liberties away. The complete social coercion attempted by Islamists runs completely counter to what Mr. Goldwater called for politics to be about in “Conscience of a Conservative”: “The art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom of individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.”

Moreover, American conservatives have raised the loudest voices, and taken the most determined action, against Iranian hard-liners and others of their ilk. Regardless of their proclamations, most American liberals have pursued status-quo policy in the places controlled by radical Islamists.

Such distortions are common. Last summer, the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin published a paper, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” which claimed that Hitler, Mussolini, Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh were all “right-wing conservatives.”

A more subtle bias was described by former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg. In his book, “Bias,” Mr. Goldberg pointed out that members of the news media typically call conservative politicians “conservatives” but rarely label liberal politicians as such. An analysis of the language used on the network television news broadcasts of ABC, NBC and CBS from Jan. 1, 1997, to Dec. 31, 2001, by the Media Research Center showed that TV reporters were four times more likely to use the term “conservative” than “liberal.” Mr. Goldberg and the media center took this to be a sign that TV reporters typically feel that liberals have mainstream ideas, while conservatives have abnormal beliefs requiring description and explanation.

In his pamphlet “The Art of Political War: How Republicans can fight to win,” David Horowitz argued that when Democrats call Republicans right-wing, they mean “intolerant” and “extremist.” The coverage of Iran’s elections has given “conservative” the same connotation. Mr. Horowitz suggested that Republicans restore truth-in-labeling in politics by reflexively labeling their opponents “Left,” “Far Left,” and “Radical Left.”

They should. Left-wing writers and reporters are unlikely to become either fair or balanced during this presidential election cycle.

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