"For heaven sakes, we kid about the liberal media, but every Republican on earth does that." -- presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, 1996

A now-ancient meme, hatched and oft-incubated by "conservatives" in the US, as a way to discredit even factual reports in print and broadcast media. It has some roots in truth - the average young journalist of the 70's (when the FUD started) was probably more liberal than the average citizen. Post-Watergate, journalists have become part of The Establishment, and can even be "in bed" with the very Fat Cats they cover. The real bias favors power, not an ideology. When someone in the know, like Pat Buchanan, mouths the words "liberal media", know that they're just kidding; pity the rubes outside the Beltway who swallow this bullshit whole.

Some words from Colman McCarthy, from 1997:

"The Post is looked on as a liberal paper, which it clearly is not. It's a centrist paper. In fact, there are 1,500 dailies in America, and I defy you to find one liberal paper among them. There are a few pseudo-liberal papers (the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the LA Times, Washington Post) but they're just liberal on the safe liberal issues - gun control, civil rights, curbing your dog: tough ones like that. But on going after the Pentagon, or the US war machine, going after corporate crime - they become tepid. Why? Because most of the big dailies are in the Fortune 500. Do you know what the second most expensive stock on the New York Stock Exchange is? The Washington Post. It sells for $400 a share. What do the wealthy corporations tend to focus on? Problems of the wealthy."

The "liberal media" is a myth invented by conservative fanatics to pin their problems on: "Well, sure, Tom DeLay got caught on video fucking a dead chicken, but it's not his fault--it's the Liberal Media always looking for a way to hurt Republicans!"

Seriously, the major media are large corporations, owned by and interlinked with even larger conglomerates. They sell one product--advertising--to a small customer base--other large corporations. Now, is any business going to go out of its way to hurt its own bottom line? Certainly not. That's why there are so few negative stories on the news about major American corporations--negative stories hurt businesses, which may then retaliate by pulling their advertising from the news outlet, which in turn hurts the TV network where it counts--in the pocketbook.

Does that sound like the action of a liberal organization? Does it even sound like something a conservative organization would do? Actually, it's the action of a business protecting its own best interest, and that is an action which knows no political affiliation.

Of course, it's more fun to whine that the media soft-pedals liberal scandals. But they've also given minimal coverage to Republican scandals--Newt Gingrich's extra-marital affair, carried on while the GOP was demanding Clinton's ouster from office for doing the same thing, got short shrift from the networks, and George W. Bush's refusal to answer questions about his past has been, for the most part, respected and even praised by the national media. Does this mean that the media has a conservative bias?

And yes, most reporters consider themselves liberals (try working for some of these slavedriver papers for low wages and no time off, and you'll become a union supporter, too). And bias certainly does creep in. Does it happen because they're evil Democrats and they're pushing a hidden agenda to convince kids to smoke crack, worship Satan, and vote for Ted Kennedy? No, it happens because they're human, and they're not perfect. The fact is most reporters I've known (and I've known a lot, both in broadcast and print media) work hard to leave their biases behind them when they get to work.

Actually, I don't think the media is terribly liberal (although I am fairly conservative). I think what has made so many conservatives think the media is liberal is the way that they canonized Bill Clinton. I don't think anyone has ever gotten the slack from the media that Old Bill has. I think that the media folks, generally a liberal crowd, genuinely felt that Bill was going to be an important president who would make a big difference and they tried to help him make it happen. I don't really fault them for having a sincere belief.

Bill is still getting a free pass, but I think the media (as if it were a single thing) has a generally sour taste in their mouths from Clinton. He was their boy, they backed him to the hilt, went to the mat for him and all they got from it was embarassment.

The interesting thing to me is that Al Gore is not getting anything like the "get out of jail free" ticket that Bill skated on for years. It could be my imagination, but I have the feeling that a lot of media folks feel kind of bad about the two-term honeymoon they gave Slick Willie and they've decided to make it up by being aggressively fair when it comes to George and Al. There really seems to be a lack of bias in the way that the 2000 race is being handled (well, except for a few little boo-boos during the convention coverage).

This, I think, is the bad luck of Al Gore: it's not that the people tend so much to tar him with the same brush as Clinton, it's that the media does. He had the bad luck to follow a real stinker who repeatedly farted in the media's hot tub.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, under orders from publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, pulled all pictures of Al Gore on the Sunday before the election, rewrote an Associated Press dispatch to play down any mention of the vice president and bumped the story of a local Gore rally inside the paper.

Scaife is a conservative philanthropist who helped finance the American Spectator's investigations of President Clinton.

The rival Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which reported the move, said the Tribune-Review's managing editor protested but that Scaife overruled him.

Just another example of the liberal media.

Questions like "Are the media liberal?" do not spring from the vacuum, nor do they return there once answered. When people answer this question, the conclusion they come to affects and is affected by the rest of their ideology. Oftentimes, people who are liberal see the media as conservative, because whatever points of agreement lie between them go unnoticed. Just as often, conservatives see the media as liberal, for the same mechanism. For most people, their particular political inclinations are strengthened by their answer, for the natural reaction to believing that the media are biased in a particular direction is to be on your guard against that bias. We become defensive in the face of what we perceive to be an opposition that surrounds us with its messages. We "protect" ourselves by seeking media that are in closer agreement to our own beliefs- be it The Nation or The National Review.

We seek the answer to this question not only for its own truth, but to become better truth-seekers. But, like so many feedback mechanisms, the initial conditions are important to the equilibrium we eventually reach. These initial conditions are formed, not only by the sum total of our individual political positions, but also by our assumptions of what the characteristics of the political spectrum and the media itself are.

I make no statement as to how common these assumptions are or whether they are true or not. I mean only to call attention to them, so that you may ask yourself whether you believe them or not.

  • We call a political position "political" because there is disagreement on the subject between liberals and conservatives. Anything that liberals and conservatives agree on is true and no longer in the sphere of debate.
  • All of the various media are similar enough that we can use one word, "media", to refer to them all, and discuss their collective bias.
  • The real bias in the media comes from the college-educated journalists, who through their word choices put an emotive slant on the story.
  • The real bias in the media comes from the money-driven corporations that control them, who through their choices of what stories to cover can frame the debate.
  • The bias is intentional and politically motivated.
  • Journalists get their information from work in the field. They are there as the story happens. They double-check their sources.
  • The free market system acts as a corrective measure against both omission and commission.
There are more assumptions out there- too many to possibly state here. The reader is invited to look for them and understand them before continuing. This node is long enough that you need not post them here.


Regardless of the conclusion we come to, there are ways that we as individuals can protect ourselves from the problem of biased sources.

First, we must recognise that hiding within the protective blanket of media that share our biases can introduce a systematic error into our judgements just as pernicious as any of the general media at large. We should take a page from the book of the scientist- or, at least, the statistician- and seek a large sample of data with which to judge. To avoid selection bias, we should get information from sources as diverse as possible. The Nation and The National Review, however different they are, are both magazines published in America by large organizations. There are other outlets that do not share these similarities, and we would do well to expand our data set by including these- from low-tech zines to web sites from nonprofit organizations based in other countries.

The point of this node ought not to be about possible bias among commentators on talk radio, Sunday gab-fests, and op-ed pieces. People, these are opinion forums, they are supposed to be biased!. I suppose there are several interesting debates that ought to be softlinked to this node, like where precisely is the center in U.S. politics, and like do conservative commentators outnumber liberal commentators, and if so, what does it mean. But that isn't what serious people mean when they talk about liberal media bias.

When tregoweth writes, "If the media's so liberal, where's Noam Chomsky? Where's Michael Moore? Not on any major media outlets that I know of." These two have made some interesting points that deserve to be heard, but dude, get a clue. These aren't reporters or newsmakers, they're opinion makers, and by any mainstream standard, these two are the far left wing. They're about as quotable in non-opinion reporting as are Lyndon LaRouche or David Duke. If tregoweth or his colleagues read this, I am sure in the fine tradition of Chomsky he will deconstruct my entire write-up as feeding the vast right-wing media conspiracy. I wish him well, and can only hope he does it creatively, like cabin fever did in this deconstruction of a rant against graffiti, instead of boringly, as he did here. Besides, when Moore actually makes news, he gets plenty of coverage. He had no qualms doing the Madonna media whore drill to promote his latest book, claiming to be shocked...shocked when his publisher asked (but did not insist) that he mellow his book after 9-11. The book went out unchanged, and the fake controversy helped keep it a best seller. At least Madonna had a legitimate beef in that her performance really was censored in Toronto, by the police.

The Media Are Biased In How They Label Newsmakers.

The question of media bias is whether traditional news reporting, you know, the kind that is supposed to inform rather than persuade, is biased.

There was some interesting debate on this question not to long ago on the Newshour With Jim Lehrer, on PBS. On the one side was former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg, author of the book Bias; on the other side was Marvin Kalb, "a former NBC and CBS reporter now with the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy" (the man must carry an immense business card) at Harvard.

Goldberg's position is one with which the readers of this node are possibly sick of hearing, that the media is liberally biased. However, one of Goldberg's major points hasn't been discussed in this node so far: the issue of labeling. Goldberg says,

"There is no conspiracy. The media elites don't come into their offices in the morning, go into a dark room, roll up their sleeves, give the secret handshake and say, "How are we going to not only execute our liberal agenda, but get conservatives at the same time?"

That's not it. They marginalize conservatives mainly...by identifying every conservative who's in a story...but they rarely identify liberals."
Goldberg isn't against labeling, he acknowledges that the audience needs to know the presumed biases of those who make the news or provide the quotes. His point is, there is inconsistent labeling, the result not of some media plot but of the all-too-human tendency to see the world as you as you see yourself. But reporters are supposed to be professionals, and have a duty to rise above their foibles. Start paying attention to labeling in whatever news you watch or read, I'll bet within a week you will easily spot an example. One of Goldberg's examples is from the Clinton impeachment hearing, here he is speaking to Marvin Kalb:
"And right before the impeachment proceedings began, Senators went up to sign what they call an 'oath book', promising to be fair and impartial. As they went up, Peter Jennings, doing a live play-by-play, on ABC, identified Senator Santorum as a young conservative Senator from Pennsylvania -- 'determinately conservative'. Then Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was also a 'determined conservative'. Senator Smith from New Hampshire was a 'very, very conservative Senator from New Hampshire'. Those are exact quotes. And I think that's absolutely fine. This is impeachment, it's a political process, we need to know that these are conservatives, and their conservatism may affect their views.

But Marvin, Barbara Boxer was simply 'Barbara Boxer from California'. Ted Kennedy was simply 'Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts'. Paul Wellstone was simply 'Paul Wellstone from Minnesota'. Now, did Peter Jennings, who is a bright, intelligent, excellent, first-rate newsman, did he really think that the conservative views would affect the vote, but that liberal views wouldn't affect the vote?

You see, this reminds me of the bad-old days, and we both remember these days, Marvin, when the only time a criminal was identified in a news story by race is if he were black."
Goldberg labels himself a lifetime liberal who as of 1996 had never voted Republican. If he has a strong opinion one way or the other about the impeachment, I haven't been able to find it. Anybody know differently?

In response, Kalb makes some important points. He says its more complicated than simple bias, and he's right. He points out that the "liberal" media had no problem skewering Clinton when the time came, and he's right. The media aren't so biased that they're willing to give up high ratings. But on the specific issue of labeling, Kalb's response is illuminating -- he doesn't deny there's a problem, he just said it was not bias but...ready for this..."if there's lousy journalism, so be it." As if that makes it all OK.

What bothers me is, these lapses in labeling would be so easy to fix. Did you know that CNN anchors aren't supposed to use the word "foreign"? Ted Turner, who owns most of CNN, feels its a pejorative term and encourages his reporters to identify the country or use a word like "international". Newsrooms around the U.S. are responding to new diversity policies that require them to quotes and photograph more minorities when they do the inane person in the street reaction shot or interview ("When the Earthquake hit, how did you feel?"). A simple memo from the news director or president of the major networks would marginalize the point that Goldberg makes. It would be great PR for the media, as it would give the public the impression that the media can respond constructively to the same type of criticism they dish out to corporations and government. If enforced, such a memo would solve this labeling problem. And yet some would rather deny there is a political angle to this problem. Says Kalb to Goldberg, "your reaching back into dangerous turf: Spiro Agnew, Nixon, the media lost the Vietnam War. This is not simply a matter of choosing one issue over another; this is the condemnation of an industry". But bad journalism and the failure to take even elementary steps to correct it somehow isn't a condemnation of the industry? That defensive reaction to me suggests its more than just lousy journalism.

The labeling problem becomes even more pronounced if you listen for the affixes "far-" and "-wing". If you don't hear "conservative" that much more often that you hear "liberal", try listening for "right-wing", which you hear about as often as you'd expect, and "left-wing", which you almost never hear in non-opinion news. "Far-right" is uncommon, but I am hard pressed to think of a time I've read or heard "far-left" outside of conservative op-eds. Its perhaps most pronounced when anchors are broadcasting live instead of from a script. Outfits like Accuracy In Media, http://www.aim.org/ (which I would label right-wing) have attempted scientific tallies. But my personal experience, long before I found out about AIM, has been that the labeling problem is so pronounced, you don't need statistics to see it. Just listen to the news.

Interestingly, in my experience, the European press doesn't seem to have as much of a problem, they don't mind labeling what they consider to be "the left" as such. Anybody care to broaden this discussion to Europe?

Sources and Notes

All Goldberg and Kalb quotes from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/jan-june02/bias_1-24.html

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