What Does Liberal Bias Mean?

Let me begin with the typical right-wing view that the MSM is left-wing biased (which I’ve discussed before: here, here, here, and here; but this post will take a somewhat different viewpoint than those previous analyses). This complaint is a particularly unhelpful viewpoint in that it simplifies a complex reality. At worst, one could say some of the MSM has a liberal bias which is vastly different than saying all or most of the MSM has a left-wing bias.

As Nader explained a similar distinction:

While the political right has been beating the drum for years that NPR is too liberal, Nader says that is not the true picture at all. He says that it is progressives on the political left, like him, who are being excluded from NPR’s airwaves.

“Progressive voices are not heard on NPR with the frequency of voices representing more corporatist and conservative opinion,” Nader said. “And progressive voices should not be confused with liberal voices and lumped into the same category for any frequency analysis.”

According to Nader, what NPR considers a liberal perspective is really middle-of-the-road. Among his examples are well-known Democrats like President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Progressives, he said, exist farther to the left on the political spectrum. They support things like a Medicare-type single-payer system for all Americans, and not the health care compromise passed by Congress.

Nader does make at least one good point. Academic studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that the country’s political right, more than the left, is so peopled by true believers driven by principle that they reject political compromise and stay on message with such a strong voice that it attracts great media attention and exaggerates their real weight in the populace.

By ‘progressive’, Nader apparently means the same as what some would call a ‘left-liberal’. In this sense, such a distinction is clearly a reality. The difference here is between those who favor the status quo and those who are strongly and maybe even radically against it. Go even further to the left toward the actual left-wing (Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, left-libertarians, etc) and the difference is even vaster.

In a review of Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky, a good explanation was given of what liberal bias means:

[T]he mainstream American corporate media (the big networks, the big newspapers, news magazines, etc)serve to uphold the interests of the elites in this country (political and economic). Chomsky and Herman acknowledge that we do have a “liberal” press, (what does it really mean to be ‘liberal’ in America today anyways?), but that the liberalness is kept within acceptable boundaries. Basically, the mainstream press may give a liberal slant on what the dominant institutions and systems are doing…but they will not question the very nature of the institutions and systems themselves.

For example, today’s Los Angeles Times (January 6,2003) had a page 2 story on the U.N sanctions against Iraq. Now, the typical reader may see the story, and figure that since the LA Times is even reporting on the impact of sanctions against Iraqi civillians, this is demonstrative of their ‘liberal’ leanings. However, the story leaves untouched the most crucial issues regarding UN sanctions against Iraq, such as:
1)the U.S. and U.K. are the sole countries who sit on the UN Secutity Council who refuse to lift the sanctions against Iraq, despite the pleas of the other member nations (such as Russia, France, China, etc).
2)UN estimates have put the death toll from the sanctions at nearly one million civillians.
3)Two consecutive UN Humanitarian Coordinators have resigned in the past five years in protest of the effect of the sanctions, with the first stating “We are in the process of destroying an entire society.”

Basically, the mainstream corporatized press will leave the most crucial questions unanswered, if they portray American power in a bad light.


Liberalism has almost become entirely equivalent with the status quo. It’s a strange phenomenon. This became evident to me in reading about Corey Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism. I discussed this theory with a left-winger who is highly critical of liberalism and, like Nader, tends to identify liberalism with its representatives in mainstream politics and media.

One insight has grown stronger in my mind. Corey Robin’s reactionary conservatives, according to their actual behavior, aren’t particularly interested in conserving anything and so their credentials as ‘conservatives’ is questionable. On the other hand, mainstream liberalism doesn’t particularly seem interested in liberating anyone or liberalizing anything. The former are reacting to the status quo and the latter are defending it.

Corey Robin makes the argument that conservatives have been reactionary ever since the conservative movement first began. Conservatism arose in reaction to a revolutionary era of radical politics, but conservatism wasn’t dedicated to defending the interests of traditionalism, of the old elites. Conservatives wanted a hierachical social order, just not the previous version found in the ancien régime. To conservatives, the old order had failed to defend society against radical revolutionaries and so needed to be replaced. In order to create a new order, they adopted the rhetoric of the left and adapted their methods to the purposes of conservatism.

This theory, along with other data, puts liberalism into a different context. Liberalism and conservatism are closely tied together. Liberals were also responding to the aftermath of radical revolution. However, instead of wanting to fight against it, liberals wanted to defend the public good that was achieved by systematizing democracy. This is how the United States began. So, this is how liberalism became the status quo of America and how liberals became the defenders of that status quo.

Saying that the American MSM has a liberal bias isn’t saying much at all. All of American politics and society has a liberal bias in this sense. Truth be told, Americans as a whole have a liberal bias, even though most Americans don’t identify as liberals:

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

In America, a liberal bias simply means a status quo bias. As the data shows, even many self-identified conservatives support standard liberal positions. When conservatives allege a liberal bias in the MSM, they are speaking a greater truth than they realize.

The conservative complaint simply expresses their complaint against all of modernity. The actual complaint isn’t against media bias but against the media not being biased in their favor… and that society in general isn’t biased in their favor.


The problem the conservative faces is this.

One can’t simultaneously claim that the MSM has a leftist bias and that big business media conglomerates are acting according to a functioning free market by giving people what they want. One or the other might be true, but definitely not both. If the MSM is giving people what they want, then it isn’t a bias being forced on viewers. If the MSM is forcing a bias on viewers, then people aren’t being given what they want.

There is an inconsistency here. They can hold onto their belief that the MSM is biased or hold onto their belief that the free market works, but they can’t have both simultaneously. The claim of a left-wing bias would mean that the MSM isn’t friendly to conservative issues such as related to business. This is a strange claim to make since MSM is all about business and very successful at that. In reality, the main bias of the MSM is making a profit. However, it is true that as businesses media companies will seek to promote their own business interests in the political arena. Certainly, the MSM as big business has absolutely no incentive to present a left-wing bias of Marxism, socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc.

In the MSM, right-wing think tanks are cited as sources and have their representatives on as guests (I’ve even come across right-wing think tank representatives on NPR). Right-libertarians even have their own shows that are aired nationally. Heck, even the Russian channel made for American audiences has a libertarian host.

On the other hand, you’ll rarely if ever come across a left-winger on the MSM, whether as host or guest. You won’t see a panel of Marxists to analyze a campaign debate. You won’t see a socialist organization cited as a standard source in a major newspaper.

The argument of conservatives is that it ultimately has more to do with the issues discussed. The issues are seen as leftist and so any discussion is framed by simply bringing up such issues. This seems like grasping at straws to me.

Why is simply bringing up ‘environmentalism’ as a topic inherently a leftwing bias? How is it framing the discussion by the very act of discussing an issue that is relevant to everyone? If mentioning ‘environmentalism’ is framing, then why isn’t framing to have a business section but not a labor section? Why is it a leftwing bias to have a discussion of global warming that doesn’t include a denialist? Why isn’t a rightwing bias to not include a neopagan environmentalist or a anarchoprimitivist? Why is it a leftwing bias to not regularly report on rightwing politics such as fundamentalism and libertarianism? Why isn’t it a rightwing bias to not regularly report on leftwing politics such as atheism and Marxism?

The framing I care about isn’t just bias in the simple sense, although it includes it. In many ways, I do think the MSM gives people what they want. On the other hand, the MSM shapes what people want by controlling their choices. Not only are choices excluded, knowledge about those choices are ignored or dismissed. Framing is more insidious than the conservative view of bias. The problem is partly about how the elite control every aspect of life (through big media, big business, big government, etc), but this isn’t necessarily conspiracy. The power of frames is that even the promoter of frames ends up believing their frames, not unlike how the propagandist ends up using his own rhetoric to rationalize his actions in his own mind.
Still, it goes beyond even this. Framing is about culture itself. The framing of all of American society is liberal (which I first discussed in an extensive post about public opinion in terms of ideology, but there are two other posts where I discuss in more detail early regional history as it relates to different ideological traditions — here and here; also, an interesting post about the relationship of republicanism to liberalism in early American thought). American culture grew out of early radical liberalism such as Paine and Jefferson along with the less radical classical liberalism; the criticism and defense of markets, for example, both originally came from the left and both lacked roots in traditional conservatism. American culture also grew out of massive hypocrisy such as genocide, slavery and political disenfranchisement that undermined the ideals of that liberalism from the beginning (because liberals willingly compromised their own ideals, liberalism being undermined from within more than from without).
So, American culture has always been a combination of liberalism and hypocrisy, the two may be so intertwined at this point to be inseparable. Liberalism has been too often used to justify the failings of American society, liberals never allowing the perfect get in the way of the good which not unusually means that the theoretical goodness itself becomes questionable over time. My critcism of liberals often involves such hypocrisy.
Liberalism is the frame of American culture and so, at least in that sense, it is unsurprising that liberal framing could be seen in the MSM. Nonetheless, I don’t see why caring about the environment and environmental issues is a leftist bias. Considering we all live in and as part of environments, I’d assume that every American wants to see environmentalism (pollution, alternative energy, climatology, etc) discussed in the media.
Anyway, my point is that liberalism isn’t a frame invented by the MSM. It is simply American culture. Even American conservatives have mostly accepted the liberal frame in terms of embracing Lockean classical liberalism and so by default have also inherited the hypocrisy that goes along with it.
To get past the ideological debate, all we have to do is look at what the data shows. The fact is that conservatives, Republicans, and Fox News viewers are the most informed. But what is interesting is that they are more misinformed to the degree they are informed. So, those on the right don’t know whether they actually know what they think they know.
I shouldn’t even bother linking any of the studies showing this misinformed bias on the right (for there are so many of them at this point, enough studies that Chris Mooney wrote an entire book analyzing the phenomenon), but I will share one because it specifically is about the media. In the 2003 study Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War, Fox News viewers were predictably the most misinformed whereas NPR and PBS audiences were the least misinformed. If there is a bias in public radio (and the non-rightwing portions of the MSM in general), it apparently is a bias towards accurately informing its audience or at least not a bias toward misinforming its audience to the degree of Fox News.
The problem is that those on the right think everything has a leftist bias. Along with the MSM, science has a leftist bias, higher education has a leftist bias, the government has a leftist bias, polling organizations have a leftist bias, and on and on. Everything that isn’t explicitly right-wing has a leftist bias, possibly even communist. So, it ultimately is an impossible debate to win. The conservative complaint isn’t based on objective facts in the first place and so can’t be changed through the presentation of objective facts. Any facts disproving the alleged bias will simply be considered as part of the conspiracy of bias.
As a side note, I thought I should give NPR credit for acknowledging its own biases, even if not the biases that conservatives would assume:
by Edward Schumacher-Matos
 by Edward Schumacher-Matos
Here are two very recent videos that analyze how the bias debate is presently playing out in the MSM:

2 thoughts on “What Does Liberal Bias Mean?

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