The following is more evidence (and analysis) of what seems obvious to me from my having closely followed the media in recent years.
Conservatives claim the media is dominated by liberals and some conservatives go so far as to allege a liberal conspiracy, but this has never fit my own observations. Most of what is considered liberal always seemed to be centrist or moderately liberal at most. All you have to do is compare the media’s treatment of Bush as compared to Obama. Bush didn’t try to be bipartisan at all and pushed agendas so ideological that it made real liberals cringe, but the media allowed itself to be embedded and mostly reported the press releases straight from the White House.
I wish the media had been dominated by a real liberal agenda. In the mainstream media, Fox News almost entirely controls the narrative that all the other news sources follow. The only liberal narrative that is able to strongly counter this mostly comes from comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Conservatives have been very successful in controlling the political narrative in the media.
Even Conservatives Admit Liberal Media Bias Is A Myth, Yet They Perpetuate It
Alterman includes in his book quotes from both James Baker and William Kristol happily admitting that there is no meaningful liberal bias in the media. Instead, they and other archconservatives concede, they are simply “working the refs,” in order to force the media to bend over backward to compensate for a bias that even they admit is, at the very least, grossly exaggerated.
One might think this kind of concession by the mythmakers would kill the myth. But it turns out that the myth is far too useful, and it continues to be purveyed to television viewers unlikely ever to open Alterman’s work and read these concessions of its falsity.
For instance, consider Kristol’s comments in late May of this year, when he appeared on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart started by commenting on how well things are going for conservatives in the U.S., and he asked: “Is there anything else conservatives want?” Kristol, without missing a beat, replied: “Well, the liberals still dominate the media.” To his credit, Stewart was incredulous; but Kristol was unfazed.
Even Liberals Themselves Play a Part In Perpetuating the Liberal Bias Myth
Meanwhile, the liberal “refs” have certainly been “worked” into submission. Take Stewart himself. His show traffics in sharp political satire, much of it highly critical of the Administration. Yet Stewart takes every opportunity to deny being liberal, consistently asserting that he is simply cynical. He regularly treats conservative guests with kid gloves, while turning into a tough interrogator of liberal guests. In the latter category, Arianna Huffington’s appearance was a sorry spectacle, with Stewart constantly interrupting and saying things like, “What’s the point? We can’t do anything about this stuff, anyway!”
Similarly, the Times’s Nicholas Kristof identifies himself as a liberal, but it often seems that he chooses to do so simply to be able to chide other liberals for being too liberal. For instance, is it truly a concern that the New York-based Times employs no evangelical Christians, as Kristof recently noted? Have any actually applied and been rejected on religious grounds?
By the way, I’m not saying there is no liberal bias anywhere in the media. There is all kinds of bias because every person is biased, but I would point out two important issues.
First, there is no equivalent to Fox News on the left. For example: Fox News management sends out memos about which issues to report and which talking points to use (I haven’t heard of any other mainstream news outlet doing this). Fox News donated a lot of money to Republicans (compare that to the ‘far left’ MSNBC which donated equally to both Republicans and Democrats). Fox News has promoted the Tea Party even to the extent of having their employees speak at protests and rile up the crowd for the cameras (as far as I know, this level of promotion of a protest movement hasn’t before been seen in the modern mainstream media).
Second, in order to ascertain bias one has to look at the entire industry. Most journalists, like most academics and scientists, identify as liberals. Yes, liberals are attracted to intellectual professions which probably relates to the fact that liberals on average have higher IQs and have higher levels of education (why this is the case is a whole other issue; for example, the research by Satoshi Kanazawa). Part of the issue here involves the definition and public opinion about labels (which I discuss more at the end). There are cultural reasons for why people choose to self-identify with particular labels. Most self-identified liberals are like most other Americans in that they are moderate in their views (relative to the far left which is rarely seen in mainstream media and politics).
Looking at the entire news industry, one must realize that journalists, reporters, and pundits represent a small percentage of the people involved. Even if the talking heads on tv self-identify as ‘liberal’, that doesn’t automatically lead to the conclusion the media has a liberal bias. The talking heads generally don’t make the decisions about what gets reported and how. The talking heads don’t own the corporate media. The talking heads aren’t the management of the news rooms.
Going by this, some argue that the mainstream media news outlets serve the interests of the corporations that own them rather than any particular ideological bias. However, this misses the point. Conservatism in the US has become aligned with a pro-capitalist, pro-corporation worldview. And liberalism in the US has become aligned with a worldview that is more critically suspect of capitalism and corporations. Liberals, not conservatives, are the defenders of workers unions.
The data reveal that, despite growth patterns that overwhelmingly favored economic elites, thenegative news about the economy disproportionately depicted events and problems affecting corporations andinvestors instead of the general workforce. When theTimesdid discuss problems affecting workers, the articleswere relatively short, most often placed in the back sections of the newspaper, and rarely discussed policy alternativesto the status quo. Moreover, unlike the viewpoints of business leaders and government officials, the viewpointsof workers or their spokespersons were rarely used as sources of information. These findings providequalified support for existing scholarship purporting that the news media, when reporting on the economy, privilegethe interests of corporations and investors over the interests of the general workforce.
GIVING LABOR THE BUSINESS
Why do so many people have a negative view of workers a labor unions? In part, it is because of what is fed to them by the corporate-owned news media. A 1990 City University of New York study found that programs devoted to “elite” personages consumed “nearly ten times more PBS prime-time programming hours than programs devoted to workers?’ Less than half of one percent of the programming dealt with workers-and it was mostly with British rather than American ones. A Los Angeles Times survey found that newspaper editors favored business over labor by 54 to 7 percent. My reading of this nation’s newspapers leaves me to wonder who the 7 percent might be.
The media’s pro-business bias is pronounced enough for anyone to see. The major newspapers and weeklies have no labor section to go along with their business section. They have whole staffs reporting on business news but not more than one labor reporter, if that. And usually “labor” reporters, judging from the ones I have met, show no special grasp of labor’s struggles or sensitivity toward workers’ issues. If they did, they would not last at that assignment and would be judged as “getting too close” to their subject.
The media’s devotion to corporate America is manifested in the many TV and radio commentary shows that are glutted with conservatives. Public affairs programming is crowded with offerings like “Wall Street Week’ “American Enterprise’ “Adam Smith’s Money World,” “Nightly Business Report,” and “Marketplace?’
The network evening news regularly reports the Dow Jones average but offers no weekly tabulations on lay-offs, industrial accidents, and long-term occupational illness. When the stock market has a good day, for some reason this is treated as good news for all of us. The press seldom refers to the politico-economic power of corporations. The economy itself is presented as something government and business attend to, while organized labor tags along at best as a very junior and often troublesome partner.
The media’s anti-labor biases should come as no surprise. Media owners themselves are among the most exploitative, antiunion employers and strikebreakers. Over the years, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the New York Daily News, CBS, NBC and numerous other news organizations have been locked in bitter strikes that ended with unions being seriously weakened or totally crushed. As Washington Post owner Katharine Graham is reportedly fond of saying: “Unions interfere with freedom of the press.”
National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger (Corner, 3/24/10), responding to CNN pairing disgraced Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer with a not-conservative-enough-for-National-Review Kathleen Parker, muses:
I’m reminded why conservatives had to build their own media outlets. It’s sort of like Jews and country clubs. Jews built their own, not because they wanted to, necessarily, but because the other clubs wouldn’t let them in. They weren’t being “clannish.” They wanted to play golf, on first-class courses….
Well, we conservatives built our own media outlets–because the other clubs wouldn’t let us in. I guess it’s working out OK.
[ . . . ] In the bad old days, when no one would let conservatives work in the media, who was the country’s most prominent columnist? Walter Winchell, defender of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. Similar politics didn’t stop Paul Harvey from getting a daily slot for commentary on the ABC Radio Network.
The fact is that many of the people who owned newspapers, magazines and radio stations–as you might expect of millionaire businessmen–were quite conservative: people like Robert McCormick, Harry Chandler and Frank Gannett. These are the bosses who would have been barring conservatives from working in the media industry. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?
The Conservative Advantage in Syndicated Op-Ed Columns
Among the report’s key findings:
- Conservative Syndicated Columnists Dominate Daily Newspapers — Sixty percent of the nation’s newspapers print more conservative syndicated columnists every week than progressive syndicated columnists. Only 20 percent run more progressives than conservatives, while the remaining 20 percent are evenly balanced.
- Conservative Syndicated Columnists Reach Millions More Than Progressives — In a given week, nationally syndicated conservative columnists are published in more than 153 million newspapers. Progressive columnists, on the other hand, are published in 125 million newspapers.
- Top Syndicated Columnists Are Mostly Conservative — The top-10 list of columnists, sorted by the number of papers in which they are carried or by the total circulation of the papers in which they are published, includes five conservatives, two centrists, and only three progressives.
- In Region After Region, Conservative Syndicated Columnists Enjoy Advantage — In eight of the nine regions into which the U.S. Census divides the country, conservative syndicated columnists reach more readers than progressive syndicated columnists in any given week. Only in the Middle Atlantic region (which includes New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) do progressive columnists reach more readers each week.
“Together these results prove what many have suspected for years — that our opinion pages are consistently skewed to the right, allowing conservatives a disproportionate advantage in shaping public opinion,” said David Brock, President and CEO of Media Matters. “The integrity of our nation’s newspapers is at stake when the debate of today’s pressing issues is dominated entirely by one side of the argument,” Brock said.
Conservatives are often heard to complain about the “liberal media,” a nefarious cabal of journalists and media owners supposedly endeavoring to twist the news to serve their ideological agenda. Media Matters for America has shown in a variety of ways that the “liberal media” is a myth. Our two reports on the Sunday talk shows showed how those programs are dominated by conservative guests. Our analysis of the coverage of religion showed how that coverage favors conservatives. Analyses performed by other organizations have shown how conservatives dominate talk radio. And this study demonstrates that in yet another key portion of the news media, conservatives enjoy a structural advantage that gives them a leg up in influencing public opinion.
That structural advantage enables them to transmit an overarching narrative across the country, one that serves to convey the impression that conservative ideas that in many cases enjoy tiny support are actually the “reasonable center” in key debates. To take just one example, prominent conservative columnists who wrote about the topic were nearly unanimous in support of President Bush’s decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence, while some advocated pardoning him outright, despite the fact that polls indicated the decision had the support of only around one in five Americans.
In terms of the number of people reached by their ideas and opinions, of the authority they are granted, and of their prestige, there are few in the American news media who equal the lofty position held by the top syndicated columnists. Read by millions, even tens of millions, their opinions form the basis on which our democratic debate often proceeds. Because they have a national reach, they also have the power to advance ideas and narratives that local columnists simply do not have.
As this study has demonstrated, the landscape of syndicated columnists is dominated by conservatives. They reach considerably more readers than progressives. By a 3-to-1 margin, most American newspapers run more conservative syndicated columnists than progressives. In nearly every region of the country, the conservative voice on op-ed pages is louder than the progressive voice. And for every one state that has a greater progressive voice, there are three in which conservatives have more influence.
In short, while the right wing spends a great deal of time complaining about alleged bias in the media, when it comes to the nation’s op-ed pages, it is the progressives who are getting the short end of the stick.
A study of NPR’s guest list
By Steve Rendall and Daniel Butterworth
That NPR harbors a liberal bias is an article of faith among many conservatives. Spanning from the early ’70s, when President Richard Nixon demanded that “all funds for public broadcasting be cut” (9/23/71), through House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s similar threats in the mid-’90s, the notion that NPR leans left still endures.
News of the April launch of Air America , a new liberal talk radio network, revived the old complaint, with several conservative pundits declaring that such a thing already existed. “I have three letters for you, NPR . . . . I mean, there is liberal radio,” remarked conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan on NBC ’s Chris Matthews Show (4/4/04.) A few days earlier (4/1/04), conservative columnist Cal Thomas told Nightline , “The liberals have many outlets,” naming NPR prominently among them.
Nor is this belief confined to the right: CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (3/31/04) seemed to repeat it as a given while questioning a liberal guest: “What about this notion that the conservatives make a fair point that there already is a liberal radio network out there, namely National Public Radio ?”
Despite the commonness of such claims, little evidence has ever been presented for a left bias at NPR , and FAIR’s latest study gives it no support. Looking at partisan sources—including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants—Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And a lively race for the Democratic presidential nomination was beginning to heat up at the time of the 2003 study.
Partisans from outside the two major parties were almost nowhere to be seen, with the exception of four Libertarian Party representatives who appeared in a single story (Morning Edition , 6/26/03).
Republicans not only had a substantial partisan edge, individual Republicans were NPR ’s most popular sources overall, taking the top seven spots in frequency of appearance. George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances, followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8) and Sen. Pat Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each.
Senators Edward Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Max Baucus were the most frequently heard Democrats, each appearing four times. No nongovernmental source appeared more than three times. With the exception of Secretary of State Powell, all of the top 10 most frequently appearing sources were white male government officials.
The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio
By John Halpin, James Heidbreder, Mark Lloyd, Paul Woodhull, Ben Scott, Josh Silver, S. Derek Turner
Despite the dramatic expansion of viewing and listening options for consumers today, traditional radio remains one of the most widely used media formats in America. Arbitron, the national radio ratings company, reports that more than 90 percent of Americans ages 12 or older listen to radio each week, “a higher penetration than television, magazines, newspapers, or the Internet.” Although listening hours have declined slightly in recent years, Americans listened on average to 19 hours of radio per week in 2006.
Among radio formats, the combined news/talk format (which includes news/talk/information and talk/personality) leads all others in terms of the total number of stations per format and trails only country music in terms of national audience share. Through more than 1,700 stations across the nation, the combined news/talk format is estimated to reach more than 50 million listeners each week.
As this report will document in detail, conservative talk radio undeniably dominates the format:
- Our analysis in the spring of 2007 of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners reveals that 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive.
- Each weekday, 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of conservative talk are broadcast on these stations compared to 254 hours of progressive talk—10 times as much conservative talk as progressive talk.
- A separate analysis of all of the news/talk stations in the top 10 radio markets reveals that 76 percent of the programming in these markets is conservative and 24 percent is progressive, although programming is more balanced in markets such as New York and Chicago.
Those aren’t small numbers. The demographics and the technological landscape is changing, but for now conservative talk radio is still kicking ass and taking numbers.
There are many potential explanations for why this gap exists. The two most frequently cited reasons are the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and simple consumer demand. As this report will detail, neither of these reasons adequately explains why conservative talk radio dominates the airwaves.
Our conclusion is that the gap between conservative and progressive talk radio is the result of multiple structural problems in the U.S. regulatory system, particularly the complete breakdown of the public trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination of clear public interest requirements for broadcasting, and the relaxation of ownership rules including the requirement of local participation in management.
Ownership diversity is perhaps the single most important variable contributing to the structural imbalance based on the data. Quantitative analysis conducted by Free Press of all 10,506 licensed commercial radio stations reveals that stations owned by women, minorities, or local owners are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows.
In contrast, stations controlled by group owners—those with stations in multiple markets or more than three stations in a single market—were statistically more likely to air conservative talk. Furthermore, markets that aired both conservative and progressive programming were statistically less concentrated than the markets that aired only one type of programming and were more likely to be the markets that had female- and minority-owned stations.
Basically, what this means is that deregulation contributed to big business dominating the public airwaves with their conservative ideology. It’s actually more of an issue of diversity, but without regulation there is nothing to ensure diversity. America is demographically diverse and would choose diverse radio talk shows if they were offered, but it isn’t in the interest of big business to offer diverse programming.
I came across this issue before and wrote about it in an earlier post:
The Strange Death of Liberal America
By Ralph Brauer
A second decision that became equally important for the Counterrevolution was the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. First enacted in 1949, the FCC ruling looked into the future and decided that because they operated in the public interest, the mass media should present all sides of controversial questions. The Supreme Court upheld the Fairness Doctrine in the 1969 Red Lion case, still generally considered as one of the Court’s landmark decisions.
Red Lion not only involves the Religous Right but also foretells exactly what would happen with repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. The case began when the Reverend Billy James Hargis, the Jerry Falwell of his day, accused the author of a book on Barry Goldwater of being a communist. The author sued under the Fairness Doctrine and the Court found in his favor. In its decision the Court said the Fairness Doctrine serves to “enhance rather than abridge the freedoms of speechand press protected by the First Amendment.” It also noted that “when a personal attack has been made on a figure involved in a public issue” the doctrine requires that “the individual attacked himself be offered an opportunity to respond.”
In 1987, an FCC packed with commissioners appointed by Ronald Reagan voted to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. When Congress tried to overrule the decision by passing a law extending the doctrine, Reagan vetoed it. Just as the Buckley decision opened the door to single-issue PACS, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine opened the door wide for ideologues like Robertson.
I don’t know what this means for the future, but it does explain how conservative ideology has became so dominant in recent decades. I hope it changes as the demographics keep shifting towards the liberal. Conservatives have a tight grip, though, and they’re not going to give up their position of power without a fight. The corporations that fund the conservative media have deep pockets and the Republican party has proven itself savvy in astro-turfing social movements. Conservatives have been able to challenge abortion and public option even though the majority of Americans support them. How can liberals successfully fight such media control. If conservative corporations ever find a way to control the internet, the liberal movement is a lost cause.
In context of all this data and analysis, there is a related problem. To determine if there is a liberal bias, one would have to determine what is ‘liberal’.
First, the American public isn’t polarized despite the fact that the political representatives of the American public are polarized and despite the fact that the mainstream media portrays the American public as polarized. Most Americans are ‘moderates’.
Second, although ‘moderate’, most Americans (along with most media and politicians) have a very biased view of ‘liberalism’. Most Americans actually hold many liberal views even while holding a negative view of ‘liberalism’ as a label.
Let me give a couple of examples:
- Most Americans aren’t ‘pro-choice’ about abortion in terms of it being entirely unregulated, but this is a ‘moderate’ position. Most pro-choice activists aren’t for complete deregulation just like most gun rights advocates aren’t for complete deregulation. Still, most Americans are for the right of women to choose for themselves and they don’t want Roe vs Wade to be repealed. This moderate to liberal position has remained consistent for quite a while.
- Most Americans are for the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana use. This is a flagship issue for among progressive liberals. Conservatives claim Obama is far to the left and yet Obama laughed off the idea of legalization/decriminalization as if it were a radical notion unworthy of being taken seriously. So, the average American is more liberal than Obama on this particular issue. This isn’t surprising considering Democrats on average are centrist (not the same thing as moderate; the center of Washington politics isn’t the center of public opinion).
The New York Times is one of the most effective tools for limiting discussion in the U.S. political system. Falsely perceived as a left-leaning outlet, it has the power to make the most reasonable proposals seem ultra-radical by placing them beyond the pale.
[…] In other words, proposals like progressive taxation should be avoided because people might call you a liberal. This from the daily news outlet that was named by journalists most often when asked to name one that was “especially liberal.”
For the record, taxing the rich is not an idea that has “a chance of winning broad public support”–it already has broad public support.
This is a very important insight.
Extremely conservative opinions get voiced in the mainstream such as with Fox News, but what is perceived as extremely liberal doesn’t. The particularly significant aspect is the perception of what is liberal or conservative, what is mainstream or radical. Some pundits who act like populists may not actually espouse populist opinions. And some opinions that get denied or ignored in mainstream media might actually be popular opinion.
Because of this bias, smaller protests on the right such as the Tea Party get positive media attention and lots of it, but larger protests on the left such as the anti-war movement get negative media attention or else little attention at all.
The following criticisms of a study demonstrates the problems this can lead to. If the labels used themselves are biased, one will come to biased conclusions about bias.
Definition of bias categorized ACLU as conservative
Any quantitative study of this sort must take a complex idea — in this case, “bias” — and operationalize it into something that can be measured. But given its rather odd operationalization of “bias,” it is perhaps unsurprising that the study’s scheme leads to some categorizations no observer — on the right or the left — could take seriously, including the following:
- National Rifle Association of America (NRA) scored a 45.9, making it “conservative” — but just barely.
- RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization (motto: “OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS. EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS.”) with strong ties to the Defense Department, scored a 60.4, making it a “liberal” group.
- Council on Foreign Relations, whose tagline is “A Nonpartisan Resource for Information and Analysis” (its current president is a former Bush administration official; its board includes prominent Democrats and Republicans from the foreign policy establishment) scored a 60.2, making it a “liberal” group.
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), bête noire of the right, scored a 49.8, putting it just on the “conservative” side of the ledger.
- Center for Responsive Politics, a group whose primary purpose is the maintenance of databases on political contributions, scored a 66.9, making it highly “liberal.”
- Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense policy think tank whose board of directors is currently chaired by former Representative Dave McCurdy (D-OK), scored a 33.9, making it more “conservative” than AEI and than the National Taxpayers Union.
We leave to the reader the judgment on whether anyone could take seriously a coding scheme in which RAND is considered substantially more “liberal” than the ACLU. But this is not the only problem with Groseclose and Milyo’s study; they lump together advocacy groups and think tanks that perform dramatically different functions. For instance, according to their data, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the third most-quoted group on the list. But stories about race relations that include a quote from an NAACP representative are unlikely to be “balanced” with quotes from another group on their list. Their quotes will often be balanced by quotes from an individual, depending on the nature of the story; however, because there are no pro-racism groups of any legitimacy (or on Groseclose and Milyo’s list), such stories will be coded as having a “liberal bias.” On the other hand, a quote from an NRA spokesperson can and often will be balanced with one from another organization on Groseclose and Milyo’s list,
…The authors also display a remarkable ignorance of previous work on the subject of media bias. In their section titled “Some Previous Studies of Media Bias,” they name only three studies that address the issue at more than a theoretical level. All three studies are, to put it kindly, questionable…
Although the authors seem completely unaware of it, in reality there have been dozens of rigorous quantitative studies on media bias and hundreds of studies that address the issue in some way. One place the authors might have looked had they chosen to conduct an actual literature review would have been a 2000 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Communication (the flagship journal of the International Communication Association, the premier association of media scholars). The abstract of the study, titled “Media bias in presidential elections: a meta-analysis,” reads as follows:
A meta-analysis considered 59 quantitative studies containing data concerned with partisan media bias in presidential election campaigns since 1948. Types of bias considered were gatekeeping bias, which is the preference for selecting stories from one party or the other; coverage bias, which considers the relative amounts of coverage each party receives; and statement bias, which focuses on the favorability of coverage toward one party or the other. On the whole, no significant biases were found for the newspaper industry. Biases in newsmagazines were virtually zero as well. However, meta-analysis of studies of television network news showed small, measurable, but probably insubstantial coverage and statement biases.
Standard scholarly practice dictates the assembly of a literature review as part of any published study, and meta-analyses, as they gather together the findings of multiple studies, are particularly critical to literature reviews. That Groseclose and Milyo overlooked not only the Journal of Communication meta-analysis, but also the 59 studies it surveyed, raises questions about the seriousness with which they conducted this study.
Indeed, they seem to be unaware that an academic discipline of media studies even exists. Their bibliography includes works by right-wing media critics such as Media Research Center founder and president L. Brent Bozell III and Accuracy in Media founder Reed Irvine (now deceased), as well as an article from the right-wing website WorldNetDaily. But Groseclose and Milyo failed to cite a single entry from any of the dozens of respected scholarly journals of communication and media studies in which media bias is a relatively frequent topic of inquiry — nothing from Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Political Communication, or any other media studies journal.
If you’re interested in a summary of the research done on media bias, I think the following is a fair and useful summary:
Studies done by FAIR
show the majority of media citations come from conservative and centrist sources.
A 2000 meta-analysis of research in 59 quantitative studies of media bias in American presidential campaigns from 1948 through 1996 found that media bias tends to cancel out, leaving little or no net bias. The authors conclude “It is clear that the major source of bias charges is the individual perceptions of media consumers and, in particular, media consumers of a particularly ideological bent.”
Self-described as “the first successful attempt at objectively quantifying bias in a range of media outlets and ranking them accordingly, a study by political scientists Tim Groseclose of UCLA and Jeff Milyo of the University of Missouri at Columbia, both of whom have written for conservative think tanks (American Enterprise Institute), advocacy groups (Federalist Society), and periodicals (The American Spectator),was published in December 2005 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. The study’s stated purpose was to document the range of bias among news outlets. The research concluded that of the major 20 news outlets studied “18 scored left of the average U.S. voter, with CBS Evening News, The New York Times andThe Los Angeles Times ranking second, third and fourth most liberal behind the news pages of The Wall Street Journal, while only the Fox News “Special Report With Brit Hume” and The Washington Times scored right of the average U.S. voter.” The study also identified the Drudge Report as “left of center”. In this study, “left” and “liberal” are treated as synonyms, and are identified with think tanks cited by Congressional members of the Democratic Party, while “right” is identified with think tanks cited by Congressional members of the Republican Party. The report also states, however, that the news media show a remarkable degree of centrism, since all but one of the outlets studied are, from an ideological point of view, between the average Democrat and average Republican in Congress.
The study met with criticism from many outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, and Media Matters. Criticisms included:
- Different lengths of time studied per media (CBS News was studied for 12 years while the Wall Street Journal was studied for four months).
- Lack of context in quoting sources (sources quoted were automatically assumed to be supporting the article)
- Lack of balance in sources (Liberal sources such as the NAACP didn’t have conservative or counter sources that could add balance)
- Flawed political positions of sources (Sources such as the NRA and RAND corporation were considered “liberal” while sources such as the American Civil Liberties Union were “conservative”.)
Mark Liberman, a professor of Computer Science and the Director of Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, has pointed out a number of statistical flaws in this study. According to Professor Liberman, the model chosen leads to “very implausible psychological claims, for which no evidence is presented.” He concludes by saying that “many if not most of the complaints directed against G&M (Groseclose and Milyo) are motivated in part by ideological disagreement — just as much of the praise for their work is motivated by ideological agreement. It would be nice if there were a less politically fraught body of data on which such modeling exercises could be explored.”
A 1998 study from FAIR found that journalists are “mostly centrist in their political orientation”; 30% considered themselves to the left on social issues compared to 9% on the right, while 11% considered themselves to the left on economic issues compared to 19% on the right. The report explained that since journalists considered themselves to be centrists, “perhaps this is why an earlier survey found that they tended to vote for Bill Clinton in large numbers.” FAIR uses this study to support the claim that media bias is propagated down from the management, and that individual journalists are relatively neutral in their work.
The findings include:
- On select issues from corporate power and trade to Social Security and Medicare to health care and taxes, journalists are actually more conservative than the general public.
- Journalists are mostly centrist in their political orientation.
- The minority of journalists who do not identify with the “center” are more likely to identify with the “right” when it comes to economic issues and to identify with the “left” when it comes to social issues.
- Journalists report that “business-oriented news outlets” and “major daily newspapers” provide the highest quality coverage of economic policy issues, while “broadcast network TV news” and “cable news services” provide the worst.
First, it is sources, not journalists, who are allowed to express their views in the conventional model of “objective” journalism. Therefore, we learn much more about the political orientation of news content by looking at sourcing patterns rather than journalists’ personal views. As this survey shows, it is government officials and business representatives to whom journalists “nearly always” turn when covering economic policy. Labor representatives and consumer advocates were at the bottom of the list. This is consistent with earlier research on sources. For example, analysts from the centrist Brookings Institution and right-wing think thanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are those most quoted in mainstream news accounts; left-wing think tanks are often invisible. When it comes to sources, “liberal bias” is nowhere to be found.
Second, we must not forget that journalists do not work in a vacuum. It is crucial to remember the important role of institutional context in setting the broad parameters for the news process. Businesses are not in the habit of producing products that contradict their fundamental economic interests. The large corporations that are the major commercial media in this country—not surprisingly—tend to favor style and substance which is consonant with their corporate interests; as do their corporate advertisers.
It is here, at the structural level, that the fundamental ground rules of news production are set. Of course, working journalists sometimes succeed in temporarily challenging some of those rules and boundaries. But ultimately, if they are to succeed and advance in the profession for any length of time, they must adapt to the ground rules set by others—regardless of their own personal views.
If you’d like to hear a detailed debate about media bias, the following video includes the views of Tucker Carlson and Eric Alterman:
I’m going to end by bringing this back to the issues from the first video at the top of this post. That video is a preview of a documentary put out by an organization that offers some other documentaries I find relevant to the issues I’ve been discussing. In particular, I’d point out the documentary ‘Mean World Syndrome’. I posted about it a while back and here is some of my commentary:
My only criticism of this documentary was that it demonstrated the effect of violence in media, but it didn’t fully explore why the media focuses so much on violence. There is more to it than just the public likes violence and those producing media are simply seeking profit. I don’t think it’s accidental a world of fear is created by media of violence. Those in power (media owners and politicians) want a world where people live in fear and want a public that is divided because that maintains and increases their power. The mainstream media, as Chomsky and others have pointed out, follows a propaganda model.
I would add that those in power want a political narrative of ideological divisiveness, of polarization and perceived bias. Portraying violence is one way to accomplish this, but any kind of social conflict (real or perceived) will serve the same purpose.
This discussion of bias isn’t just abstract theorizing or partisan rhetoric. There is massive influence on the public depending on what media is viewed and how the media presents the news. Here is from another post I wrote where I was asking about the correlation between the conservative worldview and violence:
So, when the rightwingers are hot and bothered about some new xenophobic fear, it’s hard for the liberal minority to counter it. This is particularly problematic considering social stress/uncertainty, fearmongering, and violent imagery can even make liberals more open to conservative views and more willing to accept authoritarian policies.
Liberals who gleaned most of their news from television in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased their support for expanded police powers, bringing them closer in line with the opinions of conservatives, a study by a UW-Madison researcher shows.
In contrast, heavy newspaper reading by liberals was related to lower levels of support for expanded police powers and for limits on privacy and freedom of information, basically reinforcing the differences between liberals and conservatives, says Dietram Scheufele, a journalism professor who conducted the study.
“TV pushed the two groups together in their thinking about post-9/11 policies, such as the Patriot Act. It made liberals more conservative. It took them away from what they initially believed and pushed them more toward a more conservative law-and-order stance,” Scheufele says.
The study, soon to be published in the journal Mass Communications & Society, is based on a survey of nearly 800 residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., in the fall of 2001, shortly after the attacks. Its results have been validated by two subsequent national surveys.
The survey showed that among liberals who watched little television, about 20 percent favored more government police powers. But about 41 percent of liberals who were heavy viewers of TV news supported such measures – much closer to the 50 to 60 percent of conservatives who supported greater police powers, regardless of how much TV news they watched.
The gap between conservatives and liberals widened, however, among heavy newspaper readers.
About 39 percent of light-reading liberals backed restricting freedom of speech in the days after the attacks, versus 31 percent who were heavy newspaper readers. Among conservatives, about 66 percent favored the limits, and nearly 70 percent of heavy readers backed the restrictions.
“Newspaper reading tended to reinforce partisan leanings, partly because it is more selective, readers have more options and seek out their own viewpoints,” Scheufele says. “By contrast, TV coverage is very linear, doesn’t offer any choice and was more image driven. You saw the plane hitting the building time and time again.”
I can’t prove an intentional agenda by those who own and manage the mainstream media, but it’s obvious that it’s in their interest to influence the public in certain ways. Consider this in the context of two facts. First, the mainstream media is owned by a handful of parent companies. And, second, a central engine of the US economy is the defense industry. With the military-industrial complex, there are many connections between the public and private sectors. Many parent companies that own the media also own defense industry companies. Many major investors in media companies are also major investors in defense industry companies. There is often a revolving door between Washington politics, corporate lobbyists, and the mainstream media.
Basically, my point is that whatever bias might exist in the mainstream media it certainly isn’t of a progressively liberal slant.