NPR: Liberal Bias?

Let me state upfront my own bias. 

Some might perceive me as a progressive liberal far to the left of what is called ‘liberal’ in mainstream media and politics. Right-wingers likely would call me a ‘socialist’. But going by polls most of my positions seem to be more or less in line with the ‘mass opinion’ of the general public (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism).

I’m not a partisan or an ideological purist. I’m an Independent who doesn’t give allegiance to any specific party, especially not the Democratic Party. In fact, I don’t like party politics in general and I utterly despise the two-party stanglehold. On principle, I refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils because that would still mean voting for evil. I’m more likely to vote Libertarian or Green. I would consider myself a liberal-minded small ‘d’ democrat. I put my value of democracy before all else. I’ve increasingly come to doubt all things ‘big’: big government, big business, big media, big think tanks, big special interests, big unions, big money campaign funding, etc. Grassroots democracy is always the safest bet.

I often listen to NPR while at work, but not because they represent my views. I just find them the least obnoxious of the choices available on talk radio. NPR makes good background noise. Public radio in general (NPR, IPR, BBC, and CBC) keeps me basically informed about the major events going on in the world and occasionally I hear an interesting interview. Unlike most talk radio, the annoying opinionated punditry (especially of the angry ranting variety) is non-existent on NPR. Even at it’s worse, NPR is just boringly bland in sticking so close to conventional wisdom and noncontroversial issues. However, I listen to NPR less and less as the years go by.

So, I’m biased against mainstream media in general. In this way, I’m biased against NPR for the same basic reason I’m biased against Fox News. I’m biased against the mainstream bias that excludes, dismisses, or criticizes alternative viewpoints and sources.

– – –

In this post, I’m responding to the allegation that NPR has a liberal or even a left-wing bias.

I’ve previously touched upon this in a previous post about media in general: Black and White and Re(a)d All Over. I’m not defending NPR. In fact, I’m critical of all mainstream media (i.e., big media owned and operated by big business or, in the case of NPR, funded by big business). It’s true that NPR doesn’t play the partisan punditry game such as Fox News or MSNBC. Instead, they are more in league with CNN. The game they play is defender of the political status quo and mouthpiece of Washington politics. The only bias NPR has is that of Establishment centrism and corporatism.

Some claim NPR is left-leaning. Others claim it’s right-leaning. It all depends on your comparison. It’s to the left of Fox News and to the right of MSNBC. More importantly, I’d point out how it compares to society as a whole. I don’t know if it is to the right or left of center in Washington politics, but admittedly it’s difficult for any news outlet to be much further right than what goes for centrism in Washington. Like most of the MSM, NPR is to the right of the average American, at least in terms of major issues such as health care reform and drug legalization/decreminalization.

This is significant considering that ‘Public’ is literally NPR’s middle name. If NPR doesn’t represent and fairly report public opinion, then whose opinion are they voicing?

NPR rarely has alternative voices, including internationally renown thinkers such as Noam Chomsky. As a liberal, the type of liberal media personalities I enjoy listening to (along with Chomsky: Thom Hartmann, Sam Seder, etc) tend to not be heard on NPR or in the rest of the mainstream media. This is interesting as these people aren’t necessarily radicals. Hartmann, for example, seems similar to me in being in agreement with the American silent majority. These people who are considered ‘far left’ aren’t radical in the way that Glenn Beck or Alex Jones is radical… and yet this supposed ‘far left’ gets equated to the far right.

NPR gives a platform for views that are considered mainstream (meaning the political center of the ruling elite: political elite, business elite, intellectual elite, think tank elite, etc). What NPR typically doesn’t do is challenge this mainstream status quo or invite guests on who will challenge this mainstream status quo.

In fear of being called ‘liberal’, some have argued that NPR bends over backwards in the opposite direction:

In its obituary marking the death of iconic liberal activist and historian Howard Zinn, NPR allowed right-wing hater David Horowitz go off on the recently deceased: 

“There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect,” Horowitz declared in the NPR story. “Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time. So he did certainly alter the consciousness of millions of younger people for the worse.”

That brought a deserved rebuke from listeners, who were encouraged by FAIR. NPR’s ombudsman thenlooked back at how the radio network handled recent obits of other political players, who were all conservatives [emphasis added]: 

NPR was complimentary and respectful in memorializing [Bill] Buckley, who died in 2008. The network was equally nuanced in remembering pioneering televangelist Oral Roberts(who died in December) and Robert Novaka conservative columnist who played a key role in the Valerie Plame debacle and who died last August. NPR’s obituaries of these men did not contain mean-spirited, Horowitz-like comments.

There is one particular study I found interesting which claims to have measured a very slight liberal bias to NPR. What was interesting was what was being measured:

A caveat: The Duke team’s results don’t directly get at the ideologies of the entities themselves, only at the makeup of the networks that surround them. “We would say that our estimates relate to the perception of a given entity,” Sparks says. “However, for the purposes of our paper and possibly for thinking about the media, perceptions may be what is actually important.”

It’s an odd thing to measure perception. Whose perception is being measured?

I noticed the article gave a clear description of its bias: “The only surprises were how far to the left some mainstream entities, such as Katie Couric and the Washington Post, fell (although that would be no surprise at all to those who think the entire mainstream media is shot through with liberal bias).” This must be understood in context. One could equally say: The only surprises were how far to the right the entire mainstream media, such as NPR and Fox News, fell (although that would be no surprise at all to those who think the entire mainstream media is shot through with conservative bias).

Think about it for a moment. Where do you always here that the mainstream media is liberal? You hear it in the mainstream media. If the mainstream media were actually liberal, they wouldn’t constantly attack each other as being liberal and constantly deny their liberal bias when attacked.

So, in the context of mainstream media, NPR is perceived as ‘liberal’. That isn’t surprising. In the context of mainstream media, the stated public opinion of the American majority would be perceived as ‘liberal’. However, since the mainstream media controls the narrative of public debate, those who control the media (i.e., big business) controls the public perception. The real liberal bias is to be found among average Americans who are the silent majority. The more the media has become concentrated the further it has become distanced from average Americans. Most Americans get their news from the mainstream media and, as one would suspect, most Americans perceive themselves as ‘conservative’ despite their tending toward liberal and progressive views on key issues.

Perception, when controlled and manipulated, isn’t an accurate and fair measure of reality. Yes, as people like Chomsky understand, the propaganda model does work.

In this particular case, one must ask: Who is trying to control/manipulate the perception of NPR being liberally biased? It’s the conservative mainstream media.

There are a couple of relevant points.

First, since the entire mainstream media is far to the right of the majority of Americans and since the conservative mainstream media is far to the right of the center of mainstream media, then this accusation of liberal bias is originating from sources that are radically far right. So, it’s an issue of who is categorizing according to which labels and what is motivating their choices.

There have been notable recent attempts to study think tank coverage, including a problematic study by academics Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo (see Extra!, 5–6/05) and NPR’s analysis of its own use of think tanks (, 12/14/05). NPR ombud Jeffrey A. Dvorkin only listed eight think tanks, and counted Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (which has Henry Kissinger on its board) as “left” think tanks. (There are no centrist think tanks in Dvorkin’s universe.) Even thus stacking the deck, Dvorkin still found a 239–141 advantage in citations for the right—a result that he said, puzzlingly enough, shows that “NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Second, the sources (such as Fox News) making this accusation of liberal bias against NPR are measured as being less reliable sources of info than those they are making accusations against:

The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot simply be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.

It isn’t necessarily helpful to think of media in terms of right vs left. The news, for the most part, is about profits.

Even NPR has increasingly become funded by corporate money (far more than any government funding). Profit or not, it’s a fact that the media has become increasingly concentrated. A few corporations have been buying up the media for decades. NPR, and other public radio, also has been growing in a similar fashion taking up the place that used to be filled with locally owned and operated radio stations. To the degree there has been a bias, it’s the bias of big business (which tends to be the same bias as that of conservatives or at least right-wing conservatives; and it should be noted that many right-wing conservatives incorrectly believe they represent both the average conservative and the average American).

Furthermore, the data shows that politicians and political activists are more polarized in their rhetoric than are most Americans. There is a minority of partisan true believers and these people will always see the media biased against them.

The hostile media effect, sometimes called the hostile media phenomenon, refers to the finding that people with strong biases toward an issue (partisans) perceive media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality. Proponents of the hostile media effect argue that this finding cannot be attributed to the presence of bias in the news reports, since partisans from opposing sides of an issue rate the same coverage as biased against their side and biased in favor of the opposing side.

Presently in the US, the right is more radicalized than the left. It’s for this reason that we most often hear the allegation of a liberal media bias rather than the opposite.

Most Americans, on the other hand, aren’t radicalized. The average American, like the average NPR listener, is moderate. However, the issue is made complex for the reason that present-day American liberals are more moderate than present-day American conservatives (more moderate, for example, in being the demographic most supportive of compromise and the demographic most supportive of government no matter which party is in power). This means there is much more crossover between liberals and moderates (in recent history, liberals have tended to disavow the radical far left).

For one, when we described the right-wing media machine as NPR’s “long-time nemesis,” it was not to suggest that somehow public radio is its left-wing opposite. When it comes to covering and analyzing the news, the reverse of right isn’t left; it’s independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line. We’ve heard no NPR reporter — not a one — advocating on the air for more government spending (or less), for the right of abortion (or against it), for or against gay marriage, or for or against either political party, especially compared to what we hear from Fox News and talk radio on all of these issues and more. [ . . . ]

So what do conservatives really mean when they accuse NPR of being “liberal”? They mean it’s not accountable to their worldview as conservatives and partisans. They mean it reflects too great a regard for evidence and is too open to reporting different points of views of the same event or idea or issue. Reporting that by its very fact-driven nature often fails to confirm their ideological underpinnings, their way of seeing things (which is why some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR).

The most interesting part to me is how many of NPR listeners aren’t liberal and especially aren’t far left-wing:

The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air. In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” or “conservative.” Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.

The right-wing media may attack NPR, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that the average conservative has any complaint:

Media critics and conservative commentators are responding to the recent controversy over NPR by praising the network’s reporting. In addition, some Tea Party activists say that NPR’s coverage of their group has been “fair.”

Even so, those who run NPR often seem clueless in thinking that appeasing the right-wing media will end the attacks:

In the When Will They Learn? department, incoming National Public Radio president Gary Knell seems to suffer from the same misunderstanding that has plagued public broadcasting executives for years.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports that Knell says he hopes to “calm the waters a bit” at NPR after recent political controversies, and to “depoliticize” debate over the future of public radio. Knell is quoted saying, “It’s not about liberal or conservative; it’s about fairness…. We’ve got to make the case we’re delivering a fair service.”

Sigh. It’s as if he doesn’t see the road behind him strewn with efforts to “depoliticize” the public broadcasting debate, which is code for appeasing public broadcasting’s conservative enemies by adding more right-wing content and censoring things they might not like.

But the thing is, politicians are political, and some of them want there to be no more publicly funded…anything, but certainly not broadcasting, which they demonstrate by voting to zero out its resources every chance they get. No matter how calm the waters are.

For the rest of the post, I’ll offer from various sources more evidence against and discussion about the allegation of a liberally biased NPR.

– – –

Debates over whether NPR has a vendetta against conservatives, though, miss the larger issue of the network’s financial strength. NPR says its finances have rebounded. NPR makes most of its revenue from program fees and dues that stations pay to broadcast its programs. Its second-largest source of revenue — and one of the reasons for its financial success — is that it allows corporations the chance to reach the its well-heeled audience through sponsorships, which it says has enjoyed “strong growth” over the past decade.

As journalism it is worthless: nothing more than an echo chamber for the views of the powerful interests and forces that control this country – large US and multinational corporations, departments and agencies of US military and foreign policy, and the national Republican and Democratic parties, etc.  As an organization, NPR never challenges or confronts the myth of US goodness in foreign policy, the belief in US exceptionalism, the supposed benefits of capitalism and market ideologies.

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.

So who are some of these progressives on the left that Nader says are being ignored? Some are old war horses such as Jim Hightower, Gloria Steinem, Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West. But others are younger political players. They include Kevin Zeese and Robert Weissman. Nader gave a list, quickly scribbled; it is not exhaustive.

“Most of the Liberals in Congress voted for the Patriot Act and its renewal,” Nader said, citing another policy differentiator. He said progressives more than liberals also want to dramatically increase minimum wage and decrease the country’s military involvement abroad.

On story selection, NPR is more international in its focus, clearly. You are gonna hear somewhat more about policy. You are gonna hear somewhat less about political argument. Does that represent bias? Ultimately, I think these questions of bias may be in the eye of the beholder.

[ . . . ] Well, do I see proof of bias in the story selection? No. Do I see evidence in our tone studies that prove a liberal bias? No. Does this prove that NPR is not biased? I can’t say that. We don’t have tone for every topic. In the end, it’s very hard to establish, even if someone were to identify who’s on the air and what their political affiliations are. If you have a lot of people from one party on and the questioning is very tough, that goes one way. And if you have a lot of people on and the coverage are a bunch of softball questions, that goes another way. Bias, in the end, is often a matter of whether things are phrased in ways that I agree with or disagree with. In the end, you’re not gonna persuade anyone with data.

Allegations of ideological bias

Allegations of liberal bias

A 2005 study conducted by researchers at UCLA and the University of Missouri found Morning Edition to be more liberal than the average U.S. Republican and more conservative than the average U.S. Democrat. At the time Morning Edition was comparable to the The Washington Post, the CBS Morning ShowTimeNewsweek and U.S. News & World Report.[4] Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a progressive media watchdog group,[5] disputes the claim of a liberal bias.[6] 

Allegations of conservative bias 

A December 2005 column run by NPR ombudsman and former Vice President Jeffrey Dvorkin denied allegations by some listeners that NPR relies heavily on conservative think-tanks.[7] In his column, Dvorkin listed the number of times NPR had cited experts from conservative and liberal think tanks in the previous year as evidence. The totals were 239 for conservative think tanks, and 141 for liberal ones. He noted that while the number of times liberal think tanks were cited was less, in addition to think tanks the liberal point of view is commonly provided by academics.

In 2003, some critics accused NPR of being supportive of the invasion of Iraq.[8][9]

Allegations of bias against Israel

NPR has been criticised for perceived bias in its coverage of Israel.[10][11][12][13] The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a pro-Israel American media monitoring organization based in Boston, has been particularly critical of NPR. CAMERA director Andrea Levin has stated, “We consider NPR to be the most seriously biased mainstream media outlet,” a statement that The Boston Globe describes as having “clearly gotten under her target’s skin.”[13] NPR’s then-Ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, said in a 2002 interview that CAMERA used selective citations and subjective definitions of what it considers pro-Palestinian bias in formulating its findings, and that he felt CAMERA’s campaign was “a kind of McCarthyism, frankly, that bashes us and causes people to question our commitment to doing this story fairly. And it exacerbates the legitimate anxieties of many in the Jewish community about the survival of Israel.”[14]

Allegations of elitism and the status quo

A 2004 FAIR study concluded that “NPR’s guestlist shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public.”[15]

Noam Chomsky has criticized NPR as being biased toward ideological power and the status quo. He alleges that the parameters of debate on a given topic are very consciously curtailed. He says that since the network maintains studios in ideological centers of opinion such as Washington, the network feels the necessity to carefully consider what kinds of dissenting opinion are acceptable. Thus, political pragmatism, perhaps induced by fear of offending public officials who control some of the NPR’s funding (via CPB), often determines what views are suitable for broadcast, meaning that opinions critical of the structures of national-interest-based foreign policy, capitalism, and government bureaucracies (entailed by so-called “radical” or “activist” politics) usually do not make it to air.[16]

Defenders’ rebuttals

Supporters contend that NPR does its job well. A study conducted in 2003 by the polling firm Knowledge Networks and the University of Maryland‘s Program on International Policy Attitudes showed that those who get their news and information from public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) are better informed than those whose information comes from other media outlets. In one study, NPR and PBS audiences had a more accurate understanding of the events in Iraq versus all audiences for cable and broadcast TV networks and the print media.[17][18]

With those values in mind, let’s consider the fundamental question: the accusation of “liberal bias” at NPR, which drives many critics calling to eliminate its federal funding. It’s not my job as a reporter to address the funding question. But I can point out that the recent tempests over “perceived bias” have nothing to do with what NPR puts on the air. The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air. In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” or “conservative.” Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.

Another somewhat surprising result is our estimate of NPR’s Morning Edition.  Conservatives frequently list NPR as an egregious example of a liberal news outlet.[27]  However, by our estimate the outlet hardly differs from the average mainstream news outlet.  For instance, its score is approximately equal to those of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and its score is slightly less than the Washington Post’s.  Further, our estimate places it well to the right of the New York Times, and also to the right of the average speech by Joe Lieberman.  These differences are statistically significant.[28]  We mentioned this finding to Terry Anderson, an academic economist and Executive Director of the Political Economy Research Center, which is among the list of think tanks in our sample.  (The average score of legislators citing PERC was 39.9, which places it as a moderate-right think tank, approximately as conservative as RAND is liberal.)  Anderson told us, “When NPR interviewed us, they were nothing but fair.  I think the conventional wisdom has overstated any liberal bias at NPR.”  Our NPR estimate is also consistent with James Hamilton’s (2004, 108) research on audience ideology of news outlets.  Hamiltonfinds that the average NPR listener holds approximately the same ideology as the average network news viewer or the average viewer of morning news shows, such as Today or Good Morning America.   Indeed, of the outlets that he examines in this section of his book, by this measure NPR is the ninth most liberal out of eighteen.

Tallying the Think Tanks

NPR often calls on think tanks for comments. But NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Here’s the tally sheet for the number of times think tank experts were interviewed to date on NPR in 2005:

American Enterprise – 59

Brookings Institute – 102

Cato Institute – 29

Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies – 39

Heritage Foundation – 20

Hoover Institute – 69

Lexington Institute – 9

Manhattan Institute – 53

There are of course, other think tanks, but these seem to be the ones whose experts are heard most often on NPR. Brookings and CSIS are seen by many in Washington, D.C., as being center to center-left. The others in the above list tend to lean to the right. So NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left.

The score to date: Right 239, Left 141.

There may be other experts who are interviewed on NPR who present a liberal perspective. But they tend to be based in universities and colleges and are not part of the think tank culture. That seems to be where most conservative thinking on the issues of the day can be most easily found. Journalism in general — including NPR — has become overly reliant on the easily obtained offerings of the think tanks.

Liberal bias?

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 Right Stuff: NPR’s think tank sources

FAIR’s four-month study of NPR in 1993 found 10 think tanks that were cited twice or more. In a new four-month study (5/03–8/03), the list of think tanks cited two or more times has grown to 17, accounting for 133 appearances.

FAIR classified each think tank by ideological orientation as either centrist, right of center or left of center. Representatives of think tanks to the right of center outnumbered those to the left of center by more than four to one: 62 appearances to 15. Centrist think tanks provided sources for 56 appearances.

The most often quoted think tank was the centrist Brookings Institution, quoted 31 times; it was also the most quoted think tank in 1993. It was followed by 19 appearances by the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies and 17 by the centrist Council on Foreign Relations. The most frequently cited left-of-center organization was the Urban Institute, with eight appearances.

Diversity among think tank representatives was even more lopsided than the ideological spread, with women cited only 10 percent of the time, and people of color only 3 percent. Only white men were quoted more than twice, the most frequent being Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (8 appearances), Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings (7) and E.J. Dionne, also of Brookings (6).

So would Republican presidential hopefuls agree with him, that a more diverse NPR would be a better use of public funds? Do the elephants care about the quality of news that’s accessible in the peanut gallery?

Or are they grandstanding and whipping up ill-informed Americans into a frenzy in the name of Muslim-bashing? Despite a desperate need to change course in the Middle East,  this fall the GOP laughed all the way into office as NPR war reporters joined up with the rest of the subservient national press to please the Pentagon with their favorable coverage.

Listen critically to NPR’s reporting of US foreign policy and you will hear selective storytelling shining favorable light on CIA activities, and so-called experts providing dodgy history lessons on Afghanistan. While popular anchors parrot unsubstantiated claims about Iraq, and others kiss up to conservative politicians, commentators smirk their way through reactionary antagonism of whistle-blowers.

To me, it is no wonder that the anti-Iraq War invasion contingent of NPR’s audience seems so totally placated, four elections later.

It’s debatable whether those at the top of the right-wing echo chamber are in fact willfully misleading their audiences when it comes to funding radio with tax dollars. Either that or they’re afraid of what they don’t understand as usual.

Public radio station revenue is mostly made up of individual and business contributors, with less than 6% coming from direct federal, state and local government funding combined.

funding combined. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funds barely 10% of all public radio budgets. NPR itself is funded mostly by member station programming fees and corporate sponsorships, and receives no government funding for operation costs.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [ . . . ] As we waded in, we realized it’s incredibly complicated. Look no further than the terms themselves. What is bias? What do we mean when we invoke the word “liberal?” And even defining “NPR” is fraught.

First up, bias. It’s a moving target. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, communications professor Daniel Hallin drew a simple diagram depicting three spheres in journalism. They’re called Hallin’s Spheres. Picture a doughnut. The hole in the doughnut is the sphere of consensus, and here are issues and views we can all agree on – democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here truths are self-evident and journalists don’t feel the need to be objective.

No, that’s reserved for the doughnut itself, the sphere of legitimate controversy. Here’s where the bulk of journalism takes place – gun control, interest rates, budget matters and abortion, issues on which reasonable people can disagree and where journalists are obliged to present both sides.

Outside the doughnut lies the sphere of deviance, limbo, where viewpoints are deemed unworthy of debate. The pro-pedophilia position, for example, does not get a hearing in mainstream media.

But Hallin created his spheres in the 1980s, before FOX News and MSNBC, the rise of talk radio and the blogosphere. Certain views that a generation ago would have been relegated to the sphere of deviance – for example, questioning the birth certificate of the President of the United States – Hallin says have now forced their way onto the doughnut.

DANIEL HALLIN: When I made my diagram there was only one set of spheres, let’s say, and everybody kind of agreed on what they were. The boundaries might get fuzzy. But now I think our media have become fragmented and pluralized so that you have different sub-communities that have different ideas of where the boundaries lie, right?

So a generation ago, the questions whether Obama can legitimately be president, this would have been rejected both by elites in Washington of both parties and by the media as just absolutely outside the proper bounds of political debate, and it would have been excluded. Today there’s just a lot less consensus.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Hallin’s doughnut has been blasted into crumbs by a confluence of voices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but where does that leave NPR?

DANIEL HALLIN: NPR, like, actually, quite a few of the mainstream news organizations in the U.S., I would say still adheres to the old-style journalism that tries to stick to the center and tell both sides. But I think that this is a period in which it’s harder to do. I think it’s much more difficult to legitimize.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean it’s more difficult to legitimize?

DANIEL HALLIN: Well, you could convince people that you were in fact being neutral by sticking to a point in the center between Republicans and Democrats and giving them both a hearing in an earlier period. Nowadays that just doesn’t work as well because different segments of the population have different ideas of where the center really is, of what’s a legitimate political point of view. So I think that all of the news organizations that try and stick to the old-fashioned patterns of journalistic professionalism, they’re all a little bit on the defensive.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think mainstream journalists should respond to the fuzziness of the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate debate and the sphere of deviance, that which should not be discussed?

DANIEL HALLIN: At what point would we decide that global warming is not really a legitimate subject of controversy anymore? Because the truth is within scientific communities it’s not. Within the political public sphere there’s still a big controversy about it. And that is somewhat troubling, that gap.

You know, in many cases I think it’s going to be the right decision for a journalist to say, we’re aware that the science says that there’s not a controversy here and we are going to refuse to treat this part of it as though it were controversial. I think that that’s a responsible decision. I think it’s politically risky as well.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Hallin teaches at the University of California San Diego. Based on the remark we just heard, he’ll be labeled by some as a liberal. The word is applied broadly now to big-L Liberal politics and small-l liberal values, even liberal science, to the point where the word “liberal” itself means almost nothing.

And what does NPR mean? For most people, NPR is whatever they hear when they tune into public radio. But NPR itself produces or editorially oversees very little of that content. It’s directly responsible for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, the weekend equivalent of those shows, and Talk of the Nation. It also distributes shows produced elsewhere – On the Media, Diane Rehm, Fresh Air and so on.

And then there are the shows that NPR neither produces nor distributes that are among public radio’s most popular – This American Life, Marketplace, A Prairie Home Companion. And finally there are the local shows produced by public radio stations everywhere. But does it even matter when most of the bias debate coalesces around federal support, the bulk of which goes to stations?



Black and White and Re(a)d All Over

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.

Proof Through Repetition and the “Liberal Bias” of the U.S. Media:
A Review of Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media?

By Neil H. Buchanan

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.

Corporate Interests: How the News Media Portray the Economy
Christopher J. Kollmeyer

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.

Dirty Truths
By Michael Parenti



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.”

Conservative Exclusion Is a Right-Wing Delusion
By Jim Naureckas

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?

Black and White and Re(a)d All Over:

The Conservative Advantage in Syndicated Op-Ed Columns
Media Matters

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.

How Public Is Public Radio?

A study of NPR’s guest list
By Steve Rendall and Daniel Butterworth

Liberal bias?

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.

Air America: Challenges of Liberal Media

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:

Ralph Brauer: Revolutions & Liberal America

The Strange Death of Liberal America
By Ralph Brauer
pp 32-36

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).

For ‘Liberal’ NYT, Taxing the Rich Is a Fringe Idea
By Jim Naureckas

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.

Former fellows at conservative think tanks issued flawed UCLA-led study on media’s “liberal 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 problems with the Groseclose/Milyo study of media bias

…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:

Media bias in the United States

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.”[78]

Self-described as “the first successful attempt at objectively quantifying bias in a range of media outlets and ranking them accordingly,[79] 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),[80]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.[81] The research concluded that of the major 20 news outlets studied “18 scored left of the average U.S. voter, with CBS Evening NewsThe 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,[82] and Media Matters.[83] 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.[84][85] 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.”[84]

A 1998 study from FAIR found that journalists are “mostly centrist in their political orientation”;[86] 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.

Examining the “Liberal Media” Claim
Journalists’ Views on Politics, Economic Policy and Media Coverage

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.

Individual and Collective Good

This post is a response to a recent post of mine.

Status Anxiety

Basically, I’m very cynical.  I don’t believe American society is genuinely a meritocracy.  Yes, sometimes people manage to escape their circumstances, but these are few and far between (and it should be noted that statistics show a person is more likely to escape their lowly circumstances if they’re a white male from an industrialized nation).  Anyways, the exception proves the rule.  I am cynical, but from my perspective I’m just being realistic for I’m basing my opinion on the known facts. 

On the other hand, I don’t believe US politics are even genuinely democratic.  I agree with the analysis of the evidence that shows the voting process has been manipulated in the past.  Plus, I just don’t think a two-party system is enough free choice to create a democracy, especially considering both major parties have many ties to big business. 

I go by the advice of someone who was in a Nazi concentration camp.  To paraphrase, “If they give me two choices, I always pick the third.”  The context of that statement is that the Nazis would offer two lines in order to create a false sense that choice mattered.  People would be too distracted by the illusion of choice that they wouldn’t riot.

Cynicism and realism aside, that isn’t the reason I’m writing this.  I was listening to Iowa Public Radio (public radio being a fitting format for the subject of this post) last night at work as I usually do and there were two interviews.

The first interview was about a guy, with the help of a former drug dealer, who started an organization to offer work to troubled youth.  He had an interesting way of going about it.  They make and sell their own ice-cream and so it’s run like a normal business.  The reason for this is because he thinks charity was the wrong way of trying to help people and he wants the youth to work hard to earn what they get.  He wanted the youth and the community to be both invested in and inspired by this organization.  So, the youth employees have a share in the business and they are selling shares of the business to people in the community.

What intrigued me is that on the surface it seems to fit the meritocracy paradigm, but there is an important difference.  He doesn’t just want to help individuals.  He wants to help the entire community.  It’s ineffective trying to help an individual if there isn’t a community there to support the individual.  That is the failing of the enlightened selfishness of the mainstream conception of meritocracy.  In the real world, no one earns anything all on their own.  An individual only ever succeeds to the degree that he is a part of a successful social support system (whether friends, family, school, or community).  This is why most wealthy people were raised by wealthy parents in wealthy communities and went to wealthy schools with wealthy peers.  This is why most poor people were raised by poor parents in poor communities and went to poor schools with poor peers.

The ideal of meritocracy misses out on the larger social reality.  This is why US democracy tries to uphold the ideal of meritocratic individualism through socialist programs.  In theory, public schools are supposed to help level the playing field.  They do to an extent, but only very marginally.  The public schools in the wealthy communities attract the best teachers.  Besides, most wealthy kids go to expensive private schools and have private tutors.  There is no level playing field.  A smart, hardworking kid going to a crappy public school in a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden community will be lucky to make it out alive in order to one day become a minimum wage worker who barely makes ends meet.  When the world a kid grows up in is filled with suffering and desperation, it’s hard for that kid to see outside of that situation and actually believe he has many options open to him.

Even so, social progress does happen.  It’s just that progress of the lower socio-economic classes is minute in comparison to the ever-growing wealth and power of the elite.  Also, some argue that the middle class is disappearing and the gap is widening between the rich and poor.  This widening gap, however, is less obvious to those of the older generations who grew up and started careers during a time when the gap was narrowing.  What many don’t realize is the gap narrowed because of the implementation of many progressive ideals.  There is of course Social Security which is one of the most successful programs of the liberal agenda, and it’s always odd that conservatives will attack public healthcare while defending Social Security.  And there are the accomplishments of workers unions: minimum wage, 5 day work week, 8 hr working day, overtime, worker safety, employer-provided health insurance, child labor laws, and on and on; but the workers unions have been losing power for the last half century.

My grandfather on my mom’s side was a factory worker.  If I remember correctly, he didn’t support unions.  He believed in hard work and earning one’s own way, but he didn’t realize that his lifestyle was as nice as it was because of the unions.  The unions benefit even those who are members and even those who oppose unions… heck, the unions even benefit employees of companies that aren’t unionized by way of free market competition.  My grandfather had a decent house in a decent neighborhood.  He raised three kids who all got good public educations and two of his kids went to college.  He bought a new car on a regular basis which was his pride and joy, and the whole family went on yearly vacations.  He retired with plenty of savings and good benefits which has supported my grandmother since he died.  He did work hard, but none of that would’ve been possible without the workers union and other liberal agendas.

My mom was one of the kids who went to college.  A generation before, a woman wouldn’t have had all the opportunities she had.  It was the liberal agenda of woman who had to fight for those rights over a long period of time and at cost of great personal suffering.  First off, she went to a public school which was of course funded publicly (i.e., socialism).  Secondly, she went to a state school that was funded publicly (i.e., socialism).  She has worked her entire life for public schools (i.e., a socialist institution).  And yet she is a conservative.  If conservative policies had been implemented throughout US history, we wouldn’t have such things publicly funded schools, unions, and the civil rights movement.  (BTW my use of conservative and liberal aren’t equated with Republican and Democrat.)  If social conservatives had their way for the last couple of centuries, my mom would be a traditional stay-at-home mother with no personal rights (no right to vote, no right to have a bank account in her name, etc.).

So, why is it so often the same people who are for meritocracy all the while being suspicious of the liberal agenda?  Why do so many working class people attack Obama and the Democrats as socialists all the while it’s the working class that has benefitted the most from socialist democracy?

Let me now discuss the second interview.  Diane Rehm was talking with Roger G. Kennedy about the New Deal. 

Most people know that there were many public works from that time such as the parks that people still enjoy, but the public works included all aspects of society.  There were also many public buildings built by public works projects, and Kennedy was specifically talking about the art created for communities (both large and small) across the country.  Kennedy mentioned a quote: “The work of art is to help to coax the soul of the nation back to life.” 

Artists during the New Deal saw themselves as part of the larger community of the nation rather than as just individuals looking for their own gain.  There was the belief that what individuals did mattered on the collective level and so people were willing to commit themselves to collective goals.  There was this desire to create a collective sense of identity, but this desire included both national identity and local community identity.  The public art that was created during the New Deal was funded by the government, but it was the local community that decided what to create that represented them.  This art is still around today and is still informing people about their sense of collective identity.

Compare that to our society now.  The popular ideal of selfish meritocracy is supported by a belief that government is either a failing institution or entirely outside the realm of the individual.  Instead of a collective sense of identity and collective sense of responsibility, we have class and culture wars being incited by fear-mongering pundits.  Our whole society is built on public works from public roads to military-funded projects such as the early internet.  However, much of the public works projects from the New Deal are now gone or in serious decay.

There is potential for our society to shift back again.  I believe that our society’s ideals often don’t correlate with reality, but there are hints that people are slowly beginning to demand that politicians do more than pay lip-service to these ideals.  According to Strauss and Howe, the Millennial generation are much more socially oriented and are more committed to the collective good.  So, maybe we’ll see new public works in the next few decades that will reinvigorate US culture. 

Furthermore, I think that ideals are good even when we fail them.  There is the idea in psychology about role-playing.  People need to pretend to be something before actually becoming that thing.  As such, Americans are like little children playing at democracy, and maybe one day we will grow up and form an actual democratic society.