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The Myth of the Liberal Media

Under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Albert Einstein

Fact or fiction?
That the media is "liberal" has become a fact in most people's minds. This development has had profound consequences. It's not an understatement to say it has changed the face of American politics.

Conservatives no longer have to weigh the facts and come to rational conclusions. They no longer have to believe Nixon was a crook, Reagan was an idiot, and George W. Bush was a liar. When the news doesn't fit their worldview, they can blame the liberal media instead of thinking for themselves.

As Robert Parry put it:

The notion of a "liberal" national news media is one of the most enduring and influential political myths of modern U.S. history. Shaping the behavior of both conservatives and liberals over the past quarter century, the myth could be said to have altered the course of American democracy and led the nation into the dangerous corner it now finds itself.

How could it be true?
How could a profession with tens of thousands of pracititioners have a single political orientation? A typical claim is that the "media" is liberal because reporters tend to be liberal. This ignores the fact that editors, publishers, and corporate owners decide what gets in print or on the air—not reporters.

Parry's excellent article explains the problem. Below is the key argument, but I recommend following the link and reading the whole piece:

Price of the 'Liberal Media' Myth

By Robert Parry
January 1, 2003

The core of the conservative "liberal media" case is that surveys have shown that a majority of journalists vote Democratic in presidential elections. Therefore, conservatives argue that a pro-Democratic bias permeates the American news media. Conservatives then bolster this claim of liberal bias with anecdotes, such as the alleged inflections of Dan Rather's voice on the CBS Evening News or the supposed overuse of the word "ultra-conservative" in news columns.

But other surveys on the views of individual journalists suggest a more complicated picture. Journalists generally regard themselves as centrists with more liberal views on social issues and more conservative ones on economic issues, when compared with the broader American public. For example, journalists might be more likely to favor abortion rights, while less likely to worry about cuts in Social Security and Medicare than other Americans. [See "The Myth of the Liberal Media," Extra!, July/August 1998.]

But the larger fallacy of the "liberal media" argument is the idea that reporters and mid-level editors set the editorial agenda at their news organizations. In reality, most journalists have about as much say over what is presented by newspapers and TV news programs as factory workers and foremen have over what a factory manufactures.

That is not to say factory workers have no input in their company's product: they can make suggestions and ensure the product is professionally built. But top executives have a much bigger say in what gets produced and how. The news business is essentially the same.

News organizations are hierarchical institutions often run by strong-willed men who insist that their editorial vision be dominant within their news companies. Some concessions are made to the broader professional standards of journalism, such as the principles of objectivity and fairness.

But media owners historically have enforced their political views and other preferences by installing senior editors whose careers depend on delivering a news product that fits with the owner's prejudices. Mid-level editors and reporters who stray too far from the prescribed path can expect to be demoted or fired. Editorial employees intuitively understand the career risks of going beyond the boundaries.

These limitations were true a century ago when William Randolph Hearst famously studied every day's paper from his publishing empire looking for signs of leftist attitudes among his staff. And it is still true in the days of Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

The Republican and conservative bent of senior media management also is not limited to a few "name" publishers and executives. A survey conducted before Election 2000 by the industry magazine, Editor & Publisher, found a strong bias in favor of George W. Bush among top editorial decision-makers nationwide.

Newspaper editors and publishers favored Bush by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the survey of nearly 200 editors and publishers. Publishers, who are at the pinnacle of power within news organizations, were even more pro-Bush, favoring the then-Texas governor by a 3-to-1 margin, E&P reported. Gazing through the rose colors of their pro-Bush glasses, the news executives incorrectly predicted a Bush electoral landslide in November 2000. [See E&P, Nov. 2, 2000]

For a good history of how corporations have gained power over the media since the country's founding, see The Railroad Barons Are Back -- And This Time They'll Finish the Job by Thom Hartmann.

"A great little racket"
In The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy, David Brock explains how the right-wing media has taken over by making unfounded claims of liberal bias:

With the right-wing media now a seemingly permanent and defining feature of the media landscape, if Democrats cut through the propaganda and win back the White House in 2004, they still face the prospect of being brutally slammed and systematically slandered in such a way that will make governing exceedingly difficult. There should be no doubt that the right-wing media's wildings of 1993 — which led to Clinton's impeachment four years later — will be replayed over and over again until its capacities to spread filth are somehow eradicated.

Ironically, though not coincidentally, this radical transformation of the media has been obscured by conservative charges of "liberal media bias" that are believed by the vast majority of the public, including about half of Democrats. I'm all too familiar with the claim. From my very first days at the Washington Times, I was schooled to invoke "liberal bias" to deflect attention from my own biases and journalistic lapses and as a rationale to justify my presence in the mainstream media conversation in the name of providing "balance" or "the other side." We sold a lot of books and magazines and commanded lavish attention for our propaganda outside the right wing by using this cover story. As I showed in "Blinded by the Right," the truth was that my work as a right-wing journalist and commentator — in particular, my American Spectator exposιs on Anita Hill and the Clintons — did not deserve the attention they received. I was delivering a truckload of nonfacts, half-truths, and innuendos, not "balance" or "the other side." What I show in "The Republican Noise Machine" is that my experience was not the exception but the rule.

The "liberal media" mantra aside, if one looks and listens closely to what the right wing says when it thinks others may not be paying attention, there should be no doubt that it has made potent political gains not despite the media but through it. Rush Limbaugh says his program has "redefined the media" and refers to the "Limbaugh echo chamber syndrome," by which messaging originating on his show drives the twenty-four-hour news cycle. "The radical Left," he says, "is furious that liberals no longer set the agenda in the national media." "'New media' outlets pound establishment," the Washington Times announced in an op-ed by right-wing publicist Craig Shirley. In a column explaining why the "outing" in the press of the identity of a covert CIA operative by senior Bush administration officials — a possibly criminal act committed to harm a Bush critic — did not spark a major political scandal, Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution explained in the Washington Times, "The media culture has changed. Conservatives and GOP partisans now have more than adequate means to offer an exculpatory counter-narrative." When CBS announced the cancellation of a biopic that was deemed unflattering toward the Reagans, Matt Drudge appeared on MSNBC, on a show hosted by a former Republican member of Congress, to announce the "beginning of a second media century .... It was the Internet, it was talk radio, it was cable that put pressure on CBS, and heretofore, there's never been this kind of pressure applied to one of the big titans, one of the big three." Brian C. Anderson, writing on OpinionJournal.com, a right-wing Web site published by the Wall Street Journal, in late 2003, informed conservatives, "[w]e're not losing anymore" and attributed this fact to a media "revolution." "Everything has changed," he wrote.

In a syndicated column titled "Culture War Signals," John Leo of U.S. News & World Report argued that "a corner has been turned" in the "culture wars" with the "rise of a large crop of commentators the left has not been able to match" and "conservative gains in new media" like the FOX News Channel. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks has written that the conservative media have "cohered to form a dazzlingly efficient ideology delivery system that swamps liberal efforts to get their ideas out." MSNBC's Matthews, interviewing Bernard Goldberg, the author of an attack book on the "liberal media" titled "Bias," got the author to agree with his view that the cable news industry — whose total news audience is growing while that of the traditional broadcast news networks is declining — is biased all right, though in favor of the right wing. According to Bill O'Reilly, "For decades, [liberals] controlled the agenda on TV news. That's over." In an interview with PBS, Tony Blankley, the former Newt Gingrich flack turned editorial page editor of the Washington Times and "McLaughlin Group" panelist, said:

"Starting in 1994, with the Republican election of Congress, I think Limbaugh made the difference in electing the Republican majority. In the following three elections, he made the difference holding the majority. And in 2000, in the presidential race in Florida, he was the difference between Gore and Bush winning Florida, and thus the presidency."

Commenting on the media while interviewing Ann Coulter about her book "Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism," right-wing radio host Sean Hannity crowed, "We've basically taken over!" Coulter, who has made millions off the charge of "liberal media bias" while maintaining a career as perhaps the most biased right-wing voice in the media, laughed in agreement. A young writer for Rupert Murdoch's neoconservative Weekly Standard named Matt Labash — whom I hired into right-wing journalism at The American Spectator — was probably laughing, too, when he was interviewed by Columbia Journalism Review partner Web site JournalismJobs.com. The interviewer asked, "Why have conservative media outlets like The Weekly Standard and FOX News Channel become more popular in recent years?" In his answer, Labash conceded that conservatives reject in their own media the standards of fairness, accuracy, and unbiased coverage that they demand from the "liberal media." He unmasked the hypocrisy at the heart of these endeavors:

"Because they feed the rage. We bring pain to the liberal media. I say that mockingly but it's true somewhat ... While these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media like to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We've created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective ... It's a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It's a great little racket."

Consequences of a conservative media
From a letter in the LA Times, 12/10/02:

The major media have for years hidden or apologized for the true motives and tactics of American foreign policy. From Vietnam to Chile to Nicaragua to East Timor to Iraq, the deaths of civilians, the racketeering for multinational corporations, the deceit by one presidential administration after another, the flouting of international law, the support of brutal dictators, the ravaging of Third World ecologies—all have been ignored or distorted by media that are owned and funded by corporations and, therefore, obviously protect corporate interests.

More on the liberal-media myth
Reporters felt "editorial restraints" that prevented them from telling the whole truth about "America's most catastrophic foreign policy disaster." (6/6/08)
Cranberg Wants a Serious Probe of Why the Press Failed in Its Pre-War Reporting (2/7/07)
Kristolizing the (Neoconservative) Moment:  "Kristol is less interested in being correct than in advancing his side's interests. He's not a journalist." (1/25/07)
Kristol Clear at Time:  "The market doesn't work—not when it comes to conservative commentators." (1/2/07)
Liar. 'Liar?':  "If the President is willing to call himself a liar, how can we go on pretending it isn't so?" (11/22/06)
The Gasbag Gap:  "[I]n Bush's first term, Republicans/conservatives held a dramatic advantage" on political talk shows (2/16/06)
On Partisan Criticism of the Press (Part One) (1/3/06)
Bush's Long War with the Truth (1/2/06)
If You Believe This...(A Litmus Test for Credulity) (1/1/06)
The Occasional Media Ritual of Lamenting the Habitual:  "Rather fully joined in the war boosterism during the CBS coverage of the Iraq invasion" (9/22/05)
The Times, It Is A-Ragin':  "[T]he conservative caricature of the New York Times as a hotbed of liberal agitation is just too good to be true" (7/28/05)
Board to Death:   "[A] close look at the resumes of the 118 people who sit on the boards of directors of America's ten largest media organizations" (7/22/05)
CBS Explodes Liberal Media Bias Myth:  N.Y. Times case was more serious but favored Bush, got less play in media (9/26/04)
Corporate-controlled media rarely report on genuine controversies "because such controversies can isolate an audience and reduce profits" (10/20/03)
'Die-Ins' Target War and News Media:  Fox News's people "aren't journalists. They just say what the government tells them to say" (3/28/03)
Sorting Out the Truth:  From remarks by Al Gore...to a new book by Eric Alterman, the myth of liberal media bias is finally being challenged (3/12/03)
What Liberal Media? (2/14/03)
The Winds of War Movies:  Forget "liberal Hollywood"—the film industry gives America the battlefield politics it wants (2/13/03)
Q&A:  Eric Alterman on Bias in the Media (2/12/03)
Bushwhacked: "Indeed, there is hardly any such thing as the liberal press" (1/13/03)
Stations Reject TV Ads That Connect SUVs to Terrorism (1/8/03)
Minorities and the Media: Little Ownership and Even Less Control (12/12/02)
Talking Back to Talk Radio:  Talk radio shows conservative bias (12/11/02)
On Covers of Many Magazines, a Full Racial Palette Is Still Rare (11/18/02)
On Who Wears the Pants? Bush Bashing in America (11/13/02)
Bush Lies, Media Swallows (11/7/02)
Hawks at the Washington Post (10/24/02)
Al Gore, democrat:  The media's anti-Gore bias (10/3/02)

Readers respond
"This is one of many stories I have seen in the past few years about the Times (and the big media's) incompetence and dishonesty."
"A survey of journalist about 4 years ago showed over 80% of them identifyed themselves as Democrats."

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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