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Political Bias in the News Media
Russell D. Renka
PS103 - October 28, 2007

º The Bias Accusation
º Public Beliefs About Bias
º Conclusion

The Bias Accusation                     Top; Next Down

    Media bias refers to imbalanced or unfair presentation of the facts, or a selective reporting of which events or facts are reported."  No accusation is proclaimed more often than this:  the American national news media are politically biased.  Most come from political conservatives like Accuracy In Media - For Fairness, Accuracy and Balance in News Reporting (AIM Report New Evidence of Liberal Media Bias - November A), and Media Research Center (Media Bias Basics).  They've decided that CBS, the New York Times, and most other major electronic and print media favor liberalism and Democrats.  AM talk radio is heavily populated with show hosts who emit this charge endlessly.  But the left side contributes charges as well.  Left-wingers says mainstream media are corporate shills whether leaning Democratic or Republican; and they're burdened with false consciousness as well (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting).  Some attack the conservative sources cited above (AMERICAN REVIEW and THE REAL NEWS PAGE: The Media Bias Debate).  Both sides make their cases with breathless screeds that betray fixed political biases of their own, while proclaiming their own causes to be:  a) politically neutral, b) closer to the true heart of the American people than those they accuse, and c) gifted with special insights.  News media themselves fire the accusation at rivals.  For instance, the conservative Fox News Network avows itself the "fair and balanced" alternative to CNN, MSNBC, and whoever else competes with them for viewers and advertising revenues.  Audience shares and advertiser adherence are zealously guarded in this way.

    These targeted media are responsible for covering the political world and making sense of it for us.  Politics itself is naturally filled with bias.  Politicians compete for public loyalties in part by using allies and hired guns to offer spin on the media (Spin (public relations) - Wikipedia).  These shooters are often called spin doctors (spin doctor - definition - Free Online Dictionary).  In 2007 and 2008 you'll hear them after politicians engage in debate; they go on the air saying my tiger won the fight hands down on merit, while the opponent fired low blows and made unfair charges that are without substance.  Spin consists of slanted interpretations favoring one side and opposing another with no regard for what really took place.  It's the White House proclaiming that Alberto Gonzales was convincing and truthful when he told Senators in spring 2007 that politics had nothing to do with firing of U.S. attorneys.  Riiiiight.  Now you see the inspiration for "Your Moment of Zen" at conclusion of each episode of Comedy Central Shows - The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (also Daniel Kurtzman, And Now, Your Moment Of Zen, 3 March 2006).

    So the politics-reporting media will be filled with biased statements from spinmeisters (spinmeisters - definition - Free Online Dictionary).  That's especially the electronic media; and remember that television is still the dominant medium for most Americans to get most if not all their political news.  Newspapers and magazines are for the interested and knowledgeable minority among us.  They too have spin; it's called the editorial page.  But what matters most is what leads, on page 1 of the paper, on their website heading, and (back to electronica) on the first 10 minutes of the onetime "Big Three" (CBS, NBC, and ABC) during their 19 minute long evening news broadcasts (add 11 more minutes for the ads).  Lead items capture the largest audiences, both before and after advent of TiVo and remotes.  We don't care about bias on editorial pages.  It's what leads that counts.

    Our job is to see whether there's any substance behind these bias proclamations.  Remember that some healthy skepticism is in order; it helps when Fox News Network implies that rivals are biased while Fox itself is a blameless victim of unfair innuendo.  But even when black pots call kettles black, perhaps the pots are right:  some kettles really are black.  Darkened pots might know one when they see one.

Public Beliefs about Bias                        Top; Next down

    Much of the American public buys the bias claim and doesn't like the media for it.  The Pew Center's Overview:  News Audiences Increasingly Politicized (June 8, 2004) shows that Media Credibility Declines - News Audiences Increasingly Politicized.  Republicans and conservatives shun non-conservative media sources as biased and gravitate increasingly to conservative ones, which they see as fair and neutral.  Democrats and liberals behave in the same fashion on their side of this duopolistic political fence.  Self-defined moderates and non-partisans fall in between, albeit with many not consuming much political news at all.  Overall credibility of the news media has fallen due to this rising partisan movement.  Even sources that are rigorously balanced--such as PBS News Hour--are regularly pilloried by partisan believers for not adhering to the one true path.  You can read News Hour's own balanced profile of this dispute at Online NewsHour Skewing the News -- Jan. 24, 2002.

    In short, buyers select bias claims that suit their own biases.  Conservatives see Fox News as fair and balanced, even when Geraldo Rivera comes aboard to say where his Iraqi military unit is embedded.  Liberals fume at Fox for false advertising of fairness, even when Geraldo is kept off screen.  Behind this is audience self-selection.  Who, after all, listens to Rush Limbaugh proclaim that he, Rush, has the truth, while CBS News is hopelessly biased against everything true and American and righteous?  Dittoheads, Rushies, all on the right wing; these are their own self-assigned terms associated with the "Rush is Right" bumper stickers.  What else does one expect from this audience?  Innocent bystanders and passers through are quickly sorted, some bowing out while others become proto-Rushies.  They learn the assumptions of proper conduct there from the master himself, and also by reinforcements from local affiliates.

    The surveys also find that the public prefers fair and neutral coverage over perceived bias.  Indeed so; most Americans believe there are two sides to any argument or controversy and want to hear out both of them.  But in everyday choosing of news media, they flock to their own.  Few people wish to experience cognitive dissonance, the jangling effect of learning something at wide variance with a predisposed frame of thought.  They avoid it.

    This is the behavior seen in the May 2007 opening of a "creation science" museum in Kentucky (Creation Museum).  This audience came to confirm and defend its predisposed beliefs in a literally true Bible down to the exact age of the earth and date of the Great Flood.  They see exhibits with children playing next to T. rex juveniles as though this were once for real.  Dissuasion and neutral consideration of evidence will have to wait its turn, which never comes.  It's severe self-selection.  Creationists gain the appearance and trappings of scientific validity for their unshakeable beliefs about life, the world, and the universe (About the Creation Museum).  Meanwhile, advocates of teaching biological evolution will not be caught dead in such a place.  They have other museums based on real science which cannot be reconciled with a belief in a young earth.

    Why such self-selection in the media nowadays?  It's technology producing a segmented marketplace.  A major thing to understand about our segmented national media is that none serves everyone.  The broadened choices of media during internet times enhances this segmentation.  Only 30 years ago, the Big Three TV networks still reigned supreme, which is why former President Richard Nixon (1969-74) was so determined to label CBS and Dan Rather as biased against him, his party, and his ideology.  It mattered a lot what CBS said in those days.  But nowadays, it doesn't matter much.  Audiences pick among outlets for something that fits their initial comfort zone beliefs.  They're less like political parties, with only two to choose from, and more like interest groups, with a score of options to patronize.

    And like interest groups, the major cable news outlets thrive by promoting material that reinforces the pre-existing biases of their audiences.  Fox News Network has the belligerence of Bill O'Reilly's No Spin Zone, so MSNBC counters in that prime time slot with devoted O'Reilly loather Keith Olbermann's Countdown (Bill O’Reilly The O’Reilly Factor - FOXNews.com; Countdown with Keith Olbermann).  It's something biased for both predominant American ideological biases.  Meanwhile conservatives think (and O'Reilly says) that O'Reilly is fair and balanced.  That's absurd on its face, but let's not disturb true believers from their preferred fare (while O'Reilly wraps himself in the American flag and sells a book proclaiming himself a "culture warrior").  Liberals in large numbers also proclaim Olbermann fair and balanced, when in truth he's there as a counterweight and reaction against the belligerent conservative substance and style of O'Reilly (along with President Bush as well).  Both of them fare well by highlighting the real and alleged sins of the principle adversary.  They don't like each other at all, and some of us therefore tune in to get good seats to a shout-down fight.

    You may notice here that this behavior closely parallels the mutual dislike society of the ACLU and ACLJ.  That's right; they thrive in part by appealing to fear of the opposite number.  They more or less need each other.

    The segmenting of the market will surely increase yearly through 2008 and beyond.  The Pew Center's 2004 Summary of Findings: Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe shows large gains in election-news audience share by internet sources from 2000 to 2004, particularly among young people.  Likewise, Comedy Central's audience grew rapidly.  That's accelerated since 2004, as any student of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report should recognize.  That new CC audience isn't politically neutral; it is culturally liberal enough to bear up to Jon Stewart's brand of humor.  Christian fundamentalists and cultural warriors of the right will not be seen or heard on their live audiences.  They already have segmented locales of their own, including the decidedly slanted cultural American Family Radio - Today's Radio for Life and less sharply partisan Christian News Network (CBN News - Christian News 24-7).

    Perceptions of media bias grow right along with this segmentation and self-selection.  Conservatives long had the louder voice in complaint against Dan Rather of CBS and the front page of the New York Times, but now cultural and economic and anti-Iraq war liberals are equally vociferous in condemning the conservative news sites.  That's a major reason why most of the current Democratic Party presidential candidates are shunning live interviews with The Fox Network's Special Report.  As ill-considered as this may well be for getting word out to potential converts, it's a natural result of liberal conviction that Fox is unfair and unbalanced.

Conclusion                    Top

    The commercial and public media outlets are market entities in an intensively segmented market.  They obey economic imperatives to serve that audience and its financial sponsors and benefactors.  If only conservatives eventually watch Fox, one can never expect it to become truly fair and balanced.  Instead it will be a Full Spin Zone tilted firmly to the right, notwithstanding any O'Reilly claim to the contrary.  When liberals and some moderates are repelled by that, they flock to MSNBC and Keith Olberman's Countdown.  That network has thereby become the Anti-Fox alternative tilted firmly leftward.  That's the way our political system as a whole is sorting itself out nowadays, and the news media are emphatically part of that system.

    For good skeptics, it'll be necessary to fully recognize rather than try to alter these biases.  Study the audience if you wish to predict that media's slant.  It'll be a very good predictor of how it behaves.

Copyright©2007, Russell D. Renka