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Political Bias in the News Media
PS103 - April 3, 2009
Russell D. Renka

º The Bias Accusation
º Public Beliefs About Bias
º My Own Biases on Media
º Conclusion
º Works Cited

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).  Throughout the election 2008 season you could 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 (C-SPAN, Firing of U.S. Attorneys; U.S. Attorney Firings Investigation - washingtonpost.com; Congresspedia, Bush administration U.S. attorney firings controversy).  Riiiiight.  Now you see one of the major inspirations 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) has a section showing that Media Credibility Declines.  Republicans and conservatives shun non-conservative media sources as biased and gravitate increasingly to conservative ones, which they may 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 of the nation's politically aware citizenry.  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 comes 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--unless they're compiling information by which to refute its claims (Chang 2009, Paleontology and Creationism Meet but Don't Mesh).  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.  Back to 35 or 40 years ago, the Big Three TV networks still reigned supreme, which is why former President Richard Nixon in 1969 to 1974 was so determined to label CBS News and its White House Correspondent Dan Rather as biased against him, his party, and his ideology (Greenberg 2003; The Museum of Broadcast Communications, Rather, Dan; Encyclopedia of World Biography, Dan Rather Biography; Buchanan, Richard Nixon’s Revenge).  It mattered a lot what CBS News said in those days of the Big Three dominance over the air.  But nowadays with cable and internet, it doesn't matter much--and not only because Rather left the CBS Evening News anchor post in 2005.  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 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 (Journalism.org, Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Examined Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ)).  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 Broadcasting 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 almost equally vociferous in condemning the conservative news sites.  That's a major reason why most of the current Democratic Party presidential candidates shunned live interviews with The Fox Network's Special Report during the lengthy 2008 presidential primary season.  As ill-considered as this was for getting word out to potential converts, it's a natural result of liberal conviction that Fox is unfair and unbalanced.  It curtails the opportunity for persuasion of self-selected conservatives but those from the other party.  But we know from recent presidential campaigns that they overwhelmingly concentrate on mobilizing those who are likely to support that side, rather than converting those who are disposed the other way.  Political candidates obey their own form of consumer sovereignty.

My Own Biases on Media                Top

    Fiorina et al. in Culture Wars? (2005) offers fair warning about commonplace biases that pervade the contemporary American mass media.  One is pandering to the dramatic and the anecdotal over the portrayal of underlying or enduring realities.  Local television networks are notoriously prone to this.  They do not portray a certain percentage of residents in Cape Girardeau County as lacking health insurance or access to affordable hospitals.  Rather, they portray campaigns to assist in paying for a winsome child's health treatment, or for a down-on-luck family's medical bills after a conflation of personal disasters makes self-payment impossible.  There is a pattern to human interest portraits of this kind.  They rely heavily on anecdotes and on personally appealing cases that may not reflect general reality at all.

    My recommendation on that is to go behind those stories on selective basis.  Ask not only what you can do for that family, but what the problem itself really is.  You will probably have to read about it, or get it from a specialized informational source on public television; so your interest would have to be rather high to devote the time and attention to the task.  The local commercial television media will not do that job for you.

    A second recommendation is to watch the political spin and recognize it for what it is.  Spin can be useful to hear so long as you understand what it is and why spinmeisters persist in offering it.  After awhile, you'll readily recognize it as surely as you will a bad polling site.  It's like hearing Paul McCartney's ex-wife plead to the judge for more millions of his fortune for sole purpose of devoting more of her own time to her many charities.  Yes, yes, of course that's it, we surely will all agree.  The roll of the eyes is optional.

    Another recommendation is to be a skeptic about opinions, and trace stories back to their source or sources.  When Bill O'Reilly fires off opinion upon opinion about a political subject, I am normally curious but unclear about where he gets his information and allegations.  That's the problem:  where does he get this stuff?  You should carefully separate opinion from actual evidence.  That's very hard to do in rapid-fire radio and television talk shows like his.  So latch onto his subject matter, get onto Google or other express trains toward various print sources, and mine the results for reputable source sites.  Try this tracing to see if he speaks accurately to the available evidence, or is just firing off opinions with little or no fair interpretation of evidence.  His opinion might please you and match your own, but that's no reason to trust it or to expect others to do so.  I care not what Julius Caesar thinks is a solar year's length (365.25 days), but what that length actually is (about 365.2422 days, according to Pope Gregory's able astronomers).  Opinions matter less than hard evidence does.

    Once you do this tracing to origin, then see if you find a reporter or two at the root of it.  This requires that stories be identified with authors who actually wrote them.  I often press for authorship:  who wrote this piece, and on what basis does this author claim to know something?  Newspapers entrust this job to reporters alone or in teams.  I recommend that you become familiar with individual reporters first, and their affiliated organizations secondarily.  So when I want to know what happened in a Supreme Court oral argument on the Second Amendment during the 2007-08 Court session, I passed to you a story from Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times.  Like other political scientists who follow the Court, I trust her as a proven and experienced Court reporter whose works holds up well to careful examination by other reporters and by professional followers of the actions of the Court.   I care not at all that talk-show pundits might recommend burning down the New York Times building (as one harridan recently suggested with a shrug of her shoulders on a morning show self-promotion for her latest fulmination in print).  So long as her shop doesn't tamper with her work, that speaks well for them too.  It's the reporters who actually do the stories, and that's to be remembered.

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.  There is a form of consumer sovereignty at work here:  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.  But for straight news, go to straight-news networks such as Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio.

Works Cited

Fiorina, Morris P., with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope.  2005.  Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America.  New York:  Pearson Education, Inc.

Greenberg, David.  2003.  Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.  New York: W.W. Norton.

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Copyright©2009, Russell D. Renka