The Dissident
POLITICS AND CULTURE FROM NEW PERSPECTIVES
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DISSIDENT No. 1


POLITICS AND DEMOCRACY


A New Kind of Empire

The Thoughtless Orthodoxy

Globalization vs. Capitalism

The Real Roots of Islamic Extremism

What Explains Rwandan Mass Rape?

They Don't Hate the USA in the Former USSR

BOOKS + IDEAS

+ PROVOCATIONS


Theory Gets a Reality Check: The Philosophy, Economics, and Politics They Don’t Teach at Harvard

Vanishing Voters—A Blessing in Disguise?

What Conservative Bias?

The Hidden Side of Capitalism

J'ACCUSE


The Rise of the "Neoconservatives"


ARCHIVE


DISSIDENT No. 2

DISSIDENT No. 3


books+arts
What Conservative Bias?
BY ANNA SCHWARTZ

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The debate has raged for two decades now. Starting with the 1983 publication of Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly, and continuing with Bernard Goldberg’s 2001 bestseller Bias, the issue is still hotly contested. Does media bias exist? If so, is it conservative or liberal?

In his new book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic Books), Eric Alterman attempts to answer these questions definitively. In the grand tradition of Bagdikian and Robert McChesney, his argument is that the “so-called liberal media” is not really liberal at all, but is actually conservative. But instead of harping on corporate media ownership, as Bagdikian and McChesney do, Alterman looks at the product rather than than the ownership of media outlets. Alterman concludes that “the myth of the ‘liberal media’ empowers conservatives to control debate in the United States to the point where liberals cannot even hope for a fair shake anymore.” The aim of his book is to debunk that myth.

Alterman is wise to avoid the pointless analysis of the conglomeration of the media, which never manages to show that corporate owners have conservative beliefs, let alone that these beliefs translate into a conservative message. The Bagdikian/McChesney approach does not establish either an ideological or a financial reason why corporate media would want to bias their coverage rightward. And Bagdikian and McChesney fail to recognize that there is a distinct separation between corporate ownership and the media personnel, such as editors, producers, and reporters, who are responsible for creating the content of the mass media.

Alterman, who writes a column for The Nation and a weblog for MSNBC.com, as well as contributing to dozens of other publications, is aware of this distinction from firsthand experience. Unfortunately, he cannot avoid the corporate-bashing temptation altogether, conjecturing, in a chapter entitled “You’re Only As Liberal As the Man Who Owns You,” that “the reporter, the editor, the producer, and the executive producer all understand implicitly that their jobs depend in part on keeping their corporate parents happy.” This type of proclamation, without offering evidence that the alleged implicit understanding in any way affects news coverage, is an error that is surely attributable to Alterman’s own (admitted) left-wing bias.

The bulk of the case that Alterman makes, however, rests in his content analysis. He succeeds in proving that most pundits are conservative, as well as demonstrating that some of the publications that are routinely cited as the core of the liberal media actually publish columnists and journalists who put forth conservative views. He points to the fact that of all the nation’s most prominent liberal opinion journalists, including Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman, “not one enjoys or ever has enjoyed a prominent perch on television.” He demonstrates that conservative pundits are pervasive on all networks and cable news shows, and explains this fact by arguing that the “establishment media.” have bought into conservative rhetoric about media bias, and therefore bend over backwards to rectify the alleged imbalance.

Crucially, however, Alterman fails to provide evidence, either statistical or anecdotal, that the public actually pays attention to these conservative pundits. Most of them are relegated to cable news and littlewatched Sunday-morning network programming.

Politicos such as Alterman may routinely watch such programs, but the vast majority of the public does not, and the ratings prove it.

On talk radio, on the other hand, liberals are not just under-represented, but almost totally unrepresented. Rush Limbaugh is by far the nation’s most successful talk show host, followed closely by Neil Boorts, but one would be hard-pressed to think of a liberal equivalent.

Less persuasive evidence for Alterman’s case, however, is the fact that in quotations or mentions of think tanks in news articles, “conservatives enjoy about 48 percent of all mentions, centrists 36 percent, and progressives just 16 percent.” The obvious explanation, which Alterman overlooks, is that conservatives have established far more think tanks than liberals because the main sources of “expert” opinion — universities and public-interest groups, such as consumer and environmental organizations — are heavily tilted left.

Alterman’s energetic attempt to expose the majority of think tanks as truly conservative is accurate, but useless in establishing conservative media bias.

In election coverage, Alterman charges, the media can “make or break a candidate with voters through the manner they choose to portray him or her.” Alterman chooses to use this undisputed fact as evidence that the media’s portrayal of Al Gore led to his defeat in the 2000 election. But the same argument can be used the other way: the most common portrayal of Gore was as snotty, whereas the most common portrayal of Bush was as stupid.

Arguably, portraying a presidential candidate as an idiot is more harmful to his campaign than portraying him as condescending. In application to the 2000 election results, Alterman concludes — with scant evidence — that media coverage favored Bush and Republicans, without considering that even if this were the case, it might have been evidence not of systematic bias in the media, but of a problem that stemmed from the candidates and their respective approaches to the press.

Finally, Alterman never comes to grips with the fact that the people who cover the news are overwhelmingly liberal. In 1996, for example, half of the 139 Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents surveyed by the Roper Center called themselves Democrats, 37 percent independents, 9 percent “other,” and only 4 percent Republicans. In the same survey, 61 percent called themselves liberal or liberal to moderate; 30 percent moderate; and only 9 percent conservative or moderate-to-conservative. In 1992, an astonishing 89 percent of Washington correspondents and editors voted for Bill Clinton.

Alterman never confronts such evidence, which is consistent with a pattern that goes back for decades, because he focuses on campaign coverage — where it is easiest for liberal journalists, who do believe in trying to be “fair and balanced,” to give the other side (even if, in the final analysis, this means portraying the Democrat as haughty but the Republican as a fool). At least in covering campaigns, a liberal reporter knows that there is another side, and by calling the press spokesman for the Republican candidate, she can get a quote from that other side to balance her story. But to be fair to the case for liberal bias, which Alterman is not: the conservative complaint is not primarily about campaign coverage, or about overt Democratic partisanship by the media. It is about the way liberal reporters decide what non-campaign events qualify as news, and how they frame and report that news. When media personnel are predominantly graduates of liberal-arts colleges and universities where they were rarely exposed to conservative perspectives, their best efforts to be fair will be doomed when it comes to issues that seem to them to have only one side — the liberal side — because that is the only side they’ve ever heard. Such issues include, for example, environmental and economic matters.

Thus, Robert Lichter et al. showed in The Media Elite, based on exhaustive studies of how journalists go about their jobs, that their “source selections, [and] summaries of news stories… tend to be consistent with the social attitudes they express. This suggests that their conscious opinions are reflected to some degree in the ways they subconsciously structure reality.” Whether this bias is liberal or conservative (and Lichter et al. demonstrate that it is liberal), objectivity is impossible in principle due to the inherent structure of news stories. Journalism requires the selective quotation of sources and other authorial decision-making about what to include and exclude in the story, as well as about what constitutes a noteworthy story to begin with.

Analysis like that conducted by Lichter and his colleagues makes Alterman’s brand of argument look pointless and superficial. He spends a wasted chapter, for example, identifying the “really conservative media,” a category that includes The Wall Street Journal (though in reality, only its op-ed pages are truly conservative — the rest of the paper has a different editorial staff) and all of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. outlets, such as the Fox News Channel and the New York Post. Identifying these news sources as “really conservative” does not come as a shock to any reader who has more than a modicum of familiarity with them; despite Fox News Channel’s claim of “fair and balanced coverage,” Rupert Murdoch’s news has never been anywhere close to objective — but as a result of their conservative bias, his newspapers and television channels are not opinion leaders. The Washington Post and the New York Times are the sources from which the broadcast news networks take their cues. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. outlets are not only without broader influence in the other media; their direct influence on the public is miniscule.

On a good night during peacetime, Fox News Channel has a little more than 1 million viewers, compared to 40 million or so for the New York Times - following broadcast network news programs.

Another chapter of fruitless effort revolves around the Lewinsky scandal, which Alterman declares was tangible proof of conservative media bias. The media, he claims, were strongly anti-Clinton, so the Lewinsky scandal became a huge media event. The idea that the president having an extramarital affair, about which he perjured himself and suborned perjury — federal crimes that might actually warrant being reported — does not occur to Alterman as a plausible explanation. Despite all of his footnotes, Alterman ultimately fails at his task of uncovering a systematic conservative bias in the media. His attempt to construct proof of conservative bias begins and ends with specific instances of individual reporters (or anchors or pundits) saying specific things. He has not managed to detect a trend, except in certain people’s coverage. The book is a collection of interesting observations about the media, but these observations do not become plausible arguments through their mere addition to each other. Because he lacks evidence of a trend that either is pervasive or that affects news coverage (not just opinion journalism), Alterman also lacks a cohesive argument that cannot readily be refuted by a comprehensive study such as the one already performed by Lichter.

In fact, Alterman acknowledges midway through the book that there might be some merit to his opponents’ arguments: “the overall flavor of the elite media reporting favors gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights and the environmental movement,” he writes.

These are distinctly liberal stances and this admission, by itself, pokes a gaping hole into Alterman’s argument, and raises the question of whether an (albeit unsuccessful) attempt to prove conservative bias among opinionmakers necessarily disproves liberal bias.

Alterman also fails to deal effectively with how reporters try to follow journalistic standards of objectivity — an important issue that is necessary to a persuasive argument. Journalists are trained to be objective and to abide by a code of ethics; Alterman can and does make the case that conservative pundits do not abide by these ethics, but does not address the possibility that reporters try to do so, meaning that liberal media bias may be more subtle than can be detected from noting, ad nauseam, the absence from the airwaves of liberal equivalents to conservative talking (or shouting) heads such as Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. All that Alterman has shown is that conservative pundits espouse conservative views, and that these pundits are thick on the ground. But anyone who pays keen attention to politics already knew about this phenomenon.

Although he has used a commendably new approach, one that does not involve conjuring up the specter of corporate media ownership, Alterman has not managed to sustain an argument that is convincing, despite his use of overwhelming detail.

The question remains, however: does media bias exist? The Lichter study is now 17 years old, and despite continued findings that media personnel are predominantly liberal, it’s possible that their news coverage is not. Even Lichter et al. did not undertake the massive task of analyzing the content of what is reported: instead, they conducted experiments that showed that reporters drawn from the most influential and widely consumed news-media outlets consistently but unconsciously biased their framing of the news in a liberal direction. Perhaps for some reason this doesn’t happen in the non-experimental world.

But if it doesn’t, Alterman certainly hasn’t shown it. He has provided the best argument yet from the liberal side, but it is an argument that still falls short when challenged. In order to find the true answer to this important question, a careful study of large quantities of media news coverage is necessary. Until then, the debate will rage on.

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Anna Schwartz is a major
in political science at
Barnard College.

 

 

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