|What Conservative Bias?|
BY ANNA SCHWARTZ
discuss this article
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
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
discuss this article
Anna Schwartz is a major|
in political science at
on your campus