American right-wingers (i.e., self-proclaimed “conservatives”) constantly complain about the alleged liberal bias of the mainstream media (the “lamestream media” in Sarah Palin’s clever formulation). I am very critical of the media myself: I think there certainly is media bias, but broadly speaking, it’s a centrist bias.
So, for example, at the national level, the media’s selection of newsworthy stories, and of the relevant facts for those stories, generally reflects a wariness about straying too far from perspectives that have currency in the Washington establishment. This is especially true of foreign policy—there is a small mountain of social science research that proves it—but I think it is probably a fair generalization for domestic policy and politics as well. Since the radicalization of the Republican Party in recent decades has effectively shifted the spectrum of Washington opinion to the right, I would suspect that the media’s centrist bias in practice actually amounts to a slight rightward tilt. Of course, from the perspective of ultra-rightists, the center looks like the left—hence the perception of liberal bias.
In one area, though, I think the right-wingers probably do have a case for their complaints about liberal bias: it’s in socio-cultural issues. Most professional journalists, like most well-educated Amerians, are basically secular in their outlook. They believe in science and support abortion rights and gay marriage. I can’t prove it, but I would be surprised if those beliefs and values weren’t reflected in various subtle ways in the media’s handling of these subjects. Of course, most of our right wingers identify as culturally conservative and care about these things very passionately. So, their reasonable perception of liberal media bias on these issues colors their broader perceptions of the media.
Anyway, these reflections were prompted by the “Invitation to a Dialogue” feature in yesterday’s New York Times. For those of you not familiar with it: each Wednesday the Times publishes in its letters section an opinion piece and invites readers to respond, with responses and a rejoinder to be printed in the Sunday Review section. Yesterday’s “Invitation” was by a guy who argued for what I regard as a false equivalence between the right-wing media, notably Fox News, and the mainstream. Fox, he claims, provides needed balance to the pervasive influence of the liberal media. That pissed me off; first, because I think that the idea of a pervasive liberal media bias is a canard, and second, because I really don’t believe that Fox deserves any respect at all. So, I e-mailed a letter to the Times. It is relatively polite and short, to increase the odds that it will be printed, but those odds are long in any case, so I am printing it here:
Mr. Godburn would have us believe that “the much maligned right-wing media” is no more biased than “the so-called mainstream press.” This might be a tenable assertion if the mainstream media were dominated by MSNBC and kindred outlets. But most mainstream journalists adhere to a professional ethos of objectivity which, though certainly problematic, represents a very different approach to the news than the sharp-edged, ideologically motivated partisanship that drives Fox and MSNBC. You can argue that even tendentious reporting makes a useful contribution to public discourse, but please don’t pretend that Fox is just a conservative version of CBS.
Mr. Godburn thinks that right-wing media provide needed balance to mainstream sources, but ideas of balance naturally vary with one’s political perspective. Arguably, the absence of a radical media that effectively challenges the mainstream from the left helps Fox & Co. skew our public discourse to the right.
Mr. Godburn’s own partisanship is evident in his selective perceptions of the news and the media’s reporting of it. For example, he faults the mainstream media with a determination to exonerate the Obama administration over alleged IRS wrongdoing. On the contrary, I recall a great deal of play to that story and a good number of outraged, hand-wringing commentaries on the center-left; much less attention was directed to the subsequent revelations that the IRS “targeted” liberal and left-wing groups no less than those on the right. (Conservative bias?)
Let me just add that if you are interested in exploring the myth of liberal media bias, a fine place to start would be Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? And if you are interested more specifically in media bias and foreign policy, look no further than Chapter 4 of my own book.