But Wait, Don’t the Media Have a Liberal Bias?
Absent so far in this discussion of journalism has been an assessment of the proposition that the US news media have a liberal, even leftwing, political bias. The reason I have neglected this argument thus far is that this particular critique is not an institutional or political economic critique; indeed, political economic analysis highlights the severe shortcomings of this claim. But the claim that the news media have a liberal political bias is so widespread that it has come to play a crucial ideological role in the functioning of the news media system. In 2001 and 2002 no less than three books purporting to demonstrate and elaborate upon the media’s liberal bias rested high atop the bestseller list (Coulter, 2002; Goldberg, 2001; Hannity, 2002). It has become, in effect, the official opposition to the media status quo, and is so regarded by a large number of Americans. Even more important, the right-wing campaign against the “liberal media” has influenced media content, pushing journalists to be less critical of right-wing politics in their never-ending (and never successful) quest to establish their lack of bias against the political right. For these reasons the conservative criticism of the “liberal media” merits our attention.
The very idea of a “liberal” bias in the news media is a very American proposition; in Britain and Canada, for example, there is nothing remotely close to it in magnitude. To some extent that is a measure of just how successful the notion of professional journalism was ingrained during the 20th century on the United States, with the organizing principle that democratic journalism should be, could be, and must be politically impartial (Coulter, 2002; Goldberg, 2001; Hannity, 2002). Once the notion of professional journalism became dominant, the importance of the views and conduct of working journalists assumed greater importance relative to the broader institutional determinants of journalism. Mainstream media analysis is mostly concerned with commercial and government encroachment on journalistic autonomy, and with journalists receiving proper professional training.
The conservative critique is a variant of the mainstream analysis and is concerned with how journalists would abuse their newfound power to distort the news to serve their own political agendas. This, too, was and is considered a violation of the professional code. Such criticism would have been nonsensical prior to the professional era, when journalism explicitly represented the values of the owners, who tended to have the politics of the owning class, to be conservative. The conservative critique is based then on four propositions:
(1) the decisive power over the news lies with the journalists, owners and advertisers are irrelevant or relatively powerless;
(2) journalists are political liberals;
(3) journalists use their power to advance liberal politics; and
(4) objective journalism would almost certainly present the world exactly as seen by contemporary US conservatives.
For this argument to hold, the first three conditions must be met. For this argument to hold, and for one to maintain a commitment to professional journalism as it is presently understood, the fourth condition must also be met.
Conservative critique first propositions
The first point is intellectually indefensible and is enough to call the entire conservative critique of the liberal news media into question. No credible scholarly analysis of journalism posits that journalists have the decisive power to determine what is and is not news and how it should be covered. In commercial media, the owners hire and fire and they determine the budgets and the overarching aims of the enterprise. As Robert Parry puts it, “in reality, most journalists have about as much say over what is presented by newspapers and TV news programs as factory workers and foremen have over what a factory produces” (Parry, 2003). Successful journalists, and certainly those who rise to the top of the profession, tend to internalize the values of those who own and control the enterprise. Sophisticated scholarly analysis examines how these commercial pressures shape what become the professional values that guide journalists. 28 In fact, conservatives tacitly acknowledge the transparently ideological basis of the claim that journalists have all the power over the news. The real problem is not that journalists have all the power over the news, or even most of the power, it is that they have any power to be autonomous from owners and advertisers, whom conservatives generally regard as having the proper political worldview, so their influence is not a problem. (Some conservative media critics like Brent Bozell attempt to argue that media corporations have a left-wing political bias, but the evidence used to support these claims is so preposterous most conservatives avoid the topic altogether. 29) Newt Gingrich, with typical candor and a lack of PR rhetoric, laid bare the logic behind the conservative critique: what needs to be done is to eliminate journalistic autonomy, and return the politics of journalism to the politics of media owners (McChesney, 1999, p. 245). This also helps to explain why US conservatives tend to be obsessed with pushing public broadcasting to operate by commercial principles; they know that the market will very effectively push the content to more politically acceptable outcomes, without any need for direct censorship (Jarvik, 1997).
The second proposition—that journalists are liberals—has the most evidence to support it. Surveys show that journalists tend to vote Democratic at a greater proportion than the general population. In one famous survey of how Washington correspondents voted in the 1992 presidential election, something like 90 percent voted for Bill Clinton. To some conservative critics, that settles the matter. But the first point undermines the importance of how journalists vote, or what their particular political beliefs might be. What if owners and managers have most of the power, both directly and through the internalization of their political and commercial values in the professional code? Surveys show that media owners and editorial executives vote overwhelmingly Republican. An Editor & Publisher survey found that in 2000 newspaper publishers favored George W. Bush over Al Gore by a 3 to 1 margin, while newspaper editors and publishers together favored Bush by a 2 to 1 margin (Editor & Publisher, 2000). In addition, why should a vote for Al Gore or Bill Clinton be perceived as a reflection of liberal politics? On many or most policies these are moderate to conservative Democrats, very comfortable with the status quo of the US political economy.
What this begs, then, is an analysis of what, exactly, a liberal is. 30 To listen to the shock troops of conservative media critics, support for Gore or Clinton is virtually indistinguishable from being an anarcho-syndicalist or a Marxist-Leninist. One right-wing pundit echoed this sentiment when he called the editors of the Philadelphia Inquirer “die-hard old school socialists” (Adkins, 2002). But this is absurd. The actual record of the US news media is to pay very little attention to what might be called the political left, and by this we mean not only socialists and radicals but also what would be called mild social democrats by international standards. What attention the left actually gets tends to be unsympathetic, if not explicitly negative. Foreign journalists write about how US left-wing social critics who are prominent and respected public figures abroad are virtually non-persons in the US news media (Stille, 2000; Zerbisias, 2002). To the extent there is a basis for the claim, conservatives are able to render synonymous Clinton Democrats and radical leftists because of their main criteria for what is a liberal. It is based upon what are called social issues, such as a commitment to gay rights, women’s rights, abortion rights, civil liberties, and affirmative action. And indeed, on these issues a notable percentage of journalists tend to have positions similar to many of those to their left.
The Achilles heel for this conservative critique of journalist liberalism, and therefore entirely absent from their pronouncements, however, is a consideration of journalists’ views on issues of the economy and regulation. Here, unlike with social issues, surveys show that journalists hold positions that tend to be more pro-business and conservative than the bulk of the population. Indeed, by looking at questions surrounding class and economic matters, the (suspect) argument that journalists’ personal biases and political opinions determine the news would lead in a very different direction than conservative media critics suggest. Over the past two generations, journalism, especially at the larger and more prominent news media, has evolved from being a blue-collar job to becoming a desirable occupation of the well educated upper-middle class. Urban legend has it that when the news of the stock market crash came over the ticker to the Boston Globe newsroom in 1929, the journalists all arose to give Black Monday a standing ovation. The rich were finally getting their comeuppance! When the news of the stock market crash reached the Globe newsroom in 1987, on the other hand, journalists were all frantically on the telephone to their brokers. As recently as 1971 just over one-half of US newspaper journalists had college degrees; by 2002 nearly 90 percent did. The median salary for a journalist at one of the 40 largest circulation newspapers in the United States in 2002 was nearly double the media income for all US workers (Shaw, 2002). Journalists at the dominant media are unlikely to have any idea what it means to go without health insurance, to be unable to locate affordable housing, to have their children in underfunded and dilapidated schools, to have relatives in prison or the front lines of the military, to face the threat of severe poverty. They live in a very different world from most Americans. They may be “liberal” on certain issues, but on the core issues of political economy, they are hardly to the left of the US population, and they tend to be quite comfortable with the corporate status quo. To the extent their background and values determine the news, it is unlikely to expect journalists to be sympathetic to traditional liberal, not to mention left-wing, policies and regulations.
As for the third proposition, that journalists use their power to advance liberal politics, the evidence is far from convincing. One of the core points of the professional code is to prevent journalists from pushing their own politics on to the news, and many journalists are proud to note that while they are liberal, their coverage tended to bend the stick the other way, to prevent the charge that they have a liberal bias and are unprofessional. As one news producer stated, “the main bias of journalists is the bias not to look like they favor liberals.” 31 “One of the biggest career threats for journalists,” a veteran Washington reporter wrote in 2002, “is to be accused of ‘liberal bias’ for digging up stories that put conservatives in a bad light” (Parry, 2002). Moreover, research shows that while many journalists may have liberal politics on social issues, few of them are political junkies. Often they are cynical and depoliticized, much like the general public. If they are obsessed with advancing a political agenda, they tend to become columnists or leave the profession, as the professional constraints are too great. At its best, but only rarely, the conservative critique has emphasized not the aggressive liberalism of individual reporters— for which there is little evidence—but, rather, how liberal political values are inscribed into the professional code (Leo, 2001, p. A8). This is where the conservative critique has a political economic basis. Hence any journalist who receives professional training, regardless of their personal political inclinations, is trained to adopt liberal politics and regard them as neutral and nonpartisan. But, to the extent this argument holds, this is a liberalism that is fully comfortable with the status quo; it is the left wing of elite opinion; it is not radical. (And as elite opinion has moved rightward, the liberalism of the professional code has diminished.) To the extent professional autonomy collapses, so too does the importance of the liberal bias built into the professional code.
As for the final proposition, that truly objective journalism would invariably see the world exactly the way Rush Limbaugh sees it, this points to the ideological nature of the exercise. Despite the attention paid to the news, there has never been an instance of conservatives criticizing journalism for being too soft on a right-wing politician or unfair to liberals or the left. It is a one-way street. Conservatives would respond that this is what all media criticism is about—whining that your side is getting treated unfairly. In 1992 Rich Bond, then the chair of the Republican Party, acknowledged that the point of bashing the liberal media was to “work the refs” like a basketball coach does, with the goal that “maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.” 32 And some journalists come to dismiss examinations of journalistic bias as exercises in opportunism, that simply come with the territory. They can say, “Hey, we are being shot at from both sides, so we must be doing it right.” The problem with that response is that it absolves the media of actually addressing the specific charges; since they balance each other they can be dismissed categorically. As one wag has pointed out, even the Nazi media had a few fanatical critics who thought it was insufficiently antiSemitic or anti-Communist, at least in the 1930s. Since it was therefore getting “shot at from both sides,” does that mean the Nazi press was doing it right? Political economy, like all scholarship, attempts to provide a coherent and intellectually consistent explanation of journalism that can withstand critical interrogation. The conservative critique of the liberal news media is an intellectual failure, riddled with contradictions and inaccuracy.
So why is the conservative critique of the liberal news media such a significant force in US political and media culture? To some extent this is because the conservative critique of the liberal media has tremendous emotional power, fitting into a broader story of the conservative masses battling the establishment liberal media elite. In this world, spun by the likes of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, conservatives do righteous battle against the alliance of Clinton, Castro, bin Laden, drug users, gays, rappers, feminists, teachers unions, vegetarians and journalists, who hold power over the world. As one conservative activist put it, the battle over media is a “David and Goliath struggle.” 33 At its strongest, and most credible, the conservative critique taps into the elitism inherent to professionalism and to liberalism, though this populism turns to mush once the issue of class is introduced. Some conservative media criticism backs away from fire breathing, and attempts to present a more tempered critique, even criticizing the rampant commercialization of journalism. Bernard Goldberg’s Bias, for example, was criticized for its shoddy use of evidence, but aspects of the critique having little to do with the “David versus Goliath” mythology rang true, and made the book credible. 34 As Steve Rendall of the left-liberal media watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting put it, “big chunks of the book actually point to FAIR’s point of view” (Jurkowitz, 2002).
The main reason for the prominence of the conservative critique of the liberal news media, however, has little or nothing to do with the intellectual quality of the arguments. It is the result of hardcore political organizing to produce that result. The conservative movement against liberal journalism was launched in earnest in the 1970s. Pro-business foundations were aghast at what they saw as the antibusiness sentiment prevalent among Americans, especially middle-class youth, usually a core constituency for support. Mainstream journalism, which in reporting the activities of official sources was giving people like Ralph Nader sympathetic exposure, was seen as a prime culprit. At that point the pro-business “neoliberal” political right began to devote enormous resources to criticizing and changing the news media (People for the American Way, 1995). Around one-half of all the expenditures of the 12 largest conservative foundations have been devoted to the task of moving the news rightward. This has entailed funding the training of conservative and business journalists at universities, creating conservative media to provide a training ground, establishing conservative think tanks to flood journalism with pro-business official sources, and incessantly jawboning any coverage whatsoever that is critical of conservative interests as being reflective of “liberal” bias (Dolny, 2000, p. 23; Campbell, K., 2002b; Conniff, K., 2001; Harden, 2001, p. A8; Husseini, 2000, p. 23). The probusiness right understood that changing media was a crucial part of bringing right-wing ideas into prominence, and politicians into power. “You get huge leverage for your dollars,” a conservative philanthropist noted when he discussed the turn to ideological work (Kuttner, 2002a). There is a well-organized, well-financed and active hardcore conservative coterie working to push the news media to the right. As a Washington Post White House correspondent put it, “the liberal equivalent of this conservative coterie does not exist” (Harris, J.F., 2001, p. B1).
The success of the right-wing campaign in popularizing the view that the news media have a liberal bias has been accomplished to some extent by constant repetition without any significant countervailing position. Crucial to the promotion of the idea that the news media are liberal have been, ironically enough, the so-called liberal media. One study of press coverage between 1992 and 2002 finds that references to the liberal bias of the news media outnumber those to a conservative bias by a factor of more than 17 to 1 (Nunberg, 2002a). It is trumpeted far and wide by the media, such that the conservative critique is well know to millions of Americans as the only dissident criticism of the media. The conservative critique is in some respects the “official opposition” of professional journalism, because in a sense journalists have to be seen as “liberals” for the system to have credibility. Were journalists seen as cravenly bowing before wealth and privilege, it would undermine the credibility of the enterprise as an autonomous democratic force. After all, that is a significant part of what led to the rise of professional journalism in the first place. The conservative criticism is also rather flattering to journalists; it says to them: you have all the power and the problem is you use that power to advance the interests of the poor and minorities (or government bureaucrats and liberal elitists) rather than the interests of corporations and the military (or middle America). A political economic critique, which suggests that journalists have much less power and that they are largely the unwitting pawns of forces that make them the agents of the status aquo, is much less flattering and almost nowhere to be found.
Of even greater significance, this right-wing campaign has been successful in actually making the news media more sympathetic to right-wing politicians and pro-corporate policies. The move of journalism to the right has been aided by three other factors. First, the right wing of the Republican party, typified by Reagan and now Bush, has gained considerable political power while the Democratic party has become significantly more pro-business in its outlook. This means that editors and journalists following the professional code are simply going to have much greater exposure through official sources to neoliberal and conservative political positions. The body of liberal official sources that existed in the 1960s and 1970s is relatively smaller and far less influential. Second, as we discussed above, the basis for the conservative critique of the liberal media—the autonomy of journalists from owners, the separation of church and state—has diminished over the past 20 years. There is less protection to keep journalists independent, implicitly and explicitly, of the politics of the owners. Yet the conservative critique lives on, as prominent as ever. To the extent it does is an indication of how much the critique is an ideological exercise in harassing the media to provide more pro-neoliberal coverage, rather than a genuine attempt to make sense of how and why journalism is produced the way it is. Third, conservatives move comfortably in the corridors of the corporate media. This is precisely what one would expect. Journalists who praise corporations and commercialism will be held in higher regard (and given more slack) by owners and advertisers than journalists who are routinely critical of them. Much is made of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, which seemingly operates as an adjunct of the Republican Party, but the point holds across the board. 35 Several progressive radio hosts, for example, have had their programs cancelled although they had satisfactory ratings and commercial success, because the content of their shows did not sit well with the station owners and managers (Pohlman, 2000, p. 22).
In sum, the conservative campaign against the liberal media has meshed comfortably with the commercial and political aspirations of media corporations. The upshot is that by the early years of the 21st century the conservatives have won. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne termed this a “genuine triumph for conservatives.” “The drumbeat of conservative press criticism has been so steady, the establishment press has internalized it” (Dionne, Jr., 2002, p. A4, A5). By 2001 CNN’s chief Walter Isaacson was soliciting conservatives to see how he could make the network more palatable to them. In their quieter moments conservatives acknowledge the victory, though they will insist that the victory is justified (Kelly, 2002, p. A7). But the general pattern is that conservative pundits dominate in the commercial news media with the incessant refrain that the media are dominated by … liberals. The news media diet of the average American runs is drawn from a menu tilted heavily to the right. Talk radio, which plays a prominent role in communities across the nation, “tends to run the gamut from conservative to … very conservative,” as one reporter puts it (Fahri, 2002, p. C1). By 2003, a Gallup Poll survey showed that 22 percent of Americans considered talk radio to be their primary source for news, double the figure from 1998 (Carney, 2003). TV news runs from pro-business centrist to rabidly pro-business right, and most newspaper journalism is no better. All told, the average American cannot help but be exposed to a noticeable double standard that has emerged in the coverage of mainstream politicians and politics.
Looking at the different manner in which the press has portrayed and pursued the political careers of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush reveals the scope of the conservative victory. A Nexis search, for example, reveals that there were 13,641 stories about Clinton avoiding the military draft, and a mere 49 stories about Bush having his powerful father use influence to get him put at the head of the line to get into the National Guard. 36 Bill Clinton’s small time Whitewater affair justified a massive sevenyear, $70 million open-ended special investigation of his business and personal life that never established any criminal business activity, but eventually did produce the Lewinsky allegations. Rick Kaplan, former head of CNN, acknowledged that he instructed CNN to provide the Lewinsky story massive attention, despite his belief that it was overblown, because he knew he would face withering criticism for a liberal bias if he did not do so. 37 George W. Bush, on the other hand, had a remarkably dubious business career in which he made a fortune flouting security laws, tapping public funds, and using his father’s connections to protect his backside, but the news media barely sniffed at the story and it received no special prosecutor (Evans, 2002; Krugman, 2002a; Teather, 2002). One doubts the head of CNN goes to sleep at night in fear of being accused of being too soft on Bush’s business dealing. Or imagine, for one second, what the response of Rush Limbaugh, the Fox News Channel, talk radio, and soon thereafter the entirety of political journalism, would have been if more than a year after the 9/11 attack, a president Al Gore had not yet captured Osama bin Laden! The list goes on and on. As Robert Kuttner observed in 2003, “What if there were a failed administration and nobody noticed?” (Kuttner, 2003). It may help to explain why polls have shown throughout his presidency that Bush receives fairly high approval ratings from voters, but when queried on specific issues they tend to disagree with him.
The conservative campaign against the liberal media is hardly the dominant factor in understanding news media behavior. It works in combination with the broader limitations of professional journalism as well as the commercial attack upon journalism. Conservative ideology and commercialized, depoliticized journalism have meshed very well, and it is this combination that defines the present moment.
In this article I have presented a political economic critique of contemporary US journalism, emphasizing the origins and limitations of professional journalism, the commercial attack upon journalism, and the right-wing critique of the “liberal media.” In my view, the US polity is enmeshed in a deep crisis and the collapse of a viable journalism is a significant factor—but by no means the only one—in explaining the shriveled and dilapidated state of US democracy. A political economic analysis stresses that the reasons for lousy journalism stem not from morally bankrupt or untalented journalists, but from a structure that makes such journalism the rational result of its operations. Hence if we are serious about producing a journalism and political culture suitable to a self-governing society, it is mandatory that there be structural change in the media system. This means explicit and major changes in the public policies that have created and spawned the media status quo.