Did you know that it’s perfectly possible, and quite legal, to use the word “media” without tacking the word “liberal” to the front end of it? You might not be aware of that, since you almost always hear “librulmedia” as one word. Reminiscent of the old Southern joke about someone living many years before learning that “damn” and “yankee” were two separate words, many Americans have grown up with the same perception of “liberal” and “media”.
Many folks have absolutely no doubt that the U.S. media in toto have a liberal (or even hardcore leftist) bias. It’s one of those things they just know because they just know. After all, they’ve had it constantly drummed into their heads for several generations — by the “liberal” media itself. And after all, if you were part of a nefarious disinformation cartel out to deceive the public, wouldn’t you want to proclaim it from the rooftops at every opportunity?
In reality, the narrative of the “liberal media” is a persistent, widespread, longstanding strategy by right-wingers to “work the refs”. It’s a strategy that, like many other right-wing tactics, has racist roots, taking flight in the era of the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties — although the practice of conservatives concertedly demonizing the media as “liberal” more or less began in the Forties. And this campaign has skewed public perception in more ways than one.
First, it frames bias as something both deliberate and undesirable. Neither is necessarily true. Bias often results inadvertently. And it isn’t inherently a bad thing at all; what’s bad is using bias as a launching pad for dishonesty and manipulation.
Additionally, it focuses only on those instances when conservatives feel they have been the victim (and they choose to feel like victims very, very, very often) and ignores those instances in which they are the perpetrators.
Quite often, what they characterize as “liberal bias” is simply an honest mistake. Journalists are only human, and even the best of them screw up at least occasionally, given the pressure to churn out a great deal of material under frequent deadlines; but journalists worth their salt acknowledge, correct, and apologize. Even so, right-wingers chalk it up to the widespread discrimination and persecution they claim to experience — even though it means ignoring all the times when journalists (even the same ones) get the facts wrong about liberals and left-wingers. Remember, everything is always all about them. If black lives matter, then by god their lives matter even more.
An excellent example is what happened with Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, who died the day after confronting a violent mob of insurrectionists. The logical conclusion was that his death was probably a direct result of that encounter, so naturally that’s what media indicated. It was not until three months later that the medical examiner revealed he died of strokes that were not directly caused by the attack, but which nonetheless (please note) likely contributed. (It really taxes belief to assume there was no connection at all.) As soon as the report was released, the right-wingers immediately launched into a predictable tirade about how earlier media stories on the incident were “fake news” designed to smear conservatives — while at the same time continuing to push the patently false claim that the mob was actually comprised of BLM and Antifa.
Does liberal bias exist? Of course it does. So does conservative bias. Quite often they exist in the same media outlet. Not uncommonly, they even exist in the same media story. Funny thing is, left-leaning outlets also complain about conservative/ right wing bias. Often by the same outlets that supposedly are guilty of “liberal bias”. These complaints, however, do not receive nearly as much attention from the “liberal media”. As a result of many decades of this disparity, most Americans are more likely to believe only in the liberal media trope, and unquestioningly so. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 44 percent of Americans believed that the media are “too liberal”, while only 19 believed they are “too conservative”. Working the refs has really been paying off handsomely.
Conservatives who play the “liberal bias” card apparently want you to believe that they would like for the media to be balanced or neutral. They really want neither; as with everything else, they want things to go one hundred percent their way; and if they get things one hundred percent their way, then they’ll sue to get even more. They not only want and demand preferential treatment, they feel that they have a God-given right to it — conservatism, after all, stems from a deep-seated sense of entitlement. When they complain about “liberal bias”, it’s not because the media show favoritism toward the left; it’s because the media even mention the views of the left at all. But balance or neutrality actually would be to the Right’s benefit. To see why, you need only understand what “neutrality” and “balance” entail.
Bias Vs. Balanced Vs. Neutral
What does biased mean? It means promoting or favoring a particular viewpoint over others. What does balanced mean? It means offering “equal time” — trying to give the same amount of coverage to all viewpoints. But contrary to what many people think, balance doesn’t automatically eliminate bias. In fact, it rarely if ever does, for the simple reason that not all beliefs are created equal; and trying to treat them all as equal necessarily results, ironically, in inequity.
A good example of a website that strives for balance is RealClearPolitics, which offers links to political articles from a variety of sources. Take a look at its home page, and you might notice that it essentially alternates between right-leaning and left-leaning outlets. But look at the links more closely on its home page on any given day, and you may notice something else.
The right-wing outlets and writers include such unserious mouthpieces of demagoguery as Breitbart, Townhall, Epoch Times, Tucker Carlson and Charlie Kirk. And the pieces they publish include jejune drivel about “cancel culture” and “culture wars” and “voter fraud” and “Wokeness Is The Biggest Threat To America” and “Democrats Defend the Right to Stab Each Other”. (Yup, those were actual articles.) By juxtaposing such blatant dog whistles geared to a mindless reactionary mob with articles for adult readers that actually have something to say, RealClearPolitics diminishes the latter and/or elevates the former. Either way, right-wingers benefit.
That, in fact is the whole problem with “balance”. While it may be better than nothing, it still results in a bias toward conservatism for three reasons.
First, conservatives and Republicans are much more dependent upon dishonesty. Sure, liberals and Democrats lie too. But with right-wingers, lying is absolutely vital to promoting ideology. Their stance on virtually every single issue they consider important (abortion, guns, abortion, immigration, abortion, science denial, abortion, etc.) is based on stark misinformation. No wonder they have such naked contempt for fact checkers.
Second, the Right is much more deeply enmeshed with the loony fringe. Birthers, Q-Anon, white nationalists, “militias”, fundamentalists, cultists, “deep state” gloomsayers, and conspiracy theorists of many stripes have found a welcome home in the GOP’s big tent. In contrast, the mainstream Democratic Party shuns and disavows fringe elements. The GOP, on the other hand, proudly elects them to office — even at the very highest level.
And third, right-wingers are much more loyal to each other through thick and thin. When one of them commits or is suspected of an offense, no matter how egregious, they virtually all rush to defend him or her, tying themselves into all kinds of knots in an attempt to rationalize the behavior. The Left, on the other hand, is much more willing to criticize its own. If you had, say, 50 liberals and 50 conservatives write articles about President Biden, you almost certainly would not end up with 50 positive articles and 50 critical ones. It probably would be more like 60 or 70 critical ones. But if you had the same group of writers pen pieces about Biden’s predecessor, the result surely would be very close to a 50/ 50 split.
If you actually still doubt any of this after all these years, just look at the 90-plus percent approval rating the GOP consistently bestowed on 45, who embodied to the nth degree the qualities mentioned: dishonesty, corruption and fringe lunacy.
“Balance”, then, is actually quite unbalanced. And so is “neutrality”, for exactly the same reasons. Whereas balance is a misguided effort to give “both sides” an equal voice, neutrality is a misguided effort to avoid tilting one way or the other at any time. But that’s a virtually impossible line to toe. Look what happens:
This is from the Washington Post, a supposedly very “liberal” paper. And as many “liberal” sources do these days, it’s really giving itself a hernia in a strain to maintain impartiality. But the effort rings very hollow indeed. By framing the dissent as just something that “voting advocates say” (Voting advocates??? Shouldn’t that include all of us?), Ms. Gardner gives the impression that their claim is a topic subject to debate or speculation. It isn’t. The GOP voting measures ARE (always) an attempt to circumvent the popular vote. Republicans themselves have acknowledged as much, even if they try to justify it with lies about “fraud”. After the 2020 election, Republicans in several states attempted to simply discard the votes of citizens and substitute their own. They didn’t get away with it because it wasn’t legal; next time, it will be. But the “ultra-liberal” WaPo reduces all of this to just another “he-said, she-said” debate, thereby dealing right-wingers a huge favor.
And this happens over and over, day after day. Bothsidesism is the new norm in “journalism” — the media even gave the “both sides” treatment to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot in which right-wingers tried to overthrow the U.S. government. The typical media framing is something like this: “Republicans say that Democrats are Satan-worshiping Muslim terrorists who eat babies and use the U.S. flag for toilet paper, while Democrats say that Republicans are making false and harmful allegations; so I guess the truth must be somewhere in the middle.” This is what right-wingers call the “liberal media”. It’s the librulmedia that one Republican congressman a few years back complained about because it was focusing only on the negative side when discussing nuclear war. During the 45 regime, the media commonly tried to stay “neutral” by simply repeating his nonstop lies, no matter how insane or harmful, without noting that they were, in fact, lies. And they struggled desperately to make some kind of sense out of his consistently disjointed ramblings. These are not exactly hallmarks of “liberal bias”.
To be sure, there are plenty of left-leaning outlets, just as there are plenty of right-leaning outlets. And in both cases they tend to proudly identify themselves as such. But when right-wingers bitch about “liberal bias”, they’re usually talking about the mainstream media — major networks and newspapers and journals like ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and… Fox. Interestingly, the latter has by far the largest viewership of any nominal “news” network, and therefore is about as mainstream as it gets. Do the wingers really consider it part of the vast left-wing conspiracy? Actually, you shouldn’t be surprised if some of them do. When, during the reign of 45, things proved to be too Kafkaesque even for a couple of personalities at Fox, they began to offer (a little bit of) resistance; at which point he started turning sour on his former media bedmates, and turned increasingly to the even more delusional OAN.
The official spin is that mainstream media is supposed to be more or less impartial. But buried somewhere in the hoary annals of journalism is an ancient, seemingly obsolete dictum that journalism is about uncovering the truth, irrespective of ideology. And reporting the truth isn’t necessarily just a matter of reporting the facts. It may be a fact that many people believe the moon is made of corn flakes, but the truth is another matter.
And if journalism does have an interest in getting at the truth, then it’s necessarily going to be rather “liberal” — at least at this point in history. That theoretically could change, but it’s true now, it’s been true for a long time, and it appears that it’s going to be true for the foreseeable future.
So “liberal bias”, if it existed in mainstream media, would be justified. But does it really exist? With regard specifically to social media, it’s easy to discredit right-wing claims of bias. Users have their own accounts, and the interactions of those accounts can be tracked with hard statistics (analytics). And those numbers show that despite constant conservative whining about persecution, oppression and censorship, their pages and posts actually outperform all others by a considerable margin. And the cases of “censorship” they cite are almost always a matter of platforms penalizing them (as if they were mere mortals or something) for flagrant rule violations — which they often commit repeatedly without consequences.
When it comes to conventional media, however, things get rather murkier. Rather than posting on their own accounts, conservatives are subject to coverage by an outside party. And the evaluation of bias is much more subjective. Still, there are certain reliable benchmarks that give a strong indication of where bias really points. And they give precious little support for right-wing outbursts about the “liberal media”.
(In the next installment, we’ll look at the most common metrics right-wingers themselves invoke for assessing bias– and why they’re so off the mark.)