Quite often, when right-wingers issue their declarations about “liberal bias”, they don’t even bother offering anything to support them. Instead, they simply rely on the power of good old repetition, which always has been quite effective. But some right-wing propagandists, especially if they want to pose as intellectuals, do make at least some effort to substantiate their allegations — and it’s usually as flimsy as a paper hammer.
One classic example that we’ve mentioned before (and it’s too good not to repeat a number of times) came from our friends at the ever-inept National Review, which claimed it was solid evidence of “liberal bias” that the media within a certain span of time gave more coverage to “gun control” than to gun ownership. Aside from the fact that this is an extremely narrow basis for defining “liberalism”, and aside from the fact that “gun control” is inherently more newsworthy than gun ownership, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the brilliant folks at NR that right-wingers consider “gun control” newsworthy just as much as anyone else — if not more so.
Yet as dumb as this argument was, it was actually an improvement over the most common tactic, which is simply to cite cherry-picked anecdotes — often taken out of context and distorted in a most Orwellian fashion. Never mind that it’s also quite possible to cite plenty of anecdotes to support “conservative” bias — often the very same anecdotes.
A quintessential case in point occurred after a 2010 debate between two candidates for Senate in Delaware: Chris Coons (Democrat) and Christine O’Donnell (Tea Party). At one point, O’Donnell asked (to gasps and howls of laughter from the audience of legal scholars) “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” To which Coons patiently replied that it was right there in the First Amendment, which he briefly paraphrased.
The next day a Fox “News” chyron read: (quoting from memory) “Media’s Liberal Bias: Coons gets a pass on First Amendment gaffe.” In their universe, it was a major blunder that Coons failed to recite the entire amendment verbatim, even though he accurately summarized its contents and intents. Yet they were perfectly willing to give O’Donnell a pass for having no grasp of the passage whatsoever. Furthermore, neither Fox nor any of the rest of the “librulmedia” made an issue out of the fact that, only moments later, she admitted she had no clue about the contents of two other amendments she was queried about.
And merely by lumping Coons, a former Republican, together with the “liberals”, Fox was employing another common tactic: shifting the goalposts. The public perception, constantly reinforced by the “liberal” media, is that America is embroiled in a battle between the Right Wing and the Left Wing. In truth, it’s between the Right Wing and everyone else. But there really is no substantial Left Wing in America; what commonly gets labeled as leftism or liberalism would be considered quite centrist in just about any other country. Democrats are rarely true liberals, and almost never real leftists. The standard right-wing talking point during the Obama years was that he was a “socialist”. Meanwhile the real socialists not only scoffed at this suggestion, but questioned whether he was even a liberal.
Cherry-picked anecdotes frequently depend highly on false equivalence. One popular narrative has the wingers denouncing the librulmedia for being unfair in its treatment of 45 in contrast to how they have treated Obama or Biden. But there simply is no comparison between 45 and anyone else. In the matter of his lies, for instance, he lied far, far more often than any other politician; furthermore, his lies were consistently of a more vicious, nasty, juvenile, malignant and dangerous nature.
Another strained topic for comparison is executive orders. The media, say the wingers, criticized 45 for his executive orders, but have no problem with Biden’s, even though he issued considerably more of them during his first few days in office. The part they leave out is that Biden undertook his executive actions in an effort to patch up the damage wrought by his reckless and destructive predecessor; and Biden made it clear on the campaign trail that he was going to follow this course of action if elected.
Anecdotes and comparisons, if soundly chosen and appropriate, can contribute useful and meaningful pieces of the puzzle in forming a picture of bias; but they hardly make a convincing case by themselves. What is really needed is a comprehensive study — or actually a number of studies. Right-wingers rarely if ever even attempt a real study. One of the few exceptions — perhaps the only exception — is Media Research Center, founded in 1987 to be a supposed “watchdog” against the vast left-wing conspiracy that dominates the media. Since that time, MRC has become the go-to authority for right-wingers wanting to “document” “liberal bias”. Any time you hear one of them pull up a fact, figure, statistic or allegation to support the librulmedia narrative, it’s a good bet that the same thing can be found on MRC. With its years of experience, superlative network of funding and support, and status as the preeminent authority on such matters, surely MRC can tell us all we need to know about “liberal bias” — if it’s real, you can bet that MRC can offer us evidence. So let’s have a look at it, since there’s precious little else to look at.
Researching the media “research”
The first thing to remember about Media Research Center is that its founder, Brent Bozell III, in addition to being a denizen of the farthest reaches of the Republican loony fringe (he has been heavily involved, for instance, with the CPAC), and being a plagiarist whose staff has accused him of putting his name on their work, is a highly accomplished liar. But let’s forget about all that. Let’s assume that all of his “research” is perfectly truthful and accurate, and just consider only its relevance and significance.
When you look at the websites of Media Research Center and its affiliates, what you mostly see is… more cherry-picked anecdotes. Often taken out of context and distorted in a most Orwellian fashion. (My favorite title for one of their breathless exposes, a title that is much more illuminating than they realize: “CNN Demeans Republicans as Drag Queens”.) But wait. There’s also a section called Media Bias 101. Ah, now maybe we’re getting somewhere. It appears not to have been updated in several years, but it looks like the closest thing we’re going to find to some actual research. The page is divided into three sections. Let’s take these out of order so we can progress, as it were, from least significant to most. Here’s part of section two:
As you can see, these links are simply polls about public perceptions. And given the perennial, persistent, nonstop bombardment of the public by propaganda outlets like MRC, it’s no big shocker that a large percentage of the public buys into the “liberal media” canard. Somehow, this is supposed to be, in a weirdly circular fashion, confirmation of the very narrative the public is being sold. In other words, “some people believe it, so it must be true.” Just as some people believe in a “stolen election”, a pedophile pizza parlor, birtherism, a faked moon landing, a Sandy Hook hoax, and Jewish space lasers.
Of particular interest in this section is an item about media attitudes toward the Iraq War. This, you may recall, was a war that was sold on not one, but two big lies: that Saddam was involved in 9-11, and that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The good folks at MRC don’t seem terribly concerned about this, or about the senseless destruction and the killing and maiming of countless thousands of innocent civilians. What really bothers them is that journalists disapproved of the carnage more strongly than the general public (71 percent compared to 46 percent) — as if they were… well, less inclined to swallow the bullshit or something. Oh, and on top of that, they also were more likely to disapprove of good old fashioned torture — those spineless commie traitor libruls!
Opinion and belief also drive the next section we’ll look at. Only this time, we don’t even have anything so systematic as polls — merely isolated quotes from people expressing their take on “liberal bias”. But at least these individuals are journalists themselves, so they should know, right?
These “journalists” include Bernard Goldberg, who has made a lucrative cottage industry out of promoting the notion of “liberal bias” — apparently motivated by a vendetta against former colleagues. So it’s hardly surprising that he’d be among those “admitting liberal bias”, in MRC’s cute choice of words.
Funny thing, though. For some inexplicable reason, MRC decided to depart from its usual modus operandi in this section and strike some “balance” by also including statements from journalists “denying liberal bias”. And there are quite a few more of those — about 80, compared to about 60 snippets “admitting liberal bias”. So in trying to buttress its premise by dredging up gossip, MRC has dredged substantially more gossip that undermines its premise. How do you even do that?
And it’s worth noting that in making the case that what the public believes defines reality, and that in particular what journalists believe defines the reality about journalism, MRC includes a poll indicating that “nearly all” journalists believe that other journalists are honest; and overwhelming majorities of them believe that journalists get the facts straight and correct their mistakes. MRC just can’t seem to stop stumbling over its own genitalia.
Finally, we come to the real meat of the thesis, section one — which has something resembling a systematic assessment of bias. But there’s a big problem.
As you might have noticed, there is little if anything in this segment about journalism — rather, it focuses on the people who create it, i.e., journalists (“the elite”). It includes more about journalists’ disapproval of the Iraq invasion — evidently, being a patriotic Amurrcan these days requires unflagging enthusiasm for genocide and torture. And there’s a poll reflecting that journalists have shown a marked preference for the Democratic candidate in the past few presidential elections. It seems beyond the grasp of MRC that there just might be some basis besides personal ideology for not being enthusiastic about the candidates the GOP has been fielding in the past few years.
While most surveys confirm that journalists tend to be “liberal” (though many of those contacted don’t respond to such polls), that doesn’t translate to majority identification as Democrats.
If 64.8 percent are either Independents or “Other”, compared to only 28.1 percent who are Democrats, and yet a strong majority supports Democratic candidates, then obviously candidate preference isn’t just a matter of a journalist’s political affiliation.
The tactic of attacking the messenger, and identifying journalism as merely the personal expressions of journalists, has become a staple among right-wingers. The idea is that since most journalists are “liberal”, then journalism itself is “liberal”. But there are three major flaws with that line of reasoning.
First, journalists who are worth their salt are quite capable of separating their personal likes and dislikes from their professional duty. (This means real journalists — not Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson.) Interestingly, one of the quotes of “journalists admitting liberal bias” is this:
If we wore our politics on our sleeves in here, I have no doubt that in this and in most other mainstream newsrooms in America, the majority of those sleeves would be of the same color: blue. Survey after survey over the years have demonstrated that most of the people who go into this business tend to vote Democratic, at least in national elections. That is not particularly surprising, given how people make career decisions and that social service and activism is a primary driver for many journalists.
— Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman in an August 15, 2007 e-mail to his staff, posted by Poynter.org.
Somehow MRC overlooked that rather important little word “if” right up front — making it clear that Boardman is saying they do not wear their politics on their sleeves. Additionally, note the last sentence of his statement, which spells out that journalism attracts many “liberals” because they want to make a positive difference to society. What does that suggest about the “conservatives” who enter the field?
Since MRC put so much emphasis on the opposition of journalists to the Iraqi quagmire, let’s point out another survey showing that, despite this, the media outlets themselves expressed support for it:
So 71 percent of American media outlets supported the Iraq misadventure. Does that number sound familiar? It’s the very same percentage of journalists who were opposed to it — an exact mirror image reversal. Why the huge discrepancy if journalism is nothing more than the sum of its journalists?
Which brings us to the second point of contention: journalists generally don’t have ultimate control over the content of their reporting. That belongs to the owners of the media outlets. And those at the bottom of the totem pole not infrequently are at odds with those at the top. Reporter Laura Italiano made headlines when she resigned from the New York Post after being forced to write a false story about Vice President Kamala Harris. How many other journalists do not stand up to their “superiors”, but instead put career above conscience?
OAN, the most rabidly right-wing network imaginable (so far), is reported to be staffed largely by “liberals”. And although some of them have resigned over their network’s atrocities, many others are biting their lips and staying aboard. Maybe you can’t blame them — one OAN producer who spoke out about his network’s false claims about the 2020 election was promptly sacked.
And finally, Republicans during the past few decades have been astoundingly, phenomenally successful at saturating the public forum with their soundbites and talking points. Media discourse has become so deeply embedded with misleading or silly phrases like “cancel culture”, “culture wars”, “wokeism”, “border crisis”, “stop the steal”, “war on terror” and “America first”, that they often roll effortlessly off the tongues of even the most “liberal” of journalists. And even if one of these journalists were to thoroughly dispute, say, the absurd narrative that Joe Biden is senile, they would be helping to transmit and perpetuate it merely by giving it oxygen.
In short, the premise that the dancer equals the dance is the biggest cannon that right-wingers have to fire in making their case for “liberal bias”. And it crumbles to dust when exposed to just a little bit of sunlight. Which leaves them only with “some people say”.
(In Part Three, we’ll look at some much more reliable indicators of real media bias.)