As we have seen, virtually all of the evidence that has been presented to support a claim of “liberal bias” in the mainstream American media quickly collapses under just a little bit of weight. So now we turn to the question of whether there is any substantial evidence of media bias at all. And if so, what conditions must it meet? And what conclusion(s) does it point to?
Let’s answer the second question briefly and in broad terms before getting to more specific cases that indicate an answer for the first and third questions. A reliable indicator of media bias should have one or more of these characteristics:
- Meaningful contrast.
- Comprehensive and systematic markers.
- Verifiable and quantifiable data.
A meaningful contrast is a manifestly uneven presentation of “opposing sides” — e.g., offering considerably more interviews to one candidate than another without good reason. Such contrasts are often found in false comparisons. But wait. Didn’t we already say that a great deal of the (mostly anecdotal) “evidence” presented for “liberal bias” is largely inadmissible because it relies on false equivalence? Yes, but there are two circumstances under which such a false equivalence is in fact a strong indicator of bias.
One such indicator, of course, is when the media lend credence to a false equivalence. Suppose, to use a particularly apt example, the media dutifully repeat the Republican strategy of dodging an inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection by saying, “well, what about BLM protests?” This is an extreme false equivalence for several reasons. For one thing, the BLM protests, however unruly they may have been, were prompted by genuine outrage that was verifiably justified. The Capitol riot was prompted by certain people being sore losers over an election. The BLM protests took place in the streets with an intent to be peaceful. The insurrection breached the U.S. Capitol with the intent to assassinate as many government officials as possible. And despite the repeated spin and allegations, it was right-wingers who wrought all of the violence at the Capitol, as well as most of the violence at BLM protests.
The other circumstance in which a false equivalence is a significant indicator is when it involves what we’ll term reverse polarity. To explain what this means, let’s go back to the complaints from right-wingers about the media not treating Former Guy as “fairly” as other presidents. In truth, giving him more harsh imprecation is not an indicator of bias, but an indicator of at least a modicum of justice. But suppose a media outlet instead denounced Obama and Biden as liars, but did not similarly denounce the middle of the presidential sandwich. That would be reversing polarity, and blatant bias — and definitely not of a “liberal” flavor. And by the way, some media sources have done just that.
The very same type of reverse polarity occurred repeatedly during the 2000 presidential campaign, and afterward. It was standard behavior, with almost every major media outlet, to carry the GOP’s water by parroting its branding of Vice President Al Gore as a liar — without citing even ONE real lie he’d told! And those supposed “lies” entailed silly matters such as his inaccurate (but not dishonest) impression that a character in a novel was modeled after him. This in itself was strong enough evidence of bias (and again, hardly of the “liberal” sort). But what made it even more striking was that at the same time, there was virtually no mention of the fact that his opponent, George W. Bush, did lie, numerous times. Not just in years past, but during the campaign. And he lied about very significant matters — including claiming credit for passing a bill as governor that actually was passed over his veto.
And this manner of lopsided treatment didn’t stop with the election. About a year later, a thorough and impartial review of the Florida ballots revealed that had the recount concluded, Gore would have won under most recount scenarios — including any recount of all ballots in the state, whether by strict or loose standards.
But instead of using this as their lede, media outlets almost unanimously zeroed in instead on those few more limited recount scenarios under which Bush would have won — and downplayed, ignored or denied the reality that Gore almost certainly was the true victor. This kind of media coverage was reverse polarity of the first order. And at the very least it was, if not “conservative” bias, then pro-Bush and/or anti-Gore bias.
Similarly, the media in 2016 were obsessed with emails, emails, emails. They repeatedly pursued the right-wing narrative that Clinton was guilty of… well, something, surely — even though she’d already been investigated over and over and over for years.
Meanwhile, there was virtually no attention paid to her opponent’s long, shady history, which had not been subjected to extensive investigation or media scrutiny. It may not have been “conservative” bias, but it was definitely anti-Clinton and/ or pro-T bias. In fact, even taking such a person as the latter seriously at all as a candidate was a major display of bending over backward — or rather rightward.
Episodes like these are much more substantial as evidence of bias than the isolated incidents that right-wingers proffer, because they consist not of single anecdotes, but of consistent patterns of behavior over extended periods of time. Still, they are just snapshots of a particular time frame, however lengthy, and conditions are subject to change. And they deal mostly with a single matter — relative treatment of two candidates — rather than “liberal” or “conservative” bias in general. One hardly can draw a positive conclusion about overall bias without some comprehensive studies. But producing such studies is a daunting task indeed, because there is such a wide spectrum of standards by which bias could be defined.
One such study calculated media bias based on the number of “liberal” think tanks versus “conservative” think tanks the media outlets cited. But there could be many reasons why the former might outnumber the latter. For one thing, they might simply be more worthy of citation. Furthermore, this assessment of media basis is based on a comparison of citations of the same think tanks by members of Congress (from 1990 to 2003). Being more “liberal” than Congress, especially during that time frame, doesn’t make you “liberal”. If you look at the table of figures provided in the study, you see many reasons to question its conclusions. Note: a higher “score” means farther left, and a lower “score” farther right — a figure derived from averaging the (subjectively assigned) scores of legislators.
This listing of “think tanks” includes the NRA, which is an extremely right-wing lobbying body — yet it’s rated here at 45.9, with 50 being more or less the center line. Seriously? It was cited more than twice as often by the librulmedia as by Congress. Farther down the list the Christian Coalition, which even on this scale ranks a rabidly right-wing 22.6, is cited more often in the media than in Congress. Ditto the Family Research Council (20.3). Note also that among the 5 groups most frequently cited by the media, 4 are fairly central (and the fact that the 5th, the NAACP, is considered left-wing says a great deal about the American political landscape). Of those 4 centrist groups, 3 are cited far more often by the media than by Congress, and the other is about the same.
This study is based on averages, but averages can be deceiving; not all “think tanks” are created equal, whether viewed in terms of their influence on policy, their popularity among politicians, or their relevance to media stories. If you throw the Sierra Club and Amnesty International into the same blender with Heritage Foundation and Christian Coalition, you get a very motley stew indeed. On such a scale, working for equal rights for women or minorities is considered more or less as extremist as working toward a theocratic dictatorship.
Another study, actually a meta-analysis of 59 studies, found no substantial bias in media coverage of presidential candidates since 1948. As stated in its abstract:
Types of bias considered were gatekeeping bias, which is the preference for selecting stories from one party or the other; coverage bias, which considers the relative amounts of coverage each party receives; and statement bias, which focuses on the favorability of coverage toward one party or the other. On the whole, no significant biases were found for the newspaper industry. Biases in newsmagazines were virtually zero as well. However, meta-analysis of studies of television network news showed small, measurable, but probably insubstantial coverage and statement biases.
And even if the analysis had found bias in the treatment of candidates, that does not translate to “liberal” or “conservative” bias overall.
There are several websites that at least make a sincere effort to assess media bias in an evenhanded manner, but there are still caveats. One of these is Media Bias/ Fact Check. You can get an idea of its shortcomings by looking at its report on CNN. Like many folks these days, it labels CNN left of center. But what is the basis for such a characterization? Well, the first reason mentioned is that the network’s coverage of 45 was mostly negative. Imagine that! Another stunning bit of evidence is that CNN sometimes interviews purveyors of pseudoscience. What the report doesn’t get around to explaining is how the affinity for pseudoscience, which has been a cornerstone of right-wing extremism for years, suddenly became an indicator of “liberal” bias on CNN.
Perhaps the most comprehensive and systematic analysis out there can be found at Vanessa Otero’s site Ad Fontes Media. (We’ve mentioned, and praised, Otero’s work before.) This is a very impressive project that not only thoroughly and systematically tracks both media bias and media reliability on an ongoing basis, but depicts the findings in a chart (with an interactive version) that reveals the media map at a glance, and provides much more detail for anyone who wants to dive into it.
Even a casual glance at it makes clear that the most factual and reliable outlets (those at the top) are clustered toward the middle (neutral territory); but far more of them are located slightly to the left of the center than to the right. Furthermore, of those that are at the very bottom of the heap in reliability, all are positioned on the right side.
Now it’s true that the graph has pretty much all of the mainstream networks positioned slightly to the left of the center line, though not nearly as far as right-wingers would have you believe. But there is reason even to take that slight tilt with a grain of salt. Because the grading of bias has to pass through human filters who make judgment calls. To be sure, the filters at Ad Fontes Media are superb in many respects: a team of some 40 analysts representing the spectrum of political ideology, who meticulously comb through news reports and analyze them according to a rigorous, standardized set of metrics.
Even so, they are a grading on a scale, whether they intend to or not. In the site’s own words:
The left-right spectrum is anchored by the contemporary political positions of United States elected officials.
Well, unfortunately, the political positions of United States elected officials don’t exactly represent a true reading of liberalism or conservatism. They exist in an ideological landscape in which merely taking science seriously and expressing concern about the irrefutable reality of climate change are considered “liberal” if not outright left-wing radical positions. If we want a portrait of media bias that is absolute rather than relative, we probably should shift all the entries on this chart at least one column to the right. But whether viewed in absolute or relative terms, it’s clear that the farther right that media sources are placed on the spectrum, the farther down they tend to sink on the scale of credibility.
As excellent as it is, this graph depends on subjectivity. Which is not the same as bias, despite such accusations from those who disagree with the findings at Ad Fontes — which is about as comprehensive and systematic (Item 2 on our list above) as one could hope for . But what would be even better would be the addition of verifiable and quantifiable markers (item 3). And nobody does that quite like Media Matters For America.
Why Media Matters Matters
But wait. Isn’t Media Matters itself biased? Of course it is. Nobody claims otherwise, not even Media Matters, which proclaims that its mission is specifically to document “conservative misinformation”. But remember, biased is not the same as wrong. Right-wingers who attack Media Matters don’t find flaws, mistakes or deceptions; they simply call it a “left-wing smear site”, or some such, without citing any actual “smears” it’s guilty of. And its methodology is very transparent and can be duplicated for anyone with the time, energy and resources. And its research is quite on target; unlike sites like Media Bias/ Fact Check, and Ad Fontes, which rely on human intermediaries to determine what is biased, the facts offered by Media Matters speak for themselves. Let’s look at some examples.
Here’s one study that tracks the ideological tilt of guests on Sunday cable news shows over a 6-month period, which is a sizeable and quite adequate sampling.
By an overwhelming margin, right-leaning guests outnumbered left-leaning guests on CNN, Fox and MSNBC — an especially significant choice of networks, because two of them are generally classified as “liberal”. Note that determining the ideological tilt of a panel or single guest is much more straightforward and less subjective that determining the ideological tilt of a news story — individuals, unlike stories, often explicitly or implicitly brand themselves as “liberal” or “conservative”. Also, while the right-leaning panels still did not constitute a majority, their proportion is much more significant than the fact that “liberal” journalists outnumber “conservative” journalists (as discussed in Part 2), because guests on cable TV shows are there specifically to espouse their ideologically-based positions.
Here’s one that reveals how willing networks were to repeat and amplify the lies of the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant, again with 2 of the 3 networks being nominally “liberal”:
When right-wingers complain about media bias, they often are complaining about media telling them things they don’t want to hear. But shouldn’t that be exactly what the media are supposed to do? On the other hand, when left-wingers complain about media bias, they often are complaining about media not telling them what they do want to hear. Media Matters, for instance, often exposes how negligent the media are in covering climate change, and covering hardships among marginalized segments of the population. Here’s a graph that touches on both topics:
This study spans three whole years, and four major networks — an enormous swath of data. Yet in that time, only one of the networks covered this factor at all — and that one just barely did so. In a perfect world, of course, climate change would not be considered an exclusively “liberal” concern. But here we are.
Finally, here is perhaps the most illuminating study of all. It tracked how frequently the same 3 cable networks mentioned above (2 of which, remember, are reputed to be decidedly “liberal”) used terms like “far left” versus “far right” during a one-month span.
Mind you, this is in a country where “Left-Wing extremists” favor democratic elections, healthcare for all, livable wages and action on climate change, while “Right-Wing extremists” favor minority rule, theocracy, torture, aggressive warfare, marginalizing science, forcing women to bear the babies of their rapists, suppressing votes, and violently overturning elections. Even treating the two terms equally would indicate enormously skewed perceptions. But these networks used the former SIX TIMES as often as the latter!
Media Matters has conducted many, many other studies of this type. None of them in itself “proves” media bias. But taken together, they constitute an impressive array of puzzle pieces that do indicate an unmistakable portrait of bias. And that bias most definitely is not “liberal”.
(In the final installment, we’ll try to imagine what “liberal bias” would really look like.)