The subject of media bias is a stumbling block for all Americans. It is at once both supremely important and yet hopelessly politicized. More precisely, media bias is claimed by most people to cut in one direction (namely, against their political leanings) when in fact in cuts in all sorts of directions. Think tanks and stand-alone entities have been formed by both the Left (MediaMatters) and the Right (the Media Research Center) to identify and expose instances of media bias, all while we should be focusing on biases and shortcomings of a far more fundamental nature – biases that carry truly serious consequences.
Before going forward, I must hasten to say that if it seems I’m taking a middle-ground position just to be some sort of peacemaker or conciliatory presence, well, I can understand how or why you’d arrive at such a conclusion. Rest assured, though, that as with other issues talked about on this blog, I find myself sincerely convinced that there’s enough blame (and good will) to be shared by the Left and the Right in America. The whole point of pointing a (rare and quite lonely) path toward Left-Right reconciliation is that we cannot continue to demonize the other, especially when there is so much that is wrong about our own positions, a reality owing in large part to a two-party system which simply demands a considerable amount of self-contradictory stances and concessions to the game of political hardball. Life in the 21st century has become too vast, complex and contentious for one side to own all the blame (and conversely, all the credit) for the combination of successes and failures that emerge in our time. An honest focus on various problems will involve members of the Left and Right taking ownership of their failings first, and then (but only then) making a sincere and pure-hearted effort to call the other side to a higher, nobler way of operating.
So, with that having been established, let’s go deeper into the belly of this beast we call the media.
As someone who does work within the realm of journalism, but in the less consequential world of college football (I’ve been a columnist since 2001), I and my inbox have been deluged by charges of bias from readers across the United States. The only difference is that I’ve been accused of being biased toward teams and conferences, not to political ideologies. Being biased in favor of the University of Southern California is quite different – and much less alarming – than being biased in favor of a political candidate or a political way of being. I have written op-eds for seven years in the Seattle papers (that died in the past year, as one paper has ceased to publish a print version while the other has scaled its op-ed space down to 600 words from 750; no thanks…), but I have not worked as a political or public affairs journalist. I can only claim journalistic credits as a sportswriter, so I can’t claim that I have firsthand experience of being called a biased liberal or progressive. I want that to be clear.
However, I can rightfully say that I’ve been exposed to charges of bias by a national mass readership. I can say that I’ve engaged in a give-and-take with readers and have directly observed the motivations and mechanics and manipulations that surround media bias. Working for what is a largely independent news voice (somewhat constrained at times but generally unshackled), I can also say that I’ve seen media bias at work in the college football industry and in the media-industrial complex at large. The issue of media bias is not and has not been foreign to my work and to my evolution as a citizen. I might not be the ultimate authority, but I have spent enough time in the e-mail salt mines to merit a place at the table on this often-vexing issue.
My overall view of media bias is shaped by three overarching statements: First, there’s small-b “bias,” the unique combination of inflection/emphasis/interpretation any human being will unavoidably bring to his/her writing or public commentary simply as an extension of his/her life experiences.
Even an Associated Press writer will have to make some degree of analysis or interpretation on a news story which goes beyond something you’d see on the local news at 11. Such a detail will almost inevitably color or flavor the article in a way different from another news analyst whose slight variances in interpretation could lend a notably altered voice to the article. This is just a fact of being human in a complex world; Difficult issues demand interpretation, and our biographies – the flow and progression of our lives – will create small but real particularities in the way journalists emphasize and analyze the stories they must unpack for a wide readership. This is what small-b “bias” is; it’s nothing to be concerned about, nothing to fight or lament.
The second key point about media bias is that there are instances in which an entrenchedness, a systemic or patternistic attitude toward the news of the day, infects or encompasses an issue or a larger collection of issues. This is capital-B “Bias,” and this is the abdication of journalistic standards and professional responsibility which does indeed merit vigilance from any and all corners of American society.
I think it’s fair to say – this is an indictment of all our major media organizations in America – that there is no one mass-media entity in the country which is looked to as a fair and impartial arbiter for political disputes. CNN – which touts itself as being the straight shooter in the American media cosmos – is viewed to be lousy by both the Left and the Right. MSNBC and Fox basically exist to shout down each other, and PBS – which might have once claimed credibility on a larger level – has become quite Beltway-centric in recent years (where have you gone, Robert MacNeil?) and has seen its Friday night political lineup dashed to pieces by the death of Louis Rukeyser and the good-ole-boy (and girl) network known as Washington Week in Review, a forum in which D.C. pundits get to tell each other how acceptable they all are. The McLaughlin Group – a favorite of mine when I was a teenager and early 20-something – never did provide serious intellectual debate, and I look back on my embrace of that show with a superabundant quantity of embarrassment.
It is the country’s great loss that no one person or outlet is seen as being universally respected. Bill Moyers has the universal respect of the Left, and William F. Buckley (who, for all the areas in which I disagreed with him, commanded my respect) stood as the preeminent voice of the Right, but not since Walter Cronkite has one figure truly been able to be seen as the kind of man who could fit this memorable statement: “If you’ve lost Cronkite, you’ve lost the country.” We need our journalistic outlets as a whole to earn respect from all corners of the country; if they did, various outlets like FAIR (on the Left) and NewsBusters (on the Right) wouldn’t waste their time trying to track down every little slight and grievance and offense they perceive in the mass-media realm.
My third and unifying point about media bias is this: While there’s small-b (inevitable) bias and capital-B (systemic/professionally unacceptable) Bias, the biggest lesson to realize – in politics but also in sports and other smaller media ecosystems – is that biases, be they of the small-b or capital-B variety, should be seen not in a context of liberal versus conservative or Team A versus Team B, but in a context of money, advertising and economic leverage.
The media outlets that exist in the United States are – in proportion to their size and reach – more consolidated and ever more subject to corporate, market-based forces. Media consolidation, a product of the recent compositions of the Federal Communications Commission under chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin (ask me about a November 9, 2007 FCC hearing Martin convened in Seattle, no more than 10 blocks from my apartment), has made our largest news-gathering behemoths ever more monolithic in terms of the masters they ultimately serve. Ad rates, production budgets, and shares of demographics drive management’s decision-making directives, with bad results for everyone in the country.
In sports, it’s not USC football or Duke basketball that media outlets are biased in favor of (or against). Highly successful brand-name athletic programs drive sales, and that’s why they get covered more (and for some, more harshly) than they otherwise should be. In politics, of course, the stakes are far higher and the subject matter is far more urgent, which makes it that much more acutely tragic when bias is displayed.
Someone like Bill Kristol, whose views of how the Iraq War would evolve were proven to be so thoroughly wrong, should not have a seat at a pundit’s table or be given a columnist’s chair, but he is still given a visible platform that’s hardly on the margins of the media realm. Thomas Friedman – a.k.a., “Mister Six More Months Will Determine If A Military Operation in Iraq Is Successful” – has also seen his views get discredited, but he’s built quite the lucrative career as a columnist and book author. James Carville and Karl Rove – as hardball political operators for the Clinton and Bush dynasties – have no place being given a readily available microphone, but they are readily accommodated because, talk-radio style, they move the needle and generate a response. Bob Shrum (this is my personal favorite!), a man who has lost every single general-election presidential campaign in which he’s had a central advisory role, is still trotted out before the masses on cable shows and public panels. (“Bob, what does it take to manage a winning presidential campaign? What is your expert opinion?” Sigh.)
These and other people are examples of how – in a cable news culture where putting on a bunch of yakkers creates ratings-based emotionalism for hardly any production costs – having a strong and emphatic voice matters more than having a thoughtful, accurate and wise voice. This is the bias that cuts in many different directions, but almost always against enlightenment, truth, and intellectual heft.
For a media edifice concerned with money and profits instead of telling meaningful, necessary and very inconvenient truths to the populace, it stands that bias will also cut in favor of the military and against religion. War – whether you are inclined to support or oppose it – does offer a gateway to big profits for various corporations, especially since the technology of both warmaking and war management has become so diversified and sophisticated in recent years. There are so many high-tech and logistically-oriented products and services which now surround the larger enterprise of war (and caring for soldiers both injured and uninjured) that a lot of industries stand to benefit from war. This is why the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams had a deep bench of military generals who kept rotating through Mr. Williams’ nightly broadcasts more than a few years ago, in a damning and accurate story leveled by one of the New York Times’ fairer and more accomplished reporters, David Barstow (who gave the Tea Party movement a reasonably fair shake in an article published this past winter).
Mr. Williams – like the late Tim Russert and the still-present Tom Brokaw – has his NBC paycheck signed by Jack Welch of General Electric, a hubristic corporate icon who has made no secret about his ownership of his on-air talent in the past. Again, whether you approve or not of the enterprise of war, it’s a plain fact that a member of Dick Cheney’s staff spoke to the benefits of appearing on Meet the Press, with Russert as the host. The Cheney staffer said in a memo that the former Vice President could shape and manipulate the national narrative, making MTP a preferred venue for Mr. Cheney himself.
In the realm of religion, it would also make sense that the money question – tied to ratings and a desire for public viewership – would drive the tone, texture, tenor and content of mass media coverage. Naturally, the results are not good for the reputation of religion (even though there are ample reasons to view religion with sadness, dismay and disgust these days).
One of the central elements of good religion is that it is fundamentally countercultural – not in the sense that it hates the prevailing popular culture (that’s not quite right; good religion hates only sin and evil, not the human persons who participate in sin), but in the sense that it insists on a different way of being. Jesus was countercultural – and before my friends on the Right say it, I’ll say it for them: This does NOT mean Jesus and 1960s hippie radicals were and are one and the same thing. *Far* from it.
One thing that can certainly be said about Jesus as a political being – again, more clarification is needed here: this does not mean Jesus craved politics, only that he was subject to political realities like any other person – is that Jesus was very much an anti-establishment person. He spoke at appreciable length of how his kingdom was “not of this world,” that his power and authority came from God and was spiritual in nature, not of the linear political variety. This was then – and still is now – a stumbling block to human beings and how we organize various elements of our communities, our churches being one such element.
Because Jesus fought the establishment and did not play according to the rules of traditional political hardball, the powers that be looked upon him with fear and great uneasiness. If it was unsettling to the Jewish religious leaders (and Pontius Pilate) that Jesus won such an enormous following, it was just as disturbing for them – maybe more so – that the carpenter’s son from Nazareth did not play their linear political power games. He didn’t buy into commonly accepted ways of climbing to a position of muscular political power. No one should be surprised, when reading the Gospels, that Jesus met the earthly end he did in fact endure. This is what entrenched power does to people who resist it by using methods, words and actions that don’t fit the typical political power narrative.
Nothing has changed today in the realm of American media with respect to the subject of religion.
We should not be surprised that hardly anyone at a major metropolitan daily paper covers religion with maturity, nuance or layered depth. It is up to journals such as Commonweal, America, and First Things to probe the finer points of Catholic Christianity. (I’ll let Protestant brothers and sisters vouch for their own favorite journals of thought and cultural criticism.) Mainstream media coverage of religion displays hardly any ability to make sense of the religious struggle on a deeper level, precisely because mature religious investigation, scholarship and practice do not lend themselves to ratings bumps, polarizing conversations between pairs of cable yakkers, or any of the other visceral images or zingers that spice up a TV broadcast. If religion is involved in a mainstream media broadcast, it either involves sexual abuse by Catholic priests (SPICY!), affairs committed by evangelical preachers or so-called “family values” Republicans (SPICY!), or acts of terrorism committed by Muslims (DRAMATIC!).
My friends on the Right are right to decry the extensiveness with which the media has focused on affairs committed by Republican politicians who touted family values in their campaigns and made morality part of their political brand, their public political identity. Indeed, given the truly important (and terrible) things that are happening in the world, there’s little reason for a garden-variety affair to command a news cycle. Yet, because the media built up the Christian Coalition when it emerged in the 1990s under the (now discredited) Ralph Reed, the media – as it is wont to do – is overcompensating in the other direction by tearing down, with a certain bit of relish, the Mark Souders and David Vitters of the world. It was and is a disservice to the Right (not just the Left) that the mainstream press attached Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to the core of modern-day American conservative Protestant Christianity, when pastors such as Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, among others, were doing better and more substantive work.
Yes, the media eventually gave Warren a fair measure of attention, but one must just as readily say that the press was: 1) late to the dance; 2) motivated by the commercial success of Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life; and 3) attracted to Warren for things said and done in political contexts, especially the role Warren played in the 2008 presidential campaign and the 2009 inaugural. Even when a not-so-political or not-so-institutional voice entered the conversation surrounding religion in America, that voice was brought into the establishment with a helping hand from the media. This does no favors to conservative Christians, and especially not to libertarian Christians.
Stepping back for a bit, one must also deal with how coverage of religion affects the Left.
Liberals get too wrapped up in gloating over these downfalls of Republican “family values” politicians and evangelical preachers – I can lament the development because I don’t join in that parade – but where the Left has a legitimate beef with the media is that the mainstream press once ceded so much ground in the first place to people who moralized their way to political prominence. Little was made of the fact that Karl Rove placed 11 anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballots in different states for the 2004 November elections. The move was a politically brilliant way of rallying just enough of his base in a tough re-election fight, but political brilliance and moral integrity hardly go hand-in-hand. Rove and his mentor – the late Lee Atwater – would know. (Atwater, in a documentary film on his life – a film comprised substantially of his own words and the words of confidants – arrived at a deathbed conversion with respect to the political dirty tricks he played during his career. Rove, with a reputation in Republican circles which rivals that of Atwater, has yet to have his Saul-On-The-Road-To-Damascus moment.)
The 11 gay marriage ballot initiatives were something the mainstream media should have covered, but it was so wrapped up in a hollow and typically superficial treatment of “family values” that it missed a deeper and more significant story.
In its investigation of the Catholic Church (which does indeed have a lot to apologize for, don’t get me wrong; I’ve banged that drum for quite some time), the mainstream press has provided a great service within certain contexts. But now, eight years after the Boston Globe began to lift the veil from the Church’s dark past, it does seem that the New York Times is focusing on the Church with unusually striking singularity, and without pointing the way to better means of internal Catholic governance. The good things the Boston Globe did in 2002 cannot and should not obscure a long history of pronounced anti-Catholicism in American media over the centuries. Catholic-specific journals, Left and Right, are the only venues where an American citizen will receive a probing and appropriately layered beyond-the-sound-bite treatment of the issues tearing at the fabric of American Catholicism.
Then there’s the matter of Islam. There was a flurry of exploration of Islam in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but in the years since, it’s been hard to find a mature treatment of the religion in the mainstream press, particularly on broadcast television. I wonder what Boston University’s Steven Prothro and other mainstream religious scholars would say about America’s overall religious literacy and the quality of the media coverage which reflects a nation’s religious literacy. It can’t be very high, and this is just as much a statement of the secular Left’s ignorance of religion as it is a commentary on how the Christian Right has not been served well in this realm. Media bias hurts everyone when it takes the sensationalist yet establishment-friendly tack it has most certainly acquired on the matter of religion.
There are so many more areas in which media bias doesn’t conveniently fit into anti-Left or Anti-Right. I’ll mention just one and try to wrap up this essay. The element in question is the use of polls and measures of public popularity or opinion.
Polls conducted during presidential campaigns were exposed as the limited and flawed measurements that they are in both 2000 and 2004, for one thing. Beyond that defect, presidential polls also typify the horse-race mentality which guides the mainstream media’s sadly inadequate coverage of presidential politics, dominated as it is by sound bites, the cult of personality, fake notions of “gravitas”, the fluffiness of one’s hair, and the extent to which a candidate is telegenic or “presidential” enough. This has served candidates of both parties over time, thereby hurting the opposing candidates in both parties.
Outside the realm of presidential politics, polls are also worthless because they reflect an American desire for instant reaction and instant measurement. This is an attempt to generate “fast-food history” and promote the value of a response – any response – over accuracy or the much harder journalistic work of giving people solid facts they can base their responses on in the first place.
How would John F. Kennedy’s popularity ratings have been different if the press didn’t hush up or hide his many extramarital affairs?
To the extent that Americans knew of his existence, how unpopular was Osama Bin Laden in this country, circa 1980?
To the extent that Americans knew of his existence, how unpopular was Saddam Hussein in this country, circa 1984?
How wise were Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s actions perceived to be in the mid-1990s? If insta-polling had been conducted then on Rubin’s activities, chances are the immensely powerful figure would have garnered stratospherically high ratings from the populace. Look at Rubin’s place in history now; ditto for Alan Greenspan. Polls are “junk food journalism,” much as – college football parallel alert! – the poll rankings in college football (especially among the nation’s coaches, who rarely if ever see other teams' games during each season) are hardly a true reflection of the quality of the nation’s football teams.
Polls are lazy, cheap and hollow. Moreover, they create – perhaps subconsciously, perhaps more overtly (in some manner for sure) – this distinctly impoverished notion that if a majority of Americans agree with or approve of an action, politicians should try to act in accordance with it. What would really help our nation and its political environment would be if news-gathering organizations provided the populace with relevant and copious information that could give citizens the same window into national and global problems that politicians have as a result of the internal briefings and memos they get on a daily basis.
Media bias: It’s so much more than liberal versus conservative. It’s about money, protecting the establishment, and serving power structures to keep people docile, in the dark, and – as the late, great media critic Neil Postman said – to perpetuate a cycle in which we are “amusing ourselves to death.”