The "myth" of media bias

By Gord Gekko
web posted January 1997

If you have not heard media bias discussed, you have either lived under a rock for the past ten years, or you have been smart and avoided watching the pompous professional media telling you how unbiased they are.

I will, for the record, say that in my opinion the media is biased against conservatives. Perhaps more accurately, they are biased against conservatives and liberals. The misunderstanding is who that is biased and in what manner, that is the important measure of how objective our media is.

Bob Novak is Not a Journalist…Even if he thinks he is

What prompted this little inspection of the dominant media was an opinion piece by Eric Alterman on MSNBC's web site. Alterman, a self-proclaimed liberal, not surprisingly makes the case that the press is not left-leaning, but actually leans towards the right.

So who is this extremist right-wing conservative press (to use the language of the media)? William Kristol who makes the list by benefit of the fact that he is quoted more than any other person in the United States media. Mr. Kristol is not a journalist.

Alterman does not fare much better when he lists who the media is citing in its reporting. Alterman states that the Heritage Foundation, AEI, Cato Institute, and the Hoover Institute were cited a total of 5 298 times in 1995, "when liberal organizations EPI, IPA, World Watch and the Center for Defense Information were cited just 997 times." I guess Mr. Alterman could not pick out more famous liberal organizations that are quoted somewhat more.

Alterman also confuses people who are published in newspapers and appear on cable news programs with those who are journalists. Alterman lists conservative heavyweights like Bob Novak (with two spots on CNN), Joe Klein from the New Yorker, Michael Barone, David Gergen and Mort Zuckerman, John McLaughlin, William Safire, Meg Greenfield, Bob Bartley and Michael Kelly (from The New Republic) as proof positive that conservatives have a firm grip on "the opinion shaping punditocracy". If you have shaken your head at some of those names, feel assured you are not the only one.

The problem with Alterman's 'proof' is he posits that since conservatives dominate the talking head side of the popular media, that they inherently wield more power and swing coverage to the right. Not so.

As asleep as the public can be sometimes, they are generally aware of the distinction between what a journalist is supposed to be and what a 30-minute op-ed show is. The 'average' person who is not an ideologue may listen to Michael Reagan to say "Damn right!", but you will likely find them watching one of the Peter Jennings clones tomorrow night after dinner. That is not to say that they are fooled into thinking that people like Jennings are not openly biased, but I would postulate that most people in fact know that most reporters are biased and do not share their beliefs, but ignore the fact.

A note to Eric Alterman: 'pundits' are not journalists.

Peter Arnett is a journalist….even if you don't think so

As stated above, the difference between journalists and the so-called pundits is very important. According to an American survey from February 1994, 43 per cent of the public said that the press "plays the most influential role in determining which issues and events are considered important these days." Only 22 per cent cited their leaders in that light. The numbers are from the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. I would posit that the public is aware of the distinction and filter what they hear through that.

Everybody knows that there's a liberal, that there's a heavy liberal persuasion among correspondents.
- Walter Cronkite at the Radio and TV Correspondents Association Dinner, March 21, 1996

"According to John and Mary Markle Foundation survey of campaign coverage by networks, Clinton received balanced coverage with 50 per cent of on-air evaluations of him positive; however, 2 out of every 3 evaluations of Bob Dole were negative." [Cited from the National Review, December 9, 1996]

While NR and the Markle Foundation may confuse balanced and onjective coverage with the percentage of stories that you for/against you, it does fit the pattern that the media has followed for at least the last sixteen years, of favourable reporting for Democrat candidates and less favourable coverage for Republicans.

The press has consistently described themselves as liberal. According to a fact sheet released by the Media Research Center:

  • 61 per cent called themselves 'liberal' or 'moderate to liberal'
  • 9 per cent described themselves as 'conservative' or 'moderate to conservative'
  • 50 per cent said they were Democrats
  • 4 per cent said they were Republicans

Alterman rightly states that the Washington, D.C. pool of reporters is too small a sample, and in this case, I quite agree that the 137 Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents likely do not accurately represent the media nationwide. Enter a poll taken in 1992 that Alterman obviously did not see. The numbers change somewhat owing to the phraseology used:

  • 44 per cent of reporters considered themselves Democrats
  • 16 per cent described themselves as Republicans
  • 34 per cent as independents.

Another survey of media nationwide released in 1995 confirms that there are far more liberal reporters than conservative. Where the 1992 poll had a sample of 1 400 journalists, the 1995 Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press surveyed 248 reporters.

In this survey, 20 per cent of reporters described themselves as liberal and 4 per cent as conservative. 2 per cent described themselves as very liberal and one per cent as very conservative. 64 per cent claimed they were moderates.

Canadian Numbers

I searched quite a bit for comparable Canadian studies on media bias and found none. I suppose we Canadians tend not to question the answers.

On the plus side, Mike Duffy of CTV generally earns a positive review from me.

So What Does All This Mean?

Frankly I unconcerned about the political persuasion of the press and I find the argument about media bias to be quite boring.

The true role of the press is not to be unbiased. Speaking as someone who earns in their living in the field of journalism (outside of Enter Stage Right I work for a news organization) I do not want a press that does not take a stand.

If someone is in error, it means that they have not fully investigated that which they are wrong about. Philosophically, their error is merely the end result of incorrect assumptions or methodology. Their error may still be morally wrong, but if they still harbor some respect for the truth then they can rectify their error.

The person who will take no stand, the so-called unbiased objective reporter, is in fact more morally repugnant then the person who is incorrect. The fence-sitter does not care enough to find the truth and is perfectly satisfied making no distinction between wrong and right. That is the most morally repugnant journalist…and person.

It is time that truth came into the discussion of media bias. Journalists have to admit that their bias leads to slanted reporting. It comes out in the angles taken on stories, it comes out in the language used and it comes out in the overall world view that a news service creates.

It is also time for people to stop demanding the mythical unbiased reporting that has never existed. An objective reporter is not one that takes no stand in covering a story, but one who in search of the truth reports what the truth really is.

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