Debating Media Bias

27Jul07

Update: The book will be out soon – details on the Television & American Culture website.

As I wrote about previously concerning television and copyright, my big writing project taking me away from blogging this summer is finishing off a draft of my textbook, Television & American Culture. I’ll continue to offer some previewed excerpts of the projects to solicit feedback as I write. Here’s another section of a broader chapter on Television as a Democratic Institution – at this point, I’ve already mapped out TV’s regulatory system, its public interest obligations, the system of public broadcasting, and the history of network news, ending with the failure of journalists in the run-up to the Iraq War. This subsection explores the notion of “media bias,” and follows the book’s general strategies of presenting some counter-intuitive arguments and refusing to offer a detached objective overview (a feature of many textbooks I find problematic).

So I’d appreciate any comments, questions, or feedback – if you’re a teacher, let me know how you imagine your students might respond; if you’re a student, how would you respond? And whoever you are, what do you think might be missing (which may be in another section), might examples be clearer or different, or are there points that need clarification or other changes? Thanks in advance…

1. The logic of network and cable news today is directly tied to notions of media bias. For many critics and commentators, the question of bias involves partisan politics, imagining the press to be overtly supportive of left or rightwing positions. The news media has been perceived as highly liberal by conservative critics and politicians for decades, harkening back to Murrow’s attacks on McCarthy and Cronkite’s turn against the Vietnam War. Accusations against the so-called “liberal media” intensified in the 1980s within the Reagan administration, with conservative activists working to define mainstream journalism as inherently liberal and biased against conservative positions, and a well-funded movement to build conservative media alternatives. Many of these accusations of a biased liberal media are based on studies showing that the voting patterns and political affiliations of professional journalists skew toward the Democratic Party in greater numbers than the general population. These studies have been interpreted as clear evidence of liberal bias, but the evidence is not definitive—critics tend to equate Democratic affiliation or voting for President Clinton with labels like “leftist,” even when the Democratic Party moved to the center of the political spectrum in the 1990s. Other studies of journalists’ policy positions suggest that they may actually be more conservative than typical Americans on economic issues, supporting free trade, corporate deregulation, and market-based policies favoring business interests. Additionally, many media companies have actively recruited conservative pundits and journalists to counter this alleged imbalance, making the claims of staffing bias less relevant in recent years.

2. However, the focus on the political positions of journalists is misleading at a broader level—individual journalists have far less personal influence on the choice of perspectives and topics of stories than the institutional systems of corporate media that publish and broadcast the news. As television news became seen increasingly as a source of potential profit in the 1970s, news directors faced more pressure from the media corporations to present stories that would both generate ratings and please sponsors. As media conglomeration increased in the 1980s and 1990s, news divisions found themselves part of global corporations whose sibling holdings might potentially find themselves on the negative side of a news story, like General Electric’s environmental record or Disney’s questionable labor practices. Although few journalists claim to have been explicitly ordered to stifle controversial reports about their corporate parents or potential sponsors, they do suggest that it is an assumed norm in newsrooms to avoid generating negative publicity for their parent corporations and sponsors. Journalists know that it becomes difficult to advance within the hierarchy of television news if you get a reputation for angering the corporations that own and fund the media, and thus understandably tend to shape their journalistic choices to fit into their institutional systems and advance their own careers.

3. One clear perspective emerging from this system is a corporate bias, with the news media framing issues to fit with the perspective of business interests. Such shaping is not maintained through overt internal directives, but via a more passive system of priorities. News media shapes public opinion through the selection of what stories are told and what are omitted—television news covers economic issues through the viewpoint of business interests, focused on the stock market, the triumphs of CEOs, and tales of successful profits and entrepreneurial inventions. While entire channels like CNBC and Bloomberg Television focus on the corporate perspective on the economy, television news coverage of labor movements and the economic concerns of average Americans are almost absent, except when presented as a threat to corporations via a strike or labor action; likewise stories of corporate crime or environmental disasters rarely get the attention paid to more frivolous celebrity scandals, natural disasters, or sensationalist crime stories. The selection of stories and perspectives triggers a process termed agenda setting, framing what is viewed as newsworthy and what is ignored by the news—a shorthand notion of agenda setting is that the news doesn’t tell us what to think, but it tells us what to think about. If viewers are unaware that a story or perspective even exists, they cannot begin to contemplate how it might fit into the larger context of the news they are receiving. Although it is certainly not an overt editorial objective of most journalists, the system of television news sets the agenda to focus on the corporate world as the center of American economics, a perspective echoed in other forms of television discussed more in Chapter 4.

4. Corporate bias emerges from the systems of journalism, not necessarily the beliefs of individual journalists—another bias emerges from how journalists report the news, a perspective that might be called an official bias. As the press became more conglomerated and shifted models from adversarial, partisan journalism to consensus, objective reporting, journalists put more weight on official sources: the voices of government, military authorities, business executives, and other leaders. If an official source like the White House press secretary asserts that something is news, journalists follow suit by reporting the story, granting government officials their own agenda setting power. Both the Reagan and Clinton administration used this power shrewdly, channeling presidential charisma into photo opportunities and public speeches that would instantly become newsworthy and shape the coverage on that evening’s news. By yielding some of their story selection power to governmental officials, journalists could claim more objectivity and lack of bias by simply reporting the actions of powerful leaders. Official sources also emerge as key voices on interview programs, with political leaders making the rounds on Sunday morning talk shows to reinforce their perspectives on the news and set the agenda.

5. This reliance on official sources has led to a number of consequences. Because journalists need access to high-ranking officials, they have become less adversarial and willing to challenge powerful leaders for fear of being shut out of interview opportunities or potential leaks of breaking news. If an official source is unwilling to comment on a story, a practice common to the Bush administration in the 2000s, it can be difficult for a reporter to get the story onto the air for fear of it being viewed as unsubstantiated, a problem that particularly limits investigative journalism that challenges official leaders. Additionally, in the rush to appear as unbiased and objective as possible, journalists have refused to even correct inaccuracies of official statements—instead of fact-checking the powerful, journalists turn to other officials to offer adversarial positions and quote both sides without judgment or offering factual information. Thus in the run-up to the Iraq War, a number of journalists refused to contradict Republican claims that they knew were inaccurate to avoid being perceived as liberally biased, and instead relied upon Democratic politicians to offer a contrary “opinion” on the facts, a position that most politicians would not take for fears of appearing “unpatriotic” in the face of a consensus push to war. At its worst, this bias toward official sources turns reporters into passive conduits for governmental press releases and spin, undercutting the adversarial role of the press envisioned by the First Amendment, and presenting opposing sides of an issue as inherently equal, regardless of facts or context.

6. A third bias stems from the medium of television itself. As discussed more in Chapter 6, the medium of television itself can convey particular meanings and evoke responses beyond the content itself. Television news conveys information through audio and moving image visuals, with occasional on-screen text and graphics. When compared to print journalism, it becomes clear that television’s format tends to communicate differently and its particular features create what might be considered a medium bias. Print journalism is well-suited for offering detailed, factual and analytical material that can be consumed at a reader’s own pace, conjuring images of people and places in the mind of the reader. Television’s strength is conveying presence and intimacy, emotional connection and authenticity—it is far less effective at presenting complex arguments or offering factual details to be referenced beyond a passing moment in a broadcast. While both print and television journalists construct their pieces as stories, emphasizing narrative elements of heroes and villains, key events and confrontations, television’s visual mode highlights the emotional dimensions of storytelling, as popularized by 60 Minutes, rather than the rational and analytical tone of print. These distinctions should not necessarily be understood as making one form more valued or legitimate than another—emotional engagement and rational analysis are both important elements in understanding current events—but are important to frame how television news operates.

7. Television’s medium bias benefits public figures with charisma and strong emotional presence, and hurts those whose appearance and tone is less engaging. A classic example is the first televised Presidential debate between candidates Kennedy and Nixon in 1960—Kennedy appeared youthful, charismatic, and appropriate for television, while Nixon was an older figure who was allegedly sweating due to a fever and refused to wear proper make-up. A public opinion poll, albeit one with questionable methodology, conducted after the debate suggested that radio listeners felt Nixon had equaled or bettered Kennedy, while television viewers overwhelmingly thought Kennedy had won the debate—even if the medium split was not the core reason for this difference, certainly Kennedy emerged as the first made-for-television President. The power of images to emotionally sway viewers was marshaled by President Reagan’s staff in the 1980s—the administration would regularly set-up “photo ops” for the press to capture footage of President Reagan amidst patriotic symbols, or framed as an everyday American eating jellybeans or working on his ranch. Newscasts would use this footage as “wallpaper” to run over stories about the President, but the emotional power of the images outweighed any critical policy analysis that journalists offered as the analytical content of the story, with the visual and emotional identification trumping reporter’s rational and analytical language. Similarly President Clinton’s talk show appearances playing saxophone made him appear more sympathetic and accessible, creating a lasting image that would help him remain charismatic to many throughout subsequent scandals. [Illustration: Reagan photo op]

8. For some critics who decry the effect of television on American democracy, this medium bias is evidence that television reduces all politics and current affairs to matters of shallow celebrity and glossy surfaces. While this tendency is certainly commonplace and potentially dangerous, we should not ignore the importance of television’s emotional connection to the news. The images of post-Katrina New Orleans galvanized viewers and encouraged charitable giving and activism in a way that reading the news could not. Murrow’s attack on Senator McCarthy was effective not just because of the logical assembly of McCarthy’s contradictions, but because of the contrast between McCarthy’s hot rage and Murrow’s cool moral outrage. For many voters, the likeability of Presidents Reagan or Clinton was not just the product of good media managers and crafted images, but tied to a sense of integrity and sincerity in their communication styles and manifest in their beliefs and actions. Even after the Iran-Contra scandal undermined Reagan’s claims of integrity and Clinton’s illicit affair cast doubt on his sincerity, many supporters still felt emotionally connected with them through their televised personas and charisma, willing to forgive their crimes based on a sense of humanity conveyed through the media. While we must remember that they are always crafted and selective images, television offers a more intimate connection with both leaders and everyday people than previously possible in the media, encouraging a sense of human interaction and presence that print cannot match.

9. If the three biases of television journalism—corporate, official, and medium—shape what we see and how television serves the public interest, how do the accusations of political bias factor into the debate? While it is hard to substantiate that television as a whole has either an explicit left or rightwing bias, particular broadcasters and channels certainly do convey a political agenda. Pundits have traditionally spanned the political spectrum, from conservatives George Will and David Gergen to liberals Mark Shields and Michael Kinsley. Bill Moyers built his career on investigative journalism willing to question powerful interests of politicians and corporations, placing him on the left side of the political spectrum. However, the vast majority of traditional journalists have been emphatically dedicated to notions of objectivity and non-partisanship, only occasionally offering political positions when overwhelmed by a situation, as in Murrow or Cronkite’s famous broadcasts. This landscape shifted significantly in the 1990s, making the idea of the media’s political bias central in redefining the politics of television news.

10. When Fox News debuted in the mid-1990s, it had a partially-obscured political axe to grind—founder and CEO Roger Ailes, who had previously been a political consultant for numerous Republicans including Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, drew upon decades of accusations against the “liberal media” to launch the new channel. Fox News branded itself as the only non-partisan news channel through slogans like “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide,” implicitly labeling competitors like CNN and broadcast networks liberally biased. While most research has suggested that Fox News skews far to the right of mainstream in its pundits, expert guests, and story selection and framing, Ailes insists that Fox is “common sense” news in line with “average Americans” rather than a partisan channel, although he admits that the channel sits more to the right than its competitors. The channel’s right-leaning content dressed in the guise of objectivity and balance has put other journalists on the defensive—networks and other cable news channels have embraced more punditry and conservative broadcasters in the wake of Fox’s success per television’s logic of imitation, assuming that Americans must want more conservative opinions and that the entire country’s politics have shifted rightward.

11. However, we might consider another explanation for Fox’s success. Much of Fox’s ratings success comes from a niche of older, rural and suburban viewers who watch a high amount of television that had previously found television news unsatisfying both in politics and tone—CNN and MSNBC’s attempts to beat Fox at its own game of conservative punditry largely failed as that audience segment was already committed to Fox. But simultaneous to Fox’s rise, another competitor to the mainstream news emerged as a popular alternative to a younger and more urban audience segment: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Although Daily Show does not embrace Fox’s rightwing politics, claims of objectivity, or even the practice of journalism itself, these dual successes point to some common ground that has helped reshape journalism. Both Fox and Daily Show aim to entertain audiences, either through the heightened drama of outrageous punditry or the wry humor of satire, embracing the emotional dimension of news that many journalists avoid in the name of objectivity. Both Fox and Daily Show are willing to confront the powerful, not embracing the passive citing of competing experts to challenge a claim or official source. And both Fox and Daily Show address their specific audience niches without striving for a broad national consensus opinion, willing to offer positions that counter more broadly held ideals to appeal to their core constituencies. [Illustration: comparing Fox News and Daily Show]

12. Of course Fox News and Daily Show operate in distinctly different genres—one is a journalistic channel that its detractors claim is not actually real news via mocking labels like “Faux News,” while the other defines itself as fake news even though some supporters see it as one of the more accurate and insightful public affairs programs on television. And they clearly see each other as adversaries—Daily Show producers created the spin-off Colbert Report as a direct parody of Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, while Fox created its own comedy news show, The ½ Hour News Hour, in 2007 as a conservative retort to Comedy Central, with recurring guest appearances from ultra-rightwing pundits Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Depending on your own political opinions and beliefs, Daily Show might appear to convey an accurate outlook of the world, while Fox News might seem hopelessly biased and damaging to the authority of the press—or you might feel these reactions should be reversed. The strength of this mode of public affairs television is that it allows for the open expression of multiple positions and perspectives on the news, and encourages debate between the ideas to see which is more appealing and accurate in framing our understanding of society.

13. These dual successes point to the importance and potential broader role of the partisan press, harkening back to the function of journalism imagined in the Constitution. While the objective and professional consensus model of journalism refuses to offer opinions, positions, or even facts on many issues, the partisan press and pundits dare to be adversarial and, at times, offer more factual information than so-called “serious news,” with the clear effect of encouraging viewers to care passionately about news coverage and current events. One potential danger of the partisan press is that factual knowledge would suffer in the wake of opinion journalism, a fear supported by research showing that regular Fox News viewers were less knowledgeable about current events than the viewers of any other network or cable news outlet, and that regular Daily Show viewers were the most informed audience of all. For some critics, the answer to many of failings of contemporary journalism would be a reinvigorated partisan press, with a commitment to investigative and factual reporting supporting opinion-driven coverage, a wider range of positions than just liberal or conservative, and an acknowledged political position beyond claims of objectivity or balance—such a return to adversarial partisan journalism seems to have a market appeal in an era of narrowcasting, but might be a difficult shift given the corporate and official biases of television journalism.

(footnotes removed for clarity here)

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2 Responses to “Debating Media Bias”

  1. 1 Jonathan Gray

    Overall, I think it’s a very good intro, and I like how you try to move beyond the silly “is it liberal or conservative?” quagmire at speed, dividing up types of bias instead. And you offer good examples, scoring some good points too. Importantly, I think it avoids seeming to be an obviously biased account of bias, yet without reducing itself to a cold “X says A, Y says B” kind of impasse. I’d find it very helpful for my students, since it allows and encourages discussion rather than closing it off, and yet it sets a nice trajectory and tone for that discussion. Excellent section.

    All my comments, therefore, are more about trimming the hedges, so to speak. I’ll email you some small ones, to avoid pedantry in a public forum, and to keep your blog neat and tidy, but a couple of general points, raised here since others may have objections or responses:

    1) it sort of takes place in an American vacuum, and it might be helpful, especially early on, to point out that American notions of the left-right spectrum aren’t universal. In Europe and Canada, for instance, few but the hard right would object that (a) the (American) Democrats are centrist, not leftist, and (b) the American media is quite obviously center-right. From that, in teaching bias, I often like to make the distinction between left/liberal vs. right/conservative, and Dem vs. Rep, since they don’t map onto each other as easily as many Americans imagine. You suggest this but very quickly. But, for instance, I’m far more willing to entertain the notion that the American media leans Dem than to say they’re left-wing, which is really (though of course you can’t say so in a textbook) silly to suggest without reducing leftist politics to being solely about abortion, affirmative action, and stances on torture

    2) you’re discussing bias in journalism, but even if this is in a chapter just about journalism, it might help to briefly discuss the “semiotic environment,” namely what kind of bias exists in entertainment. Goldberg, O’Reilly, Coulter, etc. don’t just mean journalism when they attack “the liberal media.” I’m sure you deal with such issues elsewhere, but a flagpost that directs, and hence connects, could help

    3) Big, tricky question here, but you don’t really engage the question of *why* allegations of bias are so commonplace, and either what’s at stake, or why it might be strategically important to label the media as liberal. This may seem something you’d rather not get into, but it’s sort of important, because my experience is that without an answer to that, students tend to think (fairly enough), “well, if 95% of the accusations of bias out there are that it’s liberal, there must be something to that.” Even liberal students come to this. But *why* 95% of those accusations are that its liberal might be something to back up and deal with, therefore. The hot potato is now in your hands :-)


  1. 1 Political vs. emotional bias « Just TV

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