On Media Bias

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 11:59 PM

Because I've seen, during this whole Rathergate thing, a lot of people either arguing that the media has no bias or that it is controlled by a vast conspiracy, I felt it was high time to present again what I feel is a more realistic view. Before I get to that, let me link to two must read editorials on the issue, both from former CBS News employees:

I wanted to present the view that I believe most conservatives and some liberals — at least those who have taken time to formulate a position about the media — will agree with. That is the view best expressed by Bernard Goldberg in his books Bias and Arrogance. It has also been expressed by Bill Sammon of the Washington Times and, yes, even Rush Limbaugh. Mr. Goldberg, as you may know, is a former CBS News reporter and is also, at least according to himself, a life long Democrat (which, as he notes in the book, means his motivation has been from concerns for good journalism rather than political partisanship).

Essentially, Goldberg and others who agree with him, believe the media is not part of a vast conspiracy (right wing or left wing), but rather certain key non-conspiratorial factors lead to a general left leaning world view within the press. Broken down into their basic forms, they are:
  1. Mindset: Why do journalists get into journalism? Many say that it is because they want to “make a difference” rather than to “report the facts” or “inform people so they can intelligently make up their own minds” (not that they imply they do not feel they are reporting the facts, simply that does not seem to be the main objective). This often seems to be a left leaning activist type mindset to challenge the “establishment.”
  2. Education: The major journalism schools, such as Columbia School of Journalism, have professors who are generally acknowledged to be liberal either by themselves or others analyzing their records.
  3. Location: Most of the major reporting takes place in two of the most liberal cities in America: New York and Washington, D.C. Even Republicans in New York are often liberal, perhaps to the point where they would vote for Democrats if they lived in Missouri and voted by the issues rather than by the name of the party. The press lives and works within these liberal cities and are likely to be at least somewhat impacted by the world view of the place they live in.
  4. Colleagues: This is what causes some of the biases to perpetuate. Each generation of reporters presumably comes up under the leadership of the last (at least most of the time). So they are impacted by the methods and beliefs of those they work with and respect. Since the major networks generally do not tap outside talent (say, a bunch of conservative reporters in the Midwest, for instance), this creates a situation where the ideology that media members believe in continues through the ranks over time. This has a lot in common with argument three. This is not a case of being forced to believe a certain way so much as a case of being influenced over time by those around you.
The net result here is that in a poll that Mr. Goldberg cites, from the late eighties or early nineties, approximately 10% of media correspondents in, I believe it was Washington D.C., who voted in the 1984 election said they voted for President Ronald Reagan. This provides a very stark example of how bias could occur without any conspiracy, simply because there are not enough opposing voices in the media to call into question common beliefs and assumptions of that group.

Thus, for example, if it turns out that [it was still questionable when I originally wrote this — I meant to post this several days ago] Ret. Lt. Col. Bill Burkett was the producer of the documents, a group composed mostly of liberals might be less prone to questioning the credibility of Mr. Burkett (if he says what they assume to be the truth — that President Bush lied about his National Guard record) than a group composed with a strong mix of liberals and conservatives. This isn't accusing liberals of anything — people just see what they want to see. Fox News is good proof of that on the conservative side.

Now let me slip in one bit of defense here, because I know the common objection to this position: “The media sure gave Clinton a hard time.” That is true, but the thing is, that does not conflict with this theory. Remember, this argument suggests that the media is generally biased because of the views of the individuals in it, not by a top-down conspiracy that forces the issue. Thus, if President Clinton could be used as a vehicle for a journalist to gain fame and a glowing promotion that only a breaking story could provide, that will probably override even their political leanings. Everyone wants to get the big story. Bill Sammon, on the other hand, argues he feels the media felt “betrayed” by the Clinton Administration since most of them presumably voted for President Clinton and then they had to watch different scandals occur. I do not agree with that latter theory, but I present it in addition to the former to show that there are several ways to explain the press's treatment of the former president without explaining away a liberal bias.

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