How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - Part 7
This is a continuation of a series on how the "liberal media" myth is created. Previous installments covered myth-creation using "tone" of media coverage (Part 1), "catch-phrases" like 'right-wing extremist' v. 'left-wing extremist' (Part 2), "newspaper headlines" (Part 3), "topics" covered (Part 4), "think-tank" citations (Part 5) and journalist ideology or voting preferences (Part 6). This part highlights attempts to create a "liberal media" myth using public opinion polls on media bias.
Accusations of "liberal media" are sometimes based on public opinion polls. For example see this comment by blogger Dave Huber, on the right-wing weblog That Liberal Media:
Poll after poll demonstrate that the public believes the media tilt left, not right
(Of course, that's not the only spin point he offers in the post. He also conveniently refers to the other hacktacular spin point about reporters' biases). But, for now, let's focus on the spin point of public opinion on liberal media bias.
The Polling Report's page is a good source for such opinion polls. Let's look at the (roughly yearly) Gallup polls from 9/01 through 9/04. If you take the Gallup poll numbers literally (ignoring MoE for the moment, considering conservatives themselves usually cite the raw numbers without MoE), on average less than 50% of the public believes the media is biased "liberal". On average, just over 50% of the public believes that the media is either conservative or "about right" in its balance. So, if you take these numbers seriously, we can conclude that:
Usually, the majority of the public does not actually buy the argument that the media is liberal
The claim that "the public" tends to believe that the media is "liberal" is yet another favorite, conservative spin point (which focuses usually on comparing "liberal bias" and "conservative bias", leaving out those who don't see a specific bias)
This is the kind of insidious spin that allows the Right's meme-pushers to keep propagating misleading "liberal bias" claims into "news" and opinions, which in turn misinform the public about what the public itself believes
In fact, if you look at this 2004 "special report" by the right-wing Media Research Center (MRC) - famous for making a living by misleading or lying to the public - you see gratuitous spin and misleading statements using similar opinion poll results. I have commented in detail on the relevant portion of the MRC report at ICM Sec. 2.11A. When you read the report, you notice the section title which says "The Public Recognizes the Media’s Liberal Bias", followed by a set of opinion poll results where raw numbers on public opinions on bias are presented (without MoE) and then, statements like this:
The public is not wrong: news organizations are, in fact, disproportionately liberal, and far too many reporters approach their stories with a liberal mindset. Every study of the past 25 years has proved this point. The only question is when will the media elite recognize that a liberal bias erodes their credibility with mainstream and conservative audiences, and make ideological diversity in their newsrooms a goal?
Unless you are somewhat careful reading the report, you don't realize that (if you set aside MoE, as they have) 2 out of 3 studies they show in the same page indicate that a minority of Americans believe there is a "liberal bias" in the media. (I'm actually being generous to MRC by dropping a fourth example they have listed, that indirectly shows pro-liberal-bias support below 50%). That is then being spun to make a case for a pervasive problem of "liberal bias".
But that's not all. There's a more serious problem with the argument that "the media must be liberal-biased because the public thinks it is."
This claim is probably the most laughable claim of all in the media bias debate. The Right, after all, believes that the media is too liberal and therefore tends to skew their reporting and misinform the public. If they believe that the media's reporting can skew public opinion, it would be hypocritical not to consider the possibility that the public thinks the media is liberal because it is being told repeatedly that the media is liberal, even if it were not that liberal in reality. (Indeed, the MRC "special report" discussed above is a living, breathing example of this kind of garbage being fed to Americans.)
But this is not a problem just with the MRCs of the world.
Everyone knows this spoon-feeding is also facilitated by the
ICM. As Stanford
University's Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out in the American
Prospect (bold text is my emphasis):
....none of the critics took on the single most extraordinary result in the data I looked at -- this one involving, not labeling, but the way the press talks about the bias story itself. In the newspapers I looked at, the word "media" appears within seven words of "liberal bias" 469 times and within seven words of "conservative bias" just 17 times -- a twenty-seven-fold discrepancy. (As it happens, the disproportion is about the same in the database that Boyd looked at -- 72 to 3).
Now there's a difference that truly deserves to be called staggering. But how should we explain it? Certainly critics on the left haven't been silent about what they take to be conservative bias in the media, whether in the pages of political reviews or in dozens of recent books. But the press has given their charges virtually no attention, while giving huge play to complaints from the right about liberal bias. That's hardly what you'd expect from a press that really did have a decided liberal bias, and in fact the discrepancy is far greater than anything you could explain by supposing that reporters were merely bending over backwards to be fair -- in that case, after all, you'd expect them to give at least a polite nod to the other side, as well.
David Brock mentioned this very aspect in his seminal book The Republican Noise Machine:
[p 113] When challenged during his TV appearances, Goldberg invariably replied that since so many Americans believe the claim that the media is liberal, he couldn't be wrong. But as Nunberg pointed out, this logic has a circular quality to it. "In newspaper articles published since 1992, the word 'media' appears within seven words of 'liberal bias' 469 times and within seven words of 'conservative bias' just 17 times," he wrote. "If people are disposed to believe that the media have a liberal bias, it's because that's what the media have been telling them all along."
In the end, this silly argument for "liberal media" (using public opinion polls) does show one thing. People who argue "liberal bias" based on such polls (rather than the actual content/accuracy of news reports) show how deeply spin-loving, unserious and wrong they are about this issue - which is at the core of a democracy.
Having said that, there is no doubt that Progressives in the country do face a problem. A substantial percentage of the country believes that the media is biased "liberal" because of the Republican Misinformation Machine (RMM) and the ICM. If we look at the Gallup poll results, even in 2002 and early 2003, a plurality (but not a majority) felt that the media was "too liberal", despite the fact that conservatives and mainstream media outlets have themselves acknowledged what we independently know from their "news" coverage in that time period - namely, that the media went soft on George Bush after 9/11 and before the Iraq invasion, thereby acting as an uncritical carrier of misleading and false Bush administration claims prior to the Iraq war. This, in itself, tells you how the portion of the public that believes there is a "liberal media" has been misled about the media's tilt.
We need to fix that. This series and the ones that follow it, will be my attempt to suggest a path to solve this problem.