Tuesday :: May 3, 2005

Why the Liberal Media Myth Persists - Part 5

by eriposte

This is the concluding part of this series and the stepping stone to my next series where I will explore the real nature of the American mainstream media and show how it is like the state of Idaho, i.e., much more conservative than liberal.

Starting with Part 1 of this series, I pointed out that apart from the role played by the right-wing media, the liberal media myth persists largely because of the role currently played by four groups of people, three of which I covered in some detail in follow-up posts: academics (Part 2), politicians on the left (Part 3), and influential left-leaning opinion columnists/talking heads in mainstream media (especially those who take journalism seriously) (Part 4). In this final part, I discuss the role of the fourth group - honest front-line reporters and their editors in the mainstream media.

As I explained in a couple of precursor posts, even if (and that's a big if) journalists facing the daily barrage of right-wing criticism are truthful enough to publicly acknowledge that the media is not really biased liberal overall, they are likely to find it more difficult to make a convincing case to their open-minded readers that the media is actually slanted conservative overall (either from a corporate perspective or from a political/ideological perspective) and that, it therefore requires appropriate reform. There are multiple (not necessarily justifiable) reasons for this, including their job security within the MSM being a function of their candor about the true nature of the MSM. Of all the reasons, though, two are probably more important than the others.

First, due to the enormous success that the Republican party and its misinformation machinery has had in bashing the media into emphasizing opinions over facts, even the better MSM journalists have taken it upon themselves to push and defend the "he-said, she-said" style of "journalism" (leading to predictable, yet egregiously absurd, nonsense like C-SPAN wanting to give equal time to a holocaust denier to "balance" their coverage). With a mindset tuned to "false" balance rather than journalism, it is far more difficult to be objective about facts, without letting opinions about bias "balance" the facts about bias. So, the notion of false "balance" that is deeply entrenched in today's media is a structural defect that needs to be eliminated if we are to reform the media - and its going to take a number of different steps to eliminate (including, but not limited to, the initiative of academics, politicians on the left and left-leaning op-ed columnists and talking heads).

Second, the way to make the case that the media strongly tilts conservative, requires journalists to acknowledge that even though one may find examples of "liberal bias", a pro-corporate or pro-conservative bias exists that exceeds any "liberal bias" that's present. Unless this point is made clearly and convincingly, they will continue to be bombarded with examples of "liberal bias" from readers (never mind that a lot of it will have nothing to do with facts) - and unless they give up much of their daytime job to keep debunking their challengers it's tough to fight back and retain their independence in the MSM without interference from their bosses. The challenge for those who want media reform is to provide comprehensive and convincing arguments that honest journalists can use to get the meme out in the MSM about the real nature of the media. (The objective of my next series is to kick start this effort.)

As I have stated before, I'm not trying to make excuses for journalists who are bad at their jobs and publish tripe just because of pressure from the Right. Having been a rather strong media critic for quite a while, I would hope readers here understand that. But you cannot reform the MSM to make it focus on facts over opinions, unless you understand the pressures and realities faced by today's best journalists. Additionally, criticism of media and journalists' inaccuracies alone will not solve the media problem (although fact-based criticism should continue); one needs to understand the journalists' weaknesses against the Right's misinformation machine, and figure out how to provide honest journalists the resources they need to plug that weakness - such that neither wingnuts nor editors can pressure them away from publishing facts. (I will explore further when I get to my series on media reform.)

For now, I am going to wrap up this post by using an example that epitomizes the points I make above. Recently, an article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post (and some statements made by lefty blogger Kevin Drum of Political Animal) in response to Milbank's article ignited understandable outrage among lefty bloggers. Now, I've always liked Kevin, but if you read what he said you can see why the bloggers were right to take exception to his comments:

Actually, media bashing is still primarily a right wing phenomenon, but I think Milbank is right that it's slowly creeping into the left's foundational mythology as well. If this continues, the eventual result will be an almost universal ability to ignore any news report you don't like simply by claiming it's the result of bias and therefore not to be trusted. This is unhealthy.
I continue to believe that on a list of problems with the American media, ideological bias barely cracks the top ten.

Kevin's claims were unfortunately faith-based. His unfortunate phrasing also suggests critics on the left care less about facts than about whether they like an article or not, which is the opposite of reality and which is actually the mainstay of the Right. By making such claims, Kevin shows shades of the left-leaning columnists I discussed earlier, but, I'm less interested here in Kevin's comments than I am in those of Milbank, who despite having a mixed history (good + bad) in his reporting, is one of the better reporters around. Critics of Milbank's article - Digby, Avedon Carol, and Michael at Reading A1 in particular - covered some of the important details that needed to be stated to refute Milbank (especially, Milbank's false equivalence in comparing criticisms from the left and the right). However, what I would like to do here is step back for a minute and take a look some of the introductory comments from Milbank, because it reveals the two fundamental problems, the real significance of one of which has been largely missed in the lefty blogosphere, in my view :

A conservative magazine put me on its cover as "Dana 'Bias' Milbank." A liberal Web site made me its "Media Whore of the Week," and a posting on a liberal blog proposed "Whore" as my middle name. (I've decided to combine the "Bias" and "Whore" suggestions and make my middle name, simply, "Bore.")

In political journalism, complaints from ideologically driven readers come with the territory; sometimes I've gotten dueling complaints that I have betrayed my conservative and liberal biases in the same story.

Milbank's statements reflect both the tendency to take recourse, conveniently, to the "he-said, she-said" narrative and the reluctance to sort out the facts and point out that one side may have a stronger case than the other. This, in a nutshell, is the barrier to crossing the chasm to dispel the liberal media myth and establish the real nature of the media for open-minded readers.

Some of you may ask, justifiably, why journalists like Milbank cannot do fact-checking on their own to establish the real nature of the media. After all, they do know that there are myriad books on the left and right claiming the media is biased in the other direction (and there are critiques of such books as well). In my mind, the question is not whether they can - it is whether they, acting as non-partisan agents, can do so without feeling muddled in the end because of the myriad claims and counter-claims (in countless books and articles), without having an authority or arbiter who can make sense of it all or without relying on someone who can extract the big picture from those claims. Moreover, can they really do so, when an average, even smart, blogger has limited time to do so separate from his or her daily job? Put another way, I am saying that Milbank can be accused of laziness in his article and making claims that are untenable, by equating two sides just because it is convenient to do so. But asking him to make an objective judgment as a neutral journalist as to what kind of media bias dominates overall requires a lot more time commitment from Milbank than we allow for. After all, if Eric Alterman needed an entire book to make his case, and even then, gave some (unjustifiable) ammunition to those who claim "liberal bias" (as I will show in future posts), what can we expect from journalists who are expected to respect the views of everyone who publishes books on media bias or writes papers on media bias?

Don't get me wrong. I'm writing all this obviously because I am trying to make it clear that mainstream media bias is like the state of Idaho - it's much more conservative than liberal. I've spent a long time now trying to point that out. But when you keep doing something and you don't see the effects on the MSM you'd like to see, you need to sit back and ask whether you are asking the right questions and pursuing the right solution. Unlike Kevin Drum, I believe strongly that there should no cessation in factual media critiques. That should continue because an accurate media is a foundation of democracy. But, anecdotal critiques or even compilations of critiques may be insufficient because there are so many other factors that end up influencing a journalist's reporting or inferences. For example, if the media is not liberal (overall), why are some academic papers saying the media is liberal? Why do left-leaning politicians not point out consistently that the media tilts to the Right? Why do influential left-leaning columnists not point this out at every opportunity? To this, add the myriad false claims from the Right and the publicity generated by the CBS 60 Minutes fiasco - and you can see that for a journalist who has limited time to read much beyond what is required for his or her job, it can easily appear like a maze that says: "well, there's bias of all types and both parties are right or wrong" (or some variation thereof). Again, I'm not excusing the journalists for their lack of attention to detail - but even the best journalist today faces challenges in providing comprehensive evidence that the media is biased more to the Right than to the Left without spending an inordinate amount of time compiling such evidence. This is what we need to fix if we want journalists to report the reality about the media itself.

I'm going to try and contribute my 2 cents to the fix, in the next two series.

eriposte :: 6:54 AM :: Comments (1) :: Digg It!