Fair and Balanced?

This one’s been a while in coming…

Is the press in America “free and neutral”, as prescribed by the Bill of Rights?  This is a question that evokes adamant response from lots of people.  Many would swear on their grandmother that the New York Times (for example) is predominantly liberal and wouldn’t give President Bush (for example) a fair shake if their lives depended on it.  Others scream and yell that most of the media is “fair and balanced”, and that it’s the Fox News Network that’s gone off the rails in their conservative bias.  I feel like I’ve heard just about everything.  Maybe there’s no bias at all.  One of my friend’s claims that all news is biased toward the sensational, not in one ideological direction or another.  Some contend that the senior staff at the Fox News Channel meets every morning to read through the talking points faxed to them by the White House the night before and to go over how they’ll spin their programming conservative that day.  Others contend that the networks plus CNN get their marching orders directly from satan’s representative to the UN.  Does the “elite media” really hate Bush, so they’ll simply never give him a “fair shake”?  What is the “elite media” anyway?  Some content that there’s no real ideological difference between CNN, FNC and the BBC (to name a few).  So, what’s the deal?  To borrow a phrase from my Bill O’Reilly, who’s looking out for us?

I’ll start with what’s fresh in my mind…

I recently saw a shoot-out between Bernie Goldberg and Jane Hall on FNC.  These two disagreed vehemently on the topic of liberal bias.  Bernie took the traditional conservative point of view — that most of the media tilts left, and specifically is unfair to President Bush (that was the real topic of their debate).  Jane feels there is no bias, and that indeed the media should be harder on Bush.

Bernie cited two examples to prove his point…

After the Republicans gained control of congress in 1994, much media focus was given and much speculation aired as to why that had happened (and rightfully so).  Peter Jennings (for example) compared the voters who voted republican to “two year olds throwing a temper tantrum”, as an explanation for why the democrats lost.  Bernie contended that if the Democrats regain control of the congress next month, reporting will be very different.  (This was before the 11/8 election.) He has a hard time imagining that the general attitude among the descendants of Peter Jennings (and others) will play it the same way … and so did I.  It seemed much more likely that we would hear the same thing from most of the media…  that President Bush is a lying, war-mongering, election-stealing, fascist, rights-violating, power-grabbing incompetant, who finally got what was coming to him because the congress has shifted power.  And this is pretty much how it played out.

Bernie also cited a comparison between headlines under Bush and headlines under Clinton.  He described the following example…  When the Dow Jones reached record highs in October (and still climbing), the Chicago Tribune’s headline was “As Dow Surges, Many Left Behind” — a negative tilt.  In 2000, another time the Dow surged to record highs, the same paper ran a different headline, “Bull Market Spreading the Wealth in America” — a positive tilt.  These are only two headlines, and they’re obviously cherry-picked to demonstrate his point, but I think there’s some legitimacy to what he’s pointing out here.  Clinton was hailed as a wonderful president by both domestic and international news sources.  He got beat up over Monica Lewinski, but was pretty much the golden boy on everything else.  Bush has been attacked every single day by SO many people that it blurs together.  Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see, but I don’t think so.

Jane disagreed with Bernie, but really didn’t have any data to refute Bernie’s argument or offer counter-point examples of a lack of bias.  She simply insisted that she was right and Bernie was wrong.  Even this reality helps reinforce for me that there’s more to Bernie’s arguement than hers.

Let’s leave these two behind, and look at some other data points…

The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational organization that conducts scientific studies of the news and entertainment media. They conduct research reports on news coverage of such diverse issues as economics, science, and politics.  The CMPA recently analyzed the coverage of the president by ABC, NBC and CBS year-to-date in 2006, and discovered that 75% of the coverage of the president was negative.  That’s an incredible leaning toward “anti-Bush”.  Does it say that the press is liberally biased?  Not necessarily.  I’d like to see analogous studies during past presidents’ terms.  Plus, war is never a good thing for a president.  But this definitely doesn’t refute the “liberal bias in the press” thesis.  (BTW, here’s the complete study if you want to look it over.  Very interesting.)

A recent study conducted by UCLA’s Department of Political Science (no bastion of conservative thinking) concluded that there is indeed “a very significant liberal bias”.  They cited that only one program on Fox News was left of the average position in congress, supporting the claims made by people like O’Reilly that FNC has opinion all over the map, while most outlets predominantly allow opinion clustered only around group think liberalism.  A side note…  This can be combined with another UCLA study (HypergeneMediaBlog’s highlights) which showed that 53% of the population generally believes what they read on the Internet, and it becomes easy to understand why a bias in the media is so significant.

Last data point…  Recently, I made the commitment to Neva that I would return to listening to NPR occasionally to get some more exposure to “liberal media”.  Having listened to several hours of NPR over the last few weeks, my opinion is unchanged.  It seems to me to be clearly tilted to the left.  The opinions given credence there were liberal, and the opinions that were demeaned (most commonly in the tone of voice / slant of the way they were questioned) were conservative.

So, based on my experience, and a few evidentiary data points, I conclude that the media generally tilts left.  Why do I think this is?  Well, let me tell you…

First, I’ve already talked about left-brained vs. right-brained people, and how they naturally gravitate toward certain professions and not others.  Journalism is a *very* right-brained profession.  So, if you accept any of my theories about right-brained types being more liberal, then this helps explain the bias.  But even if you don’t, read on…

Almost all of the most significant media players in the country are clustered together in a few couple-square-mile areas.  Manhattan island, certain parts of LA, etc.  For example, every journalist who works for the NY Times (facesiously, but you get the idea) lives within one mile of every other journalist who works there.  These folks all go to the same parties, bars, restaurants, meetings, etc.  They all know that if you walk into one of those parties and say, “I just published my column on how wonderful President Bush and the Fox News Channel are”, then they’re ostracized.  Might as well be a lepper.  So that’s just not going to happen.  It creates (even subconsciously) group-think … because everyone wants to be accepted by their peers.

And that’s assuming that openly liberal heads of organizations (such as Arthur Sulzberger at the New York Times) would even hire someone who thinks radically differently than they do, which doesn’t seem likely – unless (as the LA Times has done of late) they are making an intentional effort to create a balanced perspective inside their organization.

Other thoughts?  I know they’re out there.

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Christ. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long journey, learning to swim with the current of God's love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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6 Responses to Fair and Balanced?

  1. Bill Woessner says:

    I think there’s a definite liberal bias in the media. I think it’s part of the nature of the beast. As such, I don’t think the bias is limited to the United States. In Germany, for example, I can only think of one truly conservative newspaper. Good investigative reporting requires a certain degree of anti-establishment sentiment. Without it, reporters probably wouldn’t dig deep enough.

    Regarding NPR… I think NPR (in partner with PBS) is the single best news outlet we have in the United States. After switching to PBS’s NewsHour, I just can’t bring myself to watch network news. It’s like watching garbage. With resepct to bias, I think NPR is sort of like the Washington Post. It’s attacked from both sides, and that’s a good thing.

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  2. Neva says:

    I will continue supporting NPR, as I still find their news to be more trust-worthy than that provided from commercial sources. I would largely agree with the belief that most news is biased towards the sensationalist as a result of competing for viewership. But I’ve already expressed that viewpoint, so I won’t elaborate on it any further.

    I will say that NPR is not entirely biased, even if it is considered “liberal media” and you find it to be slanted to the left. A few nights ago, I heard a commentary on health care reform from Newt Gingrich. As with any of their commentaries, it was simply announced by author and topic and then played. There was nothing provided by the station or the program that would have demeaned his position through tone of voice or type of questioning. He simply submitted his opinions, and NPR played them. I would be extremely surprised to find a “conservative” talk radio station providing similar unbiased treatment to a Democratic political figure.

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  3. Brad Bull says:

    Journalists are biased, op-eds are biased. But many stories seem pretty neutral too me.

    As for many journalists leaning liberal, maybe that relates to our discussion about liberals being more educated than conservatives. I thought we had already debunked the right v. left brain argument.

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  4. Neva says:

    I’d also like to add that I think a lot of what we consider biased in journalism may come down to the sort of observer bias Chris brought into the discussion earlier. eg Jeff doesn’t feel that O’Reilly is biased because he generally sees where he’s coming from. Brad and I do consider him to have a conservative bias because he’s more conservative than we are. Likewise, I don’t feel that NPR is particularly liberal, but Jeff sees them as left because they’re more liberal than he is. What you perceive as left or right has a lot to do with where you’re standing on that spectrum.

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  5. David Bumpus says:

    Thead Jack! Where’s our Hawaiian shirt related picture for Friday?

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  6. Ed Darrell says:

    What?

    Is the press in America “free and neutral”, as prescribed by the Bill of Rights?

    Whose Bill of Rights?

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