Media Bias In the Eye of the Beholder
Cartoonist Mike Lukovich said he worked 13 hours to create this cartoon, which contains the name of each of the 2,000 soldiers killed during the latest war in Iraq.
Presumably, the image was meant to speak to the various public officials and decisionmakers who got us into Iraq in the first place. But this cartoon could be addressed to the press, as well.
As the CIA leak prosecution progresses, the only institution that comes off looking bad as the Bush administration is the press -- which tied itself in knots to honor confidentiality pledges extended to officials trying to place stories which would discredit a high-profile critic of the President's war rationale by publicizing details about his CIA operative wife.
Which is why I remain mystfied by the one criticism that I keep hearing, through email and from readers in person, every time I talk about media issues:
That the mainstream news media, and the St. Petersburg Times in particular, has a liberal bias.
This sentiment is the primary response I got to a story I wrote for today's Business section suggesting that newspapers are dying because increasing numbers of people want to get the information they contain a different way.
This email was typical: "You apparently don't see how dishonest you are... because of your liberal mindset you are "stuck on stupid", for some reason you don't get the message that you can no longer lie to the people with impunity because of the internet where you can be checked on your "facts". You really do think that most of us are really stupid.. and there are a lot, but not all of us are the morons.
The same goes on your reporting on Iraq... everything is BAD! You failed to report the historic approval of the Constitution... yet dwelled on the 2000 soldiers killed in 3 years! That is why we treat you with contempt and won't even spend .25 for your papers anymore. Think toothpaste... if people hate the flavor, the toothpaste co. would start by changing the flavor."
Now, this guy definitely sounds like he's sipped a little too much of Rush Limbaugh's Kool Aid, if you know what I mean.
But it is a sentiment I hear often -- including during a talk Saturday at the Times Festival of Reading. Unfortunately, this passionate belief falls short when I ask for specific examples. Often, these critics who have railed against the MSM (mainstream media, for those of you who don't do acronyms well) don't have specific stories or coverage patterns to cite.
My new pal Craig Crawford has an explanation for this. In his new book, Attack the Messenger, Craig lays out the premise that politicians have successfully turned the public against the new media by accusing it of bias -- aided by a powerful consevative-oriented alternative media -- in the process, invalidating reports which may harm their interests. (I explore these thoughts a bit with him in an interview here).
While I agree with Craig's analysis, I also think there's something else going on here.
I think people are confusing the MSM's focus on pursuing social justice, which is an important part of our journalism DNA, with rampant liberalism.
We focus on social justice issues in our work, which means reporting on civil rights issues, worker's rights issues, government waste issues, government effectiveness issues, poverty, crime, police brutality and much more. John Roberts, CBS correspondent and weekend anchor, described it to me simply: standing up for the little guy.
But to an anti-affirmative action, pro-business, anti-welfare, law and order conservative, that kind of reporting might feel an awful lot like liberal bias.
Truth is, MSM is biased toward the right as well, when it comes to economic issues. We lionize profitable corporations and successful CEOs. We tout the advantages of globalism and free trade agreements, regardless of how they may hurt rank and file workers. And we often safeguard the economic interests of the conglomerates which own us -- whether its ABC's Good Morning America prominently featuring stories on the ABC comedy hit Desperate Housewives or Time magazine prominently featuring an interview with Colin Powell after paying him six figures to excerpt his new book.
Media critic Eric Alterman talks about this a fair amount in his book, What Liberal Media. And while I'm not sure I believe you can totally discount the individual attitudes of reporters the way he does, I think he makes a potent point that the perspective of media owners such as News Corp's Rupert Murdoch and the structure of how media operates can tilt reports toward conservative issues.
Alterman, for example, cites research by Geoffrey Nunberg showing that the average liberal politican is 30 percent more likely to be identified with a partisan label than a conservative. Those of us who work in newsrooms know that editors are used to hearing complaints from conservatives over how they are identified; since liberals don't complain about it so much, we are far less circumspect about when we label them. And Nunberg has even suggested the MSM itself has helped perpetuate the liberal bias story. (so much for Bernard Golbdberg's oft-quoted contention that conservatives are labelled more often).
And so the blame game continues. And while those who know the complex truth push simplistic answers aimed at building their own constituencies, the public is caught between an advocacy press which tells them what they want to hear, and a profit-oriented press, which tells them what makes the most money.
Ain't a free press just grand?
What do you think of all this? And if you're going to call me a commie, pinko, liberal-loving tool of the left wing, can you at least try to make an original point while doing so? 'Preciate it.