Friday, February 4, 2011

Graduate Studies in Media Bias

I'm always kind of amused by the back & forth of people claiming that one party or the other "controls" the media. Partially, I find it hilarious, because I've been paying attention to media and political bias as an amateur observer for 10-15 years... And in part, it's funny because I work in media production and I know who else works in this industry as well.

So I've come to my own conclusions... And I'll get to that later, but first I just have to laugh at a NY Daily News editorial[1] by Joshua Greenman, titled; "The Republicans Wrote the Political Dictionary: It's proof that the Democrats don't control the media". Standard arguments come into play here...
  • Fox News is the highest rated news network
  • Rush Limbaugh is king of talk radio
  • The DrudgeReport is the most popular online news site
  • Republicans are better at "message discipline" and control terminology in ways unfavorable to Democrats
Now... The basic facts are all true (except the last one), but it's worth putting a couple of these things into context. First and foremost, let's talk about Fox News and conservative media for a second. Greenman writes:
"Fox News is the most popular 24-hour news network by a whoosh and a cachung. Rush Limbaugh is the most powerful radio host, and lots of little Limbaughs line up behind him. Sarah Palin is the biggest media-political crossover star."
I should probably start this chunk with the disclaimer that if at all humanly possible, I refuse to watch television news of any kind. It's generally an abysmal way of obtaining information about the world, and watching two or three minutes of any network is usually enough to make me want to throw things at the TV. The 24-hour cable news channels are the worst of all. So I'm not a regular "Fox News" viewer. Nor am I an "MSNBC" viewer... Or a CNN, ABC, CBS, PBS, BBC, AsiaOne, Al-Jazeera, or anything else viewer.

But I think I do actually understand why Fox is the highest rated individual network, and if you look at the alternative networks I listed above, I think you can see it too.

Figure it out yet?

It's not Fox vs. MSNBC... It's Fox vs. Everyone

MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS & PBS - and basically all other news networks you can name - are staffed almost exclusively with liberals/Democrats/moderate progressives. Every single one of them is biased (more or less) towards the Democratic side of the monolithically statist equation.

From Dr. Lichter's 1981 study
According to a 1981 study[2] by George Washington University professor, S. Robert Lichter, found that in 1964, 94% of the nation's top journalists voted Democrat in that election. The results over the next 17 years showed a slight shift towards the "center", but overall, the trend was unmistakable. And it was from this very study in which the term "Media Elite" - which Greenman brings up later - was coined.[3]

Of course, when Fox News appeared on the scene in 1996, and with the rise of the internet & the advent of blogging, the balance of bias started to shift more noticeably.

But if you removed Fox from the media landscape, the left-leaning bias in the media would be as clear as it ever was before Fox appeared. And that is precisely why Fox News exists! It's also precisely why Rush Limbaugh exists.

Limbaugh became a conservative political commentator around 1988 when there was literally no "conservative" voice in non-print media. But as Greenman correctly points out, America is - at heart - somewhat:
"An audience that is right of center, which left-wingers far too often fail to acknowledge."
At least in the sense that most Americans do actually have a bit of right-libertarian streak. It's not as strong a streak as it used to be, but it definitely still exists. Words like "socialism" are still generally looked down on, because people recognize the term as something un-American... Even when America actually engages in socialist, corporatist, or otherwise freedom-crippling policies - if those policies are couched in moderate nationalism, the language of self-reliance and individual liberty, they tend to be supported.

For better or worse, that's precisely why politicians title bills in such stupid ways, like the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 2001.[4]

And that is also why occasionally, Republicans do find some success labeling certain Democrat-supported policies.

But it's at this point that Greenman's editorial gets kind of ridiculous... He writes:
"The New York Times doesn't decide what words we use, nor does CNN or NPR. Our political vocabulary comes from the mouths of crafty conservatives, and that's the ultimate proof that they steer the conversation.

Obamacare. Pity the poor congressional and White House staffers who spent hours coming up with the bromidic name "Affordable Care Act" only to see the 2,300 page bill (which Republicans complained Obama played far too passive a role in shaping) get labeled, for all eternity, "Obamacare." This of course, is an update of the equally elegant Hillarycare. It's interesting to note that both were used, from the get go, as slurs, unlike, say, "Reaganomics." (Compare this to, say, "No Child Left Behind," which has never for a second been called Bushducation - though that would have been pretty catchy.)


Resistance was futile; Obamacare is punchy. It's descriptive. It works."
Bushducation would have been "catchy"?

Uh... No.

And that's kinda the point here. "Obamacare" simplifies the healthcare reform that President Obama has made into a more important feature of his presidency than the economy, than closing Guantanamo or bringing troops home, than the failing education system or anything else. It was the law he spent months campaigning for, and it was the one law he'd used his bully pulpit to push over everything else.

He has made more TV appearances than any president in history, and likely a majority or at least a plurality of those have been about healthcare.

So... Why not, "Obamacare"?

"No Child Left Behind", and the "Patriot Act" have already garnered extremely negative connotations - and it may be worth noting, for the same reasons Obamacare isn't all that popular! Here we have a monolithic, top-down government policy to manage education... and a top-down, authoritarian increase in government power for "homeland security". Obamacare is a monolithic, top-down, authoritarian way of dealing with healthcare...

Notice a pattern yet?

Americans don't really like the idea of authoritarianism that much, and coining a phrase to make totalitarianism easier to mock is certainly helpful... especially when it doesn't have an easy acronym like "PATRIOT" already built in to the name. Greenman is mostly just making excuses and rationalizing away Democrats working to do exactly the same thing.

He brings up "Reaganomics", and claims that it wasn't used as a derogatory term until a few years later... But that was 30 years ago! Reaganomics was one of the branding terms that started this whole modern incarnation of media "renaming" of political policies thing to begin with.

Greenman goes on to point out that phrases like "Pro-Life" supposedly trump "Pro-Choice". But... Really?

I don't buy it. Aren't we all in favor of life and isn't life meaningless without choice? And does anyone seriously believe that the terms "Pro-Life" or "Pro-Choice" actually effect the way people honestly think about abortion rights? I'm gonna go with... No.

I must say though, the wackiest thing Greenman says is:
"Democrat Party. Liberals may moan and complain and repeatedly correct those who drop the "ic," but that makes them sound petty. Nobody understands why "Democrat Party" is a slur, but everyone knows that it is. That's the beauty of the Republicans continuing to use their devious little dig."

No... Uh... What!? "Democrat" vs. "Democratic" Party, is a "devious little dig"? In what universe, Mr. Greenman? Complaining about that makes people sound petty because... It is petty!

This is just bizarre paranoia on Greenman's part... And I really don't get it.[5]

At any rate, the point I'm making here is that everyone in the political arena spends a ton of effort trying to "frame" issues with the right wording.

But the real question should be how the ideas are framed, and in that instance, the framing is universally in favor of the state. And let's be honest, it most often goes towards the Democrats and "liberals". For instance - last December, the Democrats were pretty successful (especially among their constituents) at portraying the extension of tax rates as they had existed for the past ten years as a "tax cut for the rich" and as "spending".

Americans don't like government all that much on the surface, and in spite of massive quantities of obvious cognitive dissonance, Americans are generally (and rightly) concerned about the deficit and the debt... So if you can convince them that tax cuts are actually "spending", you can get them to oppose it - at least for enviable rich people.

Even though it's a ridiculous lie that rests on the premise that government owns 100% of everyone's income, and "spends" their money by allowing you to keep some portion of it, it was convincing to enough people that I had to endure it repeatedly for a couple months - and assuredly will again in 2 years when the debate returns.

So... No, Mr. Greenman... 
Media Bias is Heavily Tilted Toward Team D

Now... Here's the thing. We've already seen that historically, journalists have always been heavily biased towards the Democrats - and I've made the point that this is precisely why the moment a network like Fox appeared, it became instantly popular. The slight majority of all Americans, and naturally 100% of the conservative people in America had no news & commentary sources that catered to their world-view at all.

And today?

They have Fox News, a few news websites and talk radio. But that's pretty much it... And so I encourage people to take a different look at the daily ratings of cable news.

Nielsen ratings for Primetime on February 1st, 2011 are as follows[6]:

PrimetimeP2+ (000s)25-54 (000s)35-64 (000s)

It certainly looks scary, and heavily "conservative", right?

Well, not so fast there... Since Fox remains the only network that actually appeals much to conservative viewers, and because a lot of people are watching Fox to see what they're saying, as sort of a "know your enemy" thing, it has a monopoly on its particular market niche.

However, all of the liberal-leaning/Democrat biased networks compete with each other for ratings... So, we should actually be pitting Fox' ratings against the other networks combined ratings.

If you do that, then Fox gets 2,498,000 viewers above the age of two... and the other networks, which are basically all liberal leaning, got 2,555,000. I'd call that a pretty even split. Technically it's "conservative" leaning news with 49.44%, and "liberal" leaning news at 50.66%. And of course, that's only out of the top 5 cable news channels.

Consider what the balance might be if you added in network nightly news ratings from CBS, NBC, and ABC, and if you added the ratings of PBS as well.

When viewed in that light, "Fox News vs. Next Four Other" reflects a pretty normal philosophical distribution of the American news-viewing population - and once you factor in the rest of the media, the bias goes to the Democrats/liberals hands down. People like Greenman like to freak out about Fox, but they never put it into context.

So what's especially depressing to me, of course, is... the libertarian view doesn't even get a placement (with basically the unique exception of John Stossel).

And by the way, (as if anyone should be surprised given the puff-ball pass and obvious favoritism the media gave then candidate, Barack Obama) the Daily Caller reported last year that the contributions to political parties made by journalists from the major networks in 2008 went overwhelmingly to Democrats[7]:
"Senior executives, on-air personalities, producers, reporters, editors, writers and other self-identifying employees of ABC, CBS and NBC contributed more than $1 million to Democratic candidates and campaign committees in 2008, according to an analysis by The Examiner of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Democratic total of $1,020,816 was given by 1,160 employees of the three major broadcast television networks, with an average contribution of $880.

By contrast, only 193 of the employees contributed to Republican candidates and campaign committees, for a total of $142,863. The average Republican contribution was $744."
What I'd like to emphasize here is... This is absolutely the observable standard across the board. And yes, it does equate to bias.

NewsCorp may very well have given about a million to Republican candidates, but that is more than balanced out by the contributions of just the three network news organizations - and far outweighed by the political activism of cable outlets like MSNBC and CNN.

It's not like this was unique to 2008 and Barack Obama, either. Journalists overwhelmingly favored John Kerry over George Bush[8] (Washington DC journalists supported Kerry 12 to 1), and they overwhelmingly supported Clinton over Bob Dole... A few years ago, a friend of a friend who was in journalism school at Columbia recounted a story about her Photo-journalism professor discussing how whenever he was covering President Bush, he deliberately attempted to get shots of Bush looking especially stupid.

It's the easiest thing in the world to do if you don't really care about the truth that much.

And this is actually the really funny part about the Greenman piece. Democrats and media allies really hate hearing about their biases, and they always write stories fear mongering about how bad Fox is - but they never bother to look at the overwhelming support for Democratic candidates, party politics and generally "liberal" viewpoints of literally everybody else.

The fact that Fox News has a large viewership is a testament to the amount of bias there has been over the years everywhere else. Like all success in the market, NewsCorp has succeeded by filling a market niche. The market would never have opened up to NewsCorp in the way that it has if it hadn't been so ideologically one-sided to begin with... The niche Fox News filled was one left wide-open by journalists for decades.

And it's still, apart from Fox News, as one-sided as it's ever been.

I have a number of reporter friends, and of course, I produce media for different organizations - including recently, it should be mentioned, the Daily Caller. But I started in the entertainment industry... and anyone who has done that can tell you precisely how universally and predictably "partisan Democrat" that world actually is.

And that counts too, because it strongly contributes to people's predispositions and views about the information that they take in.. The underlying assumptions in entertainment programming on TV and in movies ranges from being generally "liberal" to simply being overwhelmingly statist. This just perpetuates the cycle.

So the fact that Fox News was successful doesn't come as a surprise to me, but it terrified and confused a lot of people like Joshua Greenman, because they live in a bubble.

That doesn't mean that I like Fox, as I said from the outset, I don't watch or care for really any cable news. However..

My Thoughts

The truth is, I do see a decidedly partisan split in media, and that goes inevitably to the Democrats in most cases. This is confirmed repeatedly by the types of stories covered, by the political contributions and open admissions by journalists themselves. It comes down to a range of factors as well...

  • The way ideas are framed - example: "tax cuts for the rich" and "spending" instead of the more accurate, "continuation of existing tax rates".
  • The topics covered vs. the topics left out - example: constantly running stories on the craziest things Sarah Palin spits out and running virtually no stories on more intelligent speakers or ideas. 
  • The basic premises that support news stories - example: everyone who supports gun control is "sensible" and anyone who thinks otherwise wants to see children murdered, etc.
  • Selective outrage - example: Joshua Greenman's entire article... When Republican "vocabulary" is successfully infused into the mainstream consciousness, that's horrible, but when the words and framing come from Democrats, it's rationalized as somehow different, and not as dangerous. Another example would be the recent outrage over metaphorical violence in Republican rhetoric today but ignoring the exact same rhetoric by Democrats in the past.

These are just a few things, but I have argued at numerous times in the past, that the underlying premises that people accept and build their arguments are the most important. Working from the premise or framing that tax-cuts = spending forces people to conclude a bunch of nonsense and convinces the public to be much more accepting than they should be about money being taken from them by force.

However, I don't think that the overall bias is specifically partisan, or specifically even "liberal".

The majority of media bias is simply pro-state.

This goes from local networks doing scare stories about the dangers of swimming pools, Chinese-made consumer products and "dangerous, new drinks" popular with the college crowd - all the way up to nightly network news and 24-hour cable blather.

These are people who, for the most part, don't question SWAT teams, FBI or DEA raids or military actions. They trust the government to provide accurate unemployment and economic data even when anyone should be able to tell it's nonsense.

They anoint people like Alan Greenspan as the "maestro" of the economy, and then when the economy goes South, they look for some new central planner like Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, etc. to anoint instead. The men are replaced, but the suits never change - and the media tends to just lap it up.

Rarely, if ever, do most journalists ever actually question the government or the system itself... And if they do, their conclusions are most often that more government interventions in people's lives are needed, in spite of their chronic failure to produce positive results any time in the past.

Personally, I think that this explains the uneven distribution of bias towards Democrats in journalism pretty well. The Democratic Party rhetoric is just slightly more aggressively pro-state (at this moment) than the Republican Party rhetoric. And, the Democratic Party rhetoric favors the kinds of terms and ideas that sound especially compassionate and caring.

Now... That's not to say that Republicans aren't every bit of aggressive statists as Democrats. Of course they are!

They're responsible for all kinds of big government boondoggles and liberty-damaging policies. Obviously I mentioned the USA PATRIOT act, but of course there's gay marriage issues, there's prohibitions on various drugs, alcohol & sexual/contraception concerns. There's all kinds of religious issues, evolution vs. creationism... It goes on & on. And they're just as big fans of printing money, racking up the debt, and controlling the economy in various ways that they don't like to talk about - especially through subsidies & protectionism.

Democrats do the same stuff, with a little difference in their methods, and big differences in their presentation.

But what Greenman doesn't grasp is that there is way more to influencing public opinion than merely picking the vocabulary. The British used the word "Yankee" to insult Americans, and we turned that word right around and wore it with pride. Obamacare can easily work the same way... The question is how ideas are framed, and that almost always goes to Team D. 

It also matter what ideas are presented, and which are ignored.

When news shows present most issues, they show one big government supporter with his plan, and counter that with another big government supporter with a "different" plan. They rarely have someone on to argue that the issue shouldn't even be in the purview of government to begin with. It's inevitably people with "plans". Not people who value liberty. Certainly the anti-market bias is rampant, but there's also often a general bias against personal liberty too - which goes into all the stories supporting the kinds of laws that dictate foods people can eat, lightbulbs they can buy, etc.

Another take on this issue that I find a little compelling is the idea that journalism schools themselves breed these biases.

Oakland University engineering professor, Barbara Oakley, Ph.D, writes about her experience in the USSR[9] and wondered why Western journalists were so supportive of Russian Socialism and were so bad about covering the abuses, corruption and horrific conditions present under that system:
"Soviet Socialism, as it turned out, was a perverse system that killed motivation even as it made fear as natural as breathing.

Why wasn’t this widely reported in the Western press?

As it turns out, the preponderance of journalists are Democrats.  And socialism, with its idyllic, “progressive” programs, has formed an increasingly important role in Democratic policies.  Who wants to investigate a possible dark side of your own party’s plank?"
She goes on to question why journalists are so overwhelmingly Democratic Party members, and in general such big fans of the state. She makes a few points that I think are definitely worth discussing.
1. Self- Selection: "Harry Stein, former ethics editor of Esquire, once said: "Journalism, like social work, tends to attract individuals with a keen interest in bettering the world.” In other words, journalists self-select based on a desire to help others. Socialism, with its “spread the wealth” mentality intended to help society’s underdogs, sounds ideal."
This has always been my experience. The journalism majors I knew in college and the journalists I know now all share that trait. Some care more about the truth than others, some have a better understanding of logic, science & economics than others... But they are pretty much all journalists because they want to influence the world in some way.

Unfortunately, without understanding economics, and the value of liberty - almost anyone who's goal is to "change the world" is doomed to favor top-down, centrally planned & controlled systems to force people to do what they think is best. If more journalism students learned economics, this might not be so... But Prof. Oakley goes on to point out that:
2. Journalism Schools Focus on Social Sciences: "Most journalists take a number of psychology, sociology, political science, and humanities courses during their early years in college.  Unfortunately, these courses have long served as ideological training programs—ignoring biological sources of self-serving, corrupt, and criminal behavior for a number of reasons, including lack of scientific training; postmodern, antiscience bias; and well-intentioned, facts-be-damned desire to have their students view the world from an egalitarian perspective...

Academics in the social sciences tend to give short shrift to the dramatic failures and corruption within US educational system or unions. (Think here of the Detroit Public School system, or the National Education Association, whose former officers have written: “The NEA has been the single biggest obstacle to education reform in this country. We know because we worked for the NEA.”)  Instead, because of their ideological biases, professors often emphasize that corporations are the bad guys, while unions and the government—at least the type of government that supports higher paychecks for social science professors and jobs for their students—are good.  This type of teaching makes the Democratic Party and its increasingly socialist ideals seem naturally desirable, and criticism about how those ideals will supposedly be met less likely."
This, I think, is kind of the key.

Oakley concludes the essay by suggesting that on top of all of those built-in biases, journalists ignored the failures of socialism in the USSR also because the USSR like most totalitarian regimes was a media dead-zone.

Not unlike North Korea or Cuba today, journalists weren't allowed in or out of the USSR without strict controls and state approvals, not to mention state escorts. So the truth about the real conditions of the USSR weren't well reported, and most reporters - believing strongly in the power of a monolithic state to solve social problems, didn't really want to go digging all that much anyway.

And this is where it intersects with the same kind of media bias today. Most journalists, editors, newsroom managers and news executives are Democrats, most self-identify as liberal, and most all start from a place of wanting to change the world in some way. Very few self-identify as "conservative", and even fewer self-identify as Republicans.

I believe that Barbara Oakley's points strike at the root of why this is, but I also believe that the consequence is that the group-think in journalistic environments is so ubiquitous that most reporters don't even recognize what they write or believe as biased at all. It's all they've ever known, from being the young kid who wanted to be Bob Woodward and take down an evil Republican or a crooked businessman; to journalism school; to the real world of newsrooms.

So yeah... They freaked out when alternative viewpoints started getting ratings on the radio with Rush Limbaugh and on Fox News... As a result, now people like Joshua Greenman are busy writing stories claiming that because some Republicans say "Democrat" instead of "Democratic", and because Fox has high ratings, suddenly the Republicans have taken over the media world... But, they haven't.

As I attempted to demonstrate above, every network except Fox News is just as liberal as it's ever been. It's just that now they have some competition for viewers and they no longer have a monopoly on the presentation of ideas.

But don't worry, journalists. Fox News is filled with commentators who love the state just as much as you do. They just think it should be used a bit differently... That's all.


So that's what I think... At the micro-level, the bias is clearly liberal/Democrat leaning... But in the bigger picture, it's just good old fashioned statism. The government is your buddy. Unions are good, minimum wage laws are good, zero-tolerance laws for drugs & guns are good, SWAT raids keep innocent people safe, and no one ever screws up & arrests the wrong guy and no politician is so corrupt that CNN won't give him his own talk-show.

The Team D vs. Team R stuff is great and all, but if you pay better attention, you'll find that both MSNBC & Fox give basically all politicians a free pass on the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. They barely talk about, or understand, the role of the Federal Reserve and the money supply to our economic problems. They don't come out against the drug war (pretty much only Radley Balko does at this point), and they don't take discussions of the economy, of education or health care, of security or defense, of basically anything seriously unless the argument involves some massive actions to be undertaken by the state.

Central planning is good, free markets and spontaneous order... Very bad.

Fox is just as bad on this point as MSNBC or CNN, or everybody else combined, but as long as we can keep staying distracted by partisan nonsense, most people will think they're having a real debate. Usually, however, we're not. It's one centrally planned boondoggle or the next, and the idea that we stop trying to control everything doesn't even make it on film most of the time.

So just to clear up the debate. The bias in the vast majority of media is overwhelmingly to the Democrats. End of discussion... Now can we please stop talking about trivial differences in which team is winning which war and actually talk about whether or not we should have state control of so many things at all?

I'd like that.

  1. Greenman, Joshua. "Republicans Wrote the Political Dictionary: It's Proof Democrats Don't Control the Media." New York News, Traffic, Sports, Weather, Photos, Entertainment, and Gossip - NY Daily News. 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 04 Feb. 2011.
  2. Lichter, S. Robert., Stanley Rothman, and Linda S. Lichter. The Media Elite: America's New Powerbrokers. New York: Hastings House, 1990. Print.
  3. "Media Bias Basics." 2004. Web.
  4. "USA PATRIOT Act." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 04 Feb. 2011.
  5. Walker, Jesse. "The Paranoid Center." Reason Magazine. Oct. 2009. Web. 04 Feb. 2011.
  6. Gorman, Bill. "Cable News Ratings for Tuesday, February 1, 2011." TV Ratings, TV Nielsen Ratings, Television Show Ratings | 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 04 Feb. 2011.
  7. Tapscott, Mark. "Obama, Democrats Got 88 Percent of 2008 Contributions by TV Network Execs, Writers, Reporters." The Daily Caller - Breaking News, Opinion, Research, and Entertainment. 28 Aug. 2010. Web. 04 Feb. 2011.
  8. Tierney, John. "Political Points - Finding Biases on the Bus -" The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 01 Aug. 2004. Web. 04 Feb. 2011.
  9. Oakley, PH.D, Barbara. "Why Most Journalists Are Democrats: A View from the Soviet Socialist Trenches | Psychology Today." Psychology Today. 3 Aug. 2009. Web. 04 Feb. 2011.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was looking for an article on media bias... this is EXCELLENT!!