Press Box

The Varieties of Media Bias, Part 3

Giving the readers their say.

Don’t ask for reader e-mail unless you want it. In bales.

In my two preceding pieces about media bias, I invited readers to hurl dead cats or bonbons at me. My first installment, an overview of media bias and its history, generated 150-plus e-mails. I got as many bonbons as dead cats, but dead cats make better reading. So here they are.

Dozens of readers on the left and right insist I shutter my series until I define left and right. Hans H. Coucheron-Aamot captures this point of view best, writing:

In the past, it was common to call anything you did not like “socialist,” which then segued over to “liberal,” though these terms are not at all related. … Today, the “chattering classes” tend to use “conservative” as a catch-all term for anything they dislike and do not approve of.

John May essayed on this theme as well, criticizing me for “perpetuat[ing] the delusion that the political universe is bi-polar, with all the players (and policy positions) stationed somewhere between the ‘left’ and the ‘right.’ “

Snuggling up with this particular dead cat, I plead guilty on both counts, but I ask for the court’s leniency. Just because there’s no satisfying definition of right and left or conservative and liberal doesn’t prevent critics from complaining about right and left “media bias.” If we’re going to talk about what the media critics are talking about, we have to accept their obviously limited and fuzzy definitions. Reader John May is further correct to describe the cleaving of all politics, no matter what the substance, into left and right as a kind of bias. It allows the speaker to “seemingly illuminate the essential character of parties around the world (’left-wing,’ ‘center-right,’ ‘far-right’) without describing (or knowing) their programs,” May writes. The sin of bifurcation is ameliorated, I believe, when the political shorthand doesn’t distort the positions and programs described. If May doesn’t find much difference between what most folks call left and right, my bet is that he’s a Naderite, too.

Most political debates ultimately collapse into a “for” or “against” proposition, and that’s no more binary than left and right. For better or worse, we’re stuck with the terms “left” and “right,” but I’m happy to adopt a new, better shorthand if one exists. Tom Burke explains how left and right critics talk past one another because they “focus on different aspects of media organization.” He continues:

Left critiques often go to the structure of media ownership and imply that a whole set of concerns—about the effects of corporate concentration, big business influence over foreign policy, and business-created environmental hazards—are underreported because of the influence of owners and the corporate structure itself. Right critiques tend to zero in on the ideology of reporters and editors in elite media outlets and tend to focus on how coverage is pitched, rather than on “missing stories.”

Many readers urge me to give the views of Noam Chomsky an airing. (One reader accuses me of excluding Chomsky because any discussion of his views would harm the interests of Slate’s owner, Microsoft. We’ll see about that!) Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (1988) offers a “propaganda model” for understanding news media. In the Chomsky view, the media self-censors to placate and advance the interests of the state, corporations, and other powerful institutions. Chomsky says four sets of news “filters” are used in the production of the propaganda that masquerades as news: capitalist ownership, advertiser support, “flak” (the disciplining of errant voices), and “anti-communism” as the state religion. Arguing with Chomsky is a little like wrasslin’ a blob of mercury. When you give him an example of press coverage that runs against the state or corporate interests, he’ll respond that the mass media is not monolithic because the powerful interests don’t agree on every score. He also believes the powerful interests will permit a mini-debate, but they’ll stifle the volume of words that might harm the rich and powerful’s interests.

I’m not persuaded by Chomsky’s propaganda model. And, apparently, neither is the current leading media critic on the left, Eric Alterman. Alterman’s new book, What Liberal Media?, makes no mention of the professor’s work in its 322 pages. (The index does cite the work of “Edward R. Herman” on pages 48 and 49; I’m not sure if the “R” is a typo and meant to be “S.”) The implausible Chomskyite comeback, I’m sure, is that Alterman’s MSNBC part-time pay-masters—General Electric and Microsoft—forbid him from discussing such radical works. Chomsky’s supporters won’t take these words kindly, so I welcome additional correspondence from them.

Mark A. Richard finds a press bias in favor of … the press itself, “a bias in favor of urban sensibilities and against suburban and small town life; in favor of meritocracy when it comes to ability to write, but less so when it comes to the ability to, say, manufacture ball bearings.” Arthur Borden locates bias in Margaret “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” Warner’s treatment of conservative guests. She interrupts them in midthought, says Borden, but lets her liberal guests, who “she so plainly endorses,” speak their piece. Lisa Rosenthal wishes we could cut the Gordian Knot and establish a press with more open bias across the political spectrum: “If those biases are out in the open where they belong, people can make their own judgments as to what opinions to believe, and will not find themselves distrusting journalists who claim to have no biases, because that claim will no longer be made.”

Neil Munro of the National Journal says reporters “are biased in favor of things that can be changed by words—fame, intellectuals, professionals, ‘diversity’ and especially change itself. Thus we favor our own professional interests above mere partisan or ideological disputes, and these days, those interests are a better fit in the Democratic Party than the GOP.”

The next batch of e-mail, 100-plus, followed publication of my second dispatch, in which I illustrated how left and right deliberately talk past one another by analyzing a “debate” between lefty Eric Alterman and righty L. Brent Bozell III. Here’s a sampling.

James Hamilton of Duke University, the author of the forthcoming All the News That’s Fit To Sell: How the Market Translates Information into News, comments smartly that the five Ws of the traditional news story— Who? What? Where? When? Why?—have been replaced by a different set of five Ws, which govern decisions about news content, especially TV news content:

Who cares about a particular piece of information? What are they willing to pay to find it, or what are others willing to pay to reach them? Where can media outlets or advertisers reach these people? When is it profitable to provide the information? Why is this profitable? The answers to these questions drive story selections, generate careers for celebrity reporters, and often leave a set of citizens dissatisfied with the way that the media cover politics and society.

Rahad Krishna thinks my series is barking up the wrong tree, writing:

The issue is not whether is the press corps is biased: The issue is how are the candidates from the two parties treated? Do you think there will be one prominent Democrat that isn’t character-assassinated by the national media, borrowing oh-not-so-subtly directly from the Republican demolition-derby?

And in his ongoing correspondence with me, Jeff Rollins cites a digital divide he thinks supercedes pure media bias:

The historical oversight was helpful, but, I believe, does not take into account the current digital age of instant information, or disinformation. The right caught the wave over a decade ago and have refined their propaganda machinery to such an efficient level that would make H.R. Haldeman envious. In the meantime, the left continues to debate the messy trivialities of ethics and morality. Thus, there is an ever widening gulf between “news” and reality.

An excellent point. A Marxist can easily explain why the forces of reaction might theoretically control newspapers, magazines, the TV networks, radio, and even the greeting-card industry. But why is the blogosphere so dominated by conservatives and their fellow travelers, libertarians? Calling Noam Chomsky, calling Noam Chomsky, come in Chomsky. …


Previously in this series: Who threw the first punch in the press bias brawl?and The old litmus tests that sort journalists into left and right don’t work anymore.

Coming in this series: The bias in favor of a strong narrative …The horrible, rotten, despicable biases of readers and viewers … Probing (very gently!) the biases of Bob Woodward … Where are all the conservative journalists?


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