The Myth of Mainstream Media Bias

The bias is not political, but in favor of generating the most buzz, getting the most page views or the highest ratings. And eyeballs, especially in the Internet era, equal revenue.
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Erstwhile veep candidate-cum-pundit-for-hire Sarah Palin recently challenged news organizations to stop "pretending" to be objective and owe up to their alleged left-wing political inclinations, calling out Politico and CNN by name, but apparently referring to the entire industry, that vast, undifferentiated blob of commentary and reportage she consistently calls the "lamestream" media.

This is not a new complaint. For years now, I've been hearing that my profession is somehow in the tank for liberal politicians, and is actively working to advance a progressive agenda. And for years now, I've been trying to reconcile this imagined media with what I've learned about actual journalists and newsrooms.

I'll concede part of Palin's argument: in our personal views, we journos do tend to tack further to the political left on many issues; opinion surveys by reputable pollsters reveal as much. Shooting the breeze over after-work beers, the reporters and editors I've known usually sound more Rachel Maddow than Bill O'Reilly on everything from the Affordable Care Act to gun control to gay rights.

But to assume that the opinions aired by a reporter at happy hour color her approach to her job the following day reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about how the news business -- emphasis on the word "business" -- operates.

An ambitious 24-year-old eager for advancement and a bump in pay gets ahead, first and foremost, by getting scoops, stories you'll see first in her newspaper, on her Web site or her television station. Sure, sometimes that story might be about a corporate polluter, but it could just as easily involve a case of massive welfare fraud. The former hews closely to a progressive agenda, the latter comports with a right-wing narrative, but as editors decide what stories to promote most vigorously, the bias is not political, but in favor of generating the most buzz, getting the most page views or the highest ratings. And eyeballs, especially in the Internet era, equal revenue.

Journalists at mainstream outlets (those without an explicit partisan slant, unlike, for example, National Review, MSNBC or Mother Jones) also know that stories calling anyone in power to task are likewise attention-getters, and it has nothing to do with the party affiliation of the power-broker in question. Our hungry young reporter doesn't distinguish herself by unquestioningly accepting the party line, but by uncovering corruption, waste, personal scandal and incompetence. And history has amply demonstrated that there's been plenty of malfeasance on both sides of the political divide.

I used to work for a newspaper group that includes a mid-size daily, the Record (Hackensack), which covers much of northern New Jersey. That paper has lately gotten quite a lot of attention, and deservedly so, for its superb reporting on the "Bridgegate" scandal involving the administration of Gov. Chris Christie, the charismatic Republican who's seen his popularity nosedive since the story broke.

But years earlier, that same newspaper went full-bore after another Jersey governor who eventually made national news, James "I am a gay American" McGreevey, who appointed an unqualified Israeli citizen to a homeland security post (a man, it was later revealed, who had been McGreevey's lover). Although I wasn't privy to the discussions taking place at the time, I'll bet no one in an editorial meeting even hinted at laying off McGreevey because he happened to be a Democrat. What was probably foremost in their minds was a gnawing fear the competition was working the same angle and would be able to publish first.

There's another dynamic at play in your typical American newsroom that undercuts the "liberal media" tag: The mandate to get both sides (at least) of every story -- and the greater the potential controversy, the greater the need. Newbie reporters quickly develop a sense of fair play in the course of doing their jobs, until, over time, working to ensure you've written a balanced piece becomes second nature.

There have been times when I've found myself silently rooting for a scrappy gadfly railing against some injustice at city hall -- only to be throw into self-doubt when I hear city hall's rebuttal. In covering a criminal matter many rookies will feel themselves sharing in law enforcement's condemnation of the suspect -- until they speak with the defense attorney. Whatever their personal leanings, reporters -- like physicians, lawyers and other professionals -- generally learn to maintain a sense of detachment and are more than happy to leave the editorializing to the editorial writers.

It's also important to remember that the mainstream media has plenty of critics on the left, although those critics don't seem to get as much play in the public sphere as the conservatives do. Think the New York Times cranks out a ceaseless torrent of Marxist propaganda? Then check out
the work of an organization called FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), which routinely accuses The Gray Lady of stealthily passing off a right-wing, corporatist agenda as the consensus view.

Other critics will point out that large media outlets, from the national level on down, have rarely been at the vanguard on issues like climate change, which up until very recently was treated as open to debate even though an overwhelming majority of relevant experts concluded years ago that it's happening and human activity is causing it. At the start of armed conflicts that later proved to be ill-fated, like Vietnam and Iraq II, the press largely failed to ask whether those wars were even necessary, much less moral. It took decades of advocacy before marginalized groups like African-Americans, feminists and gays got a fair shake in the mainstream media.

None of this is to suggest that media bias isn't possible. Journalists may unwittingly let their unexamined assumptions or narrow viewpoints slant their reporting. With so much of the national media headquartered in New York City, and with declining budgets for field reporting, there's a real danger that news coverage can become skewed towards an urban-northeastern perspective instead of accurately reflecting the country as a whole.

But in order for Palin's criticisms to be taken seriously, she can't just launch a general broadside against an industry that encompasses tens of thousands of journalists producing content for newspapers, blogs, cable and broadcast television, magazines and social media. She has to identify which stories, or which issues, where this bias supposedly creeps in. Anything short of that would be, well, lame.

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