As a scholar of political media, I was intrigued by a recent News & Observer column by Justin Haskins, a researcher at The Heartland Institute discussing media bias. However, Haskins again pushed the tired argument that the news media is dominated by a liberal bias.
This argument has been around for decades, and the evidence for it has been built on misleading evidence and faulty logic. The idea of a “liberal media” is, in fact, a myth, one that has enabled the rise of a right-wing media infrastructure that helped to sow doubts and misinformation during the last election. The liberal media myth must be debunked once and for all. These are some of the common claims about the news media and why they don’t hold up under serious scrutiny:
The political affiliation of journalists doesn’t guarantee biased reporting. Haskins cherry-picks data from an Indiana University study that shows that only 7.1 percent of journalists identify as Republican, down from 25.7 percent in 1971. But the majority of journalists – 50.2 percent – identify as independents.
These numbers also do not take into account media executives and other decision-makers who influence what stories get told. And more crucially, journalists’ political affiliations may not always inform how they cover stories. In fact, such decisions are often made by executives such as Roger Ailes, the former CEO of Fox News, or Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. These decisions may be made based on a variety of concerns: Ailes’ conservative political beliefs were well documented, while Lack has made programming choices largely based on the need to attract advertisers.
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Trump may have garnered more negative political coverage than his rivals, but he also received far more coverage. In fact, during the 2016 election, a Harvard Kennedy School study revealed that Hillary Clinton received overwhelmingly negative coverage, much of it focusing on her email scandal. In general, Trump received 15 percent more coverage than Clinton. Trump’s TV advantage was magnified during the Republican primaries when he received five times more coverage than his biggest rivals – a whopping 234 minutes versus 56 minutes for Jeb Bush.
Meanwhile Sen. Ted Cruz received a scant seven minutes, according to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report. Arguably, this was the biggest failure of the news media during the 2016 election. News cameras were drawn to Trump like flies to a bug light, unable to escape his powerful pull.
It’s easy to cherry-pick silly negative stories. Haskins rightfully condemns CNN stories that mocked President Trump for getting an extra scoop of ice cream (whether true or not). But Haskins ignores the hundreds of equally silly and trivial Fox News stories, such as those which mocked Barack Obama for wearing a tan suit. Meanwhile, primetime Fox News hosts spent years fabricating evidence that President Obama was a Muslim or that he was not born in the United States, stories that were far more pernicious in reinforcing the illusion that Obama was a dangerous outsider.
The news media is not a monolithic body. Claims of media bias – on both sides of the political aisle – often rest on the assumption that the news media (often shortened to just “media”) follows a singular logic. In fact, local, state and national media organizations often face very different challenges in delivering news coverage that will satisfy the needs of their audiences. And the interests of journalists, producers, advertisers and executives are often in conflict.
There really is a well-financed right-wing news infrastructure. Fox News is just the tip of the iceberg. The conservative Sinclair Media Group has bought up hundreds of network affiliates across the country and requires them to carry “must-run” segments during local news broadcasts that push a conservative agenda. In addition, articles published on Steve Bannon’s Breitbart website circulated widely on cable news and in other formats.
These perceptions of liberal media bias are false. However, they have steadily eroded trust in the news media. According to Pew Research Center, 85 percent of Republicans say they don’t rust the news media. This makes a functioning democracy virtually impossible. The myth of a liberal media enabled President Trump to campaign against the “fake news,” eroding respect for the news media’s role as the “fourth estate,” the body tasked with questioning the powerful and protecting the interests of the public.
Chuck Tryon is a professor of English at Fayetteville State University and the author of the book “Political TV.”