For as long as I can remember, I have heard nightmarish tales from conservative pundits of the spectre of a “liberal bias” in the mainstream media. Ranging from the patently absurd to the clearly insightful, these claims have resurfaced in the current presidential election with a vengeance. John McCain, who consistently joked that the media was his “base” prior to the Republican National Convention, now continually levels criticisms against television, internet and print news sources for being “in the tank” for Barack Obama. In keeping with Karl Rove’s strategy of waging culture wars in order to seize elections, McCain and his campaign advisers have made a rejection of the “liberal media elite” a constant talking point in his increasingly dim bid for the White House. Many highly esteemed news publications responded to these claims with furor, claiming that they have done nothing but hold themselves to the highest standards of journalistic excellence during the campaign, as always. In an attempt to channel my inner-Aristotle, I thought it would be particularly relevant to find the moderate ground between these warring camps of information dissemination. That is, of course, assuming there is a centrist’s position worthy of taking.
The ongoing Pew Research Center study, entitled The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), recently investigated these claims, with some interesting results. It rated news stories about each candidate in one of three categories, either clearly positive, neutral/mixed, or clearly negative. News stories on McCain roughly broke down as follows: clearly positive – 20%, neutral/mixed – 20%, clearly negative 60%. Those numbers are not much in their own right, but, in comparison to Obama’s numbers, a clearer picture begins to emerge. Obama received approximately 40% positive coverage, 30% neutral/mixed coverage, and 30% negative coverage. Just looking at negative coverage, Obama holds a two to one advantage over his Republican rival. That’s pretty astounding evidence in favor of the existence of a liberal media bias. Despite Politico.com’s attempt at rejecting these findings through assertions of “objective journalism” in the mainstream media, I think there is something to the PEJ’s findings.
The idea of “objective journalism”, like any form of “objective knowledge”, has always been one of those lies that we tell ourselves to sleep better at night. No piece of knowledge is for certain, but how can we attempt to know anything about the world if all information is constantly suspect? At some point, we have to draw a line in the sand between the “reputable” and the “egregiously biased”. Our mistake comes from calling that a perfect system of objectivity. Surely, there are newspapers and television shows that do a much better job at maintaining their “journalistic integrity” – a commitment to maintaining the highest possible standard of factuality – but, no source of information is or ever has been immune from the plague of subjectivity.
This is particularly true in the climate of a presidential election – the head-to-head combat of political theory, the confrontation of the “should” versus the “should not.” Even if the stories that a newspaper runs are entirely “factually accurate”, there are a variety of factors that can demonstrate partisan influence like language and the highly subjective choice of what is “newsworthy.” There is no truth, even if it comes packaged as such. A perfect example of this bias came from the executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, who responded to top-McCain adviser Steve Schmidt’s claims that they were “150% in the tank for Obama” and “no longer a journalistic organization.” Keller said, at The New Yorker festival earlier this month, that “My first tendency when [the McCain campaign says things like that] is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.” Hardly objective for the most reputable American paper, even by my standards of constant subjectivity. So, why would a respected institution like the Times move so strongly against the McCain campaign?
It is my opinion that the real sources of the liberal media bias are something far less spoken and far more important to studies and perceptions of journalism. The American media are composed of people. Their families live in the United States and reap the byproducts of American politics, like everyone else. At some point, their sincere commitment to balanced reporting gets trumped by their own fears and concerns about intentional distortions of knowledge. The campaign that McCain has run this election cycle is committed to lying, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance on an offensive scale. One moment John McCain says that he will buy everyone’s homes to prevent foreclosure and the next he is calling Obama a socialist for wanting to restore taxation levels to those held under Bill Clinton. One moment Obama is “palling around with terrorists” and the next Sarah Palin’s husband comes clean about his membership with the secessionist movement known as the Alaska Independence Party. My favorite example of this occurred just this week. Speaking about the importance of funding autism research, Palin vilely rejected the necessity of fruit-fly research as irrelevant spending, as something preventing a cure. Little does she admit, or know, that fruit-fly DNA research is utterly essential to an autism cure. Palin, McCain’s choice to step in as president if he dies in office, runs on sheer ignorance.
This is not to mention McCain’ own policy positions. McCain’s perspective on global affairs is truly frightening, as anyone who watched the presidential debates could have seen. Desirous to entirely cast off the United Nations and international law in favor of unhinged American power projection, McCain envisions constant securitization and fear as the driving forces in the United States’ agenda. Journalists are exposed to the world more than most and see the potential ramifications for the security of their children and grandchildren with a “pitbull” America, clawing to maintain its hegemony.
Part of the “liberal bias” also has to do with the explosion of the “ideology first, facts second” 24-hour cable-news media. Most of their content is a journalistic joke, but still they are factored into the Pew study because of their extensive share of the public’s attention. Their “experts” are usually ludicrously partisan hacks, who would say or do anything to keep their ideology prominent in the minds of American voters. Quantitative analyses are misleading in the respect that they do not explicitly and immediately present the sources that they tapped into in order to come upon their data set. The numbers are simply circulated around without anyone having the time to delve into the actual structural realities of the study. The creation of obviously “in the tank” media outlets like Fox News (for conservative thought) or, increasingly and troublesomely, MSNBC (for liberal thought) skews the data in an obvious manner. At this point, I’m tempted to think that Bill O’Reilly would probably tell his viewing audience that a murder committed by a Republican Congressman was somehow justified. Keith Olbermann, whose constant ravings about O’Reilly are deserved and necessary, is moving into increasingly dangerous territory, but mainly through ‘lies of omission’ about liberal ideology. Both play the ratings game with increased frequency and would say whatever keeps Nielson demographics moving in their favor. Now that there are more liberally-minded individuals in this country, we will see a shift away from the successes that Fox News had during the Bush years. That, however, is not the entire story.
The media, as agents committed to “objectivity”, but more so to their own families, are sincerely offended by the GOP’s assault on education, science and global stability. It certainly hasn’t helped that the McCain campaign has taken to slandering them as an election strategy. As long as the GOP remains committed to paradoxical positions in order to continue to wield power in Washington, the media, which is composed of mainly intelligent and rational individuals, will rebel against them. If you want the media back, conservatives, stop your party from denigrating American political discourse. Stop your party from suggesting violent and imperialist foreign policies. If you do that, believe me, the media will return to its prior levels of “objectivity”, as questionable as that always has been. McCain, as well as the GOP leadership, is entirely to blame for the currently liberal tendencies of the mainstream media. As I said above, a lot of this biased reporting has to do with pandering to shifting demographics, but a lot more of it, particularly the overwhelming number of newspaper endorsements for Obama, has to do with the say-one-thing-do-another politics of Nixon and Rove. If your life’s work was committed to factuality, wouldn’t you work against those committed to destroying it?