Myth of the liberal media

A large majority of Americans – and many UVM students … including the liberal ones – accept the claim that the mainstream media in the U.S. has a liberal bias. It is a belief perpetuated by conservative talk radio and Republican candidates who know that if you repeat something enough times people will come to believe it, even if it isn’t true. And, it isn’t true. It is a myth.The claim stems from findings that journalists themselves tend to be more liberal and Democratic than the public as a whole. While that is true of journalists – though they are more libertarian than liberal – it is a bit of a leap to say that liberal journalists equals liberal political coverage. Journalists do not create the news in a vacuum. There are many other more powerful factors that determine the nature of the coverage. Most important of those is the pressure to make a profit – U.S. media are businesses. The pressure to make a profit means news coverage must amuse and entertain us in order to attract the large audiences that advertisers will pay the media companies to have access to. Coverage is also influenced by politicians whose organizations work hard to manipulate coverage in order to have themselves presented in the most favorable light and their opponents in the most negative light.Additional influences include corporate owners who want large profit margins and news producers and editors, and professional norms of journalism to act as objective observers or neutral adversaries to those in power – “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”Not to mention the political and cultural context of the times and the nature of the coverage called for by the event. In other words, the claim of liberal bias represents an extremely simplistic view of the media in the U.S.So, a more informed understanding of the nature of the media in the U.S. should make you skeptical of the liberal bias claim. Not satisfied? Then demand some evidence of bias in the actual coverage. And, when you do, you will find that there is no credible scholarly evidence of a liberal or pro-Democratic bias in the mainstream media’s political coverage.But why, you might ask, has coverage of McCain and Palin – or Bush – been so negative if there isn’t bias? The answer is that negative or positive coverage isn’t, in itself, evidence of bias. Bias occurs when someone gets coverage that they don’t deserve and you may have to entertain the fact that negative – or positive – coverage might simply reflect the type of coverage a politician deserves.Still not persuaded because you “see the bias” yourself? Consider too that psychologists have demonstrated that we are more attentive and more likely to notice coverage hostile to our side than coverage that is favorable. We are, after all, selective observers who overgeneralize from our limited biased observations.Despite all of this, I am under no illusion that Republicans will give up their whining about a liberally- biased media. They won’t give it up because they want to discredit the media and journalism so that no one has standing as an objective source to challenge their view of events. They will continue to see bias because there is an inherent tension between the deferential view of authority held by many Republicans and the role of journalists whose job it is to challenge authority, regardless of party or ideology.Professor Anthony Gierzynski teaches political science classes at UVM on American politics, the 2008 election and the media.He is the author of two books on elections and is working on another about electoral reform.