There are countless individuals and organizations dedicated to tirelessly monitoring all forms of media, breathlessly posting the latest bias infraction, another brick in their bombproof case for the liberal media bias. Not confined to conservatives, indeed not even to politics, forward sentries on the internet are vigilant for bias in everything from breastfeeding to UFO activity.
There are plenty of surveys, formal or otherwise, that show there is little disagreement that MSM bias is real. That said, it turns out that this bias is a bit like pornography – we all know it when we see but there is little agreement on a common definition. So this raises a question: If there is no consensus on what constitutes bias or how it swings, does the charge of systemic liberal bias in the MSM have a leg on which to to stand?
Without doubt, there are credible instances of bias that show up in the media. Mindful of this, the many watchdog organizations, whether liberal or conservative, do provide a truly valuable service to consumers of news in a cyclonic industry. The edit of George Zimmerman’s 911 call really did alter an interpretation of the conversation. And while I support the assertion that the Trayvon Martin tragedy highlights the reality of ongoing social challenges, I still don’t like being lied to; especially if I might unwittingly use that lie to support my sympathies.
The Zimmerman 911 edit is a demonstrably credible instance (or sample) of media bias. Unfortunately, most news items rarely have such a clean empirical test for the alleged bias. Most often, they drift without moorings in a subjective, and very crowded harbor. Let’s say I wake up one morning to hear a story on the radio that Action News X’s Special Investigative Team (SpIT) report that authorities believe that the numerous recent UFO sightings were most likely a weather balloon.
If I believe with the conviction of fact that the weather balloon was indeed an alien spacecraft I would, in turn, have every reason to believe that the integrity of SpIT’s reporting was corrupted. If a story violates my beliefs, then how meaningful is it when I label the story as biased? This is only one example of how sample collection can be flawed. Researchers have yet to produce a broadly accepted method to rate news items quantitatively for bias; therefore, these studies will continue to be dogged with perfectly credible accusations of some sort of bias in sampling.
Yet, despite the growing mountains of evidence showing MSM bias, using this as proof for an information cartel driving a liberal bias (or any bias) in the MSM still does not pile higher than a hill of beans. On the contrary, this overwhelming evidence is actually doing a better job of proving the the opposite: that there is no systemic bias in the MSM. To make my point, let’s play with marbles.
Alice and I decide to toss a marble in a bucket for every MSM news story we see. The color of the marble we toss represents our interpretation of the story’s political bias with red for conservative, blue for liberal and purple for politically neutral. I am a known card-carrying liberal and Alice sleeps in Reagan jammies. Not surprisingly, a month later, her bucket is filled with 50% blue marbles, 45% purple marbles and 5% red marbles. She looks at my bucket and quips, “Still wearing your Trotsky PJs, I see,” and notes that it contains 50% red marbles, 45% purple marbles and 5% blue marbles. So we thoroughly mix our respective buckets together in a tub, take a few steps back and, guess what? The tub appears to be filled with purple marbles.
If only two people play the game, it is reasonable to assume that one player is less objective than the other and, thus, skews the merged results. When lots and lots of people are collecting samples of media bias, the quantitative integrity of the sample collection matters less and less because it is also reasonable to assume that this lack of integrity distributes equally across the political spectrum. Since the errors will tend to distribute evenly across the political spectrum, then the results will still produce the same mean. Translation: still no systemic MSM bias being shown.
A news report deemed false (whether real or imagined) is the most popular indictment of the MSM bias but is far from the only argument being used. There are myriads of studies using methods such as relativistically ranking how conservative or liberal a news organization is deemed. Other studies have surveyed editors and journalists about their political beliefs. Still others count the frequency of liberal versus conservative sourcing, or possibly, the frequency of the reporting of a politically charged event.
So far, however, none of these studies has proved unassailable and whether they favor the liberal or conservative hunches, they are uniformly burdened with an avalanche of criticisms. For instance, despite the revelation that a very large percentage of journalists self-identify as liberal, the effect of this on their neutrality in reporting is still supposition.
I’m not suggesting these studies are all useless, just suspect. Mostly what I am saying, though, is that despite 30 years of research, we are still no closer to a definitive position on bias in media. Like the the news sample based evidence, what can be said is that, flawed or not, when viewed collectively the widely varying results of these studies still aggregate into a net-neutral conclusion.
As I hope I’ve made clear, I do believe that media bias is alive and well. It is sometime egregious and clumsy, as in the Zimmerman edit, but is more often quite subtle. Imagine Glenn Beck spending a tearful hour decrying the horrors of socialized health care which is not news but is editorial content (to be generous). Following Beck, the news opens with a laboriously objective story about the legislative state of the Affordable Health Care Act. Can that story be considered objective if it has been potentially poisoned by the preceding editorial? Obviously, I’m picking on a popular cable news network in this example but in all truthfulness, I believe that this kind of cross pollination of news and editorial is not unique to Fox.
Actually, it is my opinion (not allegation) that this is an industry wide practice. Naturally, news organizations noisily boast of their neutrality and fairness. And while performing this very public song and dance, they actually quietly expect us to see through their disguise. Why wouldn’t they? What better way to for a news organization to brand themselves in a competitive MSM market. If Fox viewers took a bizarre seismic shift to the left then I have every reason to think that we will soon see a soggy face tearfully lamenting how the social order ordained by the constitution is being undermined by greedy corporate interests. Rupert Murdoch may have a political agenda but his prime directive is profit.
I will even confess a natural suspicion of corporations. My anxiety shoots up when, for instance, the three largest oil companies have closed door meetings with the vice president (who also happens to be waging war against an oil producing nation). Egregiously discomforting exceptions not withstanding, out-of-hand assumptions about a media corporation’s motive is akin to “proving” that the driver was speeding because that car model is popular with professional auto racers.
Corporations don’t like me, they like money and I’m okay with that. They are businesses first and foremost, and that means that a cartel-like collusion on providing news with a liberal bias will still have to make business sense. As a nation, the media consumer market will split down the middle of the political divide so it would make no sense for a cartel to alienate an entire half of the media market. As Daniel Sutter argues in his excellent and thorough essay, there is no profit advantage for this kind of collusion.
So when a fan of a political candidate blasts media bias for the the poor coverage Ron Paul receives, I offer a simpler explanation. Maybe it’s because nobody likes him. The news, after all, is just responding to consumer demand. (And Ron Paul supporters do like consumer driven markets, don’t they?) Thus, while it’s true that I regularly want to kick in my TV, I take comfort in knowing that all over the country, spanning race, creed, income and political beliefs, millions of other Americans also want to kick in their TV. And I figure that as long as the MSM is pissing off all of us, the system is still working.