Are the Media Liberal, Conservative, or Something Else?

A common refrain from those on the right is that our media lean to the left. They see this bias all the time– when negative press about a particlular conservative issue or politician appears is given what appears to be undue attention, or when a news supportive of liberal cause is trumpeted too much, it’s all media bias.

A case in point made below is the media’s treatment of the problems in the UN’s oil-for-food program. The story is that “Iraq used the oil-for-food program to take in more than $1.7 billion in kickbacks from companies” by “demand[ing] that firms exporting Iraqi oil after September 2000 . . . deposit kickbacks in Iraqi bank accounts in Jordan and Lebanon.”

This is damaging to the UN, and thus bad for liberals, who generally like the world body. Conservatives– particularly neo-cons, who don’t like the UN because it limits America’s ability to exert military and political force, and Christian fundamentalists, because it is another step towards an apocolyptic One World Government.

Those on the right, including New York Times columnist Bill Safire, have rightly noted the media’s lack of attention to this growing scandal. From this, some have suggested that perhaps this is because their liberal bent leads them to limit publishing material that is damaging to a traditionally liberal cause.

But are the main stream media liberal? One could go all day citing examples, but crafty people coulld dismiss many of these, or provide counter examples to show otherwise. Thus, a much better approach is to develop a hypothesis that can test thise theory. My hypothesis goes as follows:

Evidence of a liberal media will manifest itself in two ways. First, they will present material favoring liberal causes in a positive way, even if the material is of questionable authenticity. Second, they will present material unfavorable to conservative causes, even if the material is of questionable authenticity.

Evidence of a liberal media will also not manifest itself in two ways. First, material– particularly false or misleading material– unfavorable to liberal causes will not receive attention. Second, material– particularly false or misleading material– favorable to conservative causes will not receive attention.

In other words, if the media really are liberal, they’ll say good things about liberals– even if they’re not entirely accurate, and will suppress bad things, especially if they’re just lies and distortions. They’ll also say bad things about conservatives– even if they’re not entirely accurate, and will suppress good things, especially if they’re not entirely accurate.

Having set up this hypothesis, it’s time to test it. In the name of time and space (but not the science fiction variety!), we can skip the first part of the hypothesis. Conservatives will happily point out examples of over-hyped news favorable to liberals and damaging to conservatives. (Indeed, Stuart already did so in a post below.) I think some of these can be dismissed, and counter-examples showing the opposite could also be shown. (But this doesn’t mean I think I’m crafty, since most of these would be culled from other internet blogs!)

But what about the second part of the test? Do unfavorable things about liberals make it into the main stream press? And more importantly, are lies and distortions unfavorable to liberals repeated as fact by our main stream press? The answer is, of course, yes.

The best example comes from the 2000 election, when Al Gore was routinely trashed by our supposedly liberal and biased press corps. Did Al Gore say he invented the internet? No, but most people– myself included!– bought this hook, line, and sinker as it was fed to us by various “liberal” news outlets. Let’s look at the history:

On March 9, 1999, Al Gore gave an interview to Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer asked him about his Senate career, and Gore noted that “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet,” and added “I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth, environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.”

As noted on the Daily Howler (where I’m getting most of my data for this), “this was the kind of chest-thumping statement which candidates routinely make on the stump.”

But was it right? Within a certain (and logical) context, yes. No, only an idiot would think that Gore actually knew enough about computers and engineering to invent the internet. That’s why the eventual line “I invented the internet” got such laughs. But that’s not what Gore meant. Indeed, with a little knowledge about what Gore actually did in Congress, you can see clearly what he meant. Indeed, Vinton Cerf, often called “Father of the Internet” noted here that:

“As far back as the 1970s Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship. Though easily forgotten, now, at the time this was an unproven and controversial

concept. . .

“As a Senator in the 1980s Gore urged government agencies to consolidate what at the time were several dozen different and unconnected networks into an “Interagency Network.” Working in a bi-partisan manner with officials in Ronald Reagan and George Bush’s administrations, Gore secured the passage of the High Performance Computing and Communications Act in 1991. This “Gore Act” supported the National Research and Education Network (NREN) initiative that became one of the major vehicles for the spread of the Internet beyond the field of computer science.”

In other words, as a Senator, Gore really did take the initiative in creating the internet! Perhaps this is why no one commented on this for two days. Then, however, an AP story went out with the headline “Republicans pounce on Gore’s claim that he created the Internet.” On March 14, the AP put out a sorty with the headline “Lott attacks Gore Internet claim.” The first line notes “Prompted by Vice President Al Gore’s claim that he created the Internet, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made a surprising revelation of his own Friday, taking credit for inventing the paper clip.” Many of these stories were prompted by faxes from the RNC itself! Imagine! Our “liberal” press mocking a liberal candidate by attacking a point that is, in fact, correct!

Nevertheless, this story quickly became a part of the campaign discourse. Our press- supposedly in favor of liberals like Gore– routinely mocked him. One would think that if they really were liberal, they’d have brought up the points of the story, and that perhaps Dr. Cerf would have made the Sunday talk shows praising Gore. That would have shut those Republicans up and shown how forward-thinking their candidate really was.


So what about Kerry? Do the media spin RNC points or other misleading tales against him? Indeed. The best example is Kerry’s $87 billion “flip-flop.” Unfortunately, Kerry is on record a rather awkward statement. But in its proper context, is it something that can be a flip-flop? What’s going on?!?

Here’s the reality. There were, in fact, multiple versions of the spending bill. Kerry supported one version that “would have rolled back Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to cover the $87 billion cost,” but this did not pass. Why? Well, in large part, this is because Bush threatened to veto any version of the bill that he didn’t like. Ultimately, Bush’s version was the one that passed, while Kerry’s failed.

None of the above is particularly interesting, as it’s part of the way Congress works. Kerry can vote against versions he doesn’t like, and Bush can veto bills he doesn’t like (though he hasn’t done that once in his term!).

Anyone can see that this isn’t a flip-flop, but just the way politics works. Yet routinely, the media parrot Bush’s flip-flop charge and cite the $87 billion as an example. Were they really biased towards the liberal view, you’d think that papers would have plasters their front pages explaining the Bush campaign distortions. (But to their defense, the Kerry campaign has been woefully inept at explaining this, too.)

Ugh. This is getting long, and I have actual dissertation work to do. So let me conclude here (perhaps to be resumed in another post where we can look at Bush’s favorable treatment in the 2000 debates when he made numerous distortions and lies that went unchallenged).

My point is that were the media really liberal, easily-debunkalbe charges would either a) be debunked, or b) be brushed aside. But Gore was routinely trashed with the internet charge– along with others– so that he came out as a guy who exaggerates too much.

But there are other examples (e.g. the Bush National Guard thing) of anti-conservative bias. The question is, how can we reconcile this?

The answer is clear: our media are incompetent. They’re too lazy to actually do any homework. Too lazy to familiarize themselves with the histories and basics of an issue. Instead, they prefer to simply parrot whatever stance is en vogue. This worked to ruin Gore in 2000, and probably helped Bush through much of his administration. Now, in 2004, the vogue stance, influenced in large part by the disaster in Iraq, seems to be switching slowly back to the liberal side. Doubtless that will change soon enough.

Sadly, instead of getting real analysis and discussion, we get nothing but RNC and DNC spin trumpeted in the guise of main stream media. Anyone who really cares aboutthe issues are just going to have to do the extra legwork to get to the bottom of an issue. And for those who can’t or don’t want to, they’ll sadly just have to reply on the junk fed to them from our main stream media.

Are they liberal or conservative? Neither– they’re just incompetent!

(Sorry this is so long!)



  1. Nice post.

    I never argued for any “wing” and in balance the liberal/conservative argument is bogus. But Stu’s and JF’s conspiracy theory is the biggest load of Orwellian doublespeak I have heard for a long time.

    I tend to your’s and JC’s interpretation: the media is now the McMedia and easy stories grab attention. But we all go to school in Maryland, so are clearly brainwashed.


  2. Also….

    Who needs the media when you’ve got the Supreme Court on your side? The latter not the former decides elections in this country.

    Red rags and bulls….

    P.S. I’ve just worked out who I am. In British politics I consider myself just left of center, which makes me a radical here. Sorry, guys, I can’t help it.


  3. Yes, John C. made a point that I didn’t have time to address. Numbers and dollars definitely drive much of the media. NBC is owned by GE, no? Want to bet how many stories critical of GE (or its subsidiaries) appear? And what about ABC and Disney (which is owned by Viacom, or am I getting my mergers mixed up)?


  4. Lancer,

    What do you think about the Wilsongate example from Stuart’s post? I don’t think that your model addresses this type of thing. Also, you seem to be overlooking the idea that the media <>creates<> the news, i.e. it decides what is news and gives it to us. John C. has a good point in his market observations: we deserve the sensationalism that passes as news because that is what we crave. But the market alone can’t explain which stories become news and are emphasized over others. Wilsongate is a very good example of this because of the imbalance between the “revelations” that the media harped on and then the lack of backtracking or follow-up reporting when things began to look different.

    Also, I don’t think that anecdotal evidence from incidents such as Kerry flip-flopping or the $87 billion really provide an on-point counterargument. Those are actually good examples of what John C. was trying to say about the market’s influence on the media. Because of the market the media is willing to do what it does to left-wing politicians in addition to right-wing politicians. But the problem Stuart is talking about (and no one is alleging <>conspiracy<> here, Ronan) goes much deeper–it goes to the fact that the media claims to be, and many believe them to be, objective in their presentation of the news. But the very choice of what is news in the first place first comes through the filters of these peoples’ worldviews, which as Stuart pointed out are more than 80% leftists.


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