Saturday, December 11, 2004

Commentary on the Media (Part II)

Background: This is the research paper I wrote for my Mass Communication Theory class. Somehow, I earned a 96 % on this paper. It's amazing considering the great number of grammatical and APA citation errors. Furthermore, I wrote this ten page paper in just over three hours the morning it was due.

Don't read this unless you have nothing better to do. If you really care about the topic of media and the perceived liberal bias, I wholeheartedly recommend you read Eric Alterman's "What Liberal Media?" It does a better job of explaining the situation than I ever could. I own a copy if anyone's interested.

Is There Really a Liberal Media?
By Taylor Sias
November 30, 2004

For years, the left and right have debated whether or not the media is slanted towards one particular ideology. The conservatives claim that outlets like the big three news channels, major national newspapers, and National Public Radio are consistently pushing a liberal agenda on the public. Liberals counter with claims that talk radio and the FOX News Channel are more blatantly conservative than any of the supposed liberal media outlets. Groups like the conservative “Media Research Council” and its liberal counterpart, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) have made their livings chronicling instances of alleged bias in news coverage. The evidence suggests that while liberals tend to be more prevalent in newsrooms, there is hardly a solid case in favor of bias. If anything, the news has become corporate and focuses more on making money rather than pushing any political ideology. In addition, claims of bias are likely the result of cognitive dissonance and selective retention on the part of those making the assertions.

A cognitive process called selective exposure is at play in the increasingly fragmented world of news consumption. According to University of Colorado’s Bob Craig (n.d.), selective exposure is “the tendency to avoid information inconsistent with one’s beliefs or attitudes.” Selective exposure follows Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance (p.4). Individuals on both sides of the political aisle practice this. For instance, conservatives proudly claim that FOX News is the most balanced news network. Recently, United States Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky was caught off-guard by a story coming out of Iraq. According to an article in the Courier-Journal (2004) newspaper of Lexington, Bunning said, “I don't watch the national news, and I don't read the paper. I haven't done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.”

In addition, those on the right tend to take the word of radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. This idea of cognitive dissonance and selective exposure isn’t exclusive to conservatives. Liberals have picked up on this and decided to create the Air America Radio Network in 2004. The network was founded to provide a home for liberals who were seeking a similar voice over the airwaves.

Instances of alleged bias can also be traced to selective retention. According to authors Werner J. Severin and James W. Tankard (2001), selective retention is “the tendency for the recall of information to be influenced by wants, needs, attitudes, and other psychological factors” (p.80). If one looks hard enough, it is easy to find one or two things that would lead them to reinforce their already formed judgment. It’s ironic that two groups of people can watch the identical program and come away with such varied opinions. In one hour of “Hardball with Chris Matthews”, the right comes away thinking Matthews is a left-wing shill while liberals categorize him a lackey for the Bush Administration.

Conservatives point to studies that suggest journalists identify themselves as more liberal than conservative. According to a Pew Research Group (2004) study taken in May 2004 found that 34 percent of journalists were liberal, compared to 7 percent who leaned conservative.

Joe Conason, author of “Big Lies” disputes the claim that the media is biased in favor of liberals. Conason (2003) recalled a 1995 quote from Bill Krystol, editor of the conservative publication “The Weekly Standard”. Krystol said, “The liberal media was never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures” (p. 34). Conason (2003) asserts that conservatives institutionally “work the refs”, so to speak (p.35). Conason (2003) points to a 1992 quote by Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). “There is some strategy to it (bashing the liberal media). I’m a coach of kids’ basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs’… Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack the next one” (p.35). Conason makes the point that conservatives have made an art of downplaying the importance of the so-called mainstream media.

Conason argues that conservatives and their wealthy contributors have created an extensive infrastructure with which to assail the liberal media. Conason (2003) writes, “Even more important than the inherent media bias in the favor of conservatives is the huge financial advantage lavished on right-wing propaganda over the past twenty years by major funders” (p.33). He’s referring to the numerous think tanks and conservative foundations that have been pivotal in publicizing the conservative message. Some of these groups include the Heritage Foundation and the economically libertarian Club for Growth. Conason (2003) continues, “Coordinating their expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, the directors of those four foundations (along with many others) have underwritten a formidable infrastructure of think tanks, magazines, publishing grants, media programming, and academic research, all of which promote conservative ideas” (p.34).

David Brock, author of “Blinded by the Right”, detailed the role of these groups in investigating the Clinton Administration. Brock discussed the Arkansas Project, an investigation that went into Clinton’s background in Arkansas. Brock (2002) said, “I also learned how, for all their seeming eccentricity on the right-wing fringe, the Arkansas Project gang – whether angry, greedy, or as it sometimes seemed to me even then, emotionally disturbed – was able to move the debate in Washington” (p.198).

Perhaps a more telling statistic relates to media ownership. There are a total of six major corporations that own the majority of the media outlets. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, they are Advance Publications, Disney, General Electric, News Corp., Time Warner, and Viacom. General Electric owns the television networks of NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, and Telemundo, along with a share of Vivendi Universal’s entertainment holdings. Jack Welsh, the Chief Executive Officer of General Electric, contributed to the 2000 Presidential run of George W. Bush along with the 1992 re-election campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush. In addition, Welsh gave a $4000 donation in 2004 to the Republican National Committee. It is arguable that Welsh’s political contributions mean far more than whether Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann voted for George W. Bush or Sen. John Kerry.

Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp., also made numerous campaign contributions to Republican candidates in 2004. News Corp., which owns FOX News and many media outlets worldwide, also has a share in the HarperCollins publishing company, which releases books. According to newsmeat.com, a website that tracks political contributions, Murdoch gave $2000 apiece to the Senate campaigns of John Thune (South Dakota), Doug Jones (California), Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), Jack Ryan (Illinois), and John McCain. His lone campaign contributions to Democrats was a $2000 donation to incumbent New York Senator Chuck Schumer. In addition, Murdoch gave $25,000 to the Republican National Committee in April 2004. Many on the left claim that the FOX News Channel is blatantly biased in favor of conservatives.

Many members of the FOX News Channel have ties to Republican campaigns and Administrations. CEO Roger Ailes was a chief campaign strategist for Bush/Quayle 1988. According to James Hall (2003) of the American Partisan, Tony Snow, who hosted the FOX Sunday morning program, was a speechwriter in the George H.W. Bush Administration.

Eric Alterman, author of the book “What Liberal Media?” further asserts that the media is predominantly corporate in nature. Alterman (2003) writes, “Consider the following: When AOL took over Time Warner, it also took over Warner Brothers Pictures, Morgan Creek, New Regency, Warner Brothers Animation, a partial stake in Savoy Pictures…” Alterman continues for ten more lines about the acquisitions made through this single acquisition (p.22). Alterman (2003) concluded, “The situation is not substantially different at Disney, Viacom, General Electric, the News Corporation, or Bertelsmann (p.23). The point of what the above listings, according to Alterman (2003), “is to illustrate the degree of potential conflict of interest for a journalist who seeks to tell the truth, according to the old New York Times slogan, ‘without fear of favor’ about not only any one of the companies its parent corporation may own, but also those with whom one of the companies may compete, or perhaps a public official or regulatory body that one of them may lobby, or even an employee at one of them with whom one of his superiors may be sleeping, or divorcing, or remarrying, or one of their competitors , or competitors’ lovers, ex-lovers, and so on” (p.23).

Alterman’s point contradicts the view that individual journalists have a great impact on what is covered. Those who disagree with the notion of a liberal media would assert that the editors and publishers, not assignment reporters, have more say on what makes it onto the air or into print.

Although many have certainly made claims, few have been able to make a clear case for bias in the media. According to the Everrette Dennis (1997), in an article published by American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), evidence of bias in coverage is lacking. “While the political affiliations and leanings of journalists hardly seem in doubt, there is no convincing evidence that journalists infect their stories — intentionally or otherwise — with their own political prejudices. While a few studies suggest such a link, most are the handiwork of right-leaning groups and critics whose research methods can’t withstand scrutiny.” ASNE would suggest that it’s the conservatives, not the media, who are biased in their studies.

Dennis (1997) says that traditional news values are more important than any single reporter’s biases. “The fact is that accuracy, impartiality and fairness are at the very core of the journalistic craft.” Rather being liberal, former New York Post editor Jerry Nachman said that if anything, reporters are anti-establishment and inherently skeptical of government. Nachman once asked the question, “When will people realize that the common theme in journalism is stories that prove again and again that government doesn’t work?”

Appearing biased is bad for business and goes against the media’s main motive of making money. According to Dennis (1997), “media organizations, as a profit-making businesses, naturally seek economies of scale, are responsive to the largest possible audience and are leery of upsetting any substantial segment of their potential audience.” Maintaining a liberal bias would be bad for the media, according to Dennis, because the country may in fact be trending conservative. “If all of this is true, news organizations would be shooting themselves in the foot by producing a politically-charged, left-leaning product certain to offend more than half their audience. Politically tainted journalism is simply bad business.”

The topic of media bias is one that is unlikely to go away. There is no shortage of individuals on both sides with an axe to grind. It surely pleased many on the right to see Dan Rather come under fire for his role in CBS’s “60 Minutes” story on Bush’s Texas Air National Guard (TANG) service. Rather’s tenure as anchor of CBS’s nightly news program will come to an end next year, as he announced his retirement in November 2004. The evidence shows that individual’s own biases in perception and retention are in large part responsible for claims of bias. The studies do support the claim that more journalists identify themselves as liberal than conservative. This does go against most national studies, which show more Americans identifying themselves as conservative. The main motive of the media is to make money. As long as the dollar is the bottom line, ideology will have little impact on what is seen on television, heard on the radio, or read in the newspaper.

Works Cited

Alterman, E. (2003). What Liberal Media?. New York: Basic Books

Brock, D. (2002). Blinded by the Right. New York: Crown Publishers

Conason, J. (2003). Big Lies (Thomas Dunne, Ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Craig, B. (n.d.) Selective Exposure. Retrieved November 24, 2004, from http://www.colorado.edu/communication/metadiscourses/Theory/dissonance/sld004.htm

Dennis, E. E. (1997, January 1). The liberal press? Liberal reporters, yes; liberal slant no! American Society of Newspaper Editors. Retrieved November 26, 2004, from http://www.asne.org/kiosk/editor/97.jan-feb/dennis1.htm

Hall, J. (2003, April 2). Fox News: Fairly Unbalanced. The American Partisan. Retrieved November 24, 2004, from http://www.americanpartisan.com/cols/2003/hall/qtr2/0402.htm

Loftus, T. (2004, October 22). Bunning Unaware of Iraq Story. The Courier-Journal.

Newsmeat.com. “Campaign Contributions of Rupert Murdoch”. Retrieved November 28, 2004, http://newsmeat.com/fec/bystate_detail.php?last=Murdoch&first=Rupert

Pew Study Finds Moderates, Liberals Dominate News Outlets. Editor and Publisher. Retrieved November 25, 2004 from http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000517184

Severin, W.J. & Tankard, J.W. (2001). Communication Theories. New York: Longman.

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