Just say ‘no’ to strong-media theory…

Jeff Jacoby counters the idea that the news media are turning right. Let’s see, if most reporters and editors are liberals, and most media outlets reaching the most readers and viewers are liberal, then this overwhelming liberal bias must affect how those readers and viewers act politically. Jacoby says:

The hard reality, though, is that the media’s few conservative institutional voices cannot hope to overpower the liberal bias that permeates the rest of the media. It is a simple matter of arithmetic. As Michael Kelly noted last week, Fox News Channel’s viewers add up to about 3 percent of the ABC-CBS-CNN-NBC-PBS news audience. The Washington Times has one-eighth the circulation of The Washington Post. In the media world, power comes from numbers.

And so does media bias. The national media are largely left-of-center because those who go into the national media are largely left-of-center. “Everybody knows that…there’s a heavy liberal persuasion among correspondents,” Walter Cronkite has said. Inevitably, that liberal persuasion colors reporters’ and editors’ work. How could it not? When everyone in the newsroom shares a liberal worldview, conservative opinions become easy to dismiss. The result is that on a host of topics from capital punishment to tax cuts, Big Media usually speaks with one voice.

Yes–a thousand times, yes–there tends to (generally) be a liberal ideological bias in the news media. This tendency, however, does not hold true across the entire media spectrum and over a wide range of local situations. Does this general tendency have anything to do with who populates the media? Perhaps. The causal relationship of this common-sense notion has yet to be proven. We have much better data on the structural biases of journalism–some of which help create ideological bias.

As recent history makes abundantly clear–even if we accept a pervasive liberal bias–that bias does not seem to have marginalized Republicans or conservatives over the past 50 years. So, I’m left to conclude that the bias is not strong and that average Americans are quite capable of making up their own minds based on the information they receive. Jacoby, consciously or not, accepts a strong-media/weak-auditor theory of mass media. This is a largely discredited theory because it does not take into account the complex contexts of individual political specialization.

Now, if you want to be worried about bias in the news media, be worried about the structural biases. These biases affect news coverage in predictable ways no matter what the ideological bias of the reporter or editor.

Finally, I want to (quickly) address an issue that deserves much attention and discussion: Why is it that journalism (and academia) attracts “liberals” (the quote marks indicate that this is a fuzzy term)? There is no simple answer. We may, however, begin an answer to it by observing that a critical press, that sees itself as a watchdog of government and a defender of the common man’s interests, is not a politically (classically) conservative notion. This image is an institutional (i.e. structural) creation.