The propaganda machine-13: Why journalists perpetuate the myth of a liberal media

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Even a casual glance at the ownership structure of the media should be enough to dispel the notion that the media are ‘liberal’ in any meaningful sense. As for the owners, Robert McChesney writes in The Problem of the Media (2003):

Many prominent media moguls are rock-ribbed conservatives such as Rupert Murdoch, John Malone, former GE CEO Jack Welch, and Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays. Although some media executives and owners donate money to Democrats, none of the major news media owners is anything close to a left-winger. Journalists who praise corporations and commercialism will obviously be held in higher regard (and given more slack) by owners and advertisers than journalists who are routinely critical of them. Media owners do not want their own economic interests or policies criticized. (p. 115)

The true colors of the media were on open display during the run up to the war in Iraq. The progressive Phil Donahue had his show cancelled by MSNBC in February 2003 despite being their highest rated show at that time. Even before that, Donahue had been tightly controlled by his bosses and told that he had to have two conservative guests for every liberal one.

Of course MSNBC is owned by General Electric, and since wars are always good for GE, they were not anxious to have a war critic like Donahue given too visible a platform. Similarly ABC is owned by Disney, CBS by Viacom, and Fox by NewsCorp. The main news program on PBS, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is also underwritten by big corporations. Can we really expect any serious unbiased reporting on the power of corporations by such institutions?

Meanwhile, infantile right wing talk show hosts like Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, and John Gibson continued to have their shows on TV for long periods despite their low ratings. The last two only recently were cancelled.

One also has to distinguish to some extent between the real powers, which are the owners of the media and are behind the scenes, and the public faces of the media that consists of the journalists whose faces and bylines we are familiar with. Since the major media is located in urban centers, even though their employees are an integral part of the pro-business/pro-war Villager group, they also tend to be urban sophisticates and thus may be liberal on a few social issues such as gay rights and abortion, and are not likely to be rapture-ready fundamentalist Christians. These features are enough to make the right-wing charge of a ‘liberal’ media plausible in the public’s eye.

Of course, it is not possible for the journalists employed by the corporate media to completely ignore the fundamental nature of corporate control of the media. But that situation is finessed by channeling the discussion away from issue of ownership, class, and privilege to a fake populism that panders to and fans the flames of division that do not impinge on the privileges of big business. Hence topics such as race, religion, and sexuality are readily seized on as they appeal to visceral feelings. When people are all fired up about these side issues, they have little energy left to ponder why the gap between the extremely wealthy and them is getting larger by the day, and why the media dwells obsessively on the health of the stock market and other Wall Street interests at the expense of covering (say) labor issues or the lack of access to adequate health care.

McChesney discusses this sleight of hand that diverts people’s attention away from the real issues:

At its most effective, the conservative critique plays off the elitism inherent to professionalism and to liberalism. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the populist airs of the conservative criticism are strictly for show, as they tend to collapse as soon as class – the one unmentionable term in the conservative lexicon – is introduced. In fact, many right-wingers who swear allegiance to the working class hark from well-to-do families and oppose traditional policies to improve the conditions of the working class, even trade unions. The same conservative pundits and politicians who wrap themselves in the military and fire the starting gun at NASCAR races typically dodged the draft themselves, like most other upper-middle class and rich folk. And the same upper-class conservative pundits who galvanize working-class Christians to support right-wing politics with thunderous moral pronouncements sometimes turn out to be liars, philanderers, drug users, and chronic gamblers. (p. 113)

Why are these obvious contradictions not pointed out by journalists? Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (who once worked within mainstream media and has seen how it operates from the inside) made the interesting observation about the how media censors itself to produce mainly a right wing viewpoint.

So much of the imbalance and shallowness of press coverage today stems from a simple fact: reporters know they’ll catch hell from the right if they say or write anything that can even remotely be construed as representing ‘liberal bias’. (Often even that’s not required.) Indeed, when you actually watch — from the inside — how mainstream newsrooms work, it is really not too much to say that they operate on two guiding principles: reporting the facts and avoiding impressions of ‘liberal bias’.

Marshall says that the arrival of the internet and of bloggers has enabled a better sense of balance, because now there is an avenue for a wider group of people to make their displeasure known when the media acts in a way that is seen as biased or partisan. It is now possible for people without deep pockets to provide at least some countervailing pressure on the Villagers.

On the left or center-left, until very recently, there’s simply never been an organized chorus of people ready to take the Howells of the press biz to task and mau-mau them when they get a key fact wrong. Without that, the world of political news was like an NBA game where one side played the refs hard and had roaring seats of fans while the other never made a peep. With that sort of structural imbalance, shoddy scorekeeping and cowed, and eventually compliant, refs are inevitable.

You would think that the journalists themselves would loudly defend their independence and assert that they are just doing journalism, not bending to ideological winds. But interestingly, the journalists seem to be some of the perpetuators of the myth that the media has a liberal bias. Why is this? McChesney points out the interesting fact that that it is to the advantage of journalists to propagate the myth of a liberal media, because it actually puts them in a good light.

In fact, it is hardly surprising that the conservative critique of the media is so prominent – given that this myth is cultivated to some extent by the so-called liberal media themselves. The conservative critique is in some respects the “official opposition” cultivated by professional journalism itself because in a sense journalists have to be viewed as “liberals,” fiercely independent and out of step with their corporate owners, for the system to have any credibility. Were journalists seen as cravenly bowing before wealth and privilege, journalism would lose credibility as an autonomous democratic force. After all, the quest for autonomy played a significant role in the development of professional journalism in the first place. The conservative critique is also rather flattering to journalists; it says to them: you have all the power but you use the power to advance the interests of the poor and minorities and environmentalists (or government bureaucrats and liberal elitists) rather than the interests of corporations and the military (or Middle America). A political economic critique, which suggests that journalists have much less power and are too often the pawns of forces that make them agents of the status quo, is much less flattering and almost invisible. (When the “left” critique is on rare occasion presented in mainstream media, one suspects it is included so journalists can claim they are being attacked from both sides and therefore must be neutral, nonpartisan, and straight down the middle.) (p. 114)

Next: Back to the third tier pundits.


  1. says

    Thanks, Brian.

    That was a very informative article, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. The cozy relationship between journalists who trade access for favorable coverage goes much deeper than with retired military people.

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