|But what are today’s
mainstream media? The most popular news channel is Fox News; the most powerful
radio talk hosts are Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and among the Internet's
loudest information voices is The Drudge Report – all
severely conservative. In terms of audience and influence, these outlets are
about as mainstream as it gets.
Newspapers are certainly in the mainstream, but they’ve always been
divided politically, starting with two of the nation’s biggest dailies,
the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal New York Times. In the recent
election, the nation’s 100 largest papers split almost evenly in endorsements
for Obama and Romney. Romney even won more swing state newspaper endorsements,
24 to 15, according to analysis by the Poynter organization.
It seems reasonable to assume that any paper that endorsed Romney was not
likely to be simultaneously biased in favor of Obama. Yet, that is what some
conservatives seem to be suggesting.
Then there are legacy broadcast networks – specifically the news departments
of CBS, NBC and ABC, and their principal TV news anchors. Diane Sawyer of ABC
once worked for Richard Nixon; neither Brian Williams of NBC nor Scott Pelley
of CBS has ever dabbled in government or politics. In my view, having worked
for two of these companies, network news personnel actually bend over backwards – at
times too far – trying to avoid even a hint of bias. And having written
for the nation’s three largest papers, I conclude that most bias is confined
to the opinion pages, where it belongs.
However, the media landscape is changing in ways that do, indeed, involve
bias. It’s the overt posturing of Fox News Channel on the right, MSNBC
on the left, and dozens of opinion-based Internet sites serving both sides. What
these outlets share is an obsessive desire to protest each other’s slanted
Republicans tend to distrust media more than Democrats. According to Pew polling,
Republican respondents gave only two news sources high credibility ratings: Fox
News, and local TV news. Democrats gave high marks to a much longer list of broadcasters
Conservatives also tend to complain about a different sort of alleged bias:
the failure of large media outlets to fully investigate and expose malfeasance
by elected officials, specifically Democrats. Pundits on the right believe, for
instance, that media should have acted more aggressively to root out details
of the Obama administration’s handling of the embassy attack in Benghazi.
The fact is media don’t do as much digging as they should. But the primary
cause is cost-cutting that has led to closed bureaus, shrunken reporting staffs
and reduced budgets for investigative units. This is a serious problem, affecting
all consumers of news, but it’s not a matter of journalistic bias.
When it comes to actual bias, there’s significantly more of it in new
media than in legacy media. Meanwhile, the mainstream is gradually becoming a
collection of smaller streams – the most influential of which are divided
politically, and even lean toward the conservative side. It’s ironic that
protesting by conservatives over media bias is growing in direct proportion to
the emerging power of those on the right to shape media content.
Bias is inherent in all media to some degree. But in this day and age, to
say it exists on one side more than the other is the most biased view of all.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.