Wednesday, October 05, 2005

This is no liberal media bias

Posted by BW

Two quick disclaimers. First, I am not a liberal. The word means something a bit different here in Canada anyways. I'm sure I would be labelled a liberal if I lived in the States, assuming I wasn't labelled an out-and-out Commie. A liberal in the classical sense is more of what today is called a libertarian. Small "l" liberals at their core believe in less government, less taxes, and more individual freedoms, which only by coincidence includes vigorous protection of *individual* human rights, and reject morality laws *only* because it is unnecessary state interference in the lives of citizens. A true liberal believes the only jobs of the government are law-and-order, and defense.

The "liberal" used by pundits in the US has come to mean "weak-chinned, public-funds-wasting, softie pinko commie". It's a disrespectful label that I do not apply it to myself, nor is it an issue in my country, where "The Liberal Party" is the government, and is committed to most of those individual ideals, as well as cutting budgets, cutting taxes and reducing wasteful (and useful) public spending (except pork,graft and patronage which all governments seems to love). Most on the left prefer to call themselves progressives, but many choose other names/labels as "the left" is not one big group but a bunch of groups with often competing issues and interests. In North America few are even prepared to call themselves "social democrats" as Europeans do, because years of anti-communism and witch hunts in the 50s and early 60s have confused socialism with communism, and communism with Stalinism and Maoism.

Second disclaimer is, I'm not an American. I do not believe Canadians should refer to Mr. Bush as "The President". We are our own country. Besides, most Americans who even know who or what our head of state is (and sadly huge number of Americans don't know) do not refer to Mr. Martin as "The Prime Minister". So for the most part when I post, I put "George Bush" or "Mr. Bush" or even "Bush". I do not mean any disrespect, if I were an American I would give him his due as "The President" even though I don't have much use for the man or his administration, but as a Canadian I don't use that. I hope that doesn't offend anyone, but if it does suck it up.

Putting aside the label, I want to address the issue, often bandied about in the conservative media, of left wing or "liberal" media bias.

You see, the thing is, the MSM doesn't have a liberal media bias. It really doesn't. It has a sensational bias. Sure, some stations may be more left or right than others, but TBH Clear Channel and Fox News more than make up for whatever former hippies might live at CBS and NBC in my opinion. Regardless, the "sensational bias" (sometimes called "if it bleeds it leads" means that frigging anything to do with Iraq will be BIG news so long as it's the major centre of deployment for the US, and as long as its still pretty hot. Heck, even in Canada we get more reports about Iraq than Afghanistan, which is nuts since we have lots of Canuck boots on the ground in Afghanistan and none in Iraq (officially at least, who knows where JTF2, our own small 'Delta Force,' is right now, no one is allowed to say). It's also why a big VBIED with civilian fatalities makes more news than the Iraqi constitutional process, despite the constitution obviously of more long term importance (and admittedly being a "good news for the right" story so long as it continues to progress without stalling).

I've been reading a lot of milblogs (being from a family with proud military traditions, although all civilians now since VJ day) and I've found that the myth of the "liberal bias" in the media is strong among the service members (at least the ones who blog). But again, those media ppl aren't doing "the left" any favours either, and never have. The MSM covered Abu Graib because it was sensational, had some sexual undertones, and had disturbing pictures. They do the same in Guantanamo in part for the same reasons but more importantly because even they have to admit that the rules of war are being pretty blatantly (and perhaps ineffectually) flaunted in that place. And of course because its very controversial and thus sensational and thus "leads". They don't always cover it though. In one of the websites I link to below, they note there is a long term hunger strike on at Gitmo (sp?) that nobody in the MSM is talking about right now. It claims the prisoners are being force fed to avoid the first starvation fatality, which would of course qualify for "it bleeds it leads" and put whatever innocent victim/hardened terrorist as front page sympathetic news. If true, it would be the smartest thing the commander there can do. If none of them die, nobody will care and the MSM will spend no time on it. Look at how Bobby Sands got turned from an internationally ignored IRA terrorist into an adored martyr just by starving himself to death.

The MSM don't cover the things people on the left are concerned about. They don't report on a regular basis about honour killings in Saudi Arabia or Jordan. They don't report about the persecution of Christians in Pakistan and parts of southeast Asia. They don't report on the human rights abuses of many central or right of centre governments in South and Central America. The don't report (usually) on the biggest humanitarian crises going on around the world, unless Bono holds a concert or an remarkable number of people die in one day. They don't report the negative impacts of tax cuts in a nation with both a big deficit and a big debt.

Honestly, if you talk to any person left-of-centre and they level with you, they ALSO feel the media is biased, and usually think it is a "right wing bias". Conservatives/Republicans ask "where is all the good news in Iraq on the news" or "why did the pro-war/pro-bush counterdemonstration only get 1/10 of the media coverage". Progressives/leftists/commies (call us what you will) say "why do they only cover the rowdiest or stupidest asshats at any demonstration, and leave out the majority of us that marched peacefully, sang songs and yelled a bit" or "how come when we had 20,000 people in our demonstration and there were 60 people at the counter-demonstration, they still got 10% of the coverage with only 0.15% of the people?".

We could probably debate the "liberal media bias" issue for awhile, because I'm definitely not done. Suffice it to say that while conservative commentators call MSM "the liberal media", progressive commentators call it "the corporate media". It's something we all agree on, for different reasons. Those significantly far from the imaginary "center" totally distrust the MSM. For an example of how little one NGO thinks of the MSM, see here.

So, to date my points are that the MSM haven't covered progressive activist groups concerns about Iraq adequately, any more than they've covered their concerns about other places adequately. And that the MSM, and especially the conservative MSM owned by Rupert Murdoch, do not do "the left" any more favours than they do the right, and sometimes less.

For those of you who are more on the right and simply trust the evidence of your eyes, you probably need to read some *real* left stuff to get a better idea.

So go to Mother Jones and The Nation, just looking on their front pages, stuff you never hear about on the network news. There is even an article lambasting the NYT (darling of those who want to point out liberal media bias) for a story that appears to have been twisted and bent to suggest highly educated women really do want nothing more than to do stay-at-home mothers and dream of the day they can be, an issue near-and-dear to the hearts of conservatives and a big "we don't wanna talk about it" issue for most of the left.

Even Move On, although a huge machine to try to influence the media, still has 1/2 their campaigns totally obscure if you count off the list. Maybe they get even 1/2 because they've got a lot of pull with the media, or perhaps they just strategically (and perhaps cynically) focus their campaigns on stuff that is already being covered by the MSM so they can try to get their message across on an issue they don't have to force onto the table.

For NGOs that feel ignored 99% of the time by the MSM, go to AI, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, NOW, you name it.

I won't even get into the race issue in any depth but I'll tell you that I've never heard a discussion of media and race that didn't observe (often with lovely examples and references) that for every time the MSM covers racism as a problem, there are many more stories that focus on racial minorities in the context of crime, and linking them to crime.

So I will say this. Most of the MSM press does NOT lead, or often report at all, stories near to the heart of leftist and progressive NGOs. Some on the left in fact feel there is a bias towards the right, based on corporate ownership of the major media by the rich, and in some cases the very conservative (this is Murdoch again).

I'm not going to make that argument. I am however making the argument that while some *stories* in the MSM favour a position also favoured by the left, overall the majority of the MSM seems to represent the views of neither the right nor the left.

Personally, I think they represent the views of nobody most of the time. They are in the business of selling commercials and product placements. They will cover a story that will bring in the most viewers. If they can get live tape of a fatal train wreck, that's the story. If they can get scandalous photos of naked prisoners with a female soldier present, they'll publish that and then go on about it for weeks so long as they have an excuse to keep showing those photos. If they can get a story on a US President with *some* (and only some) left tendencies and a tendency to adultery, they'll go with that and not care if it kills his ability to govern so long as they can show a semen-stained dress and show the mildly attractive, but chubby young lady over and over again while using various euphemisms to discuss quickie fellatio.

But nobody gets their good news published, and nobody (much) gets their issues addressed by the mainstream media unless it is somehow sensational or likely to provoke controversy.

For me the saddest part of the growing polarization of right and left is exactly the kind of thing the MSM likes (and my paranoid conspiracy-theorist brain suspects they feed). They don't want to cover a constructive discussion. Hell, they don't even want to cover a respectful debate. They want insults, cutting remarks, yelling if possible and blood if its at all available. If it bleeds, it leads.


Dadmanly's Response:

I think there is liberal bias in many publications, on many editorial and news staffs, but I nevertheless do think that much that is derided as biased towards liberal points of view is, as BW suggests, biased towards the sensational.

"If it bleeds, it ledes." (For all those not versed in Journalist jargon, the opening paragraph of a story is its lede.)

I have seen similar tendencies among my Intelligence Analysts, which I commented on elsewhere in Patterns of Analysis. So I am prepared to acknowledge that much of the impetus for stories and editorial selection is certainly often based on considerations financial rather than ideological. But that only carries us back to the point just so far.

Last objections first, let me somewhat discount the disgruntlement of the higher echelons of non-governmental organizations (NGO). Many of the more prominent NGOs are dissatisfied with "corporate media" (and corporate it most certainly is), all well and good. Major media outlets do not cover all the topics of interest to them, nor do they cater particularly to their priorities. If I have multiple NGOs, and they each chase after different (socialist or progressive agenda) rabbits, does that mean they are in opposition to each other? Of course not, they seek different rabbits, but they share the same philosophy.

In and of itself, that NGOs are not wholely (or even somewhat) satisfied with corporate media does not negate the possible liberal bias of these organizations. They may still be fellow travelers, just lazy or poorly informed or lousy researchers. And of course, as relatively well-compensated members of society in inverse proportion to effort or exertion, they are going to have middle, upper middle, and upper class biases as well, and these may blind them to certain issues more important to the lumpen proleteriat. They still might be biased towards liberal positions and against conservative ones.

For MILBLOGGERS, liberal bias is no myth, they experience it firsthand. And it goes way beyond the "if it bleeds" formulation. They read press accounts that use subjective terms that color the way subjects are reported. Scare quotes, terms heavily laden with history or meaning, and outright distortion of facts on the ground by how a story is reported. This is widespread, evidenced most notoriously by Reuters, but almost as often by the Associated Press. The NY Times does a fair bit of it, as does the LA Times, I'm not sure the history of the Canadian press.

Here's how it works. Mnay news organizations won't use the word "terrorist" to describe someone who intentionally targets civilians, children, women, etc. They will use "rebels" or the preferred "insurgent." What if 90% of these fighters are foreign interlopers? Doesn't that make the term insurgent somewhat (or very) inaccurate? Subjective phrases or non-facts (even impossible to verify "environmentals"), get inserted in the story. This is where the reporter (in a straight news story for God's sake) says something like, "Growing more and more desperate to reverse public opinion, Leader X announced today..." If you can't prove an assertion objectively, you can't disprove it either, an that makes such fuzzy descroiptions of mood, or alluding to mental or emotional states, completely inappropriate.

While 30 years ago, this kind of subjective fluff got edited out of stories -- I know this from first hand experience -- it is pervasive today. This technique is over used particularly by AP reporters, those anonymous hacks who toil away at reporting for a very wide audience but with little visiblity. (Is that why?). Many smaller papers can't really afraid reporting staffs, and print that crap verbatim from the AP news feed.

You could catalog this stuff all day long. Subjective and editorial comments inserted in news reports. Selective presentation of facts. Omission of known information that would create a more balanced impression. It goes way beyond just going for the sensational, and those of us hungry for news from Iraq see it all the time. I tell you what. I will keep in a sidebar a list of examples. I will be willing to wager that in one month's time I come up with over a dozen examples of major news stories, AP, NY Times, etc., where such comments have been inserted.

Next technique is to willfully hire "stringers" who actually work in concert with foreign jihadists. This used to be true only of Al Jazeera types, but now major news networks like CBS have been caught cozying up to our enemies, and allowing them to "stage" photographs, lie in wait for ambushes, and essentially function as before- and after-the-fact accomplices to attacks against Coalition forces. This is bias, as well as completely unethical.

And I don't completely buy the "if it bleeds" schtick either. I have a feeling our new book will be a runaway bestseller, precisely because big "corporate media" doesn't realize how hungry the American public is for positive, uplifting, patriotic, and energetically pro-American stories and reporting.

What's it like in Canada? Is it possible that Canadians would like to hear mnore positive stories about Canada, and the fine work the Canadian military is doing?

Links: Basil's Blog, RightWingNation, Mudville Gazette, bRight & Early

BW rebuttal

Okay, first off, the full response by me was huge, so I posted it on a new Blog for those who care or are bored enough to read it all.

Right, so I’m going to keep to numbered points in an effort to be brief.

1. Thanks for the correction on “lede” .
2. I think you made too quick work of the NGO section. I definitely disagree that all NGOs share the same philosophy. Development-oriented NGOs routinely piss off Greenpeace and vice versa. As for the suggestion that “the liberal media” might cover NGOs poorly only by accident and only out of being incompetent, that’s really a stretch. The MSM is very good at what they do, which is keeping our attention, selling commerical time and making money. They cherry pick stories from NGOs too consistently based on topicality and controversy for me to accept that is all a co-incidence. Especially the bad researcher idea. The MSM dig up a two year old report on the AI website on human rights abuses by US troops IF it fits their story, but then ignore the front-page stories about Africa, etc on that web site? Lazy MSMers would be publishing the front page stuff AI or HRW is really focussed on…
3. What is the MSM? I find myself being brought to task on this topic for a couple of newspapers everyone knows are more left-learning by US standards. I have a long discussion on newspapers on my new main blog, but suffice it to say, in most markets people have a conservative and a less-conservative option at the very least, and either they are both mainstream and should be equally judged or are both biased and should be left from the discussion.
4. What is liberalism? Again, I’m stuck on the word. What Americans seem to think of as left-wing is often centrist or centre left opinion in much of the rest of the Western world. The very idea that socialized medicine (just as an example) is a leftist position would get people all over the world collapsing in laughter.
5. As for selective wordings, ect by the media in general (I leave print media to a looong discussion at BWviews , I have to say that your points are based largely on print media and based on your own perceptions. Which is fine, but bare in mind that others looking at other articles see the lack of fairness to left views. Discussing domestic political discussions especially this is striking, tax cuts and supply side economics as a key example. Overall I stand by my point that most biased journalism including clearly biased newspapers on both sides, go for drama, controversy and conflict at the expense of facts.
6. If you’re going to keep me a sidebar of examples, give me more than just a few known leftish papers. AP would be excellent. It might also be nice if while you’re scanning for bad ones, take note of how many relating to the war don’t seem especially biased, or even those you like.
7. On the topic of “terrorist” vs. “insurgent” I beat this to death on my longer post in the new blog. Basically though, I feel “rebel” and “insurgent” are fair to use, “freedom fighter” isn’t ever, “terrorist” is only if the person or group has a history or stated goal or TARGETTING civilians or makes an attack that can’t reasonably be considered to have military value. You cannot call people terrorists if their actions are targeted at military or government targets and cause “collateral damage” equivalent to the damage that would be done by using a tank main gun on an apartment unit, directly a Spectre gunship onto a legit target in an otherwise somewhat populated area or firing a 50 cal into a speeding car.
8. Perhaps it might be fun to pick a news article each from MSM sources of our choice, and each of us look for right and left wing bias. I could pick the right wing, you could pick the left? I bet we find supports for our own arguments in both :P


At 8:35 AM, Blogger dadmanly said...


Thanks for joining up!

Liberal Bias sounds like an excellent place to start. I'd like to offer you first serve, unless you;d rather I start.

Also, I noticed an extended comment on my recent post on the Hitchens article; feel free to cut and paste highlights of that as a separate post if you'd like and we can kick that around as well.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger BW said...

I have stolen extensively from my e-mail to you for the liberal media bias bit, so I'll leave the Hitchens bit as a comment for the moment :P

Sorry for the long post. I get going on something and...

At 5:29 PM, Blogger Sisyphus said...

I'm bored with the "liberal media" bias canard. It's useless to me as a means to understand or analyze news.

I do recommend the following:

Media / Political Bias

A PressThink sampler on the matter of “media bias.”

- The View from Nowhere: “Is ABC the most anti-war network? Ridiculous, says Peter Jennings. And it is… to him.” (Sep. 18, 2003)

- Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, Part One: “Denouncing bias in the media has become a dumb instrument. The cases keep coming. The charges keep flying. Often the subject—journalism—disappears.” (Oct. 24, 2003)

- Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, Part Two: “The charges keep flying. But often the subject—journalism—disappears. Now there’s a Party of Peace in the bias wars. They favor perspective, and they’re telling us something.” (Oct. 25, 2003)

- The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: “The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. The press has every reason to keep reporting aggressively on the investigation of Abu Ghraib. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?” (May 26, 2004)

- The Abyss of Observation Alone: “You should have answered,” the sniper says to the correspondent. “You could have saved one.” (March 1, 2005)

- “When I’m Reporting, I am a Citizen of the World.” “That’s a quote from CNN’s Bob Franken. A tour through his press think shows why I ask the Big Journalism Deans: if schools like yours are supposed to spread the gospel, how do they know they have the religion right?” (June 10, 2005)

At 2:49 AM, Blogger Daniel Levesque said...

Liberal bias doesn't just refer to the stories that are presented, but how they are presented. You mentioned Iraq, here's an example. When we first toppled Saddam everyone in the MSM was ranting about how the utilities didn't work well if at all and blamed America for it. They staunchly refused to show multiple interviews with Iraqis who stated fla tout that the utilities were working exactly the same way they had before the war and didn't understand what all the hoopla was about.
I could list an interminable number of examples, but I like this one in particular. It shows how the MSM lined with the Loony Left to conspire against the war and make it look like a failure.

At 3:38 AM, Blogger dadmanly said...


Thanks for the links, some I had seen, most I had not. Very nice summary of counterpoint to our discussion.

Glad to have you stop by, it's been a while. Appreciate the interest and feedback.

At 7:51 AM, Blogger Sisyphus said...


Debate Space is a great effort and I apologize for not being a more active participant.

Every news story is biased. Every sentence and phrase contains bias. Language is not neutral.

What bothers me even more is that news is often wrong, either based on, or containing rumors and errors in fact.

By better understanding the motives of journalists and the layers of editors a story passes through before publication/broadcast, I think we can be better consumers/subjects/watchdogs of the news.

"Liberal media" doesn't do it.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger BW said...

Doh. First thing I wanted to go on about, and evidently the subject is a dead horse :(

/me walks away weeping in shame


At 2:03 PM, Blogger dadmanly said...


While Sisyphus makes very valid points, that doesn't mean that our discussion of bias in the media isn't at least a part of being "consumers/subjects/watchdogs of the news."

So I wouldn't give up the conversation just yet. Let me read your entire response.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger BW said...

"By better understanding the motives of journalists and the layers of editors a story passes through before publication/broadcast, I think we can be better consumers/subjects/watchdogs of the news.

"Liberal media" doesn't do it."

I loved this comment by the way. I am concerned that most people believe most of what they see and hear on TV. I have developed that fear from *talking* to a lot, lot, lot of people in my job. I think especially those who did not learn critical thinking skills in school or at home are especially vulnerable.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger BW said...

BTW Sisyphus, thanks for those PressThink links. I've added that site to my "read while I should be working on paperwork" list of tabs :)


At 3:01 PM, Blogger BW said...

Just in case people were too lazy read the links:

"The Right: You creep, Jennings. You’re just a shill for the anti-war left, like the rest of them. They did a study that proves it.
The Left: You creep Jennings. You’re cheerleading for the war, like the rest of them. The people who study it have proved it.
Jennings: We’re journalists, not ideologues. We try to play it straight down the middle.
The Right: Screw you, Peter Jennings.
The Left: Yeah, screw you.
Jennings: No serious observer thinks we’re left or right in our approach to covering the news.
The Left: You think we’re not serious? Where are all the stories on Halliburton, Peter?
The Right: Why don’t you cover what’s going right for the military in Iraq? Because it doesn’t fit your agenda!
Jennings: Actually we’ve covered those stories on World News Tonight and even gone back to them. Maybe not as much as you would like, or with the spin you would put…
The Right: Spin? Like I’m spin and you’re not?
Jennings: I think there’s a big misconception here about how journalists work.
The Left: Staight down the middle with this, Jennings."

This, THIS I agree with :P


At 6:07 PM, Anonymous rightwingprof said...

The argument seems to be because the media are not *as* leftist as you perceive leftists to be, or many leftists, and because you are positing a sensationalist bias, there is no liberal bias in the media.

Forgive me, but liberal bias is so easily demonstrable that the mere suggestion that it doesn't exist does nothing more than reveal someone to be somewhere to the left of Stalin.

But I will agree that there is indeed a sensationalist bias in the media, in addition to an anti-military, liberal bias. There is also the watergate factor, that starry eyed young things have entered journalism to "make a difference" and bring down the president, instead of report the news.

But no liberal bias? Please! You might as well argue that the earth is flat!

At 7:39 AM, Blogger BW said...

Y'know rightwingprof, you said its easily demonstrable, but from all the discussion here I'm not seeing where and how.

To say that one can find examples from one media outlet or another that then prove the larger argument isn't proof at all. You go ahead and post some articles from the NYT, I'll post some from foxnews. We could both prove our points all day if we spent it all looking to find proof for our own side.

As for the implication that I'm left of Stalin, let's not start making comparisons to polical figures on the left or right whose main claim to fame was not their policies or politics but their tendency to kill millions. The right has their share of body stacks to account for but I'm not comparing anyone who posts here to Hitler so let's just leave that sort of cheap shot alone shall we?


At 12:34 PM, Blogger Sisyphus said...

dadmanly & BW,

Thanks for favorably receiving my comment and links.

Second, I do think there is bias in the media and debating it is worthwhile. I think the strongest bias in the media is the narrative bias.

This is especially strong given the herding, or flocking, of how news is presented from wire stories. That narrative bias may coincide with a political ideological stance.

It's the herding/flocking that often bothers me most.

For example, if you find this worth further debate ...

The AP-Reuters-NY-DC-LA-Atlanta axis creates a consensus narrative without critical analysis.

Even the FNC-UPI/WashTimes-NYPost genre doesn't often fall far from the consensus.

The BBC-CBC-NPR-PBS wing has their own bias born from anti-competitive tax subsidies and grants.

Bias. Bias. Bias.

At 6:04 PM, Blogger Steve Robinson said...

Re: the turn of phrase "if it bleeds", in everyday expression, has always been formulated as "if it bleeds, it leads."

While 'lede' is the appropriate journalistic term-of-art for the first paragraph of a news story (among other meanings), it isn't used in verb form.

At 7:06 PM, Blogger Synova said...

I think that the single thing that convinces me that the charges of liberal bias are overblown is hearing the left complain that the main networks are conservative hacks. The dialog with Jennings that BW copied to the comments was so funny because I've seen it.

My main problem with the media is the idea of balancing a story. Life isn't always balanced. Sometimes things really are going badly. Sometimes things really are going well. It's not helpful to insist on balancing good news with bad or bad news with good or a widespread opinion with the opinion of some crackpot.

My other problem is that I don't trust reporters or editors to know the difference between what is relevant and irrelevant. The guard memo story proved this for me. Even if the whole story were legit, it wasn't important. That Mapes and Rather thought it was important was more significant to me than the fact that the memos were forged. The demonstrated lack of judgement makes bias a secondary concern.

Lastly, I've had an article I wrote edited by a friend with a Journalism degree. I was happy enough with the editing but it was an eye opener. She's a verb freak. No ordinary verb with do. We need active, powerful, verbs to make our writing spark and sparkle. The experience made me look at all reporting differently. If the journalists had the same training as my friend it would explain a lot.


Post a Comment

<< Home