How come we don't hear about 'conservative media bias'?

Tom Schaller says supposed liberal slants and rampant political correctness in the news are red herrings

March 05, 2013|Thomas F. Schaller

Liberal media bias.

So incessant is this complaint from conservatives that the three words string together as one, like Holy Roman Empire. But like the old saw about that infamous regime being neither holy nor Roman nor an empire, liberal media bias is largely a misnomer.

Yes: The opinion media generally skew liberal on social issues related to abortion, gay rights, religion and maybe — maybe — guns. But that's about the extent of it.

On issues of war and peace, taxes and spending and government regulation, the corporate-owned American media are frequently anything but liberal. Of course, avowedly liberal confines such as The Nation or The American Prospect magazines, left-wing blogs, or the superb MSNBC weekend shows hosted by Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry regularly feature reports or commentaries about American poverty, homelessness, economic inequality, prison conditions, child welfare or domestic violence. But across the nation, mainstream coverage of such issues tends to be spotty.

Why? Because producers know Americans don't want to have to think about reportage on these national problems. Sordid stories about the Kardashians sell magazines and draw eyes and ears to radio, TV and the Internet far better than do sordid tales of bereft orphans.

Take the supposed problem of political correctness in the media, yet another red (or Red America) herring. The positive portrayals of gay Americans in the news — or in movies, television shows like "Modern Family" or the clever new Kindle ad where a gay man and a straight woman both mention their husbands — aren't evidence of a politically correct bias. They're evidence of profit-correctness by publishers and producers who know gay Americans are consumers, too.

As Eric Alterman has demonstrated in his book "What Liberal Media?" conservative think thanks, which are responsible for much newspaper opinion content, are far better funded than their liberal counterparts. Anyone who thinks the interests of corporate America are muted in our media needs a reality check.

Meanwhile, we almost never hear about conservative media bias. It's very real.

Last week came news of a pack of conservative pundits, led by Joshua Trevino and including writers for Commentary magazine and the Red State blog, who took nearly $400,000 to advocate on behalf of the government of Malaysia. Keep this in mind next time any of these foreign government water-carriers say liberals are insufficiently patriotic. (At least in the case of the conservative columnist Armstrong Williams, the sources for the payola he took during George W. Bush's presidency to write favorable columns about national education policy were domestic.)

And how about the cozy relationship between Fox News Channel and top Republican presidential contenders? In recent years, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum have all been on Fox's revolving-door payroll. There's nothing illegal or even unethical about this, but it reeks of network-party incest.

Syndicated conservative columnists dominate op-ed pages nationwide. A few years ago, Media Matters for America conducted a survey of American daily papers. MMFA found that 60 percent of papers ran more conservative columnists than liberal columnists and 20 percent ran more liberals than conservatives, with the remaining 20 percent split.

Question: If the U.S. media are so bad, what sort of alternative might conservatives prefer?

I presume no self-respecting, First Amendment-revering American of any ideological stripe wants a state-run or state-censored media like those I've seen up close in China, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe. If conservative fury with National Public Radio is any indication, a state-funded but independent media like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or the British Broadcasting Corporation would be nearly as unacceptable.

The truth is that the ideal media structure for conservatives is one in which large, profit-oriented and politically powerful corporations own the broadcast and cable television networks, the major newspapers (The Wall Street Journal boasts the nation's largest circulation) and newspaper chains, and broadcast radio. And that's exactly what we have in America.

Yet the "liberal media bias" complaint persists. Conspiracy-minded conservatives should ask themselves: If liberals really owned and ran the media, why isn't "conservative media bias" the more common term in national politics?

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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