Mainstream media, or “lame stream” as Sarah Palin prefers it, came under increased attack during the presidential campaign, mostly among conservatives who railed against a perceived liberal tilt.
“It goes without saying that there is definitely media bias,” said Paul Ryan on the stump, claiming that most people in media “want a left-of-center president.” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly surmised that liberal bias in media gave President Obama a 3 or 4 percentage point boost, enough to have determined the outcome.
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 reporting.
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 and newspapers.
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 outlets don’t dig 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.
Peter Funt is a syndicated columnist and the long-time host of “Candid Camera.”