The claim of bias in the American media is a common refrain in the rhetoric of the culture wars. The expectation that news reporting should be neutral and objective developed in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The question of whether the media should be, or even can be, unbiased has been intensely debated in recent decades. It is worth noting that accusations of media bias, while typically directed against political bias in news reporting, have also been directed against everything from sitcoms to cartoon strips to Hollywood films.
Right-wing critics of the media tend to identify journalists as the source of media bias. The rise in criticism of journalists as liberal elitists has coincided with the growing voice of populist conservatism in the United States. One formative event in this development was Reed Irvine's founding of the influential conservative watchdog organization Accuracy in Media (AIM) in 1969. That same year, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew described the media as home to “nattering nabobs of negativism.” More recently, conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, and others have repeated the criticism. According to Coulter in How to Talk to a Liberal (2004), the typical journalist has only one standard: “Will this story promote the left-wing agenda?” Bernard Goldberg's best-selling Bias (2002) argues that the personal views of journalists are overwhelmingly liberal, and that this gives a liberal shape to their news stories. Goldberg further contends that the media denigrate and marginalize religious belief and are to the left of mainstream America on topics such as abortion, the death penalty, and homosexuality. Conservatives argue that they have succeeded in attracting attention—and adherents—to their view because they reflect the perception of the broader American public.
Critics on the left have a different argument about media bias. Left-wing critics of the media tend to focus on the effects of economic power, especially the influence of corporate ownership and funding of the media. Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? (2003), a critical response to Bernard Goldberg, argues that while there is some merit to the charge that the media are liberal on social issues, there is clear conservative bias in the media when it comes to economic issues. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman argue in Manufacturing Consent (1988) that various systemic features of the media work to muffle or prevent the publication of stories that would harm the interests of major corporations. They argue that the dependence of mainstream media on advertising dollars limits the degree to which the media can criticize corporations. They also stress that major media outlets are themselves part of corporations—NBC, for example, is owned by General Electric.
Progressives argue that the idea of a liberal media is a conservative myth used to pressure journalists not to run stories that threaten those in power. One important institutional development for left-of-center media criticism was the founding of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog organization, in 1986. The visibility of left-wing criticism of mainstream media has grown considerably since 2000, with documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and Outfoxed (2004) receiving significant attention.
The form of media most commonly held under scrutiny is television news. Many conservative commentators hold that the nightly news shows of the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) display a strong liberal bias. Longtime CBS news anchor Dan Rather, in particular, was criticized by the right. The network most frequently singled out for criticism by liberal commentators is the Fox News Channel. Various other forms of media—e.g., National Public Radio, The New York Times, talk radio, and a wide assortment of other outlets—have been criticized as biased by those on the left and the right. In the early 2010s, the right spoke against mainstream media depictions of the conservative Tea Party movement as filled with racists.
With the advent of the Internet and social media, news is distributed at an incredible rate by an unprecedented number of different media outlets. How do we choose which news to consume? Damon Brown gives the inside scoop on how the opinions and facts (and sometimes non-facts) make their way into the news and how the smart reader can tell them apart.
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