On Media Bias


By Joe Campbell
July 13th, 2009

There was a time when news organizations could pronounce the Conventional Wisdom of our society as a whole authoritatively. This Wisdom was not decided on by the media – but rather once it had reached a critical mass of acceptance among the media professionals, the political class, and the public at large, a news organization would close down the debate and declare it so. Before this point, various news organizations would be engaged in the battle for what was accepted as true and what was not. Pronouncing and explaining the Conventional Wisdom was the main focus of the biggest news organizations of the 1950s and 1960s. Time magazine, the New York Times, CBS News – all prided themselves on this. But there came moments when a news organization catalyzed opinion so suddenly, when they played a decisive role in creating the Conventional Wisdom. For example, when news organizations showed the images of the children with fire hoses turned on them – and vicious dogs – in Birmingham, the brutality of the oppression of black Americans was driven home. When Walter Cronkite declared “the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate” and that the war was “unwinnable,” Lyndon Johnson famously declared he had lost “Middle America.”

Right-wingers – seeing how the media had decisively affected the course of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam protests by influencing the Conventional Wisdom – began a deliberate campaign to undermine the media’s ability to play such a role again. They promulgated studies of media bias, promoted conservative media and commentary, opposed regulations ensuring the equal treatment of controversial subjects on public airwaves, and constantly repeated the talking points about a liberal media elite. By the 1980s, they had mainly succeeded in delegitimizing the mainstream news organizations in the eyes of conservatives, right-wingers, and Republicans – but independents and those towards the left continued to see these news organizations as legitimate.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that progressives, liberals, and Democrats, began to seriously question the legitimacy of these news organizations – as the Clinton witch hunt became frenzied. Most though just saw this whole episode as tawdry. They saw it reflecting badly on both the president and the news organizations who followed each revelation with tabloid-like zeal.

The real turning point came in the lead-up to the Iraq war, the success of Fox News with their Orwellian slogan, “We Report, You Decide,” and the election of 2004 – as Karl Rove and the Republicans attempted to influence those outside of their base with a deliberate strategy of manipulating the media. The last straw for many came in 2004 as Rove sought to discredit John Kerry by promoting the extreme allegations of a handful of Vietnam veterans who accused Kerry of faking his injuries. News organizations, wary of being branded “liberal” and adhering to standards of faux-objectivity, reported the story in their classic, unenlightening “he said, she said” style. What they did not report prominently was that many of these reporters had researched these allegations and came to the conclusion that Kerry’s Swift Boat attackers were wrong in their accusations. To report this truth would be to compromise their objectivity and take a side in a presidential campaign.

Liberals, progressives, and Democrats – seeing how these news organizations had been deliberately manipulated by Rove – began to realize the flaws in these news organizations and how they affected the public debate and the Conventional Wisdom. From this came the boom in the progressive blogosphere – some, like Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post focused on reporting from a progressive perspective; others, like the Daily Kos, MoveOn, and myDD on creating an online communities for progressives.

By the 2008 election, both Democrats and Republicans contested the Conventional Wisdom of the mainstream news organizations constantly – and partisans on both sides developed their own communities around their own set of agreed facts and opinions – creating their own “conventional wisdom.” It seemed that there was only one group left trusting the legitimacy of news organizations – independents.

[Image by Chris Seufert licensed under Creative Commons.]

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2 Responses to “On Media Bias”

  1. On Media Bias and Conventional Wisdom (cont.) - 2parse Says:

    […] wrote earlier about the history of major news organizations and Conventional Wisdom. It is important to acknowledge though that the role of the news organizations has rarely been more […]

  2. Sympathizing with AIG, Peace with Islamists, Senator Al Franken, Jay-Z, and the Newest Lost Generation - 2parse Says:

    […] worth the read. He makes a point that I have been ruminating about in a number of posts recently (here and here) – that: [J]ournalism is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the […]

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