The assertion that the U.S. media has an inherently liberal bias is hardly a new one. From media figures to this year’s crop of Republican presidential candidates, we’ve heard it time and again — with the most recent installment manifesting itself in the form of GOP hopeful Rick Santorum’s outburst at Jeff Zeleny, a New York Times reporter. Many of us quickly pick a side; either the bias is obvious, or those complaining about it are delusional and trying to save face. But the media landscape in this country is a complex one, and thus siding with either extreme isn’t the right approach.
We have a range of news outlets, some of which are, of course, clearly biased. The arena this is most evident in is cable news. MSNBC and Fox News are two main networks that are generally pitted against each other, regardless of whether they admit it (though MSNBC has acknowledged that their shows after 3 p.m. are “point of view” shows). Then there are magazines. Again, there are straightforward ones like the The Week, and those that oppose each other (an example would be The Nation and The New Republic versus The American Spectator and The National Review). And then we come to newspapers and wires, the outlets that present hard news, and the debate is endless. Traditionally, you’d judge by their op-ed pages (for example, The New York Times versus The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), but I’m not so naïve as to think things haven’t changed. With the entrance of the infinite digital platform, most papers have more op-ed writers as well as blogs that cover topics ranging from politics and media to tech and food. But one blogger’s mistake, for example, doesn’t discredit the entire organization that blogger belongs to.
Everyone has a point of view, but not everyone has a bias that bleeds into work. Are there individuals within organizations who can be biased, and instances that can be shown as examples of it? Yes. But to state that the media, in general, has a liberal bias is an over-generalization.
Of course, how (and whether) someone perceives a media bias is related to his or her own views. There’s something to be said for a person’s awareness of how an outlet leans. Those who are more familiar with, say, Rachel Maddow’s or Sean Hannity’s points of view will realize that they are hearing a story through that lens. An informed reader looking for political analysis with progressive slant will not go to a site like Big Journalism.
Frankly, it may be more constructive to focus on media issues like fostering more productive discussion of topics. Particularly on television, for example, we are served hearty helpings of sensationalist stories, but they aren’t always alongside real, informative analysis. While not always the case, it is true. An example a professor once gave me was the debate surrounding President Obama’s health care reform legislation (before it became law). Talk of death panels and hyperbolic comments made from both sides dominated headlines, while less attention was given to a straightforward discussion what the law actually said and how it would affect citizens. I’m not oblivious to factors like ratings, and I’m well aware a magazine cover about controversy sells more copies — but the point (which can be a separate debate entirely), I thought, was a valid one.
We could stand to gain from discussing these types of media issues. The media world is too messy, too full of grey areas to declare a definitive bias. To do so is an over-generalization and, in some cases, it can serve just as an easy scapegoat. Black-and-white conclusions are easy, but don’t accurately portray the reality.