Friday, 22 June 2012

Media bias: fact or fiction?

American mass media is under constant bombardment for its "liberal agenda". But how much of it is real, and how much is just smoke and mirrors? Fraser Doig investigates

The Republican Party finally has its ‘presumed’ presidential candidate. And Mitt Romney, who’s spent almost an entire year on the road promoting his campaign, only has the voters to thank. But wait, does he? With public outcry in the States over alleged media bias during the 2012 election campaign, did he win fairly? Or did he get by with a little help from his ‘friends’?

Governor Romney’s roots are in venture capitalism. His private equity firm Bain Capital has made him $250 million. It also claims co-ownership over Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner in the United States. It plays host to a number of politically conservative radio programmes such as the Rush Limbaugh Show, the Glenn Beck Program, the Sean Hannity Show, and Fox News Radio. His business also shares ownership of MSNBC’s parent company The Weather Channel. With this kind of power in his back pocket, you could be forgiven if you think that the odds are slightly stacked in his favour.

The notion that the press has abandoned its duty to act as ‘the fourth estate’ – a medium in which the general public is informed of the facts from a fair and balanced perspective – has tainted the journalistic profession since its conception. Historians have found that as far back as the 18th Century, publishers often served the interests of powerful social groups, and throughout the ages, the ­­­call for an unbiased media has been growing in intensity, particularly with our American neighbours.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution proclaims that all Americans, including the press have the right to freedom of speech. This is their constitutional right and, thus, cannot be taken away by any law made by Congress. Now of course, this right is imperative to the principles of democracy. In the words of the late, great Walter Cronkite, “A democracy ceases to be a democracy if its citizens do not participate in its governance.” But be warned – the act of feverishly flapping your gums with gung-ho enthusiasm can be a dangerous exploit.

To counter-balance the significant liberties the Constitution endows upon a potentially partisan media, the Society of Professional Journalists was established in 1909 by scholars from DePauw University, Indiana, with the sole intention to “promote and defend the First Amendment, encourage high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism, and promote and support diversity in journalism”. Their ‘Code of Ethics’ highlights virtues such as supporting the open exchange of views, even if you don’t agree with them, distinguishing between advocacy and journalism, and never allowing deliberate distortion of the truth. Although these are only voluntary guidelines, they are embraced by thousands of journalists throughout the United States, and there is expectancy for all journalists to abide by these ‘unofficial’ rules. But are they?

Not according to Bruce Ramsey of The Seattle Times, who believes that a biased media is inescapable.

“The profession as a whole can’t avoid it. Journalists have political opinions by the time they are at university, before they become journalists. The much-spoken-of liberal bias in the media derives from the longtime fact that most journalists in the mainstream media have political opinions that are somewhat to the left of the general public.”

A social scientific study into the ideological commitments of 238 journalists from America’s most influential news organisations concurs with this. The study titled ‘The Media Elite’, found that top journalists from ABC, CBS, The New York Times, Washington Post and other significant news outlets were predominantly Democrats, with 54 per cent of them describing their political leanings as left of center. 29 per cent professed that they were “middle of the road” and only 17 per cent claimed they were right of center. It concluded that coverage of controversial topics such as abortion and gay rights reflected the attitudes of the journalist reporting it, and the presence of political liberals in the newsroom pushed coverage in a liberal direction.

This “liberal agenda” that is so often used as ammunition by Republicans was a burning issue during the 2008 presidential election, when Republican candidate Senator John McCain chose Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. Her frequent on-air gaffes and traditionally conservative views served as ideal fodder for the so-called liberal media, which routinely chose to publish anti-Palin stories over positive ones. After her personal life was unearthed, the writing was on the wall. They slated her to such an extent that the original story of her becoming McCain’s running mate was lost in the throng of “Palinisms”, and the Republican Party were left with egg all over their face.

Was this fair? Depends on whom you ask. Republicans were furious with the media for their vilification of Sarah Palin, claiming that it was unjustified and inappropriate. Many liberals didn’t even try to deny it, with leading CNN news anchor Kathleen Parker admitting she “led” the character assassination of Palin, declaring that she was “out of her league”. Not quite “supporting the open exchange of views” now, is it?

photo: NPR
One of the most powerful weapons in a journalist’s arsenal is the language they use. Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting – a nonprofit watchdog group dedicated to promoting transparency in American elections, states that primary elections in the States, specifically those held in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, are held for the sole purpose of “culling down the field”.

“If a candidate “exceeds expectations” built by TV punditry, three things happen: TV pundits start the drumbeat, building public expectations about “inevitability” of the candidate who did “better than expected”. Donor money reroutes itself, pouring dollars into the newly inevitable candidate. Media then reports on the candidate’s prowess in fund raising, citing this newly found skill as reason to believe the candidate is even more inevitable.”

In the event of a candidate performing poorly in the primaries, Harris paints a very different picture of the media.

“If they receive fewer votes than “expected”, the media speculates repetitively on when they will drop out, funds dry up, the media cites weaker donations as evidence that the candidate cannot win, and the party begins pushing the candidate to get out of the way.”

This type of partisan reporting has been accepted as a necessity to serve the purpose of weeding out the less serious candidates and leaving a prime crop of “front runners”. But when leading candidates are being ostracised by the media, that’s when it starts to get messy.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul kick-started his presidential campaign in early 2011 with a string of landslide victories that went almost totally unreported by the media. Later on at the Ames straw poll, some channels flat out ignored his impressive second place result, and he was declared a “loser” by The Washington Times, which then went on to say Rick Santorum, with 3,014 votes less than Paul, was a “winner”.  In fact, on the rare occasion Dr. Paul was brought up by political commentators, it was usually to condescend and ridicule him. For an ideologically consistent 12-term congressman, many were pondering the question – why?

The fact that Dr. Paul wasn’t afraid to voice his criticism of the Federal Reserve and America’s foreign wars placed him firmly outside of the typical Republican’s firmly held beliefs. He was considered as radical and unpatriotic and this led to a stonewalling of Ron Paul coverage. His supporters were emphatic with rage and screamed “CONSPIRACY!” at the top of their lungs, but were only met with cold, complacent denial from the media. The general consensus from the majority of news stations was that the accusations of bias were blown way out of proportion, and lack of coverage was purely down to the fact that “crazy uncle Ron” was unelectable.

Not everybody buys into the “bias media” dogma quite like Ron Paul supporters do though; Elizabeth Skewes, Colorado University lecturer and author of ‘Message Control: How News is Made on the Presidential Campaign Trail’ finds that there’s a lot less to worry about than people make out.

“In elite newspapers and stations like CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS the charge of bias is largely faulty. These organisations, I believe, try to adhere to a standard of balance and neutrality.”

Regardless of the ethical standards of journalism, there’s no denying that people love a good scrap. Ken Silverstein - Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and self-professed “gad-fly” of the newspaper industry - is adamant that the true spirit of journalism cannot live without the presence of passionate individuals who relay their opinions as fervently as possible.

“”Balanced” coverage that plagues American journalism leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge. When it comes time to write, we are expected to turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes.”

Looking objectively, the media bias in the United States is undeniably rife, and spells danger for the forthcoming presidential election. With the country in economic turmoil, and the possibility of a new man at the helm, it is of vital importance that the public is made aware of the facts without the added spin, and there is freedom to share opinions without the fear of incurring the wrath of the media elites. Alas, this is an unlikely scenario. The onus is on the American people alone to educate themselves so that they can make an independent decision, before the media makes it for them.

Is it as bad in the UK?

The ubiquity of media bias in the United States is largely apparent, but what about us?

It is commonly known that the British press has ties with political figures who use newspapers to generate public appeal. The press shows loyalty by printing favourable stories about their preferred party, sometimes obtained through the party’s “spin doctor”, which has a significant influence on the public’s perception of them. On the other hand, it is less familiar in televised news. A survey conducted by asked members of the public where they thought leading British news channel’s allegiances lie. It found out that nearly two-thirds of respondents thought Sky News displays a clear pro-Conservative bias, with no hint of support for Labour. Conservative came up trumps with ITV News too, with 29 per cent of respondents believing they show a pro-Conservative bias. Channel 4 is believed to be the most neutral, with 48 per cent of respondents saying the channel displays no clear bias and 27 per cent saying they are unsure. The BBC is also perceived to be largely unbiased, with 44 per cent of respondents seeing no overall bias.

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