. . . and conservative journalism isn’t news journalism
By Bill Adams
Mainstream news media has long been accused of having a “liberal bias.” Some studies have supported this belief. “Liberal bias” may be inherent in news journalism for reasons that aren’t flattering to conservatives.
Defining Liberal and Conservative. While political views are neither immutable nor binary, certain characteristics have remained relatively consistent. Broadly speaking, liberal policies support labor, equality and a strong social safety net, strong public institutions, progressive taxation, diplomacy and the avoidance of military conflict, and protection of the environment.
Conservatives emphasize protection of business interests, military strength, lower and flatter taxation, deregulation of the economy, and privatism. Even more generally, conservatives tend to emphasize “trickle-down” or supply-side economics and liberals in “trickle-up” or demand-side (or Keynesian) economics. Conservatism, in its definition, is conservation of the status quo. It tends toward preserving the existing economic and social hierarchy.
In contrast, the first definition of “liberal” in the Oxford Living Dictionary, means “[w]illing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” Liberalism is often focused on change to gain parity and rights for those who are disadvantaged by the existing hierarchy.
Why Good Journalism Has a Liberal Bias
To begin with, Journalism – particularly investigative or news journalism – is the investigation, understanding, and dissemination of facts and information via news media. The First Amendment – ensuring freedom of the press – was intended to act as a check on power and was uniquely made to empower the general public.
Similarly, the definition of “liberal,” with its emphasis on “respecting different opinions” and being “open to new ideas” is essentially what freedom of the press is all about; and what makes freedom of the press a threat to conserving the entrenched powers. Thus, to the extent that “liberal” has generally aligned with equality and “speaking truth to power,” journalism is an inherently a liberal endeavor.
A Washington Post opinion piece supported the conclusion that “more journalists tend to lean to the left politically than to the right,” quoting retired Indiana University journalism professor David H. Weaver. (For a countervailing journalist tendency, see “false balance.”) The piece ventured several theories for liberal bias, ranging from the source of new journalist hiring (liberal Northeastern colleges) to the location of major media outlets in “liberal” cities. Most of these reasons could be categorized as extrinsic causes and assume that but for these influences, journalism would appear more politically neutral.
However, the article missed perhaps the most obvious and significant reason for journalism’s appearance of liberal bias. Unlike the reasons ventured in the article, which likely have some merit, the most significant reason is intrinsic to journalism. The reason itself sounds biased: Good journalism and liberal/progressive values align more closely than do good journalism and conservative values. Good journalism is intrinsically a liberal endeavor.
The broad definition of journalism simply means “the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business.” This definition includes tabloid journalism as well as truth or fact-based journalism.
However, with the evolution of news journalism, the profession came to adopt various codes of ethics. Wikipedia notes that these codes tend to have the following principles in common: truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability. Thus, the term “good” journalism is shorthand for journalism guided by journalistic ethics.
More in-depth understanding of issues inevitably leads to more nuanced and complex views, or views that challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom. More often than not, a fuller understanding of an issue will tend to align with liberal values. Consider the following categories:
Profiles of individuals or groups of people: A fuller understanding of a person or group, particularly those who are undergoing great difficulty, will typically result in some level of compassion. Additionally, compassion can temper or replace previously held prejudice or resentment. Thus, good journalism, to the extent it evokes compassion and challenges conventional prejudices through greater understanding will appear to have a liberal bias.
Environment: Scientific data consistently supports the need to preserve and restore the environment. Environmental conservation has consistently been more a liberal cause than a conservative one. Thus, fact-based journalism on this topic will appear to have a liberal bias.
Business and the Economy: While conservatives tend to think of themselves as economic pragmatists, the economy tends to be a much more neutral proposition. The arguments for Keynesian economic policies and Friedman or Supply-side economics don’t favor conservatives. Moreover, supply-side economic policies have a poor track record for balancing the national debt or balancing the budget. Regulations are another common target of conservatives. However, any serious discussion will acknowledge that regulations are also important to sustaining the economy, protecting competition, and preventing financial disasters. Thus, good journalism in topics of business and the economy should appear relatively neutral.
Sports: Perhaps the only topic in which reporting is generally deemed apolitical.
International Affairs and Conflict: Nationalism is a substantial part of most military conflicts. Nationalism, aka patriotism, most often comes from the conservative wing. At the same time, passivism has not proven to be a good defense against the military aggressions of other countries. Thus, journalism in this topic should appear relatively neutral. Nevertheless, decisions to engage in military conflict often involve behind the scene agendas that run contrary to the popular narrative. Additionally, the carnage and human toll of war undermine patriotic narratives of heroism and purity of purpose. These topics are central to reporting on military conflicts, and thus give the appearance of liberal bias.
Generally speaking, the “liberal mainstream media” has not had a liberal agenda dictated from its ownership or management – more often the contrary has been true. This circumstance has changed somewhat as media outlets have attempted to emulate the success of Fox News by repositioning themselves as its liberal equivalent, e.g., MSNBC.
However, for the most part, mainstream media has attempted to adhere to journalistic ethics of objectivity, neutrality, and seeking truth. Reporting has been influenced by public opinion and the topics of interest of the period. For example, in the 1980s when media often focused on topics that remain at the core of conservative beliefs – excess government spending (remember the $600 dollar toilet seats) or welfare cheats – they were still accused of having a liberal bias.
However, the perceived liberal bias emanates as much from the nature of journalism as anything else. At the time, those stories were as much about speaking truth to power, and thus liberal, as current reporting is about Trump’s excesses.
Thus, media entities which concern themselves with journalistic ethics, objectivity, and the pursuit of truth, will always appear to have a “liberal bias.”
Why Conservative Journalism, isn’t Journalism – at Least Not Ethical Journalism
If good journalism is inherently liberal, what is conservative journalism? This is not meant to be a rhetorical question because conservative journalism is not necessarily bad journalism. It can be sincere and high-level journalism, as in the case of the National Review or the Weekly Standard. It’s just not investigative or news journalism. It’s opinion and analysis. In these latter two publications, it’s not meant to be objective reporting any more than is Mother Jones or The Nation.
In almost all major conservative media outlets, the bias comes from on-high in the organization. All conservative bias in media is dictated from the top down. Objectivity is not part of the program.
Such media outlets come in different forms. There are the aforementioned conservative intellectual publications, which focus on opinion and analysis. Then there are populist and tabloid publications. The Murdoch (21st Century Fox and News Corp.) publications like Fox News and Wall Street Journal are particularly interesting. They pretend to be objective but adhere to a strict top-down conservative agenda. The opinion and commentary sections are obvious.
Less obvious is the news reporting, in which the bias is accomplished by filtering news that is reported so that it supports the conservative agenda. Fox is famous for its laughably false claim to be “fair and balanced.” The Wall Street Journal recently encountered internal dissension when management sought to influence the way its staff reported on Trump.
Fox News, in particular, has been extremely successful and profitable. It applies many of the strategies Rupert Murdoch learned in his Australian and British tabloid publications, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun. Murdoch, and his former Fox CEO Roger Ailes, recognized that these strategies could be successfully combined with a populist brand of conservatism by provoking white resentment and fears.
Thus, unlike the Weekly Standard and the National Review, Fox News seems less concerned with serving an ideology than with exploiting it for profit. The country and even the Republican Party’s agenda have paid dearly for Murdoch’s exploitation of populist conservatism.
As for publications like Breitbart or radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones: no reasonable person goes to these outlets for news. They are ideological rallying sources.
Thus, in that “conservative journalism” intentionally – as part of its program – discards the journalistic ethical canons of objectivity and unvarnished truth, it is not journalism as we have come to expect from real news outlets.
So the next time you hear “liberal mainstream media” . . .
Freedom of the press is a liberal value. It preserves the right to “speak truth to power.” It is the common citizen’s check on the powerful. Conservatives endeavor mightily to reframe their cause as that of the common citizen against the elites. But that unnatural distortion is never sustainable.
The current alliance of Republican billionaires and the white working class attacks educators and subject matter experts (“elites”), people of color, and immigrants; and thus is still an alliance of the more privileged against the less privileged. In the end analysis, conservatives always support the existing privileged class; and it is the purpose of the First Amendment to check abuses of power by that class.
In the current political climate, populist conservatism is open in its disdain for academics and scientists as “intellectual elites,” and racial and cultural sensitivity as “political correctness,” and compassion as “bleeding heart” liberalism. Thus, now more than ever, good journalism – journalism that seeks truth and evokes understanding, tolerance, and compassion – is inherently liberal.
Bill Adams is the founder and chief editor of UrbDeZine. He is also a partner in the San Diego law firm of Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP. He has been involved with land use and urban renewal for nearly 25 years, both as a professional and as a personal passion. He currently sits on the Boards of San Diego Historic Streetcars, The San Diego Architectural Foundation, The Food and Beverage Association of San Diego County, andThe Gaslamp Quarter Association Land Use Planning Committee.