The Media Bias Paradox
Attacks from the left often benefit their right-wing targets (and vice versa).
You know who benefits the most from liberal media bias? Conservatives.
I spent much of the last 25 years writing about liberal media bias. Heck, I grew up on the stuff. My father, a longtime editor, used to joke that he “worked behind enemy lines.” He’d often tutor me about the likes of Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent who whitewashed Stalin’s crimes and won a Pulitzer in the process, or Herbert Matthews, the reporter whose Cuba coverage inspired the famous cartoon of Fidel Castro saying, “I got my job through the New York Times.”
Dan Rather, a CBS News institution with some well-documented biases of his own, used to say liberal media bias was a “myth.” Suffice it to say, I think he was wrong, and continues to be wrong.
But something has changed. The modern conservative movement began in the mid-20th century, and for most of that time “the media” referred to three TV networks, two newspapers and a few newsmagazines—all located within walking distance of each other in Manhattan. Rounding out the list were the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and a handful of similarly liberal big city newspapers. During this era, “the media” had incredible power to set the agenda. Disagree if you wish, just know that for conservatives this was an article of faith.
Irritation at this center-left conventional wisdom, which dominated not just the media but academia, created the pearl of modern conservatism. When he launched National Review, William F. Buckley proclaimed that his journal (where I worked for 20 years) would “stand athwart History, yelling stop.” The talk radio revolution pioneered by Rush Limbaugh and the rise of Fox News can only be understood as a rebellion against the hegemony—real or perceived—of the liberal media.
The story of how that hegemony was shattered by cable news and the internet is by now familiar. But what’s interesting is that even as the reigning journalistic gatekeepers were dethroned, conservative rage against the media intensified. In 2008, Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate, became a right-wing darling in large part because the mainstream media hated her. In 2012, Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign’s early successes stemmed almost entirely from his relentless focus on attacking the “destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media.”
Whatever you make of his broadsides, it’s worth noting they were delivered well after Fox had become a ratings behemoth and a slew of right-wing news and opinion outlets had been launched.
It’s almost impossible to exaggerate how much of Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency were entwined with the right’s animosity for what Gingrich had called the “elite media.” Trump’s war on “fake news”—his contribution to right-wing rhetoric—was so total he felt perfectly free to dub the press “the enemy of the people,” praise a politician who physically attacked a journalist and rail against the 1st Amendment.
Ignore the substance of the criticisms. As an objective matter, this obsession with the elite media’s alleged monopoly has intensified in tandem with the unraveling of that monopoly. Republican politicians don’t need the “elite media” to get their messages out anymore. Indeed, often the best thing that can happen to a Republican politician is to earn the scorn of such outlets.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida understands this better than most. He’s made media hostility central to his brand. “If the corporate press nationally isn’t attacking me,” he says, “then I’m probably not doing my job.” (Oddly, his definition of “corporate press” doesn’t include Fox News, where he appears so often he should probably have his mail delivered to the green room.)
If Republican voters haven’t gotten the news that the monolithic media isn’t nearly the monolith it once was, neither has the media itself. When 60 Minutes did a shoddy piece on DeSantis, it was tantamount to an in-kind donation to the governor.
Much of the press is caught in a kind of “Baptists and bootleggers” loop, in which opposing forces become symbiotically co-dependent. Thanks in part to the blurring of reporting with partisan punditry, particularly on cable news and social media, not to mention the larger trends of tribal polarization, attacks from the left often benefit their right-wing targets (and vice versa). Weirder still, favorable coverage is often no favor. Right-wing denunciations of “defund the police”—a fringe position among elected Democrats—did far less damage to Democrats than the coverage the idea got from sympathetic media.
There are no easy answers to the problem, but one thing that would help is more skeptical tough love for politicians and political causes from the outlets most inclined to help them. Because the help isn’t helping.