Media bias ships headed left and right

Ship391Do you want to see a classic example of two journalists talking right past each other on issues linked to media bias and, indirectly, religion?

It seems there was a debate, of sorts, the other night at the University of California at Santa Barbara between Eric Alterman, author of “What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News” and conservative talk-show host Tucker Carlson of MSNBC. According to reporter Devon Claire Flannery’s story in the student newspaper, The Daily Nexus, most of what transpired was pretty predictable. Thus, the voice on the right says:

Carlson contended that three issues — abortion, the second amendment and gay marriage — are always presented from a left-leaning point of view in American media. On average, Carlson said, journalists tend to be white, come from liberal, coastal areas, graduate from liberal colleges, and as a result have the same culture and perspective of the world.

“Everybody in journalism is pro-choice, pro-gun control and for gay marriage,” Carlson said. “When you only have people [in the media] that all think the same, you do not have good coverage. You can’t cover America until you have a newsroom that looks like America … who thinks like America.”

Then the spotlight turns to Alterman, who says what he always says, which is that media is steered by conservative bias:

“If we had a liberal media, then 44 percent of Americans would not have believed the Sept. 11 bombers were Iraqis,” Alterman said. “We get an extremely biased version of the news.”

Alterman also contended that, even if television pundits or politicians were not overtly liberally biased, the structure of media in general allows for much more coverage of conservative interests. “Everyday I read the Business Section of the New York Times. Not the Labor Section, not the Environment Section,” Alterman said, referring to two nonexistent sections. “These are conservative assumptions.”

Ship602I, for one, would like to see the source poll for that Sept. 11 statement, but never mind. The key here is to note that Carlson is talking about media bias on religious and moral issues, for the most part, and Alterman responds by talking about issues of economics and other more strictly political concerns. Apples and oranges, in other words.

In fact, in his “What Liberal Media?” book, Alterman’s chapter on social issues admits that the MSM is, for the most part, biased on precisely these kinds of issues. At one point he hauls off and says:

I concur that the overal flavor of the elite media reporting favors gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights and the environmental movement, but I do not find this bias as overwhelming as some conservative critics. …

Of course, he also says:

From my own perspective as an urban, East Coast liberal who is surrounded by others who hold views not unlike my own, I am perfectly prepared to believe that members of the elite media transmit liberal views in the guise of objective reporting on occasion. On some issues this bias might be called pervasive. …

Alterman then digs into the meat of the famous Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw (please click here) on the issue of media bias in coverage of the ultimate media-bias issue (from the point of view of moral conservatives) — abortion.

In other words, Alterman and Carlson may not, in fact, disagree with each other all that much. Or, as I put it in a post here at GetReligion last summer:

… (the) heart of the MSM is a kind of moral Libertarianism. It’s kind of Clintonian economics and morality. Leave us alone and let us make lots of money. It’s a Hollywood conservatism. It’s a corporate thing. It’s a moderate Republican thing, the brand of faith that dominates business elites.

The problem is that our age is dominated by the politics of social issues. When the first non-conservative seat on the U.S. Supreme Court bench goes open, do you expect hotter-than-hot arguments over economics or morality? Foreign policy or religion? Do the same dynamics affect the journalism wars? Absolutely.

Do you think anyone pointed this out to the talking heads on the left and right during their “debate” the other day out in California? Probably not. These journalistic ships just keep passing without contact, headed in different directions.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen A.

    Well, both have a point or two here. Carlson’s right in that it’s always assumed that “so-called partial birth abortion” is being discussed, rather than without the qualifiers, and that those pushing for gay marriage are equal to Freedom Fighters and morally on God’s side.

    But Alterman has a point about the non-existent “Labor” section of the paper. Although I have to say, it’s extraordinarily tiresome to hear that there’s a “corporate bias” from the media when one makes the point to a liberal that on social issues, it’s all one-sided – their side.

    Talking past each other, indeed. Ownership and slant are two separate issues, for the most part.

    You do make a point in the post that what I would instead call an “amoral libertinism” persisting in the mass media. In theory, that should lead to neutrality on issues being reported, but it also tends to slide into reporters giving soft, perhaps unintentional, support for the most libertine (liberal-permissive) positions.

  • prof B

    Re: 44% of Americans believing the 9-11 bombers were Iraqi–If the prevelance of that misconception among my college students is representative, the 44% may be low. Many of them eagerly rattle off the bombings as a direct cause of our going into Iraq and are surprised (and a little skeptical) when I tell them otherwise. That’s not because of bias, though–it’s either because they don’t read/watch the news or only get ‘news’ from talk radio.

    I’m afraid we’re headed toward a split media where conservatives get their ‘news’ from conservative sources and liberals from liberal ones only–which pushes us further and further away from true political conversation and we end up with the kind of ‘apples-and-oranges’ exchanges described above.

  • Dan Berger

    I’m afraid we’re headed toward a split media where conservatives get their ‘news’ from conservative sources and liberals from liberal ones only

    Prof B, somehow we managed to survive that in the 19th Century. The country’s still here!

    Not to say it wouldn’t be nice if my students had a clue what was actually happening in the world… but we’ve been there and done that and managed to survive.

  • Philocrites

    Regarding Alterman’s claim that 44% of Americans believed the 9/11 bombers were Iraqis, see the Harris Poll, Feb. 18, 2005:

    “44 percent actually believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis (up significantly from 37% in November).”

    The Dec. 29, 2005, Harris Poll found that:

    * Those who think Saddam Hussein had strong links to Al Qaeda have fallen from 64 to 41 percent.
    * Those who believe that Iraq was a serious threat to U.S. security are down from 61 to 48 percent.
    * Those who think Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11 are down from 47 to 22 percent.
    * Those who think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction are down from 36 to 26 percent.
    * Those who think Iraqi hijackers attacked the United States on 9/11 have fallen from 44 to 24 percent.”

  • Victor Morton

    A couple of things wrong with Alterman’s points:

    (1) He assumes without evidence that “business = conservative.” Not only is this demonstrably not true with respect to religious/cultural issues, it’s a very complicated relationship on matters of foreign policy, and not as one-dimensional as you might think domestically — (a) existing business generally doesn’t favor capitalism and its creative destruction; (b) different businesses have different and often-competing interests; and (c) corporations, when the issue isn’t the buttering their specific bread, have little interest in other issues (which also scotches much [not all] of the value of the “corporate-ownership” arguments).

    (2) He is kidding himself if he thinks the fact there is a “Business” section says anything whatsoever about the actual content of the coverage, instead assuming he can speak of it categorically. (This is a general problem with liberals who say the media tilts right.) It is not a conservative assumption to say “Business is worth covering.” It all depends on the “how.” Every Business section in the country regularly covers stories about corporate corruption and malfeasance. Every newspaper also covers unions and environmental issues, often in those very Business sections. Without actually analyzing story content, like the Media Research Council does, the mere fact there’s a banner head called “Business” means nothing whatsoever.

  • prof B

    Hey Dan–didn’t intend that to sound apocalyptic, which I guess it did, but rather to say we’re headed further and further away from a civil society (on many fronts) and that changes in the media don’t look good. A little history, as usual, gives some perspective–we’re always moving one way or the other.

    One new-ish development is that more of us get our info from a variety of sources, including sites that provide a number of different voices (, for one) or that analyze world events through a particular filter, like this one.

    Still, the number of my students (community college freshmen and sophomores) who don’t bother to get news anywhere (or get it from talk radio) is always disappointing. I’ve got a chance in my composition classes to get them to engage with at least some of the issues of the day. Sounds like you’re running into the same thing with your students.

  • Dan Berger

    Yes, one of the things I’ve done in the class I linked is to require them to read a newspaper, usually the CS Monitor. We don’t explicitly discuss the stories except as they may relate to course topics, but they are quizzed on the news.

    The Monitor is especially good because it’s fully available online including archives, it’s published only 5 days a week, it’s of manageable size (unlike, say, the NY Times) and it’s a world-class paper.