As the war rages on between Bill O’Reilly and reality (or ‘guttersnipes’ and ‘far left zealots’ as O’Reilly likes to call them), the American news media is coming under greater scrutiny for its role in informing the public. Can we trust the media? Do they have an agenda, and is there, as O’Reilly implies, a liberal media bias?
As a foreign transplant, I am often bemused by Americans’ understanding of their media system. Conservatives frequently complain about ‘liberal media’ outlets like MSNBC, NPR, and the New York Times, and most people seem to think there is a right and left wing press in America.
While this may be accurate within the American political paradigm, to anyone raised outside the states, this looks a little absurd. When I watch ‘liberal’ hosts on MSNBC, I don’t see anything I would consider to be particularly liberal or left leaning about them. I see presenters who seem to be aware that reality is important when dissecting the news. Rachel Maddow for instance, is a very bright person with a knack for presenting objective opinion and solid reporting. In Britain, she might be considered to be slightly left leaning, but mostly a reasonable, rational news presenter who attempts to deconstruct current affairs. Britain is fairly conservative when compared to the rest of Europe and the rest of the industrialized world, so Maddow probably wouldn’t be considered to be particularly political at all if she were a presenter in say, Sweden. As Maddow herself once stated, “I’m undoubtedly a liberal, which means that I’m in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform.”
Paul Krugman, the NYT’s columnist, is regarded by the right as an extreme left wing economist. Outside of America, Krugman is viewed as a smart analyst who admittedly has a Keynesian approach to economics, but largely believes in looking at actual data to inform his opinion. Is that liberal? If liberal means ‘reality’, then Krugman is most certainly a liberal (and as Stephen Colbert said, “Reality has a well known liberal bias”).
As a general rule of thumb, if you want to understand the politics of a media outlet, you should always follow the money. Who funds your favorite network invariably dictates the broad agenda behind the reporting you see. Given 90 % of the country’s most prominent media outlets are owned by 6 mega corporations, it might be more accurate to say that the American media has a corporate bias.
What exactly does that mean?
Firstly, it means it is profit driven. Eyeballs means more than anything else, and networks are constantly at war with each other over the numbers. News casters constantly wield out their viewer stats in order to lord it over rival networks, saying things like: “We’re hammering them in the ratings!”, or “MSNBC’s nightly news numbers are down!” – as if that was an indicator of quality. By this standard, Kim Kardashian is a more important voice than say, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Sensationalism sells, so media outlets choose stories according to how much of an audience they think it will attract. When there is a non profit, public interest aspect to a media system, this problem can be avoided (the BBC for example, is tax payer funded and must produce a certain amount of programming to benefit the public).
MSNBC has in recent years, committed itself to grounding itself in reality. After the debacle of the Iraq war and the network’s pathetic refusal to report on it seriously, it took advantage of the huge liberal backlash by hiring anchors who actually took truth to be important. It’s ‘liberalism’ may well have been a calculated business strategy (which could now be coming to an end as it’s numbers sink).
Secondly, news outlets won’t run too many stories that would undermine the economic system supporting their business model. The media monopoly could be broken up if the media reported on it enough, but they won’t given their paychecks depend on them not reporting on it. Rachel Maddow does report on this, but she’s a lone voice in a sea of corporate news that goes well out of its way not to acknowledge it.
Until the US ends the corporate media monopoly, funds public broadcasting, and figures out a way to sustain independent media, we are stuck in a system where stating a fact means you’re a dirty liberal who hates America.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.