The myth of the ‘liberal’ media

There’s a common refrain that we’ve got a “liberal media” here in the United States. How many times have you heard TV and radio talking heads pontificate about this or read editorials ripping the establishment press as a liberal bastion? Rather than the truth, however, it’s a widely believed myth resulting from a long and successful campaign by right-wing interests.

Media Matters for America, a group formed by David Brock, a former journalist who served as a key cog in the “vast right-wing conspiracy” to smear the Clinton presidency (which, by the way, did indeed exist), traces the “liberal bias” concept back to the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, when Republicans complained about Walter Cronkite and the “Eastern Liberal Press.” The railing continued through the Nixon years, perhaps best encapsulated in Nixon V.P. Spiro Agnew’s famous phrase about journalists — “the nattering nabobs of negativism!”

Beginning primarily in the 1970s, various organizations on the right, such as the Adolph Coors Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, etc., many of which had only recently been formed, began pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a wide-ranging drive to discredit the media by labeling them as ultra-liberal. The intent was to achieve two intertwined goals: to intimidate the mainstream media, rendering it more deferential to conservative viewpoints, and to boost the growth of right-wing media.

The coup de grace came in 1987 under President Ronald Reagan, when the Federal Communications Commission eliminated the Fairness Doctrine, a rule established in 1949 to protect the public interest, ensuring that broadcasters provided equal time for discussion of all sides of the debate on important issues. (After all, the public owns the airwaves, something we would do well to remember.) Thus was launched an avalanche of right-wing broadcasters. Rush Limbaugh started his radio show the very next year, and many of his type, on both radio and television, have followed. There has been no equivalent increase in the far smaller universe of left-leaning programs. In fact, the top 45 radio stations in the country carry 310 hours of conservative programming for every five hours of more liberal-leaning programs.

Today, the rightward beat continues to grow. With the advent of Fox News and its success, the programming of many of its competitors, on both cable channels and the major networks, has tilted increasingly toward the right. The plethora of conservative views on talk radio and cable TV has an “echo effect” on the mainstream media, which repeat and amplify those right-wing talking points. As one example, remember the accusations that Barack Obama is a Muslim and attended a madrassah in Indonesia as a boy? Complete fabrications, yet they dominated much of the coverage of the 2008 election.

Another recent example is Newt Gingrich’s statement, now repeated far and wide, that Obama is the “food stamp president” (i.e., more people have received food stamps under Obama than any other president). Fox News has pounced on this, its broadcasts on the subject complete with misleading charts. In fact, as reported by and based on data from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service dating back to January 2001, “the number of (food stamp) recipients under President George W. Bush rose by nearly 14.7 million. Nothing before comes close to that. Under Obama, the increase so far has been 14.2 million.” In other words, there are 450,000 fewer food stamp recipients under Obama than under Bush. The percentage of growth in this program has also been lower under Obama than under Bush, which CBS News, to its credit, did report. As figures for the coming months are tallied, it’s possible the gain under Obama could equal or surpass that under Bush, but with the economy slowly improving, the number of people getting food stamps has been declining. So in the real world as it is now, Gingrich’s statement is false and should not be broadcast as fact. (Of course, you’re unlikely to hear on Fox or talk radio or even the major networks any discussion of the reason for the increase in food stamp recipients — the economic meltdown that occurred during the Bush administration.)

We would all do well to turn off the shouting heads and inform ourselves from unbiased sources, especially in this election year with its tsunami of negative ads filled with lies and misinformation. If we want to be the informed public so crucial to a functioning democracy, we’ll need to turn off the slime and turn on to the facts.

Victoria Strange is a member of Louisville Media Reform.