That Oppressed Minority

Of all the fatuities that are circulated regularly about the major media, the one about "liberal bias" is clearly the most tenacious. One hears it over and over, year in and year out, from talking-head pundits no less than from anxious citizens. Whole research institutes exist to expose and root out the malignancy (e.g., Accuracy In Media, Accuracy In Academia), and whole publishing companies (e.g., Regnery) and empires (e.g., Hearst) exist to offer up their own congenial version of reality. A recent book by an aggrieved journalist alleging insidious bias at CBS tops the bestsellers' list (Goldberg: Bias), and one can be comforted in the knowledge that the world will see many similar exposes in the years ahead.

Leaving aside the obvious fact that the nation's airwaves and op-ed pages are full of self-described "conservatives" (see Self-Described Conservatives In The Media), the argument's proponents manipulate a beaten-down, ambiguous term and, more seriously, overlook the historical context in which it and similar terms are conceived.

The word "conservative," for instance, is derived from the Latin verb conservare, meaning "to conserve, preserve, keep, maintain." Until the last century it referred to a global attitude about the unattractiveness of social change, about the need for order. If historical accounts are to be trusted, the dichotomy between "right" and "left" was introduced at the National Convention in Paris in 1792: those preferring a constitutional government and modest reforms (Girondists) sat to the right of the presiding officer, and those who favored abolition of the monarchy and called for Louis' head (Montagnards) sat to the left. The distinction between the sides was profound: one opted either to jettison the existing order or to salvage and reconstitute it.

If "conservative" thus means to preserve the status quo, then surely nine-tenths of all academics, journalists, and intellectuals in this country are "conservative," since they have no desire to see the market economy or federalist system destroyed, no desire to see the centralized bank (Federal Reserve) or military decimated -- no desire, in short, to change the social structure.

The chart below offers a contrast between the macroscopic way of looking at social and political issues and the microscopic way.

I. Society At The Macroscopic Level

(Nations can be monarchical, democratic, theocratic, socialistic, traditionalist.)

What America is: a federalist republic with a division of powers drawing ultimate sovereignty from the people of the individual states; a mixed capitalist economy; a hegemonic power with strategic and military interests all over the globe.

Normative questions (among others): By what criteria should one judge the goodness of a society? What weight should be given to wealth, economic productivity, strong communal ties, universal access to healthcare, the robustness of the educational system, the elimination of poverty, the meaningfulness of work? Is a society just in which a few hundred people are billionaires and tens of millions are destitute? Is it right that half a trillion dollars a year is spent on the military? Is America a benign power or an empire as ruthless as any other that has existed in history? How do other nations of the world see us?

II. Issues That Emerge Within The Given Framework (Microscopic)

Social issues: abortion, affirmative action, death penalty, environment, gay rights, gun ownership, immigration policy, &c.

Economic issues: tax and trade policy, fiscal and monetary policy (control of interest rates and inflation), budgetary policy (debt/deficit ratio, allocations of resources).

Foreign policy: official policy with respect to other nations, issues dealing with war, foreign aid, treaties and alliances.

It should be clear that routine allegations of "bias" tend to focus on content confined to the second set of issues above. Thus, it may be the source of the greatest distress for some that reporters and broadcast anchors support the "choice" position on abortion, or oppose the death penalty, or believe that gays and lesbians have all the rights others have, or that Republican presidents deserve to be interrogated like any other politician. But even if it is conceded, for the sake of argument, that most reporters hold these views, the fact alone is irrelevant, because by the older standards these same reporters could also be considered conservative. What would make them not conservative is the desire to change the form of our economy and polity.

When, if ever, do mainstream journalists in America address the normative questions enumerated in the chart above? Why, for instance, aren't there any socialist commentators on the op-ed pages of major dailies? Why are the only foreign policy experts on television those connected to defense contractors and the Pentagon? Why doesn't the public ever hear about the United States' history of fomenting coups and supporting dictatorships (from the Marcos in the Philippines to the Duvaliers in Haiti to the Somozas in Nicaragua to the Shah of Iran)? When was the last time a news anchor conducted a long interview with an anti-globalization activist, or a peace activist, or an advocate for the poor, or a labor representative? How often do such activists turn up on radio and TV? How many critiques of the market economy do we ever read in the mainstream press? Where were the legions of conscientious writers and commentators when the nation's leading consumer advocate was denied participation in the 2000 Presidential debates? Why do so many news shows limit political debate to that which exists between Democrat and Republican, thus reinforcing the widely held view that the parties are more different than alike, and thus creating false parameters of what is acceptable, respectable debate?

Shouldn't the absence of systemic critique in American media weigh as heavily on the conscience of objectivity-representatives as the perceived social views of certain journalists?

Further Reading

The Digital Cultures Project: Media Bibliography

International Conflict and the Media: Bibliography

Media Study Links

Media Files