In-Depth Media

IN-DEPTH: Bias is Foundationally Ingrained in Traditional Journalism

By Rod Thomson

A quarter century in the mainstream media establishment furnished me with ample evidence of how the media shades and distorts coverage in the most professional and yet opaque ways — so ingrained that the shading is all but invisible to the journalists doing it.

(IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: There is no conspiracy of bias across the mainstream media. However, there is such deeply entrenched bias that most toiling journalists do not even recognize it. They believe that their choice of stories and coverage is pure professionalism, free from any encumbrances of prejudice. So know that if you pursue a conspiracy theory, you will immediately be discarded with an eyeroll. There is far stronger ground on which to stand and expose why this bias creates inherent and accurate distrust.)

The media’s multi-generational predilection has become established journalism. The worldview defining what is newsworthy and why, and what is not and why not, is now a foundational part of journalism. That it reflects one worldview over a competing worldview is undeniable for those looking at life through the competing worldview. But this truth is invisible to those practicing journalism, because the newsworthy industry standard fits like a glove with their worldview. Of course it’s good journalism! We all agree!

Most reporters and editors I worked with were mystified at the accusation of bias, or simply chalked it up to my own conservative proclivities. That my conservatism might inform my view of journalism was perfectly clear to them. That their liberalism might inform their view of journalism was bewildering to them, because by every journalistic standard they were practicing professional journalism. The reason they could not see the bias was not a lack of intelligence or dishonesty, but that journalism was defined through the basis of liberalism and therefore they did not see any bias.


The mystery of Rush Limbaugh

My colleagues would often shake their heads incredulously at the rise of Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio in the 1990s. They simply could not understand it and ended up shrugging it off as conservatives being less educated and more easily led. Conservatives just didn’t like the truth coming out in the media.

The problem did not lie with American conservatives, however, but with the very bewildered journalists unable to grasp his popularity.

Rush Limbaugh and others were filling a void for a large swath of Americans who felt under daily assault by local and national media. Rush Limbaugh took the news of the day and explained it from a conservative point of view — the opposite of the way the media was professionally describing it — and 20 million Americans thought, ‘Finally someone is saying what I believe!’

There are many conservative sites dedicated to pointing out the daily media leftist bias. They have been so successful, that some have popped up on the other side, focusing primarily on Fox News. That, in itself, is telling that they only have one news source to hit on. But we can simply let the market of millions of Americans speak.

In a recent Gallup Poll on media trust — which has been taken since 1972 — the media has sunk to its lowest level ever. Only 32% of Americans consider the media trustworthy. That’s not good, but the political party breakdown tells the real story:

  • 51% of Democrats consider the media trustworthy;
  • 14% of Republicans consider the media trustworthy.

Does the media reflect on why there is such a stark difference? Here is the response I have heard from colleagues over the years: “Well, those are conservatives pulling the numbers down. They’re just angry.” Exactly! One worldview trusts journalists at nearly four times the level as the other worldview. That’s the blind spot, spelled out in rock solid numbers by the consumer market of news. And yet, that glaring reality remains largely obscured to the working media because proper journalism is interwoven with modern progressivism determining what is news.

In all my years, I only came across one working journalist, an editor and a friend, who was forthright and clear enough to admit the bias. He went further, however, with his normal bluntness and confessed proudly that he thought it was right for journalists to be biased in favor of helping the little guy against the big guy. Indeed, much of journalism stems from that, which is laudable from an individual’s point of view, but deeply problematic for a media struggling with the public trust.


The media’s telltale sign: Story choice

Think about it. The exposés on the homeless, the poor, single mothers, imprisonment numbers, income inequality, plight of minorities and so on are virtually endless. There are also legions of stories on environmental issues and the greed of CEOs. All of these are legitimate topics and should be covered, at times in-depth. They are also favorites of the leftist, progressive ethos and are only half of the set of excellent story ideas.

Story choice matters because that is the first step in coverage — those stories that journalists choose to cover, and just as importantly, those they choose not to. These choices are reflected in a perspective that journalists see merely as good journalism, independent of their personal politics. But it’s not. Media consumers instinctively know that, as demonstrated by Gallup.

To see just how warped is the sense of news judgment, here are some examples of what journalists do not spend much — if any — time and resources on, but which are as legitimate as the story topics listed above.

  • Exposés on the trials and tribulations of being a cop in a high-crime neighborhood. This story not only humanizes cops in the same way that stories on the homeless and poor humanize them, but could also shed light on some root problems of the high level of crime while creating public support for better solutions. But these stories are rare and will never win major journalism awards.
  • Exposés and regular coverage on the struggles of small businesses and the difficulty of creating a successful business with a high level of government costs involved. The humanization of the small business owners’ struggles to stay afloat would be hugely educational to the majority of people who are employees their whole lives — or unable to find work. Such stories — routinely done as the list above is — would create a much better understanding of how well-meaning government rules just add more and more difficulties for businesses to succeed, and workers to get good jobs.
  • How about exposés on the size of the federal debt and the weight of taxes now and on future generations? There are endless stories on the difficulties of making ends meet for our elderly citizens living on Social Security, Medicare and other transfer payments. Again, legitimate stories. But they are done in the contextual vacuum of emotional heartstring-pulling. Compelling stories on individuals’ struggles without context result in encouraging public support for more money to go to those people. The context is $20 trillion debt. What if just as regularly journalists did stories on the cost per millennial of the current debt? Talk to young people and do the same emotional stories on how they feel about being burdened to pay off debts that previous generations incurred. They can’t afford rent, but they have to send more and more money to people who are not working. That could really change the conversation. But those stories are as rare as stories on the importance of fossil fuel to a local economy.
  • Speaking of which, how many emotional heartstring-pulling stories are done on the plight of the “hard-working middle class” — a favorite phrase for all politicians — in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere on the decimation of the fossil fuel industry for political reasons? Those are rare as a sighting of stories on the costs of environmental regulations on new development driving up housing costs for the middle class and millennials, also a legitimate story.
  • Exposés and continuing context on the forces driving college costs? There are endless stories on the how the high costs and the ensuing college debt are worrying young students. So much so that it was a central plank of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. But they are done in a huge vacuum of “Why?” rarely being addressed. Where are all the cojoining stories on why college costs are so high? Those are rare as the story on how the lumber industry has paved the way for responsible resource use.

This list can go on almost indefinitely. If you are a conservative you can think of a ton more. If you are liberal, or a mainstream media person, you are probably shaking your head in disbelief. Again, that is exactly the point.

The matter is ingrained at every level.


The problem of journalism schools

The indoctrination begins here. Of course, it is largely not intentional indoctrination, so perhaps not the best word. It is merely repeating the formula that a liberal ethos equals good journalism — not stated in words so much as in the daily classroom teaching of journalism.

I graduated from Michigan State University’s School of Journalism in 1982 and the professors were uniformly liberal. I was too, sort of, because that is what college will do to you if you are not well-grounded otherwise. I accepted what I was taught and dutifully took it out into the world of daily newspapers with me until I slowly began forming my own set of beliefs.

But Michigan State is simply like all the rest. In addition to all the media people I have worked with, I’ve hired out of J-Schools around the country and the cookie-cutter products of those institutions are impressive from an efficiency perspective. It’s almost impossible in the major journalism schools to find a graduate with a conservative worldview who might look at good journalism from a different perspective. Truly, such a student probably could not have earned a degree if they had.

A journalism degree is necessary currency to get in the door of mainstream media outlets — and a lot of new media. So navigating journalism schools and learning the proper definition of newsworthy journalism creates a gatekeeper effect for the liberal journalism professors dominating schools. And it means they are well-prepared on the worldview level to fit into modern media — even if they are not well-prepared to actually practice. Much of that is learned on the job, making journalism schools all the more a place whose primary role is to mold “proper” political views.


The problem of journalism awards

Like all human beings, journalists love winning awards, being recognized for their efforts. I sure did. Iowa Young Journalist of the Year in the late 80s. Inland Press Association’s Reporting Award, a dozen Associated Press Awards and so on.

Yeah, it was great. Here’s the thing, though. Naturally enough, journalism awards are judged by other journalists. I know. I sat on a few judging committees. Makes sense. But the now-established deeply ingrained worldview kicks in at this point. Practically every judging committee will be made up of people whose worldview is somewhere between center left and radical left.

The story lists mentioned above that are viewed as important through that leftist prism will be the ones awarded.

Then how did I win awards? For many years as a younger reporter, I did not see the bias. I fully understand being blind to it. I was practicing good journalism. As my worldview matured and I began to see things more clearly through conservatism and biblical standards — and as I began voicing my opinion in the newsroom — the reality of how deeply rooted the predisposition was and is became clear. It created a lot of friction. And it exposed a lot.

One revelation was on journalism awards.

Journalists tend to write and produce stories for their next editor or producer at the next paper and television station on the career ladder. Or they write with the aim at winning awards. I worked for a paper whose publisher said the stated aim was to win a Pulitzer Prize, which the paper finally did. Guess the politics of the Pulitzer Prize Committee.

So even after the solid indoctrination received in every major journalism school, the reinforcement sets in at every level, at every institution. While in the field, the newsroom hierarchy is uniformly somewhere left of center. As mentioned previously, that worldview uniformity goes to story selection, story angle, story content and story play. And then all of those decisions are affirmed and rewarded through awards outside the newsroom. Again, this is not to say those are not worthy coverage topics. But it is to say that those are the ones rewarded and therefore reinforced as good journalism.

Unless you become a columnist — as I did for several years — there is no career track for a journalist writing from a conservative worldview without just caving to all the liberal story topics.


Solutions are dicey

Perhaps the largest obstacle to correcting this problem is that the vast majority of practicing journalists that I know and have known do not acknowledge the problem. As explained, they merely see solid journalism by professionals who set aside their personal politics and biases.

I don’t think that is possible. For anyone. We all see the world through our prism of life experiences and belief system. That’s inescapable. So in practice the only way to make media newsrooms function with balance to accommodate a sea of views is to populate them with a diversity of perspectives, political beliefs and backgrounds.

There are only two pathways I can see to creating balance in the profession. The best one in my opinion seems highly unlikely. The other one is what the market is slowly grinding towards.

The best solution would be to hire based on worldview. This would mean shifting from the leftist v of diversity in hiring based on skin color and gender to a diversity based on a multiplicity of viewpoints that is colorblind and gender blind. Right now, an executive editor would gaze out over a newsroom with female liberals, black liberals, Hispanic liberals, lesbian liberals, Asian liberals, transgender liberals and handicapped liberals and smile approvingly at the wonderful diversity — totally missing that they are all some stripe of liberal producing the same kinds of stories with the same angles.

While working for a daily newspaper within the New York Times, I made a pitch to generate a policy to recruit journalists based on a diversity of worldviews. We could have liberals, conservatives, libertarians, greens, Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews and so on. This would provide the natural check and balance on everything from story selection to coverage to play. It would be cutting edge and a start towards restoring trust. (Of course, it would also ultimately require a change in the lock-step liberalism of journalism professors to a worldview diversity. Given tenure, that would only be possible over a couple of generations and require university administrators with spine.)

A consultant who was in town, a former New York Times executive, ran it up the flagpole when he returned to Manhattan. The answer was “No. Our people are professionals. We don’t need ideologues.” Again, the blind spot is sort of astonishing — if you are not a liberal.

A second solution is already happening: market-based alternatives. This is a model that is actually similar to what has been the case in major European cities for years. Media outlets there are overtly politically-based. In London, for instance, everyone understands that the London Guardian and London Independent are the liberal newspapers and the London Telegraph and London Times are the conservative organs. The tabloids break down similarly. Consumers then choose their media accordingly.

In the United States, the modern history was of at least an attempt at a centrist, fair, non-partisan media. That has failed. And because of the blindness of that failure within the media establishment, there is no willingness to make the necessary corrections. Therefore, the advent of new technologies have opened the door to competing media.

The Drudge Report was an early online portal for conservatives. Matt Drudge linked to stories in the mainstream media, emerging alternative media and, importantly, international media. His site exploded in size and popularity with…conservatives. Like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, the Drudge Report was filling the worldview vacuum left by the media being blind to its daily inclinations.

Now there is everything from Townhall, National Review Online and Real Clear Politics to Newsmax, the Daily Caller and the Blaze. Listening to reporters from some of these conservative news outlets talk on podcasts is almost identical to listening to conversations in newsrooms over the years — except flip the worldview.

This is ultimately the future of American media. There is not balance. The big media outlets continue to dominate, although they are diluted. As the traditional media is unwilling to reform itself, the American marketplace is reforming it and the grand journalism of the mid-20th century that everyone trusted — whether they should have or not — will be consigned to history.

And like most great institutions and nations, their undoing will be from their own doing.


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