Published on October 8th, 20120
Does Media Bias Matter?
Certain institutions have an inherent ideological lean. There aren’t a lot of vegans in the Marine Corps. You won’t find many Ayn Rand enthusiasts working at child protective services. Likewise, journalism as a profession offers little that would appeal to the average conservative.
It’s no secret that most reporters are politically liberal, but does that compromise their work? Getting to an answer requires understanding the mission of journalism and its relationship to conservative values.
Being a conservative in the traditional meaning of the word means, to paraphrase Russell Kirk, a belief in a transcendent order based in tradition and nature. In the conservative understanding of the world, we are more than the sum of our parts. Conservatives generally admire traditional institutions and tend to emphasize faith, rather than skepticism, as a core value. Conservatives don’t dismiss science or provable facts, but they humbly place what we learn from science inside a wider perspective.
Journalism, on the other hand, is based on traditionally liberal values. A reporter’s mission is to uncover truth based on observable, proven facts, free from the influence of faith, tradition, or other subjective factors. Reporters have a mission to challenge authority and scrutinize what others regard as sacred. Journalism is an ideology as much as a profession.
In short, good journalists embrace liberal values in their work.
For generations this clash of values fed friction between the professional news media and conservatives. The right often viewed reporters as a corps of professional turd-disturbers unwilling to let well enough alone. To conservatives, journalists’ aggressive skepticism leads to a consistent failure to see the bigger picture. Their narrow focus makes them suckers for a sob story and vulnerable to manipulation.
That said, apart from extreme instances (see “McCarthy, Joe”), until recently you seldom heard conservatives attacking the profession directly. For decades the right questioned the completeness of the news media’s narratives, as with Nixon’s “Silent Majority” theme, but they did it without attempting to replace fact-based reality with some ideological alternative.
The global rise of religious fundamentalism changed the conservative movement in the U.S. and brought new intensity to its conflict with the news media. Fundamentalists are far more deeply at odds with the journalistic philosophy than traditional conservatives ever were. The missions of journalism and political religion clash harshly because they lay conflicting claims to truth.
To religious conservatives, the news media’s exclusive reliance on observable reality is itself a bias. It conflicts directly with their belief that truth is revealed to them not by science or inquiry but by God alone, superior to and beyond objective analysis. Unlike traditional conservatives, the religious far right sees their political rivals as agents of a deep, spiritual evil. By that standard, modern journalism is little more than professional deception.
That’s why fact-checking Michele Bachmann is such an absurd and pointless exercise. You either share her understanding of received reality or you don’t. Subjecting her claims to a scientifically inspired analysis is to hold her to a standard that she rejects.
Journalists start with skepticism, then determine reality based on discovered facts. Fundamentalists start from certainty, filtering observed reality through an ideological lens to protect their faith.
The journalistic establishment was horrified and baffled when a Bush Administration official derided them as lowly members of the “reality-based community.” The comedian, Steven Colbert, clarified that critique when he joked that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” In the emerging global rivalry between political religion and objective reality, that statement might be uncontroversial on both sides.
Does the liberal lean of the journalistic establishment matter? The answer hinges on the fragility of one’s beliefs. Traditional conservatism was never threatened by journalism. Conservatism may claim to be bigger than reported facts, but it is never endangered by them.
Traditional conservatives accept a reporter’s interpretation as a useful contribution to a wider picture. Science and reason provide a frame of reference, beyond which lie deeper truths. They see the news media as a valued, if limited, contributor to our understanding of events.
Journalism’s inherent liberal lean is not a bug, it’s a feature. An institution can have an ideological bent without compromising its effectiveness. No one should expect great results from a liberal military or a conservative university. It is possible to build a conservative news media, but it’s not a good idea. Without the emphasis on liberal values of objectivity and relentless doubt, journalism quickly descends into propaganda.
However, for those who seek to impose on others a vision of reality revealed to them by the voices in their heads, journalism is more than an irritant. Whatever contradicts their brittle worldview is dangerous. For fundamentalists, the “lamestream media” is a lie factory. Its reliance on proof springs from its rejection of righteous revelation.
Under the influence of religious fundamentalism the right is finding itself at odds not just with reporters, but with the whole concept of provable reality. From evolution to history to climate science, the religious right is pushing the conservative movement and the Republican Party toward a declaration of independence from facts. A political philosophy that withers in the daylight of honest inquiry has problems more serious than the news media.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years.
Also check out: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-ladd