This is a question that frequently pops up in discussions on the media. I believe the answer is yes, though for reasons that differ from most people’s perception of how the media are biased.
The media are a central part of democracy (which I discussed in an earlier post). The news media are a dominant source of information for most people within a democracy. Therefore, there are intrinsic ties between the media and democracy. The information that the news media provide shape much of how we perceive the world, our government, political candidates, various issues, etc. One could argue they set the agenda. In a truly free and democratic society, “the quality of a democracy depends on the information [the media] provide,” argues Justin Lewis.
It is therefore important to ask what kind of views the media represent. From this, we can gather whether the media are biased.
Economist and media analyst Edward S. Herman argues that “the mainstream media represent elite interests, and they serve those elite interests in a way that can be described as carrying out a propaganda function.” This leads me to the propaganda model, laid out by Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent. (The phrase “manufacturing consent,” by the way, comes from Walter Lippmann, a highly esteemed journalist and democratic theorist of the twentieth century, whom I cited in my earlier post on democracy. Once you understand Lippmann’s views of democracy, you can obviously see why he saw the media as a means to control public opinion, hence the title of his 1922 book, Public Opinion–what he calls “the manufacture of consent.”) The propaganda model is a theory on how the media operate within a free market society, such as the United States. The systematic biases found in the media are explained by certain economic conditions. More on this in a bit (though, I suggest you read Herman and Chomsky’s book).
Back now to the type of views the media represent. The constant iteration we hear is that the media are too liberal–that the media are biased and slanted toward the left. However, this strained argument has very little evidence to support itself. Conversely, as Dr. Lewis (and, of course, others) argues, the media tend to represent center to right views. Leftist views are typically not entertained. And there’s a mountain of evidence to support this.
But if we frame the question within the context that “the media are liberal,” then the question becomes whether the media are too liberal. Never mind that the media aren’t liberal at all. So it is convenient for people, particularly those on the right, to operate within this context. Of course, if we ask for evidence to support this view, those who champion it tend to simply fall flat on their face trying, because the opposite tends to be true. Rationally, what they would do is look at the output of the media (and not just simple anecdotal evidence) and try to discern from that whether there’s a systematic bias in the media. But they don’t do that. On the other hand, one particularly popular way to defend this view is to look at the journalists. Take, for example, this recent post by King Banaian, an economics professor at SCSU. Since, as Dr. Banaian contends, liberals tend to go into journalism more than conservatives do, this demonstrates that the media are biased towards the left. Essentially, how journalists vote determines the type of bias in the media. The fact of the matter is that even if 90% of journalists were sympathizers for the radical revolutionist Marxist party, this would prove nothing about the bias in the media’s output.
The relevant question is whether the media are free. And by this I mean whether their institutional structure allows for free expression of opinion. That today’s journalists are primarily from one part of the business party (Democratic rather than Republican) tells us very little. Of course, it’s the “owners, the advertisers, the news shapers, or the news makers who control the manufacture of news.” Dr. Lewis compares the argument of the journalists’ voting habits to the argument that “the workers on the factory floor decide what the car industry produces.” That’s nonsense, of course.
How then do we determine media bias? To do this, we look at the institutional structure of the media. In particular, the important aspects are the ownership, the funding, and the sources. From this, we get the propaganda model. In Manufacturing Consent, it is argued, “the primary function of the mass media in the United States is to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector.” Major decisions in our society and how it functions (production, investment, distribution, etc.) are made by relatively few giant businesses and conglomerates, which are in collusion with the government and own the media. (It’s not correct to say big business influences the media; the media are the big business.) The media are huge corporations. Take, for example, News Corp, Westinghouse or Viacom, Time Warner, or General Electric. Our dominant source of information is increasingly being controlled by fewer and fewer large multinational corporations. That is to say, competition and diversity in the media has diminished. “More channels are great, but when they’re all owned by the same people, cable doesn’t advance localism, editorial diversity and competition. And for those who believe the Internet alone will save us from this fate should realize the dominating Internet news sources are controlled by the same media giants who control radio, TV, newspapers, and cable,” say Michael Copps, FCC Chairman. Mark Miller compares this to a quote by Nazi Doctor Joseph Goebbels, who once stated, “A media system wants ostensible diversity that conceals an actual uniformity.”
(For more information, see this page by the Media Reform Information Center.)
That’s ownership. What about funding? The major source of funding for the media is advertising. During the mid-nineteenth century, the commercial media did not do nearly was a well as the popular press, which reflected public interests. The way to eliminate this was through the reliance on advertising and concentration of capital. Because the media are now large corporations, they work under the same free market principles of other corporations, namely maximizing profit via competitive pressures, which subverts the importance of the news product. Under the current structure, the media sell a product (the audience) to buyers (other businesses–the advertisers). The news is secondary, which is why we have been inundated by triviality and sensationalism that proliferates throughout the news media. If the media represent views that are contrary to the business proviso, they will be marginalized.
Herman and Chomsky also criticize the media’s reliance upon government sources such as the Pentagon and other sectors of the government. The media’s necessity for a continuous flow of news, they argue, can only be satisfied by the immense resources of governmental agencies and major businesses. In this way, we can say there is a symbiotic relationship between the media and authority establishments, namely the government.
Invariably, what one finds is that the media represents corporate and elite interests (much like the two factions of the Business Party, i.e. the Democrats and Republicans). They are, after all, products of large corporations. In this respect, one finds it very difficult to find, for example, principled opposition to the Iraq War or the unpopular Wall Street bailout. The media are biased by their very institutional structures that serve to propagate and disseminate corporatist interests.