Media Bias : What about ownership?

The Pulitzer's prize winning Bill Dedman (who I had the privilege to work for a short time at my first newspaper job) is widely regarded in the industry as one of the top investigative reporters in the business. (Check out his great web site, which is a valuable tool for journalists.)

His latest project for MSNBC highlights political donations from journalists. The report shows far more of those donating -- 90 percent in fact -- to Democrats. This is a valuable study, but I disagree with those in right wing circles who tout it as as more smoking gun evidence of a liberal media bias.

The perpetuation of this myth has been a huge winner for the right, so it is hardly surprising to see conservative bloggers jump all over this. Even many liberals buy into this mythology. As a consequence, criticism of conservatives can be defended (effectively despite its obvious transparency) by claiming it is just another example of the anti-Bush, secular progressive media bashing the right and doing the left's dirty work.

No doubt 90 percent is a lot. And people are right to be skeptical when reading a story, and examine it for liberal bias. But the idea that having so many liberal reporters proves a left-wing bias avoids other crucial factors. Reporters are in a position of some power, but they have substantially less control over the content of the paper then the people that own them. And this is where, the argument that there is a leftward tilt in the mainstream media, begins to crumble.

The right wing bloggers, however, are ignoring virtually every argument ever made against the case of a liberal media bias: Ownership.

No person can credibly ignore that more journalists identify with Democrats than Republicans. (And in fact, this makes since given that liberals are more likely to major in communication, and live in urban areas). But in the arguments made by the right the concept of ownership is completely ignored. And you don't need an investigative report to learn that the owners of the media -- News Corp, GE, Viacom, etc ... -- are incredibly wealthy power brokers who benefit from deregulation, and other policies that are friendly to big-business.

Here are some important works on this topic. Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? (the entire first chapter is in this PDF) has a strong analysis of the current media punditry class, and Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, the influential book (not the movie) which introduced The Propaganda Model. (the first chapter and last chapter is on this web site).

I have also addressed this before, here.

The arguments made by the likes of Goldberg, O'Reilly and Coulter are largely based on their beliefs that there are substantially more liberal reporters than conservative ones-a justifiable claim based on the 2004 PEW Research Center study, which concluded that 34 percent of reporters consider themselves to be liberal, whereas only 7 percent identified themselves as conservatives. (54 percent claimed to be moderate and 5 percent said they didn't know.)

These pundits, however, fail to acknowledge one painfully obvious truth: reporters do not decide what goes in the newspaper-their editors and publishers do. This is where the liberal media argument begins to disintegrate. A survey conducted during the 2000 presidential election by Editor & Publisher magazine reported that of all newspapers in national circulation, 58 percent endorsed President Bush over Al Gore. Oddly enough, Goldberg didn't point that out in his book.

Moreover, the political leanings of editors and publishers-whatever they may be-are as trivial as those of reporters when you consider yet another pink elephant in the room that conservatives rarely acknowledge: news is a business. The ultimate goal is to make money. In fact, publicly traded companies are legally bound to their shareholders to put the bottom line ahead of everything else, even the public good. When you seriously think about the economics of news outlets, the notion of a liberal media bias not only seems false, but also positively absurd.

... [T]he media is essentially owned and managed by 10 enormous corporations, all of which bring in revenues in the billions. Now couple that with the fact that most of their revenue stems from other large, profit-driven corporations in the form of advertisements. Given these realities, do you really think the decision makers at Disney, Viacom or News Corporation would really allow a pro-labor, anti-big-business, liberal agenda to be printed or broadcast under their watch? These are the types of conspiracy theories that I thought were reserved for The Flat Earth Society