You know you’ve heard it. The dreaded “liberal media” label that has sent scores of journalists scurrying to defend themselves against accusations of bias. Conservatives love the liberal media frame because it has been tremendously effective for them. Rather than deal directly with an argument, just dismiss it as liberal. You’ve always got a scapegoat and convenient distractive tactic when things are going badly – blame the press!
Now let’s ignore the accuracy of this claim and just take a look at how it’s worked as a frame. Traditionally, we have believed in an objective press and freedom of the press as a cornerstone of our democracy. But what is an objective press?
Many define an objective press as a press that holds up truth as an ideal. The preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Code of Ethics states:
The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.
When conservatives think of objective media, however, they tend to hold a different view. They believe that the media should not take a stand on issues where there is disagreement. They believe that the role of the media should simply be to report both sides of an issue. When they use the term “liberal bias,” they are referring to how they feel the media is taking sides in their search for the truth. In a neo-conservative world, the media first looks at Republican arguments and then at Democratic arguments and simply reports what each is saying. In a neo-conservative world, the media should not concern themselves with truth.
These two different versions of the media are why conservatives and progressives are so sharply divided on this topic. Progressives see the media as truth seekers. Conservatives see the media as an organization that should not take political sides, even if the facts tend to support one side more than the other.
What conservatives have done with the claim of “liberal bias” is to assert the 2nd view and put progressives on the defensive. After all, progressives believe in fairness. However, by accepting this framing, progressives end up agreeing with the underlying view of the media, a view they do not hold.
Let’s look at an example – intelligent design. Traditional journalists do not see any facts supporting this theory and therefore the story is that this is a theory lacking evidence being pushed by political conservatives. Conservatives, however, believe that evolution and intelligent design are two theories and that each should be given equal coverage. If the media accepted the conservative frame that each side should be given equal time, then a theory with no evidence such as intelligent design should be given as much space as an established theory such as evolution that has a wide body of supporting evidence.
What gets lost in this view of the media is the role of the media in our society as a check on power. If the role of the media is to simply sit on the sidelines and report about what each of the parties preaches, then there is no analysis other than what each party says about the other.
How should progressives respond? I think many of them have already done a good job talking about how they believe the party is “reality based”. This trope works for the media as well. Progressives believe in a media tasked with uncovering the truth. Instead of taking the conservative bait and backing off and giving equal time to conservative arguments, progressive journalists should focus on facts and their mission to uncover the truth. The biggest thing that conservatives fear from the media is truth, because the truth tends to not support conservative policies. For this very reason, conservatives have worked very hard to neuter the press with the “liberal bias” label.