When it comes to bias in the news, Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), says that because of the extreme reporting by right-wing news organizations, moderates often are forced to defend the left instead of provide balanced coverage.
In a 2004 article he wrote for FAIR entitled, “I’m Not a Leftist, But I Play One on TV — Progressives Excluded As Right Battles Center,” Rendall noted that “conservative guests espousing views from the right wing of the Republican Party square off with centrists advocating positions from the right wing of the Democratic Party. Since conservative Republicans and centrist Democrats both tend to be corporate-friendly, such face-offs may be pleasing to television’s owners and sponsors, but leaving the left out of the debate is bad news for democratic discourse.”
When it comes to how transparent networks are regarding any connections their sources or commentators may have, Solomon said he believes there is a problem that is much greater than just identifying Republicans and Democrats. “The more pernicious is corporate entanglements,” he said, or those working for lobbying firms.
According to a recent study from FAIR, which evaluated the guest lists on four Sunday morning talk shows — ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation and FOX News Sunday — from June 2011 through February 2012 — revealed there were far more conservatives and Republican politicians featured on these programs than any other group.
FAIR founder Jeff Cohen was an on-air commentator and senior producer at MSNBC in the early 2000s. Working on one of the most-watched shows on the network, “The Phil Donahue Show,” which was terminated the day before the Iraq War, most likely because of its “anti-war” viewpoint. Cohen said management ordered that for every anti-war guest on the show, they needed to book two pro-war guests.
“If we booked two guests on the left, we had to book three on the right. At one meeting, a producer suggested booking Michael Moore and was told that she would need to book three right-wingers for balance. I considered suggesting Noam Chomsky as a guest, but our studio couldn’t accommodate the 86 right-wingers we would have needed for balance.”
Andrew Kirtzman, a New York City cable news reporter, said that in 1996 when he interviewed for a job with FOX, management wanted to know his political affiliation. “They were afraid I was a Democrat,” he said. After refusing to share where his political allegiance aligned, Kirtzman said “all employment discussion ended.”
It’s not just politicians and strategists that provide a partial-view to a variety of news topics, but it’s also think tanks. Corporate-funded think tanks and representatives of companies with interests in military contracting far outpower any other perspective on the news, said Norman Solomon, an author, columnist and activist.
One of the biggest offenders is the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which had to limit the amount of time its staffers could watch FOX News because the think tank’s system kept crashing.
Manipulation of facts
Rendall says “hands down” the worst offender when it comes to bias is FOX, not just because they highlight only one, conservative-centric point of view, but because FOX gets its facts wrong “all the time.”
Blacklisted himself from the network after correcting Bill O’Reilly one too many times regarding truths about the Iraq War, Rendall said that “FOX [commentators and anchors] say things that are not true with regularity,” and often “indulge in a sort of animus going after people that’s really unprofessional and unbecoming.”
He continued, saying that since the nation began discussing gun laws and guns being used as a form of self-protection, FOX has repeatedly quoted a discredited study that says that each year there are 2.5 million instances in which those in the United States defended themselves successfully with a gun. “That’s about 8,000 times a day if you work out the math,” Rendall said. “700-800 instances a day in New York City.”
“Far better studies like one from Harvard have debunked this [study]. Official numbers [of people protecting themselves with guns] is actually around 65,000, but FOX continues to repeat the [inaccurate] study and they don’t even care. You could send them a letter on FAIR stationary and correct the fact, but they won’t do anything about it.”
While all journalists get the facts wrong at one time or another in their career, Rendall says no organization in the industry lies like FOX. “If FOX told the truth and they acted professionally, I wouldn’t care if there was a network that came from the right … Stations that are biased like FOX that have people speaking from one point of view all the time are not unhealthy if properly labeled and we have a full spectrum of such channels.”
Mint Press requested an interview or statement from FOX News, but once they learned the nature of the story, they said they didn’t think they would be able to respond before our deadline, which was four days later. Mint Press sent follow-up requests to FOX after speaking with Rendall, but our request was not returned.
Mint Press also reached out to CNN and MSNBC as well, but our requests for an interview or statement were not returned.
Lack of coverage
When it comes to social issues like guns or abortion, Rendall says both sides of an issue are typically heard. But where the media fails to cover multiple perspectives on topics, such as economics, the biggest culprit of them all being FOX.
When asked what topics covered in the news are most affected by bias, Solomon listed economics first. He told MPN that there is an inherent bias in the media that dictates topics that are covered and how they are covered.
“Have you ever tuned into a program like American Public Media and heard a program called ‘labor place’? No — it’s ‘Market place.’ There’s a business section in the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and New York Times, but there’s no labor section.”
“We’ve seen a huge focus on the deficit, which is something most traditional economists don’t think is a big issue,” Rendall said. “But it is a big issue to the corporate types, those that own the media conglomerates, so the news then concentrates on deficits.”
He continued to tell Mint Press that though poverty reached its highest levels in decades in early 2012, there was almost zero mention of poverty during the election and the media failed to ask politicians why.
Solomon said another topic that gets muddled is foreign policy, as networks rely on official sources for their information.
This trust in government officials to accurately portray reality is likely why news organizations make the news when they correct or hold a government official responsible for their words and actions. Recently, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke with NPR and claimed that the U.S. doesn’t carry out drone strikes when women and/or children are present.
During the interview, NPR asked Panetta about how civilian deaths affect the decision to strike. He answered that “if there were any women or children we would not take the shot. I mean, that became a rule we abided by.”
So how does he explain that since the United States began using drone strikes in Pakistan in 2004, more than 3,400 Pakistanis have been killed, of which more than 175 were children?
NPR did include a brief paragraph in their report saying, “There is at least one case where U.S. officials, including Panetta, knew that a woman was present at a possible strike site, and the attack was ordered anyway.”
However, the organization failed to call the public’s attention to the large discrepancy between what Panetta told them and the truth, and instead focused on more entertaining aspects of Panetta’s career and life, such as his love for California.
It’s no coincidence our founding fathers gave the press an almost unlimited freedom in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as the free flow of information is essential for the success of our democracy.
To this day, the press is still legally awarded the same freedom of generations past, but many mainstream media networks have forgotten their role is to not just inform the public, but to keep a check on Washington by asking the tough questions and relying on more than just official statements to craft a story.
How does the media keep from perpetuating this biased approach? “There are two ways,” says Rendall. “FAIR recommends both.”
The first is to reform how the media do their jobs. “Journalists need to take a chance and push against the confines and go against corporate bias where they work by doing a story about the poor that says the deficit is really not that important to economists.”
Rendall says he knows it will be hard, but said that generally 50 percent of journalists and editors report they have been asked to kill, change or write a positive story by an advertiser or a parent company. “We see this all the time in local coverage,” Rendall told said. “Local stations almost never do critical coverage of car dealerships because so much advertising comes in from car dealerships.”
The other approach is a structural approach. Rendall said FAIR believes it would be better if there was a lot more non-commercial media. “Corporate bias is larger than conservative bias,” Rendall says. “It would be much better if we had a lot more non-commercial, public-supported media or some other model like not for profit. Public supported media that could be more independent.”
And since producing news is fairly cheap, established organizations such as Nieman Journalism Lab, Gannett and Poynter, have reported that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the New York Times, St. Louis Dispatch or Minneapolis Star Tribune were replaced with more independent media news sources.