Heavily reliant on political pundits, commentators and think tanks to supply both substance and controversy to their news stories, major media networks like CNN, FOX and MSNBC rarely provide a variety of perspectives from across the political spectrum, to inform and educate the public on news and public policies.
Even the roundtable and panel discussions on these news programs are stocked heavily with a small, conservative fragment of the political spectrum, resulting in a failure to provide a balanced and diverse examination of issues.
This failure to fully, accurately and fairly report the news is probably why, according to a Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans say they distrust the media — a number that has been increasing since 2004, when the media failed to question Washington officials about their statements that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Even though the chief United Nations (U.N.) weapons inspector repeatedly reminded Americans that despite years of U.N. inspections, no chemical or biological weapons had been found, and it was his job to determine if Iraq was hiding weapons, journalists continued to report on the dangers of these weapons instead of questioning Washington’s intelligence that Saddam Hussein did in fact have weapons of mass destruction hidden.
Corporate bias: Not Republican or Democratic
Though the media has been labeled as the “liberal elite” by conservative politicians and corporate bigwigs alike, Steve Rendall, a senior analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), says the strongest bias in our media is not a Republican or Democratic political bias, but a “corporate bias,” with the media reiterating the viewpoints and news most important to CEOs and business analysts.
In a report from FAIR on bias in the media, the organization reported that, in 1992, Republican party chair Rich Bond said conservatives’ “frequent denunciations of ‘liberal bias’ in the media were part of a ‘strategy.’” Bond also reportedly compared journalists to referees and explained: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.”
Norman Solomon, an author, columnist and activist, agrees with Rendall that corporate bias is an overarching reality in our mass media. Solomon says that corporate power is fundamental in determining what we get in our news, how we get our news and what we don’t get.
For example, the Walt Disney Co., which owns news organizations like ABC, decided not to distribute filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 911,” which was “highly critical of the financial ties between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family, as well as action taken by the U.S. government in evacuating relatives of Osama bin Laden immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks.”
“The more that media is concentrated in the hands of a few huge corporate owners, the more likely we’ll see this type of corporate censorship,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. “One of the bedrocks of democracy is the freedom to express all ideas, no matter how controversial. When ideas are suppressed, our freedoms are diluted.
“Will Michael Moore’s film offend some people?” Pingree said. “Probably. But how will the public ever know? How can the public decide the merits when a handful of corporate executives decide for us?”
But according to Ari Emanuel, Moore’s agent, Disney CEO Michael Eisner wasn’t so much concerned about the public’s reaction to the film, but how his friends in Washington would react. Emanuel said Eisner “expressed particular concern that [showing the film] would endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush’s brother, Jeb, is governor.”
“Contrary to what right-wing media critics say, the agenda of CNN and its fellow mainstream outlets is not liberal or conservative, but staunchly centrist,” writes FAIR. “The perspectives they value most are those of the bipartisan establishment middle, the same views that make up the mainstream corporate consensus that media publishers and executives are themselves a part of.”
MSNBC is accused of having a liberal bias, but Rendall says it’s more accurate to say the network has a Democratic party bias. “In its prime time offerings, they have people who are somewhat liberal, though it’s still more accurate to say they are aligned with the Democratic party as they’re not leading anti-war marches …They’re very pro-Obama and don’t criticize his decisions.”
And FOX. Though it touts itself as “Fair and Balanced” and the only unbiased news network, FOX produces a plethora of GOP-friendly news. As FAIR found, it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that FOX has an “abundance of conservatives and Republicans” working for them.
It’s not that these networks have a bias that is of concern to groups like FAIR — in fact the group points out that the U.S. media is “unusual, perhaps even unique,” in that our idea of journalism is so heavily tied to the idea of “objective” news. “In Great Britain, papers like the conservative Times of London and the left-leaning Guardian deliver consistently excellent coverage while making no secret of their respective points of view.”
The strongest bias of all: corporate
If our media is biased in favor of either the right or the left, Rendall says it’s not the left, but a corporate bias, with a subordinate conservative or Republican bias.
The issue those like Rendall have with this corporate-centric viewpoint is that by catering to corporate cultures, the media neglects issues of importance to and perspectives from the homeless, and poor and working class Americans, among others.
Evidenced by the media’s trust in and widespread reliance on Washington officials and corporate public relations teams for information, what Washington says goes in today’s news without much questioning by journalists.
In the documentary, “War Made Easy,” based on Solomon’s book of the same title, Solomon expresses concern that there is not a free flow of information in our society. In an interview with Mint Press News, Solomon reiterated this point and said it’s essential to a democracy for the media to question the government and any official statements coming out of Washington.
“If you don’t have a watchdog media, you have a lapdog media. If you have a lapdog media, it doesn’t do much for democracy,” Solomon said.
Rendall agrees. Citing a quote from an attorney from Oregon Edward Monks, he said: “Political opinions expressed on talk radio are approaching the level of [conservative] uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a totalitarian society. There is nothing fair, balanced or democratic about it.”
A report from FAIR found that on Sunday morning news programs, U.S. government sources, comprised of current officials, former lawmakers, political candidates, party-affiliated political operatives and campaign advisers accounted for about 47 percent of all guests.
The next most frequently-used group on news programs were “middle-of-the-road Beltway reporters,” who accounted for 43 percent of all appearances. This doesn’t leave much room for other perspectives.
Bias perpetuated by commentators and think tanks
Until recently, James Carville was a frequent commentator on CNN as well as many other news programs. Though he was introduced as a Democratic strategist on CNN, the extent that Carville was still connected to the Democratic party was not always divulged to viewers.
Carville has reportedly not been paid to serve as a consultant for any politicians since he was a senior political adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but he remains active in the Democratic party as a party fundraiser.
“Anyone who follows politics closely knows that James Carville was an advisor to President Bill Clinton,” says Rendall, but just because the public likely knows about Carville or other pundits’ connections, the media isn’t relieved from their duty to clearly identify any sort of interests or conflicts that are relevant, such as Carville’s connections to the Democrats.
Carville’s wife, Mary Matalin, was also a political contributor for CNN, but unlike Carville, Matalin was a Republican strategist. Though introduced as a Republican-friendly commentator, Matalin’s full resume, which includes working for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as positions within the Republican Party, wasn’t shared with viewers every time she appeared on the network.
While CNN sought to balance news coverage with commentators from both the Republican and Democratic party, Rendall says the problem with commentary from persons like Carville and Matalin is that they are loyal to a political party. “Their loyalty, like a million other pundits, was not to the truth or academic standards, but to the party or certain politicians.”
Rendall recognizes there is a bias in all of us and said media networks prefer commentators who will provide “fireworks” on TV, which is why they use “political hacks” instead of using independent sources such as academics, authors, experts or investigative journalists who delve deep into their stories. Having a married couple with differing opinions like Carville and Matalin was just another way to add entertainment to the news.