Media bias?

Perhaps you’ve heard people say this before. The ‘liberal media.’ What does it mean, who says it, and how do they support their arguments? There are also some, less often heard in mainstream media, who claim a conservative media bias. Before we even attempt any kind of answer, we should first go over some relevant terms, like media, liberal, conservative, and bias.


This would refer to a form of communication. Since we’re basically talking about communication to potentially large numbers of people, we’ll call it mass media. This includes various forms of media:

  • Print (books, newspapers, magazines)
  • TV (satellite, cable, network, TiVo)
  • Cinema
  • Internet (could include radio, video, too)
  • Computer (video games, books, gameboy, playstation, software, etc. Do you see how these are forms of media?)
  • Radio

So when we talk about ‘the media,’ it’s always a good idea to be more specific if we can–to which kind of medium are you referring?

Liberal and Conservative–comparing gross generalizations

What does it mean to be liberal? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Party affiliation. Liberals are more associated with the democratic party (versus republicans, who are more likely conservative)
  • One state, two state, red state blue state, and the ‘big sort.’ Certain parts of the country are considered more conservative, certain parts more liberal. By state, we sometimes refer to the more conservative states as ‘red states,’ and the less conservative as ‘blue states’ (the links above are to maps that show how political views often get divided up geographically). There are pretty clear patterns, if you look at the map. OR so it seems–some states are blue, others are red. Of course, reality is somewhat more complicated–for instance, in Oregon and Washington, the east side of the state votes conservative, the west side more liberal. So the ‘red state / blue state’ distinction may not mean much, in the end–turns out differences have more to do with where someone lives in the state, and the whole notion that people are easily categorized as ‘red’ or ‘blue’ seems seriouisly flawed.
  • There are also rural and urban differences. Oregon is a good example of this. The three-county area around Portland votes democratic, the rest of the state more republican. But at the county level, voting looks a lot more, well purple. When you re-size them in proportion to their populations (i.e., the larger the county population, the larger the size), you get this. Meaning, the ‘red state blue state’ is a gross oversimplification, but one of many perpetuated by mainstream, commercial media.

More recently, journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert Cushing have identified what they refer to as the ‘big sort.’ The US has become more polarized, they say, in terms of who votes for what party, and it follows in many cases along rural/urban lines. Are we just naturally polarizing ourselves, living closer to people with whom we agree, or do media have some role to play in polarizing the electorate?

  • Right and left–we’ve spoke in class about the difference between ‘right’ and ‘left.’ If you think of politics along a spectrum, to the extreme right are the fascists–heavily into law and order, very autocratic, with few civil liberties. Examples of fascist governments would be Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Pinochet’s Chile, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, etc. Examples to the extreme left would be communists. There haven’t been any real communist regimes in the sense that Karl Marx envisioned them, but the Soviet Union and its satellite states (the ‘Eastern Bloc’) are the most well-known examples. In communist states, wealth is supposed to be redistributed. In the Soviet Union example, this meant that most everyone was poor, but equally poor, except for government bureaucrats and athletes, artists, etc., who often received special privileges (in other words, there was still a powerful ruling class, as there is in the US, but in the Soviet Union it was based on political party). So left is often associated with liberal and democrat, and right with conservative and republican. These are just stereotypes–the way they’re presented in the media.
  • Race, ethnicity, gender, age. Views can vary along these lines as well. Minorities are more likely to vote democratic, women tend to vote democratic more often than men. As people age and have more formal education, their views tend to become more liberal. But as they age and their income increases (this is a fairly standard occurrence, you should be happy to know), their views become more conservative. Why would higher income tend to affect one’s political views? Go figure . . .
  • Issues that separate conventional ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ views. Here are a few (here’s a table):
    • Role of government: Conservatives prefer that government play a small role–too much government is a corrupting and wasteful influence. Private property and capitalism work best when government stays out of the way. Especially the Federal Government–they are more likely to support authority at the local or state level. Liberals tend to think that government is necessary to curb the excesses of capitalism and the private sector, and to ensure that all citizens are entitled to basic fundamental rights. The federal government has often intervened when states, for instance, were discriminating against minority groups. The liberal viewpoint is that taxes are necessary to support the society and care for the disadvantaged. Conservatives believe that people know better than the government what to do with their money. But they do tend to like things like prisons, police departments, etc. Education, roads, social services, management of public lands, regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Securities and Exchange Commission (sort of the police force for corporations) are there to ensure that private corporations aren’t fleecing their customers or shareholders, or aren’t polluting and killing citizens located near their factories, etc.
    • Morality: Conservatives generally just have more conservative ideas about what morality is, or should be. Their ‘social construction’ of morality is more conservative than liberals’. Conservatives may be more likely to attend church, especially more conservative Christian Churches (Baptists, LDS, Jehovah’s Witness). The conservative view is that declining marriage, increasing divorce and co-habitation, acceptance of gay relationships and gay lifestyles, etc., are corrosive influences on society. Not all change is bad, but generally rapid change is resisted, especially where it challenges traditional values of conservatives. They stress the importance of ‘family values’ (the ideal type being two parent heterosexual). Liberals stress tolerance, point to how ‘family values’ in the 1950s co-existed with severe racial and sex discrimination, and contend that those who are considered ‘deviant’ should have as much right to public space and public resources as other dominant groups (white, male, protestant, heterosexual . . . ).
    • Poverty: Conservatives are more likely to think of poverty as an individual problem. Those in poverty are unmotivated, have no work ethic, or are single parent. If you look at the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 (appropriately titled the ‘Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act), promotion of marriage is a key feature, as is abstinence-only sex education. Getting people off of welfare and into low-wage work is also a central feature. Welfare recipients, so many conservatives say, have grown dependent on welfare, and what they need is some ‘tough love’ to embrace the work ethic and work their way up the socioeconomic ladder. Welfare benefits should be less attractive than the lowest-paying, least secure jobs. A more liberal view would say that poverty is not an individual problem–it’s a huge social problem, and at any given time, even with antiquated definitions of poverty, there are 35 million people who fall below the poverty line. People are constantly in and out of poverty, losing work, health benefits, using up savings, running up charge cards, etc. Most people have little opportunity to pursue the American dream–many go to underfunded schools with the least qualified teachers paid the lowest, and have few if any expectations about going to college and if they do are likely not to be prepared to compete well with their peers. Poverty is for liberals a structural problem, and the government has an obligation to address it. The means-tested programs that poor qualify for make up a small portion of the budget–maybe 6% at most–while mandatory spending on social security, Medicare and defense makes up a much larger percentage. In fact, a more liberal view suggests that a key function of welfare is to subsidize employers who do not pay their workers a living wage (which for a family of four would be probably $13/hr–the minimum wage in Oregon is just over $7/hr).
    • Environment. Conservative views tend to focus on economic development and markets–encouraging use and extraction of natural resources (especially fossil fuels), less stringent regulations on pollution. If there is a market for ‘clean’ technologies, solar energy, etc., those who value it will enter it. Liberals are more likely to support government regulation of industry, protection of habitats, policies on issues like global warming, reductions in pollution, greater fuel efficiency, etc. Corporations may pollute to cut costs and increase profits, and markets won’t prevent them from doing this, especially if consumers don’t know. They would say government has a ‘watchdog’ role to play, and the watchdog must have teeth (ability to levy fines, for instance). Liberals are more likely to say that global warming needs to be addressed, even if it will mean painful transitions in the economy. Conservatives would say that economic concerns should come before environmental concerns (unless the extinction of the species seems a possibility …).

Who believes what?

Here is a list of issues, taken from the Heritage Foundation’s employment application. It’s a pretty good litmus test of liberal or conservative, at least as it’s portrayed in the media. See if you can figure out whether the statements are representing liberal or conservative views, and where the Heritage Foundation lies on the political spectrum:

Answer Y (yes) or N (no) depending on whether you agree with the following statements:

Y N The U.S. has the right to use force to protect its national interests.
Y N The U.N. should not have authority over the citizens or public policies of sovereign nations.
Y N Free trade benefits US consumers.

Y N Education should be opened to increased competition through vouchers or tax credits for private schools.
Y N Judges should not make decisions based on their policy preferences.
Y N Union membership should be at the option of the employee, not a requirement for employment.

Y N People should be able to invest a portion of their Social Security payments in a personal account.
Y N Federal spending is too high.
Y N The U.S. needs nationalized health care.

Changing meaning of being ‘liberal’

The meaning of liberal has changed with the neoconservative movement, whose recent roots are often traced to the Republican Congressional Class of 1994 and its leader, Newt Gingrich. Former president Clinton was considered a liberal, but many of his policies were centrist (that is, neither right nor left), and some were fairly conservative. Some say this is the only way democrats can get elected anymore, and appeal to the Southern Democrats who live in the ‘red states.’


What does this mean? Presenting distorted views, in this case that represent certain political points of view, to the exclusion of others. This is especially important when considering news coverage. Are we getting biased news? And if so, is it a liberal, or a conservative bias, or of some other nature?

Keep in mind, we’re simplifying the liberal/conservative dichotomy. There are plenty of republicans who are pro choice, and there are plenty of democrats who are pro-life, as an example.

So . . . is there a liberal bias in the media? That story’s coming up after these important announcements from our sponsors …