Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Great Media Bias Debate

Conservatives regularly complain that the elite media outlets tilt to the Left. The elite media include such outfits as PBS, NPR, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, to mention only some of them. Liberals, however, vehemently deny this bias charge. Here is Alan Colmes of Hannity and Colmes: “The media is [sic] conservative. Not liberal.” (Red, White, and Liberal, Regan Books, 2003, p. 101.) This is in a chapter entitled “The Myth of the Liberal Media.”

I would have thought that liberals should just concede the bias charge, so persuasively made by Bernard Goldberg in Bias and in Arrogance, and go on to say that they like having control of the elite media. But no, they deny what we conservatives take to be a simple fact. So what is going on here? Is there a fact of the matter? Or is it all a matter of ‘perception’?

Colmes’ first ‘argument’ in support of his thesis is that the media are owned by “a bunch of corporations” not “a bunch of raving lefties.” (p. 101) The argument seems to be this: (1) The elite outlets are owned by corporations whose interests are not liberal, but conservative. (2) The corporate owners, being conservative, inject conservative content into their broadcasts. Therefore, (3) “The
media is [sic] conservative.” Note that premise (2) is needed to move validly from (1) to (3). But (2) is obviously false. First, I wouldn’t describe Ted Turner as conservative in his political views. Second, the corporate owners don’t much care about the ideological content: their concern is with profits, ratings, the ‘bottom line.’ The corporate owners of the elite outlets are ‘conservative’ mainly
in the sense that they aim to make and preserve money. But this is entirely consistent with a tilt to the Left in the broadcast content.

The point is that you cannot show that elite media outlet XYZ has a conservative content bias by showing that its corporate owners are ‘conservative’ in the sense of motivated by a desire for profit, opposed to government control of the press, etc. Colmes has fallen victim to an equivocation on ‘conservative.’ But clarity of mind is not a strong suit among liberals.

Another mistake that Colmes makes is the ignoratio elenchi. You commit this fallacy of reasoning when you attack a thesis other than the one your opponent is making. Thus Colmes thinks he can refute the claim that the elite media outlets display liberal bias by pointing to “talk radio, talk television, syndicated columnists, and the national best-seller lists...” (p. 102) But no conservative
argues that every media outlet tilts to the Left. AM talk radio, dominated as it is by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al. tilts to the Right. The conservative claim is that the elite outlets are biased to the Left. I gave a partial list of them above. There is nothing elite about the AM band. Most liberals would not be caught dead listening to it.

Now does Mr. Colmes really want to claim that the elite outfits listed above are ideologically conservative? That would be just factually wrong. It is important to see that there is a fact of the matter here. It is not a question of ‘perception’ or ideological interpretation. Thus my claim that The New York Times is biased to the Left is not an ideological claim, but a factual one, as can be established by a careful and unbiased reading of the paper in question. As such, it is a claim that the liberal ought to agree with me on. But if I said that The N.Y. Times’ bias is pernicious, then that would be an ideological claim, hence not one I could reasonably expect the liberal to accept.

The low level of Colmes’ discussion is illustrated by this preposterous assertion: “When conservatives refer to ‘the liberal media,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘Everything this media outlet says is a lie.’” (p. 104) Note first the way most contemporary liberals misuse ‘lie.’ They think that lies and false statements are equivalent. But to lie, you must know the truth and attempt to hide it from your audience. Merely making a statement that turns out to be false does not constitute a lie. Thus if Bush was wrong about WMDs, it doesn’t follow that he lied about them. Now liberals are not so intellectually obtuse as not to know this. So one must conclude that they are willfully misusing language to forward their political agenda. If they are not intellectually obtuse, they are morally obtuse.

In any case, no conservative thinks that everything in The New York Times, say, is a ‘lie.’ The fallacy Colmes is committing here is called ‘the straw man.’ The epithet is self-explanatory, and I leave it as an exercise to discern the difference between straw man and ignoratio elenchi.

Here is the truth of the matter. The elite media outfits listed above tilt to the Left. This is not a matter of interpretation or ‘perception,’ but an objective fact provable to any unbiased person. Now this leftward bias is no problem on the Op-Ed page, or in commentary segments of TV broadcasts. But when the bias bleeds over into what is claimed to be objective reportage, then there is a problem. The problem is compounded when the biased reporters do not admit to their bias. But liberal bias is not the problem it used to be since conservatives and other nonliberals (e.g., libertarians) now have at their disposal plenty of AM stations, the Fox News Network, numerous websites, and C-Span. The free market place of ideas is alive and well, and we should all be grateful. As for C-Span, it sets
the standard for objectivity.