Belief in “liberal media bias” has become such accepted dogma, its truth is no longer questioned among conservatives, who see slights lurking behind every corner. Recent events, however, have brought renewed attention to the issue, and exposed how capitalizing on perceived bias has metastasized into its own lucrative industry.
The central exchange occurred on “Fox News Sunday,” where host Chris Wallace seemingly slipped while interviewing Jon Stewart, resulting in a moment of perhaps-inadvertent candor.
Referring to the “liberal media” — meant to encompass major networks and newspapers — Wallace said, “They have a liberal agenda, and we tell the other side of the story.”
Not the “fair and balanced” side, mind you, but what parallel logic dictates as advancing a conservative agenda.
For Fox News Channel, presenting itself as an alternative — perhaps even an antidote — to the liberal media has always been a brilliant marketing strategy. But beginning with the aim of providing an ideological counterweight to something is nevertheless antithetical to traditional news-gathering, which in its purest form seeks truth and insight, without preconceived notions or conditions.
Stewart reinforced his skills as a media observer, meanwhile, by articulating the fallacy of the bias argument about as well as it’s ever been done.
“The bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict and laziness,” “The Daily Show” host told an unconvinced-looking Wallace, adding, “You can’t understand, because of the world you live in, that there is not a designed ideological agenda on my part to affect partisan change, because that is the soup you swim in.”
As for the canard that most mainstream journalists are registered Democrats with do-gooder impulses, Stewart said, “The majority of people working in (mainstream journalism) probably hold liberal viewpoints, but I don’t think that they are as relentlessly activist as the conservative movement that has risen up over the last 40 years. That movement has decided that they have been victims.”
Indeed, “conservative journalism” came about as an expression of anger and rallying cry, shrewdly exploiting those feelings of victimization. Because business has been good, that industry must keep unearthing fresh sources of evidence and outrage, from comments by a National Public Radio fundraiser to an email chain of media progressives dubbed the JournoList.
Still, news is only part of the liberal bias discussion as perceived on the right. And there has been recent action on those fronts too, first via a book supposedly blowing the lid off Hollywood’s activism; and second, absurdly, in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance on NBC that omitted “Under God” from the verse.
In terms of feeding the media-victim culture, “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV” is a conceptual home run, featuring author Ben Shapiro’s interviews with Hollywood figures and laying bare rampant liberalism. What Fox News booker could resist — just as left-leaning websites had a field day with his criticism of “Sesame Street” brainwashing children.
Yet as Stewart told Wallace, progressive values are hardly Hollywood’s “primary motivating force,” the Sean Penns of the world notwithstanding. That’s why Shapiro loses considerable credibility by attempting to trace the roots of liberal influence to the late 1960s, when the emphasis on younger demographics prompted CBS to replace rural-skewing shows like “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction” with “All in the Family.”
Whatever the sideshows, the crux then, as now, was money, not message.
“TV lies to the advertising agencies,” Shapiro told the Christian Broadcasting Network, as if poor, helpless media buyers played no part in perpetuating a discriminatory system — only one based on age, not politics.
Finally, the pledge-reading during NBC’s U.S. Open golf coverage unleashed a level of righteous indignation far more interesting than the omission itself. Advocacy groups immediately pounced, with the Media Research Center’s Dan Gainor apoplectically labeling the absence of those two words “an act of religious bigotry designed to offend Christians.”
The irony is the right’s near-religious faith in bias presupposes more competence than the media often exhibit in their exuberant pursuit of the next sex scandal or celebrity meltdown. Indeed, Stewart’s mantra has included the disclaimer that if the media did its job properly, he wouldn’t have so much ripe material to skewer every day.
On that score, Stewart needn’t worry. Because like conservative media stoking the embers of outrage, he’s tapped into a highly renewable resource.