Why Big Cities Make Media Liberal—and Why the Koch Brothers Can't Do Anything About It

Newspapers are the ultimate product of urban space.
Giovanni Boldini, Newspaperman,1878 (detail)

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the Koch brothers -- yes, those Koch brothers, of dumping mad cash into elections fame -- are considering buying the Tribune network of newspapers in a bid to establish a pro-business conservative media chain.

I say, good luck with that.

There are several reasons regional newspapers are an awkward fit for anyone looking to counter-program what they see as liberal bias in the news media.

The main reason is that all major U.S. newspapers are based in cities. Cities in America are in the main run by Democrats, because they are populated, by and large, with Democrats, and very often also surrounded by Democratic suburbs. And because cities are run by Democrats, and populated by not only by Democrats but, very often, by liberal, minority, and immigrant Democrats, they tend to have laws on the books that at least formally signal a desire to serve the interests of these voting groups -- their residents, let's call them.

Newspapers, which are businesses, are subject to the employment and other laws of the cities in which they are based. Because they are based in cities, and because cities are often at the forefront of progressive legislating, newspapers tend to work under employment laws and answer to regional communities that have distinctive views about what a just society looks like. Conservatives are right to call these views liberal, but it's just as important to recognize them as the product of representative democracy within defined urban spaces (see Richard Florida for more on what it is that causes cities to vote Democratic). Newspapers, like other businesses, have to follow the local laws -- such as those protecting out gay employees -- or risk getting sued. And, historically, they had to appeal to urban or urbanizing local residents if they wanted any subscribers.

A typical version of the conservative complaint about the views of people who are part of the media comes from The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who cut her teeth in conservative media before joining the Post as a conservative opinion blogger. She ignores the role of the city in creating and sustaining the contemporary newspaper:

There is no doubt there is a secular, urbanized (emphasis added), college-educated and socially liberal portion of the United States. Unfortunately for the rest of America, the media are almost entirely made up of such people, who by virtue of their employment and income status have limited contact with those on the other side of this cultural gap ....

In recent decades there has been a push for more racial, ethnic and gender diversity in newsrooms, but virtually no effort to incorporate geographic, cultural, political, social and religious diversity. That makes for newsrooms that are at the very least more likely to ignore or distort the views and lives of rural, religious, pro-life, non-college educated and conservative Americans. In age, beliefs, religion, educational level, income, military service and many other indices, journalists in major outlets are unrepresentative, enormously so, of the country at large ....

The more newsrooms reflect full intellectual, religious, geographic, economic and ideological diversity the less likely they will be to "miss" stories or get them wrong and the more likely they will insulate themselves from criticism of bias. Unfortunately, they never seem to get around to that.

I don't like to talk about "the media," because it's such a large category it's almost impossible to make generalizations about it. Talk radio, for example, is a very different beast from cable news, which is a different thing again from online media or newspapers. But because the Koch brothers are contemplating buying a chain of newspapers, I want to concentrate on that form of media here.

It's all very well and good to argue that newspapers lack regional diversity, as Rubin does, except this ignores the fundamental historic organizing principle of newspapers: geography.

American newspapers originated as physical objects designed to be distributed in defined, geographically constrained regions. They originated as urban creations because only in urban areas was there enough commerce, enough politics -- enough news -- for them to grow, and enough readers to make them strong. There are newspapers based in rural areas, but it is hard for them to grow large, both because of the lack of regional news, and because of the difficulty of getting the physical object of the paper to enough people to scale it. Newspapers have historically depended on high densities of people for their existence (see Discovering The News: A Social History Of American Newspapers, for a really wonderful and fun history of the form).

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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