Media Bias Against Conservatives? Here's What the Right Isn't Told

A National Review column complaining 'mainstream media outlets' don't address unfair treatment of the Right fails to mention a few things


In Jonah Goldberg's latest, he returns to one of his hobbyhorses, media bias. His argument is what you'd expect: an assertion that "the mainstream media," a term he never defines, is skewered in favor of liberals, something he tries to prove with examples I find less worthy of engagement (for my views on the matter, see this) than his broader claim. Here it is formatted to fit your screen:

One of the more remarkable forms of self-delusion is the tendency of mainstream media figures to think they have no culpability for the political culture they complain about. They see conservative 'extremism' and think it's directly the result of the right-wing media fomenting unjustified anger. What they don't seem to grasp is that a lot of conservative anger is a response to the mainstream media's tendency to call every conservative idea 'extreme.'

The perception that the MSM is rigged and biased against conservative views is entirely justified, in my opinion. But even if it weren't, it exists nonetheless. And yet, after decades of watching elite journalists debate elite journalism, I don't think I've ever heard a serious discussion grappling with the MSM's responsibility for creating that impression. When it comes to blacks, women, gays et al., the Newseum jawboners constantly talk about their responsibilities to be more inclusive, sensitive, and careful. When it comes to the complaints of conservatives, the response is an immediate eye-roll followed by defensive prattle about being "objective" and the tendency of conservatives to embrace victimhood.

As a longtime observer of "elite journalists debating elite journalism," I find Goldberg's characterization to be just the sort of unjustified embrace of victim status that he breezily denies.

At NYU, where I got a masters in journalism, Adam Penenberg, the capable professor who taught my ethics course, spent substantial class time on the subject of ideological bias and reader perception. On another occasion, when I was at Columbia University, sitting in on Sam Freedman's ethics class as a guest, the professor and New York Times columnist said, "If there's a reason that conservatives accuse the media of liberal bias, at least part of that reason is because of the culture of consensus we share on a number of issues. I don't think that shared set of values is conspiratorial. To a great extent, it has to do with the self-selecting nature of any profession, which for us means the way journalism tends to attract people with a reformist bent, people with a desire to contribute to, if not directly make, social change. One result, though, is that readers or viewers who do not share many of our values feel we are alien, even antagonistic."When I worked at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin newspaper, my first job out of college, my colleagues and editors were explicitly attuned to the perception of conservative readers and the need to guard against ideological bias. My impression is that similar conversations happened at all the Media News Group newspapers in California. In just the last week, I've followed the story of Caitlin Curran, a freelancer fired from WNYC, wrongly in my view, because her editors worried that her participation in an Occupy Wall Street rally might give observers the impression that the show on which she worked wasn't neutral and evenhanded in its coverage.

Another trend of late is for big newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times to hire ombudsman or "reader's representative" whose actual job duties are in part to respond to complaints from conservatives and to keep the publications of which they're a part honest. This in addition to hiring conservatives as columnists or, in the case of the Post and Jennifer Rubin, as bloggers explicitly chosen in part because of their acceptability to conservatives in the audience.

I'd be shocked if there is a single big city newspaper in America that hasn't earnestly grappled with this subject. The same goes for the big journalism non-profits and professional schools. Equally certain is that Goldberg is aware of at least some of these efforts. This isn't to say that they're entirely successful. But reading Goldberg, you'd never even know that they were made.

And that is part of why conservatives are unjustifiably angry. Inside the conservative media bubble, they rely on writers like Goldberg as if they're reliably characterizing reality, rather than lazily echoing pre-existing beliefs, and in doing so, they get an extremely and demonstrably inaccurate impression of the actual relationship between "the mainstream media" and conservatism. Kept ignorant of all the efforts I've mentioned in this post, and many more that I haven't noted, conservatives imagine that, unique among all groups, no efforts are being made to address their concerns.

Is it any wonder they see themselves as victims?

Long ago, Goldberg insisted that "epistemic closure" didn't exist on the right. His failure to acknowledge the outreach efforts "mainstream media organizations" and "elite journalists" have made to conservatives -- or else his own ignorance of those efforts -- is a quintessential example.  

Image credit: NS Newsflash