I recall seeing a political cartoon that contrasted the way the media treated Tim Tebow versus how it treated Jason Collins, the first openly-homosexual NBA player. It depicted Tebow saying: “I’m a Christian,” and the reporter turns his back to him and walks away muttering: “Keep it to yourself.” Next to that picture, Collins is depicted saying: “I’m gay,” and the reporter lifts his microphone towards him and exclaims: “Tell me more, you big hero!!!”
Have you noticed a difference in the way the media covers liberals versus conservatives? When it comes to left-wing economic and social policies, do you find that the media functions more as advocates than reporters? In fact, the media bias is so rampant in this election cycle that Michael Goodwin of the New York Post was forced to write: “American journalism is collapsing before our eyes.”
Why are journalists so liberal? Or perhaps to put it more precisely: How can an institution that claims to be impartial and objective in its reporting turn out to be so blatantly biased? There was a time that journalism embraced its role as political advocate. For most of the nineteenth century, print media was explicitly partisan in its perspectives, and openly sought to persuade an increasingly literate public to particular political positions and policies.
However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, journalism, along with Western society as a whole, went through two fundamental changes reflective of a cultural turn towards secular liberal values. First, journalists began to reimagine their craft as an extension of scientific rationalism which sought to analyze events objectively and impartially, irrespective of the preconceptions of the reporter. According to media historian Richard Kaplan:
Under objectivity, journalists adopt the pose of scientist and vow to eliminate their own beliefs and values as guides in ascertaining what was said and done. Supposedly avoiding all subjective judgments and analysis, the journalist strives to become a rigorously impartial, expert collector of information.
This is why the journalist is never part of the story he or she is covering, since such an inclusion would violate the perception of objectivity. This ‘perceived absence’ is a primary way in which journalists establish themselves as mediators of information comprised of data and facts.
While the first change involved the journalist conception of knowledge, the second change involved the journalist orientation towards values. Scientific rationalism erects new boundaries of knowledge that effectively censor religions, traditions, customs, and cultures from the realm of what can be known. Indeed, scientific facts are considered objective precisely because they transcend the biases and prejudices innate to cultural values and norms. And so what emerges from this pre-commitment to scientific rationalism is what has been called a fact/value dichotomy: facts are objective while values are subjective, facts apply to all while values apply to only some. Thus, as the journalist transforms into an impartial observer of economic, political, and social events, he or she begins to view moral and religious sensibilities in terms of personal lifestyle values which are relative to individuals or cultures. Today, virtually every media outlet features prominently a “Lifestyles” section where we can learn about everything from the sex habits of entertainers to our horoscopes.
There is, I believe, an inescapable global consequence to these twin commitments of secular liberalism: inexorably, the secular liberal reimagines the world bifocally as comprised of those who embrace secular liberal values on the one hand and those who reject them on the other. Those who embrace secular commitments are by definition rational and liberal, while those who reject them are by definition irrational and repressive.
And when journalists transcribe this bifocality to the political arena, it is applied to two political parties: one which, through its support of abortion, LGBT rights, and strict separation between church and state, demonstrates its commitment to secular liberal values, while the other, through its insistence on traditional morality and social structures, demonstrates its resistance. Thus, one party is viewed consistently as rational and liberal while the other party is viewed as irrational and repressive. And when challenged on such a perspective, journalists can always fall back on objective and impartial ‘facts.’
And so, when you see the media calling an Olympic swimmer who self-identifies as a crime victim a liar, while hailing a male decathlete who self-identifies as a woman a hero, well, now you know.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
 Richard Kaplan, “The Origins of Objectivity in American Journalism,” in Stuart Allen (ed.), The Routledge Companion to News and Journalism (Routledge: New York, 2010), 25-37, 26.
 Mark Allen Peterson, Anthropology and Mass Communication: Myth and Media in the New Millennium (New York: Berghahn Books, 2003), 83.
Published: Aug 25, 2016
Stephen Turley is an internationally recognized scholar, speaker, and blogger at TurleyTalks.com; furthermore, he is the author of Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Dr. Turley is a teacher of Theology, Greek, and Rhetoric at Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle, Delaware, and professor of Fine Arts at Eastern University.
More articles from author
The biggest loser of CNBC’s Republican Presidential debate last week was the news media. Ted Cruz got the loudest applause of the night when he slammed the moderators for asking questions he considered anti-Republican, saying, “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.”
The line thrilled conservatives, as Republican pollster Frank Luntz described on Twitter:
And the thing is, conservatives have a point. Study after study has shown that the mainstream media leans left, and that, as economists Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo have written, “an almost overwhelming fraction of journalists are liberal.” The extent of this bias, of course, depends on what your definitions of liberal and conservative. And the media has other, arguably more important, biases: towards controversy and producing content that is profitable. But it is safe to say that the median journalist in America is to the left of the median American voter, and that this affects how the news is presented to the public.
If the story ended there, this would be a winning talking point for the Republican Party. And you would think that if there’s demand for more conservative media, the free market would provide it. The problem is the free market doesn’t work like members of the Republican orthodoxy claim.
Back in 1971, Edith Efron outlined the pervasive bias of liberalism in the news media in her book The News Twisters. In the nearly 45 years since then, not much has changed. Yes, we have seen the rise of Fox News, America’s most watched cable news network. And there has been a proliferation of small conservative websites. But most Americans still get their news from television, and the ratings of network news broadcasts—the same organizations that conservatives claim have been biased for decades—triple the ratings of even Fox’s most popular programs.
This state of affairs is very distressing to conservatives, who, along with independents, increasingly distrust the news media. So why hasn’t the free market corrected this imbalance between the demand for conservative news and the supply? It’s because economic outcomes are driven by much more than supply and demand. Institutions, rules, and power matter just as much as what consumers demand.
Legacy news organizations like NBC News or the New York Times have brand recognition and resources that no news startup can realistically compete with. But even with these barriers, one would think that the power of the Internet and strong demand for news reported from a conservative viewpoint would have helped create a conservative news complex that could rival the liberal version in size and influence.
But free-market fundamentalists overlook the fact that power dynamics matter a great deal in the marketplace. When economist Daniel Sutter examined the question of how a liberal media can persist in a free market, his most convincing explanation was that journalists themselves, and the type of person who aspires to journalism, are almost uniformly of a liberal disposition. “People with the talent, temperament, and personality to be journalists might also be inclined toward liberal political causes,” he writes.
Of course, a profit-maximizing media executive might simply try to force his employees to set aside their biases and produce news that is congenial to the views of median voters. But this is why power dynamics in the market for journalists is so important. Despite severe job cuts in traditional media organizations like newspapers, the demand for college educated workers who can write and otherwise communicate on the Internet is strong. The hyper-educated media elite are trading the better pay they might fetch in corporate communications (for example) for the prestige of journalism work. If managers of media companies tried to force these workers to produce content that robs them of the benefits of working in journalism, they’ll simply find work elsewhere.
Liberals recognize that power plays a big role in all kinds of markets. That’s why they advocate for rules that prevent discrimination against workers based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. It’s how liberals explain the gap in pay between men and women for the same kind of work. And it’s why liberals advocate for laws that strengthen unions as a means to raise wages for low and middle-skilled workers.
That doesn’t mean the solutions proposed by the left can necessarily solve the problems caused by skewed power dynamics in media. But the persistent existence of a liberal media bias should open up conservatives’ eyes to the fact that they exist.