Overview - Neoconservative Media

The rise of neoconservativism over the last 20 years or so has bought with it an entirely new phenomenon—Far-Right media outlets. In itself, this is not new. Forums for every worldview on earth have always been easily available, even before the Internet. During the Cold War every large American city had newsstands where Pravda and the International Socialist review were displayed next to the Wall Street Journal. Most broadcast and print news agencies leaned somewhat to either the Left or Right, in some cases considerably. But even the most partisan of these would devote most of their content to journalism—broadly based and reliable information on current events reported as objectively as possible—and reserve their opinions for Editorial pages. Mainly it was former, not the latter, that the American public sought.

Today, all this has changed.

In the early 90's a whole new breed of news outlets appeared. Discarding the traditional emphasis on journalism, these offer content designed for direct appeal to the moral outrage and populist views of one sector—U.S. conservatives. News coverage is restricted to issues that are of interest to this group only, and the more controversial the details, the more coverage they get. Opinion sections comprise much larger percentages of content and are increasingly dependent on inflammatory subjects. In 1996 this trend moved into the broadcast realm with the launching of Fox News—America’s first major cable news outlet with a strictly ideological charter.

This was soon followed by the exponential growth in the popularity of talk shows, of which Fox has been a primary purveyor. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Medved, and a myriad of other "hot talk" programs offered strident, and even confrontational programming on subjects chosen strictly for their appeal to the moral outrage and populism of Far-Right audiences. Few of these shows make any attempt to properly document their claims. But because they provide an outlet for the rage and fear of their audiences—who increasingly believe themselves to be marginalized - none is ever required of them. Networks like Fox News have brought the popularity of this type of programming to an all time high.

Of course there are, and always have been equivalents on the Left. Air America for instance, provides similar opinion and commentary driven programming as do a number of periodicals. The nationally syndicated Tom Lyckas show frequently takes a liberal perspective on issues, and he is every bit as inflammatory and downright abusive as Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage. But this kind of programming is increasingly being dominated by the Right.

For every talk show like Air America there are literally dozens like Rush Limbaugh's, and these typically enjoy much larger circulations. Populist controversy simply isn't as popular with Moderates and liberals as actual information. Conservatives of course, deny all this and have long claimed of pervasive "liberal bias" in the media—a perception that drives the popularity of Fox News and other Far-Right outlets. But these claims have never been defended with anything other than isolated anecdotes—few of which even involve independent verification of their details. No well characterized scientific study of nationwide media reporting has ever found any statistically significant bias in either coverage or reporting.

Liberal or not, the popularity of media outlets is driven by the priorities and perceptions of the viewing public. Neilson ratings reveal much about this. As of this writing, Fox News is the Number One cable news network in America, leading CNN and MSNBC by significant margins. Yet according to figures that Nielson does not typically release to the public, CNN actually has some 20 percent more viewers on average than Fox. The reason is that their ratings are based not on number of viewers, buttotal viewer hours watched.

Neilson's primary customers are potential advertisers seeking information about prospective markets for their products and services. These are mainly interested in how often their advertisements will be in front of prospective customers, so they prefer the former metrics to the latter. To provide this information, Neilson's rating method weights viewers who watch any given channel for long periods more heavily than those who don't. This is both revealing. The average CNN viewer is mainly interested in reliable, to-the-point information about world events. Typically, he/she will tune in just long enough to get this and then leave. They are also less likely to depend exclusively on only one source of information, and CNN is just one of many resources they depend on for this. Intentionally or not, this guarantees a balance of perspectives and independent verification of reporting.

By contrast, the average Fox News viewer mainly seeks shared ideology rather than details, or even accuracy, and will tune in for hours at a time to Fox's talk show and populist opinion programming simply because it resonates with them. Since reliable information is less important to such viewers, they are less likely to seek independent verification of what they hear, particularly if they believe that the "liberal media" controls every other outlet.

The result is that Fox News viewers are more likely to rely exclusively on them for their news and avoid other sources of information. This, combined with the emotional appeal of their extended commentary programming, leads to very long viewing times and higher ratings, despite fewer numbers. Many of my friends and family members are regular Fox devotees. It is commonplace during visits to find Fox News on continually in the background—often for hours at a time and even during meals. When asked why they prefer them to other news sources, virtually without exception all have said that it's because they are "sick of the liberal media"—not a single one has ever indicated to me that they prefer Fox because they've found them to be a more reliable source of information, or even that this is a priority.

This is a disturbing trend—one that threatens far more than mere civility or national unity. The rise of Far-Right media reflects the growth of an entire sector of the American public that is, quite literally, not interested in accurate information or thoughtful discourse about the nation's challenges--only an outlet for moral outrage and the suppression of their ideological enemies—literally, a return to the Dark Ages.

Those who think I am exaggerating should consider the following. In the fall of 2004 just prior to that year's presidential election, the University of Maryland conducted a nationwide survey of voter literacy in America regarding domestic and foreign issues and the policies of the two main presidential candidates - George W. Bush and John Kerry. The survey was conducted in multiple parts with large random samples (N >= 970) taken across a broad base of economic and socio-cultural sectors. The test covered a wide range of subjects and among other things asked respondents to identify their preferred candidate and his stated policy on the issue in question. Results were statistically significant and unambiguous. Standard errors were under 3 percent. Most of the questions required Yes/No/Don't Know answers.

Results varied, but on average fewer than 25 to 30 percent of Bush supporters could correctly answer any given question, or even correctly identify his stated position on it! Two in three incorrectly answered that he supports a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Five out of six incorrectly answered that he supports environmental and labor law restrictions on foreign trade agreements. Despite the reports of the 9-11 Commission and U.N. Iraq Arms Inspectors, and declassified CIA intelligence reports on Iraq from the last several years—all well publicized and easily available to any serious information seeking voter—an astounding 72 percent incorrectly answered (or said they didn't know) that Saddam Hussein either had, or was on the verge of acquiring WMD's at the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion and that Iraq played an important logistic and support role in the 9-11 attacks.

Note that these scores aren't merely low—they are actually less than those predicted by random chance. As already noted, most of the questions on this test required Yes/No/Don't Know answers and there were more than enough to generate statistically significant results (100 or so). If we ignore the questions seeking respondent opinions, and conservatively group Don't-Know answers with correct ones (generous to say the least), taking the test by throwing dice should result in a score of around 30 to 40 percent—5 to 10 points higher than that of the average Bush voter. If we require actual knowledge of issues and correct answers, the spread is closer to 20 percent. The corresponding scores among Kerry voters averaged between 70 and 85 percent. In fact, there was only one question on the entire test where even a simple majority of Bush supporters answered correctly and Kerry voters did not.

Exit polls of the fall 2004 election showed that Bush voters overwhelmingly based their decision on "moral values" (of which opposition to gay marriage appears to have been quite important), terrorism, and Iraq (Polling Report Online, 2005). All are issues where they consistently failed to answer basic factual questions or identify Bush's agenda correctly. Kerry voters overwhelmingly chose the economy and Iraq as driving priorities—and scored high in each category. Overall, only 4 percent of American voters indicated education as a primary voting priority—6 percent of Kerry voters, and a mere 2 percent of Bush voters.

There is little here to equivocate about. Few jobs including minimum wage ones do not require applicants to submit a resume, and no competent employer wouldn’t at least read those resumes and spend a minute or two thinking about them before hiring someone. But in 2004 the American people chose the leader of the free world... based on nothing more than a general feeling that he is a nice, God-fearin' man who wants to kick terrorist butt and outlaw whatever they find morally distasteful—with little or no regard for any factual information about the issues or candidates themselves.

If this is not a Dark Age, I cannot imagine what one would look like.

History has shown repeatedly that rage and populism can bring change, swiftly and dramatically. So do bombs raining down on a quiet neighborhood. But reactionary choices always destroy more than they create, and eventually they destroy the people who live by them. As Jesus said,

"those who take up the sword, will perish by the sword" (Matt 26:53).
As long as a majority of Americans choose populist rage over reason and compassion the Dark Age will spread and America's days as a world leader will be numbered.

Fox News

Nowhere is the emphasis on populist rage over investigative fact-checking more evident than in the accendency of Fax News as the most watched cable news outlet in North America. In 1996, the rise of the Far-Right spread to broadcast media with a vengeance when ultra-conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch launched the Fox Cable News Network. Murdoch, a brilliant entrepreneur who’s Fox Television Network was already a huge success, recognized that the widespread rage of the conservative sector, and their belief that the "liberal media" presented a unique marketing opportunity. He sought out a board of directors built comprising many of the biggest names in the Far-Right community and designed Fox News programming specifically to target this populist Far-Right rage.

Thus, Fox News became the first major broadcast news outlet in history to be tailored specifically for inflammatory appeal to a particular audience—where commentary and talk show formats play a dominant role in the programming and news coverage is chosen predominately for audience appeal rather than broad coverage of global events. Other cable news outlets have followed suit, but to a lesser extent and with more diversity of views represented. MSNBC for instance, carries both Chris Matthews (moderate and Left leaning appeal) and Joe Scarborough (Right leaning appeal). Controversy driven shows like these are part of the programming on these outlets, but they do not dominate its time slots. Journalism is still the primary charter.

By contrast, Fox News deals almost exclusively in such formats. Inflammatory talk shows like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the like comprise much larger portions of their air time than that of their competitors. Their news coverage concentrates almost exclusively on issues of conservative interest (e.g. war efforts, taxes, military spending, and the activities of those who are perceived to be "liberal".

Terrorism is a dominant theme, but only anti-American and domestic environmental terrorism. Violence perpetrated by domestic Far-Right groups (e.g. militia and anti-government groups, abortion clinic bombers, etc.) are given as little coverage as possible—despite the fact that according to the FBI and the U.S. Dept. of Justice Anti-Terrorist Divisions, these comprise the bulk of terrorist incidents committed on American soil making them the largest contributors to the average American's actual risk of being violently victimized by a terrorist act.

Terrorism that does not involve either America or its allies as victims is not covered unless it is of a scale that cannot be inconspicuously ignored. You will hear about events like the Rwandan genocide from Fox News (at least for a few days). You will also read about the uprising in East Timor (the U.S. has economic and military interests in this region that threatened by the resulting instability). But you will never see coverage of the violence perpetrated by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. Nor will you hear of any other world events that do not involve American economic or military interests.

Until very recently there was virtually no coverage whatsoever of any science or environmental issues, even where public health was involved. Fox News now has a token science section but limits its content to minimal coverage of issues of Far-Right concern, and then to present a strictly Far-Right presentation of them where relevant. In fact, for over 10 years Fox News was one of only two major cable news outlets in the world that had no dedicated Science and/or Environment sections at their web sites and no reporters tasked to covering these issues (the other is Al-Jazeera).

Regular checks of cable news web sites are revealing. The day I first posted this page (Mar. 8, 2005), CNN's web site had an entire page dedicated to stories from around the world. There were entire subsections devoted to Central and South America, Africa, Europe, the Asia Pacific Rim, and the Middle East. The stories presented covered at least 24 countries on six continents. A section devoted exclusively to U.S. News featured numerous stories about public health, crime, ethnic and minority issues, difficulties faced by workers in various industries, and more. Naturally, there was a dedicated Science section featured dozens of stories covering tropical rainforests and international policy, recent discoveries in astrophysics, plans by Japan to possibly erect a manned base on the moon, several features about endangered species and ecosystem biology, global warming, archaeology, natural history, and the enmity growing between scientists and the Bush Administration, which is increasingly denying them input to any and all policy decisions and cutting basic science and education funding cut to all-time historic lows.

One story highlighted the Nobel Prize in Medicine being awarded to two American scientists (Richard Axel and Linda Buck). Another section was devoted to science education links and learning resources for kids. The BBC News site was even more thorough. Sections devoted to every continent featured news from dozens of nations worldwide. An entire web site within their larger site portal was devoted to science and nature, and was itself divided into entire sections devoted to biology, physics, biodiversity, climate change, public health, astrophysics, medicine, and more. Another site under their portal was devoted to educational resources for children. All in all, CNN and BBC collectively featured hundreds of stories from all over the world covering science, policy, human rights, economics, and politics.

Then.... there was Fox News.

The same day their web site featured a grand total of some 4 to 5 dozen stories from all sections—less than what was available at the BBC and CNN U.S. News sections alone, and less than a third the size of either outlet's Science sections. U.S. and World News were combined into a single section (apparently, news from the rest of the world does not merit a section of its own unless American interests are involved). This had only 7 brief video clips and 6 or 7 stories, all but 3 of which dealt with the Iraq war, anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, and the personal morality of popular American entertainers and sports stars. When combined with the Latest Headlines and Top Stories sections, the count rose to a grand total of 23 features of which only 5 didn't cover the subjects just mentioned.

The Opinion section was as large as the U.S. & World section and concentrated entirely on subjects likely to arouse the anger of those with politically or religiously conservative views. Not one story covered any part of the world where U.S. economic or military interests were not involved, and of the few that did involve foreign nations, only 2 did not concentrate specifically on U.S. interests. There was a brief, but glowing story about Laura Bush's hopes for a renewed status for women in post-invasion Iraq, but that story simply recounted Ms. Bush's opinions and praised them. Virtually no information of any kind was presented regarding the actual status of women in Iraq or any factor impacting it. This was the only article present that even so much as mentioned any human rights issue from anywhere on earth.

And of course—no section dedicated to Science or the Environment.

One story covered a misdemeanor vandalism incident perpetrated by a few environmental extremists at a private home somewhere in the Midwest. Other than that, not one article even mentioned any environmental or scientific issue other than personal health. By volume of content, the Opinion and talk show related sections were the largest at the site.

And at the bottom of the page there was a label stating "Fair & Balanced"—with a Trademark symbol after it.

Fox stands behind their "Fair & Balanced" slogan and stridently denies any bias in either their reporting or programming, even to the point of claiming it as a trademark and filing suit against those who use it (which they have in fact done)—as though they are entitled to this distinction despite the almost complete lack of scholarship and professionalism just described.

The 'Liberal Media' Claim

One of the most frequent, and strident, complaints of conservatives is that there is a pervasive "liberal bias" in the media. Nearly every best-selling conservative author today devotes at least one full chapter to this claim. A few have concentrated on it exclusively. It has also fueled the popularity of conservative media outlets such as Fox News and talk shows like those of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. In fact, according to Nielson ratings, Fox is now America's most watched cable news channel even though they actually have considerably fewer viewers than CNN (see the article on Fox's ratings linked elsewhere on this page). This is due largely to the fact that Fox viewers tend to watch for hours at a time whereas CNN viewers watch just long enough to get headlines and a few details. CNN viewers are also more likely to depend on a wide range of news sources of which CNN is only one.

Fox devotees however, tend to watch for hours at a time and are more likely to depend exclusively on Fox (or at most one or two other similar sources) for their information. This single minded devotion and lack of diversity in sources, which is almost a trademark of Fox viewers, is a direct result of the perception that virtually every other large news outlet in the U.S. (and even the world) is polluted with "liberal bias". Not surprisingly, of the many friends and family members I have spoken with who are Fox News watchers, virtually all have indicated to me that their preference for Fox is because they are "sick of the liberal media"—not a single one has ever told me that they prefer Fox because they have investigated any part of their reporting independently and found them to be a more reliable source of information.

Any widespread bias in the media, if it could be verified, would be a serious matter and the question should not be dismissed. But the nature of the claim is an easy one to investigate, and studies have been done to address the question. This page links a study by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) presenting the results of an extensive study done by sociologists at the Evaluation Research Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University. The project was based on a 24-question self-administered survey that was sent by mail to Washington-based journalists (n = 444). The initial mailing was followed later by a reminder postcard and a second copy of the questionnaire was sent to non-respondents. Finally, reminder phone calls were placed to remaining non-respondents and replacement surveys were mailed as requested. Data was gathered from late February through April of 1998.

The results demonstrated that when viewed in the aggregate, there is little if any slanting of journalists toward left leaning views throughout all of the larger media outlets in the U.S. There is a tendency for journalists to have views that lean somewhat left on one or two issues (such as the environment for instance). But in most cases, the views of journalists and other media representatives are moderate, and if anything, lean slightly right of center on most economic and social policy issues. The study included Fox News and the Washington Times as well—both far-right media outlets. This study speaks directly to the claims of "liberal bias" in the media and demonstrates that such claims have little factual support.

So why this widespread belief in "liberal bias"? It is likely that the belief spreads at least in part through conservative commentators, writers, and talk show hosts who promote the idea vociferously and defend it with isolated extreme examples (few of which are well researched and presented in context). Many on the left use similar reasoning to accuse the media of being Right biased by pointing to forums like the Washington Times, Fox News, or World (an extreme Religious Right news magazine with ties to Bob Jones University. While such forums do exist and are quite vocal and extreme in their reporting, they can hardly be considered as representative of the media in general any more than extreme Left leaning forums can. Now this is selective reporting!

It is worth noting that this study addresses the political ideas and values of the questioned journalists and media representatives (what most conservative critics claim is the source of the alleged bias) and demonstrates not only that this bias does not exist, but that it is irrelevant to questions of biased content. It is interesting how many people today uncritically identify "bias" with a difference in opinions or values. Actually, bias is any non-random conflation of, or partiality with, retrieved data, and may happen for any of a number of reasons—only one of which (and not necessarily even the most important one) is opinion. In fact, a proper study of bias in media reporting would examine the range of sources used by media outlets, not values or opinions (as was done in the study of Fox News' commentary programming, linked elsewhere on this page, for instance). The study discusses this fact also. The full questionnaire used and the data reductions are presented in appendices.


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