New Report Exposes Media Love Affair with Right-Wingers and the Fox News Worldview: 'Reporters Can't Get Enough'

Forget about fake moon landings and Obama's birth certificate. The most enduring unfounded conspiracy theory in America is that our institutions of knowledge – the media, the academy and even science -- are biased in favor of liberals.

The national media is based in large urban centers, so it should come as no surprise that conservatives would rarely see their views on strictly social issues well represented. But on matters of substance, we are talking about a corporate-owned media that pushes relentlessly for "free trade" deals, foreign wars and fiscal "austerity." 

In my book, The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy, I discuss how, beginning in the early 1970s, a number of wealthy conservative donors have invested in the development of what I call a parallel “intellectual infrastructure,” ostensibly designed to counter the liberal bias they saw all around them. They funded dozens of corporate-backed think tanks, endowed academic chairs, and created their own dedicated and distinctly conservative media outlets.

But the Right’s messaging isn't confined to the conservative media, in part because of the relentless pressure on newsrooms from conservative activists – it's an example of “working the refs.”

At times, media outlets are open about their attempts to curb criticism from the Right by giving more space to conservatives. Last year, when the Philadelphia Inquirer came under fire for giving a column to torture memo author John Yoo, editorial page editor Harold Jackson told the New York Times, “There was a conscious effort on our part to counter some of the criticism of the Inquirer as being a knee-jerk liberal publication ...We made a conscious effort to add some conservative voices to our mix.”

The Inquirer also hired former Senator Rick Santorum to weigh in on the events of the day. Santorum and Yoo joined right-wing radio host Michael Smerconish. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters noted the context surrounding the move:

Keep in mind that the Inquirer serves a hugely Democratic city in a state that, according to voting patterns, is galloping away from the GOP. But under pressure from the right, the Inquirer scrambles to hire a discredited voice like Yoo's, and a politician like Santorum, who PA. voters overwhelmingly rejected at the polls.

This week, John Merline, opinion editor for AOL News, offered more evidence that conservative views are more-than-adequately represented in the supposedly “liberal” media. "When it comes to conservatives,” he wrote, “reporters can't seem to get enough of them."

Indeed, a Pew Research Center survey found that of the top 10 most-covered candidates in the midterm elections, conservatives held the top three spots. Here's more evidence. I asked AOL's Relegence team, which tracks more than 30,000 news sites on the Web, to compare coverage of comparable liberals and conservatives over the past 12 months. The results are stark. Conservatives were featured in vastly more stories.

Among the study's findings:

  • In 2010, Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee who currently holds no power, got three times the coverage that Joe Biden, who is actually a sitting vice president received.
  • The disparity in coverage between conservative talker Glenn Beck and the liberal Keith Olbermann was large. “Month after month, Beck racked up hundreds, if not thousands, of stories, wrote Merline. “In contrast, Olbermann typically only got a few dozen stories a month in which he was featured prominently -- except for the month when he was temporarily suspended.”
  • Fringe candidates get coverage if they're conservative. As Merline put it, “Christine O'Donnell was an unqualified, kooky candidate who took everyone by surprise when she beat a far better known, established candidate for the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware. Liberal Alvin Greene was a completely unqualified, kooky candidate who also shocked everyone by getting the Democratic nomination for Senate over four-term South Carolina state lawmaker Vic Rawl. Both went on to decisively lose their elections.” O'Donnell more than doubled the coverage Greene received.

This echoes a 2006 Media Matters study that analyzed almost 7,000 guests on the broadcast networks' Sunday political shows during Clinton's second term and George W. Bush's first. The balance between Democrats/progressives and Republicans/conservatives was roughly equal during Clinton's second term, with a slight edge toward Republicans/conservatives: 52 percent of the ideologically identifiable guests were from the right, and 48 percent were from the left. But in Bush's first term, Republicans/conservatives held a dramatic advantage, outnumbering Democrats/progressives by 58 percent to 42 percent.

And that's not all. A months-long investigation in 2010 by the Nation’s Sebastian Jones revealed what he called a far-reaching “media-lobbying complex”—dozens of corporate hired guns who appear on network broadcasts without disclosing their ties to the firms they work for. Jones wrote of “the covert corporate influence-peddling on cable news.” Jones found that during just the previous three years, “at least seventy-five registered lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate officials—people paid by companies and trade groups to manage their public image and promote their financial and political interests”—had appeared on the major news channels. “Many have been regulars on more than one of the cable networks, turning in dozens—and in some cases hundreds—of appearances,” he wrote.

To be sure, measuring the amount of coverage conservatives get doesn't tell you what the tone of that coverage was, but getting an opportunity to present one's side of a political debate has a lot of value, given the standard-issue he-said/she-said reporting that’s so instinctive to neutral, “unbiased” journalists. Reporters are expected to get “both sides” of every story, even if one of those sides is making factually dishonest arguments.

It's ironic that the heavy coverage of conservatives ultimately results from their constant whining about liberal media bias. As we can see, gaming the ref works.


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