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What Liberal Media?
Tim Francis-Wright
15 April 2001

Conservatives have complained for years about a liberal bias in the American media toward their ideas. These complaints are ringing more hollow than ever. The owners of much of the traditional media in the United States are large corporations, which seldom tread liberal waters. Their agents in newspapers, radio, and television are the editors, producers, and publishers, who seldom do much to incur the wrath of their masters.

Most major American newspapers do not have particularly conservative editorial stances, but very few are much more liberal than the average Democrat in Congress. For example, the New York Times endorsed Al Gore for President, but spent several editorials excoriating Ralph Nader's campaign. The Washington Post is notorious for pulling its punches against whichever administration is in office. For truly liberal papers, readers could go to Europe and check out Le Monde from Paris, Frankfurter Rundschau from Frankfurt, or The Guardian from London. Each has an unabashedly democratic socialist viewpoint. While each of them has alternative media to its left (for example, Liberation, taz, or The Morning Star), each would be far to the left of any leading American newspaper.

An analysis last year by Editor and Publisher showed that twice as many American newspapers endorsed Bush over Gore. Both editors and publishers thought that Bush would cruise to victory. Finally, publishers were planning to vote for Bush by a three-to-one margin. Editors were almost evenly split between the two candidates. (Read the analysis here.) Furthermore, at least in Washington, journalists are arguable less liberal than the American public at large, according to a 1998 study by David Croteau of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Compared to television, however, American newspapers are a veritable fifth column. General Electric controls two networks (NBC and Pax), and one and a half cable channels (all of CNBC and half of MSNBC). Right-winger Rupert Murdoch owns a network (Fox), and three cable networks (Fox Sports Net, Fox Family Channel, and Fox News Channel). CBS and UPN are owned by a conglomerate (Viacom), which also owns a slew of cable channels (for example, Nickelodeon and MTV). ABC is owned by another conglomerate (Disney), which also owns the Disney Channel, and the ESPN cable channels. Each of these conglomerates owns publishing houses, to boot. On the bright side, two of these conglomerates have utterly failed in trying to take over the internet (through NBC's NBCi.com and Disney's go.com).

NBC, particularly on its cable channels, and Fox, regardless of the medium, are the house networks for the right wing of American politics. The push on these channels for the Republican party, and the ideas that it espouses, is almost palpable. News analysis shows on these networks run seriatim with substantially the same themes: tax cuts are good; free markets are good; government is bad; Ronald Reagan should be beatified. PBS, with news programs so bland they make tofu seem spicy, is left-leaning only by comparison. The only leftist equivalent to Fox is Free Speech TV, which is available if you happen to have a satellite dish.

As many commentators have noted, American television coverage of politics works something like this: on every issue, get someone left-leaning and someone right-leaning, no matter what issue it is. The left-leaner is seldom someone truly leftist, but the right-leaner can be almost anyone. I happened to see a farcical example of this, in the last 20 minutes of what I assume was a typical "O'Reilly Factor" show in December. A right-wing tax nut argued that most people could incorporate themselves and deduct all of their living expenses from their taxable income. A retired IRS executive disagreed. After getting the IRS retiree to admit that legitimate business deductions were deductible, Bill O'Reilly practically endorsed the tax nut's system, saying "Sounds good to me!"

Compared to radio, American television is an SDS reunion. The explosion of talk radio on both AM and FM radio has meant an explosion in conservative-to-nutty talk radio. The only exceptions to this rule, besides the occasional liberal populist like Jim Hightower, are libertarians, generally in the rude and crude mode of Howard Stern.

The sorts of stories that would truly embarrass the Republican party get short shrift in the American media. ABC News last week had a very short story about tax fraud and the unwillingness of the IRS to crack down on some very visible practitioners. The report described how Americans set up phony "banks" in countries like Nauru with bank secrecy laws, in order to hide assets and income from the IRS. At the end of the report, it was revealed that Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana had spoken at a seminar in Montreal of one promoter whom the IRS is investigating. Tauzin claimed that his speech urged repeal of the income tax, not establishment of phony offshore trusts. But that was as far as the report went. Imagine the uproar if one the members of the Progressive Caucus had mingled with rioters in Seattle last year at the WTO meeting.

How did large corporations come to dominate the airwaves? Thank the Clinton administration. Antitrust provisions are now so weak that the FCC now allows one corporation to own two separate television networks, plus, in each city, up to 2 television stations and 6 radio stations. Until recently, networks could not own television stations, and ownership in one market was limited to one AM radio station, one FM radio station, and one television station. FCC decisions favoring mergers led to the 1996 telecommunications act, and the FCC has not looked back. Even now, the FCC is under fire from newspapers, which feel stifled by a 1975 rule against cross-ownership of television and radio stations.

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