For about 20 years, I have been teaching a course at Towson University called "Media Criticism," which deals largely with alleged ideological media bias.
The claims of liberal bias in the mainstream media go back at least as far as Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidential nomination in 1964. Perceiving repeated negative interpretations contained in "news reports" on his candidacy, he pleaded with major newspapers to put at least one reporter on his campaign who would just report what he said.
It is difficult to make a convincing case to many people regarding ideological bias in the mainstream media. This is because not all of such media are on the left: The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times, for example, clearly have a conservative orientation — but unlike most mainstream newspapers, they do not claim to be disinterested.
Moreover, how does one conclusively prove the charges of left-wing bias or right-wing bias in textual analysis? For every instance cited, there can be a response that it is atypical or just anecdotal. Empirical measures of bias will always be subject to dispute.
What about opinion polls? Invariably, these show that the public perceives a leftward tilt on the part of major media. The response, of course, is that perception doesn't make for reality.
Let's try an indisputable example: In 2006, The Baltimore Sun, in a gubernatorial election year, published not one op-ed page sentence — much less an entire article — that supported incumbent Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. by name. By contrast, there were many articles that year on that page (not just the editorial page) complimentary to the Democratic candidate, Martin O' Malley.
When I mention this to conservatives, their expressions indicate, "Well, what do you expect?" Liberals say, "That cannot be."
In recent years, some liberals have argued that not only is a charge of left-leaning news media bias false but that there is, in fact, a prevailing conservative bias in the media. Prominent among the supporters of this view are journalists E.J. Dionne and Eric Alterman.
Mr. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist, claims that talk radio compensates for whatever left-wing bias may exist, and he is never at a loss for cherry-picking examples of media kindness to particular conservatives or unkindness to liberals. Nation magazine journalist Eric Alterman wrote a book, "What Liberal Bias," that is widely cited and heavily researched but filled with evidentiary problems. He says that where there is liberal media bias, it is not "overwhelming." Locally, Sun columnist Thomas F. Schaller has argued that conservative ownership of media equals right-wing bias — an old non sequitur lacking in evidence for support.
Let's get one argument out of the way: Yes, there are conservative media and conservative individuals therein. They lack, by far, the influence of liberals on most major networks and major newspapers. Most of the major news media that maintain that they are disinterested (though Fox maintains the same) are biased in favor of liberal agendas and liberal spins.
The news coverage of candidate and then-President Barack Obama has been overwhelmingly admitted (by ABC's Jake Tapper and others) as fawning and uncritical. Such critiques and admissions are typically made after elections, when they will have limited political effect. The exceptional late Washington Post ombudsman, Deborah Howell, memorably wrote two columns, one citing "An Obama tilt" (after the 2008 election) and another plainly stating generally that "some of the conservatives' complaints about a liberal tilt [in news media] are valid." She recommended that just as news media improved demographic diversity in their newsrooms, so could intellectual diversity be improved in the same manner.
Most mainstream media maintain a prevailing progressive bias in their selection of what to cover and how to cover it. This does not mean all media coverage is liberal, or even that all liberal outlets are always liberal. One of the fairest sources of news is CBS' Evening News, and one of the best analyses of media bias is CNN's "Reliable Sources."
Regardless, the tendencies of most major news media trend left. There is no serious dispute.
Richard E. Vatz, a professor at Towson University, is author of "The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.