The mainstream media’s obsessive fixation on the right-wing Tea Party group is perhaps the most telling indication of its pervasive conservative bias. While popular opinion has long maintained the media approaches the news with a liberal slant, media scholars and researchers dispelled this myth long ago. The media’s near non-stop coverage of the Tea Party for the past year however seems to confirm the corporate bias of the major news institutions.
All of the major news institutions—including supposedly liberal outlets like The New York Times, MSNBC, and NPR radio—have devoted countless stories concerning the angry, right-wing protesters. The group’s would-be-leaders—Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rand Paul—generate the same amount of news coverage as Hollywood celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, or Mel Gibson. According to Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith (“Tea Party’s Exaggerated Importance”), “Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks media reports, found that the tea parties consumed a steady measure of news for most of this year before exploding during tax week to compete with the Icelandic volcano for attention and outstripping health care with 6% of all media reports that week.”
And while many Tea Party supporters complain the media’s coverage of the group has been largely negative, portraying members as ignorant and uninformed about the issues they protest, whether or not this is true seems beside the point. News coverage, positive or negative, is still coverage. The agenda-setting goal of corporate news institutions is not necessarily to tell audiences what to think (though many of the broadcast pundits do just that as well), but what to think about. As for the accusations of racism amongst Tea Partiers, consider a poll in the New York Times back in April found that a majority of the group’s members believe that “too much has been made of the problems facing black people,” and that the Obama administration “favors blacks over whites.”
Yet, whether a news network’s goal is to praise or pummel the Tea Party is largely irrelevant. Especially when considering the media’s focus on the Tea Party over other far more established progressive movements—the anti-war movement, for one. Activist Cindy Sheehan, speaking in the Politico story notes, “They’re [the Tea Party] being treated with a lot more respect than the anti-war movement was.”
Sheehan goes on, “The anti-war movement has always been treated as a fringe movement—even though at the height of our movement we had hundreds of thousands of people at protests and the majority of public opinion was on our side.” As it turns out, the Tea Party itself may be the real fringe movement, given that 31% of 2,505 respondents surveyed in a Pew Research poll had never heard of the Tea Party.
Filmmaker Michael Moore made a similar point on a March 17, 2010 appearance on CNN’s “Situation Room.” Citing the Tea Party as a clear example of the media’s right-wing bias, Moore stated, “This is a movement that starts in August of last year and immediately has massive attention paid to it. I know movements that started on the liberal-left end that have been going for twenty years… How much attention do they get on CNN and MSNBC?”
Yet, the notion the corporate media gives preference to conservative concepts and viewpoints over liberal ones is hardly new. The findings of a 1998 study published by the media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) titled “Examining the ‘Liberal Media’ Claim,” remain largely unchanged in today’s media landscape. Not only does the study contradict the “liberal media” myth, but also finds a surprising number of journalists tend to be more conservative than the general public.
The journalists polled in the FAIR study gave an overwhelming (80%) vote of confidence for the quality of journalism from “Business-oriented” news outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal. The reporters could not muster the same enthusiasm for the quality of “Public broadcast” institutions, however, with only 45% rating them “Excellent,” or “Good,” quality. So much, it would seem, for the image of the intrepid, watchdog reporter, fighting for the liberal values of speaking truth to power and afflicting the comfortable.
The most definitive study on media bias remains Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). Analyzing elements such as corporate consolidation of newspapers and broadcast networks, advertiser influence on news content and constant media “flak” from right-wing think tanks, Herman and Chomsky conclude the mass media function, not as a vehicle to inform and educate audiences, but as a system of propaganda.
“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace,” the authors write. “It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.”
Yet, according to the authors, this “propaganda model” remains invisible to most citizens, who continue to regard the media as “liberal.” Even the reporters themselves often believe they are upholding such traditional “watchdog” functions of journalism. Chomsky and Herman write, “The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose to interpret the news ‘objectively’ and on the basis of professional news values.”
The media’s current fixation on the Tea Party should not be surprising then. What is perhaps most ironic about the Tea Party coverage is the media’s framing of the group as populist, and driven by the anger of average, blue-collar Americans. Tea Party supporters decry President Obama and the Democratic Congress as “elites” and proponents of the Right’s dreaded “Big Government.” Yet, it is the Tea Party and its ringleaders like Sarah Palin that are the real elites. The group is largely an apologist for corporate power, advocating a Reagan-style vision of free-market absolutism in which the country is run exclusive by privatized businesses. A true watchdog media—one that asks tough, critical questions, and challenges, rather than coddles, corporate power—would have exposed the true nature of the Tea Partiers long ago.