Frank Rich on Media Bias

Our latest full-length podcast, “How Biased Is Your Media?,” is about how academic researchers have been trying to measure the slant of your news.

The most common meme in this realm says that the mainstream media leans to the left. Frank Rich, a former op-ed columnist at the New York Times, who is now a writer-at-large for New York Magazine, says recent history proves this just isn’t true. Take, for instance, how his former employer handled the lead-up to the war in Iraq:

RICH: I think it flies very much in the face of the assumption that the so-called liberal media are out to doom Republicans or conservative causes. The New York Times promoted dubious evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs on its front page. The New York Times is thought by many on the right to be a so-called liberal slanting paper. The Washington Post, also, less elaborately, failed to really vet the evidence. The networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC are often considered by the right to be liberal news organizations. None of them questioned at all the rationale for going to war in Iraq.

Rich wrote about the media’s handling of the Iraq War in his book The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. In an interview with us, he laments the increase of partisan news:

RICH: Sure, some media are biased, [but] it’s usually clear who’s biased in which direction, and indeed, some organizations — Fox News and MSNBC — really make no bones about it. I find it gets under my skin a little bit less than it used to because it’s so transparent. Here’s a sort of important point to me about Fox News: I think that people, liberals, should be somewhat less concerned about it. The way I have become less concerned about it is because first of all, it really is speaking to the converted. It’s very unlikely that some naïve American, some tabula rasa American, is going to stumble on to Fox News and be brainwashed. It’s so transparently what it is.

Rich also says that things get tricky when it comes to discerning between opinion and news:

RICH: The fact is, particularly as people receive things digitally out of context of the print publication, the labels become murkier. Readers should not be expected to necessarily make these distinctions themselves. And I’m not convinced that news organizations have done a great job in this new world of making it clear. One would hope that readers would know the concept of separation of church and state and news and editorial, but maybe they shouldn’t be asked to. Plus, almost all of these publications and news organizations are stepping up the amount of opinion. The Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all have many more columnists than they used to — opinion columnists. And so they carry a greater proportion of the weight of the brand of those news organizations. And it’s understandably confusing to people.

The podcast features not only academics but some practitioners of news and opinion, ranging from Ann Coulter on the right to Times opinion editor Andy Rosenthal on the left.

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  1. Scott Templeman (@tallbonez) says:

    This assumes that wars are not liberal causes, yet a look at the track record of our peace prize holding prez should show plenty of evidence that Dems are just as likely as Repubs to bomb, assassinate, and invade.

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    • frankenduf says:

      lol- way to cut to the chase- but, ur comment is ironic- liberals are opposed to war, and so they are opposed to obama’s foreign policy of bombing brown people- no hypocrisy on the liberal side, just a whole heap of it from the ‘democrat’ side

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      • Joe J says:

        Sorry but I live spitting distance from DC, it was rather starkly noticeable how much the “anti-War ” protests shrunk or vanished after Obamas election night. And how much news coverage they recieved. Not when he was sworn in, not when he declared troops coming home. You would think all fighting ended on election night, and not that we still have troops in Afghanistan.
        Most of those who stayed to protest do not call themselves liberal, they were often libertarian.

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      • pawnman says:

        Of course they are…which is why Obama, with a democratic congress, closed Gitmo and pulled all the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He certainly hasn’t been sanctioning strikes in other countries, like Yemen and Pakistan, right?

        Oh, wait.

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  2. 164 says:

    It is hardly convincing when a former op-ed columnist at the New York Times tries to provide anecdotal evidence to show that the mainstream media is not left leaning. It’s just as predictable that he would say this as it is that liberals will give this comment a thumbs down and conservatives a thumbs up.

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  3. Joe Sevenpack says:

    The problem with Fox is not that it brainwashes naive Americans, that is true.

    But the BIG problem with Fox is that it forces moderate republican politician to become extremists.

    Extremist conservatives and extremist liberals are destroying America. Fox is an important factor in this

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  4. DaveyNC says:

    Asking Frank Rich to defend the lack of bias of the NY Times is a little like asking Keith Olberman to do the same for whatever TV outlet has not yet fired him.

    Rich is in the opinion business and asking him to expound on media bias is to ask for his opinion, not an objective look at it.

    The bias shows up most in what is not covered or at least not covered sufficiently. In what shows up on page 133 below the fold versus front page. For instance, if we had a Republican administration right now, it would be wall to wall coverage of Fast and Furious and Eric Holder’s role in it. Instead, we get heavy coverage of Rick Santorum’s views on contraception. Here is a search of the NY Times’ site for “Eric Holder”:

    You have to scroll all the way down to find any mention of Fast and Furious.

    The same search for Rick Santorum shows an article on his theology as the fourth item listed:

    Keep in mind, it was Obama’s diktat on contraception that launched this whole debate. Dems brought religion in to the discussion, not Reps.

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  5. Eric M. Jones says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • pawnman says:

      And yet, Obama was elected with fairly strong support.

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    • J says:

      The only “brainwashing” being done by any media source is in the selection of what they’ll cover, as so many here have noted. By this measure, most of the media is leftist.

      Fox News also suffers from bias that seems to apply to nearly all “mainstream” media, regardless of political slant. I routinely see Bill O’Reilly (not generally considered left wing) push government action as the solution to many if not most of the issues he covers. Likewise, almost all media entities regardless of political slant hold some questionable assumptions:

      – Non-profit organizations have an inherent moral superiority to for profit entities, regardless of competence or effectiveness

      – Oil, pharmaceutical and agriculture companies (three businesses that have done more to improve the lot of mankind than almost any other organizations) are bad, or at least not generally beneficial

      – All pollution (defined as human impact on the environment) is bad, regardless of how enormous the benefit we derive from creating it

      – Arguably the most ridiculous, that money is a more powerful motivator than ideology (ask a suicide bomber about that one)

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  6. Mike Lemmer says:

    I’d argue news skews towards the most disruptive opinion, seeded with the occasional feel-good piece. That would explain how they’d support liberal policies, but turn right around and argue for a conservative’s war…

    At least, until it actually gets started. Then they can sell more papers exposing its corruption & mishandling.

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  7. Mike says:

    It seems awfully non-Freakonomics to me to have a piece which essentially says: “Media might not be biased. Here’s a few anecdotal examples from a former media member to illustrate that point.”

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  8. Tom Chapman says:

    Really enjoyed this podcast. I found it to be well balanced and informative. One observation regarding the notion that media, particularly newspapers, adjust the bias/perspective to the voting patterns of their consumers: I believe it works the other way around, that people with a particular perspective are drawn to media sources that reflect their own. This was a point made at another point in the podcast, but not at this point. Case in point, I unsubscribed from my local paper because it did not reflect my views. The paper takes a decidedly liberal stance even though the majority of the population in the market it serves is right-leaning, as evidenced by the majority Republican representation from the area. So this paper does represent the voting patterns of its subscribers, but only because those who do not subscribe do so because of the ideology of the paper.

    Additionally, one point I am surprised wasn’t made is a way to track bias is to lok at the voting/party affiliations of those in the media. Doing so would reveal the vast majority are left-leaning.

    Lastly, a point hinted at but not expounded upon is that, regardless of what the gentleman from the Times would like to believe, everyone has a bias and everyone brings that bias to their reporting of news, and everything else. Those who complain about bias would just like this bias to be communicated upfront and to also give another perspective from time to time.

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