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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.