Let’s just state up front that it is certainly true that Democratic and Republican party biases exist in the corners of the mediascape that are explicitly partisan—places like talk radio and party-aligned cable television, to name a couple. It is also true that polls suggest this niche media’s effort to recast every political issue as a purely red-versus-blue affair has unfortunately helped convince more Americans to base their own positions purely on party affiliation rather than on principle. And it is true that because of its affinity for shock, spectacle and sensationalism, hyper-partisan media outlets get lots of residual media attention, which ends up depicting these outlets as far more significant cultural forces than they actually are.
However, the dirty little secret is that despite all the hype, audience data prove that these purely partisan outlets represent a comparatively tiny share of the media world—the share that caters to the small handful of already-persuaded political junkies. More importantly, as the recent brouhaha over the National Security Administration highlights, these outlets’ blatantly partisan biases do not reflect a far more pervasive and problematic bias in the much larger and more influential general-audience news media: the bias toward governments, corporations, politicians and businesspeople from any political party who appear to wield disproportionate power.
Why is the NSA story a particularly good illustration of this larger bias in favor of power? Because, as congressional votes prove, it is one of those rare issues that doesn’t conform to traditional party politics. You can be a hardcore liberal Democrat or a hardcore Tea Party Republican and oppose mass surveillance. Because of that, media coverage of the NSA is a rare litmus test not for party bias, but for institutional bias—and as a Columbia Journalism Review study, proves, that bias in favor of power is severe.
The Congressional Research Service notes that many electronic media outlets “piggyback on reporting” done by these newspapers. In light of the CJR study about the NSA, then, it is not surprising that the media bias toward the NSA has been consistently replicated by much of the national television news media. Yes, in this action-movie-worthy story featuring whistleblower Edward Snowden and crusading journalist Glenn Greenwald exposing systemic lawbreaking, the most persistent media bias of all – the bias toward power rather than party – is so intense that it has presented Big Brother as the most credible source of all.
If this was an isolated incident, perhaps it could be dismissed. But as the defining events of the last few years prove, it is not the exception. The worship of power—not party—is now the rule.
In the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion, for example, the government’s famously inaccurate WMD allegations and its larger argument for war was rarely questioned by most of the press corps. Indeed, according to a three-week study of major television news organizations by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting right after the invasion, “Nearly two thirds of all sources, 64 percent, were pro-war…71 percent of U.S. guests favored the war (and) anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources.” In all, viewers were more than six times as likely to see a source toeing the government line than a source questioning the government’s claims.
Same thing for the financial crisis. In its exhaustive look at the press coverage in the lead-up to the Wall Street meltdown, CJR found that “the business press did everything but take on the institutions that brought down the financial system.” Similarly, the Pew Research Center found that “the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression has been covered in the media largely from the top down, told primarily from the perspective of the Obama Administration and big business, and reflected the voices and ideas of people in institutions more than those of everyday Americans.” Pew notes that a companion analysis by Cornell University researchers found “that phrases and ideas that reverberated most in the coverage came early on, mostly from government.”