The myth of “liberal” news: How the media does the work of fascists

There is no such thing as the so-called liberal news media. In reality, there is a corporate news media that polices the limits of approved public discourse and privileges the voices and agenda of the powerful over those of everyday Americans. And in a time of ascendant neofascism, that is a great betrayal of the American people and the sacred responsibility that the Fourth Estate has in a democracy.

“The liberal media” (and its conjoined twin “liberal media bias”) is language that was invented by the American right-wing in the 1980s and 1990s as a way of training and bullying the American news media into serving its agenda – or at a minimum a much more friendly and uncritical space through which to distribute right-wing talking points, dogma, and misinformation.  

The myth of the liberal news media is disproved by other evidence as well.

The media in the “news media” means business and profit – this is especially true of the few large corporations that dominate the market. Those corporations are inherently conservative. The so-called liberal news media also values access to the powerful – because they are members of the same social class – above all else.

Take, for instance, the recent example of an Axios reported fired this week after dismissing what he described as “propaganda” fed to him by the office of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “This is propaganda, not a press release,” Ben Montgomery wrote in response to a DeSantis press release attacking diversity and inclusion efforts in the state. Hours later, the Pulitzer Prize finalist was questioned about the email and ultimately let go from his position as a local reporter for the national media outlet. 

“This sort of thing has a chilling effect,” Montgomery told Talking Points Memos’ Hunter Walker. “I’m sad, honestly, for the profession.” He continued: “In a difficult news environment, you need that sort of support. So, at a minimum, don’t fire your reporters in a knee-jerk fashion.”

“We can’t be sheepish right now.” 

Media critic and scholar Eric Boehlert summarized the myth of the liberal media in this way:

Why does the press behave the way it does? Why does it engage in Both Sides nonsense in an effort to water down irresponsible GOP behavior? Why does it view so many news cycles through the prism of Republican talking points? Without question, the overriding cultural reason is the fear of being hit with the Liberal Media Bias label.

I don’t mean that’s what’s driving journalists on an hourly, granular level, or that before filing a story or going on the air they consciously think about GOP attacks. But it does remain the dominant ethos and it’s been ingrained in newsrooms for decades. (Being the target of right-wing smear campaigns is no fun and it can damage journalism careers.) Consequently, the press spends an inordinate amount of time trying to prove it’s not guilty of Liberal Media Bias.

That institutional fear helps explain the inexplicable, like why so many news organizations refused to call Trump a liar for four years, even as they documented his thousands of lies. That was a deliberate decision to turn away from the truth —and from accurate language — while covering the most dangerous president in American history. Afraid that calling Trump a “liar” in straight news reports would spark cries of Liberal Media Bias, the press capitulated. In the process, Trump used his avalanche of untruths to chip away at our democratic institutions.

Eric Alterman wrote an entire, must-read book in 2003 expertly debunking the bias myth, “What Liberal Media?” Conservatives “know mau-mauing the other side is just a good way to get their own ideas across–or perhaps prevent the other side from getting a fair hearing for theirs,” he wrote. I made a similar effort with my book, “Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush,” where I focused on the media’s failure during the run-up to the Iraq War: “To oppose the invasion vocally was to be outside the media mainstream and to invite scorn. Like some nervous Democratic members of Congress right before the war, mainstream media journalists seemed to scramble for political cover so as to not subject themselves to conservative catcalls.”

Still, the Liberal Media Bias myth persists and remains a driving engine of the conservative movement. It’s arguably more potent today because Trump made it a centerpiece of his political appeal to hate the press.

A recent story in the New York Times, “House G.O.P. Prepares to Slash Federal Programs in Coming Budget Showdown,” offers a powerful example of how even in the midst of an escalating crisis where Republicans are naked and unapologetic in their attempt to end multiracial pluralistic democracy, the myth of the liberal media still endures and is doing great harm to how the American people make sense of the forces that are pummeling them. The Times begins with:

Hard-right House Republicans are readying a plan to gut the nation’s foreign aid budget and make deep cuts to health care, food assistance and housing programs for poor Americans in their drive to balance the federal budget, as the party toils to coalesce around a blueprint that will deliver on their promise to slash spending.

The first word is “hard-right”. Immediately the Times positions the Republicans as being on a reasonable continuum of political ideology (opposite of “liberals” and the non-existent “hard left” in Congress) instead of as being neofascists, insurrectionists, and supporters of Trump’s coup plot.

Throughout the Times piece, there is other language that does the work of reputation laundering and normalizing right-wing extremism and other illiberal values where the Republican-fascists are also described as being “arch conservative” or “conservative”.

As is common in the Times and other leading news media outlets, there is a focus on the political horse race and competition and the “winners” and “losers” of a given “clash”. Responsible reporting that is in the public interest would emphasize and focus on concrete examples of how the Republican Party’s policies and proposals, as they have for decades, will literally hurt the lives of real people in the United States and around the world.

The Times uncritically presents the Republicans’ claim that they are attempting to cut and end federal “entitlement” programs and “wasteful spending” as part of an effort to “balance the federal budget”. In reality, the Republican Party and conservative movement have been attempting to eliminate the country’s threadbare safety net for decades, going back to at least FDR and the New Deal. Their hostility to social democracy is ideological and has little to do with so-called budget deficits. Moreover, the Republican Party wants to eliminate government programs so that those monies can be transferred to the very rich and corporations in the form of more tax subsidies and other transfer payments.

The Times also echoes the Republicans insincere and consistently disproved promises and pledges to not cut entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Media critic and journalist Dan Froomkin has repeatedly called attention to how the New York Times is not some agent of “liberal media bias” but instead serves the status quo and elite opinion – which means deferring to the Republican Party and right-wing:

How, you might well ask, could the nation’s most influential and celebrated newsroom bring forth something so laughably, ludicrously wrong?

I think I know:

  • By valuing contrarianism over common sense.
  • By valuing smugness over humility.
  • By valuing savviness over wisdom.
  • By valuing unflappability over sounding the alarm.
  • By valuing trolling the libs over sounding like one.
  • By valuing “balance” even where there is none.

Froomkin continues:

It’s a newsroom where views that go against the liberal consensus zip through editing, while anything that sounds too liberal is suspect.

The words “It’s not so simple,” from Peters’s headline, is Timesian doctrine —  even as the rise of Trump and white Christian totalitarianism have made many formerly complex social and political issues considerably more cut and dried.

And like everyone else in the news business, the Times has become addicted to getting attention on social media. Reliably restating and exploring obvious truths may be the best way to build and maintain a loyal audience – but it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as a hot, contrarian take, either on social media or with the top brass….

Some New York Times articles about outrageous things the right-wing is doing are obviously written with the expectation that the readers will understand how outrageous those things are, without the authors having to actually express their own outrage.

The twin myth of liberal media and liberal news bias has become so accepted as a type of common sense and conventional wisdom that the following question and intervention is rarely asked or made by those of us with a public voice and platform.

What would a real liberal news media look like?

A real liberal news media would not create a false equivalence or balance between the Republican fascists and “conservatives” on one side and the Democratic Party and liberals and progressives on the other. The former are now enemies of multiracial democracy and pluralism.

The latter, whatever the differences ideologically and policy wise among them (and the failings of the corporate Democrats being duly noted), still believe in and are committed to basic norms and principles of democracy, civil rights, the rule of law, and the Constitution.

On this, the media watchdog group FAIR explains:

The traditional model of “objectivity” followed by corporate media uses the two major parties as the two poles that journalists are expected to drive their stories straight between. This “both sides” approach often leaves out several other sides — either to the left or right of the two big parties, or looking at politics from a different angle entirely.

One of the biggest biases we find in political coverage is toward seeing politics as a spectator sport.

A real liberal news media would not defer to corporations, the monied classes and other powerful interests. Instead, the voices and needs of the poor, working class, unions, and those other individuals and groups who are being exploited by late capitalism, and hurt by the types of extreme social inequality it has created would be elevated.

A real liberal news media would have to find a way to escape and operate more independently from advertisers and a profit-motive.

A real liberal news media would challenge power and ask difficult questions about society, its dominant institutions, and taken for granted norms. Voices and perspectives outside of the established political norms and lanes would be given equal time and presented as viable alternatives to the “conventional wisdom”.

A real liberal news media would positively contribute to the public’s understanding of politics and society by featuring serious conversations between real experts about real issues of public concern instead of amplifying sound bites, hot takes, and a combative tone that offers lots of heat and entertainment but little insight.

In all, instead of being the Fourth Estate that speaks truth to power and informs the public so that they can hold their leaders accountable, today’s news media too often plays the American people and what has been described as “the attention economy” like it is some type of casino.

A real liberal news media would be committed to pro-democracy journalism and not retreat from using the appropriate moral language to describe the Republican fascists, today’s “conservative” movement and the larger white right and the danger they represent to American society. And contrary to how today’s news media and the commentariot and pundit class operate, a true liberal news media would eschew “the view from nowhere” and “the savvy take”. It would also operate from the foundational understanding that “objectivity” and “neutrality” are not the same thing.

For example, it is objectively true that Donald Trump, the Republican fascists and their forces are working to end multiracial democracy and replace it with an Apartheid Christofascist plutocracy. A neutral frame – which is an act of intellectual and moral cowardice — presents this all as some type of political battle or clash or partisan rancor where the outcome does not really matter because it is some type of political sporting event instead of an existential struggle over the future of American society and freedom.

In the end, the American news media is experiencing a legitimacy crisis because it has abandoned bold truth-telling and consistently speaking truth to power.

Americans across the ideological divide feel and know this to be true.

The myth of “the liberal media” and how the country’s news media has willingly entered into an abusive relationship with the Republican Party and “conservative” movement has helped to create that outcome.

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