As progressive media critics, we at Media Matters for America start off at something of a disadvantage. Unlike our counterparts on the right, we don't have one simple answer to every question having to do with the news media. We don't believe the media are irredeemably "biased," or that reporters have hidden agendas and we can tell you what they are. What we do believe is that all too often, the American news media fail to serve the public.
Admittedly, making that case can at times require explanation. The accusation of bias, on the other hand, is easy to make and can't be proven wrong. After all, when you accuse reporters of being biased, you're saying you know what lies in their hearts, and you've discovered their sinister hidden agenda. Most importantly, you're accusing them of having bad motives (and saying you know what those motives are).
We at Media Matters for America don't claim to be able to read minds. Go to our web site and look through the thousands of items we've produced in the last two years, and you'll find the factual errors, misleading statements, and sins of omission we've documented. What you won't find is relentless accusations that reporters, commentators, or news outlets are "biased." When we do an item on something that appeared in the news media, it's because we can demonstrate that it was false or misleading, not because we just don't like it.
To take one recent example, when New York Times columnist David Brooks went on television and claimed, "A week ago, none of the people we just saw in that report [Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton and Governor John Corzine] knew a thing about port security or cared anything about port security," he was just wrong (all three worked on legislation involving port security long before anyone had heard of Dubai Ports World). Whether Brooks was misinformed, made an assumption based on nothing, or knew the truth but decided to lie, is something we can't know. His "bias" on this particular matter is neither easily ascertainable nor particularly relevant. But we do know that he was wrong, and so we documented how and why.
Brooks is an opinion columnist, of course – and though he's entitled to his own opinion, he isn't entitled to his own facts. But every day, reporters for important news outlets pass on conservative spin, repeat deceptive White House talking points without comment, and operate under misleading assumptions that benefit the right and undermine the left. Why they do it is ultimately less important than whether or not they can be convinced to stop.
We have to grant, however, that the right's sustained accusation of "bias" is both a powerful organizing tool (sustaining their supporters' belief that people are out to get them) and an effective way of "working the refs." Knowing that they face constant charges of bias, reporters respond by bending over backward to show how tough they can be on progressives and Democrats.
In contrast, when Media Matters for America criticizes the news media, it's for a simple reason: we want them to do their jobs and do them right.
There may be no more profound difference between the left and the right on media issues than this: progressives believe in journalism. We don't want news outlets to be shills for Democrats. We believe reporters have to be critical, aggressive, and unyielding in holding the powerful accountable and finding the truth, no matter who is in charge. Because without a courageous, independent press corps, democracy itself is impossible.
But in recent years the right wing has undertaken an assault not only on what they perceive as coverage unfavorable to their cause, but on the very idea of objective news. Conservatives have become the true post-modernists, arguing that any news presentation that reflects badly on Republicans must have a "liberal bias" – that there are no facts, only their (right) opinion and everyone else's (wrong) opinion. Why are Bush's approval ratings low? Not because of policy failures, but because the media are out to get him. Why has the American public concluded that the Iraq war was a mistake? Not because they're smart enough to know a disaster when they see one, but because a biased media keeps stubbornly reporting on the deaths of Americans and Iraqis. As Rob Corddry of The Daily Show put it, "From the names of our fallen soldiers to the gradual withdrawal of our allies to the growing insurgency, it's become all too clear that facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda."
We need the facts
While "objectivity" is a slippery and complicated concept, progressives believe that there are some facts on which we should all be able to agree – and that it is the responsibility of reporters to put those facts in front of the public. That's what journalists are supposed to do: sort the false from the true, cut through the spin, and give citizens the tools they need to make informed decisions.
But in recent years we've seen a press that doesn't seem to have the courage to call lies by their name. Instead, the most egregious deceptions are presented in "he said/she said" format: the White House says the moon is made of green cheese, Democrats disagree. Who's right? Who knows? The result is that citizens are supposed to sort through contradictory claims to figure out what's true, something they have neither the time nor the resources to do.
Falling back on "he said/she said" is easy for reporters to do. And it has the added benefit of getting the right wing off your back for a day. Because reporters know that if they say that in fact, the moon is not made of green cheese and in this case the White House is not telling the truth, they'll be called "anti-Bush" in a swarm of calls and emails.
But the most perverse effect of "he said/she said" is that it gives political actors – if they're so inclined – permission to lie. If a lie is not called a lie, the liar knows he can get away with it again and again. Such a system rewards the most unscrupulous of political actors – take the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. When news organizations finally got around to investigating their claims – months after they had been in circulation – they found that nearly all the charges they made against John Kerry were bogus. But by then they had their effect, and the group became heroes to the right. Their example will no doubt be followed two years from now.
The Lunatic Fringe
We at Media Matters for America spend most of our time investigating claims, tracking down information, and policing the inaccuracies that appear in the news media every day. But we often get more attention for one of the simplest things we do: recording what members of the right-wing (and sometimes ostensibly not-so-right-wing) media say and write, and putting transcripts, audio, and video up on our web site.
As it happens, lots of people – including journalists - don't watch Bill O'Reilly, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or read Ann Coulter, so they have no idea just what kind of bile issues forth from these and other sources every day. One of the most striking imbalances in American media today is the way extremism and hate from the right are tolerated and even lauded, while there is nothing remotely comparable on the left. Take Coulter, who regularly advocates the murder of people with whom she disagrees. Is there anyone on the left who does the same, and is given the media megaphones she gets? Or radio host Michael Savage, who has said immigration is "part of the grand plan, to push homosexuality to cut down on the white race." Or Limbaugh, who last November actually celebrated on the air when four Christian peace activists, including the recently murdered Tom Fox, were taken hostage in Iraq ("Well, here's why I like it," he said. "I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality."). Reporters treat these figures not as immoral hate-mongers, but as mainstream figures who are worthy of attention.
Just this week, Franklin Graham said, "If people think Islam is such a wonderful religion, just go to Saudi Arabia and make it your home. Just live there. If you think Islam is such a wonderful religion, I mean, go and live under the Taliban somewhere." This message of love and tolerance to the millions of American Muslims was described by John Donvan of ABC's Nightline as something that "may not get a diplomacy prize." Maybe not.
On a number of recent occasions, some of these kinds of comments brought controversy after we highlighted them, as when Pat Robertson advocated assassinating the president of Venezuela, or Bill Bennett mused about reducing crime by aborting every black baby. What made these comments controversial was not just their content – statements just as shocking had been made many times before. What changed was that they were actually brought to the attention of a mainstream audience, whose members recoiled in horror.
When we at Media Matters point out the things journalists do wrong, we aren't trying to intimidate them or just get people to shake their fists at the television screen; our hope is that the news media will do a better job of serving the public interest. But few things are more frustrating than to hear reporters say, "We get criticized from the left and the right, so that means we must be doing something right." That, frankly, is a cop-out, a way of ignoring the substance of criticism because of its source. Reporters should know by now that they will always be criticized from the right, no matter what they do. And now, finally, they're being criticized from the left as well. Some of the criticisms from any side will have merit, and some of them won't. But reporters have an obligation to ignore the ones that are just attempts to get one side better coverage, and respond to the ones that point out genuine weaknesses in their reporting and writing. Because their obligation isn't just to be balanced or objective, it's to be faithful to the truth and the public they serve.