On the day that Obamacare became law in America, I was in an SUV driving through the desert between Austin, Texas and Roswell, New Mexico. As we sped past one-derrick ghost towns and sprawling wind farms, we listened to hours of talk radio hosts ranting apocalyptically against the president.
It was shocking in its publicly broadcast ferocity — to the point of accusing Obama of treason for the crime of expanding health care coverage. Less shocking was that the hyperbolic talk eventually turned toward another hated scourge, the liberal media, even though there were no liberal voices to be heard on the dial.
Their claims about the liberal media were as misleading as their claims about Obama’s death panels. Or Sinclair Broadcast Group’s inadvertently viral news anchor hostage statement in which dozens of local news readers spout the same corporate-penned script about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing the country.”
Except the Sinclair employees don’t mean their own company’s partisan slant, which also includes “must-run” pro-Trump commentary airing on all their 193 local stations. These prompted an anonymous staffer from a newly acquired Utah station to tell the L.A. Times that “They have taken a trusted brand and turned it into a propaganda outlet.” They don’t mean like-minded conservative outlets such as Fox News or Breitbart, either.
When the anchors read the mandate states that “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’” the goal is to amplify the false fake-news claims that President Trump uses to attack news he doesn’t like.
To wit, after millions had watched Deadspin’s compilation video — “How America’s largest local TV owner turned its news anchors into soldiers in Trump’s war on the media” — Trump took to twitter to defend the company. “The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The ‘Fakers’ at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!”
David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, made a similar claim last fall in response to an interview request by New York magazine: “The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility. see ya.”
Yes, there are progressive-leaning news outlets like Vice, HuffPost and Buzzfeed online and MSNBC on cable — though they are accurate in their news reporting and also hold progressive politicians to account unlike conservative media that almost always tows the party line.
But that’s not even who Smith or Trump or those angry talk-radio Texans were attacking. Like Breitbart claiming that MSNBC is “not seen as far-left as CNN or as anti-Trump,” They’re going after the mainstream media by using the “liberal media” myth — now upgraded to the “fake-news media” myth — to move the goalposts so far to the right that their own conservative partisanship seems less extreme and the centrist media seems leftist
It’s an Orwellian parlour trick, and an old one at that.
Conservatives have been attacking the media as biased toward liberals since long before Sarah Palin came up with “lamestream media.” It began in earnest in the 1960s when they began pushing back against the “Fairness Doctrine,” a government policy requiring broadcasters to give equal time to opposing political opinions. In 1964, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s press secretary famously handed out “Eastern Liberal Press” pins to campaign reporters. Five years later, Nixon’s alliteration-loving vice-president Spiro Agnew attacked the media’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” for their Vietnam coverage, and five years after that conservatives were blaming Watergate on the liberal media. Senator Jesse Helms even said, in a statement that sounds like a Trump tweet, that “Watergate became the lever by which embittered liberal pundits have sought to reverse the 1972 conservative judgment of the people.”
During the Ronald Reagan administration, the Fairness Doctrine was allowed to expire, opening the airwaves to far-right talk radio like The Rush Limbaugh Show. It was followed by Sean Hannity, Alex Jones and countless regional right-wing shouters. There has never been a successful political counterpart — though Air America tried and failed — but that’s never stopped these hosts from attacking the centre by pretending it’s the left.
Then in 1996, ex-Nixon aide Roger Ailes launched the Fox News Channel, promising to “restore objectivity where we find it lacking” while using the in-your-face false “Fair and Balanced” slogan. In 2009, Andrew Breitbart launched his site to “fight the mainstream media…who have repeatedly, and under the guise of objectivity and political neutrality, promoted a blatantly left-of-centre, pro-Democratic Party agenda.”
Objectivity in the media does not mean reporting both sides equally, it means reporting the truth. Fair doesn’t always equal balanced. Yet conservatives now claim fact-check sites like PolitiFact and Snopes are leftist for finding more Republican lies than Democratic ones rather than admitting one side lies more often than the other. Similar bias claims have been made about negative Trump coverage, even though the mainstream media was relatively equal in its negative coverage of Clinton, Bush and Obama. Trump is obviously an outlier.
These are just cynical efforts to influence coverage. It’s a political ploy that GOP party chair Rich Bond admitted to the Washington Post in 1992: “If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time. It worked so well in the 2016 election — consider the so-called liberal media’s overcorrecting coverage of Hillary’s emails — that now they’re going after Google, Facebook and Twitter, claiming without evidence that “they’re cracking down disproportionately on the conservative news.”
This liberal media myth persists here in Canada, too, fuelled by Sun scribes and Rebel writers who drop the phrase as if it were a given like gravity and amplified by conservative commenters and tweeters. But do they really think that media outlets owned by mega-corporations like Rogers, Shaw and Bell are pushing leftist agendas? Or that newspapers don’t blast Trudeau and Wynne as much as they did Harper? Or that CBC News doesn’t go out of its way to appear unbiased? (Ask Jagmeet Singh if he thinks the public broadcaster leans progressive.)
If anything, the mainstream media in Canada and the U.S. tilts centre-right and pro-status quo when it comes to columnists and editorial. But it’s primarily nonpartisan — the news bias that does exist favours sensationalism for ad dollar-generating ratings and clicks, and opinions tend to run the gamut to reach as many demographics as possible.
Yet this fake narrative about news continues to be pushed. Pretending that the centre is the left has proven to be an effective tool for the right but, to paraphrase Sinclair, it is “extremely dangerous to our democracy.”