Media Is Liberal, But It's Not a Conspiracy

Donald Trump loudly claims the election is rigged against him, both by the media and by actual voter fraud. Conservatives across the board shout that Hillary Clinton has not been properly vetted by the media, and that her email scandal should have received a higher quantity and quality of investigative journalism. Indeed, the entire arc of right-wing ascendancy from the mid-90s to the present relies on the incessant claim of liberal media bias. This led to the rise of alternative media, the descent of many citizens into the raging, conspiracy-minded, closed system of talk radio, and now the likely outcome that right-wing media has been so successful with its niche that it doomed its own movement.

All of this relies on the basic claim of liberal bias in media. The claim is undeniably correct.

But that does not mean liberal media bias is conspiratorial, malicious, or even intentional. I would echo the dream of Bloomberg columnist Megan McCardle, who recently said, “I have a dream of a day when I will convince liberals that the media has a liberal bias, and conservatives that it’s not a conspiracy.”

Liberal media bias is driven primarily by two factors. The first, which McCardle doesn’t address, is the psychological profile—or, if you prefer, the personality—that leads someone to consider and pursue a career as a journalist. The kinds of people who become journalists are liberal to begin with. It is largely a process of self-selection.

Consider the “big five” psychological indicators, one of which is openness to new experience. This core part of one’s personality shares a high correlation with liberalism and is absolutely essential to a journalistic career. One might pair this with the psychological trait of questioning conventional authorities, another characteristic that correlates to liberalism and, though not part of the “big five,” features prominently in Moral Foundations Theory.

One could argue that these two traits—openness to new experience and questioning authorities—comprise the core of the journalistic enterprise. Or, at least, they are central to what initially draws a young person to the career. When combined in a personality profile, these traits have a very high correlation with liberalism.

McCardle emphasizes a second crucial factor, one which potentially affects every line of work and workplace: the tendency of institutions to replicate themselves. In academia, this is sometimes called homosocial reproduction, and it is a major obstacle to diversification of race, gender, and ideology. McCardle rightly emphasizes that people don’t always consciously intend to choose and promote people and ideas like themselves.

There was certainly no liberal media conspiracy, just an iterative process controlled by no one: Being human, liberals naturally prefer the work of folks who agree with them, so those are the folks they tend to hire and promote.  As they became increasingly dominant in the media, the trend became self-reinforcing. Fewer conservatives wanted to enter the castle in the first place, and few were allowed to. Now the castle residents are peering into the swamp and wondering what the heck is going on out there.

McCardle implores her colleagues in media not “to drain the right-wing media swamp,” as Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post wants Republicans to do, but rather to open the gates of the media castle—or at least drop down a ladder.

She wants “a concerted effort to open the doors and persuade some of the swamp-dwellers to move inside. Not just to move inside, but to help run the place, pushing back on liberal pieties and dubious claims with the same fervor that liberals push back on conservative ones.” The ideological diversity that does exist in opinion-writing could be facilitated on “the news side of media outlets too.”

McCardle’s goal is right, but getting there is a huge challenge. It’s precisely where the first factor comes back into play. Are there enough conservatives who want to do the news side of journalism as their life’s work?

There are certainly some people like this, conservatives that came up through traditional news journalism and rose to prominence, all the while experiencing overt discrimination based on their ideological viewpoints and the perceived ideological affiliations of their prior employers. There are undoubtedly some conservatives whose career advancement was hindered because of ideology. For some of McCardle’s conservative friends in journalism, “it became hard … to get a job at a mainstream publication staffed by people who think they’re wrong about everything.”

But are there enough people like her friends? Are crowds of conservatives banging at the gates of the castle, for entry-level positions at low wages, in order to cover diverse issues each week that require constant openness to new experience, in order to question the veracity of police reports and military spokesmen, in order to shine a spotlight on corruption in our venerated institutions?

The nature of the work itself seems to attract, on the whole, liberal personalities. The line of conservatives knocking at the gate to do news reporting, not commentary, might be very short.

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Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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