Montana Viewpoint: Claims of ‘liberal bias’ at core of U.S. government’s disinformation campaign

Jim Elliott

There is concern among many conservatives about the “liberal bias” of the “mainstream media,” which refers to the more widely circulated print and electronic media.  If you substituted the word “establishment” for “mainstream,” you would be on solid ground.

Both words have a slightly negative tone that implies the media does not represent everyday people, that they are elitist in nature. And indeed, the mainstream media is often referred to as “the liberal mainstream media” by its critics.

The website Conservapedia.com seems to list virtually all the major news outlets in the United States as having liberal bias. That includes some that are widely considered conservative, like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal (which is owned by the people who own Fox News). It also includes “all major, standard-newspaper-format dailies that have existed since before the Fairness Doctrine repeal” [in 1987]. That appears to leave little market share for the conservative, non-mainstream media.

The mainstream media, it is claimed, is notorious for sloppy, inaccurate, biased reporting. In short, it does not report or reports unfairly on issues important to conservatives. This is supported by criticism of those media by government spokesmen describing mainstream media content as “fake news.”

That may be a fair enough concern, but the fact that the list includes such a wide swath of the information stream seems a little unrealistic, even paranoid.

This is almost like a conservative, mirror image version of the left’s concern in the 1970s about the way the Vietnam War was being reported.

Back then, media accounts of events were not accurate because they were reporting on what the government told them, which was itself inaccurate. This was borne out by coverage of the same events by Canadian media. It was also borne out in reporting by intrepid American investigative journalists.

In the 1970s, it was the American government protecting itself by using the news media to lie to the American public. Today, it is the American government protecting itself by saying the news media are lying to the American public.

But if the press is reporting issues falsely, what is their motive? If they have a motive, why is it the same motive across all media, and if it is the same motive how is it coordinated? It stretches the imagination to believe that a cabal of news media owners who are essentially in competition with one other could — or would — conspire to be identical. It is far easier to believe that a single organization, the United States government, could carry out a disinformation campaign.

And if there is “no collusion” among the media, as it were, that would mean that what was called the “liberal bias” was much more centrist and the prevailing attitude of the public.

Curiously, a January 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center (pewglobal.org) found that there is a worldwide loss of faith in the accuracy of the press, but that there is a partisan divide on the presses’ fairness in coverage of political issues.

In all but three of the 38 countries surveyed, those who voted for the government in power believe the press is reporting political issues more fairly than do those who voted for the opposition. In the United States, that is reversed, with 28 percent of Trump voters and 55 percent of non-Trump voters believing the press gives fair political coverage.

Liberal or conservative, the press may make mistakes, but because stories are scrutinized both internally and externally it is still the best hope of spreading information — accurate information.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.