corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

03 Nov '09

How the Right-Wing Manipulates Media

Corporate-backed think-tanks operate a dual strategy to get their messages in the media. As the Fraser Institute’s five-year plan indicates, they court the press to obtain favourable coverage. But they also club the press when necessary. The weapon of choice is the charge that the media are too liberal and do not give conservatives a fair shake.

Monitoring the media was one of the strategies recommended by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memo to the US Chamber of Commerce that launched the third counter-thrust. The right began accusing the press of liberal bias in the early 1970s. They’re still at it more than thirty years later. Even though the corporate media are not liberal, conservatives continue to make the accusation because it is useful to do so. If the press can be accused of being too liberal and leftist, the right’s extreme positions will seem moderate in comparison.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky called this activity ‘flak’, which they defined as “negative responses to a media statement or program.” Flak occurs every day when individuals write letters to the editor commenting on something that appeared in yesterday’s paper.

On occasion, organized groups complain about the treatment afforded them by a particular newspaper. But the greatest impact of flak was achieved by organizations set up specifically to criticize and harass the media. These organizations are financed by the same corporations and foundations that back the think-tanks.

Four media-monitoring organizations in the United States have the task of rooting out supposed liberal bias and ensuring that the media reflect business-friendly, conservative positions. “They are quoted frequently and forcefully on a variety of topics,” writes Trudy Lieberman, a health care activist and journalist, in her book Slanting the Story.

Lieberman explains the peculiar definition of “liberal bias” espoused by conservatives. Bias doesn’t necessarily mean prejudice, but simply a point of view or the dissemination of information that right-wing organizations would rather the media ignore. This could be information about government help for the poor, the homeless or the weak, or even a discussion of the poor, homeless and weak, information that conflicts with the objectives of the right.

Stories on victims of spending cuts are biased, they say, because there aren’t equivalent stories on victims of tax hikes (even though tax hikes are rare). Bias could also mean giving short shrift to conservative solutions to a problem, discussing a flaw in the conservative approach, or simply omitting information presented by the right.

The first flak group in the United States was Accuracy In Media, which was set up in 1969 and predates Powell’s memorandum by several years. Conservative economist Reed Irvine, who worked at the U.S. Federal Reserve, was upset over media coverage of the Vietnam War. He believed that favourable reporting on the Viet Cong by American media helped the North Vietnamese win the war.

Irvine was a strident anti-communist; through AIM he led several high-profile campaigns to detail the media’s liberal bias. In his view, these news stories and documentaries highlighted the evils of capitalism while glorifying the Soviet Union and various socialist movements. The organization grew spectacularly during the 1970s, with funding from major oil companies and Richard Mellon Scaife’s foundations.

AIM says its mission is to “critique botched and bungled news stories and set the record straight on important issues that have received slanted coverage.” But Herman and Chomsky see a darker purpose. The function of AIM, they say, is “to harass the media and put pressure on them to follow the corporate agenda and a hard-line, right-wing foreign policy… It conditions the media to expect trouble (and cost increases) for violating right-wing standards of bias.”

Irvine was a frequent participant in television talk shows, and his letters to the editor and commentary were published regularly in the media. The media felt obligated to provide careful responses to his detailed attacks on their news and commentary. With the demise of the Soviet Union, AIM turned its guns on the “hysteria” perpetrated by “radical environmentalism” and debunked “myths” such as global warming. AIM regularly targeted the United Nations, Hillary Clinton and Dan Rather, while it ferociously protected the Bush administration from any criticism.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs was established in 1986 by Linda and Robert Lichter in Washington, D.C. It calls itself non-partisan and oddly this label has stuck, even though its first fundraising letters were signed by Ronald Reagan, Patrick Buchanan and Reverend Pat Robertson, who helped mobilize fundamentalist Christians to take over the Republican Party. The Lichters’ research was first published by the American Enterprise Institute and they received money from the Bradley, Olin, Smith Richardson and Scaife foundations.

The Lichters’ claim to fame was a study which purported to prove that reporters at the nation’s top newspapers, newsmagazines and television networks voted Democratic more frequently than the country as a whole. The study also claimed to demonstrate that on questions measuring economic and social views, the “media elite” was to the left of the “business elite.”

The catch is that the Lichters didn’t compare reporters’ views with those of the general public, but with CEOs and other top executives at six Fortune 500 companies. Of course, the views of reporters will be more liberal than those of very conservative business executives. Nearly everybody’s will be.

In fact, the majority of reporters and editors were conservative on five of six economic questions. On one question, 63 percent of media respondents supported less regulation of the economy, making them more conservative than the general public, but more liberal than the 86 percent of CEOs who favoured less regulation. This latter comparison was the one publicized.

On social issues, the reporters and editors were liberal. They supported environmental protection, affirmative action, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and sexual freedom. But these are views shared by most Americans, with the exception of the religious right. The finding that the media were conservative on economic issues was lost in the stampede to attack the newly discovered “liberal media.” We should note that the Lichters never canvassed media owners who, by a wide margin, vote Republican.

Robert and Linda Lichter and their corporate and foundation backers achieved tremendous success in their campaign to tar the media with the liberal brush. But a study by sociologist David Croteau of Virginia Commonwealth University found that “on select issues from corporate power and trade to social security and medicare, to health care and taxes, journalists are actually more conservative than the general public.”

The study also found that “journalists are mostly centrist in their political orientation.” This study, unfortunately, was not reported as well as the ones claiming liberal bias. As a result, the liberal media claim has been disseminated so widely that it achieved the status of urban legend, both in the United States and Canada.

In Canada, the Ottawa Citizen‘s David Warren has been on a crusade to “out” the liberal media. In Warren’s world, the liberal media accuse the Israelis of perpetrating massacres while pretending that the Palestinians want something other than to drive Israel into the sea.

The liberal media, Warren charges: like the United Nations the way it is; become outraged when Islamic terrorists are successfully prosecuted; hate the Stephen Harper Conservatives; love Pierre Berton (Warren hated him because he epitomized the liberal media); use repulsive images from Iraq to undermine U.S. foreign policy; and generally provide disinformation on the war in Iraq.

Warren has mentioned the liberal media phantom in three dozen columns, but never once — Berton aside — identified a single news organization or journalist who might be a member of this nasty group. As with most charges made by flak organizations and their supporters, the liberal media charge is vague, but, ironically, continues to be recycled through the “liberal” press itself.

Excerpted in Straight

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