Eric Alterman does a pretty good job of dealing with this whole issue in his book What Liberal Media?
Alterman notes early in the book that he believes that many individual members of the media are, in fact, reasonably liberal by American political standards. He concedes that many (possibly the majority of) reporters for major national newspapers and television news programs probably identify with liberal positions, especially when it comes to social and cultural issues like gay rights, abortion, race relations etc. He’s not so sure about economic issues.
But, as Alterman points out, the coverage that we get reflects more than simply the individual reporters’ point of view; it reflects certain institutional and economic factors, as well as particular social and political pressures. I think he makes a decent case that the mainstream media is, for the most part, far from liberal in its biases. He even finds a few conservative political operatives who concede that the whole “liberal media” thing is more of a rhetorical bludgeon than an everyday reality.
I tend to agree with Mach Tuck that the biggest determinant of how the media cover the news is generally related to the fact that media companies are generally large corporations, often owned by even larger corporations. Not only are they profit-driven, but their whole worldview needs to reflect, at least in some measure, the priorities of the companies who own them.
Edward Hermann and Noam Chomsky made this point years ago in their excellent work, Manufacturing Consent. The subtitle of the book is instructive: “The Political Economy of the Mass Media.” Hermann and Chomsky analyze a whole bunch of media stories, and go into considerable detail in many cases, but a central part of their argument is that, in order to understand the media in a free society like America, we need to understand whose interests they serve, especially in the realm of political economy.
They also point out that, in cases where bias can be found in the media, it’s often not a case of deliberate or even semi-conscious skewing of the facts. They argue that people who come through the ranks in these large media organizations end up internalizing the values of the institutions, and that these values generally include not being too critical of the existing power structure, or the companies that own the media outlets. As they note, no-one needs to specifically tell the editor of a major newspaper or a national TV show which stories to run, or what editorial position to take, because you will never make it to such an important position unless you’ve already internalized the priorities of the organization.
Hermann and Chomsky also concede that there are often many very good journalists who do their best to get around or past the corporate and institutional barriers to good journalism. They argue that the period just after Watergate was an example of a time when the country was fed up with corruption, when people wanted to get to the bottom of things, and when, therefore, many reporters found that they suddenly had an opening to pursue stories that they might not have been able to write before.
Interestingly enough, some of the best journalism often comes from papers with very conservative editorial positions. A perfect example is the Wall Street Journal. Despite the right-wing lunatics and dribbling douchebags who tend to infest its editorial page, the WSJ has some of the best reporters in America, and it produces journalism that is, for the most part, factual and very well researched. A key reason for this is its audience; the paper is read by captains of industry, by politicians, by the wealthy and powerful, and these people want their news straight. They don’t want or need it coated in the syrup that gets ladled over what passes for news on your local TV station or in your local paper.
Of course, now that Rupert Murdoch has taken over the Journal it will be interesting to see whether this tradition of real journalism continues. Murdoch tends to turn everything he touches into an ideological sock puppet.