How the NSA Exposed the Media's Biggest Bias

The media's coverage of the NSA proves that its greatest bias isn't towards Democrats or Republicans—but towards institutional power itself.

Nov 4 2013, 5:15pm
Image: Flickr

Dissecting media bias is now a lucrative cottage industry in American politics. From Media Matters to the Media Research Center, there are multimillion-dollar think tanks whose entire mission is to prove that the media serves one of the political parties, and unduly persecutes the other.

Let's just state up front that it is certainly true that Democratic and Republican party biases exist in the corners of the mediascape that are explicitly partisan—places like talk radio and party-aligned cable television, to name a couple. It is also true that polls suggest this niche media's effort to recast every political issue as a purely red-versus-blue affair has unfortunately helped convince more Americans to base their own positions purely on party affiliation rather than on principle. And it is true that because of its affinity for shock, spectacle and sensationalism, hyper-partisan media outlets get lots of residual media attention, which ends up depicting these outlets as far more significant cultural forces than they actually are.

However, the dirty little secret is that despite all the hype, audience data prove that these purely partisan outlets represent a comparatively tiny share of the media world—the share that caters to the small handful of already-persuaded political junkies. More importantly, as the recent brouhaha over the National Security Administration highlights, these outlets' blatantly partisan biases do not reflect a far more pervasive and problematic bias in the much larger and more influential general-audience news media: the bias toward governments, corporations, politicians and businesspeople from any political party who appear to wield disproportionate power.

Why is the NSA story a particularly good illustration of this larger bias in favor of power? Because, as congressional votes prove, it is one of those rare issues that doesn't conform to traditional party politics. You can be a hardcore liberal Democrat or a hardcore Tea Party Republican and oppose mass surveillance. Because of that, media coverage of the NSA is a rare litmus test not for party bias, but for institutional bias—and as a Columbia Journalism Review study, proves, that bias in favor of power is severe.

To spotlight this bias, CJR looked at NSA-related reporting by America's four largest newspapers. Aggregating all of the coverage, the journalism watchdog organization found that there has been a clear slant in favor of the government's defense of mass spying.

"Key words generally used to justify increased surveillance, such as security or terrorism, were used much more frequently than terms that tend to invoke opposition to mass surveillance, such as privacy or liberty," the report found.

The Congressional Research Service notes that many electronic media outlets "piggyback on reporting" done by these newspapers. In light of the CJR study about the NSA, then, it is not surprising that the media bias toward the NSA has been consistently replicated by much of the national television news media. Yes, in this action-movie-worthy story featuring whistleblower Edward Snowden and crusading journalist Glenn Greenwald exposing systemic lawbreaking, the most persistent media bias of all - the bias toward power rather than party - is so intense that it has presented Big Brother as the most credible source of all.

If this was an isolated incident, perhaps it could be dismissed. But as the defining events of the last few years prove, it is not the exception. The worship of power—not party—is now the rule.

In the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion, for example, the government's famously inaccurate WMD allegations and its larger argument for war was rarely questioned by most of the press corps. Indeed, according to a three-week study of major television news organizations by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting right after the invasion, "Nearly two thirds of all sources, 64 percent, were pro-war...71 percent of U.S. guests favored the war (and) anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources." In all, viewers were more than six times as likely to see a source toeing the government line than a source questioning the government's claims.

Same thing for the financial crisis. In its exhaustive look at the press coverage in the lead-up to the Wall Street meltdown, CJR found that "the business press did everything but take on the institutions that brought down the financial system." Similarly, the Pew Research Center found that "the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression has been covered in the media largely from the top down, told primarily from the perspective of the Obama Administration and big business, and reflected the voices and ideas of people in institutions more than those of everyday Americans." Pew notes that a companion analysis by Cornell University researchers found "that phrases and ideas that reverberated most in the coverage came early on, mostly from government."

Assessing the whole situation, the Federal Communications Commission recently concluded that there is a fundamental "power shift" happening in the media right now—one in which media organizations are "more reliant on news doled out by press release or official statement, which means that they report the news powerful institutions want us to know rather than what has been concealed."

Some of that has to do with resources. News organizations have slashed staff under budget pressure from declining ad revenues. That means, as the FCC points out, the remaining reporters have "less time per story" and therefore default to simply transcribing press releases.

Some of it, though, has to do with ideological fealty and fear. On the ideological side, from Wall Street firms funding economic news outlets directly, to familial relationships that straddle the supposed media-government divide, to the incestuous relationship between the news and corporate PR industries, the cultural, political and ideological boundaries between elite reporters and their subjects barely exists anymore. With no such boundaries, it is increasingly difficult to detect a difference between news reporting and outright stenography.

On the fear side, there has been a concerted effort by those in power to criminalize the act of journalism itself. In the United States that has meant efforts by the government to investigate and potentially prosecute reporters for the alleged crime of reporting things the government wants to keep hidden. It has also meant using diplomatic pressure to imprison foreign journalists the U.S. government doesn't like. In Britain, it's a step further - as of this week, it means the government labeling journalists it doesn't like full-on terrorists. In such a climate, many news organizations have bowed to the intimidation campaign—or even proudly joined it themselves.

The result of these trends is what Gallup recently reported: confidence in the media is hovering near an all-time low. Basically, people realize that much of the information news organizations provide is just the not-to-be-trusted official line filtered through one or another teleprompter-reading Ron Burgundy. Predictably, that has created a serious credibility crisis. But if, as the old saying goes, every crisis presents an opportunity, then it is also a huge journalistic opportunity for outlets that have experience upending outdated power structures and that can create a brand that contrasts with the rest of the media—a brand that is adversarial, rather than servile, towards power.

This is why the as-yet-unnamed project being launched by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar seems particularly encouraging. Omidyar comes not only with resources but also with a technologists' deep knowledge of how to build a business that exploits the shortcomings of old, outdated systems surviving on their monopoly position alone. At the same time, while the team of reporters he has assembled come from a diverse set of backgrounds, they all seem to share a hostility toward mindlessly regurgitating the official line.

"We intend to treat claims from the most powerful factions with skepticism, not reverence," said Greenwald, who was the first journalist hired by Omidyar. "Official assertions are our stating point to investigate...not the gospel around which we build our narratives."

As the famed reporter who ignored government intimidation and broke the NSA stories, Greenwald is no doubt proudly and openly promoting a very real bias here—but, to the likely disappointment of the media criticism industry, it is not an easy-to-demonize partisan bias. It is instead a bias against the notion of subservience.

That was always supposed to be every journalist's bias and it is certainly a shame that such a bias remains in such short supply these days. But if the law of supply and demand hold true, then those who now find sustainable ways to supply that bias should soon find quite a big audience.