How do news outlets come to have such strong political biases?
May 13, 2024 2:54 PM   Subscribe

It's easy to observe that different news outlets have different political biases, but I'd love to have a clear, simple explanation of WHY those biases exist, and HOW they develop and intensify. Can you explain it?

(Big broad question, I know!)
posted by nouvelle-personne to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Bias drives curiosity (or outrage) - which drives clicks that in turn drive revenue by making various wealthy backers happy . The days when news outlets were few and tightly regulated, and the days where you would pay for the title off a news-stand, before reading it- are in the past.
posted by rongorongo at 3:03 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]

Positive feedback loop. People want something that feeds their biases, and so you get a boost however you deviate from “just the facts, ma’am.” That’s probably been happening since the newstablet was written on mud in the Land Between the Two Rivers.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 3:06 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]

In my opinion it happened as a result of wanting to have audiences identify more strongly with the brand. That produces a loyal viewership and prevents the same viewers from also watching the "wrong" media. People used to perhaps prefer the coverage of CBS over ABC or what have you, but I don't think people strongly considered themselves "CBS people" the way people now do with various media brands.

I think there was probably always some bias but the cable news boom and 24-hour news cycle meant they needed more content and divisive political issues produce pretty much endless content because they are never resolved. You could have on 3-4 pundits and fill an hour of the day, then you follow up with whatever drove viewership.

Over time outlets decided to embrace, for whatever reason (and there are lots of reasons, from the mundane to the arbitrary to the venal), to pursue a given demographic that they felt they could capture and come out ahead even if they lost the opposite demographic. So when CNN or MSNBC started catering more to the left with certain op-eds and anchors that leaned that way, Fox News went the other direction in order to capitalize on a demographic they guessed would feel antagonized by the other outlets.

In short it is a form of brand loyalty - you're a Pepsi person or a Coke person, you like Ford or you like Honda, smooth peanut butter or chunky, etc etc. Encouraging people to identify with a brand is good for that brand's business and news media found that their product was like any other in this respect.

(I'm a member of the news media and certainly my publication leans left, but we cover technology and business primarily so it's not quite the same thing.)
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:17 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]

Owners. Fox News, for example, was founded by far-right Rupert Murdoch specifically to be a conservative news outlet.
posted by slkinsey at 3:48 PM on May 13 [16 favorites]

In the case of Fox News, it was created from the start to be a conservative outlet, to have a conservative bias.

Quoting this short editor's letter from The Week:
"In 1970, political consultant Roger Ailes and other Nixon aides came up with a plan to create a new TV network that would circumvent existing media and provide "pro-administration" coverage to millions."
Lo and behold, some 25 years later Ailes used Rupert Murdoh's money to create such a network. Here's a longer article from Rolling Stone on Ailes' life and history as a conservative & Republican dirty trickster media & political consultant, and how he built Fox to be a conservative mouthpiece right from the beginning.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:48 PM on May 13 [7 favorites]

So many news outlets are funded by conservative hedge funds that care only about profits. Create a panic, someone will profit from it. Don't report on anything beneficial because that undermines the panic. Over-report minor rises in prices, weather watches, small crimes, distant disasters. Keep people on edge so they don't know what changes to ask for, because all change is deadly.
Truth is negotiable. Profit is all.
posted by Enid Lareg at 3:57 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Ok so… for some right wing media, say a rich person has investments in X industry, and wants more profit, so they get control of a media outlet and boosts stories that drive public behaviour and votes towards more profit for X industry. (Say, owning bigger cars, or voting for a politician who backs a war where arms are being sold, etc). Lots of regular people kind of believe those things anyway, and their beliefs get strengthened by listening to those news stories, even though those beliefs don’t result in profits for them.

But what about left wing media? There, the issues don’t seem as clearly driven by profits as in some of the examples mentioned here.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:45 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]

But what about left wing media? There, the issues don’t seem as clearly driven by profits as in some of the examples mentioned here.

There is no left-wing media in the United States, or at least none with any degree of national prominence. Networks such as CNN and MSNBC are centrist, with a LaCroix-esque hint of leftist flavor. They've captured the wide swath of the American public that loves capitalism and war but isn't such a huge fan of racism and queerphobia (or would at least prefer it to be quieter), and they were able to do that because Fox, Newsmax and that ilk had already laid claim to the fascist right. They have many of the same corporate backers as the fascist networks, who prop them up to further the illusion of media balance and ensure that any actual leftist voices are drowned out and dismissed as crankery.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:19 PM on May 13 [30 favorites]

While I'm sure you could dig up evidence of conspiracy or, like, second-order motives for certain outlets, I think people hugely underestimate the degree to which media outlets are driven by what's profitable for them. This sometimes cuts across political lines in a strange way—i.e. CNN or MSNBC are probably staffed largely with Biden voters, but Trump news and "Dems in Disarray" stories drive clicks and eyeballs.

I worked for a New Times alt-weekly years ago, and over time our music coverage became weirdly but almost irretrievably skewed toward these huge slideshows of scantily clad college girls at regional music festivals. Why? Because people clicked on them in huge, huge numbers, orders of magnitude more than our features about local bands. You think at first that you're doing that to subsidize the good stuff, but it's hard to keep that sort of thing going organizationally where you have people doing the embarrassing grunt work that makes all the money and other people who do the fun respectable stuff. All of us saw the traffic numbers. Every outlet I've written for that is theoretically farming engagement off sleaze or "look at this tweet" postlets or disingenuous headlines For A Good Cause (to subsidize long-form reporting or do political good works or whatever, doesn't matter) eventually takes on the shape of the garbage that drives its traffic.

This almost certainly applies to partisan outlets too, almost mechanically—like the stuff you do that nobody is interested in reading is a failure both as a thing that keeps you employed and as an instrument of propaganda. If you can't identify a market for your content nobody is going to have their opinions changed or hardened by it.
posted by Polycarp at 9:28 PM on May 13 [10 favorites]

In the case of many non-US newspapers, they never had the pretence of "neutrality" (or, if they did it's very long gone). Many of them were started with explicit political perspectives.
posted by hoyland at 9:31 PM on May 13 [6 favorites]

News is a product that is sold to advertisers for profit. Advertisers want to target their spending to certain demographics. By providing a differentiated product, news outlets can more reliably deliver key demographics. This is particularly important for legacy media where there are limited metrics exposed to advertisers to measure the effectiveness of the ad spend.
posted by shock muppet at 9:32 PM on May 13 [6 favorites]

I also think: what's the alternative? All news organizations must be biased - they must decide what to report on, how to report on it, how much time or space or bandwidth to devote to different topics. There is no such thing as the one true unbiased version of the news any more than there is the one true unbiased version of history.*

"Centrist" is a bias, and it's often the furthest-left viewpoint that we see in wide publication in English-speaking media.

* I would argue that news or history ought to at least get the facts right, which some outlets are unwilling to do if it gets in the way of the story, but I think that actual falsehood doesn't make up the majority of the "bias," and really a news story or history can still be useful and largely true even if it doesn't have the facts exactly right.
posted by mskyle at 4:27 AM on May 14 [3 favorites]

But what about left wing media? There, the issues don’t seem as clearly driven by profits as in some of the examples mentioned here.

Yeah, echoing Polycarp and shockmuppet, you seem to be misunderstanding the extent to which running and owning media and news is itself supposed to be profitable. The more people consume your media, the more you can charge for advertising, and if Fox News is actively trying to attract American viewers who lean conservative for a variety of social, cultural, economic, and personal reasons, then that leaves millions of not-conservatives who presumably want to get their news and information from somewhere, and millions of those people will be some level of left/liberal/progressive for their own social and cultural and economic and personal reasons, so you start running left-leaning opinion pieces and hiring left-leaning columnists so you can get more consumers and make more money from advertising.

Rupert Murdoch had already made millions from owning and running newspapers and TV stations in Australia, New Zealand, and UK by the time he started Fox News, and even a quick skim of his Wikipedia page shows that he has been willing to support center and center-left politicians and policies if he thought it was advantageous for him and his profit margins.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:37 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]

As long as their has been media there has political bias. For a historical perspective, you might look into the life and career of William Randolph Hearst.
posted by ewok_academy at 8:05 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]

For far too many news outlets, the answer is that Rupert Murdoch owns them, and he sets the agenda.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 8:21 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]

Sinclair Broadcast Group operates 193 TV stations around the country and has an intentional political bias.
posted by credulous at 9:49 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]

(In the U.S., you also can't tell this story without talking about the Reagan-era repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.)
posted by nobody at 10:36 AM on May 14 [5 favorites]

As long as their has been media there has political bias.

An arguably it was much, much more pronounced in the past. Or at least the opinion of the publisher was well represented in the news coverage. In 1900, New York City had 15 newspapers which allowed for lots of different viewpoints. In some way the viewpoint was a selling point of their coverage. It wasn't until the middle to late 20th century with consolidation and 3 tv networks attempted to do some form of objectivity to address the largest possible market. Of course their "objectiveness" was only true in some sense of the word but not all. You were unlikely to get a persistent, positive pro-socialist position reflected.
posted by mmascolino at 1:34 PM on May 14

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