Popular myths live long after they are disproved. One of the most significant political myths is about the “liberal media”, the supposed tilt of American public media to the left. This claim by Republicans is nearly as old as I am. It was false when it began, and it still is, although less so.
When I was growing up, the great majority of newspapers endorsed Republican candidates. The magazine “Editor and Publisher” surveyed presidential endorsements of newspapers since 1940. The first time a Democrat won more endorsements was Lyndon Johnson in 1964 against Barry Goldwater. The next time was Bill Clinton in 1992. John Kerry barely edged out George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama won in 2008, although many fewer papers endorse candidates these days. In 2012 more papers endorsed Romney, but those which endorsed Obama had a higher circulation.
Over the long term, Republican presidential candidates won nearly three-quarters of newspaper endorsements from the 1930s through the 1980s. In other elections at the state and federal level, a similar pattern holds: from an overwhelming majority of endorsements from the 1940s through the 1960s, newspapers shifted to a more even split in the 1970s and 1980s, to a slight national majority for Democrats since the 1990s, with significant regional differences. In the 2014 governor’s race in Illinois, 12 of the 14 largest newspapers in the state endorsed the Republican Rauner.
Nevertheless, Republicans asserted that the media leaned against them. In 2009 Sarah Palin, who as candidate for Vice President admitted to doing virtually no reading, nevertheless argued that all the mainstream media were unfair to conservatives, making the term “lamestream media” popular. At the same time, researchers at Media Matters for America studied media politics at a different level. They surveyed every daily newspaper in the country in 2007 to see which syndicated op-ed columnists they published. The winner? George Will, syndicated in more papers with a higher total circulation than anyone else. No matter how one measured it, conservative columnists had an advantage over liberals. 60% of daily newspapers printed more conservative columnists than liberals, with only 20% of newspapers in the other direction. Newspapers with more conservative columnists reached more readers nationally. Only in the Middle Atlantic region of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey were liberal op-ed voices more prominent.
Why does the false characterization of the media have such strength against the facts? Conservatives overwhelmingly do not trust the media. Conservative Americans, unlike everyone else, trust only the few news sources which match their political views. Those very conservative sources, like the programs of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, repeat this claim about the liberal media all the time.
When the media leaned strongly Republican, Republicans had a much more favorable view. In 1956, a study found that 78% of Republicans thought that newspapers were fair. The shift towards more equality, their loss of dominance, was perceived by conservatives as an unfair trend, much as the still incomplete shift towards more racial and gender equality has led to conservative complaints about reverse discrimination.
I have one more explanation. Conservatives have declared their distrust of factual information. When decades or even centuries of scientific work clash with traditional beliefs, the science is declared bad. Conservatives have attacked and tried to eliminate the government institutions dedicated to informing and educating the public, like the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, and public television and radio.
Higher education has been under attack by conservatives for decades. In 2012, Rick Santorum criticized the idea of sending more students to college as an effort to “indoctrinate” them and wanted states “to get out of education”. Scan the country now for Republican efforts to do that. Scott Walker proposed to change the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin from the effort to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” Then he demanded a cut of $300 million from the University’s budget over the next two years. Doug Ducey, Governor of Arizona, proposed eliminating all state support for the two largest community college systems. Here in Illinois, one of the first institutions to be threatened with closure due to Governor Bruce Rauner’s budget cuts is the Illinois State Museum, a center for public education and scientific research.
By cutting funding of public schools and higher education, Republicans show their allegiance to the interests of the wealthiest Americans. A remarkable survey of rich Chicagoans (average wealth $14 million) shows that only one-third agree that “The federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go,” against 87% of the general public. Only 28% of them agree that “The federal government should make sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so,” against 78% of the rest of us.
The children of the wealthy will go wherever they like, and the poor will scramble to get ahead. To get average Americans to support that system, Republicans must shield them from the real news, must keep them away from science and the scientific method of thinking about the world, must make the financial hurdles to education high. Telling everyone not to listen to the most informative media is one part of that plan.
Published by the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 14, 2015