Americans regularly decry media bias — especially during elections. The truth, however, is that for the vast majority of American history, we have had biased media. The problem today is that it is so drastically one-sided that it is tipping election results.
Media bias has actually been the norm in America history. For instance, the American Revolution was sparked by an intensely biased or partisan media. Pamphleteers like Sam Adams fought English-sympathetic newspapers by sensationalizing the early conflict in his writings.
Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was described as “fanatical” and literally transformed the colonists’ view of King George with such lines as: “Even brutes don’t devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families.” It was so influential, that no less than John Adams would say, perhaps jealously, that “history is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine.”
At the time of the most important “election” in American history, the adoption of the Constitution, America was the place of a very biased media. Our Founders played hardball and did what they could to block publication of Anti-Federalists sentiments in newspapers. Indeed, in part because of their influence, if not the demands of Federalists, less than 16 percent of newspapers published Anti-Federalist, i.e. anti-Constitution, articles.
The Civil War-era media of the 1860s was far more overtly political than the newspapers of today, including numerous papers run by the parties or politicos. Many towns had a Republican newspaper and a Democratic newspaper. Such overtness was the norm.
During that time, the escalating partisan tide was against those who urged caution in the face of Civil War chants. The pace of that dynamic occurred faster in the South as partisans known as Fire-Eaters in and out of the media drove the debate toward secession and then war.
In those seminal cases, the media was advocating the outcome of those events and played a strong hand in making them occur.
It would not be until the very late 1800s that newspapers began to separate from the parties and that type of bias began to lessen. The first half of the 1900s, a period comparatively less division among us, featured perhaps the least-biased media in our history. FDR began the process in earnest of regulating the media, which efforts eventually resulted in such practices as “equal time.”
Despite the attempts of government to regulate fairness, the Vietnam War would again result in significant media bias and gave great energy to the past 50 years of media bias. There is a difference, this time around, however.
Overall, the major media today tilts decidedly to the left. Witness the unprecedented degree of coordination between the left-leaning media and Hillary Clinton’s campaign that has been exposed by WikiLeaks.
Why is there an imbalance? The answer is that although Fox News exists and talk radio is on balance conservative, there are no party newspapers like in years past. Nor is the right nearly as engaged in the major media business like the left. In short, the left is more prominent in the media today and their voices louder than those on the right.
That tilting is having an effect. The major media exert great influence on which issues of the day will get covered. Think of the coverage of climate change and hurricanes and the governmental responses that follow.
On the strictly political front, in 2000, when Bill Bradley made a great comeback from 40 points down in New Hampshire against Al Gore and lost by only single digits, the media all but ignored that story in favor of John McCain’s comeback victory over George Bush. That lack of coverage hurt Mr. Bradley’s campaign, if not buried it. Today, the Trump stories related to his indiscretions dwarf those stories about WikiLeaks’ exposure of some very significant Hillary Clinton issues — if not the exposure of evidence related to crimes.
In those ways and others, the media is coming very close to deciding elections large and small.
Is media bias inevitable? It is a mistake, given human nature and history, to believe that people can be unbiased. That is not normal human behavior. It is probably wiser to understand that objectivity for most people is illusive and that a biased media is likely to be around forever.
Knowing that, the question is what if anything should be done about it? In very real terms, unless and until the existing imbalance is corrected, the outcome of the political issues of the day and our elections will continue to tilt in the same way the media is titling now — to the left. The only realistic way to change it, is for the right to become far more prominent in the major media, social media and beyond.
• Thomas G. Del Beccaro is a 2016 candidate for the U.S. Senate in California. He is the author of “The Divided Era: How We Got Here and the Keys to America’s Reconciliation” (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2015).