Ten Miles Square


March 27, 2012 1:00 PM Why Does the U.S. Lack Openly Partisan National News Media?

By Keith Humphreys

I have been puzzling over a difference between the news media in the U.K. and U.S. Having not come to a satisfactory answer in my own mind, I hereby throw the subject to the Internet hive mind for analysis and debate.

News media outlets can be divided into two types. The first type has a particular political point of view and makes no bones about it. The second type has a particular political point of view but denies it. If your reaction to this statement is along the lines of “But I watch the news on channel X and it has no political slant at all!”, the correct conclusion is not that channel X news has no political views, but that its political views are close enough to your own that you don’t notice them as such.

In the U.K., a number of the national newspapers were started by political parties and continue a nakedly partisan tradition. “Accusing” the Guardian of tilting pro-Labour would be as silly as “accusing” the late Senator Kennedy of being a liberal. Ditto doing a “hard-hitting expose” about the Tory leanings of the Telegraph. Those two fine national newspapers each have a political viewpoint and are proud of it.

In the U.S. however, national news media figures go into a panic when accused of partisanship. The only outlets that proudly trumpet a political perspective are small circulation magazines (e.g., The Nation, National Review). National newspapers, radio and TV shows scramble to be thought of as unbiased, balanced and apolitical.

One might try to explain this cultural difference by positing that U.K. journalists and media consumers were simply raised with different expectations of the media’s role (e.g., they grew up reading newspapers like the Manchester Guardian or Morning Star). If the broadly shared ideal in the U.K. is for news media to choose a political side, journalists would aspire to that role and news consumers, having their cultural expectations met, would like it.

The problem with this argument is that the U.K. also has news outlets which have a political viewpoint but will not admit it. The BBC and The Sun are prime examples (again, if you have the impulse to defend either as having no political slant…that just means their slant aligns with yours). So the critical difference between the national news media of the U.S. versus the U.K. is not that the latter lacks political viewpoint-denying outlets, but that the former lacks national news outlets that proudly nail their political colours to the mast.


[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


  • Neil Bates on March 27, 2012 2:36 PM:

    Uh, Keith - it may be debatable how "openly" partisan they are (I presume that is rigorous to make your point), but I'm sure you are all too familiar with Fox, WSJ, etc.

  • Texas Aggie on March 28, 2012 1:08 AM:

    Ditto to what Neil said. Fox, CNN, and with few exceptions, most talking heads on the other broadcast networks are blatantly prorepublican. You see it in their interviews and in their comments about the "news." The WSJ, New York Post, the Pittsburgh paper who is so bad that I've mentally suppressed its name, and numerous others make no real claims to being "fair and balanced." If they actually appear to be making the claim, a bit of digging shows that they really don't mean it and are only pretending.

  • David Dabney on March 28, 2012 9:34 AM:

    Everyone knows who the extreme partisan are but I think the point of the article is the question of why don't they openly declare their partisanship instead of hiding behind the lie of 'Fair and Balanced'?

  • J Baustian on March 28, 2012 9:58 AM:

    FNC is pretty open about its political leanings. The question is, why do NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and PBS pretend that they are not openly partisan? Impartial reporting is so rare as to be a topic of discussion and controversy when it is encountered.

  • SteveT on March 28, 2012 12:39 PM:

    I was a professional journalist myself for a short time. But I quickly realized that I couldn't maintain the impartiality the profession demanded -- well, demanded 25 years ago.

    Two things affect the mindset of journalists. One they admit to and one they won't.

    The first is a sense of having a mission. The Founding Fathers considered having an informed electorate to be essential to a successful democracy. They thought it was so important that they enshrined freedom of the press in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.

    The sense of having a mission was reenforced after Watergate and after All the President's Men, which portrayed journalists as heroic crusaders who brought down a corrupt president. As a result, crusading journalists often end up focusing on petty little scandals and ignoring stories that are more important.

    The thing most journalist won't admit to is having a strong bias. But it isn't toward a liberal viewpoint (no matter what Republicans say). Nor is it toward a conservative viewpoint.

    Journalists are defenders of the status quo and of "conventional wisdom" , which is ironic because journalists create "conventional wisdom" in their attempts to tie stories together under a common theme.

    For example, journalists created the image of John McCain as a "maverick". The image was based on McCain's image as a war hero and his opposing his party on two issues, campaign finance reform and the Bush tax cuts. But even though McCain repudiated the positions that caused journalists to give him his moniker during his 2008 presidential campaign McCain, the media continued (and continues to this day) to identify him as a maverick.

    Once journalists decide on a bit of "conventional wisdom", no amount of evidence will change their minds. Conventional Wisdom says that Republicans are the party of fiscal responsibility, and comparing deficits of recent Democratic and Republican administrations won't make them believe differently. Conventional Wisdom also says that Republicans are the experts on national security. But the number of Republican "foreign policy experts" who told us that the Iraq war would be over quickly, that there would be no anti-American insurgency and that there would be no civil war between Iraqi factions didn't cause a change in Conventional Wisdom. It didn't even cause those "experts" too lose any credibility among journalists.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 28, 2012 12:39 PM:

    J Baustian, Neil Bates, Texas Aggie: No, that's exactly the point. Fox is not open about their political leanings; those leanings are just too blatant to ignore. "Fair and Balanced" is not a slogan aimed at self-aware Republicans looking for a Republican news source. It's aimed at Republicans who believe that any news not in fact biased the same way they are is unfair and unabalanced.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 28, 2012 12:47 PM:

    SteveT's post above is really excellent. There's a lot of value of classifying bias along other dimensions than Left/Right. In particular, i think conservatives have been really effective in the past 15 years in getting their talking points accepted as CW -- semi-conscious stuff like "Republicans are the daddy party, Democrats are the mommy party," petty stuff like "Al Gore said he invented the Internet", etc.

    The media are somewhat willing accomplices but i would like to better understand how these beliefs work their way in.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 28, 2012 12:50 PM:

    To look at it another way -- why does a proposition like, "Republicans are largely rich bastards who would just as soon you go f*** yourself as long as they pay less tax" (in suitably cocktail-party-friendly language) not make it into CW? I don't think lack of truth is the problem there.

  • Gareth on April 27, 2012 8:08 AM:

    I would avoid conflating the UK newspaper and broadcast news industries, they are run on completely different rules.

    The BBC is often criticized as having an apparent liberal bias, but the fact is that all broadcasters in the UK are moderated by Ofcom, who require impartiality. this is particularly relevant on matters of partisan politics and during election times.

    This cannot be said for newspapers in the UK which have no such restrictions. Is The Sun 'right wing' well, absolutely, in a social sense.. sometimes, but that doesn't mean it will unswervingly support the Conservatives. It supported Blair's governments before turning on Brown and it now looks set to savage Cameron.

    The machinations of the Murdochs are more subtle than simple left right politics. They'll support anyone who favours their neo-liberal economic agenda.