Obama, Fox News and Media Bias

To the delight of both liberal and conservative pundits, news outlets  reported in recent weeks that the Obama administration has decided to go on the offensive against what it perceives to be “biased” news coverage by the Fox News network, (see, for example, here and here.)  Administration officials argue that Fox has crossed the line from reporting the news into advocacy, and they have decided to push back by, among other tactics, excluding Fox from some news events and boycotting the Fox Sunday news show.

What are we to make of the decision by the White House to engage in a media war with Fox News?  I’m going to devote at least two posts to what is a somewhat complicated topic.  But to anticipate the punchline:  Obama and his senior aides are making a classic rookie mistake.

To see why, we need to address two main points. First, is it the case that Fox News is “biased” and, second, should the Obama administration engage in a tactic of singling out a news network for what it believes to be biased coverage.

Let me address the issue of press “bias” first. I can’t possibly do justice to this topic in a single post, but let me at least get the discussion started. To begin, we should note that the Obama administration’s claim of unfair coverage is nothing new among presidential administrations.  In one form or another, it is a charge that has been raised by every presidential administration, Democrat or Republican, going back to at least the Nixon presidency (and probably before – I just don’t have much data going back before the 1970’s).  To be sure, the charge of news bias has been more frequently leveled by Republican administrations against what they perceive to be a liberal bias in the news.   But if the ideological battle lines have changed, the belief by a president that elements of the media are out to get him has not.

In assessing the accuracy of these charges, we need to be careful to clarify two issues. What do we mean by the news media?  And how do we measure bias?

Let me first take up the second point – how do we measure bias?   If, by bias, we mean do members of the national news media hold political views that are not representative of the broader public, the indisputable fact is that they are biased: journalists working for the major news dailies, magazines and major television networks hold views to the left of the public’s across a range of issues.  Similarly, members of the news media are much more favorably disposed to the Democrat party than is the general public and are more likely to support Democrat candidates. The evidence on this point is overwhelming, and it has held true dating back to the 1970’s when political scientists first began systematically measuring the media’s policy views. (Whenever I present this claim to working journalists, their response is invariably some version of, “Oh yeah?  How do you explain Britt Hume?!”)  (If readers are interested, I can devote a separate post documenting how pervasive and enduring this left-leaning personal perspective among working journalists is.)

However, why should we care what journalists think?  What we really want to know is what they report.  Is there evidence that their left-leaning personal views influence how journalists report the news?  The short answer is no, at least not consistently across the range of national news stories on television and in the print media. Most efforts to uncover evidence of ideological bias center on journalists’ coverage of elections, and here there is not much evidence for a consistent left-ward tilt in reporting. Indeed, if there is any bias in campaign coverage at all, it is toward an increasing emphasis on negative news coverage – stories about controversy, personality disputes and candidate strategy, at the expense of simply reporting what candidates do or say.  And rather than favoring the liberal candidate, news coverage instead tends to adopt an anti-incumbent bias; journalists generally treat challengers in presidential elections, regardless of party, more favorably than incumbents or the better known candidate. A version of this seemed to be at play in the 2008 Democratic primary, when Barack Obama initially received much more favorable coverage than the better known Hillary Clinton.  Once Obama’s candidacy gained momentum, however, he began to receive more negative coverage. In the end, as the table below indicates, Clinton and Obama received about equally positive coverage (see a discussion here.)

Looking at the general election, one might again argue there was a liberal bias. As the table below from the Pew Center summarizes, Obama received more favorable coverage than John McCain at least through mid-October (for a discussion, see here.)

Note that the variation in coverage did not necessarily follow some underlying real world change in the relative position of the two candidates; as the chart below indicates, the tone of Obama’s news coverage did not seem to track his actual support in the polls so much as it varied according to events (Lehman brothers crash, the debates) deemed newsworthy by the press.

It is possible, then, to argue that Obama’s generally favorable news coverage reflects the ideological biases of a left-leaning press.  But it is equally plausible  that what we are seeing is a structural bias in which news coverage is slanted toward what is new and therefore newsworthy. In this case, Obama was by far the more newsworthy candidate – he was young, had “upset” Clinton in the primaries, was an African-American who seemed to have rallied heretofore underrepresented voters to the campaign.  McCain, in contrast, was old news.

By structural bias, I mean to suggest that news coverage is driven primarily by the nature of the news business – the need to attract an audience and sell advertising in an increasingly competitive and financially sketchy news environment. In this environment reporters are increasingly driven to define newsworthy stories as those that involve controversy or disagreement, to emphasize the negative and to view elections in terms of the horse race narrative.  Issues tend to get personalized (see “Obamacare”).  But they also latch onto stories that are deemed newsworthy for other reasons – in this case, the first viable run for the presidency by an African-American.

Of course, this data refers to election coverage. What about news coverage of Obama’s presidency?  Does it reflect an ideological bias?  At least initially, it was generally favorable, when compared to the coverage received by Clinton or Bush.

But this data covers the period before the health care debate, the Town Hall meetings, and the inexorable slide in Obama’s popularity.  My guess is that the percent of favorable stories on Obama has decreased since his first two months in office.

It may seem somewhat incongruous, given this data, for Obama’s aides to be charging the news media with bias. Of course, they aren’t targeting the entire media –they are accusing Fox News of  biased coverage.  In making this claim they aren’t necessarily accusing Fox of slanting the content of a news story in a particular direction.  Instead they are criticizing Fox’s agenda-setting role.  Fox was particularly aggressive in covering the Town Hall health care meetings, the past statements and affiliations of the White House “green” adviser Van Jones, and the allegations of corruption within the Acorn community activist group.  Apparently what most concerned the Obama administration were reports that editors at other news outlets, such as the NY Times, were admitting that they were slower than Fox to cover some of these stories.

But there is a second component to the charge of media bias, and that’s identifying what we mean by “the media”. Part of the Obama administration’s problem, I think, is their inability to separate the Fox network’s news commentary from its news coverage division – a problem that extends to left-leaning pundits and bloggers more generally. Major Garrett reports the news; Glenn Beck is paid to comment on the news.  They serve different functions – a distinction often lost on Fox News’ critics. In defense of the Obama administration, however, it has become more difficult to separate the news reporting from news editorializing during the last two decades.  There has been an increased tendency, for example, for newspapers to include columns titled “news interpretation” or “news analysis” which blur the line between reporting and editorializing.  (Long time readers will recall that much of my election year blogging was spent dissecting the many mistakes in data interpretation contained in these election year news “analyses”).  And cable news outlets are increasingly divvying up the potential news market in an effort to establish a niche audience.  In this hot-house media environment of 24-7 news coverage, amid a backdrop of dwindling revenues and declining audiences, it is not surprising that news organizations are increasingly intent on developing a specific news brand.

Given these structural, as opposed to ideological, biases that drive media coverage, it is little wonder that most presidential administrations sooner or later believe the media is out to get them.  In this respect, the Obama administration fears are no different from that of previous administrations’. This year the target is Fox News cable network. Under previous presidents, during a different news era when the traditional news outlets dominated coverage, the target was the New York Times, the Washington Post, or CBS broadcast news.

What is different, however, is the speed and openness with which the Obama administration has leveled these charges. All presidential administrations believe portions of the media are biased. Few, if any, since Nixon’s presidency have taken the offensive so publicly.  Obama and his aides may have calculated that in this new media environment, they have more to gain by going on the offensive and targeting that spectrum of the news media that they believe to be politically out of step.  If so, I think they are making a mistake, one that reflects the relative inexperience of the president combined with the prominent role played in his senior White House staff by former campaign strategists such as communications director Anita Dunn.  They are making the common error of conflating campaigning with governing.   I believe this will likely erode Obama’s public standing, increase unfavorable press coverage, and ultimately undercut his efforts to pass his legislative program and to create a more bipartisan tone in Washington, DC.  I develop these points more fully in the next post.


  1. I have a question that turns on the fairness/balance distinction that Olivier Knox noted: if McCain suspends his campaign and Palin’s wardrobe budget leaks to the press while Obama gets an endorsement from Colin Powell, would this count as two “negative” stories for McCain vs. one “positive” story for Obama? Should the media right this “imbalance” by only reporting one of those McCain stories, or by digging up a “negative” story on Obama to achieve parity? It doesn’t strike me that a structural, objective difference in news reported out of either campaign would, if reported on by the media, be unfair. Remember, Steve Schmidt and the McCain campaign were incredibly embattled and theirs was a campaign porous to the press; Axelrod and Plouffe ran a tight ship and the Obama campaign leaked less frequently.

    I take your agenda-setting point. Mickey Kaus makes the argument that it’s Ailes, not Murdoch, that should worry press observers:

    Also, your quote, “McCain, in contrast, was old news” is appropriate on a few levels.

  2. Jeff,

    Ah, someone notices my clever phrasing! Kudos to you.

    You raise an important point: if McCain ran a demonstrably worse campaign than Obama, wouldn’t one expect the news coverage to favor Obama? You can’t very well blame the press for stating the obvious – that’s not bias, that’s good reporting! A complete answer would require a separate post. But I would suggest that the generally positive coverage Obama received compared to McCain reinforces my point about a “structural” biais in news coverage more generally. That is, because the news media tends to cover campaigns as if they were a horse race, events become interpreted through this broader paradigm – and in 2008 that tended to favor Obama. To take an example: consider the financial collapse and how the two candidates reacted to it. McCain briefly suspended his campaign, threatened to pull out of the debate and then debated after all. Obama largely did nothing. Neither candidate’s action can be said to have done anything to address the crisis, but in the end the media narrative, with its intimation of McCain’s erratic behavior, ended up benefiting Obama. Had the media narrative instead focused on the substance of the policy debate, rather than on how the candidates appeared to react tactically, one might have seen a different tone in coverage. That’s what I mean by structural, as opposed to ideological, bias. I’ll have more to say on this in a longer post.

  3. I’m with you on everything up until your last point. Fox News does very little journalism as is typically practiced (sending out reporters to research & cover stories), with the majority of their programming dedicated to news commentary. But even the little “straight news” that they do is slanted far to the right – omitting stories that favor the Dems, heightening GOP achievements, and presenting “factual errors” that always skew to the right (such as labeling scandalized Repubs with D in graphics). The studies I’ve seen comparing story selection and perspective tell a very clear tale of consistent slant on all aspects of Fox News’s coverage. What are you basing the distinction between Fox’s commentary and journalistic functions (aside from Fox’s own defense)?

  4. Jason,

    I think many people would agree with you. Others, however, would argue that Fox is a welcome corrective to a generally liberal media that tends to demonstrate “a clear tale of consistent slant” but to the Left. So, how do we adjudicate these claims? In the next post I’ll present some data that tries to assess whether the media, including Fox, is biased, and in what direction.

  5. Matt – I await that post. For me, factual accuracy is the minimal baseline that news needs to achieve, and Fox’s track record there is quite dubious.

    I’d point to a few other links that people might find useful in this topic. Mickey Kaus lays out a number of useful criteria to judge bias. Jay Rosen has a great explanation of the most important bias in political news: the horse race frame.

    And if I might self-promote, I’ve blogged about this as well – this excerpt from a draft of my book Television and American Culture discusses a number of media biases in relation to Fox News and The Daily Show, and this post emphasizes the emotional bias of television that connects to many of your points above on the structural biases of the journalism system.

  6. What we think of as bias may also result from the media giving its audience what it wants. In general, Pew data show that the media does a decent job of covering what the public seems to be interested in. (See http://people-press.org/report/538/). Also, the population of people that pay attention to the news is more polarized than the general population. You can see this in 2008 National Election Studies data. I just ran an analysis that compares people who pay “a great deal” of attention to internet news to the rest of the population. When you ask people what they think of “liberals” and “conservatives”, the general population’s views look like a pretty smooth bell curve. High internet consumers have distributions of attitudes that appear much more bimodal. So is it any wonder that FOX caters to a conservative population while MSNBC, for example, is starting to cater to a liberal population? These are the people who are watching.

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