In America, Complaints of ‘Liberal Media Bias’ Have Existed Since 1960s, But Rarely If Ever Swings Elections

Complaints of “liberal media bias” go back at least since the Vietnam War of the 1960s when Democrat Lyndon Johnson was president and getting raked over the coals by the “liberal media” because the Vietnam War seemed to be going so poorly. This, despite the fact that Johnson was one of the most liberal presidents in American history.

This suspicion against the media continued into the Presidency of Richard Nixon.  In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew, in a speech written by William Safire, attacked the “nattering nabobs of negativism” who were too critical of Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War and portrayed Nixon as corrupt.

Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also complained that the media didn’t give them a fair shake.

Somehow, despite the media deck being stacked against Republicans all these years, they managed to win the Presidency in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004. Or, they held the presidency 28 out of 40 years and seven of 11 elections.

So, recent history suggests that even if there is a “liberal media bias,” Republican presidential candidates have still won most elections.

Politicians, of whatever ideology, when they are ahead, say their message is getting through; when they are behind, it’s because of media bias. It’s a highly dubious proposition that media bias changes the outcome of elections.

Sometimes I engage with political partisans, usually Republicans, who claim their candidate is behind only because of media bias. In 2012, after hearing complaints that “the liberal media” was biased against Republicans, I responded:

So, let me get this straight. You’re arguing that John McCain would have won in 2008 if the media weren’t biased in favor of Obama? And that Bob Dole would have won in 1996 if the media weren’t biased in favor of Bill Clinton? And that Bush 41 would have won if the media weren’t biased in favor of Clinton? Indeed, America would be a one-party state — the Republicans would always win — if the media weren’t biased in favor of Democrats?

Like I said, these are very dubious propositions. If anyone wants to create the scenarios in which McCain, Dole, and Bush 41 would have and should have won were it not for media bias, I’m all ears.

My point is that “media bias” — spin — rarely determines the outcome(s) of elections. The public digests media with several grains of salt. And those Republicans who think mainstream media newspapers, websites, or MSNBC has the capacity to swing elections are truly flattering the journalists who work there, as if they are truly that powerful.

One of my correspondents replied that “Republicans win office in spite of the overwhelming media opposition; Democrats win office with its complicity.”

Always? Usually? Sometimes? Or Never?

By this partisan’s reckoning, the US would have a far more conservative government if voters received “unbiased” news accounts.

This, despite the fact that the conservative Fox News is consistently the most popular television news network in America.

My guess is that hyper-partisans prefer propaganda or truly biased and manipulative news accounts and consider it “the truth.”

The agenda-setting theory of media is that it influences what people think about, but isn’t generally successful in dictating to people an opinion of an event or topic.

Media reflect or mirror the biases of society, and when society changes, media changes. Study media portrayals of African Americans in the 20th century.

Sometimes media reinforce stereotypes, preconceived views and biases, and sometimes media challenge stereotypes, preconceived views and biases.

But in the long run, media bias, when it exists, isn’t that significant to the way a society functions.

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