Is the press more biased now than in the past? Owners of newspapers have always supported their friends and impugned their opponents. In the early days of the American republic, when paper was very expensive, journalists would produce one-page bulletins that might contain some reliable news, but most often were mainly political propaganda sheets — tacked on a pole.
Weekly newspapers started in the early 1700s — first in Boston and then in New York and Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin created the Pennsylvania Gazette, which contained news, but was also a literary and humor magazine and served as an outlet for Franklin’s many interests and political views. Franklin also developed the country’s first newspaper network through contracts with publishers in other cities. As the technology improved that enabled low-cost mass printing in the 1830s, the modern newspaper was born — mainly as an instrument of a political party, or “faction,” or cause of interest to the owner. By the early 1900s, newspapers had evolved from party organs to general-interest and often sensationalist press, dealing with crime, gossip about the famous, and sporting events, while retaining the various biases and particular passions of their owners.
Radio, TV and now the internet have made it cheaper and easier to disseminate news and views. Most media owners are now large corporations whose strong-minded CEOs, despite widespread ownership, can still determine content. If Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch is unhappy with the views of some of his on-air or print media people, there is little doubt that they will fall in line or be unemployed. At the other end of the political spectrum is MSNBC, owned by the large media conglomerate Comcast. Comcast’s chairman is Brian Roberts, who is a major supporter of the Democratic Party. The staff of MSNBC is, of course, aware of Mr. Roberts’ political preferences, so they are unlikely to disappoint the boss.
Fox, Comcast, CBS, ABC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc., are all investor-owned companies. If the investors are unhappy with the direction of the companies, they can sell the stock or try to elect a new slate of directors. Many complain about the liberal tilt of the major media, but the market largely corrects for much of the bias.
There is something close to a 50-50 split among those who lean right or left in the U.S. Take one subsection of the media market: those who watch cable news. Right-leaning Fox is outnumbered by the number of left-leaning cable news channels, but (at least before Fox fired Tucker Carlson) on many days, Fox has more viewers than all of its competitors combined. CNN was once the market leader but decided to move more to the left, which has turned out to be a ratings disaster. If they had moved right, they would have had only one major competitor (Fox) rather than several competitors on the left — not a smart business move.
Many major newspapers in the U.S. support the Democrats and most of their issues, but far and away, the largest and most influential newspaper (and editorial page) is the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal (the only truly national paper). The New York Times is a distant second and is no longer viewed as a totally serious paper due to its failure to fully cover many major scandals, such as the Russian hoax and the Hunter Biden laptop. Good newspapers and other professional news organizations clearly separate objective news from opinion — something that The New York Times, CNN, etc., forget far too often. (This column properly appears in the clearly labeled “commentary” section of The Washington Times and not in the “news” sections.)
A democratic constitutional republic like the U.S. depends on having a reasonably literate and informed population who can make sound judgments about who they choose as leaders and the pros and cons of issues that are likely to affect them. The good news is that there are many reporters and editors who are serious about presenting the news, but it requires the news consumer to determine the good from the bad.
People who do not seek out several different sources of news from across the political spectrum often remain ignorant about major and important news. Before the 2020 election, most major news organizations suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story, which was a deliberate attempt to get people to vote in ignorance for the Democrats. Polls indicate that many would have voted differently if they had known the truth about the extent of the Biden crime family. Shame on those news organizations and shame on the government officials, including the FBI, who hid the facts.
Privately owned news organizations have the right (no matter how irresponsible) to cover or not cover anything they want. But PBS is a government-owned news organization and, for decades, mainly presents news favorable to the Democrats and not the Republicans. Given that all taxpayers, regardless of their political leanings, pay for PBS, it is irresponsible, unprofessional and just plain wrong to force all to subsidize PBS and its endless stream of misinformation. Congressional Republicans keep promising to end the subsidy of PBS, but they never do, adding to their reputation as the stupid party.
The lesson is clear. People need to educate themselves by seeking out multiple sources of information in order to be fully informed voters.
• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.
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