Column: Academe Assesses the Conservative Media

April 10th, 2020 6:44 AM

The liberal Columbia Journalism Review has published a lengthy special report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism on the values and practices of online conservative news sites. Three professors -- Anthony Nadler, A.J. Bauer, and Magda Konieczna – interviewed 22 journalists at 14 websites, and their overall picture of the conservative media is straightforward. Among their findings about conservative journalists:

They espouse journalistic ideals like accuracy and fairness, if not objectivity.

They express an interest in engaging the broader public, not just conservatives.

They’re dedicated to reporting stories they felt were “consistently underreported” about liberal darlings and institutions.

Almost uniformly, they feel conservative journalism as a whole is treated unfairly by the “mainstream” press.

Some felt conservative media were “marginalizing conservative perspectives critical of Trump’s honesty and character.” That’s not surprising, given that the trio of professors interviewed “conservatives” at The Washington Post and The Bulwark, a red-hot “Never Trump” outpost. Asked what makes for an ideal conservative journalist, Bulwark editor Jim Swift joked “the ideal conservative reporter or journalist usually just leaves conservative media as soon as they possibly can,” since it’s not lucrative.

Surely, one could be both a conservative journalist and a critic of Trump’s “honesty and character.” It’s just that sites like The Bulwark are harshly critical of most conservatives, and end up sounding much more like Vox than Fox. They sent freelancer Molly Jong-Fast to the Conservative Political Action Conference. The “highlight of the hellscape,” she proclaimed, “was seeing Laura Ingraham attempt a comedy set. Laura said that Democrats want post-birth abortions and made a number of extremely unfunny jokes about Jim Acosta.”

Feeling Jim Acosta’s pain is not a “conservative media” norm.

This was the saddest finding: “Many participants” said they see few other conservative outlets as high-quality news sources. ”They described their own publication’s commitment to accuracy, thoroughness, or fairly representing fact as an exception within the field of conservative news.” 

The point was demonstrated by Ethan Barton of the Daily Caller News Foundation, who bragged “Within conservative media, I would say our big thing is that we’re far more in-depth and measured—and I know this is obviously my biased opinion—and reliable than other conservative outlets.”

That’s not going to win friends and influence people for the Daily Caller. This is not what you find in the major media. You don't often see the Washington Post saying to interviewers "the New York Times is far less reliable and deep-thinking than we are."  

These professors should be welcomed in finding the conservative media to be worth academic attention. But they seem to be dismissing the overwhelming bias that provides so much energy and loyalty to conservative outlets.  Two of these professors (Nadler and Bauer) have seriously argued “there has been little social-scientific corroboration of liberal media bias.” This is like arguing “social science” has failed to establish since 1996 that Fox News leans to the right.

Like many liberals, they assume media outlets from “television networks such as NBC and CNN to prestige publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post and digital upstarts like Vox or BuzzFeed” can be identified as “mainstream,” “nonpartisan,” and “general interest.” It doesn’t matter how valiantly these “nonpartisan” outlets identify themselves as vanquishing Team Trump in the defense of grand concepts like endangered “Truth” and dying “Democracy."

“Nonpartisan” journalism for the “general interest” sounds great, but that’s not what any of these overtly partisan and liberal outlets provide.  Our media are divided between conservative and liberal, Right and Left, not conservative and “nonpartisan general interest.” That ship has sailed, and it sunk.