Professor: Conservative Efforts to ‘Degrade Mainstream Media’s Credibility’ Endanger Fact-Based Reporting

Nicole Hemmer is a historian at the University of Miami and at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, where she explains America to Aussies. On Friday, she sought to explain conservatives’ attitude toward the mainstream media to the readers of the New Republic.

Hemmer sees the right as engaged in a long-term effort to portray the MSM as not only philosophically biased in favor of liberalism, but also prone to factual error as a result of that bias. She contended that for conservatives, Dan Rather’s George W. Bush/Air National Guard story “was the exemplar of the connection between accuracy and bias…Why did journalists make these mistakes and editors fail to correct them? Because a liberal worldview kept them from questioning assumptions and double-checking information.”

Conservatives, Hemmer argued, are out to promote righty media outlets as well as to marginalize the MSM and its claims to impartiality: “The Brian Williams case, with its lack of any overt political angle, represents the next stage in the evolution of the accuracy argument…The point is to continue to degrade mainstream media’s credibility (which has plunged dramatically since the 1990s), making room for their own explicitly ideological models…In an era when ideologues increasingly choose their own facts, the partisan policing of accuracy threatens to do in factuality altogether.”

The liberal scholar wrote about Accuracy In Media and Edith Efron's book The News Twisters starting the ball rolling in the Nixon years, but there was no reference at all to the Media Research Center in this conservative sector.

From Hemmer’s article, headlined “Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” (bolding added):

When the Brian Williams scandal broke, conservatives touted it…as a breakthrough moment in their war on media bias...

The leap from one newsman's fictionalized war story to systematic liberal bias in mainstream media is a long one; Williams's apparent flaw was self-aggrandizement, not ideology. But the conservative response is more than just a reflexive use of the right’s most enduring media critique. Conservative activists learned long ago that in order to tear down the MSM, they would have to do more than make a case for bias. They would have to go after journalists’ accuracy as well…

For conservatives, the [Dan Rather/George W. Bush/Air National Guard story] was the exemplar of the connection between accuracy and bias…Why did journalists make these mistakes and editors fail to correct them? Because a liberal worldview kept them from questioning assumptions and double-checking information.

The Brian Williams case, with its lack of any overt political angle, represents the next stage in the evolution of the accuracy argument. Conservatives who pillory the mainstream media because of Williams have no need for the bias argument. The point is to continue to degrade mainstream media’s credibility (which has plunged dramatically since the 1990s), making room for their own explicitly ideological models. As [Sarah] Palin put it, the Williams scandal helps “justify our complete turning away from his ilk in the news media” and toward, presumably, sources like Fox News, Breitbart, and talk radio.

This evolution in the media bias argument illustrates how the right has come to use different metrics for conservative media and mainstream media. Inaccuracies in conservative media do not derail conservative personalities in the same way as Williams's inaccuracies have, because an argument can have factual inaccuracies but still be ideologically "true." Lacking those overt ideological claims, mainstream media can be discredited by being factually wrong. 

That divergence has consequences, both troubling and absurd. It leads to the bizarre spectacle of people like Palin and the team at "Fox & Friends" holding themselves out as arbiters of accuracy. And the more that journalistic accuracy is associated [with] liberal bias, the more likely it is to become politicized. In an era when ideologues increasingly choose their own facts, the partisan policing of accuracy threatens to do in factuality altogether. 

Journalists should be taken to task when they’re wrong, of course. With the blossoming of hyper-partisan media and politics, Americans need news media to get the facts right. But in using the Williams case to discredit the mainstream media altogether, conservatives threaten to move the country further from that goal.

Media Bias Debate Conservatives & Republicans New Republic Brian Williams


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