What We Might Mean by "Liberal Bias"
For years now, liberal activists have called for the media to abandon the notion of journalistic objectivity as typically defined, which is to say, the idea that good reporting makes people equally mad and strives to be “balanced” between opposing political viewpoints. This “View From Nowhere,” to use the liberal media critic Jay Rosen’s term, implies the existence of a space free from any ideological influence or preexisting biases, which obviously can’t exist in real life and thus puts reporters in an untenable position. Worse, the story goes, the desire to be evenhanded leaves journalists (whose job it is to report the truth) in he-said/she-said dichotomies that imply that one perspective is as true as another even when one side is clearly lying or wrong. The archetypal example of the View From Nowhere resulting in malign consequences might be climate change - “Democrats Insist Burning Fossil Fuels Leads to Global Warming, But Republicans Are Skeptical.” As people like Rosen have pointed out for forever, this type of framing suggests to the reader that both sides are equally valid, when in fact only the former is remotely in line with overwhelming scientific evidence. Better, the argument goes, to simply make clear that the facts are on the side of the Democrats here, not the Republicans. And you saw a lot of movement in this direction during the Trump administration, when stodgy old newspapers were increasingly emboldened to, and financially remunerated for, running headline like “Known Liar Trump Lies Again.”
When applied carefully and in a limited way, this evolution of journalistic mores isn’t objectionable. (Trump really does lie a lot.) Rarely is the application actually limited or careful, though; professional journalists have little reason these days to do anything other than straightforward liberal advocacy journalism, thanks to both professional and social incentives, and providing more justification for doing so will only push newsgathering further in a particular political direction. There’s also a whole set of complications stemming from the fact that the perspective of those opposed to the View From Nowhere is indeed subject to its own biases and slant, and the admission by advocates of this fact doesn’t change the potentially malign consequences. The anti-View From Nowhere attitude is meta-discursively an ostensibly non-ideological perspective on a profoundly ideological set of ideas. The people who complain about the View From Nowhere admit that they are politically biased creatures who can’t step outside of those biases in their understanding of the world, except for when it comes to this very question of the superiority of acknowledging the impossibility of neutrality. This is what we once called ideology. But I accept that this concern is rather abstract, so let’s look at a more pragmatic example.
If you take a look at this piece on Republican anti-DEI efforts from Nick Confessore in The New York Times, I think you can see some of the problems here with post-objectivity journalism. Anyone with conservative sympathies would likely see it as betraying a straightforward interest in functioning as political advocacy, despite being sold as straight news, and I certainly couldn’t blame them. The piece describes as a nefarious conspiracy that which is ultimately an ordinary expression of state politics, as ugly as the motivations are. (A fundamental and unchanging aspect of American politics is that whatever the other side is trying to do to our public education systems is nefarious, where whatever we’re trying to do is simply in the interest of education.) I kept waiting for a point in the many uncovered documents where the bad guys said, “now we’re going to pay off the state representatives to get what we want, bwahaha!” Instead, it’s just a bunch of conservative jackasses getting worked up about liberal diversity pieties and planning on defeating them through legislation and policy. Among other things, the piece gives us no sense that Confessore understands that liberals are working just as hard to keep their agenda alive in the state colleges too or why that would be less conspiratorial. And, in fact, the piece can’t reflect on those things, as its straightjacketed within the NYT guidelines on news.
Confessore treats all of the described efforts as straightforwardly malign without bothering to really make the case for why. The piece does not really bother advocating for DEI, makes an remarkably limp attempt at defining what conservatives (and others) are mad about, and clearly proceeds from the assumption that the majority of its readers will recognize everything that’s being described as wicked without argument. That assumption, I would argue, is a good example of the profound audience capture that the New York Times has fallen into as it has become a global paper, reliant on subscriptions that come largely from a particular kind of person - urban, extravagantly educated, upwardly-mobile if not already affluent, the type of person who mocks meritocracy on Twitter while enjoying the fruits of their own desperate clawing up the meritocratic ladder. They are not the type who are used to entertaining the possibility that maybe their ideological opponents have a point, and increasingly the paper seems eager to give them the uncomplicated world they demand to live in. As recent Substack controversies show, the liberal demand to live unsullied by the knowledge that there are people out there who disagree with them is a growing business concern.
It’s here, I guess, that I’ll wedge in my usual caveats about the Times: in its fact-gathering function it remains on par with or superior to all of its peers in American media; the people who run the paper are clearly deeply invested in arriving at the factual truth; they have maintained a commendable commitment to balance in their opinion pages despite constant and vociferous efforts within the industry to purge those pages of any conservative opinion; the production values are world-class; they appear to have survived the end of the Trump bump in media finances as well as any publication, and can continue to hand out the kind of salaries that keep some aspirational drive alive in this crumbling industry. And I like Confessore particularly, in general. Of course, were I a functional person I would likely feel pressure to say these things even if I didn’t believe them; my freelancing career appears to be over, but the paper is now so dominant in mindshare that few ambitious writers could afford to reject it. This, obviously, creates a number of problems in a media labor market rapidly running out of chairs, but that’s for another time. I think in general that the Times, like most of our remaining newsgathering apparatus, is actually really good at correctly ascertaining and faithfully relaying the facts, and much much worse at examining the underlying ideological assumptions of the people who do that ascertaining and relaying. Right-wing grievance mongers love to accuse the establishment media of lying about Republicans and their issues, but the problem is much more often a failure to interrogate how one’s particular perspective is inherently embedded in politics.
For example. A fundamental problem with Confessore’s piece is that it gives remarkably little attention to the actual conservative critique of the DEI industry, a single paragraph, and immediately follows it with a blanket denial. As such:
In public, some individuals and groups involved in the effort joined calls to protect diversity of thought and intellectual freedom, embracing the argument that D.E.I. efforts had made universities intolerant and narrow. They claimed to stand for meritocratic ideals and against ideologies that divided Americans. They argued that D.E.I. programs made Black and Hispanic students feel less welcome instead of more.
Yet even as they or their allies publicly advocated more academic freedom, some of those involved privately expressed their hope of purging liberal ideas…
They claimed, you see, they argued, and even those things they did only in public, while in private they did their dirty business…. Whatever affirmative case is to be made for questioning the diversity, equity, and inclusion business - and it is indeed business, big business, one that makes some of its priests quite wealthy - is consigned to links that Confessore knows the vast majority of readers will not bother clicking. Throughout, the piece does that “straight reporting” thing of running quotes without commentary, knowing that the readership of the piece will see them as nefarious simply by dint of being quoted in that way. For example
“My big worry in these things is that we do not make ‘the good of minorities’ the standard by which we judge public policy or the effects of public policy,” wrote Scott Yenor, a conservative Idaho professor who would come to lead the anti-D.E.I. project for Claremont. “Whites will be overrepresented in some spheres. Blacks in others. Asians in others. We cannot see this as some moral failing on our part.”
This is framed as some sort of ugly confession that the valiant Times is bringing into the light. Which is strange, as for the vast majority of America’s political history, this would have been seen by most people as a totally banal statement of the principle of racial equality and the limits of public policy, including most liberals. For many generations, the strategy of the civil rights movement was to emphasize that the purpose of that movement was not to privilege one race over another, but to bring everyone into a position of equality and harmony with equal protection under the law; that first sentence is not at all out of step with that old approach. I certainly wouldn’t put things this way, but I also don’t see anything particular sinister here. And the last line contains the seed of what is a natural response to certain approaches to racial politics, such as those of Ibram Kendi, who sees any racial disparity as ipso facto proof of racism: it would be very strange to expect proportional racial representation in celebration of Kwanzaa, and nobody cares that Black NFL players are overrepresented related to their proportion in the larger population, and the fact that Asian Americans probably don’t consume a lot of country music is not perceived to be a social problem…. Core to dissatisfaction with DEI is the inconsistency and unworkability of certain essential definitions of what constitutes a socially-relevant racial disparity.
You could, of course, say that the context of this particular right-wing professor working with the right-wing Claremont Institute implies that his perspective is more troubling than I’m letting on, and I’d agree. But this is what bothers me so much about this approach to opinion-masquerading-as-straight-news - you have to actually say that if you’re relying on it to make your point. That is, Confessore and his editors know that the average NYT reader will interpret the quote above in the most critical way possible, which allows him to leave it there, inert, while also satisfying the intended political purpose. But this is the very worst kind of media bias, which is the bias that stems from pretending that you aren’t making a political point when you very much are. OK, this random Idaho professor said this. So what, Nick? I suspect that the “so what” is that you think it demonstrates that this effort by the Claremont Institute is evil. That’s a fine thing to say, as long as you embrace the inherent honesty of saying it! If you don’t say it, that’s when it becomes (yes) bias. When you think that merely repeating it amounts to criticism itself, that’s when you’re most embodying the stereotype of the liberal New York Times reporter. But the NYT won’t let Confessore just say it because this is a piece of reporting. Do you see the problem here? And do you see how someone like Jay Rosen can’t actually account for that problem?
Second, Confessore’s piece is in such a hurry to get through the not-actually-very-interesting document dump that he fails to recognize that this is not remotely a binary issue. I spent a lot of time in my recent book pointing out that the original critics of identity politics were leftists, not conservatives, and so too with DEI. There’s long been a sensible set of criticisms from the left that argue that the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion amount to the establishment’s legalistic effort to render anti-racist movements toothless and manageable. They take organic and people-powered protest movements and run them through the machinery of the human resources department, leaving those efforts inauthentic and friendly to the institutions that run them. Worse, “workplace anti-racism initiatives may serve as an opportunity for employers to exert even more power over employees,” writes JC Pan in Jacobin. The fact that DEI efforts are run from within institutional power itself should make us skeptical of their ability to actually achieve meaningful reform, especially given that it is often the institutions themselves that need to be reformed. I’m surprised that after several years of embarrassed reconsideration of the White Fragility moment, Confessore wouldn’t think to include a nod to left criticism.
Here’s a left critique of DEI from The Nation from just this past month. I wouldn’t endorse it in its entirety, but it effectively lays out a central complaint about DEI as the tip of the spear in liberal race politics: because it draws its basic logic from legalist and administrivial approaches to racial justice, DEI is an inherently individualistic methodology. It takes as its central point of interest not Black people or people of color or the racial justice movement but instead individual complainants who will, I guess, provoke justice by filling out form 34-J. (In triplicate!) It’s all about redressing specific complaints of policy and procedure, which seems entirely ill-suited for addressing social problems that are inherently multifaceted and diffuse. And DEI is, obviously, a fundamentally self-protective apparatus; colleges and corporations don’t spend so much money on them because they’re foolish enough to believe that you can achieve racial justice with PowerPoint trainings but because their existence helps them avoid legal liability and bad press. Indeed, when employees and former employees sue the institutions for racially hostile work environments, said institutions will point to the existence of DEI apparatus in the legal maneuverings, thus turning DEI into a direct impediment to the effort to redress racial inequality. The irony is juicy!
There’s no notion within Confessore’s piece that left critics of DEI exist. I imagine he and the paper would cite space constraints. But even accepting that explanation, the omission is convenient for the NYT’s fundamental financial model: it leaves the piece depicting a simplistic and purely binary contrast of values, where there are on one side the valiant Associate Vice Presidents of Student Experience and on the other the wicked racism-perpetuating Republicans. That the Republican politicians are a bunch of morons who want to destroy the state university systems out of spite doesn’t make it less important to lay out the steel-manned case against DEI. It makes it even more important. The essential case against mandatory top-down diversity efforts seems neither contrarian nor controversial to me: racism is not an administrative problem and cannot be solved on the administrative level. The fact that the various attacks on DEI from the right are mounted in bad-faith can’t paper over the fundamental hollowness of the approach. We used to believe in changing people’s minds so that we can have racial harmony, but that has fallen out of fashion on the left-of-center, hard. In its place has risen a relentless racial pessimism. Under those conditions, it’s perhaps understandable why people now reflexively ask formal authority to fight their battles for them and make the world nice. All we have left is working the refs.
For the record, one of the easiest ways to tell if someone’s complaint of liberal bias is worth anything is to note whether it treats liberal bias and left-wing bias as synonyms. Those things are not the same.
I like thinking, and in the 21st century one of the greatest enemies of thinking is the kind of binarism suggested by Confessore’s piece, which is something like the notion “anyone who rejects the hegemony of UPenn’s HR department on matters of race is therefore necessarily a Republican state senator.” And this, finally, is the structural problem with the NYT’s current financial stability. The problem with the New York Times in 2024 is that their business model entails selling affluent urban liberals their own assumptions about the world back to them. To survive financially these days, most newsmedia is fundamentally a matter of willfully providing the opportunity for confirmation bias. Meanwhile, the stature of the NYT and its rare financial health shields them from criticism over doing so. The Times employs tons of smart people who give a shit, but there are limits to what individuals can do in light of an institutions best interests. Confessore’s piece is a good illustration of this problem; it looks like it was the result of a lot of diligent and careful reporting, and I’m not trying to attack it unfairly. I am grateful for that kind of fact finding. But it lives in the beating heart of the internal contradictions of contemporary journalistic mores.
Think of your stereotype of the kind of person who (like me) subscribes to the New York Times. Whatever that person looks like, there is nothing in Confessore’s piece that could possibly challenge that person. Its description of the actual philosophical case against the diversity industrial complex is restricted only to conventional Republican complaints, eliding the most compelling criticisms, and even that case is relegated to a single desultory paragraph that is followed by, “Yet….” It provides useful documentary evidence, but aside from a few people who are intent on making proceduralist arguments against what is fundamentally a conflict of values, it mostly functions only to tell readers that they were right all along. In a shrinking and embattled industry, that sort of thing will only grow. What you’d like is for one of the most deep-pocketed publications to feel empowered not to participate - but then, the Times is deep-pocketed in part because they’ve gotten so good at serving that exact kind of customer. It’s quite the conundrum, in an industry that can’t afford to have conundrums anymore.
Very tasteful web design, though.