The influence inequality: Why the stories we need most are left untold

Polling data over the last two months have shown Marine Le Pen of the “National Front,” France’s far-right populist party, holding a narrow lead in the first round of the 2017 French presidential election. Even if, as expected, she loses in the run-off vote, her success mimics that European Union (“Brexit”) and Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become the US president – outsider movements, attacked and ridiculed by the media, appeal to the politically disconnected to build a winning coalition. The successes of these movements are some of the most important events of our generation, yet they came as a shock to nearly every journalist, pundit, comedian, celebrity, and political leader. It is only now apparent that the approximately half of UK and US citizens that favored Brexit and Trump were vastly underrepresented by news sources such as NBC, CNN, NPR, PBS, The New York Times, BBC, and The Guardian. These news sources receive large national consumption and are frequently turned to by those seeking factual accredited journalism. They are often referred to as the “mainstream media,” a term that Noam Chomsky explains as resulting from their agenda-setting power; only these elite media organizations have the resources to find tomorrow’s compelling story so smaller firms simply copy their lead.[1]

The mainstream media, unlike the diverse populations it serves, is dominated by an unrepresentative group of people. The elite left’s domination of the media and thus speech makes metropolitan society ignorant to the actual feelings of the citizenry it claims to serve and blinds it to the appeal and support of populist movements.

The consequences of bias

While media organizations still have progress to be made in representation of women and minorities, it has improved from its previous composition of exclusively white men. If the media is not diverse, they will share the same predispositions and will implicitly bias the resultant news. It is therefore surprising that little attention has been paid to the fact that the modern mainstream media is so heavily composed of upper-class cosmopolitan progressives.

National Journalists and editors live in major cities and are far more likely to have gone to elite universities. Only 8% of US national journalists identify as conservative, nearly five times less than the national average of 38%, and the percentage of journalists identifying as Republicans hit a new low in 2014 at 7%.[2] [3] [4] Studies have confirmed suspicions that these collective preferences result in a left-of-center bias, with one study examining 20 major media outlets and finding that 18 of them showed liberal biases – the only exceptions being Fox News and The Washington Times.[5] This bias has been the media’s barely-kept secret, a matter of sly winks such as President Obama’s jest in his 2009 White House Correspondents dinner wherein he admitted, “Most of you covered me… All of you voted for me,” before looking at his lone opposition at the FOX table.[6] Yet it took a dark turn upon Wikileak’s recent revelations about journalists at outlets like CNBC, Politico, and the NYT secretly helping the Clinton campaign.[7] Meanwhile, British mainstream media attacked the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its Euroskeptic message as fringe and deplorable – even running a feature a large donor to UKIP who also held sexist and homophobic views.[8]

The shared preferences of the media present a problem in itself since the agenda-setting mainstream media is responsible not only for reporting the news but also deciding what is news-worthy. Elite editors and news executives decide how long and how in-depth to cover each current event, which social science work we should hear about, which politician we should hear when they are making a statement and which politician we should hear when they are having a statement made about them. Everybody lives in a bubble, but when the whole of national media and popular culture exist within the same socially progressive bubble it creates an echo chamber that allows a specific culture to dominate, affecting even the language and behaviors that are deemed acceptable. The fact that we call the progressive speech and behavior code political “correctness” reveals its domination and explains why many saw Trump as courageous for attacking it. Americans who live in dying towns that lost jobs overseas are unlikely to have a high opinion of the constant news stories about the Washington Redskins’ name (that bothers only one in ten Native Americans).[9] If the media do not address these Americans’ concerns, leaders and movements that do will be all the more appealing.

Where to go from here

Despite united opposition, the mainstream media was not able to stop Brexit or Trump. In fact, the media’s united opposition seems to have helped the Leave Campaign and Trump look like heroic underdogs taking on The Man. Yet some have taken the opinion that media opposition was not robust enough – that these phenomena occurred because of misinformation spread by the Leave and Trump campaigns. Perhaps the media should be more concerned with fact-checking, even having reporters interrupting debates between party-nominated candidates to reveal the truth.

The media is essential to the exposure of the truth, but I think it is naïve to say that it is the media’s job to tell us what facts we should pay attention to and accept and which we should roundly ignore. There were plenty of good reasons to vote for Brexit and even Trump, and good reasons to oppose them. These ideas should be allowed to clash, and that takes respect of the other side and the existence of other arguments. When the cosmopolitan elite do not know any Euroskeptics or Trump supporters, they are less likely to treat them with respect and more likely to respond with, as a fabulous article by the Vox writer Emmett Rensin puts it, “a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason.” [10]

We must recognize the bubble that the national media is stuck in. Trump said many legitimately awful things, but he also said a lot of just slightly off-putting and un-PC things that made rounds in the press for days. Focusing on these supposed missteps revealed overt media antagonism to Trump and discredited the media in the minds of Trump supporters and those who were undecided on Trump. The mainstream media should have a freer, not more regulated, discourse, so that it does not cry wolf and alienate the half of Americans that do not share their worldview. It should also take steps to really talk to and understand great numbers of “ordinary” individuals – those without political clout and outside the average journalist’s bubble – because those are precisely the people they are ordinarily oblivious to.

Works Cited:

[1] Chomsky, Noam. “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream.” Z Magazine. Oct. 1997.

[2] “State of the Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism.” State of the Media. 2008.

[3] “U.S. Liberals at Record 24%, but Still Trail Conservatives.” Gallup. 9 January 2015.

[4] “Few Journalists Are in GOP as Party Affiliations Decline: Study.” 2017. NY Daily News. 6 May 2014.

[5] Sullivan, Meg. “Media Bias Is Real, Finds UCLA Political Scientist.” UCLA Newsroom. 14 Dec. 2005.

[6] Obama, Barack. “President Obama Remarks at 2009 WHCA Dinner.” C-SPAN. 9 May 2009

[7] Gahr, Evan. 2016. “No Consequences From Media Peers for Reporters Caught Colluding With Hillary.” Observer. 24 Oct. 2016.

[8] Doyle, David. “The Ukip donor who says gay people are incapable of love.” Channel 4 News. 30 Apr 2014

[9] “New Poll Finds 9 in 10 Native Americans Aren’t Offended by Redskins Name.” Washington Post. 19 May 2016.

[10] Rensin, Emmett. “The Smug Style in American Liberalism.” Vox. 21 Apr. 2016.