Facebook seems to have uncritically accepted the claim, promulgated by right-wing media cranklords, that much of the mainstream news ecosystem is inescapably liberal, and that to serve its users’ interests — to be fair and balanced, one might say — it must compensate for this leftist dominance by hearing out a large number of resolutely conservative counterparts.
It’s a bad idea. When Facebook recently met with a group of news publishers, about half of the outlets present were conservative ones — reflective of a belief that reporting is hopelessly partisan, and that one hyperpartisan opinion site balances out another mainstream news outlet whose reporters are mostly liberal. In this case, the editors of the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed News both spoke out about the presence of the Daily Caller at the meeting, calling it an example of Facebook’s limited view of how the news works.
Embedded in this view is a simple binary: There is liberal media and there is conservative media. Fairness dictates each side deserves an equal allotment. But as a conservative, and the editor of an opinion site, I know better than most that this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of reporting.
It also misunderstands the substance of the work done by mainstream news outlets, and the role of conservative media within the broader world of news and opinion. These misunderstandings cause the simplistic binary of liberal versus conservative media to suffer significant shortcomings.
For one, the two terms are not symmetrically applied. When detractors use the term “liberal media,” they include the New York Times, the WashingtonPost, CNN, and other large and similarly mainstream organizations. Yet when someone refers to “conservative media,” they have in mind publications that are uncontroversially and unapologetically right-wing.
In terms of self-presentation, this is already a disconnect. The mainstream outlets do not style themselves as liberal operations, while the conservative ones are quite comfortable in their ideological skin.
It’s true that large, mainstream outlets are overwhelmingly staffed by liberals. But here’s the thing: Their reporting often — not always, but often — attempts to — doesn’t always succeed, but attempts to — characterize the world about as objectively as reporting can.
This is a conversation about reporting, not commentary, which is inherently opinionated. Indeed, one of the asymmetries here is that when “conservative media” is in view, there’s no presumption that one has in mind conservative reporting, as opposed to conservative commentary. But when critics say “liberal media,” most of the time they mean mainstream reporting.
A far larger asymmetry, one that seriously complicates the simplistic “liberal versus conservative media” binary, has to do with the roles of each type of journalistic outfit within our media environment.
The presence of an explicitly leftist media makes this binary seem even further from reality. If the media were truly overrun by the right’s enemies, there would be no need for the emergence of leftist media as a separate category. Outlets like the Intercept, Mother Jones, and Jacobin make a joke of the notion that the mainstream media is captured by left-of-center preoccupations.
And what about the role of conservative reporting? The few sites that do it don’t approach it from a parallel position to mainstream reporting. They approach it as a filling-in-the-gaps effort from the right.
The best way to view mainstream outlets is not as liberal ones, but as places populated by liberals, who are naturally going to veer in a liberal direction, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. Viewed this way, these publications aren't wittingly in the service of liberalism or progressivism, yet at the same time, elements of that orientation can’t help but act as a filter through which the journalistic operations are carried out.
In this sense, you could more accurately see conservative outlets as a desk within the larger mainstream media newsroom, like sports or entertainment, that exist to fill in the gaps and bring in eyes where there previously were blind spots. So of course these conservative outlets are going to pursue stories conservative readers will want to read.
But this also means comparing the Times with the Daily Caller will always generate a weird result. It’s possible they can’t even be compared — one is attempting a comprehensive reading of reality; the other is a conservative supplement, a safeguard in case something important about reality just doesn’t end up coming across via the larger channel.
We might compare the two and find that, on any given day, 3 out of 10 stories on the Times homepage are ones that will satisfy a conservative reader, whereas, at the Daily Caller, exactly 0 out of 10 stories will have the same effect for liberals.
It is certainly true that when conservative reporting succeeds, it does so despite its own structural and individual failures. Conservative outlets tend to be animated by grievances — against the cultural power that the left wields, against Democratic politicians in or out of office, against what they perceive to be liberal media hegemony. This produces sensationalism and pettiness too intellectually shallow to qualify as journalism.
Yet some conservative reporters overcome these difficulties and produce worthwhile work. In these cases, when conservative reporting pursues stories other outlets see as uninteresting or unworthy of their time, it makes the news world as a whole better off.
It’s this kind of balance that Silicon Valley should adopt, not the false balance of one right-wing outlet for every mainstream one — a view that, interestingly, is itself a product of the conservative grievance machine. Social media plays too big a role in our lives to surrender newsfeed configuration to partisan talking points; Facebook’s algorithm has worldview-shaping ramifications, which means its underlying structure and ongoing management are of considerable importance. Conservative reporting will always be necessary, but it should remain supplementary to reporting that intends to be neither conservative nor liberal, just accurate.