The biggest loser of CNBC’s Republican Presidential debate last week was the news media. Ted Cruz got the loudest applause of the night when he slammed the moderators for asking questions he considered anti-Republican, saying, “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.”
The line thrilled conservatives, as Republican pollster Frank Luntz described on Twitter:
And the thing is, conservatives have a point. Study after study has shown that the mainstream media leans left, and that, as economists Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo have written, “an almost overwhelming fraction of journalists are liberal.” The extent of this bias, of course, depends on what your definitions of liberal and conservative. And the media has other, arguably more important, biases: towards controversy and producing content that is profitable. But it is safe to say that the median journalist in America is to the left of the median American voter, and that this affects how the news is presented to the public.
If the story ended there, this would be a winning talking point for the Republican Party. And you would think that if there’s demand for more conservative media, the free market would provide it. The problem is the free market doesn’t work like members of the Republican orthodoxy claim.
Back in 1971, Edith Efron outlined the pervasive bias of liberalism in the news media in her book The News Twisters. In the nearly 45 years since then, not much has changed. Yes, we have seen the rise of Fox News, America’s most watched cable news network. And there has been a proliferation of small conservative websites. But most Americans still get their news from television, and the ratings of network news broadcasts—the same organizations that conservatives claim have been biased for decades—triple the ratings of even Fox’s most popular programs.
This state of affairs is very distressing to conservatives, who, along with independents, increasingly distrust the news media. So why hasn’t the free market corrected this imbalance between the demand for conservative news and the supply? It’s because economic outcomes are driven by much more than supply and demand. Institutions, rules, and power matter just as much as what consumers demand.
Legacy news organizations like NBC News or the New York Times have brand recognition and resources that no news startup can realistically compete with. But even with these barriers, one would think that the power of the Internet and strong demand for news reported from a conservative viewpoint would have helped create a conservative news complex that could rival the liberal version in size and influence.
But free-market fundamentalists overlook the fact that power dynamics matter a great deal in the marketplace. When economist Daniel Sutter examined the question of how a liberal media can persist in a free market, his most convincing explanation was that journalists themselves, and the type of person who aspires to journalism, are almost uniformly of a liberal disposition. “People with the talent, temperament, and personality to be journalists might also be inclined toward liberal political causes,” he writes.
Of course, a profit-maximizing media executive might simply try to force his employees to set aside their biases and produce news that is congenial to the views of median voters. But this is why power dynamics in the market for journalists is so important. Despite severe job cuts in traditional media organizations like newspapers, the demand for college educated workers who can write and otherwise communicate on the Internet is strong. The hyper-educated media elite are trading the better pay they might fetch in corporate communications (for example) for the prestige of journalism work. If managers of media companies tried to force these workers to produce content that robs them of the benefits of working in journalism, they’ll simply find work elsewhere.
Liberals recognize that power plays a big role in all kinds of markets. That’s why they advocate for rules that prevent discrimination against workers based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. It’s how liberals explain the gap in pay between men and women for the same kind of work. And it’s why liberals advocate for laws that strengthen unions as a means to raise wages for low and middle-skilled workers.
That doesn’t mean the solutions proposed by the left can necessarily solve the problems caused by skewed power dynamics in media. But the persistent existence of a liberal media bias should open up conservatives’ eyes to the fact that they exist.