What "Liberal Bias" Means—and why we need it

Catherine M Wallace

Conservatives complain incessantly about "liberal bias" in the mainstream media. This conflict has escalated to a dangerous new level under Donald Trump, who denounces anything unfavorable to his administration as "fake news." Essential press freedom may come under direct assault as the Russia-connection inquiry proceeds. None of this should surprise us: as Professor Nicole Hemmer documents at length in Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, complaining about "media bias" has been a central feature of hard-Right ideology since the 1950s.

Over the last seventy years, journalists and their loyal readers have repeatedly insisted "but these are the facts!" That defense has been futile. Fact-checkers cannot defend freedom of the press, because "liberal bias" does not mean "inaccurate," "intellectually irresponsible," "prejudiced," or "unfair." As Hemmer explains, journalists and news outlet are guilty of "liberal bias" any time they publish anything that undercuts reactionary ideology. If we are going to defend the free press—if we are going to defend democracy and essential democratic institutions—we need to recognize the moral commitments to which "liberal bias" refers.

     Allow me, if you will, to begin with a simple observation: philosophically speaking, there is no such thing as pure "just the facts objectivity." A fact becomes intellectually significant—and hence newsworthy—by virtue of its relationship to some set of assumptions about what matters and what doesn't. At the moment, Republicans and Democrats have sharply different assumptions about what matters, and so there are equally sharp disagreements about what facts ought to be reported.

As I see it, "liberal bias" refers primarily to reporting that presupposes our moral and civic obligations to the common good, to universal human rights, and to freedom of conscience. Each of these crucial assumptions is rooted in classic Christian theology; each is under attack by an extremist alliance between the fundamentalist Religious Right and the secular libertarian Right. "Liberal bias" is a label we should claim with pride: it derives from essential moral principles that provide the conceptual foundation of American democracy.

 Assumption #1: We are obligated to the common good. Radical libertarians deny any obligation to the well-being of anybody else. In their eyes, that's socialism. It's an abridgement of individual liberty. I should not be obligated, they'd say, to contribute to any system that might help to educate somebody else's children, help to assure the safety of food somebody else eats, or help to pay for somebody else's chemotherapy or their security in old age. Such thinking inflates classic Western individualism to the nth degree: my only obligation is to myself and to myself alone. This inflated individualism is remarkably short-sighted: as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document in graph after graph after graph in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, individual well-being is inescapably dependent upon the common good. The greater the economic disparity in a society, the worse-off are even the very wealthiest citizens.

By contrast, responsibility to the common good is a fundamental principle of Western moral tradition. In the Bible, the "righteousness of God" consists in God's unfailing concern for the vulnerable and the excluded; to be "righteous" before God is above all to be morally responsible for the well-being of others. Jewish prophets insisted on that. Later, Jesus of Nazareth was tortured to death as an insurrectionist by the Romans because he used the prophetic tradition to expose and condemn Roman colonial exploitation and to undercut its conceptual roots in Roman imperial ideology. Today, Christian "liberation theology" applies the same critique to the global economy.

And so, when "the liberal press" provides information about something that adversely affects the common good, they are aligning themselves with social justice as a deeply-rooted Western moral norm. If that's "biased," sign me up to be biased: Jews and Christians have been advocating for the common good for a very long time. 

Assumption #2. All human beings have equal and unquestionable moral value; as a result, all human beings deserve equal and unquestionable human rights. This classic Western liberal claim is originally derived from the biblical account of human nature: we are all children of God; we are all made in God's image. Radical human moral equality can of course be asserted on secular philosophical or biological grounds; it can also be derived from key texts in other global religious traditions. But as an historical matter, when the concept of human rights arose in the West as an unquestionable truth, its status was unabashedly derived from biblical authority: our equality in the eyes of the law derives from our equality in the eyes of God.

And so, when the "liberal press" reports about how some people suffer or will suffer as a result of other's actions or failures to act, those journalists are implicitly assuming that all of us are equal and so none of us can be freely abused. Abuse of human rights is newsworthy because it violates cultural, Constitutional, and legal norms.

The hard Right disagrees. The Religious Right and the secular libertarian Right deny human rights in distinctively different ways and on the basis of quite different lines of argument, so let's look at them one at a time.

According to the libertarian Right, maximizing corporate profits is the greatest public good; all other social goods derive from corporate profits generating private wealth for investors and owners. As a result, they deny the legitimacy of any regulations that protect human rights at the expense of corporate profits. Such regulations represent a loss of "personal liberty" for the business owners and investors. As Jane Mayer documents at length in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Radical Right, leading figures among those who have donated most to the rise of reactionary politics have earned their extraordinary wealth through businesses that are notorious for pollution and for unscrupulous business practices.

Many regulations do indeed limit profits. But in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson make a strong case that robust federal regulations establish a level playing-field for honest businesses. Honest business people do not seek profits at the expense of human rights. They hire, pay, and treat their workers fairly. They deal honestly with both their customers and their competitors. They do not pollute the environment. We all know honest local business that are exactly like this.

And we all know how their owners lament that they are losing out to unscrupulous competitors who cut every possible corner. So if it's "liberal bias" to report on business misconduct that injures people or communities, then we would all be better off with more of such "bias" rather than less.

The Religious Right threatens human rights in a very different way: by fanning hatred against vulnerable subgroups in the nation. They blame all social and economic dislocation upon these scapegoats.

In doing so, the Religious Right is directly politicizing a malignant development within medieval Christian theology: the belief that humanity divides radically between the Saved and the Damned and God will torture the Damned for an eternity. The Religious Right claims that they and they alone are the Saved; they and they alone have been rescued from the violence of God by the physical anguish Jesus suffered as a stand-in who absorbed God's wrath on their behalf. As a result, they and they alone know the true will of this supremely violent and vindictive "God." It is both their right and their obligation to dictate to the rest of us because the Damned have no civil rights. The Damned have no human rights. The Saved are obligated to condemn, punish, control, and exclude the Damned.

Never mind that Jesus said God is all-compassionate, all-merciful, and radically nonviolent; and furthermore God calls us to repudiate violence, to protect the vulnerable, and to love even our enemies. Ignore as well the famous claim in the Preamble to the Constitution that all of us are created equal and endowed with human rights that no one can legitimately deny. If we refuse to ignore such traditions, we merely prove that we are the biased liberal elite.

The Religious Right campaign to deny human rights begins in the 1950s. At that point, they were an organization of white Southern evangelicals who opposed the civil rights of black people. As William Martin documents in With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, their campaign against desegregation was quite successful in attracting new voters to the Republican Party, especially after a Democratic president signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Cheered by this success, the Religious Right went on to push the Republican Party further Right: they attracted yet more reactionary voters by attacking women's rights, then gay people, then immigrants from any non-European nation, then Mexicans and Muslims and any non-Christian, then transgender teenagers, refugees, and so forth. That's why Trump won the votes of eighty percent of white evangelicals and sixty percent of white Catholics despite his own indifference to religion: the Religious Right had slowly but surely transformed the public identity of Christianity. From "love your neighbor and even your enemies," Christianity had come to mean "demonize the Damned." Trump's bullying politics of ridicule adeptly tapped into the racist, xenophobic and sexually-insecure rage that the Religious Right had been fanning for generations.

 Once again, if it's "liberal bias" to report on the dangerous consequences of hate-mongering attacks on fellow Americans, then "liberal bias" is essential to defending democracy. It is "bias" in favor of human equality, which is the essential conceptual basis of any democracy.

Assumption #3: In America, freedom of conscience is enshrined in the Constitution as the separation of church and state: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This third assumption matters politically—it matters for arguments about "liberal bias" and freedom of the press—because the Religious Right and the secular libertarian Right have formed a long-standing alliance to deny freedom of conscience. This alliance has waged what we have come to call "the culture wars." These culture wars have led to "religious liberty" arguments that the law should allow fundamentalists to deny other Americans their legal rights, whether that's a woman's access to insurance coverage for birth control or the legal freedom to marry whomever one chooses. On that basis, of course, "religious liberty" would have protected slave owners and, later, segregationists. 

Ther classic Christian argument in favor of freedom of conscience goes like this: we are all made in the image of God; the image of God dwells within each us; God speaks to each of us as the voice of conscience. As Thomas Aquinas argued in the 1200s, the only absolute moral evil is failure to obey one's own conscience; the Nuremburg tribunals in effect agreed when they determined that "just following orders" was not an allowable defense. Pope Francis was alluding to this classic understanding of conscience when, asked if atheists would go to hell, he responded that even for the atheist the voice of conscience must be respected and obeyed. Theological respect for others' freedom of conscience—American respect for the legal separation of church and state—is derived from appropriate theological deference to the inscrutable transcendence of God.

The Religious Right denies freedom of conscience as classic Christian tradition defines it because they believe the image of God within human beings was destroyed (and hence conscience was disabled) by the primordial sin of Adam and Eve. As a result, the Religious Right redefines virtue as obedience to them, not obedience to conscience. They are the Saved. They alone know God's will. They speak for God and so they must be obeyed as if they were God: virtue is in fact defined by obeying orders. They and they alone should dictate the laws that the state must enforce. That's what the Religious Right means when they insist that America is "a Christian nation."

In sharp contrast, the secular Right does not care about freedom of conscience one way or another, nor are they ideologically opposed diversity and inclusivity. The secular libertarian Right would indeed defend an individual restaurateur's right to refuse to serve black people or gay people or Muslims, but the basis of their defense is private-property rights plus indifference to the common good: it's my restaurant so I can do what I want. (They would no doubt also have defended slave-owners' rights to continue to own the slaves they had legally purchased or otherwise acquired.) That's not a primary bias against blacks or gays or Muslims. It is a bias in favor of property rights—private wealth as the greatest public good.

Here the story gets complicated: the secular libertarian Right was drawn into alliance with the Religious Right by their shared opposition to court-ordered desegregation of restaurants, hotels, theaters, stores, and so forth. The secular reactionary Right needed this alliance because their economic agenda lacked popular support. They hoped to gain support for their economic agenda by attracting voters whose primary political concern was maintaining racial segregation and white supremacy.

As this alliance played out over time, secular libertarian candidates paid lip service to Religious-Right ambitions to impose their understanding of "God's law" upon the nation; once elected, Republican candidates largely ignored most culture-wars issues because the fundamentalist positions lacked broad national support. Instead they enacted the secular libertarian agenda sought by wealthy Republican donors: rolling back regulations, slashing public-benefit programs, cutting the budgets of federal agencies, and above all cutting taxes on the most wealthy. Even Ronald Regan—almost a saintly figure on the Right—failed to re-impose segregation, outlaw abortion or restore mandated Christian prayer in public schools. Thomas Frank examines this complex bait-and-switch in a witty and remarkably prescient book, What's the Matter with Kansas?

Given this situation, it is "liberal bias" by the press when journalists report anything about anybody insisting upon freedom of conscience as part of the civil rights guaranteed by American law. It is "liberal bias" to report the groundswell of support for gay marriage or the fact that the vast majority even of Roman Catholic women use birth control at some point during their reproductive years. It is "liberal bias" to report the contributions of immigrants or how Catholic bishops have protect pedophiles. It is "liberal bias" to profile the risks we run in de-funding major federal agencies, or to profile people whose lives would be devastated by some Republican proposal. It is "liberal bias" to report the devastating consequences of global warming and the growing body of hard evidence that global warming is driven by human activity. Above all, it is "liberal bias" to engage in clear moral reasoning about any public controversy rather than abjectly obeying the demands made by this dangerous alliance between rich libertarians and authoritarian fundamentalists.

In short, we cannot refute accusations of "liberal bias" by calling in the fact-checkers to demonstrate the accuracy of what major journalists are reporting. Fact-checking is almost the least of what is at stake. The hard Right is not essentially saying "these facts are false." They are saying, "these facts are irrelevant. These facts don't matter. Stop reporting about the damage we are doing." News organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post are in fact guided in their decisions about what to report by their allegiance to American democracy and its conceptual foundations in classic Christian theology: the common good, human rights, and freedom of conscience.     

      "Liberal bias" in the media is more properly called "moral decency" and "American patriotism." This 4th of July, buy someone you love a paid subscription to some responsible news organization. We desperately need their integrity and their resilience under attack. They have been defending us for generations. Now we must stand up for them.