A Guide to Bias in the American Media
All news is biased. It has to be, because every person is a little different.
Everyone has their own perspective on life, derived from their personal lived experiences and interactions with others.
A shared reality is made by communication. And most people communicate for this reason — we need a shared reality to understand the world well enough to survive in it.
What we call the news is this process of information-sharing and discussion writ large, across populations ranging in size from dozens to billions.
And because the process is so utterly intrinsic to our lives, control over it is incredibly valuable.
In the past, news primarily spread along trade and kinship networks, no doubt privileged information among those who used it to become wealthy. And because humans are drawn to stories, news of other places naturally spread as stories — and all stories contain elements of both fiction and non-fiction.
Because social tastes vary from place to place, styles of storytelling vary. Stories are largely composed of tropes — easily-recognizable framing devices used to make stories appeal to an audience who has learned to recognize them.
Composed of diverse individuals, audiences are equally diverse, each holding their own assumptions about what makes a good or interesting story.
So the news, even while containing lots of useful information, also arranges its presentation in the same way as fiction. Facts and tropes merge together to form a narrative, making actual ground truth immensely difficult to decode.
In the United States of America, both in the past as well as today, the news is big business.
And like any business in the American mode of capitalism it must profit or perish.
To survive, most news organizations have banded together in a loose affiliation most Americans refer to as “the media.”
CNN, Fox News, the New York Times, Washington Post, ABC/NBC/CBS Network News, and a vast array of daily rags and weekly magazines and internet aggregators are all part of a business ecosystem bound by a set of basic operating principles.
They work together to lay out the boundaries of what they agree is considered legitimate “news” and how it can legitimately be transformed into stories. While holding to key rules like not outright lying and attributing quotes to sources.
Now, when I say they I mean simply media professionals writ large, making up an industry with a lot of moving — and often actively competing — parts. There is no conspiracy to control the news in America — it’s way too big for that. Even tin-pot dictatorships like North Korea can’t pull it off as hard as they might try— this is why its leaders take so poorly to South Korean groups sending radio broadcasts over the border.
But like in any professional association, members of the American media have, simply through working together over time, come to agree upon a set of basic professional standards. Lawyers, doctors, surveyors, nurses, certified public accountants, even beauticians do this — and without any kind of secret cabal or hidden conspiracy getting involved.
But this is not to say that these professional standards came to be out of any true concern for making sure the general public is thoroughly well-informed. They’re simply defensive acts meant to keep the professional association from drawing too much scrutiny.
And in practice the standards have been used mainly to limit competition. Most journalists who work for the major, prestigious (read: well-funded) media companies come from a privileged background — to become a nationally-recognized journalist you almost have to have graduated from an elite journalism school, requiring that you take on massive loan burdens or have family support.
And even if individual journalists from a more modest background beat the odds, they are still unlikely to ever be promoted into a management position. In American society, senior positions are especially reserved for those who run in the right circles for long enough to become a known quantity.
Someone who can be trusted not to rock the boat — a sin just short of outright betrayal in the image-obsessed world of American business.
In practice, the American media is dominated by billionaires whose primary interest lies in profit — influence on day-to-day operations is usually rare. And the most profitable news is tabloid-style news — not sober explanations and examinations of pressing issues, but emotive, charged headlines and content designed to drive engagement.
This has always been true, from the Yellow Journalism of William Hearst at the end of the 19th Century to today’s Facebook-dominated media landscape.
And supposedly “elite” news outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal are no better than the tabloids. They just dress up their stories better, their entertainment catering to a more genteel audience.
This does not mean that all the news they publish is total trash — only that their biases tend to be more deeply buried, cloaked in high-minded talk about journalistic integrity and speaking truth to power. That’s how American culture works at high levels — expressions of idealism in public, ruthless exploitation in private.
The key truth to always keep in mind about American media companies is that they are first and foremost businesses, beholden to the wealthy interests who expect to profit from their investment.
Not, as members of the media publicly pretend, any verifiable commitment to serving the public interest.
It would be nice to live in a world where we could pretend that people were better than this — but in the United States, a general reticence to talk about the truth of money and power has always acted as a vital smokescreen for ruthless profit-seeking behavior by the wealthy and well-connected.
And a brutal fact of seeking profit in entertainment is that audiences are fickle, their attention ever difficult to hold, and no limit to their desire for novelty.
So every media organization — through an editorial board that does screen content to be sure it fits the kind of narrative they hope to sell — works to establish a permanent bond with their audience.
The best way to do that — as Disney has proven for decades — is to create a self-contained world and worldview that the audience is prodded to engage with as deeply as possible. To identify with, so they’ll keep coming back for more.
The New York Times, for example, calls itself the national “paper of record” despite its coverage often quite deliberately placing New York interests and values above those of the rest of the country. Lots of rich people live in New York City, and so the Times always takes care to remind them in subtle ways that they are Very Important People.
This elitist catering has spilled over into academia, where students are taught in many a political science course that they are required to read the New York Times to stay up to date on current affairs.
And so the myth of the paper’s alleged objectivity and quality has seeped into the minds of millions of educated, many of whom are willing to subscribe to a regional paper despite living on the other side of the country.
The influence of audience seeking is subtle, but always there, and for the most part the editorial boards of publications know full well there are certain topics that should be avoided at all costs in order to avoid losing their audiences.
If members of the media were honest about this basic fact of their existence, their reliance on bias to sell news as a product, it wouldn’t be so bad.
But because in America people are encouraged to think they understand the world simply because they read and can cite the news, they tend to structure their discussions about issues the same way the news does. This is one of the core drivers of the partisan divide — the news media intentionally treats politics like sports, where one team has to win or lose and no compromise can be found. This is a format proven to generate attention — so they use it, no matter the consequences.
In short, the lack of a truly impartial, widely-cited media outlet like Britain’s BBC is literally killing America.
Fear always sells, and right now few things scare Americans more than the ongoing collapse of their federal government. And it is deeply dangerous that most members of both of the country’s two parties fear they are about to be permanently defeated by their opponent.
The American media is committed to profiting off this fear until, I am afraid, Americans really do start taking up arms against each other. A sad tragic tale that has happened time and again in history, and is almost always a nightmare for everyone forced to endure it.
As someone from a military family, who also served, if only briefly, though honorably, I know a little something about war.
And I can testify with absolute certainty that another American civil war is not something anyone on any side should hope to see. Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan all show what that looks like. Breaking up the United States would be better than that. In truth, the only thing worse would be an outright dictatorship.
A crucial task in stopping America’s national slide in that dark direction is helping people understand exactly how the news they consume distorts their perception of the world.
To that end, below I have made an initial attempt at categorizing American media outlets based on who they appeal to and their overall bias.
The list is not exhaustive — and with the proliferation of small news sites, especially on the right-wing side of things, it will likely be outdated in a matter of weeks.
Still, this should give you an idea of what you should keep in the back of your mind when you read articles from the American media:
Group 1: Network News
Who They Are: NBC, ABC, CBS. The original news networks with big-name anchors whose coverage is deliberately neutral-sounding because they’re bringing in audiences who just watched a network drama or sitcom sandwiched between ads.
Who Likes Them: People not super into the news, who just want the highlights in an easily-digestible format after dinner.
Their Bias: Moderate centrism to a fault, which is to say they like to “present both sides” as if there are only two sides, each actively working towards compromise like its still 1955.
What They Never Admit: The country is huge, complicated, and not easily summarized in a few charts. Network News is always the last to pick up on major trends and relies on charts and graphics that are often misleading.
Group 2: News Networks
Who They Are: CNN, MSNBC, Fox. The 24/7 televised outlets that began cropping up in the 1980s, ushering in the era of permanent news cycles. Purveyors of news-as-content to support advertising between segments.
Who Likes Them: People super into watching talking heads debate the news, who pick their network based on the pundits’ beliefs.
Their Bias: Republicans like Fox News. MSNBC was the Fox News for Democrats while CNN played to centrists for a long time, but recently CNN has shifted left. Regardless of specific bias, all sell a packaged worldview.
What They Never Admit: They are basically the horror sub-genre of the news ecosystem. They sell fear all day, every day, targeting primarily vulnerable older Americans who grew up with network news.
Group 3: National Newspapers
Who They Are: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. The prestige papers from the old days, now mostly surviving on subscriptions as ad revenue has shifted online.
Who Likes Them: People who see themselves — or want to be seen as — active participants in shaping American society. Disproportionately men, especially focused on issues of national security and the economy.
Their Bias: America is eternal, created by Great Men who saw the nation’s destiny. NYT is a mouthpiece for the old Northeast elite and Wall Street, WaPo focuses on the D.C. Beltway and technology, WSJ is for intelligent, wealthy conservatives.
What They Never Admit: They actively diminish the relevance of local news from the rest of the country, offer up their editorial space to lobbyists and political agents, and barter favorable coverage for access to members of government.
Group 4: National Magazines
Who They Are: The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Week, Politico, 538. Publishers of longer-form “analysis” by “thought leaders” and other important people, typically men.
Who Likes Them: Political junkies of all stripes, including establishment conservatives who use them to build their own brands. People who like to call themselves “Independent” but are actually centrist Democrats plus a smattering of Republicans.
Their Bias: American two-party democracy is special and can never be fundamentally changed. We can scientifically measure anything and everything about it to determine the right way to do things — if correctly-educated technocrats are allowed to run everything. Republicans are uneducated and possibly against Democracy, except for the good ones we like.
What They Never Admit: Even the basic idea of democracy means very different things to different people — always has, and will. Imposing some pseudo-scientific structure on it and scolding people when they don’t act rationally is futile.
Group 5: Liberal Magazines
Who They Are: The New Republic, Slate, Vox, Nation, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Axios. These publish more accessible think pieces focused on the same demographics the Democratic Party caters to.
Who Likes Them: People who like to read takes on the news and analysis that mostly conforms to their own beliefs and interests. Suburbanites and college grads especially.
Their Bias: Whatever will bring them readers without alienating their existing demographic. Tend to be liberal or progressive, strong focus on casting Republicans as either an existential threat or simply misguided neighbors, depending on the season.
What They Never Admit: They are pretty much the main reason why doomscrolling began. Their business model relies on engagement so much they’re bound to emotive arguments and social media to reach their audience.
Group 6: Left Tabloids
Who They Are: The Intercept, Salon, Alternet, Counterpunch. The Intercept does actual investigations, but the others are mostly aggregators of other progressive or left content from across the web.
Who Likes Them: Hardcore, invested progressives and remnants of the Boomer-era anti-war movement.
Their Bias: Anything that makes their readers fearful of the right. This is where fearful talk of coups and secret police is common.
What They Never Admit: They often amplify those few conspiracy theories serving shady actors that don’t first get picked up by the Conservative Tabloids.
Group 7: Right Tabloids
Who They Are: New York Post, Washington Examiner, OANN, Breitbart, Newsmax, and an ever-expanding list of online outlets with innocuous names.
Who Likes Them: Hardcore, invested Trumpists and anti-vaxxers. Which is, sadly, 25% of the American population.
Their Bias: Whatever their Dear Leader likes, also anything that owns the libs — whoever they think the libs actually are.
What They Never Admit: They’re all happily perched on Joseph Goebbels’ shoulders. They will actively misrepresent science, statistics, and even their own past statements.
Group 8: Conservative News
Who They Are: Sinclair Broadcast Group, Realclearpolitics, Washington Times, and a few other relatively sane traditional conservative outlets that act by gently spinning the news rather than embracing full-on propaganda.
Who Likes Them: The remaining third of the Republican base not totally lost to conspiracy theories and hatred of Democrats.
Their Bias: Ronald Reagan was the best President, and Democrats are misguided fools in thrall to socialism.
What They Never Admit: There is a monster under the bed, and they’ve been feeding it for so long it is too big to control.
There will always be bias in for-profit news. There is never going to be a way to get around the fact that different people weight facts differently.
The critical point to remember is that this means the news always packages a some degree of fiction along with its truth. Even the few non-profit outlets with true independence, like the BBC, do this — the difference is they tend to own it and do their best to balance things out over time.
Their goal is to help as many people as possible understand events, including the degree to which they aren’t well understood.
Actually comprehending the news takes a lot of time — I have managed to develop a routine that gives me a good global survey, but if I read more than a few articles to any depth I can easily lose hours of my day wrapping my head around it all.
Which is not viable for most people — and part of the problem with the news (and the world). I get away with it because I write books and Medium pieces that actually make me a little money (which I never expected to happen, so it’s cool to see — thanks readers!)
But if you’d like to make an attempt, here are the sources I personally recommend and a short statement on why — other than the fact none have a paywall.
The international standard for news. Not perfect, definite UK national bias — but since this includes Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales as well as England, it works out most of the time.
2. Al Jazeera
Funded by the government of Qatar, much loathed by the American and Israeli governments but deeply reliable if you want to keep tabs on the Middle East and North Africa. Insightful perspectives on Europe and the Americas.
From Germany, with an international focus. Generally good, though tends to parrot the official German government view on major matters. Excellent insights into the United States from a country that knows Americans well.
Australia’s view of the world is a bit parochial, but that’s reasonable given how far the place is from everything. A solid and surprisingly neutral view of the Asia Pacific, though always from the Aussie perspective which can be... interesting.
Hong Kong based newspaper that does its best to toe the line between local anti-Beijing sentiments rising in the wake of anti-democracy crackdowns and local Hong Kongers. Editorially it is influenced by China’s national government, but the effects are muted enough it functions as a good barometer of their concerns and intentions.
Like the BBC, but focused on North America. Some of the best Covid-19 pandemic coverage, with frank evaluations from top epidemiologists who are usually right. A bit like NPR in the USA, but lacking the need to push a pro-America line.
Safe reading, folks. Remember: the only way to beat the bastards is to pull away their audience.
So to the degree you can, turn away from most American media. See the country through another lens for a while, and you won’t regret it.