U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Epistemology of Media Bias


The following is a guest post from Nicole Hemmer, who is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Miami and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She also writes for media outlets, including a weekly column for US News and World Report and articles in on conservative politics and history for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Atlantic.

In 2010, libertarian writer Julian Sanchez used the term “epistemic closure” to help explain the closed system of logic used by movement conservatives. Arguing that conservative logic had become “worrying untethered from reality,” Sanchez traced this untethering to conservative media. Indeed, he argued these ideological media were a necessary condition for epistemic closure: “Closure is the universal tendency toward confirmation bias plus a sufficiently large array of multimedia conservative outlets to constitute a complete media counterculture, plus an overbroad ideological justification for treating mainstream output as intrinsically suspect.”

As a historian of conservative media, I was intrigued by Sanchez’s claims. His descriptions of the current state of the conservative movement seemed spot-on, and received plenty of supporting evidence during the 2012 election. Megyn Kelly seemed to put her finger on it when she asked Karl Rove, who on election night was fumbling to explain how Mitt Romney could win Ohio, “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?” Rove’s therapeutic math became Exhibit A for epistemic closure.

But how did epistemic closure develop? Why was it rooted in media? And why was it more prevalent in the conservative movement than other political groups? Those were questions my work on conservative media seemed well-suited to address. In asking those questions, I began to understand media as a site of epistemological production and reproduction. Indeed, the story I tell about conservative media activism from the 1940s through the 1970s is not just one of media that spread political ideas, but media that open a battle over how best to assess what is true and what is not.

Conservatives took up this battle against the dominant journalistic mode of mid-century America: objectivity. Objectivity was more than a set of professional values that shaped journalism in the 20th century. It was a claim about the best way to understand the world. In mid-century, objective journalists claimed the trueness of their stories could best be evaluated by how well they adhered to standards of disinterestedness, accuracy, factuality, fairness, and, less overtly but no less importantly, deference to official information and institutional authority.

Conservative media activists advanced a different way of knowing the world, one that attacked the legitimacy of objectivity and substituted ideological integrity. That attack was embodied in cries of “liberal media bias,” which disputed not just the content presented by mainstream journalists but the very claims they made about their objective practices. And this is what I mean when I say conservatives were engaged in an epistemological battle: they weren’t just saying there is a world of objective media that we reject and a world of ideological media we promote. They were saying that there was no such thing as non-ideological media, that objectivity was a mask mainstream media used to hide their own ideological projects.

In doing so, conservative media activists in mid-century America provided their audiences – readers, listeners, and viewers – with a different way of understanding the world: a different network of authorities, a different conception of fact and accuracy, and a different set of values for evaluating truth-claims. These values rested not on impartiality but rather focused on the assumed biases of the writers, editors, and publishers involved in the media enterprise. That assumption that all media outlets are equally biased, and are engaged in the same type of ideological warfare, allowed conservatives to develop a robust heuristic for absorbing contrary evidence. Sanchez captured this dynamic in his writings on epistemic closure:

The output may have varying degrees of liberal slant, but The New York Times is not fundamentally trying to be liberal; they’re trying to get it right. Their conservative counterparts—your Fox News and your Washington Times—always seem to be trying, first and foremost, to be the conservative alternative. And that has implications for how each of them connects to the whole ecosystem of media: Getting an accurate portrait is institutionally secondary to promoting the accounts and interpretations that support the worldview and undermine the liberal media narrative.

These, however, were not innovations of Fox News or talk radio or the Washington Times. Today’s conservative media inherited this understanding of media from an earlier generation of activists. And by the time Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes appeared on the scene, a generation of conservatives had already established the habit of consuming ideological media as a key behavior of conservative identity.

It is also worth noting that conservative media activists in the 1950s and 1960s were upfront about their epistemological aims. Media critiques suffused conservative media from the start, as did statements about alternatives to objectivity. For instance Human Events, a newsweekly founded in 1944. By the early 1960s, Human Events arrived at this articulation of its mission:

In reporting the news, Human Events is objective; it aims for accurate representation of the facts. But it is not impartial. It looks at events through the eyes that are biased in favor of limited constitutional government, local self-government, private enterprise, and individual freedom.

This statement, which ran in most issues of Human Events in the 1960s, is what I meant by media as a site of epistemological production and reproduction. In distinguishing between objectivity and impartiality, Human Events editors created a space where “bias” was not only a positive journalistic value, but the lens through which conservatives should interpret media sources and the wider world.

Most of us are probably familiar with Stephen Colbert’s neologism truthiness, which he distinguished from truth, a type of fact-checking that happens in the gut rather than in the head. Whatever one thinks of Colbert’s analysis, he’s making a valuable point about the epistemological divergence I’m describing. Colbert is pointing to a difference in how movement conservatives evaluate truth-claims, a difference I would argue is first produced and then reproduced through conservative media. Given the centrality of ideological media consumption to the conservative political identity, I would also argue that we can’t understand the intellectual development of postwar conservatism in the United States without putting these media front and center.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Apart from ideology, another contributing factor to this alternate epistemology is the very real problem of “fact” selection. I think that the reason the notion of a liberal bias gained and maintained steam was that alternate and opposing “facts” do, and did, exist. There has always been a set of “uncovered” facts and opinions that fed the notion of a liberal journalism/media establishment. The old media, rather than cover those contrary “facts” consistently, chose to efficiently run stories the contained facts which supported their judgment. I happen to think that some (not all) older “liberal” media figures did in fact have good judgment about what facts to use to build their stories. But they were afraid to show the sausage making—to expose the value judgments used to build the narratives that were delivered. That lack of exposure covered up both good and bad decision making.

    I offer this only to say that the deeper ethics driving the selection of facts does matter. Journalists are better off having their value judgments unmasked so as to avoid perceptions of pure (impossible) objectivity. Media consumers should be free to consume not only the facts and narratives presented, but also the journalists’ values. And networks can choose to “balance” presentations by thinking about good judgment in relation to larger and smaller ideas of Truth/truth. So, to me, the overturning of the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987 (instituted in 1949) has some role to play in the dissemination of news and the role of ideology in journalism. How did the Fairness Doctrine play out in questions during the panel? – TL

    • Tim:

      Very good points, and ones I agree with. We didn’t discuss the Fairness Doctrine at the panel, but it’s a major part of my research. For conservatives, the Fairness Doctrine played an important role in the construction of “liberal media bias” as a concept, because there were real instances of censorship and “chilling” that could be traced to the way the FD was implemented. Conservatism was considered controversial in a way mainstream liberalism was not, and so conservatives were regulated more than Cold War liberals (the left was also regulated more, but let’s bracket that for the time being).

      Hallin’s spheres are a useful schematic way of thinking about this. He posited three spheres of media coverage which triggered different approaches by journalists: the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate controversy, and the sphere of deviance. Movement conservatism in the 1950s and early 1960s tended to edge into the sphere of deviance, meaning it — and the issues, facts, and values important to conservatives — were treated as illegitimate in a way liberalism wasn’t. (There were, of course, any number of conservative ideas well within the spheres of consensus and legitimate controversy, but movement conservatives on the whole were treated with a great deal of skepticism by journalists.)

      Of course, the FD only applied to broadcasting, but it embodies some of the assumptions and values employed by objective journalists more generally.

  2. Nicole–
    Thanks for this interesting post. A couple of points: the term “epistemic closure” is a technical term in philosophy that has been hijacked to mean something other than what philosophers mean by it, which is really a perspective on knowing by entailment. Here’s the wikipedia article:
    In this sense, it’s like “begging the question,” which is something very different for philosophers than it is in ordinary usage.

    Second, there’s a tension in conservative thought between anti-relativism in its critique of liberalism, and its embrace of a relativist position with regard to knowledge and facts. In fact, the conservative critique of “objectivity” sounds eerily like the liberal one–there is no neutral or absolute point of view, therefore all knowledge is situated in relation to the knower. But this doesn’t sit well with the critique of liberalism for its relativistic, pluralistic modes of knowing found in critiques of “revisionist history” or various culture war issues. Conservatives often pride themselves on a commitment to absolutes of various kinds–religious, moral, and epistemic. Do you think this tension in conservative thought is essentially diffused by having a common enemy in the image of liberalism and the left? Is this just another instance of conservative “fusion” where traditionalists and liberations can find common ground by ignoring their fundamental differences?

    • Thanks, Dan.

      To your first point: Yes, Sanchez acknowledged after his new usage of “epistemic closure” took off that he must have heard the phrase in an undergrad philosophy class. By the time he realized that it had a distinct meaning, his new definition of “epistemic closure” had already become part of an intense debate and so he stuck with it to avoid additional confusion. I imagine for philosophers the new usage is like nails on a chalkboard.

      Your second point is such a smart one, and one that I’ve wrestled with quite a bit. The tension between absolutism and relativism in conservative thought is a tension that itself has a historical development. While rejecting journalists’ claims to objectivity, conservative media activists in mid-century also claimed there were universal truths, and conservatives were defenders of those truths. (Look, for instance, at Buckley’s opening editorial for National Review, which denounces relativism.) By the 1970s and 1980s, you begin to see more relativistic rhetoric in conservatives circles, and it really takes off in the 1990s and 2000s.

      I’ve framed this before as a sort of postmodern conservatism, though my sense is the embrace of relativism is more rhetorical posturing than a genuine shift in foundational beliefs. Timing is part of this: the right believed the left made effective use of the language of relativism and diversity in the 1990s, and so some on the right adopted it as both a rhetorical strategy and a way of tweaking liberals by using their own values against them. See, for instance, David Horowitz calling for more ideological diversity on campuses because “[t]here are no ‘correct’ answers to controversial issues,” or the 2009 book The Politically Correct University, published by the American Enterprise Institute, which claims “[t]he academy’s definition and practice of diversity is too narrow and limited,” arguing instead “for a more inclusive definition of diversity that encompasses intellectual diversity.” Not the sort of thing Buckley was arguing for in God and Man at Yale back in 1951, to be sure.

      I’m going on too long, but to get to what I think your broader point is: the conservative rejection of objectivity is not about rejecting knowable, universal truths — it’s about rejecting the framework of objectivity (as it was developed in the late 19th and early 20th century and as it was practiced in the 1940s and 1950s) as the correct way to access those truths.

  3. Wow, what an interesting paper. This is awesome and important work and I’m so glad you’re doing it.

    There’s so much to unpack and wonder about here, I’m not sure if anything I can say is really helpful beyond general gesticulations of “right?!, what the fuck?” But I think this question you are asking — “And why was it more prevalent in the conservative movement than other political groups?” — is so important. Because as you mentioned, there has been this rise in the conservative movement towards this rhetoric of expanding ideological diversity so as to include conservative viewpoints and narratives — almost a “tell our story too!, not just the stories of oppressed people!” — cry. But if, as you suggest, this is more representative of a rhetorical strategy than an authentic change in how they conceive of their own ideological position, then how is that ideological certainty being sustained in the face of the outward necessity to adjust to what “everyone else” widely regards as reality?

    I’m afraid I’m being confusing; I guess what I am asking is, if we assume that the snarky expression “reality has a liberal bias,” is true, how are conservatives interacting with that reality? Because it appears they are adjusting to it as a cultural, strategic necessity but only insofar as that promotes their ultimate goals to deny that in fact, reality has a liberal bias. Is this because in the end, we’re not so much arguing over facts as values, but in terms of what their values actually are, conservatives mostly only have access to a liberal (i.e., classical liberal, liberalism broadly) vocabulary? Ie, although a few do come out and say “hurray for patriarchy!, hierarchy and inequality!” this is relatively rare, because they know that it’s a non-starter as far as making converts goes?

    But if that’s the case (I know I am imagining you answering my questions in the affirmative, so correct my flow of thought here wherever needed if you think I’ve got it wrong) there is a lot of interesting questions to ask about the inner life of the conservative, especially the cultural conservative; but then we end up at questions about “sincerity,” which, at the conference, I was reminded are limited and maybe not terribly helpful necessarily…and yet I still really want to ask them! Which, in and of itself, says something about the epistemological water most of us are swimming in, right?

    Anyway, this stuff is too much fun, thanks for it.

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