How Conservatives Manipulate U.S. Media with Rhetoric
Weaponizing “bias,” “balance,” and false equivalence
Have you ever noticed that mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and CNN go to some length to include conservative viewpoints, but conservative outlets like Fox News, the National Review, and The Weekly Standard don’t seem to feel a similar responsibility to have liberal viewpoints?
Why is that?
My father believes college professors and economists (economists!) are raging liberals. To him, any media besides Fox News and Facebook posts from rightwing groups wants to get him. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you that his news diet consists of “the real story.”
Why is that?
Conservatives have weaponized the ideas of bias, balance, and false equivalence to manipulate major media outlets into platforming them — no matter how extreme — and to insulate their audience from reality.
To not include conservative commentators would be to indulge in unmitigated liberal bias.
Watching CNN instead of Fox News leaves you with a skewed perspective and sets you at odds with your dad.
For decades, conservatives have accused the mainstream media of having a liberal bias. Fox News built its audience as a “fair and balanced” alternative.
If the media is so liberal, why were Hillary Clinton’s emails the big story of 2016? Why do “liberal” media outlets intentionally include conservative viewpoints?
Whatever liberal bias may exist certainly doesn’t stem from some kind of coordinated effort, or whatever they teach at journalism school.
According to Naomi Oreskes, faculty in higher education are no more likely to be liberal than another subset of Americans — highly educated people. Sorry, Dad.
Similarly, most journalists are pretty well-educated and immersed in information on the stories they cover.
Maybe, just maybe, the facts of our complex world analyzed by an educated person results in a viewpoint closer to liberals or progressives than conservatives?
One thing’s undeniable, though. Conservatives use the idea of “liberal bias” to force their way into the conversation regardless of merit or extremism.
If “liberal bias” is a problem, then the solution is balance. Right?
No one wants to appear “Liberally biased.” So everyone feels obligated to entertain conservative views for “balance” — no matter that Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski keeps lying on CNN or that Rick Santorum can’t make a cogent argument.
Balance should be a good thing. A liberal-leaning person says X, a conservative person says Y, a moderate person claims Z. Then the audience can decide whom they agree with, whether they think a combination of ideas makes the most sense, or whether they believe something else entirely.
Then they can vote based on information instead of what Tucker Carlson tells them.
In practice, conservatives weaponize balance to make claims without providing supporting evidence and assert opinions as though they’re facts. If you call their bullshit, they dismiss the criticism and insist you’re the biased one.
Audiences end up unsure whom and what to believe, so they opt for the information that confirms their preexisting beliefs, opinions, and attitudes.
Weaponized False Equivalence
Weaponizing bias and balance leads to the ultimate goal: false equivalence.
Liberal bias is a problem. The solution is balance. Conservative views are just as valid and valuable. They should be heard. Right?
Yes, in theory, but conservatives have taken advantage of weaponized bias and balance to present baseless claims, bald opinions, and batshit crazy as “equivalent” to liberal ideas.
Climate change debates offer perfect examples.
Conservatives often question whether climate change is happening, whether it’s caused by burning fossil fuels, or whether humanity can or should do anything about it. Climate scientists then try to correct the misinformation.
It’s like someone arguing that the Yankees didn’t defeat the Boston Red Sox last night, even though millions of people watched the game, dozens of baseball reporters independently recorded the score, and people can refer to the tape if they’d like.
Once you understand false equivalence, you see it everywhere.
Disarming Conservative Rhetoric
Recognizing logical fallacies enables you to resist them. Whenever something sounds off, it’s useful to have the terminology to pinpoint why it’s wrong-headed.
When I tell my dad something’s a false equivalence, however, he doesn’t shake his head at himself, chuckle, and thank me. He’s been too far down the rabbit hole for far too long.
Sometimes pointing out fallacies can help “bystanders” also recognize the problems with a given argument. You might even “inoculate” people against fallacious rhetoric.
And with so much misinformation and misuse of rhetoric polluting the information ecosystem, it’s crucial to know how to analyze the media.
Eric Sentell holds a PhD in Composition & Rhetoric. He teaches writing and coordinates General Education at a public university. He writes entertaining articles that help people think, write, and feel better.