Baiting in the Partisan Media:* Why Does Anyone Trust Rush Limbaugh?

*Note: All media is partisan, but some try to report from “the view from nowhere.”

To oversimplify, conservatives should worry about baiting, pandering, and low journalistic standards in their outlets, while liberals should worry about baiting, pandering, and smugness in theirs. Why low standards for conservatives and not liberals? The conservative partisan news market is more robust than the liberal partisan news market. Due to self-selection and other issues, a liberal political philosophy shines through most respectable news sources. Why produce partisan news when the “best” or “impartial” news already agrees with you?

The perspective becomes clear when a site such as the Drudge Report faces analysis. Drudge is insidious because it works on implication and removes contextual meaning; headlines should be read and articles ignored. Matt Drudge hides his commentary by twisting headlines that remove nuance and confirm the biases of his conservative audience. He’d fail if the Report were a blog, as he would have to write his arguments for analysis; by not providing commentary, readers accept the headlines instead of analyze his opinion.

Drudge Report headline (6/21/13): Biden: Now Is Time For ‘Unfettered Path’…
What it means to conservatives:  “The Other Party wants to transform the country, destroying everything you love”
Original headline: Biden: Now Is Time For ‘Unfettered Path For 11 Million People’ To Become Citizens
Context:  Biden spoke at the League of United Latin American Citizens conference in Las Vegas. The AP reported that Biden said it’s time for a

fair, and firm and unfettered path for 11 million people to become U.S. citizens. The question you should ask is, “What will immigration reform do for America?” … The answer is clear and resounding: “It can and will do great things for America.”

Drudge uses his remarks out-of-context to twist his actual meaning. Reading the article, it mentions that Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham support the immigration bill Biden referenced. Republican Senator Bob Corker supports it as well, calling it “border security on steroids.”  The bill will “double Border Patrol agents and fencing along the Southwest border,” among other security upgrades. Drudge uses the quote to make the Obama administration look “weak on border security,” which ignores the high number of deportations during Obama’s first term.

Another immigration example:

Drudge Report headline (6/21/13): Illegal alien reporter calls immigration bill ‘biggest story of my life’…
What it means to conservatives: “Those Unpeople want this bill to pass so they can live off the dole”
Original headline: Jose Antonio Vargas on ‘biggest story of my life’
Context: Vargas stands as a prominent immigrant, who accounted his undocumented status for the New York Times magazine in 2011. When he was 12, his mother sent him to the United States from the Philippines to live with family. Vargas is a rare public face that humanizes the people affected by a flawed immigration system, and it’s absurd to say he should be deported for his undocumented status. So Drudge’s headline removes the human element to conjure images of an uppity foreigner demanding free stuff from hard-working Americans. It’s an effective scare tactic; the headline carries the implicit assumption that another Hispanic wants to take an American’s job (yet, simultaneously, wants to live off welfare). The story isn’t meant to be read, as that would expose the misleading and would require the evaluation of preconceived notions. Maybe droves of lazy immigrants don’t want free money, but the chance for a better life for themselves, without the fear of having their life and liberty violated.

Drudge twists and distorts headlines consistently, but they aren’t unique. Baiting and low standards run throughout The Daily Caller, Breitbart, and Fox News,* among others.

Conor Friedersdorf discussed the issue in an article concerning Pigford vs. Glickman, an instance where Andrew Breitbart’s criticisms were correct, but his lack of credibility caused others to ignore him:

Everyone makes mistakes. People and sites that fail to correct the most serious mistakes after being alerted to them to lose the ability to get me interested in what they’re writing about because I can’t trust any of it. There are too many honest journalists and important, undercovered stories to chase allegations made by people with a deserved reputation for carelessness and dishonesty. Much of the media felt that way about Breitbart, having been burned by chasing stories he broke only to find out that lots of the details he ran with were wrong.

Breitbart and other dodgy conservative publications aren’t derided solely because they’re conservative (though that’s sometimes true): They’re derided because they have awful journalistic standards and lack credibility.
Conservative outlets shouldn’t be ignored by default. National Review, the Washington Examiner, the American Conservative, and the Wall Street Journal immediately stand out. The problem isn’t unique to conservative news, either, but it has a stronger market for shoddy publications and cranks (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, et al).  Think Progress, Daily Kos, and Media Matters peddle partisan garbage as well, though its goals and value to audiences differ. Were conservatives to have dominant influence over journalism outlets and higher education, liberals would exhibit the same tendencies observed in conservative circles when they’re out of step with “the establishment” (broadly defined as news outlets, education, the arts and entertainment, and other intellectually influential industries).

Political bias runs through every journalistic outlet. However, partisan news holds a market for conservatives because liberals hold the majority of power positions in most respectable news organizations. Little demand exists for more websites like Daily Kos, Think Progress, or a liberal Drudge Report because liberals’ assumptions and confirmation biases get broadcasted through respectable outlets.  The need to criticize the conservative movement and outlets for shoddy journalism looms much larger because no liberal version of Rush Limbaugh exists; just look at the cable news ratings during primetime.