The left-leaning media sometimes uses the news to promote an agenda, independent journalist Drew Holden says.
Holden has become known for his Twitter threads, in which he shows how news coverage changes depending on whether the subject is a liberal or a conservative.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” Holden says, “is a more activist stance in newsrooms to say, ‘We actually have a moral duty and a fiduciary obligation to the people who read our stories, to not bring them this kind of both-sides conversation, and to instead home in on the truth,’ particularly if it is opposed to someone like Donald Trump.”
Holden joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to shine a light on just how bad media malfeasance is, what the resulting misinformation means for society, and how conservatives can reclaim a place in the media ecosystem.
Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about Korean War veteran Ralph Puckett, who recently received the Medal of Honor at age 94.
Listen to the podcast below or read a lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Drew Holden, a freelance commentary writer whose work can be found in outlets like The New York Times, Fox News, The Washington Post, and National Review. Drew, thank you so much for joining me.
Drew Holden: Doug, thank you sir, the pleasure is mine. I’m happy to be here.
Blair: Absolutely, awesome. So Drew, you’ve spoken extensively about left-leaning bias in mainstream media outlets nowadays. So my question for you is how did we get here? Is this something that’s always existed and we’re just noticing it now? Or is this a more recent phenomenon?
Holden: Yeah Doug, it’s a good question. I think it’s the sort of phenomenon that existed at least in smaller part for a really long time. They’ve done some studies in years past, the biggest one I think was at The University of Indiana, around the tendency of people who become journalists to lean left and to therefore report a little bit left.
That’s a pretty well known phenomenon. They’ve done studies and things about what percentage of the media tends to be left-of-center versus right-of-center, which usually it’s about three to four times as many people who identify as left-of-center than right-of-center. And those are historical figures. That’s always sort of been the case. And I think in a lot of senses, that’s where the idea of a liberal media bias comes from, and it’s nothing new. These are the sorts of things that George W. Bush ran on as a problem.
What I think is new and relatively recent is in the era of Donald Trump, when you’ve seen this real partisan break between the two parties, it’s come out into the open a lot more. And it’s become a lot more overstated in a way … For years, you would have kind of the newsroom conservatives who would have their own view or their own bent, what have you, but it was always about, “How do we get to objective facts?” And some reporters might say that that has a slight liberal bias, but it was always on the margins.
What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is a more activist stance in newsrooms to say, “We actually have a moral duty and a fiduciary obligation to the people who read our stories, to not bring them this kind of both sides conversation, and to instead hone in on the truth,” particularly if it is opposed to someone like Donald Trump.
And where that’s gotten us is I think it’s taken a phenomena that’s always existed, conservatives had kind of made peace with, and really blown it out of proportion in the last couple of years.
Blair: Right. I think what you’re saying is that this has always sort of existed, but it was sort of contained. And now that we’ve gotten to this post-Trump era, this is something that’s come explicitly to the fore. I think that there’s an interesting question to be asked: is it possible to have news media that’s not objectively biased in some sort of sense? Do you believe that it’s possible to have news media that doesn’t have some sort of bias in it?
Holden: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think the answer very narrowly is probably no, we’ll always have biases. At the end of the day, if journalism is going to be a profession that’s more or less white collar, which I think it will be, tends to be people who have master’s degrees, probably went to Yale and Harvard and Columbia and other places, it’s going to continue to have a liberal bias.
What I do think could exist though, is I think that newsrooms could be more deliberate about knowing their blind spots. I think you can actually make an enormous amount of ground in making the media better by pushing to cover things in a way that isn’t just aligned with the preconceived notions and biases of the folks who happen to be reporting those stories.
This is something the New York Times said they were going to start doing in 2016 after Trump won. They had this post-mortem around how, “Wow, how could we have missed this? How could we have gotten it so wrong?” As I think anyone could probably see, the last five years have … borne out that project. But I do think that on its merits a project like that is worthwhile and could probably make a lot of progress.
Blair: Right. So a follow-up question then is these organizations did post-mortems, but they didn’t really do anything. Does fixing the problem involve hiring on, say for the New York Times, a conservative? Or maybe for Fox News, hiring a liberal? Would that be the solution or what are we looking at here in terms of solutions?
Holden: I think so. I think it’s got to be more than just a tokenization though. It can’t be, you have one conservative or one liberal in the newsroom. I think part of it is liberal outlets, in particular, but the thing of it too, is explicitly liberal and explicitly conservative outlets, they’re going to have their own bent. And they’re explicitly in the wiring of these different outlets, which is fine. People are looking for particular types of media; they’re going to want to have it fit into their view of the world.
My bigger concern is with mainstream media who pretend to not have a bias, and when that comes in, that I think is an enormous problem for everyday readers and listeners who are just think, “Oh, this is just the news. These are just the facts that I’m getting.” And I think for those organizations, it’s incumbent upon them to make an explicit, almost diversity-focused concern to have conservatives who are in the newsroom, to have conservatives who are at the editorial level, to have them be in the room when we’re making the decisions about the stories to cover, the ways we want to cover them, sense-checking things like headlines.
I think that could actually go a really, really long way in helping to restore, not all of conservative trust in the media, but I think that could actually make pretty meaningful inroads.
Blair: Yeah, I think that definitely what you’re saying is that there needs to be a sense of, “Something is being done,” otherwise conservatives are just going to tune out and say, “Well, it’s all just liberal hoo-ha.”
In terms of media bias and what the actual consequences are, I think looking at how certain networks cover certain political figures, so for example, you’ve done a lot of work on the coverage of Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo and Gov. [Ron] DeSantis and how they were treated differently based on the biases of the networks. But my question for you is why does it seem like in the mainstream one philosophical side is outweighed by the other side? I know you’ve mentioned that there definitely is sort of, it’s a white-collar profession, but is there any other reason why this is? Is there an intentional aspect to it?
Holden: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think I’d probably differ from a lot of conservatives in that my bent is that for the most part, probably not. I don’t think it’s deliberate. I don’t think that people in the media profession are going out and feeling like they have to sell widgets and they have to do it in a way that’s going to get the most of the audience on the left. There’s certainly outlets who do more of that, MSNBC I think pretty openly does it. CNN I think has actually unfortunately really drifted to that style of news coverage. But when you talk about like a Reuters or a New York Times, I think that really what it comes down to is, “Who are the people who are reporting the news and what do they think their remit is in reporting that news?”
And so if it’s a whole bunch of people whose worldview happens to be a little left-leaning, they’re going to report facts and information through that lens. And then I think also my bigger concern is if they feel that their remit is broader than just informing their audience on the facts, that there’s a moral obligation to tell the right story, facts can get in the way of that unfortunately, and so if the goal is to bulldoze through some of those facts and tell the important broader story with fact-checkers and context and all these other things, that to me, I think is the big driver of most of the recent phenomena we’ve seen.
Blair: I think that’s a really interesting point. I want to shift slightly into something you’ve mentioned previously. You’ve said that you feel like there’s a crisis of misinformation in America right now. One, do you still think that we have that post-2020, post-2016, and then if we do, what is the implication of that for society as a whole? And then, of course, how do we handle it? What do we do about it?
Holden: Yeah, it’s a great question. Unfortunately I think that we probably still do. I think some of this is sort of just endemic to a democracy. If we are going to allow different people to have different views on really important issues, whether that’s a global pandemic or anything else, then you’re going to run into challenges of fact that are just going to happen.
I think one of the big problems is there’s a lot of incentives to not tell the truth these days. There’s a lot of incentives to create information and to run with created information on both sides. This isn’t a liberal or conservative phenomenon. And so to me, I think that if we can tweak, if we can make changes, the way to do it is probably to encourage social media outlets to disincentivize those sorts of posts and those sorts of things that go viral, but maybe are untethered to the facts.
But all of that being said, even though I certainly agree that we have this misinformation, this disinformation crisis, I can’t shake the thought that any of the solutions on offer are probably worse than the disease itself.
If you’re putting people, be they from the government, or Facebook, or Twitter, if we start giving people leeway to decide what is and isn’t facts, we’re going to, unfortunately I think cut ourselves off from a lot of valuable information.
The recent idea only a couple of months ago that the potential that the coronavirus had leaked from a lab in Wuhan was misinformation and disinformation according to every social media network and every media outlet up until a couple of weeks ago. And now we’re learning that actually that’s a plausible, viable, potential origin story.
And so I think we have to be super careful when it comes to cutting something out of the public square. And to me, if we’re trying to cut down on disinformation and all we’re doing is cutting out some information that may or may not be true, we’re creating a worse problem than we’re starting with.
Blair: I want to follow up on something that you mentioned that you said, this is possibly on the social media company side to do this. One of the things that I’ve always found really interesting is when you study the founding, they very much favored having the populous be the ones who are sort of like, “You need to keep the republic alive. You need to keep these things in front of mind.” Do you see a role for the American public in this sort of new wave of misinformation that we need to become better informed? Or is this more like the information is out there, the social media companies also need to have some responsibility for making sure that this doesn’t get out?
Holden: Yeah Doug, it’s a good question. I think that I’m sympathetic to the idea that there is a role to play from these other actors, and I worry deeply about the incentive structure. And I think that where the incentive structure exists, there’s some work to be done there.
But yeah, at the end of the day, this was kind of like Federalist Paper stuff. You need a well-informed citizenry, you need a moral citizenry to be able to make these sorts of decisions. And so to me, it probably does at the end of the day, fall on the American people. And I think that’s, insofar as I have a solution on offer, it’s rather than putting this to a bunch of technocrats, or Facebook’s Orwellian board sort of structure, what we probably need to do is be better.
We need to do better. We need individuals in media outlets and people who are driving the discourse to just be better and more attentive to these sorts of things. And I think that that’s not an enormous ask. And I think that a lot of this, the phenomenon that we’ve seen is that we’ve all kind of gotten a little bit fast and loose with the truth in the age of Donald Trump. And that in the last couple of years, we’ve really seen a lot of different conversations and things corrode and erode. And I think that part of the problem is if we’re all going for slam dunks, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, but if we’re all going for slam dunks all day, then we’re not creating the right incentives for ourselves to really rigorously apply the truth.
Blair: Right. I think that’s definitely a good point. On that topic, I think as we’re talking about what America is and what the citizenry is all about, to me I believe that America is a country where competing ideas come together, and there’s this open forum of discussion, and from that we find the truth, or we find the best solution for ourselves.
Media outlets, I think, we can see are creating these echo chambers. If you’re on the right, you’ll probably watch one set of media. And if you’re on the left, you’ll watch another set of media. In terms of these people that want to indulge in their confirmation biases, is there any way that we can do that? Is it mostly just watching other sources of news? Or what should we be doing?
Holden: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think a lot of it does come down to you need to be looking for less than just confirmation in terms of the information that you’re consuming. So yeah, I think the best question I ever get from people are, “Who are the top two or three people who you really like reading who you don’t agree with?” I think there’s got to be a little bit more of that exercise of, “Who are the sorts of voices that maybe you don’t always agree with, hell maybe you never agree with them, how can you do more to seek those people out who are thoughtful, and intelligent, and push the envelope?”
I think a lot of it is on that. But then I think some of this too, is there has to be some level of trust, to your earlier point, in the American people to be able to make these sorts of decisions.
I think I agree with you on this marketplace of ideas concept. And unfortunately, in a lot of cases, I think a lot of folks in the mainstream media don’t really believe in that. And so I think that you have a lot of people who say, “Unfortunately, given where America is at right now, if all we do is give them the information, they won’t draw the conclusions that they should.” And that’s a really dangerous mindset to go into any of these sorts of conversations with, but what comes out of it is a pretty haughty and arrogant mentality of, “I can decide for them because I can decide better.”
And whether that’s the New York Times, or The Washington Post, or Facebook, or Twitter, anyone who tends to be making those sorts of decisions, I think I’ve got my guard up against that. I think that across the board those things tend not to work very well.
Blair: Sure, definitely. One last question for you. If we can take away one thing from this interview, if our listeners could glean one piece of information and they go and they live their lives and say, “You know what? I learned that from that interview with Drew Holden,” what would that be?
And then secondly, what can conservatives do to make sure that our voices, and to make sure that our perspective is accurately represented in the media? I think when you were discussing sometimes it’s difficult when some of the larger outlets have one perspective that they want to push and that’s not always the conservative perspective, how do we make sure that those perspectives are represented accurately?
Holden: Yeah. Both good questions. I think on to your former point, in terms of being able to be better at these sorts of things, I think what conservatives really need to do, what people need to do, is find voices you disagree with, find outlets you disagree with and read them, and read them voraciously, and read them with an open mind, come at these things as valuable pieces of information, and don’t write them off.
I worry, I think a lot, particularly lately, that a lot of folks in conservative media or conservative ecosystem and universe, have decided that the media is all bad and all rotten. I see it all the time, this perspective. And I think that we can’t come at it that way, both because it’s not true, but maybe more importantly, because if we do, we won’t make any inroads.
So to your second question, I think that what conservatives need to do to be able to tell our story better is recognize that there’s actually still a lot of people in mainstream media who are clamoring for those voices. They’re going to screw up. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to make mistakes based on the biases that they have. But I think that one of the things that I always step back and try and remind people of is the media aren’t the enemy of the people, they are not out here seeking the destruction of the United States, they make mistakes in the same way that you would expect any organization with 85% of its membership to have a certain worldview.
Conservatives need to be a corrective for that worldview, recognizing that it’s a minority stake that we have in all of this. And so I think it’s we’ve got to come to these things in good faith, we’ve got to advance the best arguments we can make, and do it in mainstream publications. I think a lot of my pieces, I aim for a New York Times, not just because of the name recognition of an outlet like that, but because I think these are the people who need to hear this side of the story, and that there are editors who are still clamoring for this information, and that if conservatives can approach these sorts of things in good faith, don’t make the slam dunk cases necessarily, but the most compelling cases that we can articulate, and bring those to these sorts of audiences in good faith, they’re going to find a lot more traction than I think folks realize.
Blair: Those are fantastic points. Well, thank you Drew.
That was Drew Holden, you can follow him on Twitter at @DrewHolden360, or read his work in a wide variety of outlets. Thanks again, Drew.
Holden: Doug, the pleasure is mine. Thank you, sir.
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