Even though its author is a self-described conservative and the National Enquirer skews right (and its owner squashed a damaging Trump story)
One of the most fascinating types of comments I get are the ones insisting that one of the sources I have ranked in the bottom left of the Media Bias Chart, the Patribotics blog, should actually be ranked to the right. More fascinating still are the comments defending the credibility of the site. This post explores why I have this source ranked where it is, and also discusses similar reasons why National Enquirer is ranked where it is.
It all has to do with the fact that the rankings on this chart are based primarily on content analysis. Remember, “Ad Fontes” (the name of my company) means “to the source.” When ranking quality and bias, we look at the content of the story itself as the primary basis. We do this because we believe it is the most fair, transparent, and repeatable way to rank information sources, all of which are created by human beings with their own biases.
A Deeper Look Exposes Bias
Some content on the extreme right and left, including the blog Patribotics, includes actual purposeful falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and hoaxes. Most left and right political topics are assigned as such on the chart because of their associations with the political parties. However, these conspiracy theories cannot necessarily be associated with a particular political party, because usually, they are dismissed out-of-hand as just insane by most reasonable people of either party. However, I categorize these on the extreme ends of the horizontal axis when these stories tend to be shared overwhelmingly by the extreme fringe members on either the right or the left. For example, InfoWars has done “stories” claiming that the shooting at Sandy Hook was a hoax, and while reasonable conservatives rightly dismiss that nonsense, those who pick up, share, and believe such hoaxes are overwhelmingly right-wing extremists. This nonsense extends from an underlying pro-gun, right-leaning ideology, but goes off the deep end in the rightward direction.
The blogger Louise Mensch, who writes the blog Patribotics, has done “stories” claiming that “the Supreme Court notified Mr. Trump that the formal process of a case of impeachment against him was begun,” which did not happen, and moreover, does not accurately reflect how impeachment actually works. While reasonable liberals dismiss this nonsense, those who pick up, share, and believe such hoaxes are overwhelmingly left-wing extremists. The nonsense itself extends from an underlying Trump-is-bad, left-leaning ideology, but goes off the deep end in the leftward direction.
In these cases, when a particular story is nonsense and its content cannot accurately be ascribed to a political party, the clue you can look to in the content is what the underlying, reasonable ideology is. In these cases the audience that picks it up and shares is also an appropriate proxy for detecting whether it should be classified as right-wing or left-wing garbage. I submit that the partisanship of the author/publisher that writes or produces it is NOT, by itself, the most important proxy.
I believe it is important to categorize content as extreme left-wing or right wing in order to distinguish which kinds of readers and parties are most damaged by it. One of the main reasons I created this chart is because I believe misinformation and disinformation harms certain individual readers by compromising their reason and logic and manipulating their emotions. I believe misinformation and disinformation also harms each of the political parties by harming their members who are most susceptible to it.
Always look at the author’s political affiliation.
Again, the political affiliations of the authors/publishers themselves are not a good proxy for how extremely right- or left-wing a story is because motives of various authors or publishers of nonsense can vary widely. Nearly all are profiteers with high awareness that they are exploiting gullible extremists, but some do it to their own “side.” For example, some (like Alex Jones of InfoWars) are known to be extreme conservatives themselves and publish for such content to gin up rage among other extreme conservatives for the dual purposes of profit and for advancing causes they truly promote. Others do it to the “other side” for the dual purposes of profit and sowing confusion and discord among the opposing political party. Mensch, for example, is believed to be very conservative politically, having been a conservative member of the British parliament in the past. This fact is often cited by her extreme left-wing followers as evidence of her credibility (e.g., “if a conservative person, who would ordinarily take all conservative positions, is saying things that I, a liberal person, would like to be true, then it must be true”). I’ll call this the “My Extreme Opposite Agrees With Me Extremely” trope. It is a logical fallacy which is, unfortunately, appealing to many people. The fact that Ms. Mensch is, herself, conservative, means nothing in our content analysis ranking, because the content itself is left-wing biased. The fact that she is conservative but is publishing things that are popular with liberals does not make her falsehoods any more true.
Many people are deceived into falling for Mensch’s and similar authors’ garbage based on this specific trope. “My Extreme Opposite Agrees With Me Extremely” is actually quite a common trope in low-quality, highly biased media. An example is Fox News’ use of internet celebrities Diamond and Silk as political analysts. I’ll explore this more in a subsequent post, because there are many more examples. One should be highly skeptical of outlets that employ this trope. Note that this is different and highly distinguishable from “My Moderate Opposite Agrees With Me Moderately.” When historically moderate people on opposite sides of an issue find agreement, that is more often a sign that there is truth in that agreement (all generalizations are false).
Yet other authors and publishers are mere profiteers who do not have identifiable extremist positions themselves, but know that there are many people to be fooled on both sides. For example, one prolific, admitted “fake news” publisher, the late Paul Horner, was not an extremist himself, but made plenty of money putting out content that was shared by both right- and left-wing extremists. Therefore, I submit that the partisan position of an author or publisher should not be a primary consideration in characterizing extreme partisan stories. Rather, content itself, then the underlying ideology, then audience (as a proxy), should be taken into consideration first.
The National Enquirer’s Bias Effect
If you look at The National Enquirer’s content under the Ad Fontes content analysis model, then, a “skews right” designation makes sense. Yes, the owner of the outlet is a friend of Trump’s and reportedly paid to “catch-and-kill” a damaging story about a Trump affair, which is certainly a “pro-Trump” move. This incident, however, is more indicative of why The National Enquirer is in the garbage bin on the quality scale. It is there for other reasons too, such as the fact that it often does not adhere to journalism ethics standards on sourcing, which results in them publishing rumors. Though they defend this practice because it sometimes results in them reporting something true, in which event they can claim they “broke the story,” (see, e.g., John Edwards’ affair), they broke the story in the same way a broken clock is right twice a day.
When looking at The National Enquirer’s content for political bias, it is hard to detect because most of their stories are not about political topics. One doesn’t turn to The National Enquirer to find out about immigration or business regulations. It primarily focuses on salacious or highly personal topics about its subjects. The skews right designation stems mostly from their propensity to run unflattering stories more often about Democrats, not from political position stances. If you are upset that The National Enquirer isn’t further right, take solace in the fact that it is in the lowest quality section.
In sum, don’t be influenced by who the author/publisher says they are. Look at what they SAY. In media ranking world, content should be king/queen.