Most conservatives don't understand purpose of journalism, says founder of website on media bias

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·4-min read

In 2005, Matthew Sheffield launched what would become one of the preeminent conservative websites devoted to calling out liberal bias in the mainstream media.

Over the last decade, however, Sheffield — who founded NewsBusters with his brother Greg and worked there until 2014 — has come to believe that he was part of a problem, not a solution, and is now working to correct that error.

The problem, as he describes it, is that most conservatives think the purpose of journalism is to wage partisan political warfare, and that has created an ecosystem on the right where facts and truth are increasingly irrelevant.

Matthew Sheffield NewsBusters (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Matthew Sheffield via Twitter, AP)
Matthew Sheffield. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Matthew Sheffield via Twitter, AP)

This dynamic is at play most recently in the move by many Trump supporters to stop watching Fox News because, while it is conservative, it is not slavish enough toward the president. Instead, many Trump supporters are moving toward channels that repeat the president’s lies about a stolen election without any scrutiny or standards for fact checking.

“If you go to and look at the history of conservative media enterprises that are large scale and exist presently, every single one of them was created to propagate and propagandize for a particular political viewpoint, literally without exception,” Sheffield said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast. “And that is not the case for just so many mainstream outlets.”

In a recent Twitter thread, Sheffield wrote that he “was part of a decades-long tradition of complaining about media elites being ‘unfair’ to conservative views.”

While Sheffield’s view on liberal bias hasn’t changed entirely, it has become more nuanced. “There is still much to that argument,” he wrote, “but eventually I saw that I was missing context.”

After Sheffield went to work at the Washington Examiner, where he was the newspaper’s first online editor, he says he realized that “U.S. conservatives do not understand the purpose of journalism.”

“I didn’t understand that journalism is supposed to portray reality,” he wrote.

The Examiner was the first place where Sheffield says he saw the kind of standards that differentiate “actual media and reporting institutions” — which may have inherent or even conscious bias — from right-wing websites for which partisan bias is the north star, the guiding principle.

“Truth for conservative journalists is anything that harms ‘the left.’ It doesn’t even have to be a fact,” he wrote. “I eventually realized that most people who run right-dominated media outlets see it as their DUTY to be unfair and to favor Republicans because doing so would somehow counteract perceived liberal bias.”

Supporters of US President Donald Trump rally in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of President Trump rally in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

“Most conservative media figures have no journalism training or desire to fact-check their own side,” he added.

After his time at the Examiner, Sheffield oversaw the polling operation at The Hill newspaper and has also been a staff reporter for Salon.

Sheffield is writing a memoir about his upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon family. He was born in Utah, one of 10 children, and his father “had a street ministry where he passed out religious pamphlets and played his guitar.”

He now considers himself an “atheist agnostic” who believes that “all religions are demonstrably false, but I don’t think that you can definitively prove that there are no gods of any kind.”

NewsBusters, meanwhile, remains a robust presence online. It is owned and operated by Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center, a right-wing media group.

Sheffield believes that much of the mainstream press doesn’t write empathetically enough about most conservative voters.

“The tens of millions of people who vote Republican are not deplorable. They are misled,” he wrote. “And the mocking and tribalistic coverage that lefty media often engage in only makes things worse.”

He told Yahoo News that his advice for Americans of all political ideologies is to make sure they don’t retreat into an information bubble.

“If you’re not seeing what the other side has to say, then you’ll miss stuff that’s true and inconvenient. If you can’t confront information that’s inconvenient to you, then you’re not serious about the information,” he said. “Your opinions are not informed. They are ignorant. If you don’t encounter information that makes you say, ‘Huh, maybe I was wrong about that’ — if you never think that to yourself — you’re not doing it right.”

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