Manufacturing Dissent: How The New York Times Covered the Brexit Vote

29 September 2016, 1459 EDT

The following is a guest post by Nives Dolšak, Professor, School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle, and Aseem Prakash, Professor, Department of Political Science and Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle.

The Brexit vote has come and gone. After the initial shock, the world seems to have refocused on events elsewhere.  Importantly, the British economy is doing fine; the British pound trades more or less at the same level against the US dollar or the Euro, as it did prior to the Brexit vote. Did then the media exaggerate the threat of Brexit to the British economy? While it is difficult to speculate about the long term consequences, at least in the short run, the British economy has not been punished for Brexit.

Perhaps, this should compel us to step back and think about media bias.  We typically think of Fox News as offering a biased perspective.  But is the liberal media any better? We offer an informal empirical examination of how the prestigious New York Times, portrayed the consequences of the Brexit vote in what we consider to be a biased way.  The New York Times reflects and shapes elite opinion. An examination of its coverage can give a sense of the lessons the American elites’ perspective on Brexit, and more broadly, on economic and political integration.

But our commentary has implications beyond the coverage of the Brexit vote. Arguably, we need to rethink about the role of media in a democracy. Perhaps, the liberal-conservative polarization no longer reflects the real fissures in contemporary politics. In the UK, Labour and Conservatives (and the Liberal party as well) opposed Brexit. In America, both the Democrats and Republications have supported free trade in the past but seem to be singing a different tune now. Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine have supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPL) and other trade agreements previously, and Donald Trump’s businesses have benefitted enormously from economic globalization. Yet, they are now critical of free trade. They have understood public’s perception about economic and political integration: it is not lifting all boats; it is sinking most and lifting the luxury yachts of the elite only.

The Brexit vote signals the emergence of new politics that pits the cosmopolitan elites (globalization beneficiaries) against the rest (globalization losers). Polarization of these sorts has been noted by scholars such as Benjamin Barber but they suggest the opposition of conservative religions to globalization, partly reflecting the Clash of Civilization thesis. We suggest Brexit vote signals the clash within the civilization, between globalization beneficiaries and globalization losers.

In July 2016, The New York Times carried a front-page article: “Fair Play in a Fact-Challenged Political Landscape” where it criticized CNN for hiring Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, as an on-air commentator. It asked, “What happens to the balance between truth and falsehood when an important portion of the national news media hands the political debate over to partisan operatives…?” The article chided some British newspapers for their partisan views favoring Brexit. Finally, it invoked Benjamin Franklin’s famous words, “It is a principle among printers that when truth has fair play, it will always prevail over falsehood.”

We agree with the standards espoused by The New York Times but wonder if itself has lived up to Ben Franklin’s ideals in its coverage of Brexit.

Using the Lexis-Nexis database, we coded all articles and Op-eds published in the New York Times between June 24 and July 7, 2016 (starting from the day after Brexit and ending when the Dallas shootings refocused public attention elsewhere). Of the 161 relevant articles, opinions, or news items, we find that:

  • 61% provided a “negative” coverage (highlight the negative consequences of Brexit for U.K., EU or the world; criticize politicians who campaigned for Brexit),
  • 32% provided a “balanced” coverage (suggest that the world is back to normal, present both the positive and negative aspects of Brexit), and
  • 7% provided a “positive coverage” (highlight the rationale for exit in positive light; make a positive case for policy reform at the level of EU or the world; report the perspective of common people on globalization, instead of dismissing them as misinformed, racist or xenophobic).

The dataset is available here:

There have been other instances of the alleged media bias of The New York Times. For example, its coverage of the Clinton-Sanders nomination contest has come under criticism.  For many, this reflected the pro-establishment “bias” of the New York Times. But more than a mere bias, there was an allegation that this newspaper edited an article documenting Sanders’ legislative achievements. This compelled the Times’ Public Editor to address the issue of “stealth editing.”  In fact, a similar issue has arisen in the context of editing an already published Op-ed of Michael Eric Dyson, What White America Fails to See, in the aftermath of Dallas shooting.

In 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote a famous book, Manufacturing Consent, in which they argued that, contrary to claims about a free press, the mass media in the United States had become a tool of the dominant institutions to carry out propaganda in support of the “system.” The Herman-Chomsky model might shed some light on how The New York Times has covered the Brexit vote. The New York Times has emerged as an important articulator of the “cosmopolitan” perspective and an important instrument of manufacturing consent in favor of globalization and manufacturing dissent against the forces which question it.

Democracy requires that those who control the levers of power, including mass media, should play fair. As an eminent newspaper, The New York Times ought to ask itself: has it played fair in covering the Brexit vote? Or has it become a partisan operative, as it accused CNN of turning into? The real threat to democracy may not come from government censorship but from the media outlets themselves that turn into partisan operatives instead of beacons of balanced discussion.