Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Column 68 - Media Bias

The debate over media bias probably began the day the first newspaper was published, and has escalated ever since. The modern version of this debate could be said to have begun just after Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt declared that the press of that day was “200% Republican,” but I think it’s safe to say that the issue is more alive today than ever before. A Google search under “media bias” returned 1.9 million hits today, and I suspect that number will be greater tomorrow.

I think there are a couple of significant problems with the notion of media bias. The first is the idea of “the media,” as if there were some organized, more or less coherent body in the way we can talk about “the government” or “the Catholic Church.” In point of fact, there is no “media” in that sense. In using this term we take all the various forms of public discourse – newspapers, television, radio, movies, the Internet, and more, and lump them together. This forms what Kurt Vonnegut called a granfalloon – a group that is thrown together artificially but has no internal connection or cohesion. To lump together such diverse characters and expressions as The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Fox News, and Slate.com makes as much sense as it does to talk about “Catholics,” or “Hispanics,” or “Republicans” as if all the members of that group thought alike.

The second problem is with the notion of bias. Bias, like beauty, is always in the view of the beholder. I once met David Duke, then Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and he assured me that he was not prejudiced against anyone – it was only those who misunderstood him who called him biased! In point of fact, each of us comprises intellectually and emotionally a point of view from which we see the world. This point of view is unique and not duplicable, and has us see the world in a certain way that, from another’s view will look biased to the extent that it differs from their view.

Finally, we have the notion that the media should be “objective.” No matter how much we may try to correct it, human communication always takes place in a context, and bias is a word that identifies the collective influences that comprise this context. Modern journalists, to the extent that they subscribe to the ethic of objectivity, attempt to correct for bias by (a) distinguishing facts from opinions and (b) attempting to present all points of view fairly. Journalists who fail to do this can be described as biased, and to the extent that they deny this bias or attempt to pass it off as objective reporting as untruthful. This applies, of course, to news reporting. Columnists, editorialists, and op-ed writers have no such obligation and publish their views as such.

So why the debate? Studies of “the media” have shown that, by and large, bias in news reporting, where it exists, is about equally divided between the left and the right, and that for the most part even the most editorially positional publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are pretty unbiased in their news pages. Yet both the Right and the Left continue to decry media prejudice against their side, and the Right in particular has done a good job of selling the idea that “the media” are controlled by the Left, despite the fact that the vast majority of talk shows, etc. are Rightist in their views.

I think that making an issue of media bias, no matter who is doing it, shows a nasty cynicism about the audience for the accusation. The communication is something like “I’m smart enough to see this bias and you’re not, so I’m going to point it out to you.” It is this disrespect for the voting public that has me not listen to talk shows on either side of the political spectrum. The media will report as they do, and the public is smart enough to sort out the nonsense from the gunsmoke. “Media bias” is a non-issue unless we assume that the voting public is too stupid to be able to tell, and we need the likes of O’Reilly and Franken to enlighten us. Those who decry media bias (conveniently ignoring the fact that they themselves are part of the media) are, in my view, arrogant elitists who deserve to be ignored.

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