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October 24, 2003

No, Media Bias Is Not a Dumb Debate, Says Bias Hunter

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, decided to answer my six questions. Hmmm.

Comments on Graham’s responses? You know what to do.

1.) If you walk up to a journalist with: “did you know you’re biased?” by far the most likely response from that person will be: actually, you’re saying that because you’re biased. Does that strike you as a sensible conversation, worth continuing?

Tim Graham: Yes. As you state, objectivity is a method, not an innate human quality. We often have to explain that we are well aware of our biases, but that does not disqualify us from the bias debate. We are ombudsmen for the conservative movement, trying to make our case to receptive, fairness-seeking journalists and citizens as well as to our “base.”

PressThink: 2.) If, aware of this response, you decide you need evidence, and so produce the many cases of bias you and cohort have found, then you ought to be aware that people who disagree entirely with your point of view—opponents, let’s call them—are doing the same thing, piling up cases, so that your cases can be piled next to their cases, and both piles can be shoved at news providers. The truth is in there somewhere. Maybe. But does it seem likely to you that it will be found and feared?

Tim Graham: Yes. It would be easy to dismiss all these studies as contradictory and pointless. But if you crawl into a series of them, you can see the differing methodologies and perhaps grant points to both sides. FAIR says too many generals in the soup. MRC refines by asking what did the generals actually say? Did they agree on everything? What if the general runs for president on the Democratic side? Both can be right. FAIR hates the media describing U.S. forces as “our” side. MRC hates the media accepting the enemy’s claims (of civilian casualties or whatever) and both are right, and whether you think these tactics matter depends on your POV.

PressThink: 3.) Forgetting about all that, suppose you succeed in showing that here, on a key issue we care about, the media was very clearly biased, not once or twice, but in a broad and persistent pattern, which you have documented so well we must grant the claim: yes, there is bias in the media and it’s getting bad. Would you then be able to tell me what kind of bias is good?

Tim Graham: Good question. The soft spot for any ideological media critic is to ask this. Favoring conservatives would be great for America, Mr. Rosen! Would I complain about that? No, I’d leave that to FAIR. But I would grant a point to FAIR if there were a conservative bias (as in yes, they did say “our” troops, Naureckas.) Our role is to raise questions and examples of liberal bias as the news cycle unfolds.

PressThink: 4.) Permit me to answer for you. Chances are you won’t tell me what kind of media bias is good for journalists to show— even though there’s nothing to stop you from speculating about it. Instead, you will prefer something like, “give me journalists who will give me the news, tell me the truth, without all that spin.” Which is exactly what most journalists want and claim to be doing, albeit imperfectly. They claim to be reporting objectively, without fear or favor, fighting the spin with facts they can verify. Is it interesting to you, is it at all relevant, that you both want the same thing?

Tim Graham: I believe that some journalists want to be fair. I also believe that some journalists know what fairness is and reject it in favor of bias for the “good” cause — electing Clinton, preserving abortion, what have you. When Peter Jennings describes Republicans in a promo as preparing “the worst attack on the environment in 25 years,” he’s not being scrupulous. He’s making a campaign ad.

PressThink: 5.) “Ha!” you are likely to say. (Or someone you know says it.) “Their objectivity is a myth, no one can be completely objective, least of all these guys.” You have the pile of studies to show it. Or someone does. But wait: now you have just admitted that what you wanted two sentences ago, “the news without all that spin,” is, in fact, impossible. Objectivity is a myth, you recall that. Don’t these attitudes—wanting from journalists what is also impossible for journalists—seem somehow confused or least unfair?

Tim Graham: I’d like more of that objective method, more of that earnest attempt at offering both sides what they believe are their most important, well-articulated points. You don’t do that by casting the pro-life movement as “creeping to the edge of bloody fanaticism,” Jane Pauley.

PressThink: 6.) Liberal spin. Corporate spin. Texas spin. Zionist spin. Republican spin. Hollywood spin. American spin. Anti-American spin. We want it out, out, out. Spin, that’s bad. But critics smart enough to detect spin are smart enough to see—and in fact, they do see—that claiming, “they’re spinning!” has itself become a form of spin, a popular one, which would seem to throw spin detection, never a clear cut thing, into total incoherence. Does that bother you, or is it only my spin?

Tim Graham: By now, merely every political argument can be dismissed as a “spin.” But “spin” to me (and to most) is a term people use to describe something meant to persuade that’s a little short on the honesty meter. Media critics can be portrayed as “spin” artists by that definition. (I complained about undercovered Clinton scandals and now complain about overcovered Bush scandals, if we want to skim the surface.) Our job is to point out when “spin” is deployed against our leaders and ideas — how the homeless vanish in Democratic administrations and reappear for the GOP, for example. Raising the idea of media critic “spin” is like raising my biases — you can start a discussion with it, but the argument ought to be over analyzing the content.

Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, part one (Questions for bias critics)
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, part two (My Answers)
Has Media Bias Become a Dumb Debate? A Man of the Left Responds (Brian Dominick)

And the comments sections at those posts.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 24, 2003 6:15 PM