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October 24, 2003

Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, part one

Denouncing bias in the media has become a dumb instrument. The cases keep coming. The charges keep flying. Often the subject--journalism--disappears.

The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado. I always admired that machine, but I noticed that nobody paid any attention to it until one of those known, heavy, out-front shoplifters came into the place… but when that happened, everybody got so excited that the thief had to do something quick, like buy a green popsicle or a can of Coors and get out of the place immediately.

— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

Listen up, everyone engaged in the you’re biased style of press criticism.

Hear this, those who, in civic-spirited fashion, have formed groups left and right, here and there to document bias in the press. I mean you and you and you and you. But also you and you and you and you and you too.

This is for all the booming voices in the media heard complaining about bias in the media, as well as the smaller but no less committed voices, outside the media, complaining about bias (also called spin) inside the media— including the comments section of any number of posts at PressThink and probably a thousand other weblogs too, where arguments well known are even now being tapped out to harangue and provoke some other nonbeliever.

This is also for the good authors who have taken up media bias at book length, and everyone who likes to argue about those books—some quite good, some terrible—and everyone who likes to shout at bias before blatant instances of bias just seen on television. (Know anyone like that?)

This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the “we’re fair and balanced, you’re not” crowd, wherever I may have located you.

All within ear of reason, I have six questions. In tomorrow’s posting, I’ll give two answers:


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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

See part two of this post, which is my attempt to offer some answers.

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, answers my six questions here.

Courtesy of Daniel Dezner, here is Brian C. Anderson, writing from the Right, “We’re not losing the culture wars anymore.” Provocative and smart. Calls for adjustment in the bias critique. Click on Drezner for his very lively comments thread.

Bill Steigerwald of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a libertarian, sent me this link to his September 14th column: “Can we please stop this senseless book war about political bias in the news media?”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 24, 2003 2:06 PM