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October 25, 2003

Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate, part two

The charges keep flying. But often the subject--journalism--disappears. Now there's a Party of Peace in the bias wars. They favor perspective, and they're telling us something. This is part two. Part one is here.

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.

Answers (Questions for bias critics, click here.)

How can a debate that’s become kind of dumb be conducted with more grace and intelligence? This is a hard question.

When in doubt, look for a distinction to draw. I have two, and they are my only answers. If we get into the habit of making these distinctions, we might become a little smarter about the things people talk about when they talk about bias. The first distinction is from the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain. In Democracy on Trial, (1995) she writes:

Education is never outside a world of which politics—how human beings govern and order a way of life in common—is a necessary feature… Education always reflects a society’s views of what is excellent, worthy, and necessary. These reflections are not cast in cement like so many foundational stones; rather, they are refracted and reshaped over time as definitions, meanings and purposes change through democratic contestation. In this sense education is political, but being political is different from being directly and blatantly politicized— being made to serve interests and ends imposed by militant groups.

See the parallel? The news and the act of putting it together are “political,” in the sense she means: never outside a world in which we struggle with how to govern and order our common life. This is not how many journalists see it, (they prefer apolitical status) but that’s because they’re not getting help from Elshtain’s distinction— between recognizing that journalism is always political in the broad sense (a good thing), and allowing it to become overly politicized (a bad thing).

Take the distinction over into press criticism. It too needs to be political; that makes it interesting, worth conducting. But the critique suffers when it’s politicized.

Despite the remarkable incorporation of the press into our political system—a fact that immediately strikes observers from other countries when they land in Washington—we still have a press that officially claims a position above and outside politics. This I have called the View From Nowhere. Leonard Downie, editor of the Washington Post, is especially clear on this point. He doesn’t vote (in order to keep his mind open), and has described himself as an “outsider to my society.” Not many journalists take it that far. They prefer softer versions: We don’t join the parade because our job is to report on the parade, and things like that. (See this transcript with Downie where he manages to say nothing, over and over.)

By now, the claim to be seated nowhere in politics strikes just about everyone as absurd, including intelligent journalists who know the world to be more complicated, the subject more nuanced, than official press think ever allows. Yet official doctrine matters, not for being the smartest, but for being the safest press think available. The claim to have no politics has produced a rowdy style of hyper-politicized criticism, the intensity of which pushes journalists back into the View From Nowhere, looking out at angry crowds. Or they tune the whole clamor out.

Which then angers critics more, (“they’ll never admit it!”) leading eventually, and sometimes instantly, to a discussion that is purely politicized— cured of ideas. That point is reached when there is nothing said about the press that is not a reflex in the speaker’s politics. It’s a strange effect. Aha, bias! is the easiest, most popular—we might say natural—path into a subject like, “what’s wrong in journalism today?” And if you keep going on that path, your subject—journalism today—disappears. There’s only another empty argument about politics. I see it sometimes at PressThink comments: a zero degree in press criticism. You’ve seen it too. This tells us there is something wrong in the engine of the debate; it keeps shorting out. (By the way, dialogues of the deaf are not harmless. They make more people deaf.)

Second distinction: Politicians represent the people. Journalists don’t. They don’t need to reflect the people, either, including the percentage who are red state and the percentage blue. We have other forums for that, and if they don’t work it’s up to us, not the press, to fix them. We don’t need the press doing what Congress and town council do already, a point on which conservatives, liberals, moderates, libertarians—everyone—can agree.

But while journalists do not represent the people, they do represent the public, and that is not the same thing. The people can settle matters by voting in and recalling their leaders. But the public never settles anything; it talks some more, it marches on, it joins in debate and hopefully it learns.

To represent the public is to defend the interests of a conversation that is going on all the time in an open society. Public conversation needs defenders; it needs an original source of information, as well as forums where it can happen. It needs open government, good questions, honest experts, good staging and lighting, quality sound and a hundred other things journalists try quite hard to supply you with. Here they are representing you, but not in the way a town council does, more in the way a public library does.

So next time you get mad at the media for not representing the people, look for the ways that it does represent your interest, in the sense of furthering the public’s conversation. Which, as James W. Carey says, is “ours to conduct.” This might lead you to strange verdicts about a given work of journalism, like: you know, it’s biased all the way through, but it makes me think.

Or: I know how she got there.

Or the even more effective: I know where this is coming from, so it’s fine.

Time to recognize that this attitude—which I see more and more in comments here—is not just a brief for the go ahead, become partisan press. Quite apart from that debate, (should the others follow Fox?) people who take the “I know where you’re coming from” approach are, in my view, the Party for Peace in the long running media bias wars. They are saying it doesn’t matter. What you’re calling a bias, and doing data about, they call perspective, which can be lame and stupid or subtle and good.

Those who favor a perspectival press make bias conversation a lot more interesting, I know that. As they argue their “side,” it’s clear how and why the Party of Peace was born in the war about bias, and these people come in all political stripes. If you favor a perspectival press, you give up the right to complain that Jones the Journalist didn’t network you and your view into his account. Are there people who won’t give up that right, no matter what? There are. I think this is something that bothers a lot of people about the bias wars.

Yet bias criticism—much of which is conducted responsibly, I should say—is easily the most popular form of press think. Anyone can see that. It’s also become populist form, a container of passions primarily ideological, a trend harder to interpret. I try to treat the you’re biased perspective as no better than professional press think, but no worse. Both have broad strengths, both can get pretty dug in, which is why the drumbeats have grown louder.

So what are my two answers? Get into the habit of making these two distinctions:

One: Treat the press as political, and argue about its politics. On the whole, this is a good thing, necessary to a free press. But when you argue about the press and its politics—which we should do—things cannot get politicized. And when they do, there is emptiness.

Two: The press is not supposed to heed the people. It’s supposed to feed and sustain the public.

Maybe it’s time for journalists and everybody else to go back to the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado, where Hunter S. Thompson looked in on objectivity and said to himself: cameras do that, I can’t.

Got answers to these six Q’s? Hit the comment button.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 25, 2003 9:28 PM