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October 30, 2003

Has Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate? A Man of the Left Responds to PressThink's Questions

"Any leftist who stops to think about the matter would probably agree: the media are too liberal, indeed!" And that means a genuine left perspective is left out. Brian Dominick takes bias apart, from his side of the table.

A reader writes:

My name is Brian Dominick, and I’m an online news editor who has mostly been involved with explicitly Leftist media projects over the years, including ZNet. I am currently working on a progressive news media project called The NewStandard, which releases in December, 2003. I thought I’d take a minute to answer your questions, since it seems so far only Right Wing respondents have provided answers.

PressThink: 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?

Brian Dominick: Of course everyone is biased. Everyone has a perspective. We prioritize facts based on something. We put quotes in a certain order and allow for them to be a certain length— based on something. For that matter, we seek out quotes from various parties, instead of other various parties, based on something.

Those “somethings” are in fact bias, even if it isn’t our own, personal bias. It might be our newspaper’s bias, our editor’s bias, or it might be our journalism school’s bias. But there has to be bias, else news would present all the details, no matter how minor, about every story that ever comes across every journalist’s or editor’s desk, no matter how irrelevant or unimportant.

A journalist is first and foremost a filter— the amount of information (the amount of sources) excluded from a story always exceeds, exponentially, the amount of information/sources included in the story. The same goes for choosing what stories to cover in the first place. That determination is based on something, and that something is a bias. Or, you can call it whatever you wish (criteria, standards, etc.), but whatever that is, that’s what is meant by bias, if the term bias is to be useful to us at all.

The debate shouldn’t be about whether news media are biased, but about what the biases are, what drives them, and how they should best be exposed to the public.

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?

Brian Dominick:Whether the media are too liberal or too conservative might make for interesting debate, but I agree it is not going to prove anything, or convince anyone. Stories and specific trends should be thoroughly analyzed and exposed, but I see little value in pointing out who has more influence, and so forth.

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?

Brian Dominick: There is no objective “bad” or “good.” The problem with bias in media is not that it exists, since it is inherent. A bias that can be called “good” to one reader will be “bad” to another. Maybe I want a pro-corporate bias in the news, because I am a stockholder or an executive. Why shouldn’t I have news with that bias? At the same time, a blue collar worker might wish to see another bias in the news. If I am a Christian conservative, I will probably want to see a conservative, Christian bias in the news. Why shouldn’t I? As for those who don’t already have biases, where are these people?

The problem with bias, instead, is that it is not stated. News media should be up front about their bias, but they almost never are. All news media outlets should list their influences, be they ideological or institutional. It is probably the case that both the Leftist and Rightist critics of news media are right — and they are saying almost entirely different things. (Mind you, when I say Left I mean left of liberal. You’ll almost never hear liberals complaining about the news media because, frankly, it’s just about right for them much of the time, with the exceptions of Fox News, The New York post and AM talk radio, which pretty much no one contends are “leftist”or even liberal.)

The Left says there are institutional pressures—mostly having to do with corporate ownership and sponsorship, plus affluent audience bases in order to sell advertisements at higher premiums, etc.—that inexorably push all media in rightward direction. Leftists say the pressure is on corporate media outlets to be pro-capitalism, pro-markets and pro-profits, as well as tailored toward upper middle income brackets and above, or extremely massive popular markets below those brackets. How could they not be?

Reliant as it is on wealthy stockholders, sponsors and underwriters and their markets, how could the media be anything but generally favorable to those interests? Corporations and the government would not sponsor news media hostile to their interests — they would fire any producers or editors who did not toe a pro-corporate line in the newsroom.

Meanwhile, the Right points out that most journalists are liberals, at least socially, and that is almost certainly true. They keep much media coverage to the left of conservatism, but even if they were so inclined, their owners and sponsors keep them from pushing anywhere to the left of liberalism, which has historically proven unsafe territory for the status quo of any society. That’s why on so many stories that have only a modest effect on the corporate bottom line, such as gay rights and abortion, there is often a discernible liberal bias in the mainstream. If these stories aren’t threatening to profits and market share, let the reporters have some leeway. Throw them a bone.

This all generally maintains a liberal bias at many institutions — a bias that can be mislabeled as “leftist” and decried by the far Right — which just so happens to perfectly serve elite interests. While the media are cow-towing to corporations (largely by being corporations themselves, remember!), conservatives are making largely convincing cases to the public (and using extraordinary funding to do this), that the media are something those critics call “leftist.” By proving that the media are in fact largely liberal—as if liberal equals leftist—they convince a great many Americans that the media are too liberal, even fringe. Any leftist who stops to think about the matter would probably agree: the media are too liberal, indeed! Oddly, about half the recognized political spectrum lies to the left of liberal.

What is really strange is how this debate always boils down to the bias of journalists, which puts even decent journalists on the defensive, instead of about the bias of institutions. Corporate conglomerates, unprecedented in their massiveness and social power, are behind the news we consume every day. Yet somehow we manage to get distracted into this debate about whether the journalists themselves are biased?

There’s an 800 pound gorilla in the room with the reporter, but we focus on the reporter. Is it really conceivable that these giant corporations are leaving their public interface—their power to influence the public and write history—in the hands of the reporters at the very bottom of the hierarchy? Are we really so naive as to think corporations wouldn’t in any way take advantage of the opportunity to use such power in their own interests?

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?

Brian Dominick. Anyone who would answer question (3) that way is indeed a fool, to be sure. The bias toward “truth” is a joke. The bias toward “objectivity” and “neutrality” is laughable. Have a bias, run with it, but for god’s sake be open about it! Say, “We are sponsored by this, this, this and that corporation. If we (1) upset them or hurt their profits or (2) stop providing them a marketable audience with disposable income, our own profits will be affected and our stockholders will let us know in no uncertain terms. Additionally, our parent company owns the following companies. Those companies are affected by public opinion regarding the following stories, most of which we won’t tell you unless they favor our sister company, and thus our collective profit margin.”

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?

Brian Dominick: That would indeed be confused and unfair. Instead, we should embrace bias and be up front about it. Many of the “out” partisan presses freely admit their biases. The Nation and The Progressive are up front about theirs. The National Review readily calls itself conservative, and Fox News all but comes out and admits its conservatism. It is when these publications pretend that they are “fair and balanced” that it gets kind of bizarre. But it’s far less despicable than the actions of, say, the New York Times, which has a newsroom full of liberals and a host of sponsors that reads like a who’s-who of the Fortune 500, and still insists it is unbiased, fair and balanced. What such institution could manage not to be liberal or conservative, but instead provide a balanced story from all viewpoints (Left, Right and center)?

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?

Brian Dominick: A question back to you: is it your contention that there are media sources that don’t ever spin? Or is it just that spin biases toward all sides variously and eventually, so it all equals out?

If spin is inevitable, why not insist that its motivations be transparent?

If spin is just a by-product of telling news stories, and eventually various spins achieve “balance”… that sounds like a theory based on blind faith. Or have you developed a way to measure it and thus prove and ensure that spin balances out in the end?

A perfect example is the current debate over whether the news media are focusing only on the “negative” aspects of the Iraq story, purposely ignoring the “positive” things, like the “successes” the US occupation forces have achieved in “rebuilding” Iraq. Well, let’s assume for a moment that the “rebuilding” stories are every bit as plentiful as the “terror and chaos” stories, but just aren’t being covered. Let’s say there are 4 “rebuilding” stories for every one “continuing chaos” story, if only reporters will pay attention.

The real question is, are those stories newsworthy? I don’t recall in the pre-war period, the Right complaining that the Western media was only focusing on the bad things Saddam Hussein had done, to the complete exclusion of any mention that the Iraqi government had ever done anything positive at all, like ensuring its citizens were fed, were literate, and so forth. But that’s understandable — we don’t report when a government does do something that happens to be basic, human decency, something that’s entirely expected of it, and legally required of it in the case of an occupying force.

Yet the Right is screaming bloody murder that the media are not reporting every case of the US Army Corps of Engineers rebuilding a school (that the US bombed), or providing medicine to the Iraqi people (quietly prevented for 12 years under sanctions), etc. There of course have been 1000 times as many stories about these kinds of “heartening” events under US occupation as there were about Hussein doing the same things when he was in power. But why, really, should there be any? The Right wants coverage of US troops doing something that is expected of them, but it does not want to see highlighted anything that could resemble failure or inadequacy.

At the same time, the Left wants doesn’t want any “positive” stories like that presented at all, because it doesn’t help the Left’s case that the motivations behind the war were cynical. It doesn’t disprove the case, in the slightest, but it doesn’t help the case.

So there’s the liberal bias. What you will not hear or see in the mainstream media, of course, are many substantial stories speculating about the institutional motivations of the government or military with regard to the situation more generally: the leftist theories. Someone — maybe a reporter, maybe an editor, maybe a publisher or producer — filtered that out. Call it bias, call it criteria, call it standards, but it is liberal, not leftist. It would be nice if they admitted the bias. They are welcome to it, as long as it’s transparent and people still want it.

For the debate so far:

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)
No, Media Bias is Not a Dumb Debate, Says Bias Hunter (Tim Graham, Media Research Center, responds from the conservative side.)

And the comments sections at those posts.

Bill Moyers has important things to add on the bias debate.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 30, 2003 7:14 AM