Unbiasing the Media

Fair & Balanced graphic used in 2005

Whatever happened to it? (Image via Wikipedia)

After getting involved in a long discussion on The Peking Duck about journalism and bias, I realize that we too often miss the point about the role of the media in American politics. The problem with media in America is not that it is either liberal (as some conservatives claim) or that it is the handmaiden of the plutocrats who defend the status quo (as radicals will attest.)

Rather, the real issue is that the largest and most prestigious institutions of the American Fourth Estate have surrendered even a pretense of balance. Seemingly unsatisfied with the mission to investigate, inform, and analyze so as to enable the public to make intelligent choices, publishers and station chiefs have decided that their media must now also be advocates. Apparently, it is not enough to invorm our decisions on policy, they now feel obliged to make those decisions themselves and then convince us of their rightness.

I am no naif: throughout American history, the owners of media have taken public stances on political issues. One only need mention the name “Hearst” to invoke that sordid tradition. But not since the phrase “yellow journalism” became a pejorative have U.S. media so thoroughly abandoned the quest for objectivity in the name of advocacy.

In his landmark book Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means to America, media critic William McGowan documented the beginning of this shift from the accession of  Arthur Ochs “Pinch” Sulzberger, Jr. to the publisher’s chair at the venerable paper. The Times had never been anyone’s idea of a political lapdog, but its very motto –  to report the news “without fear or favor – embodied a commitment to balance that was the goal even when its reportage fell short of the ideal. When Pinch took over in 1992, he decided to turn the paper into an instrument of political change, to “enhance society.” McGowan decides this was the beginning of the paper’s long decline from its perch as the exemplar of the American brand of objective journalism.

In fact, it was the beginning of an even greater decline. Once the bearer of journalistic standards surrendered its ethics, what could the rest of the profession do but follow? Arguably, this gave license to Fox News to stake its claim to the right of the political spectrum when it was established four years later. More recently, CNN has also taken on the mantle of activist, establishing its “Freedom Project” not only to call attention to the problem of human trafficking around the world, but to actively crusade against it. From CNN’s site:

Since its launch in March, the CNN Freedom Project has helped shine a spotlight on all aspects of modern-day slavery and spurred action from governments, corporations, and individuals. Nearly 2,ooo people have come out of slavery, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the hundreds of stories broadcast on air an published online.

An admirable and laudable cause, to be sure, and meaningful results. But one is left with the nagging question: is this the proper role of journalism? Who decides where and for what the journalists campaign? And at what point does this subordination of reportage to advocacy put the Fourth Estate on the path to utter politicization? At what point does Fox News become an adjunct of the Tea Party, and The New York Times of the Democratic Leadership Council?

In becoming advocates, political actors, right when America most needs informants, the media have abandoned its especial place in the American polity. We do not need more advocacy – there is advocacy aplenty in the modern infosphere. What we need is information and analysis delivered as wrung of bias, intent, or demagoguery as humanly possible.

The only systems that need media to make decisions on our behalf, to advocate, to sell politics and policy, are fascism, communism, and feudalism. Democracy has no need for the media to serve as propagandists for political interests, regardless of how admirable the bias. Democracy needs informed citizens. If the media forgo the role of information and analysis for advocacy, does democracy still need the media? Or do we need something else to fill its abandoned role?

Let us forgo the name-calling, the complaints of liberal or conservative bias. There is ample bias in the American media on both sides. Instead, let us campaign for a return to the vaunted standards of journalism that expunge bias in the name of fact-finding, reportage, and analysis.

2 thoughts on “Unbiasing the Media

  1. What follows is meant to be my attempt at an explanation, and not to serve as an excuse. I agree there is considerable “bias” in “media”. I do not use those terms in a pejorative sense, but merely as observation. We are long past the era where we get our news at 6 o’clock, or with the morning paper. Nor do media companies only provide it to us in such pre-ordained aliquots. Yet there is only so much “news” to go around. You’re not going to be able to fill 24 hours of broadcast with “news”…there is just not that much material that is newsworthy. What you get then, on cable news and elsewhere, is snippets of “news” sandwiched between substantial amounts of filler. So I think it is important to make a distinction between when a media outlet is reporting “news”, where they should be held to the journalistic standard of factual accuracy as well as balanced reporting, and when they are providing a synthesized opinion, much like what you would get in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. Where there is undoubtedly “bias” is in those opinion pieces…but what you’re getting in opinion pieces is none other than the writer’s opinion. To call “bias” there is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So on the part of the consumer of “news”, not unlike those of other entities, the principle of caveat emptor needs to be invoked. If you consume someone else’s opinion, you need to do so with your eyes open, and an understanding of what you’re buying.

  2. I emphatically agree with the previous comment. The question is, “Do viewers really know what they are consuming?” Too many times, I have had conversations with people who represent that the “O’Reilly Factor and programs of that ilk are, “the news.”

    The challenge is to create a greater awareness of verification-based reporting versus interpretative journalism. I’m developing a tool — a media bias measurement system — that may help with that in some small way.

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