Today’s correspondence comes in three parts:
Part one: But you’re biased…
Accusations of bias, or the use of bias as a pejorative, in the realm of political discourse and the media is a more recent phenomenon than you might think. Using Google’s Ngram program to chart the use of the word ‘bias’, (figure 1), we can track its use in texts since 1800. In the figure we see three spikes: in 1823, 1883, and one far later in 1994. In the first two spikes, the word ‘bias’ is used in technical studies and academic literature, where the word is likely being used according to its scientific definition — i.e. a factor of an experiment which obscures the statistical accuracy of a study. However, when compared to the graph of ‘bias’ used specifically referring to the media, (figure 2), it becomes clear that this most recent spike in the years since 1994 is associated with journalism.
It is worth noting that Fox News Channel and MSNBC were both founded in 1996, in the midst of this massive increase of media being labeled as ‘biased’. It’s easy to see why. These networks are considered to be the corporate mouthpieces for the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. Their programming relies heavily on the punditry and goes light on the hard-hitting journalism — I think it’s safe to say the next Pentagon Papers won’t be broken by Chris Mathews. Are we convinced, then, that prior to the mid-nineties infusion of spectacle and perspective into journalism, the people who brought us the news had zero opinions? That their views operated completely separately from their journalism?
The answer is obviously that they aren’t separate. No matter how much Anderson Cooper refuses to vote and insists that it’s because he’s supposed to be an “objective” observer of politics, it’s a crock. At the end of the day, Cooper is still a gay man and an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune. If you believe he’s superman and doesn’t take his wealth into account when asking questions about tax policy, or his sexual orientation when covering marriage equality you’re smoking something, and I want some.
Now, the point of this section is not to trash-talk the Silver Fox. Anderson Cooper seems like a cool guy, and I’d be more than happy to sip scotch with him on his yacht. He is just a stand-in for journalists writ large. What I am saying is that there is a massive and unavoidable issue that must be established if any helpful or fulfilling dialogue about bias is going to transpire. Are you ready:
Everything is biased. You are biased. I am biased. NPR is biased. The New York Times and the Washington Post? Yep. Biased. Fox, CNN, and MSNBC go without saying.
Everything is biased, and that’s okay. This whole mess is an unfortunate result of misguided journalism professors — disclosure, I was a journalism major and I’m not anymore — who insist that the job of a journalist is to remain “objective” when there’s no such thing. We all have values and convictions, and ‘we all’ includes political journalists. Insisting that they abandon their values, or pretend to, is absurd and it’s how cheap rhetorical tricks like, “No way bro, you’re just biased,” creep into public discourse. No one would ever suggest that a beat reporter using the phrase ‘tragic murders’ is being biased against murder. It’s simply that most people happen to share the value that murders are tragic.
As consumers of current events, it is our responsibility to ask and double-check whether the facts of a story are accurate. Scrutinize claims. Cross-reference sources. Hell, prove somebody wrong if you can! But please, for the love of god, stop saying things are biased and thinking you just scored a huge rhetorical point. It’s embarrassing.
Part 2: Biased Media, and ‘Bubbles’
So what do we do, my wayward sons? God is dead, everything is meaningless, and no one is strictly-speaking ‘objective’. How are we to live in this contemptible world which is, yet again, resisting simplicity?
The answer is we have to become comfortable producing and consuming openly biased media. This is going to sound like a radical proposition to journalistic professionals and people who like to win arguments about politics with their friends, but there is no alternative. The seemingly noble enterprise of creating a more perfect and objective media is a farce. It would seem lovely if we could enact a sort of Plato’s Cave scenario and contrive a situation in which select people who have no knowledge of the political realm and thus were completely objective and unbiased provide our coverage of the news. But is that truly where we want to invest our trust? Do we really want to hand over the fourth estate to people with no opinions, perspective or values? I hope you’ll agree the answer is no. This illustrates the crux of our predicament as a society: we can’t allow the uneducated to lead the way in journalism, but anyone who is educated on the issues brings with them an entire life experience of values and beliefs about the world.
“But wait!” I can hear the well-intended reader exclaiming. “Why don’t we just insist on journalism that gives,” — wait for it — “BOTH SIDES?!” This is a common topic which hovers in the general vicinity of discussions of media bias. If we are defining bias as providing only one ‘side’ of an argument and not the other, this would seem like the obvious solution, right? And, in fact, the United States once required broadcasters to do this under what was known as the Fairness Doctrine, before President Ronald Reagan’s administration repealed it, clearing the way for Roger Ailes’ passion project: Fox News.
Beyond the Fairness Doctrine, we still see certain cable outlets attempt to uphold a sort of ‘both sides-ism’. CNN and to a lesser extent MSNBC regularly bring on guests with opposing views to duke it out — verbally — on all kinds of issues. However, this too is problematic. After all, what’s the middle ground on scientific fact? Should the CNNs and ABCs in the days of Galileo have presented ‘both sides’ of the earth being round or flat? Cable news regularly has guests on to debate ‘both sides’ of whether climate change exists — a scientist on the left side of the screen and on the right some sort of political organizer from the GOP. In the early 2000s, they would allow the same moronic debate about whether intelligent design should be taught in science class or not. All of this was done in an effort to appease conservatives and avoid being called the ‘liberal media’. Or, for my readership from the right — if you’ve made it this far — what about the cooky lefties who insist GMOs are going to kill us and vaccines cause autism? (And yes, I know I just both-side-ed myself. Shut up.) In effect, what media organizations are really doing by ‘giving both sides’ is providing cover for whoever is willing to lie the most.
The only way to make sense of the media environment is for people to shed the expectation of objectivity and embrace perspective. Media organizations like The Intercept, who are clear about their opposition to US imperialism and overseas wars, or The Young Turks who have gone so far as to give their program the tagline “Home of Progressives” are doing some formidable journalism, and they do it without trying to hide the ball about where they stand. Likewise, more right-leaning outlets like The Federalist, or The Daily Wire, with Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro, make no bones about their perspective and this approach helps audiences understand and interpret the information they are receiving.
The obvious objection to this conception of media is the oft’ used cliché about everybody being in their own ‘bubble’. If everyone is getting their news from people with an open political agenda that they agree with, we aren’t using the same facts… bla bla bla… breakdown in communication… etc. I understand the concern here. However, I submit that much of the ‘bubble’ phenomenon is a product of the obscuring of political agendas, rather than the disclosure of them.
The one thing that partisan media outlets all agree on is that their views are constantly under attack in the dreaded “Mainstream Media”. CNN hates Trump so they must be huge liberals and they’re lying about it; MSNBC is constantly hiring former Republican politicians and staffers to attack the left and they’re shills for corporate America; The New York Times is staffed by elitists who make huge amounts of money and have disdain for ordinary Americans — wait which side was that last one from? The trouble is that establishment media feels the need to hide the ball. They insist they have no values, perspective or emotions because they’re too professional for such trifling humanities. That’s what inflates bubbles. It isn’t the presence of perspective in journalism, it’s the denial that the biggest journalistic enterprises have any political skin in the game.
The utopia we should be shooting for is a media landscape where people are honest about their political values. If you’re a free-marketeer, you’re gonna cover the news with the underlying perspective that free markets are inherently good. If you’re a first-generation American, your views on immigration cannot be divorced from that lived experience. The goal should be to enrich the American ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ not by posing as some kind of news guru with access to absolute objective truth, but by media members acknowledging that they have a perspective and media consumers being able to take those perspectives into account as they attempt to inform themselves about the news of the day.
Part 3: Thanksgiving
It’s tense. You feel the strange guilt that comes from not knowing the names of people you’ve known your whole life. You’re pretty sure she’s your grandmother’s sister-in-law, but her name is like smoke from her long blue e-cigarette. Your anguish is momentarily assuaged by the announcement that it’s time to sit down. You know the turkey will be stereotypically dry, and you will strategically put as little of it on your paper plate as you’re capable of stomaching because anything left is guaranteed to be the subject of scrutiny by your aunt. Suddenly you hear it. Someone at the other end of this absurdly long table which sees use only three times a year has uttered his name. You know the one. The orange one. You enter the first stages of sudden cardiac death and try to remember something — anything — about your closest family members that could act as a release valve; a detour from the inevitable car-bomb parked between the peas and the cranberries. You insist you can’t get involved; that the meal can only be thirty minutes, less if you skip dessert. Your well-meaning grandfather attempts to dampen passions by suggesting that the people party to the argument — you haven’t a clue who they are because you’re studying the ostentatious patterns of the paper plate in front of you — are both wrong. It’s over. The train has no breaks and the bend is too near to avoid the inevitable. You have never been more thankful that you live far from these people you love the most…
For many of us, the news media is a vehicle for combat preparation. Facts are ammunition to be deployed against those closest to us. We are reliant on the credibility of facts, and their sources, not for empirical reasons, but for intensely personal ones: when you argue with the people you love, you must attack their information, because you cannot attack them.
There are plenty of people who will say that our society has become too political and that the subsequent bifurcation of our social fabric is a sign of a culture in decay. I wholeheartedly disagree. As a culture, Americans have been chronically agnostic about politics for decades. ‘Politics and religion’. The things we don’t talk about. Hell, it’s an idiom at this point. I feel our abdication of this part of life has left us crippled, as a culture, in our ability to discuss matters of political importance. And it is this communication handicap that makes political discussions with our friends and loved ones so tense, painful, and fraught. However, the problem is not that we are too combative in our political discourse, but we seem to insist on arguing the facts of a story, rather than advocating for our own values.
In parts 1 and 2 of this piece I have repeatedly referenced the values and beliefs of journalists and other media members for the purposes of examining how their views ‘bias’ their coverage of the news. I submit that the reason we, as a culture, are so suspicious of the motives and beliefs of our journalist class is that we ourselves expend large amounts of energy to obscure our own political values, attitudes, and beliefs.
Now is the moment where I, your correspondent, must lead by example: My political sensibilities lie firmly on the left. My values center around democracy — in the workplace as well as in government — and human welfare and dignity over, say, things like Lockean property rights and the preservation of traditional social roles between race and gender, and so on. This is a painfully reductive summary of my political bend.
I include this disclosure because my opinion — and what follows is my opinion, and bears no reflection of The Sideline Observer — is that many people in the United States prefer to argue about the facts, and whether a major news source is ‘biased’ because they hold political values which they know their neighbors and families would find abhorrent. They prefer to question the ‘bias’ of a verifiable fact like climate change not because they have a genuine scientific reason to doubt it, but because they know their children would be horrified if they openly stated that they do not care what happens to the world after they are dead. So long as their lives are more convenient in the short term, they’re happy to abide complete inaction on carbon emissions. It is easier to imply some political bias skewed the statistics that consistently show immigrants commit less crime than native-born citizens, than to state openly in a discussion with people whose opinions you value that you feel uncomfortable with so many people of a different color moving to your country.
This lies at the heart of why ‘bias’ in the media is such an inflammatory issue: we in America find it hard to have honest conversations about what our values are because we fear the effect such disclosure might have on our relationships. Thus, in the realm of politics, the argument moves from “you are wrong” to “your information is wrong” and so begins a fight about which news is more ‘biased’. It won’t help. It can’t help because, for the most part, the problem isn’t with the media, it’s with ourselves. We have to become more comfortable sharing what we believe, and learn how to discuss our values with the people who love us. So let me go first: I am a leftist. When I cover and write about the world, I have a point of view. Many people who I love dearly will ardently disagree. And that’s fine. I still love them. I hope they still love me too, and read what I publish, even if it is biased.