Wednesday, May 02, 2012


"A big part of the conversation on cable is [people] telling you how the rest of the media is getting the story wrong"

Protecting Obama
Recently in the Washington Post, Paul Farhi wrote a piece entitled "Public has its own biases about the media." Since that first went up, the title has been changed to "How biased are the media, really?" because apparently the initial headline struck people the wrong way. Under either headline, Farhi writes:
But have the media really become more biased? Or is this a case of perception trumping reality?

In fact, there’s little to suggest that over the past few decades news reporting has become more favorable to one party. That’s not to say researchers haven’t found bias in reporting. They have, but they don’t agree that one side is consistently favored or that this favoritism has been growing like a pernicious weed.
Now, clean off your monitor. That's not necessarily wrong - the legacy media probably hasn't gotten significantly more biased toward Democrats in the last 20 years. What's changed is how shameless they have become about it.

Its one thing to show a slant in your reporting and another to show that slant in sycophantic, slobbering worship. Both are biased, but one is more outrageously, offensively so. So the degree of bias may have changed but the presence hasn't. The legacy media is, on the whole, no more opposed to Republicans and supportive of Democrats today than it was in, say, 1992. They just express it differently.

However, that's not what Paul Farhi means. He thinks there never was much and there still isn't. His explanation for why just about everyone but hard core partisan leftists see bias? The existence of competition. Honestly, that's what it all boils down to.

Sure, he gives several different possible reasons but they all add up to "back when we were the only game in town people didn't grumble so much." Here are his arguments:
  1. The media landscape has changed.
  2.  There are more watchdog groups focused on rooting out media bias.
  3. In the public’s mind, “the news media” encompasses the kitchen sink.
  4. We know more and can second-guess.
  5. People believe their preferred news sources are objective and fair, while the other guy’s are biased.
Now all of these things are factually correct, and they all do help people identify bias, whether true or not. For example, the media landscape has definitely changed - the new media is out there in sources such as talk radio, blogs, and websites. Social media spreads word of events like wildfire. And people do tend to trust favored news sources more than others. That would be why those news sources are favored, its sort of begging the question to point that out.

But if you look closely at all of his arguments, they really come down to this:
  1. We have competition.
  2. That competition questions us.
  3. The competition isn't real news.
  4. People won't just trust us any more because of competition
  5. People prefer our competition.
Now I understand that someone in a dying business might be a bit bitter about the situation they're in, and certainly any old news guy back from the 70s probably finds today's situation very frustrating. Back then they could run any old thing and people would hardly question them, let alone doubt. They just couldn't get any sort of competing data, so they had to just trust the news.

Being a reporter then was great, there was no Newsbusters out there to mock your mistakes and point out your blatant contradictions and bias. If you said something idiotic, it would be stored on microfilm or back copies in the library and nobody would remember. If you wrote something in the Blatt's Hollow Courier, nobody outside that area would read it. So you could get things pretty wrong or even deliberately false and nobody was the wiser, except those directly affected. What were they to do, write a letter to the editor?

It isn't that people do not have biases, we all do. It isn't that we don't tend to favor news sources which favor that bias, we tend to. It isn't even that people will take opinion pieces and treat them as factual reports, that's quite common. He's technically right in all those parts. The problem with his argument is that all of it is about how they used to be trusted because they were the only game in town.

That doesn't argue against bias it argues against the ability of people to perceive bias. Certainly people see bias where there isn't any, I take pains to point that out when I see it happening - most of my series on media bias was about how things weren't really bias at all. To be fair, I noted that most cases of false bias are due to incompetence and other bad things, but still: not bias.

The thing is, most people are willing to admit they have a bias, that they see things one way and that's their opinion and understanding of the world. Certainly people will be very confident and even strident in their opinions, you wouldn't hold that opinion if you didn't think it was true, but most recognize that they are on the right or left, and that there are others on the other side. Too many people on the left - especially in mainstream establishment left like academia and news media - don't have that accurate self perception.

They don't think they have one of many political or worldview choices, they think they are simply realists. The "reality-based community" as one pundit tried to put it a few years ago. They don't see differing opinions as being mistaken or alternate possibilities, but as being just crazy. They don't see themselves as being biased or left wing, they think they are moderate and normal. This is just how it is, and if you disagree, you're a radical.

ProstitutionThat's why they think President Obama is "more conservative than Reagan" or not a socialist. That's why they think someone who is on the right isn't just wrong or showing a difference of opinion but crazed, dangerous, radical, and extremist. Its partly why they were so extreme in their reaction to the Tea Party movement and embraced the Occupy movement (other than just rank political posturing). The Tea Party was full of crazies, possibly dangerous, a source of fear. The Occupy guys are rambunctious and youthful, but perfectly reasonable and right.

So when someone like that examines the news, they don't - and perhaps cannot - see bias, they just see good reporting. Of course Sarah Palin is a dangerous idiot who must be vetted ten times as much as Barack Obama. Of course the Republican legislation will starve babies and shove old ladies off a cliff. Of course Mitt Romney is a radical right winger. That's not bias, those are just accurate statements of fact, they think.

When you're so left leaning you are almost horizontal, upright people look radically tilted. So sure, this guy and the researcher didn't see bias. So in his opinion: it must be you that's the problem. How dare you question the news media like that?

*Hat tip Ace of Spades HQ for this story

1 comment:

T.K. Tortch said...

I think you are essentially correct, in that the degree of bias in the legacy media hasn't changed so much as how it's expressed. However, I do think there's another factor at work in that the Media's collective sense of responsibility to competently and fairly perform its core function has eroded, and badly. If we had the Media of 1992, the Obama Administration wouldn't just be taking on water and listing to port, it would have already broken apart, sunk, and be marked only by the burning oil slick over its wreck.

The Clinton Administration enjoyed a great deal of Media softballing, distractive handwaving, and obfuscation, but it was still subjected to plenty of withering media scrutiny and frank reportage from legacy sources. As though even the average liberal journalist's instinct to report on hypocrisy, corruption, and incompetence didn't diminish just because a Liberal was in charge.

I think that's been lost entirely.