Monday, January 12, 2004
A Clarification On Media Bias

Several people have asked me, both in 'real life' and on the web, to make my position on media outlets a bit clearer, so that they can understand it better. A great number of my Canadian friends, especially, can't understand why I don't see CNN as a 'pro-America' station, why I view England's Guardian with more than a little skepticism, or why I get so visibly upset when I watch the CBC news broadcasts.

Basically, it all comes down to bias. Before we go any further, however, let me echo the Minnesota Star Tribune's James Lileks and his comments on the subject (scroll down), for the sake of clarity:

As I've said before, I don't believe that most papers have an explicit agenda; the morning huddle does not begin with a rousing rendition of "The East is Red." No. Obviously, no. The "liberal" bias usually manifests itself as a certain comfy sort of groupthink. Most people in the newsroom are Democrats. They vary wildly from issue to issue, perhaps, but there are some tenets that bind the tribe, and a good number of them are based in certain attitudes about conservatives that were quite possibly formed at birth. Certainly in college.
The remainder of his piece is very informative, and deserves reading, but this paragraph neatly summarizes my own opinion on the issue. Further, let me say that I don't believe bias, in and of itself, is a bad thing - not at all. Matter of fact, it's unavoidable. Everyone has bias (certainly I do!), and it can be brought to bear on nearly any subject. The presence of bias is not the issue to which I object. Camouflaged bias is what raises my ire.

The issue is neatly (if hyperbolically) displayed by Frank J.'s satire:
"And, I guess another factor was the [loss] of any positive coverage of the Bush candidacy upon the destruction of Fox News." [said CNN anchorwoman Paula Zahn.]

"Quite a boon for us," Wolf [Blitzer] chuckled. "It was quite a surprise, though, when Bill O'Reilly's unchecked ego grew so large that it actually gained mass, finally becoming so immense that it collapsed upon itself and pulled all of Fox News into a black hole. Thus, only our liberal slant was left to 'inform' the American public."

"And we can admit that we're liberal now that we have no real competitor," Paula smiled.

"Hence our new slogan: 'We control what you know, and thus we control what you think.'"
Frank J.'s IMAO is known for its rather outlandish humor and its fantastic tendencies to grotesquely caricature public figures (in the spirit, if not the style, of those great British satirists of the 18th and 19th centuries), and so one musn't make the mistake of thinking Frank is 'serious.' But like all good humor, this piece is rooted in a small bit of reality.

Television news networks, news magazines, and newspapers reach a great number of people across the world. For quite a few people - those who have more important things to do than surf the Internet - these outlets are the only interaction they have with world events. If someone were to control all the information a person received, they would be able to shape that person's opinion quite easily.

For example: if I were to tell you that a man was being unjustly tried for murder, was being accused of things that he did not do, that he had no idea were going on, you (as a normal human being) would feel anger, sympathy, and a desire to see justice done. But what if you never heard that story? What if, instead, I told you that this same person was a murderous madman, intent on brutally torturing his victims in a multitude of ways before they died; and that, further, it was impossible to keep him locked up - the man was a regular Houdini: if he was imprisoned (even for life), he would certainly escape and would begin to murder everyone around him - perhaps even you and your family! What would your opinion be then?

I think it's fairly clear that information is power. If even I can (theoretically) manipulate your opinion by controlling the news and perspectives that you take in, then how much more could an organized media outlet do so? Fortunately, Big Media (at large) is not organized, nor cohesive, nor even all of the same mind - there is no worldwide, absolute monopoly on the news (and I don't think there ever will be).

Just because a 'total monopoly' doesn't exist, however, does not mean that we are out of the woods. Limited monopolies do exist, and they can be just as dangerous as those that are world-wide. I was talking with a housemate a few weeks ago, about the idea of bias and its relation to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). For those of you who are not familiar with Canada, the CBC is a publically funded broadcast group that is shown throughout the Great White North. There are many aspects of its programming - entertainment, news, sports, etc. - and it is generally well-produced. As James (my housemate) pointed out: (paraphrase) 'There are places out in the prairies and territories that get only one or two channels - but one of those channels is always the CBC. It's a uniting feature, a national symbol.'

All the more dangerous, then, if it is manipulating information, no? If the only national and international news source a person has is leaving out bits and pieces of stories and is looking upon world events with tinted perspectives, is it not plausible that this person will begin to see everything the same way? Indeed, is it not likely?

Let's take a look at what exactly I'm talking about when I say media bias. It can be as blatant as an outright opinion embedded in a news article or as subtle as placing scare quotes around terms with which a reporter or editor doesn't necessarily agree. It can be evident in a headline ("Howard Dean Best Candidate Available" vs. "Dean Leads In Democratic Polls"), or even in something as apparently minor as article placement ('front-page in 24-type headline' vs. 'page A22 in 10-point typeface'). It can come from the mouths of news anchors, or it can come from their silence.

The issue for me is not that these folks have opinions. I'm glad they do; it makes for a more interesting and diverse intellectual world. The problem is that these people claim to convey news, not opinion. When the Op-Ed page bleeds over into the rest of the paper, without disclaimers, that's when I take umbrage.

So what is my suggestion for cleaning things up? Free transfer of information.

Alright, so that's a bit vague ("And doesn't that already exist?"). Allow me to elaborate. Yes, for the most part we have a very free system of information distribution. The popular media has no government censor, other than what information is or is not released concerning government decisions on policies and issues of national security. (Some would see this as too strict a practice, but I vehemently disagree - some activites on the State level are necessarily kept from the public: data concerning issues of national security, or diplomatic maneuvering cannot, and should not, always be immediately released). Outside the flow of data from the government body to the citizenry, the various media are free to pursue whatever information they would like. This is quite non-trivial stuff: local, national and international events, as they happen; scientific discoveries; diplomatic relations between nations; etc. They are even free to pressure the government body to release more information (and they have done so in the past, to varying effect). Ideas are flying back and forth so rapidly and so freely, especially with the advent of the Internet, that a total widespread censorship is impossible (limited censorship remains, but only under totalitarian regimes - see Iran and North Korea).

Well, then - if information is so readily available, what am I complaining about? Simple: while the information we are given is wonderfully transparent, those that bring us that information tend to be a bit more opaque. If I were to turn on CNN, or CBC, or ABC, etc., and watch a news program for the first time, I would be relatively oblivious to any biases they are including in their reporting. As a matter of fact, if I had no other source for information, I would be completely blind to whatever 'spin' these news agencies placed upon that information (whether that inclusion was unconcious or otherwise). It is my opinion that these biases need to be made clear to the viewing and reading public. It needn't be so blatant as "This is CNN...a news channel of the Democratic Party" (and yes, that's hyperbole again), but there should be some indication of where the reporters, anchors, editors, etc. stand on issues at large. We all know already that they have a perspective - we want to know what it is! If we don't have all the information (not only on the news, but also on the news-giver), how can we make informed decisions? At the very least, they should take the Paul Harvey approach ("This is Paul and comments").

As reported by Jeff Jarvis, the Fox News channel comes the closest to doing this sort of thing (of course, I wouldn't know, as it's not allowed up here in Canada) with it's wide-open biases and blatant opinions - the sort of things that tend to be hidden on other networks - and (what do you know!) audiences are responding:
The audience is telling us that perspective and opinion are OK -- no, welcome. In America, journalism became dull in part because it worked so hard to become objective. That, I believe, is a result of the growth of one-newspaper towns; it is an effort to be a responsible voice when you are the only voice in town. But look at Britain, where national media rules and where media admit their leanings. You can read the left Mirror or right Sun, the left Guardian or right Times. They still give you the news. But, like Fox, they also give you their perspective.


Of course, I don't agree with lots of what Fox says. I find O'Reilly's hectoring unfair and irritating. A couple of their personalities are as dumb as my TV. But in general, I've found their war coverage to be as effective as anyone else's.

And it's still important to stand back and look at the ratings and see that the audience -- the people we in media are all trying to serve -- [is] flocking to Fox. There must be a reason for that.

I think we are inevitably moving to a media world where opinion and perspective wrap news. FoxNews is not the only harbinger of that. Weblogs are, too.

Like Fox, weblogs recognize that news is usually a commodity; we all link to the same news. What we then add is perspective, opinion, argument. We, like Fox, make news more compelling.


I say that in the ratings for Fox, the audience is telling us something. Listen.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that Fox is perfect - of course not. They tend to lean to the right side of the political spectrum, and while they are clear about what their opinions are, that still is not reflected in their self-identification.

In the best of worlds (perhaps), news outlets would all declare their standing in their greeting to audiences - but that's not likely to happen (and who knows, maybe that wouldn't be such a good thing, anyway - I can already see some problems arising in that approach). So for what am I willing to settle? A removal of hidden slant.

Want to report the news? Fantastic, more power to you. Just do one of three things: 1) be open with your opinions - don't hide them - so that we can detect your perspective easily, rather than having to dig through layers of 'objective' camouflage, 2) make a clear divison between opinion and fact, and keep that separation total, or 3) keep your opinions to yourself. The different commercial ramifications of these three options aside (ie. Fox has shown success with 1, 3 was the 'old school' effort from which Fox is pulling away, and 2 has never been successfully achieved, to my knowledge), any of them would be preferable to the current masquerades.


Wow...that was a rather long post, deserving of its own appendix.

Appendix - Answers To (Canadian) Questions About Opening List Of Media Outlets:

CNN is 'pro-American' only so far as its viewership is American, and one can't succeed in an American market without relating to one's consumers. However, their opinions are not always 'pro-American' (certainly aren't 'pro-war,' even though war tends to boost their ratings), and quite frequently seems to call for actions and policies that are not what I view as 'in America's best interest.' Their political leanings tend to be toward the left, and their party ties are (mostly) with Democrats. At this point in time, the Left (note the capital letter) is moving further and further toward anti-Americanism (if it isn't there already), and thus cannot be accurately labelled 'pro-American.'

The Guardian I view with skepticism, precisely because I know about its biases. But this is a good thing. Because I know the paper's slants, I can take what they tell me in the proper context. I can get an idea of what they think, what they propose, and where they think everything should be headed - now, I'm not sure they're as open with their bias as Jeff seems to think (above), but then again, I haven't devoted a lot of time to reading them. If they are, then good for them, and may the outlets on this side of The Pond do the same.

CBC is infuriating to me (at least, in their news coverage) because I am in touch with the Internet, and have access to other news sources that have different looks at the same information that they try to convey. As a result, it is fairly obvious (sometimes painfully so) when the CBC attempts to subtlely shift from news into opinion. It does so far too often for my tastes (note: my tolerance for news anchor opinion is directly proportional to how up-front the media outlet is in pre-communicating its biases), and as it is the 'National' news source (and a publically funded one, at that!) I tend to think it should be a bit more balanced, and a bit less spin-oriented. Of course, their monetary ties to the federal government ('Liberal Party for 75 years and still counting!') and the opportunities for 'conflict of interest' that they bring about are other issues altogether.
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A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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