June 21, 2005

Gazing Into the Abyss: Is Our Media Too Liberal?

Well, first of all, many kudos to the esteemed Dr. Johnson for his compelling extra-credit assignment in Fed, State, and Local Government. The reading was so compelling, in fact, that though I had no intention of doing the assignment to begin with, I'll be danged if I didn't just go and do it anyway. Secondly, wave goodbye to my two-week sabbatical from blogging. More on that in an upcoming post.

I highly recommend reading at least the first two of the following selections . . . Hey, I had to read all three! I also recommend reading them in the following order:

Bias, Slander, and BS by Eric Altman

High Bias: ’Mainstream’ reporters aren't just liberal--they're fanatical by Orson Scott Card (yes, the sci-fi author)

A Measure of Media Bias by Tim Groseclose & Jeff Milyo

There's nothing brand-new here, all three pieces are fairly old. And, incidentally, I believe that I actually have them arranged in chronological order above. They represent, respectively, the mainstream liberal, conservative, and statistical views on the existence of that decades-old cliché, the liberal bias in American media. So . . . what do they have to say?

The Altman piece is actually the introduction to his book What Liberal Media?, and it has some very interesting things to say about the "liberal media" which, if it doesn't flip-flop your perspective entirely, will at least give you something to chew on. The chief weakness of this piece, I believe, is the amount of attention it devotes to slamming Ann Coulter. This is certainly a praiseworthy and laudable cause if ever there was one, but c'mon . . . All sane people know that Coulter is a loudmouthed idiot who defines the very essence of knee-jerk conservatism. She is an embarrassment and a liability to whichever group she is currently supporting, whether that group be Republicans, Christians, or the entire United States.

So, while I was entertained by his firm refutation of her fictional rants, I didn't need that section to go on quite as long as it did. Ditto the segment on Bernard Goldberg (although he is certainly no Ann Coulter). Nevertheless, his various points in this section struck home quite effectively. He quotes Republicans who publicly decry the liberal bias in the media and later admit the mere rhetorical usefulness of the phrase in private. He notes the immense popularity of both Coulter and Goldberg among the so-called liberal media organizations (citing their frequent TV appearances and positive national exposure). He reveals what he perceives to be the real liberal media, and compares them to a far more powerful conservative media . . . with the bulk of media sources still falling somewhere in the middle.

And he indirectly raises a question in my mind: If the media is that biased towards the left, and that anxious to cover it up, why in God's name do they constantly say so? I guarantee I'd never have heard the term "liberal media" were it not for the media themselves, and from them I seem to hear it almost constantly in some form or another. If, as conservative pundits would have it, the media is overwhelmingly dominated by a bias which they go to great lengths to deny and keep quiet, how did I ever hear about it in the first place?

The most important and valid point raised by Altman is near the end of his introduction, and is summed up nicely in the following quote: "The media make up a vast and unruly herd of independent beasts. Given their number and variety, it can be difficult for anyone to speak accurately about all of them simultaneously . . . The medium is only the message if you're not paying close attention." If you agree with no other point made in his introduction (and I happen to agree with a number of them, myself) I think we can all agree on that, at least. "The Media" is not a hive mind, it is a title applied to an enormous collection of smaller organizations, all violently competing with each other for our attention. I'll come back to that in a moment.

It is difficult to know where to begin with Card's assessment of the "liberal media" phenomenon. I suppose we could start with the title . . . 'Cuz gee, that's not biased. I was intensely frustrated with Card as I read his article. It was the sort of frustration I usually feel when I watch someone presenting an argument that I might generally agree with on principle, then attempt to prove it by demolishing a series of irrelevant straw men from the opponent's side. In short, it was like reading a transcript of a Rush Limbaugh rant.

For instance, he points out a prominent mention of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (an event that dominated the news at the time he was writing) in an article about a speech given by Donald Rumsfeld at the West Point graduation. (Exact quote: "Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making no mention of the prisoner abuse scandal that has led to calls for his ouster . . .") He then goes on to call this evidence of a liberal bias, since you would never hear a reference to the decades-old cattle futures scandal in an article about a speech by Hillary Clinton (i.e. "Senator Hillary Clinton, making no mention of the $100,000 she once made by trading cattle futures with astonishing perfection . . ."). The comparison is asinine and obtuse. I contend that you would hear the connection, and in fact did at the time when the various Clinton scandals first began to receive national attention over a decade ago. I was only 10 or 11 years old at the time and even I remember that.

The point here is that the media is all about selling news, and the public has a notoriously short attention span, but they love a sensation. When a scandal as big as Abu Ghraib hits the fan and becomes attached to someone we all recognize, like the secretary of defense (for example) it is only natural to see the connection beaten to death over the course of a few months every time a story surfaces that includes his name. That's just how this works.

A quick scan of major internet news sources reveals that the public has moved on, and the media with them. Donald Rumsfeld and Abu Ghraib are no longer peanut butter and jelly . . . duh. Au contraire, an extremely brief perusal of cnn.com reveals this gem leading off a top story: "President Bush, who is pushing for democratic reform around the globe . . ." Not even the article on foxnews.com was that nice. This is a liberal slant? Gevalt!

Furthermore, Card short-circuits his own examples by contradicting himself. In one example he points to a creeping liberal "politically correct message" bias in an article that presents three different perspectives on an issue. The problem here is that the one supporting the liberal agenda of the author is placed at the end of the story where it will leave a lasting impression before the reader moves on to the funny pages. Makes sense, right?

Sure, until you read his next example . . . In this one, he accuses the liberally-biased media of "burying" the truth deep towards the end of the story, and placing the material they want to get across prominently at the beginning of the article where it will leave a lasting impression on the reader before they quit reading and move on to the funny pages. Jiminy Christmas! What will those sneaky liberals think of next?

One wonders how he would judge my own ordering of the of articles I read, but I digress . . .

He ends the article on what I consider to be the most insidious and offensive note . . . a perspective on objectivity which I have long abhorred: It's okay to be as biased as you want to be, so long as you're "honest" about it (Fox News, anyone?) and you're biased for the right side (in this case, the United States). Objectivity is impossible, so we shouldn't even try. This quote in particular left a foul taste in my mouth: "Fox News Channel, on the other hand, claims to have only one bias--it is definitely pro-American--and it presents all the facts and every viewpoint and leaves the decision up to the viewer."

This comic, I think, presents a far more accurate view of that particular news source.

Finally, let's spend a little time on the folks who, presumably, can bring some balance to this debate with cold, hard statistical data. Don't hold your breath . . . Statistics are iffy at the best of times, and this particular batch of crunched numbers purports to numerically map the answers to such questions as “Is the average article in the New York Times more liberal than the average speech by Tom Daschle?” and “Is the average story on Fox News more conservative than the average speech by Bill Frist?” Helpful, no?

Nope, not really.

The report is long and fairly technical and, in my opinion, ultimately of little practical use. They make some good observations near the beginning, correctly stating that much of the driving evidence behind the "liberal media" perspective is anecdotal in nature. They go on to discuss the various ways these things have been measured in the past, explain the unique way in which they propose to slap an empirical value on the bias of a particular news agency, then wriggle quickly out of any chance of making the report relevant by redefining "bias" in such a way as to avoid resolving the debate no matter what the findings may be. Mathematical formulae follow, for those who are interested . . . I wasn't, particularly.

At this point, just when you think you're going to get some actual data, our happy statisticians start tossing in digressions and data adjustments. Ultimately, the entire report seems to collapse under the weight of technobabble (or worse, leaderspeak) and watered-down findings. It's true, statistics really can show whatever you want them to . . . In this case, the authors made the surprising and unusual choice of having the statistics show nothing at all. If you want a neater answer than that, what the report seems to indicate is that all media really falls a lot closer to the center than anyone might expect.

And this brings me to my final point before I rush off to another exciting Johnson class . . . The media can and do take on a plethora of shifting forms and "biases" at any given point in time, partially because it really is an incredibly diverse body, but more importantly because it exists to make money, and you can't make money unless you're selling something that people want to buy.

I do not believe that an overwhelming liberal bias exists in the media at this time . . . if anything I'd call it the other way around. But any bias that does exist is not a reflection of the biases of an unethical, elitist, and slanted group of individuals, it is ultimately a reflection of the biases endorsed by all of us . . . the American people . . . the consumers.

Posted by Jared at June 21, 2005 06:28 AM | TrackBack