I find it a partial relief when a major journalistic figure like Evan Thomas of Newsweek decides to say that the press has biases
. It's like hearing a small town politician admit that the water seeping up from the ground really is
a broken water main, and not excess condensation. Unfortunately, Thomas takes some what might seem the most palatable and understandable prejudices as the only ones. He rattles off what the mainstream media's real
The mainstream media (the "MSM" the bloggers love to rail against) are prejudiced, but not ideologically. The press's real bias is for conflict. Editors, even ones who marched in antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam era, have a weakness for war, the ultimate conflict. Inveterate gossips and snoops, journalists also share a yen for scandal, preferably sexual. But mostly they are looking for narratives that reveal something of character. It is the human drama that most compels our attention.
I won't argue that the media does have these biases. They're part of story structure, and so the stock in trade of the working reporter. Do you think a gardener would be disinterested in an interesting plant?
But to claim these as the only
prejudices is laughable. Look at the following passage from his own article:
Politicians have long known how to go over the heads of the press to the public. Had the voting franchise been restricted to reporters, neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan would have been elected president. Much of the Fourth Estate regarded Nixon as a thinly packaged autocrat, Reagan as a dumb nuclear cowboy. Both presidents were re-elected in landslides.
Thinly packaged autocrat and dumb nuclear cowboy? That's not weakness for war, gossip, or character-revealing narrative. That's unbiased prejudice toward people with a political or intellectual bent for which you don't care. I remember one editor at a major publication turning down a story idea that involved people who went target shooting in costume because "I don't really like guns."
How about the support of JFK in the 60s? He was glamorous, witty, attractive, charismatic - and he liked the press. There's another form of press bias: they want to be around the people who seem to reflect the impression they want to exude. In other words, these are people who often are suckers for flattery and blandishments. He addresses this slightly, but unsatisfactorily at the end of the article:
It is true that reporters are susceptible to flash and charm; like most cynics, they are romantics in disguise. JFK and the early Bill Clinton were bound to get better press than insecure Richard Nixon or earnest Al Gore (who for some reason hides a raucous sense of humor). Right now, Obama and John McCain are popular with reporters. But if the usual laws of press physics apply, the media will turn on both men before Election Day. The blogs and the talk-show hosts will rant. The voters will take it all in (or not). And then make up their own minds.
Yup, I'm sure the press will turn just like it did with JFK ... oh, wait, it didn't, really.
Another form of bias is when the journalistic community largely becomes slaves to social fashion. Thomas essentially notes this, without calling it a form of bias, when he recounts some of the ping-pong back and forth between toady and antagonist, the reporting about WMDs and Iraq being a collective nadir.
In other words, there is tremendous bias in the media, because the media is made up of fallible people. To address the issue is important for journalists, but to try to package it in a form that doesn't taste bad is to continue the worst bias of all: that of a warped self-image.
Labels: ethics, journalism