The news, askew

Posted: Jan 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Ideally, news should "slant" to the truth. Practically, the presentation of news usually skews towards sensationalism. As news consumers, we accept this, though too rarely compensate for it.

But it is isms other than mere sensationalism that actually worry us. To what extent does ideology skew the news?

In my last column I discussed the ways the structure of the journalism industry itself, and not any ideologically driven bias, can paint grossly inaccurate pictures of reality. I also wrote how economic factors can induce a pro-establishment, pro-government stance in journalists without much ideological pressure at all. Now it's time to confront the issue of pure ideological bias head on.

Managing Bias

Most journalists, along with most professors of literature, the humanities, and social sciences, lean left. They are overwhelmingly liberal, or at least Democrat. This is almost impossible to deny.

But it is possible to deny that it makes much difference. Leftists also proclaim that the media is biased, only towards the right. They stress the ownership of the television stations, the cable channels, the major newspapers. Big money. Big conservatives. Big difference.

What they don't often explain is how this makes a difference.

"Major media" is in the business of making money by appealing to their clients, which means, mostly, the readers and viewers. The stockholders, owners, and managers have no reason to aggravate their customers.

It's true that their customers do tend to come in two major categories: the news consumer and the advertiser. But advertisers are usually just another conduit to the news consumer, a conduit that accentuates the fear of giving offense; understandably, advertisers generally don't want to turn off clients. So, the main concern of management tends to be fear of annoying blocks of news consumers.

But these businessmen must cope with another major factor in their business: the overwhelmingly liberal nature of their employees, as well as the employees they could hire in place of the current batch. Given the concentration of "liberals" and leftists amongst their employee base, and the diffuse, mostly centrist nature of their readership ? or else the conservative nature of their readership (depending on which media outlet you are talking about) ? one can see that management of bias is a balancing act. The ability to enforce a line on employees is somewhat limited. It is obvious that management can make a few key decisions about what to air. But in the general course of news production, their powers are more limited.

Pretend that most newspapers are owned and run by conservative folk. Pretend, even, that these people would ideologically like to support second-amendment gun ownership rights. (You'll find leftist critics who believe both of these things.) But what happens in practice?

Take an example from one of today's best analysts of bias, Bernard Goldberg. In Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Medial Elite, he analyzed a fascinating news story.

In 2002, in Grundy, Virginia, a suspended college student stormed through his former campus with a gun, terrorizing students and then shooting the dean, a professor, and a student. Then, as the Washington Post reported, "Three students pounced on the gunman and held him until help arrived." Great story. There was one thing missing, however: two of those three heroic students were also armed with handguns.

Goldberg researched the media coverage, and discovered that only six of one hundred stories on the subject contained the crucial fact about the subduers of the murderer.

The reporters who wrote the majority of stories either consciously suppressed the fact because of an anti-gun bias, or followed the lead of those who did.

This episode also shows why it's often hard to prove a bias, because bias in the news is most often in evidence in what's left out of a story.

It also shows how hard it is for owners of media to correct for that bias: it is the reporter and editor who have the most control of the crucial elements of the story, and it is they who most easily leave some things out.

The owners of a newspaper, no matter how rich (which, by the way, doesn't make one a conservative), have little control over such details.

Correcting for Bias

With journalists themselves skewing the news for reasons of sensationalism and self-interest as well as ideology, it's tempting to just give up. The idea of a professional, independent, fact-based reporting industry is little more than a hopeful myth. Intelligent news consumers have been "correcting for" a widespread perceived bias for a long time. And indeed, many of us in the commentary business make it our job to help the news consumer out; that's what I try to do in my Common Sense e-letter, anyway.

And now other media have emerged taking aim at precisely those consumers. Cable news outfits are sometimes more obviously biased, in part, like Fox News, to offset the widespread leftist bias of more established outfits. Fox followed in the footsteps of Rush Limbaugh and the burgeoning of right-wing talk radio. To counterbalance both, the American left, in the personal phenomenon of Michael Moore, and in the collective work of Air America, are making some successful plays against these developments. And the blogosphere, rampant with competing biases, is rising in influence, even hastening the demise of bad journalism, as in the recent case of Dan Rather's rather too-convenient faked anti-Bush documents.

We seem to be returning to an era of partisan journalism, as in the Yellow Press age and before, when newspapers were Democrat, or Republican ? or, before that, Democrat or Whig, or Democrat and Federalist. In those days, a person looking for an accurate picture of reality had to read between the papers as well as read between the lines in any paper's story.

Well ? bring it on. Better to know the slant or bias of the reporting up front. And since the institution of Objective Reporting has been more myth than reality, we aren't really losing much. The Bad Old Days are back? With the many new forms of media, whatever badness there may be is now better checked ? and balanced ? by the competition: Those who skew can't help but sometimes be skewered.