Bias? What Bias?

Dale Amon, a contributor to Samizdata, points to this Fox News editorial by Eric Burns in response to a peice by Walter Cronkite. The money quote from Eric’s piece is this:

The majority of young men and women who enter journalism do so not because they want to report the news but because they want to make a difference in society. In other words, they want to report certain kinds of news. They do not want to convey facts or explain processes; they want to shine spotlights on abuse. In some cases they are motivated by idealism; in others, by the hope that some of the light will reflect back on them.

I read Bernie Goldberg’s book Bias shortly after it came out, and when it isn’t being a Dan Rather hate-fest, Bernie says much the same thing. And he also makes this point: Journalists don’t see the bias because the overwhelming majority of them think the same way. To them, they are “fair and balanced” because their position (as far as they are concerned) is “middle of the road.” In fact, in one of the “Dan Rather” bits, Bernie quotes Dan as saying that he considered the New York Times “Middle-of-the-road.” In another he provided the story of the New York socialite who couldn’t believe Nixon won the presidential election because: “I don’t know ANYBODY who voted for him!” Same idea. Reality doesn’t match perspective.

Wall Street Journal editor emeritus Robert Bartley made essentially the same observation recently:

The opinion of the press corps tends toward consensus because of an astonishing uniformity of viewpoint. Certain types of people want to become journalists, and they carry certain political and cultural opinions. This self-selection is hardened by peer group pressure. No conspiracy is necessary; journalists quite spontaneously think alike. The problem comes because this group-think is by now divorced from the thoughts and attitudes of readers.

The interesting thing from my take is that with the rise of Fox News (which is far from “fair and balanced” itself) the other news organizations are having to respond because of market pressure – liberally biased news reporting is losing its following and its revenue. What a shock. The liberal elite claims that there is no liberal bias in media and point to the fact that Big Media is owned by giant (and therefore obviously conservative) corporations. Like most liberal ideas, that’s missing some important facts. For one thing, if the news media (reporters, editors, producers) are of a common mindset, then that’s the mindset you’re going to find in the news produced, regardless of who runs the company. Second, the giant corporations haven’t been interested in directing the tone of the news, but in making a profit – a point well illustrated by Fox News’ cometary rise in popularity. Now we’re seeing MSNBC and CNN trying out “conservative” talking-heads in an effort to emulate Fox’s ratings (and income.) Rupert Murdoch changed the paradigm. He was the conservative force driving Fox News in its conservative direction, but I think it more market-driven than ideology-driven. He just found a way to make more money than his competition.

Which brings us to most destructive thing I’ve seen when it comes to the industry: News as a profit center.

It has been argued that until the (commercial) success of the TV news magazine 60 Minutes the network news programs were run as a “loss-leader” – a “prestige” thing. (Walter Cronkite as “the most trusted man in America.”) The national and local news programs were provided to meet the FCC requirement for community service, and reporters did stories on things that needed to be reported on (and were, often, pretty boring.) Once the business people found out that the news department might provide a revenue stream rather than be a sucking vortex to the bottom line, then the news (both local and national) became ever more sensational in order to draw viewership and advertising dollars. This (oh, please, jeebus) hit its high-water mark with the coverage of the O.J. Simpson circus, but we still see it in cases like Jonbenet Ramsey, Kobe Bryant, Laci Peterson et al.

So now what we generally get is a mix of sensational (but overall unimportant) stories (many of which used to be handled by the “entertainment” columnists but are now covered by front-rank “journalists”), and actually newsworthy stuff that is (whenever possible, it seems) reported with a “liberal” slant, and is far too often (as I illustrated when I started this blog) incomplete, inaccurate, misleading and sometimes even deliberately mendacious.

Nobody would consider Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, or any of the other blow-dried newsreaders “the most trusted person in America” any longer.

And it’s carried over into print journalism, too. (It can be argued that it actually orginated there and it’s simply returned to its roots, but that’s an essay unto itself.) What I decry, though, is what I consider to be an overall decline in the quality of the reporting being done. There used to be a mnemonic taught in journalism school, FACT: Fast, Accurate, Complete, True. Now they concentrate on Fast and Sensational. To hell with accurate, complete or even true. As Matt Drudge put it:

“I suppose I could have blown up a few trucks, put bad food back on the deli counter or accused the military of nerve-gassing deserters and kept my journalistic integrity throughout. But I realized early on, it is easier to sleep at night if you can say at every step that you reported the truth as you knew it.”

No wonder the “mainstream” media dislikes Drudge so much.

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