A Leftish Analysis of Media Bias

I haven’t writing much lately and see no inspiration on the horizon. I went back to the early days of this blog thinking I’d be a tad embarrassed at things written back then, but I am not. This is a November 2006 piece, three months into blogging, that still resonates. If the comment section comes through with the article, that too is a good thing.
______________________________________

The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people. (Justice Hugo L. Black)

I just fired up my computer this morning and encountered a new error message. A program that I did not know existed was not functioning properly, it said. It would have be shut down. It did shut it down, I assume, and the computer seems to be working fine without it.

Ah – a metaphor! That’s a problem with my thinking – everything can mean something else. It’s not necessarily wrong-headed thinking. It’s just annoying to people for whom metaphors convey little information. But I sat down to write about Ed Kemmick’s Sunday City Lights piece defending against press bias, so it seemed appropriate. A left wing analysis of the American press invariably rests on the assumption that there are background, or memory-resident programs running in the minds of all publishers, editors and reporters.

It’s not meant as an insult but is often taken as one. A left analysis of the press attempts to eliminate the need prejudice on the part of reporters as an explanation for bad reporting. This is a far cry from those on the right who say that there is a liberal bias, and that it is deliberate. A left analysis attempts to explain bias as a natural byproduct of ownership, advertising, sensitivity to critics, and source of information.

  • The American media (and this analysis applies on big and small scale, News Corporation and Lee Enterprises), is owned by corporations who tend to be conservative. Overwhelmingly.
  • The American media depends for sustenance on advertisers who tend to be conservative. Overwhelmingly. (Don’t believe that? Try getting Air America on the air anywhere, even Missoula. Even though there is a market niche larger than many of the splintered right wing segments, there are not enough advertisers willing to sponsor left-of-center programming.)
  • The American media stands in the proverbial mighty wind of right wing flak about supposed liberal bias. They react defensively.
  • The American media gets its information, to a very large degree, from ‘inside’ government and corporate sources, and depends on favorable treatment of those sources for continued access.

That’s a left-wing analysis. I think it stands up well to criticism because it lets ordinary people off the hook. Yes, you have integrity, work your craft, and do much good work. But no, you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Kemmick is a tree in the forest. He judges the integrity of the profession as a whole based on his own.

It seems like a hundred years ago that I was a reporter in Anaconda, and back then the only accusations of bias thrown at me had nothing to do with politics. In Anaconda, where it seemed that everybody was related to everybody else, or at least had known one another all their lives, reporting on matters of public interest was rarely simple.

I would be accused of writing a story so as to favor some faction whose existence I was unaware of, or of taking sides in a feud stretching back generations between people I didn’t know. In that town, where everybody was in one camp or another on all important debates, the idea that I was truly an outsider with no bones to pick was inconceivable.

Funny he should mention Anaconda, as in Anaconda company. Who would say that the Montana press was unbiased when that company owned most of the major outlets, back before Kemmick’s time. Did reporters have less integrity back then? It must have been hard for a journalist back in those days to punch out copy, knowing that inevitably it would be vetted by an editor with an eye on the publisher who was enforcing the will of the owner.

The journalist internalizes the conflict, it becomes memory-resident. Only rarely does the conflict peskily rise to the surface. That’s a left analysis, which Kemmick dismisses:

It’s more difficult to deal with the current pervasive belief that nobody in what is known as the mainstream media can be trusted. We are accused of masquerading as unbiased reporters while promoting a left-wing agenda – unless the critic happens to lean toward the left, in which case we are written off as servants of the status quo, lackeys promoting the interests of the powers-that-be.

Journalists get annoyed by left wing criticism of the press. Criticism from the right is generally anecdotal, and each anecdote can be refuted. Rightish criticism says that editors and publishers must be left-wing liberals, which simply doesn’t stand up in the light of day. But the leftish ragging accuses reporters of being lackeys, though unknowingly. It attempts to expose the memory-resident programs in operation. It’s personal.

Ben Bagdikian summed up the problem of media nicely back in 1982, when large-scale consolidation was just underway:

The new owning corporations of our media generally insist that they do not interfere in the editorial product. All they do is appoint the publisher, the editor, the business manager and determine the budget. If I wanted control of public information, that is all I would want. I would not want to decide on every story every day or say “yes” or “no” to every manuscript that came over the transom. I would rather appoint leaders who understand clearly who hired them and who can fire them, who pays their salaries and decides on their stock options. I would then leave it to them.

That’s a big treatment of the subject, and in the end, Kemmick’s City Lights piece doesn’t do it any justice. He falls back inside the gates of the city, and defends the question that was not asked.

Any thinking person will have beliefs and opinions, but a good reporter will bend over backward to prevent those beliefs and opinions from slanting a story. That is much different from failing to acknowledge those beliefs, or simply giving into them and becoming a partisan hack. Good reporters, trained in skepticism and objectivity, can still serve an important public function.

It’s all about the individual reporter and how he carries on his craft. There’s no larger questions to be answered.

What I mean by objectivity is that the reporter stays out of what he writes, not that he slavishly presents two “sides” to every story. If we report that a petroleum geologist has located oil in a formation 150 million years old, we are not obligated to tack on a disclaimer saying, “Many people, however, believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.”

What I mean by being fair and objective is presenting facts without comment and conveying the words and thoughts of other people as they would want them to be conveyed. That is not an easy thing to do, but I think we should continue to demand that reporters at least try.

Reporting then is nothing more than he-said-she-said. Critics on the left call this stenography.

When the government wanted us to go to war in Iraq, they said alot of stuff. It was all duly reported, without editorial bias. When that stuff turned out to be false, we were stuck with a decimated country and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and a press that appeared to be comprised of lackeys. But never did they fail to report on what he and she said (except for that odd case of the Downing Street memo). They only failed to analyze, failed to suspect lies, shelved intuition and did not confront power. They went along, and hid behind the mask of objectivity.

And that, in the end, summarizes the problem the left has with the media: They use objectivity as an excuse to avoid probing for truth. In the end, as with Iraq, they fail us miserably. But they do so while honoring the hallowed traditions of journalism.

If paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people, they aren’t doing their job, and should be replaced. The question answered in Kemmick’s piece is not the question asked. It’s not about reporting both sides and walking away. It’s about how to build an accountable media.

About Mark Tokarski

Just a man who likes to read, argue, and occasionally be surprised.
This entry was posted in The Liberal Media. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to A Leftish Analysis of Media Bias

  1. Pingback: Links… « 4&20 blackbirds

  2. Ed Kemmick says:

    Mark: Next time I’ll write a whole column about correctly spelling the name of the person whose arguments you are responding to. But seriously, that’s just one of the 10,000 little things that those of us getting paid to write have to worry about, which generally don’t make the radar of people writing just for the hell of it. I’m not being critical, just making a small point.

    I’ve tried to respond to your press criticism in the past and I haven’t done a very good job, I know. My column also failed to make all the points I wanted (in retrospect) to make. As I think I mentioned over at Touchstone’s place, that’s what happens when you have 20 inches of copy and a deadline and five other things to write. I guess that’s more evidence of the invisible constraints on journalists.

    The trouble I have with your criticism is, as you sort of say, that it is so big picture. I don’t know how to begin to respond to arguments that bring up new stories like those written during the lead-up to the Iraq war because they are so far outside anything I’ve worked on. In my column I mostly had in mind those very specific critics of the newspaper I work for, who accuse us of taking sides and who habitually confuse the editorial stance of the opinion page with the work of our reporters. Maybe I wasn’t answering the question you had in mind, but I can’t be a columnist and a mind-reader, too. All I ever ask of critics is this: Don’t tell me about Dan Rather and Judith Miller or Rush Limbaugh and Chris Matthews. I am not a national columnist. Tell me about a story in Billings or in Montana that did not get written, or that was written poorly, and if I know anything about it, I can respond. I’m just not that good at the big-picture stuff because I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about those issues.

    I do know what kind of reporting I do, and when I hear it described as stenography it does tick me off because I do a lot of reporting that requires background knowledge, the sifting of evidence, analysis and coming to conclusions. I would love to be challenged on specific stories I’ve done, but alas, I’m rarely challenged. Instead, I’m asked to defend Dan Rather or respond to Ben Bagdikian. I haven’t actually read any books by Bagdikian and I probably should, but what extracts I’ve read sound rather vague and general to me. I don’t know what evidence he presents to make his sweeping conclusions about how we operate, but mostly he sounds like a chin-scratching sociologist.

    Well, I haven’t answered your over-riding question again. What was it?

    Like

  3. markt says:

    It was how to spell your name. I apologize for that. It’s fixed.

    I’m conflicted on this – but first let me say that big picture versus little picture is a good point. What I try to reconcile in my mind is the fact that I run into good reporters full of smarts and integrity, and yet when it push comes to shove, the press, as it did with Iraq, reverts to propaganda mode – not ‘he said she said’, but ‘he said, period’. It’s a contradiction, and as Ayn Rand reminds me, there is no such animal – only faulty assumptions.

    So I am attracted to models for the press that allows for you to go about your business as you do, and also give us the stunning failures, as with Iraq (and stunning successes, as with Katrina). It so happens lefty analysts, like Bagdikian, have built those models. They are worth a read. All you get on the right is that you are liberals with an agenda, a mighty conscious conspiracy – utter nonsense.

    On a large scale the press is comprised of corporate owners who share large objectives with government. (Why News Corporation would want to invade Iraq is not clear to me. I’m aware of some of the holes in the thinking.) But I know this – in November of 2002, the national press stopped reporting news, and became an agent of government propaganda. You had nothing to do with that. Hence your wonderment that I used your small platform as a launching point for my big issues.
    But what is true of the whole should also be true of the parts, and I think it is. I mentioned the copper collar days, which is appropriate (and not even a metaphor!). I don’t see the Gazette writing critical pieces about realtors or car salesmen. But that still fits perfectly well with a reporter going about his business – there are plenty of places to look for news – so many, in fact, that the places overlooked don’t jump out at you. But they are there, and result from the institutional pressures I list.

    But here’s the other problem – as you say, I write for pleasure. I’m my only editor. I’m a brutal one. When I get up at 4AM, mind atwirl, as I did yesterday, I’m likely to put out some volume without a high content factor. What I said could have been said in many fewer words. Also, I have poked holes in my own arguments that you haven’t, but I’m not listing them here.
    But if I tried to emphasize one point worth making again, it is this: We on the left try to apply Rand’s analysis. We do not assault your integrity as journalists. We accept it. We only say that you area subject to the same pressures to accommodate power as all of us, and as so often happens with all of us, we need to internalize that conflict, as we cannot change it.

    So happens I’m somewhat immune – I have no employer. I can do this and never see a dent in my income. My mind is free to travel these paths. I do feel a need to put something up here every day – our reader will be disappointed if I don’t.

    Like

  4. Ed Kemmick says:

    More good points, as always. I responded to you at length because I do accept part of what you’re saying and because you always force me to think, unlike critics on the right, who usually just make me laugh with their wildly off-base accusations.

    And writing for pleasure is the best reason to write. I hope you didn’t think I was suggesting you stop. I and the other reader would both be disappointed.

    Like

  5. Daniel - Scheinhaus says:

    This was the best commentary I’ve yet read about our press. There’s more to be critical of that needs expressing, but what I read here is the best beginning I’ve seen.

    Like

  6. Big Swede says:

    “If paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people, they aren’t doing their job, and should be replaced.”

    In case you haven’t noticed it is being replaced. Readership of print media is way down, other venues are thriving. I’m not sure about Kemmick’s success personally but he seems to be keeping the lights on.

    Readership/subscriptions are a accurate forecast of a papers bias. If conservatives continue to drop the Gazette then they’ve swung to far leftward.

    Like

    • You read that opining paragraph, eh?

      News media includes the Internet. This was not just about dead tree enterprises.

      I am always astounded at that right wingers regard as “leftward” and “liberal” in the media. Really, when you come right down to it, people holding sway over your perceptions by power of suggestion.

      Like

      • Big Swede says:

        50 years ago when we were young just who had the monopoly on “sway” or “perception”?

        Now that that advantage has dwindled all I see is crocodile tears, or control freaks wanting their power back.

        Like

    • steve kelly says:

      Brilliant “free-market” jujutzu, Swede. Please consider another possibliity. Conservatives and liberals both drop the Gazette because of a) new technology, and b) inaccurate reporting caused by corporate hypersensitivity to “unpopular” information, which is perceived to be a drag on marketing revenue. This irrational fear of truth is, I believe, the bias that matters most. Self-sensorship does not go unnoticed for very long in a digital environment.

      Old sources are being replaced rapidly by internet search, bloggers and other independent publishers.

      Like

      • Big Swede says:

        Ok I’ll play.

        Couldn’t you say corporate media has taken it on the chin because of “new tech”? If I wanted my news from some non-corporate entity I rush to Democrat Underground, Moon of Alabama, ..etc.

        Then why the bitching? I’ll tell you. It’s more about the multiple of choice and loss of power than the corporate boogeyman.

        Like

        • There has alwasy been an alternative media and I subscribed to may publications before the Internet. This analysis applies to news that drops in your lap without effort, from the midstream media. Those people who put no effort into news analysis, and simply watch or listen to TV, Fox, NPR, etc., are the ones most affected by right wing, or statist, pro-corporate bias. The reasons for that bias, which are not due to the personal biases or failed integrity of individuals reporting the news, are contained in the body of this post.

          Like

  7. Big Swede says:

    And Mark regarding your bullet point.

    “The American media gets its information, to a very large degree, from ‘inside’ government and corporate sources, and depends on favorable treatment of those sources for continued access.”

    Ok which government manipulates its news sources more? Cuba or Venezuela or the good old USA?

    Like

    • USA, without a doubt.

      Like

      • Big Swede says:

        Try blogging in Cuba.

        Like

          1. You have no clue, only fleeting impressions, of life on that island.
          2. If blogging mattered here, it would be illegal.

          Like

          • Big Swede says:

            On March 26, 2008, Sánchez announced to her readers that the recent problems accessing her blog appeared to be a deliberate action on the part of government censors to block access to her blog and the other blogs on the desdecuba.com website. While debate swirled back and forth on the web about whether the site was actually blocked, Sanchez stated that Generation Y could not be accessed in Cuba for the past several years.[36] The debate about whether this was a year-long plus “fluke” or some “glitch” in the software, seemed to be resolved about a year after the site became unavailable. Comments made by a Cuban State Security agent in an interview published on March 19, 2009, in the digital magazine Kaos en la Red, where “Agent Miguel” stated, “I know State Security officials who literally prophesied that blocking the blog Generation Y within the country would, in a short time, cause the launching of Madame Sánchez into the stardom of the manipulative media campaign against Cuba. Regardless of these prophesies, they did it and now they’re paying the price.”[37]-Wiki.

            Like

          • Your point? Your words, please.

            Like

    • Steve W says:

      We do it best and we’ve done it longer. We had TV earlier, we had radio networks earlier.

      I liked you question up thread about media now and then. If you are truly interested in seeing for your self how times have changed and how media has changed, watch Evidence of Revision, the 6 part series based entirely on archival footage from publicly broadcast television. It’s easy to see what has changed in terms of control of the media.

      Like

  8. Big Swede says:

    So we are to assume that the overwhelming majority of print, TV, sports, magazine, radio journalists are really right wingers when they give campaign contributions almost exclusively to Democrats.

    List here. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/19113455/ns/politics/t/list-journalists-who-wrote-political-checks/#.VKxT8Evoa2w

    Like

    • I do wish you’d read. This is all explained in the post.

      Like

      • Big Swede says:

        I’m responding to this.

        “Criticism from the right is generally anecdotal, and each anecdote can be refuted. Rightish criticism says that editors and publishers must be left-wing liberals, which simply doesn’t stand up in the light of day.”

        Like

        • From the post:

          The American media (and this analysis applies on big and small scale, News Corporation and Lee Enterprises), is owned by corporations who tend to be conservative. Overwhelmingly.
          The American media depends for sustenance on advertisers who tend to be conservative. Overwhelmingly. (Don’t believe that? Try getting Air America on the air anywhere, even Missoula. Even though there is a market niche larger than many of the splintered right wing segments, there are not enough advertisers willing to sponsor left-of-center programming.)
          The American media stands in the proverbial mighty wind of right wing flak about supposed liberal bias. They react defensively.
          The American media gets its information, to a very large degree, from ‘inside’ government and corporate sources, and depends on favorable treatment of those sources for continued access.

          Also, power of suggestion. When talk radio people suggest something, talk radio listeners are all ears,

          Like

    • steve kelly says:

      I’ll bite. Yes. Authoritarian right-wingers to be more accurate. When was the last saw a libertarian-left talking-head on a MSM program? It happens infrequently, and usually only once.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s