Some 20 years ago in Bethel, a local cop named John divided local reporters into two categories--as his friends or his enemie--based on how they covered cop stories. He expressed less interest in whether reporters got their facts straight than in whether their stories made him look good.
John’s outlook typifies to some extent how a number of people look at media. Folks who tend to identify themselves by their political ideology like to classify media as either “liberal” or “conservative.” The irony is that the folks who charge different media with ideological bias, in my experience, are often, if not mostly, complaining that media don’t reinforce the folks’ own biases enough to suit them.
Since I started working in news and public affairs in 1974, I have never encountered anyone who complained the media were too biased in that person’s direction—they were always biased in favor of the other guy. There’s one possible exception. Fred Friendly was not a media consumer; he was a producer for CBS news. In his biography of Edward R Murrow, Friendly admitted Murrow treated Sen. Joseph McCarthy unfairly. Friendly said Murrow used all available technology to report on McCarthy’s alleged unethical behavior but provided only a microphone and a camera to McCarthy to respond to Murrow’s accusations against him.
Sometimes perceptions create their own realities. In recent years, we’ve seen some ersatz “news” channels like Fox and MSNBC, which clearly exude extremely political ideologies. Outfits like that and partisanship-driven talk radio actually serve to convince people there are “liberal” and “conservative” facts.
I was fortunate to get out of the news business in 2003 the month before the invasion of Iraq. When I worked in news, most of my colleagues were more concerned with getting their facts right, right as in right or wrong, not right as in left and right.
Were reporters and news groups biased? Absolutely, but with a couple of exceptions, politically partisan bias was more in the eyes of the beholder. Here are some of the biases I have noticed over the years:
1. The top reporters, especially those in that nearly extinct category, investigative reporters worked with a bias against those in power, especially in government. Legendary reporter I. M. Stone used to state categorically, “Governments lie.” Really good reporters routinely made enemies by starting with the default position that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. They looked for corruption and, when they found it, gleefully reported it. Reporters frequently would take the side of the little guys fighting with the big guys in power. Which leads to point #2.
2. Reporters reflect what general semanticists call the “two-value system,” the tendency to see reality more as either-or than both-and. Our culture tells us there are two sides to every story, even if there are four or five sides or only one side. Conflict is a convenient way to frame stories and makes stories more attractive because drama appeals to people. This is especially true in electronic media because, until recent technological advances, people got the information only once and weren’t able to re-read to clear up confusion. Electronic stories need to simplify, simplify, simplify. That’s a problem when the truth isn’t that simple or can’t be told simply. Which leads to point #3.
3. Reporters sometimes are pressured to sacrifice accuracy in order to make their stories appear to be “fair.” In 1991, I sent a report statewide to public radio stations about a support-the-troops rally in Bethel at the start of the first gulf war. I interviewed and reported on speeches by folks who expressed support for the American troops. I did not report on opposition to the war because no one in Bethel organized a demonstration against the war. I was criticized for “supporting” the war simply for reporting what I saw. Two decades later, a local TV reporter, sent to cover an anti-war demonstration in Anchorage, did not know of anyone planning a demonstration in favor of the war. So the reporter intervened in reality and asked a couple to go to the demonstration site to be interviewed so her story would not be perceived as biased against the war. Instead of reporting on an event, she created an event and then reported the invented event as a real one—in my view, sacrificing accuracy for the appearance of “fairness.” Which leads to point #4.
4. Film maker John Sayles once commented that “fairness” today often means balancing the truth with lies. Special interests pay lip service to “fairness” when they really want the media to provide them with free public relations. I mean, when was the last time Sarah Palin complained that the people in Fox were too biased in her favor or Joe Biden complained MSNBC was too easy on him? The PBS program “Frontline” did nuanced documentaries on Pope John Paul II and Julian Assange; fans of the pope and the Australian whistleblower used the same term to describe “Frontline’s” treatment of their heroes—“hatchet job.” Which leads to point #5.
5. There’s no simple principle for achieving fairness. Most often, it’s a matter of judgment. Art Buchwald satirized people’s whining about “unfair” treatment when he pretended to complain the media reported every time Spiro Agnew hit someone with a tennis or golf ball but failed to report on the number of times his tennis or golf shot never hit anyone. Two decades later, an Anchorage politician for real complained the media spent too much time on reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and not enough time on reporting on tankers that did not spill oil in Prince William Sound. In 1994, the “Voice of the Times” did a memorable editorial complaining that other media expressed far more outrage over the Exxon Valdez oil spill than they did over the 1964 Alaska earthquake. As Dave Barry likes to say, I am not making this up. Which leads to point #6a.
6.a There’s a lot of unfairness that folks have no problem tolerating. Part of my reporter beat was the cops and the courts. I reported on arrests, indictments, and accusations of crime. Rarely did I report on whether those charged with crimes actually committed the crimes. Like other reporters, I did not approach such stories with the rigidly held belief that everyone accused of crimes is guilty. But my reporting clearly gave that impression. I did not report on the other side unless defense attorneys proved their clients were innocent. How often does that happen? I do not recall one instance where a law-and-order politician complained about the one-sidedness of crime reporting. Which leads to 6.b.
6.b I was fortunate enough to get out of reporting three weeks before the start of the Second Gulf War. The reporting of that was, as one media critic described it, stenographic. So-called “liberal” newspapers like the New York Times and the Anchorage Daily News relied on “embedded” reporters to tell the American people whatever the military and political leaders wanted told. PBS and the other “liberal” electronic media treated the war as an exercise in military science and interviewed former generals, whom we found out later were selected by the Pentagon, about how the war was going. Turns out one reporter, an Anchorage resident no less, provided another side of the story. Dahr Jamail paid his own way to Iraq and reported on the war from the perspective of the people being bombed, not the people doing the bombing. The Anchorage Daily News would have nothing to do with him. An editor at the time, Matt Zencey, characterized reports on bombing victims as “advocacy journalism.” He didn’t say whether reporting the war from the perspective of the generals and the politicians who started it was advocating the war more than reporting on it. Which leads me to point #7.
7. The most important bias in reporting today is the bias in favor of those in power. Newspapers are going out of business, not simply because of the internet, although certainly that is a factor. But many newspapers aren’t making enough money to suit stockholders. The idea that serving a democracy by informing the people while making a modest profit has become very old-fashioned. Those in charge value serving the bottom line and the stockholders far more than serving the public. You can make more money by consolidating papers and disregarding local news, the most important ingredient in a functioning democracy at the local level. Media moguls continue to operate on the premise that newspapers function a lot better when doing away with non-essentials like news and reporters, especially when such news may actually tell people the media moguls don’t want them to know. Radio and television stations, to my knowledge, have not gone out of business. If anything, they’re flourishing more than ever, especially those that shed their news functions. How many Anchorage radio stations have real local reporters (commentators like Dan Fagan and Shannyn Moore are not reporters)? Unlike newspapers, which have always been total private sector entities and therefore minimally regulated, radio and television stations are licensed to serve the public “interest, convenience and necessity.” But under deregulation, that’s become a joke. The Federal Communication Commission regulates little more than cleavage and four-letter words, but otherwise lets media moguls do their own thing while using the public airwaves at bargain rates—another classic example of today’s corporate socialism. Once upon a time public broadcasting existed to free radio and television stations from corporate bias. Then the politicians forced public broadcasters to rely on “underwriters,” who turned out to be—guess what?—large corporations. The trickle of public funding, which used to be kept alive by a few believers like Ted Stevens and Don Young, now comes from politicians who are beholden to the corporations that own them. Last I looked, the “public” in public broadcasting is nearly nil in real life. The result is that, the last I looked, “The News Hour” on PBS somehow would never report on the Archer, Daniels Midland scandals that roiled one of the program’s biggest corporate “underwriters.” Like other media, PBS reports on the presidential elections as a “horse race,” who’s ahead and where the support is coming from, not on the issues of the campaign, other than the cosmetic ones like abortion and same sex-marriage. A friend and former colleague once got suspended for commenting that Southeast reporters made listeners’ “eyes glaze over” by focusing on “process”--telling stories about the decision-making process in timber-related stories and ignoring the real issues to avoid giving information timber companies didn’t like. Another friend lost her gig on interviewing politicial candidates because one of them didn’t like being asked a couple of tough questions about his candidacy.
Arguing over whether individual reporters are or are not “liberal,” whatever that means, makes no sense when the bosses they work for in the private sector or in “public” broadcasting depend on corporations and politicians for their jobs, especially when such jobs are dwindling every day.