Media Bias and the Sin of Omission

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by media bias. It’s a charge that is quite old on the Right, dating back to the Vietnam War when Walter Cronkite stopped reporting about the Tet Offensive in February 1968 and instead voiced his opinion that the war was lost, “(I)t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Cronkite spoke at the beginning of a time of limited media outlets. The consolidation of Big City newspapers was in full swing, providing most Americans with increasingly limited number of perspectives in print. Television news was dominated by the Big Three who spent vast sums of money on news desks around the world, but limited perspectives that appealed to the small cadre of bosses at the top of the three organizations. It was also at this time that those educated by a leftist dominated academia graduated with journalism degrees began replacing those who learned reporting as a trade before World War 2 or in many cases, during it. Since only a quarter of Americans attended college at the time of the Vietnam War, the requirement of a journalism degree made journalists less representative of the population and more elitist. While the American population as a whole is considered center-right ideologically, journalists tend to lean left in contrast to their audience.

The rise of the Internet ended this choke-hold on information by the liberal elite, and put alternative viewpoints a mouse-click away. This explosion of media forced readers to react to news in a way that their grandparents and great-grandparents would have understood. “Don’t trust everything you read in the newspapers,” was a cliche over a century ago during William Randolph Hearst’s fight with Joseph Pulitzer, when Hearst employed tactics derided at the time as “yellow journalism.” Even though readers in the late 19th and early 20th century lacked the Internet, television and radio, they still had access to newspapers from across the political spectrum, often in foreign languages and from divergent perspectives that made the media of a century later look bland and monocultural by comparison. Today’s news readers can read an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, view a contrasting opinion in the New York Times, find the European perspective on the topic in the Economist, see what the German’s think at Der Spiegel, read what liberals think about the subject at Huffington Post, and get the libertarian viewpoint at Reason. A little over a century ago a news reader would have been able to do the same using local newspapers.

Bias isn’t bad. It’s unavoidable, and should be accepted as a human quality to the reporting and analysis of events. As a conservative-leaning libertarian I can still read the New York Times. Even Mother Jones offers useful information to a reader who is aware of its bias and questions what he or she reads. But what’s often as interesting as what they print is what they omit.

Walter Russell Mead is an avid reader of the New York Times, but he finds it interesting that any person who relied solely on the New York Times for their knowledge of the Scott Walker recall effort in Wisconsin would be completely unaware about the likelihood of Walker winning the recall. “But what Times readers will not learn from this piece is that (Walker) is winning. Walker is overwhelmingly favored to win on June 5, with polls consistently giving him a significant lead over his opponent. In seven pages of focused, detailed coverage of the politics of the Wisconsin race, the piece has no room for this simple yet somehow telling detail.” Mead relates other New York Times coverage that fails to explain to New York Times readers why Walker is supported by the majority of Wisconsinites. “(W)e don’t learn anything at all, really, about why people support him — or why so many of them are furious with the unions and their supporters. In an article about the bitter political divisiveness consuming Wisconsin, we learn nothing about the actual nature of the divide.” Mead characterizes this failure as “foolish and self-defeating propaganda” worthy of an “anti-Pulitzer Prize for the worst journalism of the year,” and blames such pieces for why “liberals are so frequently surprised by events that other people saw coming.”

Omission shouldn’t surprise a critical reader. While I value the Drudge Report, I’ve learned that on Thursdays when weekly unemployment figures are released they are likely to appear on Drudge when they are bad. If I log in on Thursday morning and see no mention of the figures, I know that they likely came in above expectations, and that the current administration will take credit for them. It’s also nothing new. Both the Germans and Japanese governments reported great military successes in World War 2 up until they surrendered, a strategy employed by the Iraqi government with the comical “Baghdad Bob” Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf announcing great victories against allied forces as US tanks lumbered into the background shots behind him. The slant of a report might be more obvious than its complete omission, but a discerning reader should question what is not being reported regardless.

Libertarians and conservatives have existed under a liberal-dominated regime for decades now, and are much more sensitive to bias than their liberal and leftist counterparts due to the constant assault on their beliefs. For example, I know that any article in the New Scientist, a leftist-leaning science publication out of the UK, will blast climate skeptics for questioning the “consensus” of climate change, while in the very same issue publicize the dangers of fracking based on anecdotal evidence that has been consistently refuted by scientific studies. Yet I still read the magazine.

Mead implies that liberals have had it easier, with their world views and ideologies confirmed by the mainstream media they consume, and that this media regularly misleads them until Reality crashes through and surprises them. Michael Barone notes, “Liberals can protect themselves better against assaults from outside their cocoon. They can stay out of megachurches and make sure their remote controls never click on Fox News. They can stay off the AM radio dial so they will never hear Rush Limbaugh…The problem is that this leaves them unprepared to make the best case for their side in public debate. They are too often not aware of holes in arguments that sound plausible when bandied between confreres entirely disposed to agree.” Conservatives and libertarians don’t have that option. Liberalism is everywhere and has been the dominant ideology in the media for the past two generations. But this exposure has deepened conservative and libertarian thought as beliefs are challenged on a daily basis, and the employment of critical thought has allowed them to read liberal media without succumbing to it. Liberals have not done the opposite. They don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Fox News; they avoid them, and worse, attack them in the hope of driving them off the air. Their attempts at competing with Limbaugh with liberal talk radio have failed. Fox News dominates cable news as CNN and MSNBC’s audiences wither. Instead of reviewing their positions and perhaps updating them to reflect the times, they run to the government to have them banned.

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  8. Dean Esmay:

    Brilliant. This is very much what I’ve been saying for a very long time. I think it’s honestly tragic; the fact of the matter is that the Right (and Libertarians) are NOT always right about everything, and this lack of a strong intellectual response to them is deeply damaging. They have no idea why they keep losing on so many issues or elections, or why it takes them so long to win even when they do win, and it never occurs to them that one of the main problems is that they make almost no effort to really truly understand the intellectual mettle of their opponents’ arguments. This is arguably even detrimental to conservatives; sure it makes it easier for them to win on some things, but it lets them get sloppy too.

    BTW, this is a piece that really should go on The Moderate Voice. 😉

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