Bias in News Reporting
When Fox News came out with its claim that it offers "Fair and Balanced" reporting and their star performer, O'Reilly, started calling his show the "No Spin Zone" most of us, probably including Fox employees, had to smile. Everyone knows that Fox is heavily biased in favor of conservative points of view except, of course, those who are on the political right who may regard the reporting on this cable outlet as fair and balanced since it accords with their views of what is going on. It is interesting that Fox has not, so far as I know, claimed that it is objective. It is also interesting that no one else claims to be fair and balanced so arguably we have an instance here of "methinks the lady doth protest too much." The Times tells us that they present "all the news that's fit to print." I'm not clear what that means exactly. I'm not aware of any other such claims but I suspect those I don't know about would be similarly amusing.
I am prompted to blog on bias because my local paper ran an op-ed piece yesterday by Cal Thomas, a regular contributor, titled "The Words are Out: Big Media bias is becoming more and more evident." He may not be responsible for the precise language used in this head but he would surely approve of it. In his piece we find the continuing conservative refrain that the broadcast networks like to employ liberal democrats and they exhibit a liberal bias. He writes, "For people who believe the broadcast networks are biased and employ mostly people who favor liberal Democrats and oppose conservative Republicans" I won't complete his thought since all I care about is the antecedent of his conditional which expresses a proposition it is perfectly clear he believes is true. I have always been puzzled by this point of view since broadcast networks that have news shows and newspapers, for that matter, are owned by giant corporations or rich people, many of whom are conservative (all of the Murdoch media outlets, for instance,). I give you in evidence the conservative bials of news outlets, the Sinclair group which owns a large number of TV stations and which forced its TV stations to run a long anti-Kerry piece during the last Presidential election campaign. Check out what Viacom owns at the Columbia Journalism Review's web site and ask yourself this: Is Viacom a liberal corporation? I would imagine that should CBS be promoting left wing causes Viacom would tell them to stop. What we have here in the claim by Thomas that the networks like to hire Liberal Democrats rather than Conservative Republicans is the Big Lie. If you tell a whopper long enough people will tend to believe it and conservatives have been harping on the anti-conservative, pro-liberal bias they claim exists in the major media for years -- decades, perhaps. Interestingly, Thomas does not name names -- we must accept his point of view on faith.
The last time I remember liberals simlarly squealing like s stuck pig was during the Vietnam War when the content of the news reports about this war were fed to journalists by the military and the Johnson administration. That was before journalists started going out into the field to see what was going on. After a long while, coverage became more independent of the military's preferred point of view. Of course, liberals like to poke a stick in the eyes of people like Rush Limbagh and aura Ingraham.
At the Media Research Center's annual "Dishonor Awards" dinner which Mr. Thomas hosted, the "winners" were announced. "Who were the judges who picked the `winners'?", you ask? Did they include Ted Kennedy or Tom Daschle or Hillary Clinton along with some conservatives. Of course not. They were people like Rush Limbaugh, Steve Forbes, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Robert Novak and Mary Matalin, people who are merely conservative and others that are very right wing. And who were the winners? Naturally they were anyone who said things favorable to liberal persons (people like Dan Rather who are perceived by the right wing as liberal) or took liberal positions. Notice that the name "Media Research Center" in no way suggests that this organization is of, by, and for the political right. They use the magic word "research" which suggests that this Center is objective in the way that we hope scientists are. Naturally, the Media Research Center has no such lofty goal in mind. It is of, by, and for conservatives, including those on the right wing.
Bias in news reporting can enter in a variety of ways -- the selection of news stories, the selection of sources for these sources, the writing of the stories, and the placement of these stories all play large roles. It is my belief, based on a number of years of thinking and reading about bias dating back to when I started working on my book on the Language of Politics (and political journalism), that what aggravates conservatives the most about news coverage is the selection of the subjects of news stories. Right now, most of the news coming out of Iraq is negative and conservatives don't like hearing or reading negative stories for they imply that their conservative President is not doing a very good job. I suspect they want to read not about American casualties or infighting among those Iraqis charged with coming up with a set of leaders for their new government but about Americans creating schools and hospitals. The negative stories find their way to the front page in just the same way that tornadoes, car crashes, and big fires and floods do -- people are interested in these things. If journalists consistently reported in a way that the people don't like, they will quit reading or listening to the media that present their stories. That's how the free market works.
I did a search for "all the news that's fit to print" and came up with a very long story on the National Review's web site arguing that the New York Times biases its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian against Israel. By and large, coverage of this conflict has been pro-Israeli in this country. Actions by Israel that kill Arabs who are in Gaza and the West Bank and actions by Hamas and Al Fatah and others that result in Israeli deaths are portrayed very differently. The latter are treated as the result of terrorist acts, while the latter are not. This would be a very good story to read carefully to see if you think the Times coverage is biased or is simply "fair and balanced." I have my own ideas but I would be interested in yours.