The most cherished myth among pretty much any political group is that there’s media bias against the group. Almost as common, though, is the idea that there’s a conspiracy — that sinister people are plotting together to make your group look bad.
I know it’s hard to believe this, but your conspiracy theories just aren’t true. The world doesn’t revolve around you and your group — and there isn’t some plot to make you look bad. (In fact, every group does a good enough job of looking bad that nobody needs to help.)
Conservatives complain about liberal bias. Liberals complain about conservative bias. Libertarians complain that pretty much everybody hates them. I’m not sure what socialists complain about these days, but it’s probably about the anti-Marxist bias all around them.
(For the language purists among us, let me point out that I’m using “conservative” and “liberal” in their generally accepted mainstream definitions here.)
I used to be a reporter and editor, then a publisher after that. Even though I was working at smaller community newspapers, I can assure you that there wasn’t any organized political effort to shape news in the media. My ex-wife was a news producer for a major network affiliate for awhile. The only thing that mattered in newspapers or TV was what it took to get people to read or tune in. There was a definite bias in favor of dumbing things down to attract more readers and viewers, but that was about making money, not making you look bad.
Here’s the truth. Reporters, editors and producers are humans. Some of them have biases for things they believe in, but the vast majority of them generally try to be fair. The shocking truth is that what you see as bias is more likely to be because of one of three things:
- Confirmation bias — What you remember seeing isn’t as accurate as you think it is. You tend to remember media errors or slants that reflect poorly on your group, but you ignore the fact that the same thing happens to every group. Whatever we already believe, most of us are going to see more of, because that’s what our minds are unconsciously looking for.
- Incompetence and stupidity — When you hire people largely on the basis of how good they look and sound on camera and how well viewers like them, you’re not necessarily hiring geniuses. In fact, you’re hiring a lot of stupid people. Even the ones who aren’t flat-out stupid are frequently incompetent. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve dealt with reporters who didn’t understand the subjects they were covering (in city council or county commission meetings, for instance) or who just plain weren’t that good at organizing information. The result was frequently a mess that I struggled as an editor to fix. It wasn’t that my reporters were trying to make anyone look bad. They just sometimes weren’t very good reporters or writers — and that was frequently the best I could hire.
- Your choice of media — The public’s preference for getting its information from television is probably the worst contributor to the problem. It might be the bias that comes from my print background, but I say that the phrase “TV journalism” is an oxymoron. When you count on TV for your information, you’re showing over-reliance on a medium that does a really poor job of presenting ideas. There’s a short and brilliant book that clearly explains why this is the case that I urge everyone to read. “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” was written in the ’80s by the late Neil Postman, who was a professor of media ecology. He brilliantly shows why it’s impossible for television to do what books and newspapers did in the past. The fact that we’re relying on television is slowly leading to “Idiocracy.”
It’s comforting to think that news people are out to make us all look bad, but we do a good enough job of that on our own. It’s true that reporters, editors and producers are sometimes incompetent and simply driven to win over eyeballs, but they’re not out to get you.
There’s one bias that I’d say is true of the media, though, and that’s a bias toward the status quo. Because of institutional and intellectual laziness, it’s easiest to support and reflect the views of whatever the existing power structure is. Complaining about this is a waste of time, though. If you change the world enough, you will become the new power structure whose views they’ll reflect. Somehow, I doubt you’ll call it bias then.