'It's Complicated': The Smart Conversation About Media Bias

On Twitter, Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor, calls himself a mind-caster: most days his followers can expect a stream of insights about the American media, the journalists who produce it, and the evolving mediums where they publish. It's a thought-provoking feed, especially for those of us who've been following Professor Rosen's Web site Press Think over the years. That longer form look at "democracy and the media machine" has been essential reading for me since I discovered it early in 2004, and its innovative thinking is one factor that caused me to do my graduate work in journalism at NYU rather than the Columbia University School of Journalism.

A recent Jay Rosen obsession on Twitter has been teasing out the biases that shape the American news media. Unlike the least thoughtful press critics, who either assert the leftist view that journalism serves its corporate masters or the rightist view that it reflects the liberal political views of its professional class, Professor Rosen's contention is that... well, it's more complicated than that. "If you try to factor in the behaviors I'm describing, you will soon find that we don't have a ready language for the kind of politics that is operating," he writes. "What we have is an exhausted critique of media bias. In my own criticism I've tried to remedy this. Re-description has therefore been my aim."

The result is this post, a distillation of the intellectual themes Professor Rosen has long pursued on his Twitter feed into a longer form essay. It attempts to explain all the influences at work on contemporary journalism, and as significantly, to create a language that allows us to talk about them -- and although I can't say that I agree with every single assertion that the post makes, I do think it gets enough right that anyone hoping to seriously address the subject is forced to grapple with its assertions. (Its also something of a rebuke to folks who denigrate Twitter as an obstacle that distracts us from sustained, serious thought -- at its best, the platform is a way to think small thoughts out loud while refining them into a larger, more coherent thesis).

Do read Professor Rosen's whole post, especially his apt term "the church of the savvy" and his excellent, precise definition of "he said, she said" journalism. I'll close by briefly mentioning one objection I had to the piece. In describing journalists, Professor Rosen asserts that "most of them are skeptical about changing society in any fundamental way. And they are big believers in the law of unintended consequences."

This seems partly wrong to me. Sure, journalists are overly friendly to the establishment. As I recently argued in Newsweek, for example, their treatment of Rand Paul versus their treatment of more establishment politicians betrays an egregious double-standard that has no substantive justification -- and it demonstrates a bunch of the pathologies that Professor Rosen discusses, including his contention that journalists are quite skeptical of fundamental change.

But I don't think journalists are big believers in the law of unintended consequences. In the policy coverage that I read, the direct consequences of proposed legislation are thoroughly reported on, as are the most immediate political implications. Very seldom, however, does the reporter touch on the indirect effects of legislation.

Once upon a time, I wrote a piece arguing that this bias toward the direct consequences of legislation is one factor that biases media in a way that disadvantages the right:

Contra the least-thoughtful conservative critics, there isn't any elite liberal conspiracy at work. Bias creeps in largely because the narrative conventions of journalism are poor at capturing basic conservative and libertarian truths. An instructive example is rent control. A newspaper reporter assigned that topic can easily find a sympathetic family no longer able to afford its longtime apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Their plight is a moving brief for a rent ceiling.

As almost everyone long ago conceded, however, opponents of rent control offer superior counterarguments. Limiting rent degrades the quality of a city's housing stock, causes shortages as a dearth of new units are built, and spurs a black market where well-connected elites game their way into subsidized flats. A talented reporter, given enough time and space, could craft a narrative that illustrates how rent control ultimately makes poor families worse off. His job is relatively difficult, however, for he can hardly write a pithy anecdotal lead about the hundred families that won't occupy a non-existent apartment building because a foolish policy eliminated an unknown developer's incentive to build it.

The right, in other words, has a problem with narrative. The stubborn facts of this world contradict pieties left, right, and libertarian, occasionally forcing each group to revise its thinking. But the core critiques of liberalism intrinsically resist the narrative form. Who can foresee the unintended consequences of government intervention in advance? Who can pinpoint the particular threats to liberty posed by an ever-growing public sector?
I stand by that point, though I'd add, pace Professor Rosen, that it's complicated -- every non-ideological bias at work in media cuts in different ideological and political directions at different times. Coverage of The War on Terrorism is a perfect example of news media blindness toward indirect consequences. Does anyone think reporters did an adequate job exploring or explaining the potential unintended effects of invading Iraq, or opening a prison at Guantanamo Bay, or torturing detainees? This blindness to what could go wrong later, a few steps removed from the initial decision, and the terrible problems it could cause, advantaged the political right from a short term political perspective (though I'd argue that it also helped blind us to conservative insights that could've saved us from making some of our worst mistakes).

Or to cite another example, after the fact we all understand that drilling for oil in very deep water brings added risks, and can lead to catastrophic oil spills. Was this unintended consequence explored during the "drill, baby, drill" news cycles? Or adequately explained in prior stories on prohibiting drilling in more shallow areas? There's an argument about which way this one cuts politically, but either way, it's clear that on this issue -- and on so many others -- a press that truly believed in the law of unintended consequences would behave much differently than the news media we have.

This objection turns out to be a rather small one in the context of Professor Rosen's piece, the full text of which I once again commend to you. Reactions to any part of this post? Send them to conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com and I'll excerpt the best.


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