Is the Journalistic Ethos a Form of Bias?

Media critic Jay Rosen lays out a detailed critique of ideology in the political press

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"What is the actual ideology of our political press?" Hundreds of articles have been composed concerning this question, and countless organizations founded to combat the perceived bias in American media. While debate about the nature and slant of this bias persists, NYU professor and consummate media critic Jay Rosen believes he's found an answer.

"There are two camps on this question," writes Rosen in a lengthy treatise. "One is huge and includes almost everyone who has declared a position. The other is tiny; it includes almost no one. I'm in the tiny camp." The large camp are those who think it's "easy" to characterize the press's bias, the smaller one thinks the picture's more complicated. For Rosen, the real ideology of American media can't be reduced to left, right, or impartial; it is best described in different terms such as "Church of the Savvy" and "Regression to a Phony Mean." The characteristics of this bias become apparent at times such as when journalists "try to win the argument not by having better arguments but by standing closer to a reality they get to define as more real than your reality":

Take for instance the way professional journalists try to generate authority and respect among peers, or, to state it negatively, the way they flee opprobrium. Here it is important for them to demonstrate that they are not on anyone's "team," or cheerleading for a known position. This puts a premium on stories that embarrass, disrupt, annoy or counter the preferred narrative--the talking points, the party line--of one or both of the sides engaged in political battle. An incentive system like that tends to be an ideological scrambler, which doesn't mean that it scrambles consistently or symmetrically across political lines. It means what I said earlier... this is complicated.

While Rosen presents a strong case for his view of the political media's bias, some fellow commentators have trouble seeing how these tendencies could be changed.

  • It's Complicated concedes Rosen. "One thing we can definitely say: political journalists are cosmopolitans, and they will see the world through that lens. They may also stop seeing it as a lens, and that's when it becomes an ideology. But even if we had an x-ray machine that gave us perfect information about the beliefs of the journalists who report on politics, the ideological drift of the work they produce wouldn't necessarily match the personal beliefs or voting patterns of the reporters and editors on the beat because there are other factors that intervene between the authors of news accounts and the accounts they author."

  • What's So Wrong About This? Filling for Megan McArdle at the Atlantic, Julian Sanchez wonders whether the bias created by following a canon of journalistic ethics is the lesser of two evils. "Rosen pretty clearly regards most of these ideological tendencies as pernicious, and while I'm often inclined to agree, it's also worth at least asking whether, in each case, they're any worse than the plausible alternatives," muses Sanchez. After all, the effort to stamp out bias under a banner of journalistic integrity, while ultimately an act of self-deception, is still useful for most journalistic pursuits. "Suppose, for instance, we agree that its both delusional for journalists to cultivate an attitude of being untouchably "above the fray" and that this attitude ends up warping coverage in undesirable ways," proposes Sanchez. "It might yet be the case that we're so naturally disposed to tribalism that it can only be avoided by cultivating a self conception as a member of the Savvy Tribe. It would be depressing if this were true, of course, but it can't be ruled out a priori. Sometimes our delusions serve useful functions."
  • So What Do You Suggest? Marc Ambinder is not satisfied with a mere thought experiment from Rosen. "If the ideologies he identifies -- the pathologies, actually -- are the sum total of the media, what would Jay Rosen, if he were running the world, have us do?" asks Ambinder. "Is there a distinction between journalism and ideological argument? Is it methodological? Are there times when, given the difficulty of discovering a truth, journalists can and should adopt a disinterested or disembodied stance? His criticism applies largely to political journalism, and so I anticipate his answer."
  • The Media Needs Self Awareness In an article covering parallel arguments to Rosen's, Glenn Greenwald addresses the media's fraternization with the Obama administration. After providing a few anecdotes highlighting the absence of self-awareness among establishment journalists, Greenwald asserts that the problem is "not that these media figures fail to perform their assigned function or consciously decide that they won't." Rather, establishment journalists "don't even conceive of their purpose in this way, because holding government officials accountable is not actually their purpose." As Greenwald writes, the ideology guiding mainstream journalists is one of a distorted sense of responsibility:
With some accidental exceptions, the corporations which own these media outlets don't choose people for these positions who want to or who will perform these accountability functions. They choose the ones who have no interest in doing so, no ability to do so, and who simply won't -- and thus don't. [David] Gregory and [Ed] Henry don't succeed in their corporations despite their failure to do their jobs of holding government officials accountable; they succeed because they do their job, which doesn't include that function.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.