#PDF10: On Media Bias

I'm appearing on a panel at the Personal Democracy Forum today, where I'm supposed to discuss truth, beauty and fact-checking. Or something like that. As I understand it, my role is to give an account of the evolution of journalism and its relationship to the truth over the past decade or so. I am not qualified to speak for the profession, so I'm going to limit my comments to my own experience. In preparation for my panel, I thought I'd jot down some of my thoughts on the subjects of media bias and of my own evolution as a reporter.

Obviously, journalists want to be fair. New journalists, especially, are obsessed with being seen as fair. Then we learn fairly quickly that fairness is a goal, and not always the paramount one. We also learn that, no matter what we do or how we do it, we will never satisfy anyone. Bias and truth are interrelated, and there are three approaches to media criticism that predominate. All have long histories and are fairly boring by now.

Number one: journalists are liberal. This is probably true in a narrow sense and certainly true when the word is broadened to encompass a mode of inquiry and an acceptance of enlightenment norms and modernity. It is also irrelevant, in that there are plenty of other biases that influence coverage far more than individual political ideology.

Number two: journalists fall victim to the tyranny of false equivalences. That is, where there is a he said, journalists feel compelled to find a she said. But sometimes, often times, stories, and facts, are inconvenient and unfair. Good journalists have to figure out when facts are contestable, when they ought to be contestable, when they're not contestable, and how best to relate to the reader the probability that one side is probably correct.

This leads to number three: journalists assume a privileged perspective that smothers dissent and critical analysis. It is, in a way, a second order criticism that one hears from the left, and it also, in a way, conflicts with the false equivalences tryranny. If journalists are to make choices and judgments, then one would assume that the expertise they claim in being able to make such judgment would not itself be labeled a pathology.

If there is a unifying field theory underpinning bias claims Two and Three, it is that journalists are not special. They do not sit atop an equilateral triangle with left and right represented as angles below. The knowledge and expertise they assume is a faux savvyness, or smacks of a sacred shared body of hidden knowledge that they hide from outsiders.

A lot of media criticism is trenchant, and I try to take it seriously. I can't really explain what makes journalists journalists and partisans partisans. The best I've come up with is that, on complex stories, good journalists begin from a stance of epistemological humility and work backwards, like Karl Popper, trying to falsify their own assumptions. That'll do for much of our work, but not for all of it. When I learn that the Defense Intelligence Agency operates a clandestine interrogation facility to avoid Red Cross visits, I'll give the government a chance to explain itself, but I won't pretend that I'm not writing the story with an intent to hold them accountable.

Most media criticism is not serious. That is to say that most of it is derivative of some derivative of someone's analysis of a single broadcast news story or of a blog post, or of words in a blog post. Indeed, amateur media criticism has all but replaced political activism. It's so easy to e-mail a reporter and tell him what a douchebag he is, or harangue him for not covering Republicans with as much skepticism as he covers liberals.

I've found that I enjoy trying to figure out the difference between what the Obama administration is saying about what it is doing and why it is actually doing what it is doing. So I often write posts that explain what the powers that be are trying to accomplish even if -- especially if -- they're presenting a different face to the public. For this I am often accused of stenography. If pointing out complicated motivations and explaining policy choices is automatically assumed by the reader to be a validation of said explanations and policies, then, well, I'm one hell of a stenographer. Occasionally, my prose trips me up, but more often than not, the small minority of readers who don't get it simply don't get it. They're the ones who will e-mail, write and comment, so they're the ones I try to engage with, usually fruitlessly.

Later today: the rise of denialism