A View on Media Bias

By Mel Harkrader Pine

We all talk about media bias. We talk about it in our churches, from our pulpits, on Facebook and Twitter, in leftward- and rightward-leaning forums, and in the grocery-store checkout lane. We’re all sure that we know what it is.

A long time ago (1966-76), I worked in the newsrooms of multi-edition big-city daily newspapers. Journalism has changed since then, but one thing has not. None of us is ever satisfied by how we or our cause is portrayed in an article about us, as long as it was written and edited by journalists aiming for impartiality, as most do.

Live Breaking News headline in blue dotted world map background. Vector illustration

Hold a mirror up to your face or play back a tape of your voice. Like what you see or hear?

No, I’m not suggesting that the media are perfect mirrors. They will be biased as long as people are, and most journalists do tilt left.  But bias is not a conspiracy, and being unhappy with what we read is not a form of oppression.

Over the weekend, I read a commentary on ricochet.com blaming media bias for its lack of attention to Friday’s assault on Senator Rand Paul. If the attack had been on a liberal media darling, it would have received more attention, according to the author. (Sorry, but I haven’t been able to find the article again and link to it.)

I could feel my ex-newsman’s whiskers (the few that I have) beginning to bristle. Some of my reactions:

  • The assault was covered by mainstream media, just not as a major story.
  • The injuries were described then as minor.
  • Events on Fridays and over the weekend often don’t get full coverage until Monday.
  • The incident gave no evidence of being more than a personal matter.
  • Paul, while a figure of national importance, is not currently a candidate for anything.
  • The assault could increase sympathy for Paul or detract from his image. Is less coverage or more coverage evidence of media bias. I suspect the media would also be criticized for playing the story up.

In fact, by the time Monday evening and its news deadlines had rolled around, the injuries were described as more serious and the incident got more coverage.

My biggest discovery when I went from journalism to corporate public relations was the huge differences between labor-intensive and capital-intensive industries. At Mobil Oil, mistakes could cost the company billions of dollars, so it could afford layer upon layer of double-checking. On the other hand, payroll costs play a bigger role in the news business, so there is little time to arrange and carry out vendettas and conspiracies.

Sure, some publishers buy media outlets for their own purposes, but they usually succeed in getting their goals met less often than they would like. And many publishers care only that their newspapers, broadcast stations, cable networks and websites take the positions that will make them most profitable.

I’m not sure whether my opinion is humble or not, but in it the characteristics that make a good journalist (primarily curiosity) are more likely to be found in liberals than conservatives. So it’s not surprising that they tilt left.

But good journalists try to overcome their biases, and the rest of us should, too. Neither a liberal nor a conservative cabal controls the news business.

Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine

7 comments

  1. I dunno, Mel. First, I think the media has changed a lot in the past decade—the New York Times is definitely not the NYT my dad worked for back in the day, and the Washington Post is no longer his WaPo either. I remember when real conservatives used to appear on the editorial pages of these great old newspapers. I remember a lot more in-depth analysis too, and a much more honest attempt to explain the reasoning behind a conservative position. There is a reason that the media is so distrusted—the major outlets have shown themselves to be untrustworthy, and have not learned much from their complete failure to grasp, let alone understand, the big story of last year’s election.

    As for the coverage of the attack on Rand Paul—which left him badly injured— The Daily Wire writes:

    “By Monday, The New York Times had all but concluded that the attack was not political. “Is Landscaping Drama at the Root of Rand Paul’s Assault?” the paper wrote. D’oh! Landscaping! Of course!

    “Competing explanations of the origins of the drama cited stray yard clippings, newly planted saplings and unraked leaves,” the paper of record wrote.

    GQ magazine used the Times story as a vehicle to write a piece titled: “Rand Paul Sounds Like the Worst Guy to Have as a Neighbor.”

    “Well, it turns out that Rand Paul is a bit of an asshole about his yard,” the Gentlemen’s Quarterly author wrote (not so gentlemanly).

    So now the recurring theme is Paul’s a bad neighbor who — at least in the eyes of GQ — might’ve deserved a beat down.

    But a new report says all that might be all wrong.

    “The Bowling Green, Ky., neighbor who allegedly attacked Sen. Rand Paul last weekend, causing six broken ribs, was aggressively anti-Trump and anti-GOP in his social media, calling for the impeachment of the president and urging Russia investigator Robert Mueller to ‘fry Trump’s gonads,'” the Washington Examiner wrote, noting Boucher was also a fan of the #NeverTrump movement.
    Seven neighbors in the Rivergreen gated community told Secrets Wednesday that the Pauls are friendly homeowners who kept their property tidy.”

    It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to argue that, had Chuck Schumer been attacked by a pro-Trump neighbor, the New York Times would have dismissed the landscaping explanation as, to put it mildly, inadequate and been offering worried musings about whether Trump’s aggressive rhetoric was now driving even respectable Republicans in upscale communities to violence.

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  2. And then there’s this: Nina Burleigh, and her Newsweek article explaining how Trump is to blame for all the sex abuse in Hollywood and elsewhere over the last few decades. Of course, while she does excoriate Harvey Weinstein, she completely fails to mention—again— Bill and Hillary Clinton, nor notice quite how many of the “dicks” (her word—and she’s got a lot of ’em, most of them doozies and insulting to men) hang, so to speak, left. I suppose it could be a coincidence that so many denizens of the mainstream chatterazi think, write, opine and/or forget to fact-check in exactly the same ways? Remember when Newsweek was a real news magazine written by people who claimed to be civilized and intelligent and assumed their readers were too?

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    1. I knew this one would rev your engine, Kate, and it feels like a conspiracy. But people, as individuals, do tend to adopt group biases and blindnesses (if you’ll excuse a probably politically incorrect word). In “1984,” if I remember it correctly, Orwell never told us if groupthink was imposed by a ruling cabal, or if it was a cultural evolution from the totalitarian systems he was seeing in his time. I tend to think these things are societal and can only be corrected by one-on-one or small-group processes aimed at individuals. Logic alone is not enough, even if expressed strongly — or maybe especially if expressed strongly.

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  3. Ah! No, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. Human beings aren’t really efficient enough as a species to do conspiracy. I do think there are individuals who are willing to encourage or enforce the groupthink for their own purposes/profit. But then there are the vast rest of us who are far more easily dissuaded than we’d like to imagine from allowing ourselves to know, let alone publicly declare that the emperor has no clothes. That—our proneness to groupthink—is the interesting and probably perennial problem.

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  4. As for logic: one of the miracles of the enlightenment was the discovery of the power of reasoned, rational dialectic. It is not our default mode, certainly. But isn’t it something to aspire to? Especially for UUs?

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    1. When I spoke with a UU friend about the UUA’s conviction that we all swum in a sea of white supremacy, he said: “It’s amazing how some people cam come to a well-thought-out, logical position that’s totally wrong.” I’m not as trusting of pure logic, at least as practiced by humans, as some Age of Reason philosophers. But that wasn’t really my point, which was that logic lone doesn’t change people’s minds. Remember Haidt’s rider and elephant, One need’s a whiff of emotion (peanuts) to entice the elephant.

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