Friday, September 25, 2009

Unbiased viewpoints

It's fun to troll around the Yahoo! Answers section of the Internet. Readers post questions, hoping for answers from, well, somewhere. As you'd expect, there are a lot of kids who are hoping someone else will write their term papers for them.

The sports section is pretty boring as these things go; the questions rarely get deeper than "Is Alex Rodriguez the best player in baseball right now?" or "Will the Red Sox defeat the evil Yankees tonight?" (The answer to that last question, of course, is "I hope so.") More interesting, though, are the sections devoted to News and Events, which includes journalism, and Politics and Government. It's a way to find out what the latest oddest theory is -- that's where I first heard about the theory that somehow Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

While some people like to merely rant on Yahoo! Answers, and others are busy campaigning to get Glenn Beck a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the subject of media bias comes up a lot. A lot of questions along the lines of "Where can I get an unbiased source of news?" pop up. Speaking as someone who has been in the business for 30-plus years, I can at least have opinions on the subject of bias in the news media. Here are a few of them:

There is far less room for bias in the news that people think.

Look at the newspaper on a typical day, and a vast majority of the stories are pretty straight-forward. Legislature passes bill. Robbery takes place on south side of town. Traffic patterns changed by construction. Whatever. Not much room to slant stuff there, as it's just a matter of reporting the facts. Every reporter brings a personal set of biases into his or her writing, but they rarely apply.

A majority of reporters tilt slightly to the liberal side of the political fence.

I think there's two reasons for this. The journalism business seems to attract people who have a "I want to change the world" philosophy, and they lean left. Plus, the news business likes to see things happen -- there's a bias toward events taking place -- and liberals take a more pro-active approach on matters than conservatives. Therefore, liberal approaches are better for business in that sense.

Those are moderated a bit by a couple of other factors. Ownership of media outlets usually is pretty conservative, as it can't afford to offend potential advertisers. The lower you go on the chain, the more likely that such interference can be a problem.

And anyone who thinks reporters sit around in large groups waiting for the next call for the Kremlin hasn't been in a newsroom. There are plenty of Republicans in the media. In fact, they are sometimes the loudest people in the room because they think they are greatly outnumbered and believe they have to shout at times.

Readers and viewers sometimes can't be bothered to tell the difference between viewers and commentators.

Some people probably lump the major network news broadcasts in with the cable news shows at night. There's a world of difference between them. Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity show up with a definite viewpoint when they do an evening show. While ABC, CBS and NBC aren't perfectly unbiased at the dinner hour, because that's impossible, they come much, much closer to that goal. Heck, Charles Gibson isn't even registered to vote, because he says he doesn't want to think about such decisions while he's in his current job.

Meanwhile, the audience shouldn't prejudge an entire news-gathering operation on one part of it. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page may not be particularly readable most of the time, and the only columnist who is even usually interesting is Peggy Noonan, but the rest of the paper is filled with good reporters who write interesting and important stories.

Along those lines ...

Don't trust commentators who think they are always correct.

The older I get, the more I realize that the world gets less black and white than I realized the day before. You'd never know it by watching some shows. Hannity, Olbermann, Beck, Rachel Maddow, Bill O'Reilly ... all sometimes wrong but never in doubt. Depending on your political persuasion, you no doubt find some of them smug and others brilliant. But there's always another side to any discussion.

Just saying you are fair and balanced doesn't mean you act like it.

I think the first time media bias came up as an issue was when Spiro Agnew spoke out about it 40 years or so ago. (Now there's a guy I want to identify with.) Since then, conservatives have been pounding that issue like a drum, and the idea has taken hold with some of the faithful.

The brilliance of the concept of Fox News, economically speaking, was to change the model of the newscast to cater to that audience. Fox has grabbed a good-sized share of the relatively small cable news market that way, making lots of money in the process. Fox even draws some liberals on to appear on its shows at night, as the audience is large enough to be an attraction even if the reception is liable to be on the rude side. MSNBC at night has trouble finding someone to the right of John Dean.

It is funny, though, to hear reactions to Fox's approach. I've had conservatives say that they watch Fox because it's the only news source they trust. The liberal viewpoint was well summarized by Glenn Locke, who said that if Fox can claim to be fair and balanced, he can claim to be tall and thin.

Which shows, I guess, that one man's bias is another man's truth.

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