Thursday, September 8, 2011

Is There Bias in the Mainstream Media?

Many political and social conservatives decry an alleged liberal bias in the so-called “mainstream media.” Concerns of such bias have led to a backlash that has led to the success of conservative talk radio and Fox News Channel.

To a point, I understand and agree there is a bias in the mainstream media. As someone who runs in a variety of different social circles—from conservative Christians to liberal idealists to pro-business capitalists—I actually think about this point quite a lot and have for a long time.

Many of my friends and acquaintances believe adamantly that there is a left-tilt in the mainstream media and it ticks them off. I also have plenty of friends who completely relate to the cultural perspectives shared by many mainline journalists, so it would never occur to them that there is anything wrong with the mainstream media’s worldview. As a consumer of such media who is fairly sensitive to each of these perspectives, I personally have for years had my antennae up listening and reading for evidence of such liberal bias.

In my observation, most journalists in the mainstream media seem to come from fairly homogenous backgrounds culturally. They seem to be college educated. Many are from the East Coast (but rarely from the South). Religion does not seem to be of much importance to them. And they seem to think they’re pretty clever.

I pick all this up from a plethora of fairly subtle things. NPR stations encourage listeners to contribute to support the “intelligent talk radio” on NPR. Such statements seem to be code for: “Yes, we are technically a type of ‘talk radio’ but we’re not blathering idiots like Rush, Glenn and their ilk.” I get the sense the point they’re trying to express is that Terry Gross and Diane Reem are qualitatively superior to the right wing windbags.

In mainstream media reporting, I’ve also noticed that acceptance of the Theory of Evolution is a given; no sane person would admit to Creationist sympathies. The unspoken assumption seems to be: “We are well-educated and smart; well-educated, smart people are always Darwinists.”

When religion is covered in various stories by the mainstream media, I often get the impression the people reporting are really thinking “WTF? Can you believe such crazy people exist?” Sometimes it is the tone of the reporting. But a lot of my impression is based simply on the type of stories that are chosen. We always seem to hear the stories of the religious bigots who are burning someone else’s scripture, or folks who are believing in something that defies scientific or other logical proof. It gives one the impression that if you run into these journalists at a cocktail party, it might be wise to not come out of the closet as a Christian.

I think that homogeneity in the culture of American journalism and perceived cultural bias is likely why Dan Rather (a native Texan) played up his regional accent and even added flaky colloquial phrases later in his career. I don’t know that for sure. That is just my gut reaction. But frankly why else would he start using those odd colloquialisms?

Indeed, some of those little witticisms were so darned wacky, I was truly embarrassed as a fellow Texan. (Classics: “Bush has run through Dixie like a big wheel through a cotton field.” “If [Gore] doesn’t carry Florida, Slim will have left town.”)

Clearly, Dan had not spent a lot of time in the Lone Star State in recent years. I don’t know anyone these days who talks like that. It was like a 40 year old stereotype of how Texans express themselves. But when he was still on the air, my assumption was that Dan spoke like that to appeal to the “common folk” and appear less of a New York liberal. I don’t know who he thought he was fooling, but I guess he thought it was worth a shot. For those who are unfamiliar, the link below has an article from 2000 about Dan’s “down-home witticisms.”

So, yes, Virginia, I do believe the mainstream media has certain biases. I think all of us do. If I’ve learned nothing else as a lawyer over the past decade plus, I’ve learned that human objectivity is a myth. We are all shaped by our life experiences and the attitudes we’ve been exposed to. We should try to be objective if we are lawyers or journalists. But we should also be aware that subjectivity is always going to seep into anything we do. We should be aware of that tendency so we can fight against it as best we can. If we’re not even aware, then we won’t be successful in that struggle.

Frankly, I think it also helps to listen to different perspectives. I always encourage my students to listen open-mindedly to different opinions and points of view. We learn and grow that way. But hearing other perspectives also helps us to realize the biases that we carry around.

I imagine the newsroom of most mainstream media outlets to be composed of people from roughly similar backgrounds and values. They seem to have group think a lot of time. They don’t seem to realize many people in this country have different life experiences and belief systems that (gasp!) may be valid or at least deserving of equal respect. (See the November 19, 2009 post to this blog for some discussion of the media’s reaction to Jimmy Carter’s expression of his Christian faith in the 1976 election.) I think such work environments could benefit from less group think and more diversity of opinion. I’m not saying CBS and CNN should just hire a bunch more registered Republicans. That is too simplistic. Instead, I think that a real diversity of life experience and perspective would add a lot.

Now I want to make clear that even though I do believe there is a sort of cultural bias in the mainstream media, in my long-time, critical observation, I don’t necessarily perceive political bias in the stories that are typically reported. Even though I think that the mainstream media is likely dominated by secular, college-educated Northeasterners, I don’t typically notice that the mainstream media is more supportive of Democratic politicians and policies than Republican politicians and policies.

Indeed, the backlash against alleged media bias really ticks me off. For a long time, I have perceived the media to be rather meek and tepid to ask the hard questions. (See the May 18, 2011 post to this blog for a discussion of the media’s interaction with Lee Atwater.)

This kind of spinelessness has gone on for a long time, but the culmination, in my opinion, was the way the media essentially became George W. Bush’s cheerleaders after 9/11 and refused to ask tough questions in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.

Our country is about to observe the tenth anniversary of the horrific tragedy of 9/11. Many of us have not gotten over the shock and anguish of that awful day. Honestly, it is just impossible to get our minds around it fully even so long after the fact. The events of that day were just unimaginably agonizing.

You cannot make sense of such evil and such resultant human suffering. People who did nothing wrong and were just going about their business died unexpectedly in unthinkable ways. But you and I are still here. We cannot bring back the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but I think we have a duty to honor their memory. In my opinion, one way we do that is by keeping our democracy strong. Part of that involves challenging those in authority, asking inconvenient questions and holding our leaders accountable. If we fail to do that, we become no better than a totalitarian state.

Mark 3:27

No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized.

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