02 November 2015

On media bias

Most newspapers began as partisan propaganda organs, bankrolled by party bosses and sustained, when the right party was in power, by public printing contracts. Once publishers found that they could sustain themselves and even flourish by selling advertising space or by running popular comic strips and other entertainment features, most began to aspire to greater objectivity in reporting. The goal was to avoid the appearance of partisanship anywhere but on the editorial page. Ideology doesn't recognize objectivity, unless it presumes itself objective. Despite media pretenses, ideologues perceived bias whenever their beliefs were not confirmed or at least represented in reporting. Ideological complaints of this sort grew in vehemence beginning in the 1960s. Ironically, many ideologues opposed the Fairness Doctrine that had obliged media to give all (usually both) sides of controversial issues. This was the tip-off that fairness and balance were not what the ideologues actually sought. They praised as "fair and balanced" whatever reflected their beliefs, and whatever did not reflect their beliefs, or reflected on them unflatteringly, remained biased. Roundaboutly, self-styled champions of liberty adopted a viewpoint similar to that of the authoritarian statesmen they claim to abhor, if as yet they haven't adopted their policies toward the media. The authoritarian viewpoint is that alternative viewpoints -- presumably any private or non-government viewpoints -- are biased by definition, and most likely in an inherently subversive way. They believe, so we're told, that the media should be unbiased, which to them means, so we're told, that media should take, at the least, an uncritical attitude toward the state, i.e., the ruling party, if not an affirmative attitude of cooperation in shaping public consciousness. In the U.S., the Republican protests against debate formats determined by media outlets are another signal of a stirring authoritarian attitude in the rightist party. It will be one thing, and perfectly within their rights, if the GOP withdraws their presidential primary debates from the cable news networks altogether and finds alternate ways to present them to the public, e.g. streaming media. But if they want to get on cable they have no business dictating terms that in any way limit the sort of questions moderators may ask. As I wrote last week, it'd also be no problem if they did away with moderators, because then we might get real debates where the candidates question and answer each other. But since there's no indication that the Republicans actually want to do without moderators, their obligation is to give the moderator or moderators the freedom of inquiry consistent with their primarily journalistic role. To blame tough questions, "gotcha" questions or even puerile questions on presumed "mainstream media" bias is to assume that a natural unwillingness to serve as mere shills for party propaganda is somehow illegitimate, which is how the authoritarians of the world, not their supposed sworn enemies, are supposed to think. The more Republicans talk of dictating terms for their debates, the deeper they dig a hole for themselves -- of for the media, should they win it all next year.

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