Media Fairness As Justice

by John Holbo on September 23, 2004

I’ve been holding off posting about memogate out of respect for the worm’s rotational speed. Where we stop, nobody knows. Here I go.

First, a bit of prophecy. No, prophecy’s a fool’s game. On to philosophy (ba-dum, crash, thanks for coming out tonight.)

Some months ago Colby Cosh quoted an amusing law: “A public figure is often condemned for an action that is taken unfairly out of context but nevertheless reflects, in a compelling and encapsulated manner, an underlying truth about that person.” Dan Rather is a perfect case in point. No, not for memogate. For that he is to burn, and rightly so. I’m thinking about the other thing. Today in Slate:

And don’t forget the 1986 “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” attack, in which Rather was accosted by street toughs on Park Avenue in New York. You can hardly blame Rather for that one, but Boyer [author of Who Killed CBS?] notes that such things rarely seem to happen to Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. It’s as if Rather attracts half the madness in the universe, and the other half comes out of his mouth.

Dan “Courage” Rather: his long and public career littered with not inconsiderable evidence he is a bit nuts (if not, as our author entertainingly exaggerates, “barking mad”); yet our author cannot refrain from hanging it all – praeteritio – from the catchy hook of the ONE mad thing that happened to him NOT as a result of his own madness.

A confirming instance, then. The law, however, would be wiser if it read ‘perceived underlying truth’. It governs a common species of characterological confirmation bias, facetiously glossed as microcosmic-macrocosmic insight (‘all the madness of the universe in a single anchor’), sprinkled with grated scapegoat and a dollop of poetic justice as fairness. (Unreasonable people deserve to be unreasonably condemned.) Garnish with reserved preconceptions. Serve. Feeds many. In fact, feeds back. (You have a view of someone’s character. You seize on the slenderest confirming ‘evidence’ as dispositive proof. This ‘evidence’ becomes an emblem, intensifying the initial view. So you are more inclined to seize more ‘evidence’. So it goes.)

I trust no one thinks reasoning in this bats-are-bugs way is respectable. In the realm of politics, in particular, potentially decent folks get seriously tarred with this sort of horsefeathers. (It isn’t just that it’s not what you say about the issues, it’s what the issues say about you; sadly, it’s what the non-issues say about you.)

Memogate is indeed a case in point, although not with respect to Rather. The victim here may turn out to be Kerry. Here is Hugh Hewitt on the memo Meta-Meme: The Forgery is John Kerry and John Kerry is the Forgery:

John Kerry ought not to have been hurt by the Rathergate scandal. [Hewitt ought to be made captain of Bush’s Praeteritiorian Guard for this brilliant disavowal-before-the-avowal.] There is thus far no firm evidence that any Kerry operative arranged for the forgeries to surface or helped persuade Rather et al to run with the doctored docs. [And with this bait of truth we may catch the carp of falsehood.]

But the scandal has indeed hurt him, badly, and not just as some talking heads suggested by denying him even the possibility of traction with the electorate at a moment when his campaign is foundering.

The forged docs have hurt Rather and CBS because he and it ought to have seen through them. They shouldn’t have been fooled because the docs were so obviously inauthentic.

Which brings us to John Kerry, the candidate who is defined by his inauthenticity.

Kerry is one of the most liberal members of the United States Senate – the most liberal member if you believe The National Journal – but Kerry has tried to portray himself as a centrist.

Since the docs are inauthentic, Rather was fooled, Rather is liberal, the media is liberal, the media is fooled, the medias is biased, liberals are inauthentic, Kerry is liberal, Kerry is inauthentic, Kerry is the same as the memos, the forged memos are an emblem of a deep truth about Kerry’s character. QED. BFA (by free association).

(And never mind the big bug scourge of the skies ‘most liberal’ charge.)

It is harder to get the media (a.k.a. the Mainstream Media, a.k.a. Old Media) off the memogate hook.This is a delicate point, but I think however the flames blow, it’s not the partisan heat but the stupidity.

It is truly very surprising that expert – even amateur – document authentication at CBS was functionally absent. (In the early days of memogate, there was much intelligent and vigorous amateur apologetics on behalf of the memos by outsiders. But CBS itself was a no-show.)

To what extent is it reasonable to generalize from this case – Rather’s case – the the mainstream media as a whole? One-off flukey breakdown or systemic defect? You’ve got to ask yourself like any sane person: what’s the frequency, Kenneth?

Instapundit links approvingly to the Slate article quoted above, which argues Rather is stark raving; also that his uniquely privileged position allowed him to continue in this lively vein for decades where others would have been fired. Whether this is true or not, Reynolds is happy to buy, but it hardly seems a model for mainstream/old media as a whole. How is Rather the exception that proves the rule, rather than the exception that just is the exception? I realize he’s powerful, but there are other people in the media. How does the way he is prove the way the others are?

I much enjoyed the recent, lively roundtable discussion of ‘moral relativism’ – initiated by Vokokh, taken up by Yglesias, Weatherson, Drum, and others. Let us consider ‘liberal media bias’. As with ‘moral relativism’, the very meaning of the charge – never mind its truth – is elusive. This makes proof by means of anecdotal evidence doubly dubious. The non-question-begging form of the question is ‘what is media bias?’ Liberals say there is conservative bias. Everyone grants that there are, at least potentially, non-partisan forms of bias, e.g. bias in favor of sensationalism, bias in favor of stories that can be told like exciting stories. But what does it really mean to say ‘the media is biased in favor of x’, where x is some ethico-political perspective, value or party? The charge may look simple but is almost certainly compound. This consideration gets short shrift even in rather lengthy discussions of the subject I have read. Let’s just google up a set of possible definitions for ‘bias’. WordNet gets top hits and will do:

1) a partiality that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation

2) a line or cut across a fabric that is not at right angles to a side of the fabric

3) influence in an unfair way; “you are biasing my choice by telling me yours”

4) cause to be biased

So bias may be: an intellectual failing (procedural irrationality), a moral failing (procedural injustice), diagonality or obliquity (a.k.a. somehow not playing it straight for tactical reasons), or being the cause in others of any or all of the aforementioned.

I think the charge of ‘media bias’ is usually an unspecified mix of all four. (If you doubt that fabric has much to do with alleged media fabrications, think of Polonius’ little disquisition on push-polling: “And thus do we of wisdom and of reach/ With windlasses and with assays of bias/ By indirections find directions out.” Well, not quite push-polling, but it’s Rovean in its deceitfulness.)

Four related senses might not seem too intoxicating a semantic mix. But then again it might be better to decide once and for all whether what you are saying is that everyone in the mainstream media is insane, or evil, or insane and evil, or neither insane and/or evil yet systemically the cause of insanity and/or evil in others, or just sneaky. Or what.

You might think it is self-evident journalistic duty to weigh evidence fairly; ethics and objectivity then cannot fail to line up. Well, you wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s hard to say what ‘fairly’ means in a way that will forestall dispute. Worse, people do not bother to charge media bias unless they mean to indict ‘the system’. But to allege general media bias would seem to require fairly comprehensive evidence concerning the whole media ecology. Above all, we also need a normative background of ‘media fairness as justice’, to coin a phrase. The idea is surely supposed to be that partisan journalists can (or ideally should) be brought to see, not that their specific partisan allegiance is mistaken, but that their over-aggressive deployments of it on some or all occasions should be voluntarily restrained in the service of higher principles of fairness (or something). Maybe we should work out what general agreements about distribution of informational goods would be ideally agreeable to reasonable parties (say, from behind a veil of ignorance preventing all parties from knowing what parties they belong to, and what media organs they control.)

We needn’t get so infernally Rawlsian right off the bat, it will be objected. (It would annoy conservatives to have to become John Rawls in order to defeat liberalism, which is why I am enjoying writing this post.) Just a Free Market of Ideas, not a Welfare State of Ideas, please. The truth will out. Some Hayekian order of things.

This is a possible view. But I don’t think it’s what most complainers about media bias are asking for. Let me suggest why. Suppose it were suggested that a Free Market of Ideas is guaranteed sufficiently by free speech guarantees. Well, obviously this isn’t enough for most conservative complainers about media bias, who know they’ve already got the First Amendment. (I’m setting aside screwballs who think Kerry wants to take away Bibles.) What conservatives think they should get is equal representation on the evening news and the editorial page. (Never mind for the moment whether they are unreasonable not to notice they’ve already got it.) But why should Republicans be represented, let alone equally? Isn’t a demand to have one’s voice not just not muzzled but broadcast an unconscionable prejudgment of the operation of the invisible hand of the free market? If it turns out that 89% of journalists are Democrats (I think I saw that figure, which was not accompanied by any statistic about how many CEO’s of media corporations are Republicans) – if most journalists are Democrats, why should this be regarded as proof of Democratic bias, rather than proof that truth itself is biased against Republicans, since the market rejects them? Obviously the response will run: this market isn’t fair. Which may be fair enough. But there’s that word again, ‘fair’. If a market should be not just free but ‘fair’, what sense of justice helps us understand what ‘fair’ means? Economically, we understand that a free market is supposed to be optimal for the production of wealth and acceptable for its distrubition. But what is a free market in ideas – a Media Market of Ideas – supposed to optimize: truth? The trouble with saying the market of ideas is supposed to optimize truth, and then complaining about partisanship as an obstacle, is that you must decide whether one partisan perspective is ‘truer’ than the other. If yes, then partisanship is actually what the market should aim at, not avoid. If not, then partisanship is not obviously a hindrance to truth. (Think about it. No really, this isn’t sophistry.)

It is plausible what people really think should be optimized is not the production of truths but the expression of belief (and not because this mix conduces to truth but as an end in itself). A range of beliefs. A suitable, representative range of beliefs. The thought is that everyone has a right not just to get the truth from the media but to have their ‘truth’ (i.e. belief) heard by others. The media ought to ‘sound like’ America. But unless this thought is accompanied by a relativistic belief that all beliefs are equally valid, we are now heading away from a free market, not towards it. The idea that everyone is entitled to equal representation in the media is akin to the economic proposition that everyone should be guaranteed about the same amount of money, which is not notably Hayekian. The sense of ‘fairness’ in play here is at least Rawlsian, if not positively communistic. Its doxastic affirmative action. You make sure no one is left behind, is silenced, unheard, excluded. Proper distribution of the media pie is more important, maybe, than ‘growing’ the pie.

A third possibility, aside from maximizing truth or starting a doxastic welfare state, is to suggest that media fairness truly does entail cultivating some lofty class of Watcher-like observers who indeed do nothing that could possibly express partisanship, let alone influence politics to the advantage of one side or the other. This strikes me as not just unrealistic but pretty clearly incoherent, but someone might try to make out how it is possible.

A fourth possibility is that media fairness just means coming up with the least uncivilized forum you can in which people who can’t agree to agree can disagree without hurting each other. Media as scream therapy Let everyone get their doxastic aggressions out with respect to everyone else, and – to make this possible – make the fight maximally open to all whose blood is angried up by the news. On this model the point is more to relieve stress than to arrive at truth (which may be deemed counter-intuitive, though it is certainly true that people enjoy politics the way they enjoy sports, as entertainment for spectators, and as good mental exercise for amateur participants.) This is media-as-those-padded-bats – you know, the ones in in Dr. Marvin Monroe’s family therapy center? Fairness just means: effective aggression therapy. (Any takers for this theory of media fairness?)

A fifth possibility is that major media figures, like Rather, should be regarded as political appointees – like Supreme Court justices (especially in light of average retirement age.) But there are awkwardnesses whose relevation I leave to the reader’s imagination.

A sixth possibility is that somehow it is mystically or pragmatically necessary to have a balance of partisanship in the media – just as there needs to be vigorous prosecution and defense in a trial. No one person can think both like a prosecutor and a defense attorney, and no one person can be left and right, but you need both, so the tasks need to be split, with a jury to vote. Why this sort of institutionally-induced schizophrenia is a precondition for civic mental health is obscure but perhaps there is something to it.

Looking over my notes I have fourteen points to go. That will never do. Quickly now, one of the big problems with wading into media bias with vague notions is that there are too many things that could potentially answer to ‘bias’. This creates what we might call a ‘grievance hazard’ (analogous to a moral hazard). The narcissism of small diffidences, giving people the pleasure of feeling abused by ‘the system’.

1) Just to get it out of the way, there is what we may call the null sense of ‘bias’. Charges of liberal media bias are often insincere. In What Liberal Media? Eric Alterman quotes former Republican chair Rich Bond about how crying ‘liberal bias’ is often just a matter of ‘working the ref’ in the hopes he’ll cut extra slack next time. (So charging ‘media bias’ is sometimes actually an indulgence in it, if ‘bias’ is understood to cover ‘attempts to make others biased’.) Alterman also quotes Grover Norquist: “The conservative press is self-consciously conservative and self-consciously part of the team. The liberal press is much larger, but at the same time it sees itself as the establishment press. So it’s conflicted. Sometimes it thinks it needs to be critical of both sides.” Norquist hereby acknowledges the existence of what Yglesias aptly terms the ‘hack gap‘, which considerably hobbles the left. Well, I’m obviously a liberal talking here. But conservatives can at least agree that there is such a thing as working the ref. Probably they think liberals do it too.

2. Related to the null sense of ‘media bias’ is an analytic or redundant sense. Let’s use ‘liberal bias’ as our example. Liberal media = liberal media bias. Since liberalism is known (to all decent God-fearing folk) to be just plain wrong and not in any sense an even minimally valid point of view, any liberal reporter or reportage or media organ must be biased. Any story – even a true story – that would tend to incline viewers towards liberalism is biased (since a thing that causes bias is itself, by definition, biased.) Any flagrantly wrong result, systematically arrived at through multiple trials, must be the result of some systemic defect – a bias, if you will – in the mechanism.

Making ‘liberal media bias’ into a pleonastic way of saying ‘liberal media’ is obviously not terribly interesting, unless we want to change the subject and debate the permissibility of profound intolerance for alternative points of view in a democratic system. (Is it immoral to think the other side is intolerably evil and wrong?) Arguing about media bias, in a spirit of justice, is only interesting if you are trying to articulate an overarching framework of fairness that it is reasonable to expect all parties to grant is a fair framework. The assumption that liberalism is wrong will not be granted by liberals, ergo this proposal is a non-starter. (And of course the same is true in reverse about conservatism.) Nevertheless this redundancy sense of bias is important, I think, because it is the source of many frivolous accusations of bias, which are not so much insincere (as per 1) but too fanatically sincere for their own good.

I think senses 1) and 2) generate a lot of noise that one should strive to hear past. They explain how a lot of people come to feel aggrieved, i.e. by inhabiting their academy award-winning poor-poor-pitiful-me performances with a bit too much Method Acting sincerity, or else by mistaking their own intolerance of other points of view for other points of views’ intolerance of them. (I think this page is pretty clearly 95% noise, due to 1 and 2. And this is one of the more prominent conservative media watchdogs (I think). It is a very bad sign that liberal media bias is explained as partly due to the fact that, since “journalism school graduates have not been properly educated about the importance of telling the truth, there is a constant influx of new journalists who start out on the wrong foot.” Assuming that liberals know they are lying – since everyone knows liberalism is false, but not everyone knows lying is wrong – is paranoid.)

3) There’s the ‘I am the center of the universe‘ sense of bias. This is a slight broadening of 2). Degree of media bias is a straightforward function of degree of divergence from my own views, which are (naturally) sober and considered and unbiased. There is a sense in which we all inevitably feel this way, even though it’s silly. This is actually a interesting psychological datum. It has to do with partisan alignment (values generally) being, at bottom, a rather murky business – a temperament, but how does one arrive at it? A temperament is not an intellectual conclusion or even a choice. It is tempting, then, to flirt with the notion that all partisanship just IS a sort of bias, i.e. a systemic tendency to arrive at some set of irrational results. (It’s not rational because at bottom it has no transparent explanation.) Of course this lesson is never applied home. And it isn’t really clear that it is usefully applied abroad. It trivializes the notion of bias by universalizing it (with one minute but egotistically important exception.)

Obviously this is useless as a basis for formulating any shared sense of media fairness. (“I’m the center of the universe.” “No, I’m the center of the universe.” “I’m the center of the universe and so’s my wife!”) But here again I think we probably have the source of much useless noise, as per 1) and 2).

4) Alternatively you could more democratically declare that bias is a function of degree of deviation from some inherently moderate mean or average of all the positions, weighted for popularity. I think there is a sense in which this is what people are probably saying they are looking for from their news anchors when they say they should be ‘unbiased’ (even though if they got it they’d probably be bored). But it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It turns any strong but unpopular or extreme view into a bias, by definition. But people who have unusual views are often far more reflective about them than people who don’t. Turning the point around, this approach makes being bland and wishy-washy and unreflective (just going with the flow) into being fair, by definition. There might be an argument for insisting that news anchors be bland, in this average-of-all-positions way, as a sort of crude proxy of Watcher-like lofty uninvolvement. But it wouldn’t make much sense to go on and call this ‘fair and balanced’. It’s more a diplomatic solution than an intellectual one. So it shouldn’t be argued for by arguing against ‘bias’.

5) What 3) and 4) try to do is turn (almost) any sort of licit partisanship into bias, by definition. This isn’t really satisfactory, so you might try making ‘bias’ a function of illicit partisanship. You say you are ‘fair and balanced’, or you say your media organ presents both sides, but it really pushes one side. This amounts to working the ref (as per 1) but from the inside, as it were. (It is also a ‘not playing it straight’ kind of case. You present yourself as one thing, when in fact you are something else.) There is a bit of oddity here in that it does not necessarily follow that the person pretending to be what they are not – e.g. neutral – is actually biased. They might be highly reflective about their views and aware of the arguments on both sides. Nevertheless they try to get other people to accept the views they think are right in sneaky ways. Let me subdivide these cases further:

5a) You pretend to be utterly objective and non-partisan, in a Watcher-like way, but really you have some (possibly very slight) partisan bent, and you perfectly well know it.

5b) You say you are utterly objective and non-partisan, in a Watcher-like way, but really you have some (possibly very slight) partisan bent, only you don’t know it. (You are always unconsciously picking loaded terms to describe disputes – describing those you like as activists, those you don’t as special interests; some folks are freedom fighters, others are terrorists, so forth. Your colors show.)

5c) Underreported partisanship. You frankly admit to being partisan, but you intentionally fail to disclose the degree of your partisanship. (You say you are a moderate Republican when actually you are way out on the right wingtip, say.) This can seem less dishonest (biased) than a) or b), because at least you aren’t pretending to be neutral. So it’s only one lie, not two. But if the degree of disconnect between your self-positioning and your actual position is extreme it is arguable that you are more biased (in the sense of sneaky and causing bias in others) than a) or b).

There is a temptation (especially on the right) to assume that no opinion journalism can be accused of media bias (talk radio is defended this way) because it doesn’t pretend to be what it is not, i.e. neutral (whereas supposedly network news does cultivate this lofty air). But this doesn’t obviously make sense since there are things besides ‘neutrality’ that you can pretend to. The potential for deceit (causing bias in others) is huge once you have decided you can express whatever opinion you please, however irrational, false or misleading.

5d) Like 5c but a case of severe false-consciousness, rather than conscious concealment. It is quite likely that, due to 1)-3) many people who are not moderates, in any clear sense, sincerrely believe that they are. This is likely to lead to them being biased in a number of obvious ways.

6) Rhetorical bias. A nice quote:

Spoken by a good actor – and every great preacher, every successful advocate and politician is, among other things, a consummate actor – words can exercise an almost magical power over their hearers. Because of the essential irrationality of this power, even the best-intentioned of public speakers probably do more harm than good. When an orator, by the mere magic of words and a golden voice, persuades his audience of the rightness of a bad cause, we are very properly shocked. We ought to feel the same dismay whenever we find the same irrelevant tricks being used to persuade people of the rightness of a good cause. The belief engendered may be desirable, but the grounds for it are intrinsically wrong, and those who use the devices of oratory for instilling even right beliefs are guilty of pandering to the least creditable elements in human nature. By exercising their disastrous gift of the gab, they deepen the quasi-hypnotic trance in which most human beings live and from which it is the aim and purpose of all true philosophy, all genuinely spiritual religion to deliver them. – Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun

By the logic of this admirably high-minded passage, any media person, process or product that avails itself of the tools of rhetoric, for good or ill, is biased: intellectually and morally discreditable, and the cause of bias in others. The trouble is that this is obviously too high a standard for practical purposes. The fact that Huxley writes almost magically well almost makes us overlook the fact that what he proposes makes no sense. We are all completely guilty of using some rhetoric, so there’s no point trying to maintain our own innocence if this is the standard. Here again we have a sort of grievance hazard. I think many accusations of bias do boil down to a feeling of indignation at the other side’s rhetoric, and a feeling that one’s own is not only decorative but functional.

Still, it does seem that one has to distinguish between degrees. There are sound arguments, rhetorically armored and streamlined for maximum penetration of thick enemy skulls. And there is just plain nonsense all the way down. And a lot in between. The former pole is less clearly ‘biased’ than the latter.

And there is no question that the liveliness of the general issue of ‘media bias’ depends on this sense – shared by Huxley – that we are all half-hypnotized and, dammit, something ought to be done to mitigate our sorry state.

Rhetoric needs something like ‘just war’ theory. Some set of rules that acknowledges that violence, deceit and nastiness are inevitable, but perhaps some of the worst excesses can be legislated away for the greater good of all. (Advocating rhetoric-free argumentation is like advocating pacificism. Noble but sadly not fit for this world of ours, unless you are incredibly lucky enough to be dealing with some University educated British folks in a moment of great self-doubt – like Ghandi.)

I don’t think many people who condemn their opponents’ use of rhetoric as ‘bias’ have a suitable ‘just war’ theory of argument, as it were.

I guess I’m just sayin that, between the rock of not really having a good ecological theory of the media as a whole, and the hard place of not having really worked out exactly what sort of bias is bothering them, I suspect certain bloggy media critics could slow down before trying to leverage Dan Rather’s pain into a world-historical moment.

I have several more points but that’s enough. I’m going to watch “Hellboy”. Do think Tom Waits ever wonders whether if he went to the gym he could look like Ron Perlman?



John Isbell 09.23.04 at 3:27 pm

The largest poll undertaken this election cycle, of 30,600 people nationwide, has Bush 47-Kerry 46, with Kerry leading in states with 270 electoral votes, Bush with 253 (see Kevin Drum). Consequently:
Hugh Hewitt: stupid, or lying?
The choice is yours. Of course, there is option c, my favorite.


Kip Manley 09.23.04 at 3:42 pm

My one comment at the moment, beyond leaping up to say how surprisingly good Hellboy was and then promptly sitting back down again, is to point out that Huxley’s argument above is pretty much Noam Chomsky’s response when asked why he’s such an affectless, colorless public speaker.


Steve 09.23.04 at 3:44 pm

I got tired of reading long before you got tired of writing, so if you answered this towards the end of your post, my apologies.
Media bias matters because the media itself claims to be not biased. We don’t care what the political background of CEOs are, or the political background of plumbers are, or virtually any other group (save academics, perhaps occasionally military officers, others?). But media claims to have a different status-the fourth estate. Media wants the benefits of a non-biased reputation-the check on government excess, the searchers for the truth, etc etc. Does a cabal of plumbers union members travel with the president on his plane whereever he goes? Why not? Why does a cabal of journalists do so? Presumably, to search for the ‘truth.’ If not, why are they there? And the problem with bias is, why would extremely biases people be interested in the truth? And if they are not, why should they be allowed to travel with the president?
Look at it another way. Should a cabal of well written, publishing senior members of the Republican National Party Headquarters (or Democrat) get those slots on the presidential plane and replace the journalists that currently ride? Both are well written-both can tell the story of what’s going on to the American public. So why not?
I assume “Why not?” is obvious. But if there’s no attitudinal/professional/moral difference between a cabal of DNC members and a cabal of journalists, why should those journalists get the slots?
Bottom line: journalism is so biased it is grotesque. The whole Dan Rather thing is a beautiful thing-its weakening (probably not destroying) MSM’s stranglehold on the telling of the story of our world.



abb1 09.23.04 at 4:16 pm

he said “CEO’s of media corporations” not just “CEOs”, and that’s a bit more relevant than “cabal of plumbers union”.


bob mcmanus 09.23.04 at 4:41 pm

Holbo’s pieces should be accompanied by Heimlich instructions, to protect speedreaders and shallow thinkers from their impatience.

“Narcissism of small diffidences”

I am stealing this.


Brett Bellmore 09.23.04 at 4:51 pm

I think the problem here is simply that liberals, by and large, have a rather exaulted opinion of the status of journalism, which drives them to seek employement as journalists in disproportionate numbers. While conservatives tend to view journalism as a necessary, but somewhat disreputable line of work, (Kind of like collecting garbage; Somebody has to do it, but not me, thank you!) and stay out of it.

Which wouldn’t much matter, if journalists were even remotely as objective as they like to pretend they are…


Sam 09.23.04 at 4:52 pm

5b) You say you are utterly objective and non-partisan, in a Watcher-like way, but really you have some (possibly very slight) partisan bent, only you don’t [fully] know it. (You are always unconsciously picking loaded terms to describe disputes – describing those you like as activists, those you don’t as special interests; some folks are freedom fighters, others are terrorists, so forth. Your colors show.)

It is my impression that this is what most people complain about as media bias. To some extent, people see what they expect to see, and journalists are no exception; if most journalists expect to see the same thing, and do, but their ability to see is systematically limited in the same direction, people who depend on them for information get misimpressions.

Two recent examples come to mind: 1) the coverage of the end of the “assault weapons” ban. Major media systematically mis-represented the ban as affecting “AK-47’s and Uzi’s” and “machine guns.” Actually, those weapons are altogether unaffected by the assault weapons ban–they are fully automatic military weapons, which were very heavily restricted 50 years before the assault weapons ban was passed. The ban affected guns that LOOKED LIKE machine guns but were functionally like normal hunting rifles. Now, clearly, all shooters and gun owners know the distinctions; equally clearly, many journalists neither knew, nor cared enough to find out.
2) The coverage of the pro-choice march in DC was much heavier and much more favorable than coverage of similar pro-life marches. I have friends who were at each (different people) and from their accounts, the pro-choice march coverage skipped the “freaks” (the person describing it described herself so), while the coverage of the pro-life march seemed to focus mainly on the real weirdos.

I don’t think media bias is a real problem if the media is known and considered to be biased; it is the concommitant portrayal of the media as an impartial source of information, when it actually isn’t, that is a problem. You can be a player or a ref, but not both.


abb1 09.23.04 at 5:25 pm

The ban affected guns that LOOKED LIKE machine guns but were functionally like normal hunting rifles.

Actually what was banned is semi-automatic versions of AK-47s, Uzis and so on. You are just repeating NRO’s spin. Semi-automatic version of AK-47 is not a normal hunting rifle: THE ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS


Brian Weatherson 09.23.04 at 5:28 pm


If you’re going to count protest coverage, you have to count all the time the media pays as much attention to a left-wing protest with thousands of people as a right-wing counter-protest with dozens. If I was a liberal (or even neutral) media guy I’d pay as much attention to those dozen as to any other randomly picked dozen – i.e. none at all unless they had something particularly interesting or newsworthy to say.


Kilroy Was Here 09.23.04 at 5:34 pm

To add a little social psychology to a well-reasoned draft of the philosophy of media bias, let me recommend Lee Ross and Mark Lepper’s paper on “The Hostile Media Effect”

A quick summary:

Pro-Palestinian students and pro-Israeli students at Stanford University were shown the same news filmstrips pertaining to the then-recent Sabra and Shatila massacre of Arab refugees in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. On a number of objective measures, both sides found that the same, identical news clips were slanted in favor of the other side. Pro-Israeli students reported seeing more anti-Israel references and fewer favorable references to Israel in the news report and pro-Palestinian students reported seeing more anti-Palestinian references, and so on. Both sides said a neutral observer would have a more negative view of their side from viewing the clips, and that the media would have excused the other side where it blamed their side.

It is important not that the two sides disagreed on subjective generalizations about the media coverage as a whole, such as what might be expressed as “I thought that the news has been generally biased against this side of the issue.” Instead, controlling for the same news clips, subjects differed along partisan lines on simple, objective criteria such as the number of references to a given subject. As such, the hostile media effect is not just a difference of opinion but a difference of perception.


Brett Bellmore 09.23.04 at 5:43 pm

Abb1, you have to be pretty gullible to get your “facts” about guns from the Brady center. Take this little gem, for instance:

Sporting rifles and assault weapons are two distinct classes of firearms. While semi-automatic hunting rifles are designed to be fired from the shoulder and depend upon the accuracy of a precisely aimed projectile, semi-automatic assault weapons are designed to maximize lethal effects through a rapid rate of fire. Assault weapons are designed to be spray-fired from the hip, and because of their design, a shooter can maintain control of the weapon even while firing many rounds in rapid succession.

The rate of fire for any semi-automatic rifle is always the same: Just exactly as fast as you pull the trigger, no more, no less. And you can’t “spray fire” a semi-automatic rifle, because you have to pull the trigger every time you want a bullet to come out the end. Every single time.

Or this:

Opponents of the ban argue that such weapons only “look scary.” However, because they were designed for military purposes, assault weapons are equipped with combat hardware, such as silencers, folding stocks and bayonets, which are not found on sporting guns. Assault weapons are also designed for rapid-fire and many come equipped with large ammunition magazines allowing 50 more bullets to be fired without reloading. So there is a good reason why these features on high-powered weapons should frighten the public.

Silencers are separately regulated under the National Firearms act, legally the same as machine guns. (We could debate the rationality of this, but that’s the law.) NONE of the guns regulated by the ’94 ban came equipped with silencers. NONE of them. Nor did they come equiped with bayonets. As for the magazines, if you can put a five round magazine on a rifle, you can put a 50 round magazine on a rifle. ANY rifle. Magazine capacity is a function of the magazine, not the rifle.

Nor are the banned rifles particularly powerful; In fact, the ’94 ban made no reference AT ALL to firing rates, or the caliber of the weapons involved.

The simple fact is, Brady was lying to you. As you could verify for yourself, with scarcely any effort.


abb1 09.23.04 at 6:14 pm

I don’t know much about weapons. So, let’s just say that opinions differ.

I would be suprised, though, if indeed rate of fire for all semi-automatic rifles was the same. I bet it takes different time for different mechanisms to re-cock. Also, they may come equiped with bayonets in some stores – how do you know? Or maybe it’s real easy to attach a bayonet. And a silencer. It’s a snap-in, maybe. Then, AK-47 magazine is what it is – high capacity magazine, there is no other magazine. A sport rifle doesn’t come with a high capacity magazine, you’d have to find it somewhere. So, I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘Brady was lying’.

if such thing as favorable reference to Israel in regards to the Sabra and Shatila massacre is possible, then I’d like to hear it. This experiment is absurd, it doesn’t illustrate what they say it does, but what it does illustrate is the fallacy of the idea that everyone is entitled to equal representation in the media. Well, some being more equal than the others, of course.


Sebastian Holsclaw 09.23.04 at 6:21 pm

The idea is surely supposed to be that partisan journalists can (or ideally should) be brought to see, not that their specific partisan allegiance is mistaken, but that their over-aggressive deployments of it on some or all occasions should be voluntarily restrained in the service of higher principles of fairness (or something).

I’m not sure this is really the direction that critics of media bias go. I think the problem is that journalists claim to serve a higher principle of fairness, but the actuality is a morass of bias.

Furthermore you start out ok with the idea that bias is an intellectual failing, but then analyze it as if conservatives are accusing the main-stream media of intentionally slamming them. I think the much more typical charge is that liberals in the media are so insulated from conservative ideas that they typically don’t even consider them while reporting stories–especially political stories that are not self-conciously about politicians. That is one of the things that makes the memo-passing so shocking. Rather went even beyond the bounds of what conservatives normally think of as underlying media bias into a willful disregard of his experts and normal rationality about confidence in sources in what appeared to be his zeal to produce a hit piece against Bush. This is shocking because it goes beyond the mere “conservatives are vaguely silly and we aren’t sure why anyone listens to them” attitude into a much more pointed and purposeful attack.

You proceed through most of your article as if conservatives want a place at the MSM table. I don’t think that is accurate. We don’t need equal time. We would like to see an end to the pretension of objectivity in the main-stream media. We might have asked for a return to objectivity 30 years ago, but that clearly isn’t in the cards. We would accept a clear announcement of where the reporters are coming from instead. Analogize to ‘transparency’ in corporate dealings.

“But unless this thought is accompanied by a relativistic belief that all beliefs are equally valid, we are now heading away from a free market, not towards it.”

Nope, you assume that journalists are particularly good at getting to true beliefs. If you treat that as an axiom of course you get all that follows. It is also somewhat ironic that you use a free market analysis to discuss media that was until very recently nearly monopolistic.

Arguing about media bias, in a spirit of justice, is only interesting if you are trying to articulate an overarching framework of fairness that it is reasonable to expect all parties to grant is a fair framework.


JP 09.23.04 at 6:28 pm

If Mickey Kaus had written this, he would have used the word “synecdoche.”


Adam Kotsko 09.23.04 at 6:30 pm

OMG — I can’t believe I read the whole thing! I should be reading Romans right now!

On another note, Jacob Levy, if he’s still out there, is probably swooning right now — this post was The Very Essence of Holboianism.


Brett Bellmore 09.23.04 at 6:34 pm

Actually, it is that simple as that. They don’t say, “can be equipped”, because that’s true of the guns they aren’t yet trying to ban. They say “are” equiped, and that’s OBJECTIVELY untrue. I could point out other false statements, such as that flash suppressors are intended to conceal shooters at night, (In fact, they’re intended to preserve the night vision of the shooter by hiding the flash from the person firing the gun; They don’t hide the flash from anybody who’s not in a fairly narrow cone behind the gun.) but we’re getting to a key problem in this particular debate, which has caused the coverage of it to be terribly ill informed: People who favor gun control tend to take the good faith of gun control advocates, and the bad faith of gun control opponents, as a given. To the extent that, when lies are pointed out, you won’t even check to see if they’re real.


Screwy Hoolie 09.23.04 at 6:34 pm

The media’s failure is the biggest story of our young century. I’m trying to figure out who has failed more completely the Media or the Bushies…

Scrutiny Hooligans have more.


Dan Simon 09.23.04 at 7:46 pm

John–Like many commenters on media bias, you conflate objectivity and accuracy. We can hopefully all agree that any journalist should aspire to report only accurate facts. However, which accurate facts are reported makes all the difference. Although critics of both Fox News and NPR love to harp on their respective occasional inaccuracies, reasonable people would concede that both tell the truth the overwhelming majority of the time. Yet few of those people would declare both of these outlets to be almost completely unbiased.

How, then, should journalists select which facts to report? As I’ve argued elsewhere, the obvious source of guidance, in a free society, is the interests and preferences of the journalist’s audience. Journalists exist, after all, to serve their readers/listeners/viewers, not some higher (and most likely undefinable) ideal of “truth” or “fairness”. That’s why, for example, they focus on public events rather than their own family happenings and personal hobbies–even if the latter may seem to them, as individuals, to be infinitely more important.

Journalistic bias, then, is best defined as a divergence between a journalist’s priorities in reporting facts, and those of his or her audience. When conservatives complain about “liberal media bias”, they are in fact simply pointing out that the major news organizations frequently ignore the interests and preferences of a large swath of (potential) readers/viewers/listeners in choosing which facts to report.

Finally, it is becoming apparent, as I and others have noted, that most of the bias in the American news media in the past was made possible by the “big three” network news oligopoly of the 50’s through 80’s. It is therefore on its way to being eliminated entirely, with the flourishing of numerous news outlets catering to a conservative audience. Once everyone gets their news from sources that cater to their own priorities, the public will be well-served, and complaints of bias will be readily answered with, “then go watch/read/listen to someone you like better.”

(There remains the question of what will play the role of society’s “commons”, where all widely-held points of view are presented and exchanged. But it’s unclear whether such an institution is even necessary or whether the news media have ever really fulfilled this function–let alone whether they should do so in the future.)


Dubious 09.23.04 at 8:02 pm

I suspect the media bias charge, which is made both by most Republicans and by some farther-lefts such as Greens, is mostly meant as a ‘we’re victims’ and ‘discount what you’ve heard there’ tactic. I think the fact that both of these groups make this charge tells us something about the orientation of mainstream media, if not whether that orientation is due to that being the most factually correct worldview or whether it’s due to bias.

More important than bias within stories, IMHO, is editorial bias in terms of what stories are considered important/worthy. While we can imagine how one might use value-neutral language to run a story, and make sure one gets quotes from multiple viewpoints, it’s hard to imagine how we could have a bias-free process to determine what stories are most important.

Ideally, in my universe, media organizations would have a right-wing brain half and a left-wing brain half. Two editors and reportorial staffs, and the stories they produce would be randomly assigned to different time and publication spots.


james 09.23.04 at 9:07 pm

Judges, as a profession, have trouble maintaining a neutral position. The public is expected to believe journalist have somehow master this?

As for an established history of bias in the media. There are plenty of sources that attempt to establish or refute this. Unfortunately, belief in the findings is solely based on personal view of the creditability of the source.


Sebastian Holsclaw 09.23.04 at 9:13 pm

“As for an established history of bias in the media. There are plenty of sources that attempt to establish or refute this. Unfortunately, belief in the findings is solely based on personal view of the creditability of the source.”

So says one personal view. :)

The are creationists who say the same thing about evolution.

You might be as wrong as they are.


ruralsaturday 09.23.04 at 9:16 pm

Media bias isn’t a problem in a theoretical sense, it’s inevitable, bias is built-in to identity – a media without identity would be mechanical, and necessarily programmed by biased humans – but in the context of present media, especially televised and radio-broadcasted media with its virtual monopoly on the attention of the public, it is way problematic.
The privileged trope of driving being a privilege, when it has so clearly evolved from something one chose to something one is virtually forced to do in order to get from place to place, is parallel. The reduction to bare necessity of guaranteed activities means that anything not specifically prohibited in the Ten Commandments and the civil codes is permitted, and anything not specifically guaranteed in those documents is an elective, a privilege.
The media is the neural arrangement of our social construct. It isn’t an elective anymore than sight and hearing are.
The blind and deaf make lives for themselves, yes; and it’s possible to live without any media input, I’ve done it for months at a time; I know a woman who journeyed from California to the Canadian border, on mule-back.
But to the social thing we make together by living like this, the camera and the microphone are eyes and ears.
This is what’s so obscene about the digestion of the massive amounts of surveillance data now entering the system. It’s being processed by unenlightened drones, not only biased but dim and unimaginative, and it’s creating a false world. Not co-incidentally that false world is conducive to the particular kinds and types of people who inhabit the media and its delivery systems, and the security systems that process it.

Another illusion in this is that the only bias the media have is political. Nonsense. The media is biased politically, culturally, ethnically, morally, and religiously.
It’s not unlike schools being contractually bound to vend certain soft drinks exclusively, and legally required to teach only the official version of controversial theories, and it’s no co-incidence these phenomena arrive at the same time the media becomes a virtual transmission line for a specific group. The same disservice is done in both cases, to the potential of the race itself, in the self-interest of the controlling present.
It’s a form of denial, a cognitive pathology.


Shai 09.23.04 at 9:42 pm

dan simon:

“Once everyone gets their news from sources that cater to their own priorities, the public will be well-served”

yes, because the exclusion of reasonable differences of opinion facilitates dialogue, is inimical to polarization and unrealistic stereotypes, broadens our understanding of the interests and perspectives of others, pursues truth and nuance, dismantles unrealistic assumptions and false consensus.


George 09.23.04 at 10:24 pm

Either I’m shallow or John Holbo is long-winded. Probably both. In any case I failed to read to the end of his argument, but nonetheless have a comment:

News bias is inevitable, because news consists of saying something about something. Since bias includes both what you say on a topic *and* what topic you choose to talk about, and it’s impossible to fully and completely give all facts, all background and all context at all times, no single media outlet can fail to display bias.

Beyond that, every reporter also has a bias, sometimes unconscious, and every media institution allows those biases to accumulate and/or express themselves to a greater or lesser extent. No way to avoid it.

So if you’re a normal person and read one newspaper on the way to work, or watch one or two TV news programs in the evening, your news is biased both by the source and by scope limitations. If it’s biased to your liking, you are blissfully unaware. If you find it to be biased in favor of the other guy, you yell and scream about it.

The reason that Rathergate has caused such a ruckus is not simply that the story was biased; plenty of people have used it to demonstrate bias, but that’s in the nature of the game. The reason the episode is so important is that it was *fraudulent*. Whether CBS or the Kerry campaign was in on the fraud has yet to be shown. (The former is either incompetent or guilty as hell; the latter should be treated with a presumption of innocence.)

Whatever you think of “media bias” or fairness, we should all agree that manufacturing evidence for any point of view is out of bounds.


Sebastian Holsclaw 09.23.04 at 10:41 pm

“Another illusion in this is that the only bias the media have is political. Nonsense. The media is biased politically, culturally, ethnically, morally, and religiously.”

Most conservatives who talk about media bias would not suggest that political bias is the only form of media bias. They would argue that it is one of the more prevalant forms of bias. (Probably just after sensationalism).


Brett Bellmore 09.23.04 at 10:53 pm

The unusual thing about Rathergate wasn’t that it was biased, and it wasn’t that it was fraudulent. Biased and fraudulent news reports are common. It was that we finally managed to make it MATTER that it was biased and fraudulent. That still has me stupified. I wonder if we’ll be able to make it matter again next time, or if this is just a flash in the pan?


Tom Grey 09.24.04 at 12:29 am

“Just War” ~ “Just Arguments”
1) Reality should be compared to Reality; Theory to Theory. When reality based on a theory is compared to non-reality based on an alternate theory, theoritical conclusions can NOT be justly made.

2) All real policies have good points and bad points; costs and benefits. A Just Argument must include good and bad points of oposing arguments.

3) Attacks against the speaker of an argument (ad hominem) are reasonable for casting doubt, especially to avoid the False Witness sin, but do not refute the argument (though may justify calling the argument unjust/ a false accusation).

The Leftist Bias in the mainstream media violate these, often. The Swifties and Vets against Kerry; their charges and the media attention paid to them, as compared to attacks on Bush, seem clearly biased.


Barry 09.24.04 at 3:24 am

“The Leftist Bias in the mainstream media violate these, often. The Swifties and Vets against Kerry; their charges and the media attention paid to them, as compared to attacks on Bush, seem clearly biased.”



ChrisPer 09.24.04 at 3:54 am

Very thoughtful article. I come to CT because I hope to find that you guys with more depth than me can actually help me understand the depth of the story. This article is the one that has paid that benefit, of all I have read here.

NOW, I have a hypersensitive media bias detector. I look for the framing and assumptions behind articles that attack my pet topics, and in general the underlying value is self-righteous dismissal of alternative views.

I read Chomsky; he whines about bias. I read Faludi; she whines about bias. I read the VRWC; they whine about bias. I write, and I whine about bias.

Your dissertation above is missing something; if we all perceive a (balancing) problem it doesn’t mean there isn’t one! I suggest that there is an underlying problem with the framing of reportage and debate.

The present ‘gotcha game’ passing as electoral debate is deficient. The conflict model of news reporting is deficient. The influence of self-image of journalists on their text is deficient if we want to improve our understanding. The academic environment that we of the VRWC like to slag off, actually works(in science at least) to encourage full exploration of issues, illuminate the dark corners of fudging and strengthen the whole group’s understanding.

How the hell you get the public debate into deeper understanding of real issues in this media climate has me puzzled. I think the right way is to improve the values of journalists as a population so that they reward clarity rather than controversy.

Perhaps use of the stocks would help too.


Dan Simon 09.24.04 at 5:59 am

Shai–my last, parenthetical paragraph was intended for you. Note the word “priorities”, not “prejudices”–those who want to be exposed to views they disagree with obviously consider that exposure a priority. (And those who don’t want to be so exposed are unlikely to have their minds magically opened by being force-fed views they despise.)

Personally, I get my news from sources with a wide variety of biases. I find that that works much better than relying on the pseudo-neutrality of any of the traditional large, mainstream outlets. But if the latter is the sort of thing you like–well, I’m sure you’ll be able to find it. I see no reason to believe, however, that the news oligopoly of the “big three” networks, plus a couple of dominant establishment newspapers, has ever significantly contributed to any of the grand social objectives you credit them with.


MQ 09.24.04 at 6:18 am

From Steve above:

“…there’s no attitudinal/professional/moral difference between a cabal of DNC [Democratic National Committee] members and a cabal of journalists,”

I can’t even imagine the level of bias required to have lived through the last ten years of U.S. political history and believe this to be true.


Shai 09.24.04 at 7:04 am

“Personally, I get my news from sources with a wide variety of biases”

well we’re both news junkies.

and the second paragraph is a wild inference of the false dilemma variety.

i’d love to tell a story about the media in canada in the 1820s and 30s (there’s even a funny part about the publisher of the Colonial Advocate having his printing press thrown in lake ontario), but I’ll have to stop, grit my teeth, and say that this web site is a wonderful tool for procrastination.


Big Ben 09.24.04 at 7:11 am

Sorry to go OT on such a brilliant post, but I’m amazed at the arrogance of people who say, “I can’t be bothered to read all of what you wrote, so I can’t be sure if you’ve already covered this, but my opinion is so important that I’m going to spout it anyway.”

Look people, the minimum requirement for commenting on a post is having acutally read the post in question. (Actually understanding the points made, and then keeping your reply relevant to the discussion, might be nice, too.)


VJ 09.24.04 at 9:58 am

This is flatulantly and indulgently long winded. More folks would read it through if it was shorter. This is part and parcel of media bias too. We are getting deluged with fire and brimstone rockets of right wing raving lunatics, everywhere present on all media outlets in the US, and we have here some finely nuanced 7 course long winded response.

It’s like the Polish lancers going up against the German Panzers. Utterly besides the point. Nice effort for academics, but it won’t get the job done. We’ve not had a real working ‘liberal media’ for well over a generation by now. Anyone who does not understand the game is not fit for the warfare. Now build us a better, faster more useful tank boys, OK?


ChrisDA 09.24.04 at 1:21 pm

In trying to engage with conservatives media bias, it’s important to disguish different types of issues. I’d be happy to concede that there IS liberal media bias on social issues (vid. Sam’s examples); but on economic issues I’d insist that in general the bias is clearly towards the rich/business (as you see in Chomsky’s media analysis).

When it comes to foreign policy, the media generally bang the war drums: any apparent liberal bias is to be explained as GOP policy getting out of hand, such that it runs counter to elite interests, eg later on in Vietnam, now in Iraq.


George 09.24.04 at 11:18 pm

Big Ben: ordinarily I’d agree with you, but this post is the equivalent of a blog filibuster. Actually I was enjoying it, Holbo of course writes quite well, but after about 10 pages it felt like he was purposely avoiding the subject. But in fact the subject is quite simple: *every* media source is biased, consciously or unconsciously. You can either raise a stink about it in the hopes of enlightening everybody else, or you can avoid it in your own case by reading as many sources as possible. But you can’t change it.


bob mcmanus 09.25.04 at 12:14 am

Nobody appreciates the Lawrence Sterne of the blogosphere


Safesite 09.26.04 at 7:02 am

Parents need more kid safe web sites! We cant let our kids surf the web without
being directed to some inappropriate site. Dont believe me? Do a search on
Pocahontas and watch how many inappropriate sites come up. Even major kids
search engines only block certain words, there are ways around that. The only one I
have found so far was at , I dont know about most parents
but we dont have time to monitor our kids every second when they want to go on
the computer. Anyway rant off.

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