Media Bias, Seen and Unseen

Complaints about media bias have become so commonplace nowadays as to approach cliché. Most in the press shrug off the charge, claiming a neutral, disinterested status. Once in a while, though, there’s a revealing glimpse of how deep the problem goes.

In a fascinating inside look,, a web magazine backed by Microsoft and NBC, had the courage to reveal how their editorial staff voted in the last election. Interestingly, given the dead heat in the presidential election, 12 of 13 people on the editorial staff voted for Democratic Party candidate Al Gore. Even the one vote not captured by Gore didn’t go for Republican George Bush — it went to libertarian Harry Browne. Thus, not one of the opinion makers voted for the man who will be the next president.

But the story doesn’t end there. In an article entitled, “The God of Objectivity Is Dead,” Jack Shafer, Slate’s Deputy Editor, urged other press members to come clean and listed a number of prominent journalists he planned to contact to see how they voted. According to Shafer’s hypothesis, the survey “will confirm that the press corps is over-represented by yellow dog … well, golden ocher, Democrats. Most of them are for abortion-on-demand, against school vouchers, for government regulation, against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for national health care, against unlimited money in campaigns, for gun control, against privatizing Social Security, for high taxes. In a word, for Al Gore.”

Shafer continued, “I tested my Democratic hypothesis several years ago by checking the public record to see how a sample of top Washington Posties had registered to vote. Almost to a one registered Democrat. One Postie explained away the embarrassment of his Republican status this way: he and his wife wanted all the Republican and Democratic campaign literature mailed to them, so each year they tossed a coin to settle who’d register Republican and who’d register Democratic. That year he lost the toss.”

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Shafer was a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

Attractive as it is, though, I don’t think his disclosure request goes far enough. Maybe newscasters and reporters should have a (D) or (R) party affiliation next to their byline, the way elected officials do. Perhaps a simple declaration of party allegiance at the beginning of each article or broadcast would suffice: “Hi, I’m Dan Rather, “yella dawg” Democrat, and here’s tonight’s news…” or “This is Wolf Blitzer, Green Party loyalist, reporting from the Rio earth summit…” Not only would such refreshing honesty help put the “news” in perspective, it might even liven things up a bit.

Unlike many, I don’t think this bias results from a media plot against Republicans. The truth is much worse than that: It’s unintentional.

The basic problem isn’t the media’s conclusions, it’s their assumptions. The press operates in a setting where “progressive” presumptions are the norm and a moderate Democrat is, well, a reactionary. (I know from whence I speak: I was a journalism major and have worked for newspapers for years.) As Shafer points out, he’s hired 30 to 40 reporters and editors in his day. With the exception of two or three Republicans, all were, in his words, “golden ocher Democrats.”

Reporters don’t notice their own biases because liberalism envelops their surrounding work environment — like fish not noticing they’re in water. To the press, fairness consists in arguing about the margins; a real examination of the underlying principles is almost never given. The main problem isn’t the partiality that creeps into the news they cover, it’s the unexamined angle that doesn’t get covered.

Take the frequently reported topic of federal government programs, for example. Debate always centers on the pros and cons of a given issue — whether drug prescriptions should be added to Medicare benefits; whether Washington’s aid to education should be increased; whether federal hate crime legislation should provide additional punishment depending on a criminal’s motives.

But almost no one in the media asks a more fundamental question: whether the federal government has the authority to enact any of these programs. They simply assume that it does. It doesn't occur to them that there is an entirely different side to each of these issues, namely, whether this vast centralization of power usurped by the federal government over the last 50 years might be unconstitutional. They miss this angle because of their own inclination toward government intervention, a tendency so ingrained they're not even conscious of it.

Political analysts as far back as Cicero have recognized that the best safeguard of freedom is an active and vigorous debate about the preservation of a nation's ideals. But we can't have a real debate if one side controls the participants and narrowly defines the grounds upon which the discussion takes place. Encounters always conducted on one's side turf are bound to be lopsided. It's like having to play each game on the other team's home field.

Put another way, the worst press bias is not what’s in our newspapers or on television screens which we can see; it’s in the stories that are not reported that we never see. No wonder the American public is woefully ignorant not only of the past, but of the controversies that shaped it. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the public is conditioned to take one side in a controversy without even knowing there is a controversy.

Ignoring fundamental principles and debating the margins turns out to be the best way of preserving the societal changes the media likes. But intellectually, it’s sort of like arguing about iceberg tips and ignoring the massive mountain formations lying beneath.

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