Saturday, May 20, 2006

Reflections on Media "Bias"

There's a funny thing about media bias. No one will admit to benefiting from it. Conservatives have long complained about a liberal bias while radicals complain about a pro-establishment bias and now liberals (or progessives, if you prefer) are trying to prove a conservative bias. But no one ever acknowledges a media bias in their favor. Incidentally, this is not only an American phenomenon. While George W. Bush denounces Al-Jazeera as little better than a propaganda outlet for anti-American propaganda, Osama bin-Laden complains that Al-Jazeera is hopelessly biased against him.

So what accounts for the conviction on the part of activists of all stripes that the mainstream media are biased against them? Someone has commented that whenever anyone cries bias, it reveals his or her own bias more than anything else, and there is certainly something to that. To many people no doubt it is simply a matter of believing that if the media don't agree with me, they must be unfairly biased. But I believe that for more sophisticated activists the explanation is somewhat more complex.

Activists, regardless of their issue, have more detailed, specialized knowledge of their subject than the general public, including most journalists. But their detailed specialized knowledge is biased. They know about activity other activists are undertaking for their cause, the harm caused by whatever they oppose, the good done by fellow activists, the facts that support their positions, and the various studies and arguments undertaken by the more scholarly members of their movement. They know little about their opponents, other than that they are a bunch of lying scoundrels who manipulate evidence to support their false positions. If the mainstream media ignore a set of activists, this can only be proof of a hostile bias. If an outlet in the mainstream media undertakes to do a story about the issue dear to these activists, the story is most unlikely to be satisfactory. Its treatment will be superficial and often ill-informed. It will leave out details considered essential by activists, but of little interest to the general public (or to journalists). It may well get some of its facts wrong, in ways that to an activist can only seem like deliberate ignorance or hostile bias. Important argument the activists use to support their position will either be ignored, oversimplified, distorted, or just plain misunderstood. And, worst of all, the mainstream outlet will actually take those scoundrels on the other side seriously and give them equal time. Only advocacy journals, that treat the activists and their cause in depth and make no attempt to cover the other side, can be trusted to report without hostile "bias."

And then, of course, there are the people who are less in-depth and simply believe that Fox New (or, for that matter, Mother Jones) is "fair and balanced" because they agree with it.

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