The Real Bias Problem

There are, according to the old cliche, two types of people in this world: those who think people fit neatly into categories, and those who don’t. In his column today, Westword’s Michael Roberts makes a strong argument that he’s one of the former. “The majority of media types these days fall into three categories,” he writes in his lede, “liberal, conservative, and those who aspire to genuine objectivity.”

Lines like that play into the hands of the media bias warriors who want people to believe that the overriding daily concern for reporters and editors is how to subversively work their ideology into that day’s stories. The truth is that most are far more worried about meeting deadlines, avoiding mistakes, getting on page one, and figuring out how to pay the rent. And there are plenty of categories we could reduce reporters to that might give more insight into the work they put out: those who work hard and those who do just enough to get by; those who are smart, those who are dumb, and those who are neither; those interested in exploring matters of substance and those who thrive on quick hits; those who live clean, those who hypercaffeinate and those who couldn’t pass a blood alcohol test.

You get the idea.

But we don’t want to be too hard on Roberts because, for the most part, he gets the rest of the column right. Roberts gives us the story of Phil Mitchell, a University of Colorado-Boulder history instructor “who feels that his teaching contract was not extended after more than two decades at the institution because of his conservative Christian views.”

Sounds like it could be a story. But is it? Mitchell’s plight was well-covered in conservative outlets — after a conservative Denver Post columnist wrote of his situation, Mitchell vaulted to “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Scarborough Country,” as well as right-wing talk radio and more local press. But the non-conservative media didn’t touch him, and, after his auspicious beginning, Mitchell was quickly dropped from the conservative circuit, too. Roberts gives us the reason: Though ideological concerns can get you in the door, it’s conflict that carries you through the news cycle. And Mitchell, whose “O’Reilly Factor” segment was “exceedingly-low-key,” was just too nice for all that nonsense — unlike, for example, his Boulder counterpart, lefty bomb-thrower Ward Churchill.

One more problem: According to UC Boulder, Mitchell has a teaching contract through 2006, and, though the school hasn’t yet made decisions beyond then, “we are not aware of any directive or written statement that would exclude Mitchell from consideration for instructor appointments in any academic program.” So it’s a little bit difficult to understand what he’s complaining about.

That information goes a long way toward explaining the “liberal indifference” to Mitchell, as Westword puts it. By “liberal,” the weekly means “not explicitly conservative,” of course — a reference to outlets like CNN and the New York Times. But, based on the known facts, it appears they should have been indifferent; if UC Boulder’s account is true, there’s not much of a story to report except for Mitchell’s vague suspicions. Of course, lack of facts on which to hang a story has never stopped “liberal” outlets before — as the press frenzy around the ironically named Swift Boat Veterans For Truth last year reminded us. So let’s not give CNN a gold star just yet. Had Mitchell been more media-savvy and willing to shout down his perceived enemies, he might well have made it onto CNN or into the Times, whether or not his story had holes in it. That’s because editors and TV producers do have a bias — a bias toward conflict, and toward emotionally tinged stories and the readers and viewers they supposedly attract. In the race to deadline, ideology — or truth, for that matter — can’t compete.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.