Fitting Bias Into Its Proper Slot

When media critics and radio talk show hosts screech about “bias,” they’re almost always talking about the ideological kind. The publisher’s write-up of former CBS reporter and producer Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias states that “When [Goldberg] looked at his own industry … he saw that the media far too often ignored their primary mission: objective, disinterested reporting. Again and again he saw that they slanted the news to the left.” In the book description, this bias is described as “so uniform and overwhelming that it permeates every news story we hear and read.”

Goldberg certainly seems to think ideological bias is a cancer corrupting every corner of the media world — except perhaps the one he inhabited at CBS, where he recalls himself as a lonely outlier uninfected by partisan fevers.

But while ideological bias, when it arises, is a serious issue in journalism, it’s far from the most serious bias at play, and it’s intellectually dishonest of Goldberg to pretend otherwise.

Goldberg, like the bias warriors who ape his rhetoric, reduces the complexities of everyday reporting to fit an oversimplified critique that conveniently squares with his own political leanings. Reality, of course, is far muddier than he would like his disciples to believe. Consider the Plame leak story, which has resulted in the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Reporters writing about the case are naturally inclined to favor Miller over prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, since the case serves as a kind of test of journalistic freedom — and Miller has become the martyr to the government’s attempted crackdown. Journalists’ sympathies are likely to color their impressions of the case, and with it their coverage. At the same time, many reporters dislike Miller intensely for her flawed reporting on weapons of mass destruction in the days leading up to the Iraq war. This anger might stem from their feelings about journalism, their feelings about politics, or a combination of the two. But the bias that emerges from their complex emotions about Miller cannot be boiled down to simple ideology.

On top of those feelings, reporters are dealing with the systemic issues that go into their coverage of every story. Here are just a few:

— Reporters and their bosses are biased towards conflict, opposition, and sensationalism — and biased against power. (Indeed, in the current print edition of CJR, reporter Doug McCollam urges the profession to announce the latter bias and be proud of it.)

— Media companies focus on the bottom line over good reporting.

— The scoop mentality encourages a rush to judgment on less-than-solid facts.

— Reporters share a natural inclination toward doomsday that have nothing to do with ideology.

— They have to deal with deadlines. With spin. With personal issues and professional allegiances. With, in short, a million different issues that might color their coverage.

None of this is to excuse sloppy reporting full of shortcuts. But it is to recognize that, of all the forces driving bad journalism, personal politics is far down on the list.

But the bias warriors fail to see that complexity. Like freshman economics majors, they long to make a complex system fit into a more easily understandable one. In Economics 101, students are presented economic models largely within the constraints of perfect competition. But, as the students learn in later courses, and eventually in real life, perfect competition doesn’t exist in the real world — there are too many variables and complexities in actual markets. The reason it’s usually a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about the world is that the world is never simple enough for that. Nonetheless, bias warriors are content — nay, eager — to limit the scope of their critique of the press, ignoring all of the complexities, opting instead for a description of a stripped-down media world that bears little resemblance to reality.

But then, media bias warriors have their biases too. And they know as well as anyone that informed complexity rarely pays the bills as well as misguided simplicity.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.