The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: The Media Has Always Been Biased

The history of American journalism is one of slanted and limited coverage

By Louis Black, April 7, 2017, Columns

This past Monday my foot was operated on by the remarkable Dr. Smedley. We've been so busy on projects we've watched very little television. Spending Monday night in the hospital I watched the news, channel-flipping between stations.

The dividedness over Trump is even more extensive than I thought. The new administration finds not a split country, but a divided citizenry living in two different worlds. Trump advocates and Trump antagonists have little common ground, sharing precious few perceptions.

The stations trying to report on this administration's torrent of lies, exaggerations, and sweeping misstatements are dismissed by Trump loyalists as spreading false news. Accusing them of aggressive disloyalty, these folks want to shutter and burn them for their intentional propaganda. Not only is very little of it false, but for the most part in its effort to be fair they err in the direction of being too accepting, if anything downplaying the administration's excesses.

Fox News on the other hand is an arm of the Trump White House, dismissing any harmful information, playing up and advancing any of the Trump camp's endless excursions into baseless innuendo and unprovable allegations aimed mostly at distracting attention from their own actions.

Through all of this, smart folks on both sides, as well as those attempting to be evenhanded, decry contemporary reporting, lamenting the loss of objective journalism.

They say they want news to be objective, relating only what really happened, rather than subjective, reflecting obvious viewpoints. Which argues that there is an easily knowable, concrete, factual reality.

Except what are the facts? How can they be relayed without bias? In even simple situations there are usually at least two sides, often with very different points of view as to what has happened. A reporter talks to both, often at length. Obviously only selected quotes are offered, rather than a full transcript. The choice of these quotes, the order in which they are presented, and the outside "factual" details presented unavoidably reflect the reporter's opinions.

The more complicated and complex a situation, the more pronounced the bias of the presentation. Reporting on ISIS for example – the opinion of those in ISIS, those combating them, moderate Muslims, liberal and conservative Americans, with a shocking array of opinions in between, are going to all have a very different view as to what is going on. There will be some reading this who are outraged at the suggestion that ISIS is anything but intentionally evil, deeply angered at the suggestion that there may be different ways of perceiving them.

This position accepts that there is an easily knowable God's-eye view of reality. That there are concrete discernible "facts." Invariably these people also insist their perspective is objective and unbiased. Thus the facts that fit their perception are the truth.

Reporting on Trump depends on the perception as to who Trump is. If you think he is the Lone Ranger, a non-politician of uncompromising integrity and devotion to the country, you are going to read his and his administration's actions very differently than if you think he is a narcissistic demagogue. To argue that there is a truth there, that there is an objective knowable Trump who has some traits of each of those but is neither, does not achieve a truth. It presents another still biased view.

Similarly, reporting on Obama depended on perceptions as to who he was. Those who thought he was a Muslim-loving, America-hating leader would have a different interpretation than those who thought he was a hardworking and intelligent president, trying to lead the country forward the best he could and was able.

In such situations, with absolutely pronounced differences of opinion, each side can launch massive assaults of statistics, analysis, historical context, and educated opinions. Yet each well-substantiated invasion reaches very different conclusions.

There is a currently shared feeling that news media has reached an all-time low, being more biased and unreliable than ever before. The lament is for the kind of fearless, objective reporting that had helped make this nation great.

Except this isn't true. The history of American journalism is one of slanted and limited coverage. During the last century almost every major urban area had at least two daily papers, often any number more, each representing different politics and philosophies.

Most obviously William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism ended up with the U.S. invading Cuba. But there were newspapers that supported labor and those that attacked it, newspapers that championed racism and segregation as well as those that denounced and decried them. Opinionated reporting has always existed. Non-opinionated reporting is an opium pipe dream. Papers were expected to advocate, offering outright partisan positions – and not just on the editorial pages.

There is the largely shared urban myth of liberal bias in mainstream media. True believers can explain this with statistics; most reporters are liberal (though most who own media are not) as well as numbers of stories and their supposed obvious bent. I know no liberal/leftist who embraces mainstream media, all rejecting it as terribly biased. Not in that it reflects their beliefs but rather it mirrors and endorses the status quo.

Those echoing the liberal charge against mainstream media made their actual concerns clear with the advent of Fox News. Rather than biased, they were mostly opposed to liberals. Many of those denouncing mainstream media insist Fox News is fair and balanced. The interest is not an objectivity or even an attempt at such. It is in media reflecting our own personal bias.

These thoughts are red meat not just for all ideologues but those who champion the nonpartisan middle. Insisting their bias indicates an actual understanding of reality. It will be attacked, I will be denounced. Regardless, it is not about reporting factual objectivity but of what and how biases are presented.

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