The battle over media bias has three sides, not two: conservatives, liberals, and the media itself.
The problem is, the two political sides merely conflate the media with the other side, and see no difference between them. Conservatives simply see the media as part of the vast left-wing conspiracy, and liberals see the media as simply being an arm of the right. But the media is worse: it doesn’t see itself as part of the battle at all, or rather, it sees the battle as an altogether different battle with “new media”, with bloggers and the Internet, and ignores some of the reasons why people may not be following them onto their own new media platforms. The media goes after the wrong enemy without realizing that many of the accusations of bias are within its own pages – hardly “new media”. Because the media doesn’t fight back against the actual charges and goes after a strawman instead, someone reading Media Matters and Newsbusters dispassionately might be led to believe that the media isn’t tinted to the left, right, or balanced; it’s just incompetent.
I should add that in order to truly reach that conclusion, you’d have to add another liberal blog, because Media Matters only goes after specific instances of “conservative misinformation”, while Newsbusters attacks at any perceived slight, no matter how minor. For example, Newsbusters has been attacking the MSM’s coverage of Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s troubles for allegedly not labeling him as a Democrat, when they would be so quick to label him if he was a Republican! Hmm, could that have something to do with the mayor of Detroit being an officially nonpartisan position? Could it be that if they had called him, say, “Detroit’s Democratic mayor”, as Fox News did, they would actually be inaccurate and would come in for an even heavier pillorying from the left? Newsbusters itself has found enough exceptions that it makes me wonder if the rare cases of being quick to label Republicans as such that they cite are themselves exceptions… though I’d need more information to verify that for certain.
Farhad Manjoo (of True Enough fame, remember) appears to be one of the few to recognize that the left and the right are really putting forth two sides of the same coin. One of the studies he cites in True Enough (page 154) concerns an incident in Lebanon in 1982 and the reaction to news reports on the incident by students at Stanford – one pro-Israel, one pro-Arab, and one neutral group. Predictably, the partisan groups believed the news was biased against them and towards the other side, likely to turn viewers against their own side. What did the neutral group think? Funnily enough, they didn’t see any bias one way or the other. It would seem to be evidence that, at the very least, the news could in fact be perfectly fair and balanced.
But it’s unlikely to convince partisans in the United States who would just see it as evidence that the bias in the news is “subtle”, even subliminal. Even if the neutral group didn’t see bias, didn’t even claim to favor one side or the other more than before, that’s just because the media tries to hide its bias because they know people want a fair and balanced account. In reality, the media is sowing the seeds so that when people hear something closer to the truth, closer to what the partisans know is true, they will dismiss it because “well, what I heard on the news was…” Certainly the fact that Newsbusters is on the lookout for such minutiae as whether a politician’s party is identified – which would be, if a crime, one of omission – would seem to support this idea.
But consider that conservatives have been hammering the media for having a liberal bias for decades. If people are abandoning the MSM for blogs because of all the bias they see in it (a claim often voiced in Newsbusters’ comments), if polls show that media bias is a bigger problem than worship of the almighty dollar in campaigns, if operations like Media Matters and Newsbusters exist to call them on any perceived slight the instant they show one and shame them for thousands, maybe even millions, of readers to see, why, the media would be absolutely foolish to show any bias whatsoever. There should be less media bias than at any time in history.
But not only do Media Matters and Newsbusters still have plenty of targets, the exact opposite has happened: The mainstream media has become more biased, even blatantly so. Fox News is the most obvious example (and it’s telling that Newsbusters sometimes calls Fox “fair and balanced” with a straight face), but CNN (ex. Lou Dobbs Tonight) and MSNBC (ex. Countdown with Keith Olbermann) have more than their fair share of partisan screeds disguised as news too. Even the seemingly balanced shows on cable news tend to be debatefests between pundits and/or party surrogates. (As I’ll explain in a later post, it’s possible that if anything, these debatefests are too tame, as though their contestants were politicians running for office and chasing the center. Give me a strong, popular extreme righty against a strong, popular extreme lefty anytime.) Perhaps this trend – that to avoid charges of bias, the media has made them come true – suggests that the problem was never that the media wasn’t balanced, but that it was too balanced. (That said, the fact that liberals only recently have taken up the media bias cant may suggest that the media was once at least slightly tinted to the left. Or it could indicate, as the title of Arianna Huffington’s book suggests, that “Right is Wrong”.)
But trying to be balanced to everyone is too much work. Say a study comes out that says a bunch of stuff about offshore drilling but doesn’t come out one way or the other. But if you don’t report on the study, the next time you do a story about drilling Newsbusters will hammer you for not reporting on the study that proves how far we could drive down oil prices and declare our oil independence by drilling (ignoring that the report shows Republicans arguing exactly that, albeit not citing the study). So you report on the study, only to find Media Matters accusing you of ignoring that the same study shows drilling would actually do nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and would cause three species of marine life to become extinct. If you’d said the study had said that, Newsbusters would accuse you of purposely misrepresenting the study, so you have to present both the liberal conclusion and the conservative conclusion. And now both sides are accusing you of putting forth a partisan spin on the study “uncritically”…
What I’d like to see, then, is a blog defending the media from accusations of bias from both sides, enough of an insider to be privy to the discussions deciding what gets printed and how, but not so far inside the MSM that (s)he would be subject to some of its quirks like, say, not talking about the John Edwards scandal. The media doesn’t need to become what the news would look like if partisans ran it. It doesn’t need to see the enemy as this amorphous “new media” that’s just out to destroy it. We don’t even need to see a clear distinction between old and new media, and the fact that bastions of old media like the Los Angeles Times and ESPN have started sponsoring forays into blogging is evidence of that. It just needs people to credibly say, “no. We’re right, you’re wrong, and here’s why.” It needs someone to explain to Newsbusters why it won’t identify Kwame Kilpatrick as a Democrat (or why it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t), to Media Matters why it won’t report how closely John McCain has followed President Bush, to the right why it didn’t pursue the John Edwards story (and why it did pursue the affairs of Republicans – and even if more Republican infidelities are reported than Democratic ones, that may have more to do with the fact that Republicans are the party of “family values” than with any liberal bias), and to the left why it didn’t look more critically at the case for war in Iraq, and to sit through both sides’ rebuttals and patiently counter-rebut those.
Maybe no one in the mainstream media wants to put up a blog responding to the accusations of partisans. And maybe they don’t have to. Barring that, I’d like to see someone put up a site that employed both liberals and conservatives looking for bias from the mainstream media – but also looking for inaccuracies and shortcomings and distortions from Media Matters and Newsbusters and even its own analysts, and not just those but the entire conservative and liberal blogosphere. Its slogan could be “Keeping the media honest… and the people who watch them.” Or something like that. If blogs are the new place to get the news, surely they need a Media Matters or Newsbusters just as much as the mainstream media does. If I’m right, and the media itself is just as much a side in the debate as the left and the right, then it logically follows that it needs its own Media Matters or Newsbusters to keep the other two sides in check.
Or would that just be accused of being just as biased as the mainstream media itself? Newsbusters’ apparent decision to write off any explanation the mainstream media give for ignoring the Edwards story as “making excuses” suggests it may be. Still, if the consequenses otherwise are the “death” of the mainstream media made very real, replaced by a bunch of partisan outlets not speaking to one another, perhaps all sides would be better for a serious dialogue. Or rather, trialogue?