Thursday, August 25, 2005

Is there a media bias?

[I was not planning on posting about this, as it is a loaded topic. But after getting drawn in on other blogs' discussions about this, I finally decided that I should.
DovBear, a left-of-center Jewish blog, discussed it here and here; the InterGalacticJester, which is a combination of people across the spectrum, discussed it here. SoccerDad, a right-of-center Jewish blogger, touches on it here. The comments, especially the ones on IGJ, are worth reading as well; probably more so than the posts themselves.]

So, is there a bias? Conservatives often charge a bias to the left, particularly with Reuters, the New York Times, the LA Times, CBS, and CNN; liberals tend to complain about FoxNews being to the right. One issue that is important to note: Editorial pages are absolutely allowed to be biased in any direction, as they are editorial pages - they are not reporting on the news. Therefore, it is fine for the New York Times and LA Times to be heavily liberal on their editorial pages; just as it is okay for the Wall Street Journal to be unapologetically conservative on its own.
The issue is when articles, stories, and photos become somewhat edited and editorialized.
Often, the media reports with a certain philosophy: To try and show the opinions that are hidden behind the norm, or the exceptions to the rule. While in some cases this is a noble expression, because it shares with the world the viewpoints of the few, it is poor policy in reporting the 'normal' news.
By giving voice to the few, it often ignores the viewpoint of the many. But the one watching, listening, or reading the news does not know this. Therefore, the conclusion they are led to assumes that the report is representative of what is felt or happening, though this is not the case. Hence, we have articles like this one in the Washington Post; as Soccer Dad points out:
I realize that the Post's article reported on real people and told no lies. I also realize that by focusing mostly on those milbloggers that share the reporter's apparent opposition to the war the article gave an impression that was as dishonest as a lie.
The Post should have articles like this one, which discusses bloggers writing about their negative or terrifying experiences in Iraq; however, they should also have articles such as this one, which talk about all the positive steps the country and its people are taking. Though an incredibly long article, I would suggest actually reading through it, because just acknowledgement that they exist is not enough; it takes true understanding of what you are or are not getting to fully appreciate what people mean by 'bias'. If you feel it is still too long, just scroll down; see how long it takes you just to scroll through it.
What's most important to note about this article is the lead-in after the introduction:
Here are the past two weeks' worth of underreported and often overlooked good news from Iraq.
Imagine if instead the article covered two years?
As others pointed out, leaving things out is not the only issue. Many news agencies have fallen into the "profit-motive" and "get the story first" bias. Reporters on both sides often rush to get a story, to the point they are putting out stories that are not true or make tremendous assumptions. The Karl Rove/Valerie Plame kerfuffle (which I've discussed) was one good example; the Al Gore/James Witt one was another (thanks Croaky).
The press also went into a tizzy over Gore's casual comment during that first debate that he had traveled with James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to Texas during a spate of wildfires. As vice president, Gore had traveled with Witt seventeen different times, but not on the date in question. Gore corrected the record the next morning, but the press treated his slip of the tongue as wildly important.
This rush to judgement is something Best of the Web has mentioned repeatedly, and which it pointed out came back to bite the New York Times regarding Valerie Plame. Though these cases involve editorials, and not news, the issue of rushing to judgement still applies. Editors and journalists are entitled to their own opinions, and can write whatever they would like; but often in their zeal to comment on a story they may get their facts wrong. This is wrong, regardless on what page the article is.
As far as we know, the first "mainstream" media appearance of the Plame kerfuffle was a column by former Enron adviser Paul Krugman, which appeared on July 22, 2003.
Think about that: if their characterization of Mr. Wilson's wife is true (he refuses to confirm or deny it), Bush administration officials have exposed the identity of a covert operative. That happens to be a criminal act; it's also definitely unpatriotic."
Best of the Web further pointed out:
Gail Collins & Co. weighed in with an Oct. 2, 2003, editorial, in which they called for then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to recuse himself from the case and asserted that Plame was indeed a "covert" agent for the purposes of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act:
"The law under which the Justice Department is operating prohibits the naming of an undercover intelligence operative--in this case, the wife of Joseph Wilson IV, a retired career diplomat."
[The editorial] also likened the "leaking" of Plame's identity to "the disclosure of troop movements in wartime" and called it "an egregious abuse of power."

A couple more Times' quotes:
Bob Herbert, Oct. 3: "The vicious release to news organizations of the identity of an undercover C.I.A. officer could serve as a case study of the character of this administration. The Bush II crowd is arrogant, venal, mean-spirited and contemptuous of law and custom. The problem it faces now is not just the criminal investigation into who outed Valerie Plame, but also the fact that the public understands this story only too well."
Paul Krugman, Oct. 3: "In any case, Mr. Wilson's views and character are irrelevant. Someone high in the administration committed a felony and, in the view of the elder Mr. Bush, treason. End of story."
Eventually Ashcroft relented and gave the Times what it wanted: a special prosecutor. A Dec. 31, 2003, editorial applauded the decision and flatly stated that someone had committed a crime:
Mr. Fitzgerald is charged with finding out who violated federal law by giving the name of the undercover intelligence operative to Mr. Novak for publication in his column.
But be carfeul what you wish for...
Since then, the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has subpoenaed several reporters, two of whom, Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time, have refused to testify before a grand jury and are now threatened with jail...which prompted a Times editorial Saturday that contained a stunning turnabout:
"Meanwhile, an even more basic issue has been raised in recent articles in The Washington Post and elsewhere: the real possibility that the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity, while an abuse of power, may not have violated any law. Before any reporters are jailed, searching court review is needed to determine whether the facts indeed support a criminal prosecution under existing provisions of the law protecting the identities of covert operatives."
By the same token, perhaps reporters should be looking further into stories and the laws governing them to determine whether the facts indeed support the news story that is to be written. As Best of the Web said:
We hope that Miller and Cooper prevail--that they keep their sources confidential and never spend a night behind bars. We also hope our colleagues in the news business learn to be more skeptical about politically motivated criminal accusations.
But bias is not just rushing to judgement or trying to break a big story. Often, it is how the media portrays what is "normal" and what is not. Reuters refuses to call anyone a terrorist, stating that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." This type of policy (in all areas, not just terrorism) results in a 'status quo' judgement, and often this judgement can be biased. Interestingly enough, as BOTW points out (Taranto has a knack for this it seems), this sometimes comes back to haunt Democrats.
"Former President Clinton, defending his senator-wife's statements on abortion, said Wednesday that Democrats are held to a double standard."
He contended that Republicans have defined the abortion debate in a way that boxes in Democrats.
"So for example, if you're a Democrat and you have sort of normal impulses, you're a sellout, like when Hillary said abortion is a tragedy for virtually everybody who undergoes it, we ought to do all we can to reduce abortion," Clinton said.
"All of a sudden," he continued, the media began asking, " 'Is she selling out? Is she abandoning her principles?' But if John McCain, who's pro-life, works with Hillary on global warming, he's a man of principle moving to the middle."
"It's nuts," the former president said.
This is quite simply because the media views many liberal social policies as more in-line with being moderate. By seemingly becoming less in favor of abortion, Mrs. Clinton was moving, not to the middle from the left, but to the right from the middle.
In a similiar vein, Taranto has an op-ed which shows how the media, because of bias, may have actually cost John Kerry the election.
But in reality, it is little innuendos which are often seen in the media which bother people the most. The media as a whole does not promulgate a policy of bias, and does not usually overtly show any such signs. What it does often do is, whether it realizes it or not, is throw in innuendos which are so subtle one might not realize them; but in truth, it affects readers or viewers, creating biases in their own minds. Reuters will not call any terrorists "terrorists", because "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Yet it will call Gaza and the West Bank "occupied land," when it is in fact disputed territory. [Point here is not that it is wrong because it is disputed; just that because it is disputed, Reuters should not automatically say it is occupied based on their own standards.] Reuters also will add tags to many of their photos, and here too there seems to be a bias. In this picture of an Israeli woman pleading to soldiers before they remove her from her home, the caption reads
A Jewish settler holds her baby as she shouts at Israeli soldiers in the Jewish settlement of Sanur, West Bank, August 23, 2005. Israeli forces smashed their way into two West Bank settlements on Tuesday and dragged away ultrarightist Jews dug in for a last stand against evacuation after failing to foil a pullout from occupied Gaza.
The very next photo, of at least thirty Hamas members in masks and carrying either anti-tank guns or machine guns, has the caption
Masked Palestinian militants from the military wing of the Hamas movement participate in celebrations of the Israeli pullout from Gaza at the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza Strip August 24, 2005. Israeli military forces expect to be out of Gaza in mid-September, completing a withdrawal from the territory after 38 years of occupation, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Wednesday.
In both of these instances, the caption's first line touches lightly on what is happening in the picture. The second line goes on to vilify Israel or Israelis, and has almost no bearing whatsoever on what the viewer is seeing. If it were to provide context, that would be okay; but as the context of every photo is a line which vilifies Israel (please feel free to check), this does not seem to be the case.
While, as many have argued, the biases on both sides are getting reduced, there is still plenty of it in the mainstream media - a large reason for that being that only 10% of Internet users are bloggers. However, as BOTW noted about a small issue recently:
This whole episode is another reminder that the media today are subject to much more scrutiny than in the past. The last time a Supreme Court seat came open, the World Wide Web was the province of a few nerds, and there was no Drudge Report, no blogs, no Fox News Channel.
As PuckFomona argued on InterGalacticJester, these new sources of information resulted in a shift.
"FoxNews arrives on the scene. Moves to #1 in the ratings. What do you do as a competitor, say for instance CNN?
That's right, you also shift your coverage starboard, so as to try and take back some of the audience you lost. Other stations of less importance follow suit. Now we have a new, at best moderate, but in my opinion conservative, media.
Sure a couple newspapers may have a liberal tilt (NYT, LAT) but it's not nearly as pronounced as it was in the past..."

While I disagree that the media became moderate, let alone conservative, the point still stands: With the advent of less liberal sources, the older media had to shift more toward the middle. (This probably resulted in Fox then also shifting more to the middle, using the same logic.) This is an enormous positive and a huge step in the right (no pun intended) direction, but the issue still exists. This is evidenced in today's Best of the Web, which contrasts the New York Times' editorials regarding the new Iraqi Constitution and the one Afghanistan made recently. Essentially, on issues that were either almost exactly the same or dealt with better in the case of the Iraqis, the Times was extremely negative about the Iraqis where they had been positive regarding the Afghans.
For example, the Times observes that the Afghan constitution "specifically grants equal rights to women, even promising two Parliament seats in each province to women." The Iraqi constitution has similar provisions:
Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of gender, ethnicity, nationality, origin, color, religion, sect, belief, opinion or social or economic status. . . . No less than 25% of Council of Deputies seats go to women.
Yet, in today's editorial, the Times complains of
"divisive provisions, like the enshrinement of Islamic law and the threats to women's family and property rights."
Granted, this may not be a case of bias: 1) It is on the editorial pages, and though I argued above that bias could still apply, in this case 2) one could argue that it is not bias, just hypocrisy. But, this is disproven by the last section BOTW quotes.
Americans continue dying in Iraq, but their mission creeps steadily downward. The nonexistent weapons of mass destruction dropped out of the picture long ago. Now the United States seems ready to walk away from its fine words about helping the Iraqis create a beacon of freedom, harmony and democracy for the Middle East. All that remains to be seen is whether the White House has become so desperate for an excuse to declare victory that it will settle for an Iranian-style Shiite theocracy.
Taranto feels that
Gail Collins & Co. are heavily invested in the idea that America shouldn't have liberated Iraq in the first place. Failure in Iraq--unlike in Afghanistan--would vindicate them, and that is why they are so eager to find signs of it. What really unsettles America's defeatists is the prospect of success.

But, as I stated above, a far more pressing issue is when bias affects the actual news. The worst - or best - example of this was over a year ago, and was immediately noticed by many, including Best of the Web. The New York Times was reporting on fighting in Iraq, and added in a line amongst the rest of the article.
After American troops completed their withdrawal from the Mukhaiyam Mosque, Iraqi policemen entered the downtown area, trying to take control for the first time since April, when Mr. Sadr's forces seized the area, said Col. Pete Mansoor, commander of the First Brigade of the First Armored Division. "It seems like a good thing," he added.
Iraq has become one of the most dangerous places in the world from which to report, with enormous potential for journalists to be deliberately targeted by either side or caught in the crossfire.
But there are doubts that Iraqi security forces are prepared or willing to rid the area of insurgents.
"Either side"!? What proof, if any, is there to such an accusation? As BOTW questions,
We guess the weasel word potential makes this something less than a direct accusation, but the Times certainly seems to be implying that coalition troops are trying to kill journalists in Iraq. Is there any evidence for such a thing, or is the Times simply becoming more brazen in its anti-American slanting of the news?
While this quote underscores the problems many have with the media, it also bears hope for the future. After the outrage expressed by many, primarily due to the diligence of bloggers, the Times pulled the line from the article. Though it is still available on other sites, most expressing outrage, you wouldn't be able to find it anywhere on the New York Times site.
While many complain that blogging and the Internet allows people to easily espouse their venomous hate and lies, overall the opposite is true. Due to the hard work of honest people, lies are becoming harder and harder to tell without being made to look foolish. Jayson Blair and Rathergate are prime examples. Stories, which otherwise might never have seen the light of day, are now easily passed around to millions within minutes, or just as well, finally being told (such as CNN's director being forced to admit to a 'deal' with Saddam not to report on tortures in exchange for other stories). There are negatives; but there are far more positives.
The mainstream media is still biased; but slowly, surely, they will continue their shift to the middle. If they don't, they will undoubtedly lead to their own demise. After all, this is the Information Age, and speed is everything. Information which used to take a lot longer to come to light is now at our fingertips as soon as we Google it. Nobody wants to get caught in a lie. Truth has always prevailed; now it just does it a lot faster.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard of MM and Alterman, not the Howler... And I'm not disagreeing with your first point. I'm pointing out that the typical MSM sources are more often guilty of this in less obvious ways. Did you read through the examples and links? Those are all pretty reckless and indefensible. I'm not saying it doesn't exist on both sides; just that more people are affected when the MSM does it.