Monday, June 18, 2007

The objectivity of the press

Jay Cost over at the HorseRaceBlog on RealClearPolitics had a good piece last Friday on press objectivity. It was promising from the very start:

Let me say at the outset that what follows is not a typical, the press-is-a-biased-shill-for-the-GOP story, or the-press-is-a-biased-shill-for-the-Democrats story. I am going to remain agnostic on the issue of ideological bias.

Cost goes on to discuss the institutional bias of the press, not in terms of political ideology, but in terms of the press's own "private interests" and the way that its reports reflect those interests. He doesn't say that there are no ideological biases, but rather wants to draw attention to other forms:

Political activists on both sides accuse the press of ideological bias. In many instances, these critiques frame the question of bias in ways that cause us to miss it in its other forms. After all, left-right ideology is only a single dimension of American political life.

As examples, he states that the press has biases toward (the following are all direct quotations from Cost):

1. ...conflict, so the press focuses on it excessively.

2. ...activity, change, dynamism, whatever you want to call it. Things must be "happening" in a press story because this attracts the attention of the public.

3. ...stories with good visuals because the public is attracted to them.

4. ...minimizing costs (due to) space and time constraints. This induces a bias toward the simple over the complicated, the straightforward over the subtle, consensus of opinion over diversity.

He points out that just because these biases don't fit onto a left-right continuum doesn't mean that they don't exist. He also states that he has no objection to these biases -- only to the press's beliefs and claims that they don't have them.

Cost goes on further, but the idea is pretty clear.

What was interesting was that he seems not to point out the ways in which those private interests and biases noted above intrinsically might give results that would appear ideologically motivated. Reflecting on this might help conservatives understand why, in cases where left-leaning bias seems so clear to us, many good journalists vehemently deny that their own political ideas affect what they write.

For instance, given that traditional conservatism is grounded in what Russell Kirk called "the permanent things," a bias toward finding and highlighting conflict and change will work against traditional cultural and political practices.

When one thinks about it, this is fairly obvious -- how often do we see news stories about things that work just fine as they are and as they have worked for centuries? How often do we see reports on the unintended consequences and intrinsic dangers of change -- particularly rapid or wholesale change? Granted, such pieces might be soporific (if one could get the public to read them in the first place,) and they certainly wouldn't be "news" -- but the interests of what is true and what is good for a community are not necessarily served by having cultural and political trends shaped primarily by "news."

Regarding stories with good visuals, they disproportionately involve "beautiful people" -- i.e. celebrities, a group not any more blessed with common-sense, stable personal lives, and sound thinking than any other. A better argument might actually be made for the opposite. The emphasis on the visual can also tend toward a devaluation of older ideas and concepts, most of which we have in the form of old books and writings.

Finally -- even the constraints of space and time lend themselves to sloganeering and simplistic ideas. Granted, these are not the sole possession of the left by any means. But again, the riches of traditional thought have been expounded over the centuries by people and in times without such imperatives toward brevity.

Doubtless, someone on the left could probably look at the last two items in particular and give examples of how they perceive the right as having benefited from them. Which would confirm Cost's contention that these biases, ultimately, don't fit neatly onto a left-right spectrum of ideological bias.


mtliberty said...

The one that was really interesting was UofChicago study that showed the press optimized it's bias according to sales and revenue maximization.

The cited article was critical...but the "criticisms" are easily refuted by self evidence.

Montana Headlines said...

Self-evident indeed. The Billings Gazette would certainly have been catering to a conservative crowd with its opinions for years had they been interested in stroking their readership.

Instead, the editors are inclined to talk down to us. They still get good circulation because a whole lot of people get the paper primarily for the advertising.

Anonymous said...

One of the oddities of journalism is that in places where there are alternative newspapers, the "alternative" they provide is that they almost invariably lean farther to the left than the local larger daily.

Witness the Gazette and the Outpost, the Missoulian and the Missoula Independent, and the Helena IR and the weekly there. It would be real interesting to see what would happen in each of those cities if those alternative newspapers were run by conservatives instead of by liberals. I suspect that the alternative newspapers would be a lot more successful than they are now.

The fact that this situation happens time after time suggests that journalism is a profession that simply appeals a lot more to liberals than it does to conservatives. They see it, I guess, as a chance to make a difference in the world.

Montana Headlines said...

Actually, the Outpost probably does a better job of allowing some interesting conservative voices into its editorial pages than does the Gazette.

And the Missoula Independent's George Ochenski did more hard-hitting pieces on Democrats during the last legislative session than a paper like the Gazette probably does in several years.

The liberal voices in those papers are admittedly more abashedly liberal -- but they're not trying to pretend to be moderate, either. You know what you're getting.

Would a conservative alternative paper be a financial success? An interesting question -- my guess would be no, but I'm not sure exactly why I say that.

A problem that a paper like the Gazette has is that it has a liberal editorial board editor who writes regularly, pretending to be a middle-of-the-road voice that speaks for everyone.

But it is a consistent voice that builds themes over time.

Conservative voices, by contrast, are scattered throughout dozens of different guest opinion writers, each of which has one shot to say something.

If they wanted to make their editorial page interesting, they would do what big papers do -- have a couple of regular left-leaning columnists and a couple of conservative columnists who could develop consistent voices that would develop themes over time just like the editorial page editor does.