Set my news free

Media bias: Let’s get serious about a silly question

The question of political bias in the news media has always been controversial, but for as long as I can remember, the controversy has simmered along at a sustainable level. Conservatives watched Fox News and muttered about NPR and Dan Rather, while liberals did the same in reverse, and the folks in the mushy middle watched Peter Jennings. We didn’t talk about it much, but we all understood that slanted news coverage was just a part of life.

But now The Man has gone and formally investigated NPR for liberal bias, which means that now we have to talk about it out loud.

Ugh. So annoying.

All right, then, let’s talk about it. And while we’re at it, let’s abandon the polite game of make-believe that we’ve all been playing. Let’s acknowledge, out loud, what we all know to be true: Despite a few conservative exceptions, the media in general does indeed have a liberal bias, and furthermore, such a bias is almost inevitable in a free press.

Why inevitable? Because, like public education, the free press is a project that is centrally concerned with informing and empowering the masses. By its very nature, this is a left-wing endeavor. Conservatism is about preserving tradition and traditional values; it’s about encouraging people to accept and respect authority and to continue doing what has been done in the past. As William F. Buckley famously put it, the conservative “stands athwart history, shouting ‘Stop!'” By contrast, the modern liberal stands behind history, prodding it forward like a recalcitrant donkey. That’s what liberals mean when they call themselves “progressives"; they see themselves as pushing things forward. And that’s why liberals, more than conservatives, will tend to be drawn to professions like journalism and teaching: Informing the masses tends to bring about change.

None of this means that all teachers or journalists are liberals, or that a free press can’t be used to promote conservative messages; of course it can, and it is. Look at William F. Buckley or the Fox News Network. But taken as a whole, a free press will generally tend to undermine tradition, not preserve it.

This means that accusing the media of liberal bias is like accusing Southern Baptist ministers of conservative bias—it’s silly. Not because the accusation isn’t true, but because its truth should be taken as a given and dealt with constructively, not used as an epithet with which to shut down further discussion of important issues related to that bias.

And there are, indeed, important issues related to both liberal and conservative bias in the media. We need to take these issues seriously. There really is a difference between fact and allegation, and it really is possible to present the facts of a story in a fair and unbiased way. It is possible for a network to insist that its reporters distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. There’s nothing wrong with advocating for a point of view; that’s what editorials are for. But when you’re supposed to be providing the facts of a situation or explaining the parameters of a controversial issue, there is no excuse for making a slanted presentation. Perfect objectivity may be impossible, but fairness and balance (despite Fox News’s cynical appropriation of that phrase) are both eminently possible and should be expected.

Bias can be expressed in ways other than an explicitly slanted presentation of the issues, of course. It can also be made clear by the issues that are selected for coverage. Fox News isn’t going to devote much air time to the positive effects of gun control legislation, nor are you likely to hear an NPR reporter doing a hard-hitting exposé of Jesse Jackson’s financial practices.

But bias is also expressed in subtler ways. Choice of words, tone of voice and selection of interlocutors all convey meaning, and both Fox and NPR use those elements to get their unspoken points across. At Fox, it’s largely a matter of inflection and word choice. Watch a Fox newscast and listen to the verbs and adjectives its anchors use, as well as the way they’re delivered. Their words are chosen carefully for vividness and energy: Manhunts are “massive,” criticism is “bitter,” people are “enraged,” the wounded are “disfigured.” Fox’s anchors and correspondents all deliver their stories with an animation that borders on breathlessness. You get the sense that Fox intends its reporting to get you riled up. Fox is promoting both a state of mind (irritable unease) and a political subtext (law and order, and the traditional values that uphold them, are under assault).

NPR is also promoting a state of mind, albeit a different one, and it does so in several ways. First of all, there’s the inimitable “NPR sound.” Where Fox titillates and arouses, NPR soothes and flatters. The soft, reasonable voices, the knowing chuckles, the generous sprinklings of Latinate words and highbrow cultural references—these lull the college-educated listener into a state of warm, satisfied self-regard: “We know who you are,” NPR coos to its audience. “You’re sophisticated, thoughtful, well-informed people with long attention spans.”

More perniciously, however, NPR correspondents play to their listeners’ cultural prejudices just as skillfully as Fox’s reporters do to theirs. They do so primarily by means of surrogates. No NPR correspondent will say “Only a redneck bigot would oppose gay marriage.” Instead, in the course of a story about gay marriage, the reporter will record a calm, articulate person defending the idea. Then, in the interest of balance, he’ll give a slightly hysterical, much less articulate person (preferably with a strong regional accent) the chance to express opposition to it. NPR’s smart and urbane listeners don’t need the message spelled out for them … they know perfectly well what redneck bigots sound like.

Really, though, all of this make-believe about a lack of bias is unnecessary. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that NPR is the voice of educated progressivism in this country, any more than there’s anything wrong with Fox being the voice of blue-collar conservatism. Blue-collar conservatives and college-educated liberals have each made important contributions to this country and its culture, and the interests and viewpoints of the two groups tend to be somewhat different. Why shouldn’t each have a media outlet that caters to its tastes and interests, as long as the outlets report responsibly? Why does Fox feel it must pretend to be “balanced"? Why do NPR listeners bristle when the network’s obvious bias is mentioned? Why doesn’t each simply acknowledge its political leanings as a matter of fair disclosure and encourage its listeners and viewers to take those leanings into account as they listen and watch?

One obvious reason is that to do so would take away the polite fiction that allows both audiences to pretend that by listening to NPR or watching Fox, all they’re doing is “getting the news” rather than having their personal biases stroked or stimulated. But maybe it’s time to let that fiction go.