People Are Somehow Again Shocked To Discover Media Bias

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Conservatives in the blogosphere have been up in arms since Monday when Andrea Mitchell ran a clip of Mitt Romney discussing his recent visit to a WaWa convenience store.  Romney described using a touch pad to order a sub sandwich from a kiosk, appearing to marvel at technology that most of us would recognize from an iPad. Romney was actually making the point that technological innovation in the private sector needs to be adopted in the federal government, trumpeting innovation as a solution to government bureaucracy.

Mitchell, instead, used a partial clip of Romeny’s discussion to claim that Romney just had his “Supermarket Scanner” moment, referring to the famous clip of President George H. W. Bush marveling at the supermarket checkout machines that most of us who buy our own groceries had been familiar with for about a decade at that point.  The clip was used to demonstrate that Bush, who still was denying the economy was having trouble, was out of touch with most Americans.

Mitchell, appearing to attempt to frame the debate for Romney in a similar manner, even quipped that Romney hadn’t seen “too many WaWa’s along the roadside in Pennsylvania.”  On Tuesday, NBC announced that she would address the criticism on her show, only for her to say that Romney “had more to say” during his speech, then showing the full clip.  There was no mention of the edit which changed his message. No mention of her editorializing about Romney being a man who, despite facing earlier attacks about his dog riding on the roof of a car during a cross country trip, would not be familiar with the inner workings of a convenience store.

Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show picked up the controversy.   But he didn’t, exactly.  There was no direct mention of Mitchell’s slight of edit.  Instead, Stewart took on Republicans talking points used since Friday’s announcement of suspending some enforcement of immigration enforcement laws. 

Republicans have been using a clip of President Obama saying he couldn’t just unilaterally change the law without Congress’ authorization.  Stewart showed a clip from FoxNews of Obama’s December 2010 remarks where the President appeared to contradict himself.  He then showed the full clip saying that he can’t change the law, but he can “prioritize enforcement” and choose who to prosecute, and whom to defer until Congress takes action.  The full statement, constitutional or not, is consistent with President Obama’s policy remarks from last Friday.

On the surface, what we have is another case of the left and the right doing the same thing to win public opinion toward their side.  The implication is that everybody does it, so no harm and no foul.  But the problem is deeper.

News has become less about an attempt at pretense of unbiased journalism, and more about the industry of infotainment.  FoxNews clearly has a business model that caters to conservatives, while MSNBC, where Mitchell’s show airs, targets progressives with their content. 

In an era of multiple news outlets on broadcast television, cable, print, and digital media, the competition for news viewers is fierce.  As such, factual and unbiased reporting has taken a backseat to creating a brand to which a customer will remain loyal.  Bias is now part of the product, as evidenced by CBS President Les Moonves’ recent comment that “partisanship is very much a part of journalism now.”

The problem with selective edits and biased reporting of only selected facts is that it undermines not only the integrity of journalism, but on our political process as a whole.  Conservatives have every right to be suspect of what appears on MSNBC.  Liberals have every right to be suspect of FoxNews.  The reality is, we the consumer should remain suspect of what we hear from all news sources.  Truly informed consumers of news need more than one data point to weed out bias from actual news.

The lack of objectivity also contributes to the victim mentality in today’s politics.  Conservatives constantly bemoan the fact that the major networks and programs such as The Daily Show are slanted against them, and trumpet that they can’t get their message out from various places like FoxNews, Talk Radio, and the internet – without any sense of irony.  Liberals, likewise, complain about conservatives dominating talk radio and FoxNews number one ratings position as if they somehow don’t have access to most other direct and indirect news sources to get a message out.

Bias is present in almost every situation in life.  The instantaneous nature of a 24 hour news cycle makes the former editorial process where others would (at least sometimes) attempt to filter biases from news long gone.  The upside to instant access to information has created a competitive environment where bias is no longer just an embedded ingredient, but a product worthy of marketing.

Whining about bias will not change the world.  Understanding that it is ever present will help us become a better filter of information and news we receive.

16 comments

  1. Harry says:

    The problem for the licensed airwave news operations of CBS, NBC and to a lesser extent ABC, is that the viewership is slowly going away because they’re spinning without even being entertaining. I think about the 93 year old guy I knew, now deceased, who sat in front of his TV every evening for years to catch CBS Nightly News. He was a union man (nice guy though) who accepted without question the bias because it reinforced his own bias. Some say the same is true of conservative talk radio, but at least talk radio hosts have more time in which to present their definition of spin beyond just quick edited soundbites, and take feedback phone calls. But yes, Charlie, there is spin in every media communication and we have to accept it, but fortunately it’s now much easier than 20 years ago to absorb and yet gain an enhanced perspective from various sources.

  2. SallyForth says:

    Good thoughtful post, Charlie. Recognizing that this is just part of life, I try to watch as many different news programs as time permits from all sides, ibid on reading a wide variety of printed media, and be as well informed as I can re the varied viewpoints. I figure reality generally lies somewhere in the middle. I rarely, if ever, listen to talk radio since they have gone to either all-far-left or all-far-right, can’t tolerate the ranting – I much prefer good music while driving. 🙂

  3. Mike Dudgeon says:

    Charlie this is another good one. There is a well studied area of human psychology called confirmation bias. A person will remember and catalog things he experiences which reinforce beliefs he already has, and downplay others. This very human failing reinforces the “sound chamber” media experience so we are getting what our flawed brains want. I enjoy Fox and honestly think they are less biased right than CNBC/CNN/etc is left, but I know I am biased so I dont trust my own opinion 🙂

    I saw something similar first hand for 20 years as a high school basketball referee. Fans watch the game and will vividly remember the missed call against their team but only vaguely the one that helped their team, thus concluding that the referee is cheating. I missed my share of calls, but there was not a single game where I cared about the winner.

    We all need to study Vulcan Logic or something so we can try to be objective in today’s media environment.

    • Calypso says:

      I guess this explains why each of us has a wife who is the prettiest woman in the world 🙂 I KNOW I do.

  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    Good post. Though, if I might say, the irony appears to be that if it wasn’t for Fox News basically giving an otherwise little-watched MSNBC constant free advertising by pointing out that lowly-rated “news” network’s incidents of left-wing bias and distortion, MSNBC would likely be off the air within two years or sooner because of low viewership.

    I don’t know if Fox News exactly knows what they are doing, but it is Fox News that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, keeps MSNBC viable by advertising their every instance of left-wing media bias as without the constant acknowledgement from Fox, MSNBC isn’t exactly a ratings blockbuster.

  5. saltycracker says:

    “Whining about bias will not change the world.  Understanding that it is ever present will help us become a better filter of information and news we receive.”

    And help understand 10% voter turnout.

  6. greencracker says:

    In Dan Rather’s new book, he talks about media bias and opines that reporters are not any more liberal than the general public.
    However, he also points out that one unusual experience molds many* journalists when they are in their early 20s. They start their career at the worst media job: overnight shift on cops and crime. i.e. spending 5 or 6 nights a week hanging out at jail, going to murder scenes, etc. They see a lot of people down on their luck, born on the wrong side of the tracks, stupidly making bad decisions; these things make the journalist sympathetic to the human condition.

    *Back in Rather’s day anyway; there’s not many papers fielding an overnight cops and crime reporter now.

    PS, for what it’s worth, I think a lot of the bias shows up in _choice_ of story, not usually the presentation of a single story.

    • Stefan says:

      choice of story is almost wholly a result of predictive ratings or clicks/views, not editorial judgment in most cases; a totally different form of bias.

      not completely, of course, because there are still news stories headlines that don’t involve kittens or kardashians, though I never click on them.

      • greencracker says:

        That is why I think future hard news will be non-profit, like Frontline.

        If story choice was based 100% on clicks/views, news sites would be 100% pet-related news. One hundred percent.
        (Well, OK, maybe 90% pet news; 10% gruesome/weird murders)

        Out of, I dunno, a sense of guilt?, real news sources still send someone to city council, county commission, etc, knowing it will get a tiny fraction of the hits of a story from a visit to the pet shelter. Pet/Kardashian “coverage” bankrolls eat-your-vegetables type of stories.

        Guilt, however, cannot be relied upon to keep reporters at boring places forever. Charity will be more reliable, I suppose.

        • Stefan says:

          Oh, I agree, there is still editorial ethos at many outlets, including hometown CNN. Storytelling is still tremendously important, but you have to already have viewers. Everything is a mix of both – even the AJC has its bright moments – and many of the Frontline and New York Times long form pieces that everyone loves are actually more in-depth looks at stories that were broken by news outlets without the same type of pedigree.

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