Trust, the News and Journalist Biases: You Can’t Get There From Here

Over at Tech Crunch, founder Michael Arrington responds to the firing of Octavia Nasr and the resignation of Helen Thomas with this argument:

“I think journalists should have the right to express their opinions on the topics they cover. More importantly, I think readers have a right to know what those opinions are. Frankly, I’d like to know sooner rather than later just how insane some of these people at CNN and Fox News are. To stop them from giving me that information is just another way to lie to me.”

Arrington is right, of course. The pose that journalists are politically objective is almost always a fraud, and efforts by organizations like The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle to prevent their reporters from doing things like attending political rallies for politicians they admire or expressing strong opinions on social websites have nothing to do with preserving journalistic objectivity, but rather with preserving the illusion of journalistic objectivity. “All this bullshit about objectivity in journalism is just a trick journalists use to try to gain credibility, and the public eats it up,” Arrington says.

But Arrington is also wrong.  He presumes that bias is literally impossible for human beings to overcome, so even aspiring to report objectively is futile and pointless. On the contrary, it is necessary and essential, just as it is for juries, judges or sports referees. Arrington claims that a reporter’s biases are “baked into every story,” as if journalists are incapable of recognizing their biases and reviewing each story by asking, questions like,

  • “Is this fair to all participants? Would they feel it is fair?”
  • “Are my language, tone, and ordering of facts slanted?”
  • Have I presented all relevant facts with appropriate emphasis?
  • “Am I allowing readers to make up their own minds?”
  • “Do I feel so strongly about this topic that I should let someone else write the report?”
  • “Would I write this story differently if I were biased the other way?”

Journalism is a profession, and professionals have to deal with such impediments to professional competence as bias. Good journalists do ask themselves these questions, and can substantially overcome the taint of their own biases.

Like Arrington, however, the public doesn’t believe that, and there are good reasons for their skepticism. Everyone knows that the news media is made up of far more liberals than conservatives and far more Democrats and Republicans, and that the results are obvious…except to biased media observers. The majority of journalists do not work to overcome their biases. There are journalists one can trust, but it is nearly impossible to determine which ones. Arrington says, “Reveal your biases, and we’ll decide if you can be trusted.” Really? How? I know which reporters are trustworthy when they report on subjects in which I have some expertise or that I have researched myself, but with most other stories, there is no way to know what facts are being withheld, colored, manipulated or distorted.

The Washington Post and other media outlets forbid partisan displays (one veteran Post editor has refused to vote for decades, as if not voting somehow changes who he would like to vote for) because it really believes that its reporters are not biased, but also that cynical readers will believe they are if the reporters’ private opinions are known. Thus the opinions must be kept secret, so readers won’t erroneously lose faith in the news. Arrington, in contrast, wants all reporters’ opinions known, so we know what the biases are, and the reporters know we know, and will therefore (he thinks) have to show us they can be trusted. The Post is deluded: some, many, most or all of its reporters are biased. Arrington is deluded as well. There is no way, after telling Israel’s Jews to “go back where they came from,” that Helen Thomas will ever or should ever be trusted to report objectively on Middle East matters. It isn’t that she doesn’t have a right to her opinions; it’s that we would have to be idiots to trust someone having that opinion to be capable of objectivity or even competent reporting. It’s isn’t that Nasr can’t choose to admire terrorists; she certainly can. I just think admiring terrorists disqualifies a network news editor from having the responsibility of overseeing stories and features about terrorism. Yes, maybe a dog-fighting enthusiast could run PETA brilliantly, but somehow I doubt anyone will give him a chance.

At a gut level, most of us recognize that biases greatly affect our opinions, actions and objectivity. Journalists, the good ones, are better at controlling their biases than most, but because so many high-placed journalists are not able to control them (or refuse to try), the only reasonable assumption is that a journalist with a bias is an untrustworthy journalist. With Arrington’s plan, there is no such thing as objective journalism, even if the reporter is really trying to be objective, because nobody will believe him.

Is that still better than what we have now, a largely biased group of journalists pretending to be objective when they aren’t? Under one system, we may be getting the truth but we won’t believe it; under the other, we’re being lied to, but we’re not sure by who.

Neither advances the mission of journalism, which is to convey the news in an objective and enlightening way to permit a civically engaged citizenry to make informed decisions about their lives, communities, nation and government.

I don’t think we can get there from here.

24 thoughts on “Trust, the News and Journalist Biases: You Can’t Get There From Here

  1. As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” The value of journalist work is only as good as the facts upon which it is based. Without recognizing the bias of their sources, it’s not worth much at all. For me, the primary rule is “follow the money,” and since the mainstream media all appear to be owned by the corporatocracy, with varying interests in arms manufacture, advancing the destruction of mores in our society, and so on, so as to “soften us up” to the loss of our liberties, there’s not much credibility in either liberal or conservative camps. These are two arms of a well-oiled machine of disinformation, giving us the illusion that there are intelligent (or not) choices to be argued on behalf of one versus the other. We are kept distracted from the awareness of what is really going on behind the curtain of Oz. Only when people risk their lives to tell you what they believe to be the truth are you getting somewhere. And you aren’t going to find that in the mainstream media. Internet censorship, anyone?

  2. Everyone knows that the news media is made up of far more liberals than conservatives and far more Democrats and Republicans, and that the results are obvious…except to biased media observers.

    It seem as if you are making an implied assumption that the “facts” are actually directly between the liberal and conservative “interpretation” of the news and the liberal and conservative news is equally “fair”. (Sorry if my choice of words are poor, but I don’t know how to better express the idea right now.)

    This simply isn’t true. The media tends to be liberal, not so much because liberals pursue careers in the media, because learning about a topic, especially when it involves foreign policy, tends to make you more liberal. Why is that? Because conservatives tend to see the world is a more absolutist way ( i.e. right vs. wrong, black vs. white, us vs. them, good vs. evil). Those views are easy to hold when distant from a situation. However, because the world is seldom like that, geting closer to the situation provides a more nuanced and detailed view of the facts. As reported by the WSJ several years ago, FOX news’ whole business model works because of this.

    • My over-all reaction to this delusion of yours is below, but honestly…liberal ideas are more “nuanced” than conservative ideas? Is “nuanced” your euphemism for “intellectually dishonest”? A nuanced view of abortion, for example, requires actually considering the rights and harm to both sides of the equation, unborn child and mother: you call defining the issue as just a matter of the “choice” of the mother nuanced? Pacifism is “nuanced”? Bad people use guns to kill people, so let’s ban people from using guns to legally protect themselves—nuanced? Both liberal and conservative adopt absolutes constantly, some of which are absurd, and absolutes are never nuanced. Your definition of “nuanced” is apparently “I agree with it.” That’s not what the word means.

      • I was more specifically referring to issues of foreign policy. Nuanced means subtle or graduated differences. Do you seriously dispute that conservatives see a more black-and-white world than liberals?

        • It’s not matter of black-and-white. The difference is that conservatives believe that you should apply proven principles to every situation, even when the situation demands a different approach because the principle won’t work well. Liberals believe that you make up new rules on the spot to solve anomalous problems, even though the resulting principle in general won’t work as well as the old one. They’re both wrong, and they are both right. The nuance is in recognizing that…and neither is very good at it.

          • This one I have had to think about for a few days. I think in the most general of terms you are right that principled conservativism is contrasted by pragmatic liberalism. However it doesn’t seem to apply to all situations. Liberals seem more principled in the application of the first amendment than conservatives. I think the same is often true (or at least can be true) in matters of foreign policy. I guess my point is I don’t see any rules that always can predict the conservative-liberal divide. I think it is true that conservatives are in general more pincipled, more absolutist, more Christian and more interested in the status quo than liberals, but there are exceptions to each of these rules.

            • Zubin, just taking the First Amendment, your initial example: the major attacks against content-speech have come from the Left, not the Right, in recent years. Look at the campus speech codes. Read Elena Kagan’s argument to the Supreme Court about banning a pro-candidate book funded by a corporation. The Right has focused on monitoring speech that may be part of a conspiracy to kill people…that’s speech as conduct, which becomes a legal issue. I don’t think First amendment absolutism is a Right OR Left position.

              • I was writing in regards to the first part of the first amendment…

                “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

                I know some conservative believe that clause is specific to congress only, but to my knowledge, the 14th amendment and court precidents contradict that asertion.

                • That provision, like the Second Amendment, isn’t a matter of liberal or conservative ideology, but rather legal and historical interpretation of intent that is open to several logical arguments.
                  In the Establishment Clause, it’s Liberals who have the Absolutist (black and white) approach, and clearly one that the original Framers couldn’t possibly have intended. They were concerned about the establishment of a State religion, as in England. If they thought things like school prayer constituted “establishing” a religion, surely they would have removed all the God and Creator references from official documents, currency and ceremonies. When they said “establish,” they really meant establish, not “give support to.”

                  I think, on the whole, banning overt religious references in schools makes sense, but when anti-religious (Liberal!) zealots complain the singing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer at an assembly is unconstitutional because the lyrics mention “Christmas,” I would hardly call that “nuanced,” or so innately well-reasoned that it would turn a young, neutral reporter into a liberal because of its self-evident wisdom.

                  • Well, you kind of made my point, tho not in the way I intended. Liberals are much more principled in the application of the idea of “seperation of church and state” (yes, I know those are the words of Jeffereson and not the constitution), tho I would hesitate to call them absolutist. I don’t think banning “Rudolf” is a minstream liberal view, but the teaching of creationism is a mainstream conservative view.

                    As far as our Consitutional framers go, I think it is noteworthy that they didn’t mention Jesus or God in the constitution. (Lord is mentioned in reference to the date, but that isn’t really a religious usage.) As far as money goes, I believe the reference to God (“In God we Trust”) was added around the Civil War and written into law in the early 20th century.

                    • I think it is more noteworthy that the Declaration says “endowed by our Creator.” You really are indulging in denial here. The philosophical argument behind the Declaration and Bill of Rights is rooted in theology. That doesn’t mean the government should actively support religion, but it does mean that conservatives who argue that the Founders did not feel that mentioning or bolstering religious tenets and ideas was an absolute.

                      Saying that teaching creationism is a core conservative position is just factually wrong. It’s a core Religious Right position that has nothing to do with political philosophy at all. This may be where you are getting confused: “Conservatives don’t believe in evolution, ergo liberals are smarter.” A lot of Fundamentalists are conservatives; that doesn’t mean that conservatism has anything to do with Fundamentalism. Yes: Creationism is an ignorant and intellectually dishonest position. So is NARAL’s position that a fetus isn’t a human life. I don’t call that a core liberal position, just a cynical and wrong one.

                    • Sorry, but I am not in denial because I disagree with you. Again, I will not engage in a pissing match.

                    • You’ll have to explain to me what you call a “pissing match.” Of course you are welcome to your opinion: saying that the Founding Fathers didn’t refer to God or a god is misstating the facts, however. If you can show me any facts that show that liberals are “more principled” regarding the interpretation of the Establishment Clause, I’d be happy to accept them and perhaps even be convinced. But supporting an opinion with slanted or outright misrepresented facts is neither fair nor illuminating, and my pointing it out isn’t a “pissing match.”

                      Using one extreme wing of a large group on a spectrum to characterize the whole group, such as referring to religious fundamentalists as “core conservatives,” is misleading if you know better, biased and misinformed if you don’t. When someone is wrong and in danger of misinforming others, one’s duty is to point it out, and I’m saying so as nicely as I can. No piss here!

  3. The point is the media seems liberal, because the facts and the truth of a story are most often closer to a liberal view, a conservative one.

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides an excelent example. The American public is overwhelmingly pro-Israel (the conservative view). Of course, the American public tends to be profoundly ignorant. Most people that I have spoken to, often time expressing strong opinions on the conflict, don’t realize that the Palestinian people are stateless. I am guessing most people couldn’t give a coherant explanation of the conflict’s cause and history. Reporters that seem more sympathetic to Palestians and therefore liberal are that way because the facts support a much more sypathetic and liberal view.

    • I vigorously dispute that theory. It’s a fine, self-serving, liberal theory, but it is dead wrong, and, I must say, arrogant as hell.

      That is like saying that most artists are liberal (as they indeed are) because writing music or plays makes you liberal. 1) Liberals hire liberals. Talk to any of the political conservatives in Hollywood who have been “blackballed’ because of their political views. 2) People usually adopt the views of the people they work closely with. Put a moderate in group of liberals and he or she will become more liberal, for exactly the same reason a non-sports fan placed in a group of fanatic football fans will start following football. Most people go along with their friends and associates. The liberal environment of media staffs is self-perpetuating. 3) People enter journalism early in life, and if they don’t move to the business side of it they continue to operate in an idealistic state. The media is supposed to restrain authority, so they have contempt for it. They don’t make a lot of money, so they don’t identify with entrepreneurs. They don’t hire people or create jobs, or have to take risks to build a business or deal with complex problems. They live life in an artificial bubble. Of course they tend to be liberal, just like academics tend to be liberal.

      No ideology is correct all the time, and it takes objectivity to be willing to see when a more conservative approach is prudent (when you’re a liberal) and vice-versa. Your statement that when one deals with “facts” one naturally becomes liberal doesn’t explain bias—it’s an example of it. And it is 100%, total nonsense—self-justifying wishful thinking.

      • Not at all wrong… numerous studies show that the more people learn the more liberal they become. As for the name-calling, this is your blog and I am not going to get into a pissing match with you.

        • Maybe it’s because I hang around a nerdy crowd, but the liberals and conservatives I know tend to be about as well informed as each other. Plus, you can’t really say that the Israelis are to blame for EVERYTHING (plenty, for sure) that’s messed up in that region, since history shows that the Palestinians and (more importantly) corrupt Arab governments share some responsibility for this idiocy.

          I do think there tends to be more variation on the plenty-to-little scale with regards to the intelligence and knowledge of conservatives as compared with liberals, if only because the latter implies looking beyond the status quo (which is probably one of the main reasons academia and media tend to be more liberal and why it’s ironically the more ‘reactionary’ conservatives who tend to be the smarter ones).

          Also, that’s not name-calling. Seriously, my rather indulgent mom has said worse things about my interests and viewpoints.

          • Thanks, Julian. I did not mean to imply that every conservative was misinformed or that every liberal was well informed. Extreme views on either end of the scale are most often tempered with an intellectually honest education. And I probably should have stated my ideas in a more diplomatic way.

            As for Israel and Palestine, I don’t want to highjack the thread. I only brought it up because it is a good example of conservatism fueled by a black-and-white (and ignorant) view of the World. I completely agree that the Arab states and the Palestinians themselves bear much responsibility for the conflict.

        • I was not intending to engage in name-calling, and I do think I was excessively harsh in my tone, for which I apologize. But your “numerous studies” are fantasies: it this was true, people would get more liberal as they age, when in fact they generally become more conservative. If you are talking about scholastics, that is decidedly different from “learning” from experience. Trust me on this: it is just not true that observation of the world “naturally” leads one to liberal attitudes, any more than it leads one to conservative viewpoints. I’m frankly surprised anyone would believe that. It’s in the same class as Michel Savage saying liberalism is a mental disease, or the partisan studies that purport to show that conservatives are dumb.

          • I never said it was an absolute rule and it applies to all situations, but the trend is there. I agree with your assertion that liberalism breeds more liberalism (and conservatism breeds more conservatism)? Again, I think that trend is valid but I completely disagree that it is the primary reason for whatever liberal media exists.

            People grow more conservative with age because (1) the scale changes and more importantly (2) they have more interest in the status quo. Again, that isn’t an absolute rule, but it is a trend.

  4. I was going to write a comment as well, Jack, but I have nothing further I could add to your on-point, well-articulated response.

  5. The solution to the problem, of course, it diversity. All news organizations should have diversity of opinions. There should be conservatives, liberals, moderates in every news organization (and in the editorial staff). Checks and balances work if you are intellectually honest. The fact that news organizations don’t have this kind of diversity is a glaring indication that they are not interested in anything approaching an honest reporting of the news.

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