There’s a scene in Good Night and Good Luck, the superb new movie about Edward R. Murrow, that gets to the core of the media bias question. “I simply can’t accept that there are two equal sides to every story,” the great newsman says.
Aha! That proves it, you might say! The media has an agenda. They think they are little tin gods, who know what the truth is.
We knew it all along!
Well, not so fast. What would you say if I wrote a story saying “The little girl was brutally traumatized, but the rapist said he had a pretty good time.” You would think that was sick and wrong.
And you would be right. There are not two equal sides to every story, and good reporting is more than just stenography. Neither is anybody “objective.”
What most reporters and editors try to do is make a principled effort to be fair. I think most reporters -- including me -- are more or less liberal in outlook. But they bend over backwards to try to be fair, both to individuals and to ideas. When they fall short of fairness, it is usually not because they are biased against ideas, but because they find a particular person phony or obnoxious.
Richard Nixon charged that the media was biased against him when he was running against John F. Kennedy. He was probably right, but that was because he was so personally unlikable. However, a non-partisan study of media coverage forty years later found the coverage of Al Gore far more unfavorable than that of George W. Bush. The reason why?
Bush was warm and friendly to the press; Gore was cold and aloof. Simple as that.
As far as media institutions go, Eric Alterman said it all a couple years ago in his book, “What Media Bias?“
He presents convincing evidence that there are two kinds of media in this nation: Big corporate media, biased towards their own bottom line, and media openly biased towards the right, like Fox News.
Yes, I know there are some liberals ranting away on low-wattage Air America stations. But even I don‘t listen much.
There’s a lot wrong with the media in this country. But ideological bias isn’t the problem. We are biased -- in favor of the sensational and trashy. We pay too much attention to stains on a dress and too little to the collapse of the auto industry. And if you aren’t worried about that …
You should be.