Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The standard journalistic definition of bias is absurdly narrow but at least it’s self-serving.

Consider the following hypothetical.

 Upon reviewing the records of a male professor, we find a consistent pattern of his giving lower grades to female students based on comparable work. When accused of bias, he replies that he obviously can’t be since most women are Democrats and he’s a Democrat.

Or let’s say he has a record of giving high grades to children of people who can advance his career, department heads, committee members, editors of prestigious journals, etc.

Or what if the professor was known to give high marks to students who sucked up to him and grade more harshly when one challenged him?

In virtually every job you’ll find, discussions of bias will center around race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, conflicts of interest, and playing favorites. Outside of government, the only place I can think of where party affiliation and position on the ideological spectrum makes the list, let alone dominates it, is in journalism.

If you went back 100 years or so, this made a little more sense. All major cities and most medium, even small, towns had at least two papers, one Democrat and the other Republican. Giving the opposing party a chance to air its views actually was a good indicator of how seriously editors and publishers took fairness. Obviously this is no longer the case.

The nature of the messaging coming from the two parties has also changed (and more to the point diverged) even more sharply. Conservative movement Straussianism combined with the Nixon administration's young McLuhan-spouting media advisers (including Roger Ailes and, believe it or not, the head writer from Laugh-In). Republican messaging became more disciplined and planned out, always focused on partisan objectives with two tiers, one aimed at the base and the other explicitly designed to play on the weakness of the mainstream press.

The result of holding onto this now profoundly flawed definition of fairness and objectivity is a system where journalists are actually rewarded for engaging in bad behavior. They can indulge their worst biases and bigotry, stroke sources, back away from stories requiring genuine courage, and they will be praised for balance as long as these biases were nominally nonpartisan or the slant favored Republicans over Democrats. Add to that how adept conservatives became at employing both carrot and stick and you have a situation that makes terrible journalism all but inevitable.

Arguably the worst offender and certainly the one that did the most damage due to its reach and reputation is the New York Times.

I had a chance to see this up close in the 90s when I was living in and around Arkansas. I knew that critics had been accusing the New York Times of class bigotry pretty much constantly since the 19th century, but I was totally unprepared for the openness and the nastiness of the bias. The national press, very much led by the gray lady, was horribly offended by the thought of a piece of poor white trash getting this far above his place. The 90s was also when we learned that the mere mention of Hillary Clinton tapped into a stunning pool of misogyny in the national press corps.

(To get a small but telling glimpse at the underlying misogyny of the time, go google Spy magazine covers featuring Hillary Clinton. If you want to defend the magazine and the press at large from charges of sexism, make sure you have a defense ready for the one where they added the penis.)

Whitewater also demonstrated the distaste for and disinterest in the rest of the country displayed by the NYC/DC press. Reporters routinely confused the Fulbright and Faubus camps, and treated probably the state's worst segregationist of the civil rights era as a trusted source.

When looking for bias, you should also ask yourself who is in a position to do something for the reporter or the organization. While all journalists rely on access, no publication has as much or depends on it as heavily as does the New York Times.The desire to please or at least avoid angering sources explains a great deal about the career of Judith Miller, the uncritical acceptance of Paul Ryan as series policy wonk, and the embarrassing puff pieces on figures like Hope Hicks and Jared/Ivanka.

We also need to mention the paper‘s extraordinary willingness to carry a grudge. Along with the misogyny, this was a major factor in the coverage of the 2016 campaign. Hillary is not the only example.

Gawker had a long history of humiliating the New York Times by pointing out sycophantic coverage of Silicon Valley and other lapses. When Peter Thiel, a figure so far out of mainstream thought as to criticize women’s suffrage, engineered a lawsuit expressly to kill the publication, the NYT, rather than standing up for journalism and pushing back against a dangerous precedent, actually gave Thiel a spot on the op ed page to tell his side of the story.

Sometimes the press corps simply takes a dislike to someone, particularly if an influential peer like Maureen Dowd sets an example. As long as the subject is Democratic, the result can be unchecked viciousness. Given the closeness of 2000, it's reasonable to argue that the biased coverage of Gore decided the election. Add to that the work of Judith Miller and the New York Times bears a great deal of responsibility for the Iraq War.

Any definition of fairness that turns a blind eye to these things is so flawed as to be dangerous to democracy.

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