Media Bias Doesn't Matter Much if No One Is Listening Anyway
David Carr, who writes a media column for The New York Times, has a piece in today's paper about dumb it is for Republicans to claim the mainstream media are biased against Mitt Romney. He pulls a bit of a trick, seems to me, by folding claims of media bias into a separate issue -- an accusation from some Republicans that the national polling industry is in on the anti-Romney conspiracy.
Give me a break. Polling industry, of course not. Media, of course.
In the same paper today the Times prints a version of an earlier blog piece by Nate Silver going after the polling question. Silver demonstrates persuasively that since 1972, when national polls began to metastasize in number, the polls have erred in favor of Republicans about as often as they have in favor of Democrats. For the most part, as Silver shows, the polls have been amazingly accurate in their predictions.
But what about the media thing? To what extent do the reporting staffs of national media come to work each morning with their own little brown bags full of liberal philosophical bias? I don't know how to answer that question scientifically, and the only anecdotal evidence I can offer is about print, my own wing of the business.
But I can tell you this much: Any honest person who has ever worked for a major market daily can only laugh at the suggestion that print journalists are anything but overwhelmingly liberal in their philosophical and cultural inclinations. Of course we are.
It's quite different for me now, because I'm no longer at a daily. I know we in the alternative press get tagged as liberals for a number of reasons including ancient history and the interesting notion that bare breasts are a liberal/conservative issue. I never quite got that one.
The interesting reality is that there's a hell of a lot more devil's advocate editing in the alt weekly business -- much more of tendency for editors to challenge a reporter's undisclosed and perhaps even unwitting biases -- than I ever found when I worked for the dailies.
Not that anybody expects us to come out of the process purified of bias. The ethic in the alt wing of the business seems to be that you just need to own your biases and display them plainly every little chance you get rather than pretending to the reader that they don't exist or, worse, pretending to yourself.
My experience at the dailies was the opposite. No one ever said anything, but a reporter who came across as a guy who might conceivably vote for New Gingrich could pretty much kiss his advancement good-bye.
The worst part of it, of course, is the absolute and unshakeable faith that daily print media people have in their own so-called objectivity. Ask anybody in the dailies if they think they are objective when they attack a story. They will tell you yes with fervent conviction.
But here's the real test question. Ask them what in the hell that means. Do they believe that they are able to erase their own cultural and personal origins and conditioning when they down sit to the keyboard? Do they really believe their origins and conditioning never invade their writing? Are they endowed with some kind of magisterial wisdom that escapes the average Joe?
I have a lot of respect for my colleagues in the daily business. I don't think they would ever say yes to all of that. They know better. Therefore no one in the business ever asks those questions.
The silliest notion harbored in the heart of the trade is that journalists, acting on some kind of priestly conviction, could do anything about their own basic biases anyway, even if they wanted to. At some point, after all, it's not so much a question of bias as of the human condition. We all come from somewhere. Sooner or later it shows.
Look, there is one true source of honesty, integrity and courage in this business and only one. Competitive anxiety.
For a newspaper to be honest with its readers, the editor of that paper needs to wake up every morning at about 4 a.m. with a dry mouth and eyes like pinwheels, thinking to himself, "What are those bastards across the street going to do to me today?"
What does the competition have that I don't? What will the competition do today to make me look stupid in front of my readers? What have I got to be terrified about today from those bastards across the street?
For that, you need bastards across the street. Serious market competition is the only force capable of consistently wringing any honesty from an otherwise smug and complacent army of self-satisfied fault-finding carpers. (Umm ... that's actually what we're supposed to be, believe it or not, so maybe you can see the problem.)
Where there is real media competition, the reader is king. On his throne with his scepter, the reader rules: "Yeah, you guys over here are probably telling me the truth. I'll buy your stuff. But you guys over there at that other place sound dodgy. No sale."
Only when journalists know their livelihoods depend on the reader's ka-ching are they capable of pushing their own biases aside long enough to tell the reader what's really going on. Otherwise, forget about it.
So as the mainstream print media business has atrophied into more and more of a closely held cartel, especially in the big regional markets where it's usually a virtual monopoly business, the reader sniffs bias or has just gotten bored. In either case, he has gone elsewhere. And that's news?