Lately, I have been stressing a point I have stressed for many years: Media bias lies in selection — what you choose to cover and what you choose to ignore. Accuracy is a problem. But selection is the big manifestation of bias. It’s possible to be 100 percent accurate — white-glove clean — and yet loaded with bias.
I remember an example someone laid out 25 years ago. The Reagan administration issued its pornography report — detailing the immense harm caused by pornography. One network showed a group of people in the South burning books. That network’s message: censorship. Another network showed a shelter for boys who had been victimized by pornographers. Neither network was the slightest bit inaccurate — but what they chose to say, and show, mattered greatly.
The Gosnell trial has been dismissed as a “local crime” story. Yet somehow the Newtown massacre wasn’t. That event was covered by papers beyond the Hartford Courant. It was the biggest story in the country, something that “shocked the conscience of the nation.” The president moved, Congress moved.
The reason the media haven’t covered Gosnell is that they don’t want to — simple as that. Now, we can discuss why they don’t want to — that wouldn’t be a long discussion, because everybody knows. But the point is, they don’t want to, and they have a right not to cover the story (I guess).
When he was editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines decided to make the admission policy of Augusta National a crusade — he put it on the front page day after day. He could have focused on political prisoners in Cuba. He could have focused on the threat of nuclear attack, and America’s relative defenselessness. He could have focused on the price of eggs in Poughkeepsie. But he wanted to get Augusta National — which was his perfect right.
When I was growing up, I heard a lot about apartheid South Africa. It was in the newspapers every single day, often above the fold. I knew more about what was happening in South Africa than I knew about what was happening in Washtenaw County, Mich., where I lived. That was okay. I was interested to know. But editors were making a choice.
I knew next to nothing about what was going on behind the Iron Curtain — the papers were pretty much silent about that. I learned about the Communist countries from National Review, Commentary, and The American Spectator. I thought that was a little strange: Those organs were opinion journals, and you were supposed to get your news from the newspapers and opinion from the opinion journals. And here the opinion journals were delivering the news. But that’s the way it was.
Liberals, I found, really didn’t want you to talk about human-rights abuses behind the Iron Curtain. You were “poisoning the atmosphere of détente,” you see. That was a big phrase of the day: “poisoning the atmosphere of détente.” You’d say, “Well, what about the Gulag? Isn’t that kinda bad?” And they’d say, “Why are you poisoning the atmosphere of détente? Do you want to start a nuclear war?” And you’d look at your shoes and say, “Well, no, I really don’t want to start a nuclear war . . .”
Editors can focus on whatever they want to focus on. And if they don’t want to report on the Gosnell trial, they don’t have to. If they don’t want to report on a story that might put abortion in a bad light, they don’t have to. What we rely on, then, is a great variety of media outlets — different editors making different choices and expressing different preferences. Then we will have something like a complete picture.
To be at the mercy of a Pravda — that’s the worst.