Politics & Policy

Honestly Biased

What's the media's problem?

Liberal media bias has recently begun to get more than the usual brush-off in the establishment press. This promising development is to the credit not only of New York Times gadfly John Tierney–rumored to be in line to replace William Safire as an op-ed columnist–but to Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent.

In a July 25 column Okrent showed that, when it comes to social issues, the Times displays a relentlessly liberal bias not only in its news reporting, but in its entertainment section and even its fashion pages.

Since then, however, in three columns spanning October, November, and December dealing with the Times’s habit of quoting “experts” tendentiously, Okrent has dropped the media-bias ball.

It’s worth figuring out how this happened, because Okrent has fallen into a trap that has to be sprung if the discussion of media bias is to move beyond easily dismissed conspiracy mongering.

Okrent’s first column on journalists’ use of “expert” testimony starts out by acknowledging that sometimes a reporter will quote experts merely “to confirm what the reporter already thinks.” But then Okrent conflates this problem–which is really one of many that go under the heading of media bias–with the question of whether the experts whom journalists quote are honest. Bad reporters, he concludes, are those who lazily quote the hired-gun experts who work for avowed “special interests.” (He assumes, without warrant, that the special interests’ experts for hire don’t really believe what they say.) “Good reporters,” by contrast, manage to find experts “who can be trusted to speak honestly.” Before you know it, Okrent has transformed the question of how to get reporters to stop selecting experts who affirm the reporters’ bias into the question of how to get reporters to quote “truly disinterested” experts who speak what the experts themselves truly believe.

This transfiguration of the issue leads Okrent to suggest that when the facts are obvious, journalists should just tell us what is “undeniably true,” without feeling the need to put it into the mouth of an expert. In subsequent columns, he defends his suggestion by arguing that journalistic objectivity has more to do with truth telling than with balance.

Okrent’s approach is sure to go nowhere, for while it admirably clashes with the chief pretense of modern journalism, it leaves the assumption underlying this pretense untouched.

At the end of the 19th century, growing government power placed more and more complicated questions, such as those raised by economic regulation, onto the political agenda. This required the electorate to master more and more information in order to vote intelligently. Not coincidentally, at the same time the overtly partisan newspapers of the 19th century were replaced by media that, following the lead of the New York Times, prided themselves on being fair to all “legitimate” points of view. The new, nonpartisan media assured conscientious voters that they could understand the complexities of modern politics by trusting journalists to present, as part of “all the news that’s fit to print,” both (1) a balanced account of various partisan arguments, and (2) an objective account of “the facts,” which would allow voters to decide which partisan claims are correct.

The main problem with this model of journalism is not, as Okrent seems to think, whether it leans too heavily toward (1) balancing opinions instead of (2) presenting an objective account of “undeniable” facts. The real difficulty is that neither a true balance of opinions nor an objective reporting of facts is likely if politics is complicated. But the reason people feel the need to turn to “nonpartisan” journalists to help sort out political issues is precisely that-especially since the advent of big government-politics is very complicated indeed.

The new model of journalism solved the problem of complexity only in the sense of wishing it away. The facts about the problems modern governments try to solve would have to be pretty simple if the journalist could make sense of them without himself needing to be an expert. But if the political world that simple, readers would need journalists to sort it out just as little as Okrent thinks journalists need experts. Okrent’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is based on the same wishful thinking that stood behind the new model of journalism.

In the new model of journalism, reporters need to put their views into the mouths of experts so they can appear to be taking adequate account of the world’s complexity. But the unspoken assumption behind the media’s complacent invocation of expertise is, in reality, that the facts of the political world, when not immediately plain to the reporter, are at least clear to people who make a career of studying them: people who are “experts.” These specialists need only relay their “findings” to the journalist-who, in turn, needs only report them to the public-for the public to gain a clear understanding of the world.

In a world that straightforward, honest experts wouldn’t disagree with each other-which Okrent appears to think is the case. The truth, of course, is that honest experts disagree with each other all the time-which calls into doubt the expertise of some or all of them. When two people disagree, at least one of them must be wrong.

Honest experts’ disagreements are rooted in the very thing to which the new model of journalism pays only lip service: the difficulty of making sense of the modern world. In the face of the world’s complexity, the interpretation offered by a given expert will tend to reflect his theoretical–including ideological–assumptions as much as, or more than, it springs from his direct contact with “undeniable truths.”

The best feature of Okrent’s July column on media bias was his recognition that bias inadvertently informs the way reporters see the world. Liberal bias, Okrent wrote, “has not occurred because of management fiat, but because getting outside one’s own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning.” Why not apply this insight not only to reporters, but to the experts they quote? Then the issue wouldn’t be whether experts are honest; it would be, as it is with reporters, whether experts are likely to be so self-critical that they can get past their own interpretive biases.

There is every reason to think that experts aren’t capable of such inhuman objectivity. Consider the unmentioned elephant in Okrent’s room: the legions of pedigreed academic experts quoted ad nauseam in the media, but who work for no interest group. Daniel Klein of UC Santa Clara has shown that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the humanities and social sciences by roughly seven to one, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the faculties of Harvard and the University of California were the biggest group donors to the Kerry campaign. But measures of Democratic partisanship just scratch the surface, since a professor doesn’t have to advocate voting Democratic in order to inculcate ideas that lead to such a vote as a matter of logic.

It gets worse. Modern reporters almost all have college degrees. This means that they tend to have gotten their interpretive lenses from the very type of professor they end up quoting once they become journalists. This is a point that conservative media-bias critics are reluctant to acknowledge, for it implies that the left-wing views professors teach aren’t so contrary to common sense that their students are immune to being influenced by them. But that’s the way it is, especially when what the professors teach is assumptions rather than conclusions. Biased professors don’t have to deliberately teach a lopsided view of the world for their students to absorb a lopsided bias. All the professors have to do is teach the world as they honestly see it–colored by their own, often-unrecognized ideological lenses.

It’s not lying experts who should worry us, any more than we should fear a vast left-wing conspiracy of journalists deliberately scheming to spread liberal propaganda. The more insidious problem is experts who tell us how they think the world “undeniably” is–and the journalists who credulously quote experts’ opinions as anything more than that.

Jeffrey Friedman is the editor of Critical Review: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Politics and Society.

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