Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Death of Impartial Media

NOTE: I am reproducing these two essays, both on the impossibility of true impartiality in reporting, because I came across citations to them in my essay "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", and was quite surprised to find I had not reprinted them yet. As I consider them some of my better writing, it seemed odd they had not yet made their way to my new blog. Thus, I have decided to reprint them, even though I am not currently referring to them in any work in progress.

It was a lie from the start, perhaps a noble lie, but a lie. And it was an aberration, a historical anomaly. We forget that as it has been the story all our lives, but the theory of an impartial press does not have some ancient pedigree, and, in terms of both history, and of the rest of the world, it is an exception rather than the norm.

Until relatively recently, and still in many nations, it is accepted that the press is biased. Papers are sold as being the organs of parties, of unions, of political association, or are at least sold as "the right wing paper", or "the socialist paper". There are some nations which mirror to some degree the American fascination with an impartial press, but, for the most part, the media around the world recognize, as do the citizens, that the press will have a political bias. They then either select the papers which suit their ideology, or they select a range of papers, hoping a selection of biases will average out to the truth.

And that was the situation in the US for a long time as well. It was recognized that a "Hearst paper" would have a given bias, for example. Even today, many cities have papers which the public, if not the papers themselves, recognize as having differing ideologies. TheWashington Post and Washington Times for example, or the New York Times and (sadly departed) New York Sun. The difference is that the members of the press themselves are now unwilling to recognize any bias. Even when the public recognizes a clear bias, the press chooses to pretend there is none, or that it is confined to the editorial pages.

But now, I think, the time may have come to finally confess that this experiment has been a failure. If we assume that the myth started in the fifties, it was less than two decades before myth collapsed. By 1968, and Walter Cronkite's misleading presentation of the Tet offensive, it was clear that the press had an agenda and was not afraid to allow it to influence their presentation of stories. And certain, in today's environment, with the media doing everything but telling voters to vote for Obama, they have no choice but to admit there is a bias.

It may be for the best. The myth of impartiality was untenable even when the press managed to give the appearance of being disinterested. The philosophy of those reporting the news will inevitably color their presentation. For example, a Marxist and a devotee of Austrian economists will not be able to agree on what factors should be reported during an economic collapse. Their philosophies will make them focus on different matters, even if they keep explicit mention of their beliefs out of the story. Everything we do is colored by our philosophy, even to the point of determining what we consider important. It is simply impossible to keep our philosophy from coloring what we choose to cover, not to mention how we cover it.

So, perhaps it is a good thing, this outpouring of press bias in support of Obama. If it causes us to give up the ludicrous myth that we have an unbiased press, perhaps it will finally give birth to a set of competing media which will do a better job of presenting the whole story than has our secretly bias "impartial" media.

UPDATE 10/06/2008

I have seen similar sentiments on another blog. The interesting difference, though predictable, is that the blogger, as most of us do, seems to believe in an objective media. Of course, we have been told for so long that the media should be objective and impartial that I expect almost every article to be based on that assumption.

And so, for the immediate future, I expect to see more such articles, decrying the press bias, while trying to preserve the idea of an impartial press. However, I do think that, as it becomes more apparent the press is simply not well suited to present the news free of bias, people will begin to surrender this idea and return to the concept of competing biased news outlets. 

It won't come all at once, and it will take time, but I think the myth of the unbiased press will eventually disappear. At least for a time, until some other future theorist revises that impractical idea.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/10/05.

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