The Failure Of The Press

Glenn Reynolds has an interesting piece on why the media is no longer representative of the American people. I think he hits exactly the right notes on this. Despite all the cries that there’s only a “so-called” liberal media, even Eric Alterman admits that the media is liberal on social issues like abortion, gun rights, homosexuality, and religion – which makes one wonder, after all that is there anything left to be “conservative” about.

Whenever you have a group of people who all came from similar backgrounds, were all exposed to the same theories, and who all are actively pushed into accepting a similar worldview, it’s not particularly surprising that you’ll get a media that’s heavily slanted towards that worldview. Those who argue that the media doesn’t carry a bias have to somehow argue that a field where over 90% of participants are staunch liberal Democrats would not lead to an environment where conservatism is generally frowned upon. Such an argument doesn’t even pass the smell test. In fact, the signs of groupthink apply almost perfectly to the media. The media displays an illusion of invulnerability, a belief in their own inherent morality, collective rationalizations of their bias, they stereotype conservatives as an outsiide group, the self-censor information that is contrary to their worldview, they foster an illusion of unanimity in their reporting, and they’ve been known to put direct pressure on those who dissent from the status quo. By every yardstick, the media is one of the prime examples of Janis’ theories on groupthink one could find.

The media, especially on the national level, is a cloistered and insulated group. If it doesn’t appear on the AP newswires, it doesn’t happen to them. If a Republican or conservative group does something, there must be a bad angle to the story. If a liberal group does something, it’s automatically assumed to be good. The system of bias is pervasive – while the news may be largely corporate-owned, there are few examples where corporate interference skews the news – if anything, there’s a demonstrable preference for bashing corporations for “poisoning the air”, “harming children”, etc. There’s an equal preference for government solutions for all problems, from more regulation to new government programs. From the reporters working the field to the editors ultimately responsible for the decision to print a story you have a group of people whose political worldviews are almost entirely homogenous – and this bias shows in the reporting that comes out of news agencies like The New York Times and CNN.

This isn’t to say that this bias is all-consuming. If John Kerry were caught in a meaty sex scandal the media would pick up on it (although not after a great deal of vacillation) – after all, sex sells more papers and gets more ratings. Liberals love to use the Clinton scandals as “proof” that the media really isn’t liberal, which ignores the fact that the media tried to avoid the story as much as it could in the early days of the scandal, and only flogged it when it was good for ratings, while still providing a certain amount of pro-Clinton spin. The Clinton scandals were not the rule, but the exception, and the treatment of Clinton in 1996 and on other issues was highly preferential.

The media has never had a larger disconnect from the people than they currently do now. The media continues to believe that we’re simply in a repeat of the 1970’s in which the media lost a war for America and brought down a President. Every reporter seems to want to believe they’re the next Woodward and Bernstein, brave investigators speaking truth to power. However, in this quest to truly make the media an unelected and politically homogenous branch of government the result has been Jayson Blair, the Hutton Inquest, and falling ratings. The reason for this is simple: this isn’t the 1970s anymore. We were attacked first – and because of the Internet the media no longer has a monopoly on the dissemination of information. What we’re seeing now is a struggle between what the media thinks it is and what it has actually become, and until the media starts fostering a true ideological openness this situation is unlikely to change.

9 thoughts on “The Failure Of The Press

  1. Interesting piece and I think you are right that there is a major disconnect between the people and the media. However, I question whether your suggested approach of “true ideological openness” is the solution to the problem. While that may make people seek out the “news” in places that they know share their own views and thus make them more comfortable, it does not produce a very informed group of citizens.

    A recent study at the University of Maryland points out the problem. Viewers of the “ideologically open” Fox News were far more likley to believe things that were in fact not true. If all media began to be “ideologically open” would that not further divide the country?

    While I agree that our current media format is pitiful, at least there is some attempt at balance. However, that striving for balance has left objective fact in the dust. I am still waiting for the headline in the Times or the Washington Post that reads, “Bush says earth is flat; Others disagree.” At least with the current state of media affairs I can tease out the facts and then make up my own mind and be well informed. If I just watch Fox, all I get is confusion and rhetoric.

  2. A recent study at the University of Maryland points out the problem. Viewers of the “ideologically open” Fox News were far more likley to believe things that were in fact not true. If all media began to be “ideologically open” would that not further divide the country?

    The problem being that those things that were "not true" (ie Saddam having ties to al-Qaeda), aren’t facts set in stone. There’s a considerable amount of evidence that suggests quite the opposite.

    Which only reinforces my point – the media has largely decided that Saddam and al-Qaeda had no connection to each other. When a piece of evidence comes along that contradicts that idée fixe, the media conveniently ignores it or buries it, except for niche publications like The Weekly Standard which has surprisingly been the one ones bothering to cover the story – just as Michael Ledeen at National Review has been covering the ongoing Iranian pro-democracy movement in Iran in-depth while the mainstream media completely ignores it.

  3. The TrackBack URLS should be available by clicking the TrackBack link next to the comments on each post. (At least you can on the front page – I have to add the TrackBack URL to the individual entry templates when I get the chance.)

    I believe that later versions of MT should automatically discover the right TrackBack links from the post as well…

  4. Jay,

    I appreciate your response. It is interesting that you chose the ‘misinformation’ issue that is the most fungible, the alleged Saddam/al Qaeda link. What about the fact that a vast majority of Fox News viewers believe that we have already found WMD in Iraq? You can’t tell me that “fact” is open to debate.

    My point is that ideologically open media leads to competing propoganda programs and leaves the average American confused at best. In my view, that is no way to run a democracy. Besides, I am not sure that conservatives will survive a full out war of propoganda. My view is that conservative media penetration has hit the high watermark and will only recede from here.

    Best of luck.

  5. I’m not sure Steve (above) has thought through his argument when he notes that

    “…ideologically open media leads to competing propoganda programs and leaves the average American confused at best. In my view, that is no way to run a democracy. ”

    Let me get this straight. In order to avoid confusing average Americans (people other than Steve), it is better for the mass media to have ideological uniformity? And with ideological uniformity, there’s no danger of propaganda? And the availability of multiple points of view is “no way to run a democracy”?

    Please explain.

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