Illustration by Shelby Hohl
In the contemporary U.S., we expect our news to be “unbiased,” but this was not always the case. According to University of Chicago economics professor Matthew Gentzkow, prior to the 1870s, newspapers in the U.S. were explicitly partisan. Each town had its equivalent of a Republican newspaper and a Democrat newspaper, and the rhetoric was even more “heated” than it is today–filled with unrestrained emotional appeals, half-truths, mistruths, and ad hominem attacks. The newspapers of old had mission statements that laid out their partisan affiliation and they took money from political parties. Audiences had no expectation of “objectivity.”
The reason newspapers in early U.S. history were so partisan is because the cost of printing was very high–primarily because of the high cost of textile-based papers. Printing papers was an expensive business without much of a profit margin, so newspapers were dependent on political patronage. If they supported the winning party–if they helped that party get elected–then they could count on making money through lucrative printing contracts (like when new laws are passed, or how, to this day, marriage and death announcements are required to be announced in the papers, along with big property deals and such). Oftentimes, supportive publishers were given the cushy job of Postmaster General. Publishers had an economic incentive to keep their funders happy, even if that meant alienating a portion of their presumptive audience.
Then, in 1867, the process of making paper with pulped wood was invented, and the cost of publishing went way down. Additionally, literacy went up and the potential audience grew. The invention of the telegraph in 1844 meant that more and better information was available more quickly. Thus, supplying papers and information became cheaper as demand grew, so there was a greater potential for a higher profit margin. The economic incentive flipped–there was now more to be gained by attracting a greater readership, which could be achieved through more “balance” or by staying away from controversial subjects. There was more money to be made through high-volume sales than through political patronage, so publishers started becoming more interested in catering to consumer desires. (For more details on this, check out the NPR program Planet Money’s episode #134, “The Price of Bias.”)
In their seminal tome from 1986, Manufacturing Consent, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky identify six filters, dubbed “the propaganda model,” by which our allegedly unbiased, objective media reinforce the status quo and propagate the interests of the wealthy and powerful. I don’t have room to get into too much detail about the six filters (media ownership by giant corporate conglomerates; funding through advertising; reporters’ too-cozy relationships with powerful “sources;” flak; and anti-communism, which can be updated to also include anti-“terrorism”) but I encourage you at least to read “the propaganda model’s” Wikipedia entry. (If you’re feeling more ambitious, check out Manufacturing Consent from your local library or watch the film version on Hulu.)
What you realize after reading Manufacturing Consent is that there is no such thing as an unbiased press. “Fair and balanced” is a myth–not just on Fox News, but also in any medium. Bias is expressed by the simple choice in which stories are covered and which stories are ignored.
And can a paper or article that shows “both sides” of a story really be unbiased? Let’s unpack that assumption–are there really only ever two sides to any given situation? Can the whole world be split into liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican? Are the issues on which these sides agree not worth questioning, like “free trade,” for example? Is it possible that there are other perspectives worth considering, perspectives that might fall outside of the liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican paradigm?
Not only that, but even when “the two sides” are divided, is each side worthy of serious consideration? As Jon Stewart pointed out, using the climate change “debate” as an example, should news outlets be giving equal time to “both sides” of the climate debate? Is climate change a political issue, best described by “Democrats say” vs. “Republicans say” or is it a scientific issue? If you ask the scientists–there is no debate (unless you ask the small minority of scientists who are funded by fossil fuel industries).
Margaret Sullivan, the new public editor of the New York Times covered this very topic in her September 16 column, titled “He Said, She Said, and the Truth.” She calls this “false balance” and defines it as “the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side.”
Myself, I don’t believe in “unbiased, fair-and-balanced” media. I don’t think it exists, and believe it is actually outside the realm of possibility. I get most of my news from very biased, “independent,” left-wing sources, and they acknowledge their bias. They also provide evidence for their claims. I like to check in on media watchdog groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Media Matters to get the story behind the story. Those groups do great meta-analysis of the news–they count how many times certain words are used, they check into the backgrounds of some of the talking heads (like when people who work for mercenary companies are invited onto news shows as “military experts”), they do the fact-checking that reporters don’t consider part of their job description any more.
So, in the absence of unbiased media, and living in a climate where almost all the news that reaches our ears and eyeballs is vetted by the Chamber of Commerce, I just want to come out as an unabashed leftist. I make no claims of “balance.” I think the general climate is unabashedly right-wing (or at least pro-corporate), and true balance is going to require more lefties to openly claim their own values.