The face of news bias

The New York Times is reporting this morning that CBS News has come to the conclusion that the RatherGate memos are fakes. As this unfolds on-the-air over the next couple of days, pay close attention to the wording CBS uses in explaining the mess. Comments such as “We were duped” or “We were deceived” will take the focus off the network and onto the person who provided the documents. CBS will paint itself as a victim in order to save face, and this will only further the divide between itself and the American public.

Only an unqualified acceptance of responsibility will do. Here’s the real nut:

Mr. Rather and others at the network are said to still believe that the sentiment in the memos accurately reflected Mr. Killian’s feelings but that the documents’ authenticity was now in grave doubt.
This is why those of us who follow the news media have been saying for a very long time that journalism’s artificial hegemony, objectivity, is what’s really being exposed by technology. As I wrote a week ago, Rather and the CBS producers wanted the documents to be real, because they so perfectly fit a predisposition that “the story” is real. This is called bias. The truth is we all have ours, but when a news organization displays its true colors while clinging to a public façade of objectivity, the result is a disconnect. There was a time when the news business could get away with presenting bias in the name of objectivity, but people are increasingly able to deconstruct arguments, thanks to the Internet. Moreover, there’s now a bunch of people in their pajamas doing it full time.

The new reality is beautifully stated in a Chicago Tribune Sunday report by John Cook, “Glimpse at the future looks neither fair nor balanced.”

There are two dynamics at play, according to industry observers, that could make abandoning, or at least eroding, the traditional objective news ethic a viable business proposition. One is a decades-long trend in the media business away from a few dominant mass media players such as the Big Three networks and toward a plethora of smaller niche outlets. The second is the increasing politicization of the news media itself, a development visible in everything from the success of recent books such as Bernard Goldberg’s “Bias” and Ann Coulter’s “Slander” to the immediate suspicions among conservatives that CBS News used forged documents in its recent report on Bush’s Guard service.

“What is reasonably clear is that you’ve got a greater fractionalization of the media,” said James Rutherfurd, executive vice president of the media investment bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson. “Whether it’s left-wing or right-wing or fly fishermen or golfers, you now have channels and programming directed at particular segments.”

But most major journalism outlets, including CNN, have traditionally been aggressively anti-niche in their approach, striving instead to be comprehensive, calibrated, balanced and offensive to no one.

Rutherfurd called that “lowest common denominator news.”

“It’s wishy-washy and namby-pamby,” he said. “And people might be looking for something with a little flair and spice — a little bit combative. Maybe that’s what the population wants.” He pointed to Europe, where many newspapers proudly wear their party affiliations on their sleeves, a move that has been good for business.

“In France you know if you’ve got a leftist or rightist newspaper,” he said. “And that’s made for a very lively and more exuberant newspaper market” than in the U.S.

“I’m not terrified by the idea of more partisan journalism,” said Jonah Goldberg, a syndicated columnist and editor-at-large for the Web site of the conservative National Review. “I don’t think that the ability of people to see what they want to see on their terms is a bad thing.”

I don’t think it’s a bad thing either, because along with the various points of view comes the return of argument to journalism. That, after all, is what the First Amendment was written to protect, and it’s what we need to get the public involved in the political process again.

The likelihood of CBS labeling itself as representing the left is about the same as Fox labeling itself as representing the right. Bias is more representative of individuals anyway — not necessarily entire organizations. This is where, I believe, a lot of observers err when examining Fox. The faces of bias on Fox are commentators and hosts of various programs representing a point-of-view. The face of bias on CBS, however, is now its primary news anchor, something the network will be hard-pressed to overcome.


  1. Respectfully disagree with you, Terry; I’ve posted my response at my blog. I stand by my points in spite of CBS’ update posted not long after I drafted my response.

    There’s a real imbalance of outrage here. We still don’t have all the facts, still much more to the real stories — and there’s more than one story. Bias in reporting is bad, period, no matter at what level the bias emanates — because it obstructs the truth. Not all media consumers are capable of making the distinction that media may bury truth. And what works in a multiple-party country simply is untenable in a two-party nation.

  2. Rayne,

    I always appreciate your comments. You’re hung up on the two-party system here. Why does a person’s belief system have to be associated with either the Dems or the GOP? Even Joe Trippi thinks there’ll be a legit third party by 2008. Frankly, I think that’ll be one of the fruits of what you and I are doing right now.

    I’m not a political blogger, so I suppose I should just stay out of it. But as I wrote in the essay Of Liberals and Networks, I grew up in a family of Democrats, but my father wouldn’t go near the Democrats of today.

    Bring on the choices.


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