May 15, 2005

Embracing Bias

Referencing advocates of public broadcasting that call on us all to "condemn politicized attacks" against things like PBS, Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek points out a simple fact: how can a publicly-funded institution not be subject to politics?

As an initial side-note, it's a wonder anyone thinks we need public broadcasting given the availability of inexpensive news sources from radio, cable, broadcast TV, the Internet and newspapers. C-SPAN is able to run several low-cost, high-intellect programs of the same sort as NPR and PBS; specifically, a few smart people are interviewed in a non-combative forum speaking in low tones with few or no commercial breaks. If C-SPAN can do that and operate in the free market, including expanding to have a C-SPAN2 and a C-SPAN3, then I don't see how PBS and NPR fulfill an otherwise-unfulfilled, valuable need. There's no reasonable economic justification I can see to provide it as a government-procured product. On top of which, there's a serious problem in forcing people to pay to broadcast views that might be incongruent with their own (see: Thomas Jefferson and freedom of belief).

But the idea of a PBS or NPR free of "politicized attacks" is a symptom of the wider exceptionalism bestowed upon certain media sources - with the employees of these outlets doing the bestowing. It amazes me how I can read an editorial criticizing blogs for expressing biased editorials and opinions and catering to the specific ideologies of the readership, from an editorial published in, hypothetically, the New York Times or the LA Times. How is it that these newspapers and other media sources don't acknowledge their own bias?

Somehow they act as though they present the unvarnished truth as Americans ought to all see it. Anyone paying attention knows that true elimination of bias is difficult if not impossible. And that's okay.

I don't want to regularly patronize news sources that don't treat political corruption, terrorist attacks or genocide events as negative. But that's a form of bias. It's taking a position: a) this is terrorism and b) this is bad. I don't see a problem with that kind of reporting. That's how human beings communicate. We have opinions and values and we communicate them virtually every single day.

In fact, I'm concerned when somebody tries to present something as objective and unbiased and doesn't acknowledge his own prejudices and perspectives. I know I can't trust stories like that too quickly because the author is downplaying or unaware of the biases that might have gone into a story.

I'd rather hear something from somebody I know has a bias, thus allowing me to factor it in. It's more annoying when I have to figure it out myself. I wish I could remember who, but some blogger or bloggers pointed out a simple parallel: if a business reporter has to acknowledge the stocks and companies he's bought or invested in before he can ethically report on subjects related to stocks and the corporate world, why is it that political reporters don't have to publish their contributions and admit how they're voting and have voted? I'd just like it acknowledged before I read a story.

When I read something in DailyKos that says Bush is an idiot-criminal and Dean is a political genius, I know that it comes from a guy who hates Bush and who did paid political work (which, by the way, he reported up-front) for Dean. But if I were to read something in the Boston Globe or the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about how Voters Reject Bush Social Security Plans than I'm left to assume but never to know that it comes from someone with a specific editorial bias.

The question is not "should we eliminate the bias" versus "should we accept the bias." The controversy is "we should ignore the bias in ourselves" versus "we should acknowledge the bias in ourselves." That's a far more honest way to deal with others and it would yield a media atmosphere that carried itself with much more integrity.

In the end, it's the same impulse that tries to condemn political attacks against a political subsidiary that also tries to ignore all potential biases within the various mainstream news sources: the self-exceptionalism that is rampant within many media outlets. People working in media are not bad, they're just not super-human. Just as we should not expect a political subsidiary to be perfectly immune from criticism, neither should we expect human beings to be perfectly transcendent about their fundamental prejudices and perspectives.

If I wanted to be even more dramatic and make a longer post I could link media exceptionalism to wider governmental exceptionalism and how many people excuse a government action that would be immoral if an individual or business did it. For now I'll stick to media self-exceptionalism.

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