POLITICAL BIAS IN THE MEDIA
I used to like CNN. But now I can barely stand to watch it. It's not that I disagree with their opinions. (In fact, their conclusions about Covid-19 and Donald Trump pretty much align with my own.) It's their mental health that unnerves me. Their anchors are simply deranged as they report the news these days...seething with rage and outrage.
Rage and outrage are the bailiwick of me and my fellow theologians, not the news media. It is our prerogative to bring down the wrath of God on presidents, science-deniers, and Mitch McConnell. The news media is supposed to be fair, balanced, objective...
There was a time in my life when I sort of wanted to be a journalist, enticing me to take several journalism courses in high school and college. And the first thing we learned in each course was journalistic ethics: 1) Be truthful and honest; never report something you know to be false or even misleading; 2) Stay objective; if you have a financial or personal interest in a story, disclose that to the reader or let someone else report it; 3) Be fair; present facts without inserting your feelings or giving them a slant; 4) Be thorough; persevere in getting all the information you possibly can, from both sides; 5) Be compassionate; just because you have freedom of the press, do not abuse it to hurt or expose people beyond the need of the public to be informed in making decisions; 6) Never reveal confident sources; 7) never be intimidated by anyone.
We also learned that there is no such thing as NO bias...or perfect objectivity. As human beings, we never see or hear everything. And everything we do see or hear will evoke feelings in us, whether we are mindful of them or not. The mere fact of picking which stories to cover is itself a means of bias.
Those who are looking for completely unbiased reporting are naïve. There is no such thing. How then can we navigate through the myriad sources of information "out there."
First, a bit of history. The first mass media in American politics consisted of newspapers. And newspapers were often founded by political parties as a way of slanting information toward their own candidates. Journalistic ethics is a 20th century invention. There was never even a pretense of objectivity before that.
In addition to newspapers, other forms of mass communication first appear in the election of 1840, William Henry Harrison vs. President Martin Van Buren. For the first time we saw a proliferation of parades, exhibits, booklets, and songfests. In real life, William Henry Harrison was actually quite wealthy, born and bred in a mansion. All his adult life he was a master of mansions and plantations. The Whig Party nominated him because he was successful in fighting Indians...and because no one knew what he thought about the issues of the day. If no one knew what he thought, how could anyone actually oppose him?
The Democrats made a big mistake, however, when they accused old Mr. Harrison of being senile... and good for nothing except to live out his days in a log cabin drinking hard cider. It turned out that lots of people liked the idea of being led by an ordinary guy who lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider. And so the Whigs built log cabins all over the country, gave out free hard cider, and formed choirs to sing newly composed songs about William Henry Harrison being a hillbilly... instead of the dandy he actually was.
Large balls made of paper, up to 15 feet in diameter, were put together, decorated with slogans for Harrison, and rolled through city streets and from town to town. Thus the origin of the saying, "Keep the ball rolling." A new newspaper was published, The Log Cabin, entirely to support the Whig party. It sold for two cents, and the readers were promised that they would get their "two cents worth," perhaps the origin of that phrase.
The key difference between the 19th century and the 21st consists of the quantity of information. In both eras the quality and truthfulness of such information has been dubious. In the 19th century, the quantity of information was limited. While the perspectives of some people never made it into print, there was still a variety of political opinion published. It was generally available and digestible. It was sparse enough that people could easily read both sides... if they wanted.
In contrast, today there is a pollution of information. It is produced by everybody! The most ignorant people in the country can (and do) post stuff on Facebook, Tweet, or get their mug on the 24-hour news. Algorithms used by our social media make sure that we only see the stuff that fits our biases... except when we are "friends" on social media with people whose politics we loathe. The TV remote control and our "favorite website" icons make sure we spend all our time hearing only factoids that match our baked-in opinions.
Okay: enough critique. How do we navigate it all? Just because water can kill (when polluted, or when coming at us in the form of a flood or a hurricane) doesn't mean we swear off water from now on.
It's the ONE job of a journalist to collect "stuff" to tell me and show me. I, on the other hand, have three jobs: 1) to remember out who is a journalist and who is not, 2) to fit all that "stuff" in some sort of context, and 3) to fashion the "stuff" into an argument rather than a quarrel.
A friend on Facebook is not a journalist. Partisans in a political campaign are not journalists. Ads and bumper stickers are not journalism. Snarky or outraged characters on TV news shows are not journalists.
I do expect journalists to care about who gets elected and have feelings about the things they cover. No genuine human being can be unbiased in the face of such things as a pandemic, or a police beating, or a larger-than-life politician. But a proper journalist is skilled at distinguishing feelings from thoughts, opinions from certainties, and covering the news from being the news. I expect my journalists to be fearless in searching out all the facts, skilled in sharing them, and strictly obedient to the highest standards of journalistic ethics. I want a journalist who advocates passionately for journalistic ethics and then openly goes out of the way to demonstrate those ethics.
My second job: As to context, it is my job to put the stuff I see and hear into context. By context, I mean science and history, philosophy and logic, literature and fine arts, geography and sociology, psychology and theology... In other words, it is MY job to be educated. And because the world is changing, my education demands a life-long endeavor. "Formal" education is not synonymous with "being" educated, but there is a high correlation. When one candidate relies inordinately on the "poorly educated" for votes, I am especially suspicious of the news outlets that promote that candidate.
Finally, it is my job to take the information the journalists give me and work it into an argument. An argument is a process: a wrestling with conflicting assertions in order to come up with a wise decision. Arguments are both good and necessary. The trouble with many families, churches, organizations, businesses, and communities is that their people seldom have good arguments. We can be so conflict averse that we fail to enter a robust wrestling with people who have a diversity of ideas.
On the other hand, a quarrel is merely an enterprise that seeks to make my side a winner and your side a loser. Facts and truth are inconsequential in a quarrel. The bigger bully and the bolder liar usually win in a quarrel. Most political debates are quarrels, not arguments. The United States Senate, that great body established to approach issues and conflicts thoughtfully and thoroughly, is simply a den of quarrelsome egotists nowadays. Good luck finding a good argument in that group. A good journalist, on the other hand, will give me material in such a way that I am free to work it into my own arguments. I cannot tolerate journalists who push their information at me, yell it, and slant it in order to manipulate me. We don't need our journalists to be quarrelsome too.
The issues we face on nearly every level, but especially the national level, are not simplistic. No one really knows the right answer to such things as climate change, gun violence, handling Iran, overcoming Covid-19, reopening the economy, gutting racism and sexism. Simplistic answers are most likely to compound all those problems. And yet, TV news is not an optimal venue for helping us explore the complexity of what faces us. Giving me information is all they can really do. Putting that information into the framework of an argument... pointing us toward wise decision... that is my job... and yours.
God bless freedom of the press. And while we are praying for our enemies, send up some good wishes for those whose job it is to help us with information. They are critical to our future and our sanity. Lord, give the press back their sanity... so we can keep ours.