Press bias: having the conversation
Okay, back to Jay Rosen. And for those who think the whole thing to be a tempest in a teapot, I respectfully disagree; because it really comes down to some larger issues about the role bias might play in the press, whether that subject is even worth discussing, and, if so, what might be done about the phenomenon.
In Rosen's new thread on the subject--the opening of which, as I've said before, was a good idea--he provides some links to previous posts of his. I have not read them all, but I have just read the two essays on press bias.
In Rosen's original Austin Bay/Rollback post, he most definitely should have linked to these two essays of his if he didn't want the "bias" argument to dominate the comments, especially since he should have foreseen that his Austin Bay post would attract people who are not ordinarily readers of Pressthink and hadn't read his previous discourses on the subject of press bias. If somehow he failed to see this coming at the beginning, he certainly should have understood what was going on by the time of his first comment. The professor was trying to give a seminar with required reading first, and he didn't supply the reading assignments and then got angry at the class.
The tone of his remarks was both impenetrable and profoundly condescending. Neither furthers the aim of having a productive conversation, nor does cutting off comments do so--it ends it.
So I'd request that he abandon the use of the word "dumb" in this context as being needlessly inflammatory and insulting hyperbole. It's not dumb to have what Rosen calls "the bias discourse," although in some ways he is very correct in the point I believe he is actually trying to make, which is that it is often unproductive or even counterproductive. But there's nothing dumb about those who are annoyed at what they see as evidence of press bias in a press that so often claims to be objective, and who want to talk about this--even if such arguments (like most in politics, or perhaps even in life!) don't tend to change many hearts and minds, or to lead to solutions, at least right away.
I have always been upfront about my position on the press--at least, I've tried to be. But I'll attempt to clarify it here and expand on it, and in the process make a stab at responding to some of the questions Rosen's poses in his two "bias" articles.
Keeping in mind that "you can't always get what you want":
I want an objective press, but since I recognize it's an impossible dream, humans being what they are, I accept that the press will always be biased.
If that be so, then I want that bias to be represented by reporters from both sides (using here, for the sake of simplicity, the somewhat misleading dichotomy of left/right) who are roughly equal in number; but I recognize that this will never happen without some sort of crazy unenforceable and undesirable quota system for reporters.
If that be so, then I want journalists and the papers they write for to drop their obviously false claim of objectivity and to be upfront about their general political affiliations, much as many bloggers are.
And I also want journalists on all sides to labor mightily to achieve far more accuracy than many of them display at the moment in their reporting--specifically, perhaps most especially, that they strive to quote people correctly and to fact-check more rigorously.
I also want members of the press to respond more vigorously when they are found to be in error, printing retractions and corrections that are prominently featured and highlighted.
I don't think I tend to use the word "bias" much anyway when critiquing the press--although I certainly haven't gone back and reread my pieces on the subject to make sure, so I could be incorrect on that. My impression is that I tend to use the word "distortions" to describe those things I see in the press that I dislike. I believe that the vast majority of what is usually called press "bias" constitutes such distortions, and that they are an unconscious result of the political viewpoint of the journalist skewing his/her selection of the facts, a process that is inevitable and can occur on both sides. I think, however, that the more scrupulously a journalist is aware of this phenomenon and tries to be as evenhanded as possible (knowing of course that complete evenhandedness is impossible), the better. I think that the journalists who succeed the best in this endeavor (IMHO, of course) are the ones I most admire. This success would include the ability to admit when one is wrong, and not to defensively cling to the original distortions and try to justify them.
I think most people who are angry at what they call press bias (and I believe it is still the best shorthand term around for the phenomenon; I would submit "press distortion" to replace it, but somehow I don't think it will catch on) are especially angry at the uses the press makes of techniques such as truncated quotes that misrepresent the actual point of the speaker, mistakes of fact, subtly shaded shaping of opinion in the choice of "unbiased" [sic] words such as "militant" instead of "terrorist" when the latter would seem more appropriate in many cases, neglecting to provide background and context, the overuse of the anonymous source (see this for my take on solutions to this problem), and opinions stated as fact without backup or documentation (that is, editorializing presented as news). I don't like either side using these techniques, and their use is a big part of whatever "bias" does exist in the press, and it's the thing that makes most people who criticize the press hopping mad.
I believe that most journalists believe themselves to be honest brokers who are striving for objectivity. But most of them need to be made far more aware of the ways in which the above (and other) tools creep into their work and cause the charges of bias to stick. Bias is very rarely conscious in a journalist (although on occasion it is). That's what often makes the protestations of most journalists that they are not biased, and their anger at the charge, take on so much strength. Journalists need to look longer and harder at what is going on here--even if they think they've already looked at it long and hard--and try to correct it as best they can, knowing that the corrections will always be flawed and inadequate. But at least improvement is possible, if the will is there and the effort is made.
So I don't believe--to try to answer Jay's question couched in his own words--that "wanting from journalists what is also impossible for journalists" (i.e. objectivity) is unfair, although it may indeed seem to be a confused and oxymoronic request when stated that way. I would rephrase the request, however, in the following way: wanting what is impossible doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for the closest approximation to it, as long as we realize the ideal is not achievable in absolute terms. We humans always strive for things that are impossible: truth, justice, fair play, perfect love, etc. But the impossibility of their achievement has nothing to do with the fact that these goals are always worth pursuing, and that in fact the effort towards those goals may help us come closer and closer to them. That they recede forever from our grasp is actually true and worthy of stating and acknowledging, but it is largely irrelevant to the fact that they must be pursued nevertheless, and that every millimeter closer we can get to them is still an achievement.
(ADDENDUM: A question Rosen posed in the comments section of the new thread goes as follows:
If you had the opportunity to advise Jim Lehrer just before he moderated and asked questions at a make or break Presidential debate, in addition to telling him to be careful not to take sides, would you say something like, "and remember this, Jim, you are not an actor in this event." And if you did say something like that, would it be true?
My answer? I would say to Lehrer, "Remember, Jim, you are an actor in this event whether you like it or not and whether you intend it or not. But the performance for which you should be striving is to be as evenhanded as possible in your manner and your questions, in order to try to prevent, to the best of your ability, your actions tilting the results in either direction."]