In Today's Fractured Media, 'Balance' Is Really Propaganda

    Do you believe the Guardian is biased?

    I won’t take it personally if you do. In fact, let me tell you a little secret: I kinda think it’s a little biased, too.

    It’s biased toward free speech. It’s biased toward full color and having lots of space. It’s certainly biased toward beer.

    But I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you. Nor would it surprise you, I’m guessing, to hear that the New York Times, Fox News Channel, CNN, the Washington Post, the San Diego Union-Tribune and every other American news outlet is biased in ways it both does and does not understand.

    So why do they all pretend otherwise?

    Many journalists see unbiased reporting as an impossible goal worth striving for, perfectly fair souls being rather rare. But that’s still hopelessly idealistic. Unbiased reporting is an impossible goal that’s no longer worth pursuing. In fact, rather than an ideal, the concept of unbiased reporting has become a mindfuck tool for media outlets to deliver their bias without fessing up to it. Hence Fox News’ relentless “fair and balanced” plug — but more on that later.

    There are two main reasons for the nearing death of unbiased news. The first is that human understanding is slowly growing worldly enough to grasp that all knowledge is subjective. As the idea that there is no absolute truth (math and physics dudes, disregard) becomes more accepted, news consumers are much less willing to tolerate a grandfatherly anchor or reporter claiming to have an absolutely fair assessment of an event. News doesn’t occur as a neatly compartmentalized development, with easily identifiable and coherent sides — the newspaper just makes you think it does, masking all the subjective reasoning about newsworthiness and change that reporters and editors have to make.

    It’s become a pastime of the right to point out the ways in which the reasoning employed by the mainstream media is biased against social and economic conservatives, just as it’s become a pastime of those on the left to call the mainstream media a complacent lap dog of the status quo. Both are correct, although their complaints say more about the diversity of American consumers than the corruptness of its journalists. Most people want to read the news from a perspective they understand, from an outlet that makes the same assumptions and value judgments they do. The fact that Americans can no longer agree on the general fairness of a major source only shows the diversity of perspectives that make up the United States — and since those are growing, it’s likely that the number of media perspectives will, too.

    The second reason that unbiased news will soon die is that few people have time to consume it in the patient, judicious way for which it was designed. The idea that people will be able to sit down with a 1,000-word story on the day’s major developments and reason out an opinion on each one, having read and considered both sides, went out with the 50-hour work week and 2-hour commute. It’s far quicker to have the day’s events folded to fit into a familiar, agreeable perspective — which is what “admittedly biased” news offers.

    The Internet is only helping this. Few Web sites carry the once-sacred journalistic respect of the New York Times or CBS (although these houses are doing a good job of spoiling theirs), but the Web doesn’t need to. Opinions are opinions no matter what URL they appear on. It’s cheaper to pay for opinions than facts, and easier to read opinions than facts, and easier to read from the Internet than a newspaper. So guess who’s going to win?

    The American media is already moving more toward a European model, where readers are conversant in the varying perspectives (read: biases) of different publications, choosing to read the ones they can most tolerate. We’re already there, really: Everybody thinks that the New York Times is liberal and that Fox News is conservative, and because they do, liberals and conservatives flock to those sources, reinforcing the preconception.

    So with people already reading news assuming that it’s biased, but more or less agreeing with its biases, we return to our original question: Why do these old dogs still play their same tricks and pass themselves off as “All the news …” or “fair and balanced”?

    They’ll say they’re afraid of polarizing American society, of creating a situation in which conservatives completely disregard anything the NYT reports and liberals organize a lynch mob for Rupert Murdoch. And that is a legitimate fear, especially given the already dubious ability of Americans from different perspectives to get along.

    But I think the real reason U.S. news outlets cling to their illusions of fairness is because it’s fantastically powerful for controlling people. As a godless, overeducated West Coast liberal, I try to consume every media source critically, looking for its biases and assumptions. Most people, however, hear the news on TV and assume that it’s a fair representation of what actually happened. That’s not possible if you’re watching a TV station or reading a paper that admits it’s the “liberal” or “conservative” voice. Getting the news from a perspective that admits its bias forces the consumer to acknowledge that there may be a side of the story that they aren’t getting in full detail; “unbiased” news outlets can claim their reporting as the gospel without giving consumers a reason to think twice.

    Which is ultimately why Fox News is so terrifying to a person like me: It’s self-reinforcing propaganda. The first step in convincing you that Bush, etc., are honest is convincing you that they are honest — hence the barrage of “fair and balanced” blasts when the network was launched.

    In the Web-savvy, postknowledge media world, asserting complete fairness is the most dangerous bias.

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