Note: I also posted this post on medium.
I remember clearly the moment I’d had enough of NPR for the day. It was early morning January 25 of this year, still pretty dark outside. An NPR anchor was interviewing an NPR reporter — they seem to do that a lot these days — and asked the following simple but important question:
“So if we know that Roger Stone was in communications with WikiLeaks and we know U.S. intelligence agencies have said WikiLeaks was operating at the behest of Russia, does that mean that Roger Stone has been now connected directly to Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. election?”
The factual answer, based on both data and logic, would have been “yes”. NPR, in fact, had spent much airtime covering this; for instance, a June 2018 story goes into detail about Stone’s interactions with WikiLeaks, and less than a week before Stone’s arrest, NPR referred to “internal emails stolen by Russian hackers and posted to Wikileaks.” In November of 2018, The Atlantic wrote, “Russia used WikiLeaks as a conduit — witting or unwitting — and WikiLeaks, in turn, appears to have been in touch with Trump allies.”
Why, then, did the NPR reporter begin her answer with “well,” proceed to hedge, repeat denials from Stone and WikiLeaks, and then wind up saying “authorities seem to have some evidence” without directly answering the question? And what does this mean for bias in the media?
Let us begin with a simple principle: facts do not have a political bias. Telling me that “the sky is blue” no more reflects a Democratic bias than saying “3+3=6” reflects a Republican bias. In an ideal world, politics would shape themselves around facts; ideas most in agreement with the data would win. There are not two equally-legitimate sides to questions of fact. There is no credible argument against “the earth is round”, “climate change is real,” or “Donald Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator in crimes for which jail sentences have been given.” These are factual, not political, statements. If you feel, as I do, a bit of a quickening pulse and escalating tension as you read through these examples, then you too have felt the forces that wish you to be uncomfortable with unarguable reality.
That we perceive some factual questions as political is a sign of a deep dysfunction in our society. It’s a sign that our policies are not always guided by fact, but that a sustained effort exists to cause our facts to be guided by policy.
Facts do not have a political bias. There are not two equally-legitimate sides to questions of fact. “Climate change is real” is a factual, not a political, statement. Our policies are not always guided by fact; a sustained effort exists to cause our facts to be guided by policy.
Why did I say right-wing bias, then? Because at this particular moment in time, it is the political right that is more engaged in the effort to shape facts to policy. Whether it is denying the obvious lies of the President, the clear consensus on climate change, or the contours of various investigations, it is clear that they desire to confuse and mislead in order to shape facts to their whim.
It’s not always so consequential when the media gets it wrong. When CNN breathlessly highlights its developing story — that an airplane “will struggle to maintain altitude once the fuel tanks are empty” —it gives us room to critique the utility of 24/7 media, but not necessarily a political angle.
Hey thanks CNN for making sure we all knew the crucial fact that planes cannot fly on empty fuel tanks pic.twitter.com/P6uXuTCUgI— Katie Pavlich (@KatiePavlich) March 31, 2014
But ask yourself: who benefits when the media is afraid to report a simple fact about an investigation with political connotations? The obvious answer, in the NPR example I gave, is that Republicans benefit. They want the President to appear innocent, so every hedge on known facts about illegal activities of those in Trump’s orbit is a gift to the right. Every time a reporter gives equal time to climate change deniers is a gift to the right and a blow to informed discussion in a democracy.
Not only is there a rightward bias, but there is also an establishment bias that goes hand-in-hand. Consider this CNN report about Facebook’s “pivot to privacy”, in which CEO Zuckerberg is credited with “changing his tune somewhat”. To the extent to which that article highlights “problems” with this, they take Zuckerberg at face-value and start to wonder if it will be harder to clamp down on fake news in the news feed if there’s more privacy. That is a total misunderstanding of what was being proposed; a more careful reading of the situation was done by numerous outlets, resulting in headlines such as this one in The Intercept: “Mark Zuckerberg Is Trying to Play You — Again.” They correctly point out the only change actually mentioned pertained only to instant messages, not to the news feed that CNN was talking about, and even that had a vague promise to happen “over the next few years.” Who benefited from CNN’s failure to read a press release closely? The established powers — Facebook.
Pay attention to the media and you’ll notice that journalists trip all over themselves to report a new dot in a story, but they run away scared from being the first to connect the dots. Much has been written about the “media narrative,” often critical, with good reason. Back in November of 2018, an excellent article on “The Ubearable Rightness of Seth Abramson” covered one particular case in delightful detail.
Journalists trip all over themselves to report a new dot in a story, but they run away scared from being the first to connect the dots.
Seth Abramson himself wrote, “Trump-Russia is too complex to report. We need a new kind of journalism.” He argues the culprit is not laziness, but rather that “archive of prior relevant reporting that any reporter could review before they publish their own research is now so large and far-flung that more and more articles are frustratingly incomplete or even accidentally erroneous than was the case when there were fewer media outlets, a smaller and more readily navigable archive of past reporting for reporters to sift through, and a less internationalized media landscape.” Whether laziness or not, the effect is the same: a failure to properly contextualize facts leading to misrepresented or outright wrong outcomes that, at present, have a distinct bias towards right-wing and establishment interests.
Yes, the many scandals in Trumpland are extraordinarily complex, and in this age of shrinking newsroom budgets, it’s no wonder that reporters have trouble keeping up. Highly-paid executives like Zuckerberg and politicians in Congress have years of practice with obfuscation, and it takes skill to find the truth (if there even is any) behind a corporate press release or political talking point. One would hope, though, that reporters would be less quick to opine if they lack those skills or the necessary time to dig in.
There’s not just laziness; there’s also, no doubt, a confusion about what it means to be a balanced journalist. It is clear that there are two sides to a debate over, say, whether to give a state’s lottery money to the elementary schools or the universities. When there is the appearance of a political debate over facts, shouldn’t that also receive equal time for each side? I argue no. In fact, politicians making claims that contradict establish fact should be exposed by journalists, not covered by them.
And some of it is, no doubt, fear. Fear that if they come out and say “yes, this implicates Stone with Russian hacking” that the Fox News crowd will attack them as biased. Of course this will happen, but that attack will be wrong. The right has done an excellent job of convincing both reporters and the public that there’s a big left-leaning bias that needs to be corrected, by yelling about it every time a fact is mentioned that they don’t like. The unfortunate result is that the fact-leaning bias in the media is being whittled away.
Politicians making claims that contradict establish fact should be exposed by journalists, not covered by them. The fact-leaning bias in the media is being whittled away.
Regardless of the cause, media organizations and their reporters need to be cognizant of the biases actors of all stripes wish them to display, and refuse to play along. They need to be cognizant of the demands they put on their own reporters, and give them space to understand the context of a story before explaining it. They need to stand up to those that try to diminish facts, to those that would like them to be uninformed.
A world in which reporters know the context of their stories and boldly state facts as facts, come what may, is a world in which reporters strengthen the earth’s democracies. And, by extension, its people.