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:
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.