By Nathan Robinson/ Washington
Most people distrust the media, and most people are right. It’s healthy to question what you’re being told – that’s the mark of an intelligent and independent populace.
And the media in the United States are, in fact, “biased” in many ways.
Not always towards the left or right, but frequently towards reaffirming the worldview of an insular establishment, as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky pointed out years ago in Manufacturing Consent.
It should be obvious that there can’t be such a thing as a neutral journalist. We all have moral instincts and points of view. Those points of view will colour our interpretations of the facts. The best course of action is to acknowledge where we’re coming from. If we show an awareness of our own political leanings, it actually makes us more trustworthy than if we’re in denial about them.
Two recent controversies show how supposedly neutral journalists deny their biases.
The Washington Post’s factchecker gave Bernie Sanders a “mostly false” rating for claiming that there are half a million medical-related bankruptcies a year.
It was quite obvious that Sanders was relying on published research, and the claim was not in fact “mostly false”.
But the Post has a history of these sorts of fact-free “factchecks” – when Sanders claimed that “millions of Americans” work multiple jobs, Glenn Kessler labelled the statement “misleading”, even though it was completely true.
Ryan Grim has compiled a list of the appalling record of the Post’s unfair attacks on claims from the political left. Whatever this is, it isn’t factchecking.
It’s not just an anti-Sanders bias. President Donald Trump has some legitimate complaints about the press, too.
Because he tells whopping lies all the time, journalists are predisposed to believe the worst about him and his administration.
Recently, a Bloomberg Law reporter accused a Labour Department official of antisemitic Facebook posts. It was obvious the posts were sarcastic, and the reporter’s work was heavily criticised and the coverage amended.
Because of past stories involving administration ties to antisemites, and Trump’s own use of language about Jewish people that would be considered scandalous if it came from Ilhan Omar, the reporter was inclined to think the worst.
But if we automatically assume that Trump is the one in the wrong, we may end up with egg on our faces.
For example, when Trump claimed that millions of non-citizens voted illegally in the 2016 election, the Washington Post called him out in a “factcheck”.
But it turned out the Washington Post itself had published an article making this very same claim. The factcheckers were so sure Trump invented the lie that they didn’t notice they had spread it themselves.
I’m not inclined to defend Trump – I wrote a whole book about him called Anatomy of a Monstrosity that accused him of being one of the worst people in the world.
But I also know that if my feelings about Trump lead to my making factual misstatements about him, his supporters will pounce, and claim that my bias destroys my credibility.
If I state my prejudices up front, people will see me as more honest than if I pretend to be a mere “fact checker” when I’m clearly an opinion writer.
My personal experience is that conservatives are far more open to left-wing arguments when they come from people who are honest about their politics, and don’t pretend not to have a point of view.
I run a small magazine called Current Affairs, which operates from an unabashedly left-wing perspective. The letters we get from conservative readers indicate that many of them find the honesty refreshing, and it makes them more likely to hear us out.
One reason conservatives hate the “mainstream media” is that it pretends to be something it isn’t. Conservatives think the press has a “liberal” bias; I tend to agree with Herman and Chomsky that it would be better described as a “corporate” bias reflecting the elitist centrism that has come to dominate the Democratic party.
But few at MSNBC or CNN would admit that they’re partisan networks.
That’s what they do in Great Britain, though – the major newspapers are open about having a political leaning. The Guardian, for example, is an explicitly left-leaning paper and everybody knows it.
By contrast, the New York Times is clearly inclined towards Democratic centrism, but it won’t admit it. The editor of the op-ed page says that they strive for “viewpoint diversity”, but it’s clear that he doesn’t mean it.
After all, they don’t have columnists from the far right, and they don’t have Marxist columnists.
At least Fox News has been honest enough to drop its old “Fair and Balanced” motto.
If your paper is liberal, just embrace it – and then you can fire “viewpoint diversity” conservatives like Bret Stephens.
Paradoxically, rebuilding trust requires embracing bias. Not embracing untruthfulness, but admitting your politics so that both writer and audience can be critical.
I think the hope for media is in outlets like the Intercept, Jacobin and my own little magazine, because readers like transparency.
(This is also one reason why people respect Bernie Sanders even when they disagree with him: they don’t think he’s trying to appear to be something he isn’t.)
The salesman who tells you what he wants you to buy is more trustworthy than the one who insists he isn’t trying to sell you anything at all.
It’s a perilous time for journalism, and small outlets need all the help we can get in order to survive. Corporate owners are shuttering great outlets all the time, and the only way we’re going to have viable media institutions is through an outpouring of popular support.
Unfortunately, the public doesn’t trust us, and we need to think about how to slowly get people to see journalists as their allies instead of as duplicitous, faux-neutral propagandists.
The first step is to be up front about where we’re coming from and how we see things. We’ve got to acknowledge that everyone is biased, and that it’s OK. – Guardian News and Media
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