The case for media bias

The case for media bias
: Tim Rutten, the media critic of the LA Times, gets it wrong in so many ways.

Writing this weekend about media impartiality, he says the coming election is “a referendum not only on America’s political future but also on the direction of its news media.”

At issue is the question being posed with increasing frequency by right- and left-wing partisans: Have the American media simply failed in their decades-long effort to separate facts from opinions and to make impartial reporting the governing ethic of their news columns? Or, alternatively, has American society’s changed nature simply made the whole project irrelevant?

Or, alternatively, are American media finally and simply catching up to the reality of what their audiences want?

You see, for years and years, it was assumed that American TV viewers wanted really dumb sitcoms because that’s all that networks fed them and that’s all they watched. But when, at long last, viewers were given quality choices — Cosby (in his early years only), Hill St. Blues, Cheers — they watched the quality shows.

News consumers in the U.S. have been fed only attempts at impartiality or objectivity. But now they have choices; they can watch FoxNews and read the Guardian and click on weblogs — and they do. So perhaps all along, that’s what news consumers have wanted: not dull attempts at impartiality but perspective honestly revealed, bias admitted, opinion included.

Rutten gets one thing right: Bias is a nonissue in most reporting:

There is a certain kind of bright but brittle mind that loves this sort of either/or thinking. What such minds cannot accept is the common-sensical notion that real life


  1. “us, the people.” i like it.
    btw, i didn’t see a link to rutten’s rant and can’t be bothered to root around for it on LAT… would you kindly post it? (or me am blind?)
    i enjoyed your Xmas eve recap and look forward to reading about your new years eve! season’s felicitations!

  2. James says:

    Maybe the public would consider the media more
    reliable if they did not, say, run an editorial
    from an open apologist for anti-semitism. In,
    say, the Los Angeles Times:
    The Web site quotes [Professor Michael] Neumann as writing,

  3. Othello says:

    I’ll never forget my encounter with the “old media” some years ago during the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings. The LA Times gave Congressman Henry Waxman an extremely generous amount of space to argue why Clinton should have remained in office. I wrote a letter to the editor rebutting Waxman (in whose Congressional district I lived at the time) point by point. The result was that my letter was long, but very thorough and well-argued. Result? Never got published, not even in an “edited down” version.
    I understand the economic constraints upon the amount of content in the old media … but all too often, I believe, this resulted in a one-way monologue of the anointed few (the “professional” observers and opiners) lecturing to the unwashed masses.
    The Internet revolution, especially the blogosphere, has revealed that the “unwashed masses” not only observe a helluva lot (and in some cases, far more adeptly than the so-called professionals – can you say Zeyad???), but also have lots of opinions of their own and are eager to voice them.
    Let the high priests of the old media sniff at the blogosphere. I, for one, love our modern-day cyberspace townhall, and prefer “talking with” rather than “being talked (down) to” any day. In spite of the dreck and noise (of which there is a lot), with not too much searching you can still find sites and people with whom you can have reasonable exhanges of ideas and discover common values … even when they are halfway around the world, and are living in a country where your nation’s armed forces have just fought a war.
    Reliable communication between common people in which ideas are freely exchanged and debated is a terrific weapon against tyranny. It discourages elite-enforced propaganda from taking hold, encourages independent thinking and promotes accountability by demanding that rhetoric be matched with results. Which is why tyrants (be they despots in government palaces, or uber-snobs in posh high-rise mass media offices) inevitably despise “people’s forums” … because citizen-to-citizen dialogue severely weakens a crucial avenue of elite control of the masses.
    After all … once people stop being told what to think, they’re liable to think just about anything!

  4. Bill Herbert says:

    Despite Rutten’s snootiness, I have to basically agree with him: while unabashedly opinionated news sources are fine as supplements, I think journalism should still strive toward objectivity, however unattainable it may be. I simply don’t think that human failings are a reason to throw the whole idea out.
    I’d offer as a rough analogy the fact that we’ll probably never see a war with zero noncombatant casualties, but that doesn’t stop us from striving toward that end, either.
    American editorial page editors could be a hell of a lot more responsive to their readers, but I’d still say that I don’t have too many complaints about the reporting itself. In fact, I’d prefer it to any other country’s any day. The Brits already have a system which doesn’t even make a lame attempt at objectivity. They just have Left-wing rags and Right-wing rags, and none of them really give a rat’s patoot about the truth. And the British public is not well served by them at all.
    Yes, Jeff, most Americans realize that people like Franken and Coulter are vaudeville acts. But in Britain, they’d actually be taken seriously as reporters. You really think that’s a good thing?
    There’s a reason the U.S. does not really have an answer to the likes of Robert Fisk and John Pilger — or, on the other side of the spectrum, Con Coughlin. People like them would not be taken seriously as journalists here, and I’d like to keep it that way.
    Despite all its flaws, the American flavor of journalism is still something to be proud of. It’s no accident that our papers have guys like John Burns, while the Brits have ass clowns like Andrew Gilligan. It’s because our journalists do make an effort to separate opinions from facts. Yes, sometimes they fail miserably — although if you peruse the rather lame accusations of “media bias” that are the staple of organizations like FAIR and the MRC, you’ll see that even their failures are vastly overstated. But the public is clearly better served by their having tried.

  5. linden says:

    It is not objectivity they should strive for. It is THE TRUTH. Objectivity is not always a good. Sometimes judgement is necessary. Questions of objectivity are by and large irrelevant imo. In fact, I think ‘objectivity’ is used as a cover for a multitude of journalistic sins.
    If you visit the Winds of link posted on this topic, you’ll find in the comments discussion of how an ‘objective’ press would have been instrumental in keeping black Americans enslaved.

  6. TM Lutas says:

    Bill Herbert – I hope that you don’t agree with the part about the pre Civil War press. Follow the logic, partisan press leads to Civil War and that’s bad so a non-partisan press would have led to no civil war and… what? Slavery in Georgia in the 20th century?
    The truth is that the South was never going to give in on slavery and without the post-war amendments, they would have been able to hold onto the institution for far longer.

  7. hugh macleod says:

    Well, what we’re seeing is a transfer of power from Party A to Party B. Of course Party A is going to kvetch.
    This is just a power issue.
    The future of media is about better understanding the power of media and actually using it for our own advantage, not for the advantage of Time Warner’s stock price.
    Say, for sake of arguemnt, I want to be rich. I don’t want some journo telling me how great it is to be a millionaire. I already know that. I want journalists who, by reading them, make it easier for me to become a millioniare.
    So of course, the guy making a living writing columns about how great it is to be rich is going to complain if his readership is suddenly demanding more of him.

  8. Matt Welch says:

    Here’s a vote for what Bill said. Without having actually read Rutten’s column or anything, and for the moment being utterly unconcerned with the relevance of Civil War analogies, I think it’s a good idea to once in a while remember the *good* that has come out of the elitist (and originally, objectively pro-capitalist) notion of high-handed newspaper objectivity. If a magic wand were to be waved, and the media were to all be like Murdoch/Guardian/blogs, and no more of this condescening above-it-all professionalism, I’d wager that we’d feel the loss pretty sharply.
    Remember when CNN was the sort of AP of television news? One of the reason why CNN sucks now, in my opinion, is that it tried too hard to be like Fox, and Headline News especially tried too much to be like, I dunno, Entertainment Tonight or some crap. There is a valuable role to be played by our just-the-facts-ma’am news organizations, and I’m bummed now that we don’t have a national TV network that just barfs up the straight news for 24 hours a day, without goofy anchor-jokes and interviews with minor celebrities. Bring back Lynn Vaughn!
    And I’d even suggest that those of us who welcome 90% of the Britishization process are engaging in a bit of a double standard — we love to talk about how great the New York Post is, while trashing the bias of the New York Times. Well, that makes for interesting contrarianism (and it’s true that I subscribe to Murdoch, Sulzberger), but the Post is both more biased and more sloppy, and the Times (to me, at least), is a far superior newspaper. I just want markets to have (at minimum) both.

  9. hugh macleod says:

    Matt Welch demonstrates again whay so many people read his blog :)

  10. Thank you for posting the link Jeff.
    In closing, Rutten delivers two knock-out punches… for the other side.
    First, he argues that a partisan press incites national disaster, but offers only evidence to the contrary. “We’ve been there before”… in 1863.
    Does Rutten think the South could have been talked out of slavery without war? “A partisan press… simply propelled its readers into the abyss.” The abyss? I thought killing slavery and preserving the Union were the right thing to do.
    If this is Rutten’s best evidence against a partisan press, he’s in trouble. But it gets worse. His self-inflicted killer-punch is that “the era in which the ethic of journalistic impartiality has prevailed has coincided with a period of unequaled prosperity in the American media.”
    Oops. Rutten alludes to the fact that blatantly biased media has been the norm for most of the 400 year newspaper boom. The current gold standard, as promulgated at NYT and LAT, is a modern departure from the original idea.
    Worse, the lily-white invention of nonpartisan publishing, held high as holy scripture by editors and j-school profs, boils down to money. “Impartial, nonpartisan news columns have created advertising venues in which all sorts of enterprises are comfortable seeking customers.”
    This tact suggests that if biased media brought bigger profits, Rutten would have to accept bias as a good thing. But isn’t Fox proving that media bias pays?
    Ironically, newspaper “objectivity” wasn’t an invention of the newsroom poohbahs or j-school panjandrums… but of the evil business folk they so often deride.
    I’ve posted a little more on this on my own blog.

  11. Terry Heaton says:

    I appreciate that Tim Rutten is at least participating in this long overdue discussion. I’ve written about it today in my blog, but I’d like to post a couple of thoughts here.
    Postmodernism is the engine driving this train, but not as Rutten views it. By sniping at those who “sip the koolaid” of postmodernism, he’s painted himself into the extremist corner with which he views the cultural change. The status quo in America is under assault, but the war is occurring at an unseen level. We can only view its fruit.
    I appreciate Mr. Rutten for having the courage to publish his views. Without it, the discussion would be terribly one-sided, don’t you think? That he is dead wrong is irrelevant, just as is his objective press.
    Oh, and I like that he tries to soften the argument by using the word “impartial” instead of “objective.” Nice.
    Happy New Year to everybody.

  12. Steve Smith says:

    Rutten’s point, actually, was that the vitriol in pre-Civil War journalism that led to Gettysburg, Antietam, etc., made anything other than a violent solution to the slavery issue unavoidable. That was particularly so in the South, where the popular journalism of that period provided their readers with no other options but secession. Claiming that war was the only possible way to end slavery is correct only up to a point; it was because the FoxNews and Washington Times of the day demanded secession if the Presidential election went against them that led to war becoming the only option.

  13. Steve Safran says:

    The argument is already getting old. We, as humans, have biases. It’s better to disclose them than to pretend they don’t exist. Walter Cronkite called Vietnam “unwinnable.” It was his opinion. And it led to the end of the war, by LBJ’s own admission. The Washington Post called for Nixon’s resignation. The Boston Globe called for Cardinal Law to step down. These weren’t statements of fact. We aren’t paid just to report – we’re paid to synthesize and explain. It’s far better to admit your biases upfront and get on with the story.

  14. David Crisp says:

    The correlation between objectivity and media prosperity is not at all meaningless. Once advertising, rather than ideology, began to fuel newspaper sales, objectivity became a marketing tool that allowed publishers to keep advertisers happy by pretending to be neutral. The result was a whole country full of one-newspaper towns, all famously profitable and putatively objective.
    Henrycopeland says that Fox’s success proves that bias pays, but Fox draws an audience so tiny that it wouldn’t have lasted a week when three networks ran the whole show. The revival of partisan journalism is in part a response to the breakdown of the media monopoly.
    I am not sure whether that’s good or bad, but one thing that’s easy to forget is that objectivity is a tool, not an end in itself. Adopting an objective frame of mind enables reporters to hear all sides of an argument, to ask better questions, and to get interviews with otherwise uncooperative sources. Writing objectively, when competently done, can lend credibility. That doesn’t mean reporters don’t draw conclusions about what they learn, and it doesn’t mean that what they finally write isn’t colored by their own biases.

  15. Rubin Laurie says:

    My father never raised his hand to any one of his children, except in self-defense.