Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bias in Favor of Bias

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship have an article at Salon today, in which they claim that when conservatives deride NPR as liberal, they mean something much different from the idea that NPR is equal and opposite to Fox News and conservative talk radio.

They mean it's not accountable to their worldview as conservatives and partisans. They mean it reflects too great a regard for evidence and is too open to reporting different points of views of the same event or idea or issue. Reporting that by its very fact-driven nature often fails to confirm their ideological underpinnings, their way of seeing things (which is why some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR).

My own opinion is that NPR is the most reliable source of good reporting left to the American public. And it's certainly far from perfect, but evidently not as far from it as most media consumers want it to be. I deeply appreciate that Moyers and Winship parenthetically note that liberal partisans as well as conservatives are given to criticism of the outlet when it doesn't serve their ends. I encounter entirely too many liberals who take their stand on each piece of news not because they arrived at the liberal view based on an internal coherence of their ideals, but because tribalism picks their side for them.

The best of us are concerned with truth over and above all else, and it is my firm belief that the truth upholds a more characteristically liberal viewpoint. But the best liberals will reevaluate their own views when that is not the case.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of contributors to the public discourse, representing all social and ideological camps, do not hold themselves to that standard. They look for the news that supports their presumptions, and surround themselves with the people who cheer lead the same, not the people who provide them with the most information.

At its best, NPR is of the latter class, but it is disregarded by most conservatives and by some liberals as not upholding their ideas about how the news should be filtered, focused, and distorted.

Moyers and Winship say further:

If "liberal" were the counterpoint to "conservative," NPR would be the mirror of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and James O’Keefe, including the use of their techniques as well as content. Clearly it isn’t. To charge otherwise is a phony gambit aimed at nothing less than quashing the public’s access to non-ideological journalism, narrowing viewpoints to all but one.

That's exactly right. But worse than the fact that that's what is happening is the fact that that seems to be exactly what we want. Or at the least, the ubiquity of ideological journalism has made overwhelming segments of the population blind to the fact that there even is an alternative. It is apparently reflexive for people, conservatives and liberals alike, to class every media outlet, story, and personality as being politically on one side or the other. The notion of unbiased journalism seems to be viewed as some sort of mythological creature that has no purpose for the reality in which we presently live. The powerful irony of that is that unbiased journalism is the only thing that can keep us living in reality.

Unbiased, or at least only lightly biased journalism is not a myth, but it does seem to be facing extinction, and practically every one of us is guilty of encroaching on its habitat and destroying the food source that comes, oddly enough, of us consuming it. We've slowly built to the broad acceptance as normal of media that takes a clear side. I see no reason to believe that the omnipresence of bias will fade by the same mechanism. We've got to realize collectively that we've been going down the wrong road, and indeed, we have to actively remind ourselves of the fact that there even is another road. It's going to take a breaking point in the collective action of media consumers to snap us back to the reality in which reality is still something worth reporting on.

Please help us get there. Turn off talk radio, and give your support only to the news reporters that give you more facts than opinions. Remind everyone you know that we don't have to be pointing at one side of the fence or the other in order to be pointing at something worthwhile.

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