IlPundit and IlliniPundit are having a discussion on media bias. For many who read ArchPundit, you know I come down as tending to think the media’s bias is more towards controversy and creating a storyline than to a particular ideology, though I’ll admit the underlying bias of reporters is towards being liberal compared to the general population.
To understand this, one has to understand what is going on when one self-identifies as a particular ideology. The seven point scale utilized in the National Election Study goes from Very Liberal to Very Conservative. Is someone who claims to be very liberal just as liberal as someone who is very conservative? Or more importantly is someone who identifies as slightly conservative as close to moderate as someone who is slightly liberal? Probably not and the problem is based on how people answer such questions.
The first thing one must understand is that most people in the general public have a very poor understanding of what it means to be conservative or liberal. In laymans terms, most people express conservative sentiments, but advocate for liberal policies. Mark Russell used to use a joke that was that Americans are Ideologically Conservative and Operationally Liberal. They will pontificate about the need for smaller government and then wonder where the government federal government was when there is a single case of salmonella in Wyoming.
And the data on ideology and beliefs largely finds this to be true. If anyone wants the cites, I’m happy to send them, but this is a basic rundown on what political psychology says about the average citizen.
First, they are dumb. And I mean that–they don’t know much about politics, but they have lots of opinions about it.
Second, they often have little understanding of what one means by conservative or liberal. People will often identify as being conservative and call for universal national health care. Or they will insist on having their own insurance, but say that a single payer system would be good. That’s typically what we call an inconsistent view.
Third, they don’t think politics is always the identifying characteristic of their political view. People will say they are conservative–meaning personally conservative, but then be politically liberal when describing their political views.
Fourth, and a much simpler issue, many identify as being conservative or liberal along different dimensions of beliefs. Many social conservatives aren not fiscially conservative and many social liberals are fiscally conservative. One can also add a variant to economic issues where people might be fiscially conservative, but support relatively more government role in managing the economy.
Add all these together, and many people take the notion of ideology self-identification as a problem.
Now, in comparing members of the media to the general public, this wouldn’t be a big deal if they were similar, but the very act of being a member of the media means a person tends towards greater political sophistication and thus, more accurate labeling of the beliefs and more consistency between policy and self-identification.
The first problem then is whether the public is really that conservative. It is and it isn’t. I try and point this out regularly. The public is overwhelmingly against gay marriage, but clear majorities support civil unions for gays and lesbians. Care to sort that out for me?
A majority of people are against elective abortions, but support the notion that the choice of an abortion is between a doctor and the patient.
People think we have too many regulations, but are in favor of greater regulation of corporations in terms of corporate governance.
Now assuming that the press self-identifies still more liberal than the average is probably true and even with the above, I’d say that is likely–does that make the press liberal in its reporting?
Not necessarily—much of press coverage is geared towards covering controversy. If you want to confuse (or bore) the average beat reporter, try to feed them a story about positive developments in City Schools for which there aren’t loud critics. What’s the story? There’s a tremendous story in terms of how bureaucracies work and how tax payer dollars are working and educating kids, but newspapers rarely cover such stories because the editors often see it as boring (and yeah, I’ve been on the other end of editorial boards where the editors just refused to see it as a story and then complained about how two boards past screwed something else up).
The media generally looks for the easy story to tell with a he said she said format. Committed conservatives and liberals hate such coverage because it is often post modern–it doesn’t deal with the facts of the underlying issue, but with how both sides explain the facts. The problem is the facts are often clear, but the member of the media doesn’t have the time or the expertise to sort them out.
In putting out a daily paper the problem is exacerbated because you have deadlines. The Post-Dispatch has yet to run a solid story on the budget situation in the Saint Louis Public Schools despite two years of controversy. Who ran a story that established the facts? A friend who runs a local community politics paper and I wrote the story. I dare you to ask the former education correspondent Jake Wagman what a TRANS bond is and get a coherent answer or even a glimmer of curiousity.
Not only is reporting the controversy easier, it sells more papers. People don’t like to read about the minute details of a public budget unless they are weird–and yes, I’m weird. They do like to read about the School Board member who put a Biblical Curse on the Mayor.
While this can be considered a broadside against the media, there are exceptions and in general I’ll give some of the papers around Illinois some credit for really delving into issues. The Trib does some of the best fact based reporting on education and No Child Left Behind and, of course, on prosecutorial misconduct. The Sun-Times has done some good work on the City Budget. State budget issues are well covered generally in the Rockford Register Star by Aaron Chambers and Rich Miller’s Capitol Fax does a lot of fact based reporting that goes beyond the he said she said.
But the daily stories infuriate partisans because they don’t have the depth of reporting and fact reporting that ideologues want and so both sides have a case to make the media is unfair. Making matters worse is the rise of the pundit class that gets on cable and confuses belief with fact.
Overall is the media underlyingly biased to the left? Probably, but it affects news stories far less than you might think. The nature of the business affects the story content far more than any underlying bias.
Let me take issue with one bit from IlliniPundit though….CBS didn’t deliberately use false documents, they used documents that they did not effectively vet. There is a huge difference between incompetence–even if you want to believe the incompetence had a motivation in wanting to believe them, and an attempt to pass on what may have been forged documents. It was incredibly stupid to do, but it’s a far different type of mistake.
The problem of discussions about media bias is that they inevitably select on the dependent variable–a bad story that is biased one way or the other instead of looking for bias in a larger swathe of stories. But then, ideologues get the answer they want when they select on the dependent variable so it works out for them.