Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Yo left, yo right

Posted by boakley59 on October 13, 2008

Read my words and tremble, for I am part of a dangerous cabal. Well, at least I would be if I weren’t sick.

You see, until disability took me out of the work force, I was part of that supposedly vast conspiracy purportedly dominating American discourse: the “left-wing media.” (Sometimes we’re more neutrally tagged merely “mainstream media,” but generally, even when we’re perceived as destroying left-of-center reputations with undue relentlessness, we’re still taken to be left-biased.)

Surveys are trotted out to show that newsroom workers are predominantly Democrats and espouse positions mainly considered socially liberal. The leap is then made that news reporting must be unduly biased, because our world views are presumed to be black holes for reason and objectivity, even for those of us whose job it is to summarize events rationally and objectively.

This is bullhockey, and we all know that it is bullhockey. We know it in the same way that we know used car salesmen are not all crooks, lawyers are not all greedy liars helping murderers go free, Jews are not solely in control of global finance, blacks are not less intelligent and more brutal than whites, gun owners don’t all want to kill Bambi’s mother. “Left-wing media” is a comfortable shorthand that allows us to downplay unpleasant information by blaming the messenger.

It should be enough that the claim is ridiculous on its face, as are all stereotypes, but let’s be reporters ourselves and dig a little deeper.

What sort of society would a powerful left-wing media bring about? Would we have a society where every man was a date rapist because of an overabundance of pornographic imagery and “anything goes” legal standards, or would we have an egalitarian society with no date rapists because women had equal status, including earning the same pay as a man with equal qualifications for the same job? Would we have a society where nobody had guns, yet everybody would somehow be some sort of non-Christian cold-blooded killer automaton (the presumption being leftists are atheists with no morals)? Would we have a society in which the unions were growing ever stronger and workers were getting too much pay, or would we have a society in which unions were not needed because services were socialized and universally available?

The point is there is no clear, unified left-wing agenda. In fact, different left-wing ideas seem to conflict, or at least to tend toward contradictory results. But even if we granted a unitary agenda, does our society really look like it should under a powerful left-wing movement? Are any elements of a supposed left-wing agenda in place, even in the contradictory cases, where success might be claimed if even one of multiple competing goals had been achieved?

Well, perhaps we have a more heavily sex-oriented culture than we should, but union strength, real wages, social benefits and class parity are in pronounced decline. If the left-wing media exists, it is singularly incompetent if its only obvious achievement is sometimes to draw harsh remarks from the right. Even where we might consider certain conditions a victory of the left, say where preservation of free speech has led to a distorted allowance for sexual imagery, the right would seem to have a large hand in the outcome. Certainly, an awful lot of good ol’ boys want to buy nudie magazines and read them in their own rooms without fear of being arrested (or even interrupted). The left couldn’t gain such ground, except for insistence from the right that “boys will be boys” who should be allowed their “harmless” fun.

So, the generalization is silly to begin with, and the results don’t measure up to what would be expected if the generalization were true. But let’s keep digging anyway.

Just how would a left-wing media manage to twist society? What is the mechanism by which its ends could be achieved?

I have worked in newsrooms all of my life, at papers with daily circulations from 11,000 readers to around 300,000. That includes a college newspaper, small-town papers and a paper in a Top 50 market. The standards, structure and work flow of these varied publications are similar. News items are stumbled upon or delivered to newsrooms; these are sifted; some are pursued and some of those are published. At each step, someone is asking as a matter of standard professional practice whether the report is fair, whether it is substantiated, whether the language could be taken as slanted. At all but the smallest of papers, an item gets at least three levels of checks: A reporter sends an article to a department editor, who sends it to a copy editor who puts it on a page where it gets a final proofread before going to press. At each step are skeptics and investigative types who argue over the tiniest of things, like whether a semicolon might be better than a comma to separate two phrases. Even if their views on abortion might agree, these are not people who are going to let bad, biased writing stand just because of presumed empathy with the writer or editor at an earlier step.

These are people who believe in such principles as “innocent until proven guilty” and are meticulous in what they consider simple practical cases, such as police reports. Even when police catch a robber at a convenience store with the goods in hand and there’s videotape, the published language is always carefully handled to be sure that the person caught is always only a suspect, until the case makes its way through court and there is a conviction. The subtlest of distinctions are made: At most papers, a person is reported as being arrested “in” an alleged crime, not “for” an alleged crime, because “for” may carry the presumptive nuance that the suspect is guilty or has earned the arrest, as he would a punishment or reward.

As with this practical example in a nonpolitical instance, editors at every checkpoint in an article’s path to publication are specifically looking to remove even the hint of bias or false presumption.

A left-wing philosophical railroad would require a level of cooperation, with an abandonment of core journalistic principles, that is unimaginable. If such a coordinated enterprise could be managed, it would surely be a lot more successful.

So, as a generalization, the idea of an organized left-wing media is ridiculous; as an enterprise, it is singularly ineffective; as a newsroom approach, it’s mechanically unworkable. But let’s get “up close and personal.”

My politics are most likely none of your business (except as they affect our mutual responsibilities as citizens), and that accords more or less with the way I conduct myself with my family and friends. These closest of associates (and perhaps readers of my blog or past newspaper columns) may reliably predict my stands on many issues, but few of even these can say they have heard a political stand straight from my mouth, or read it in my writings over the years. My parents and I talked about Vietnam and the draft a few times; I heard from them before I was sophisticated enough to question their opinion that Martin Luther King Jr. was a rabble rouser pushing the wrong kind of upheaval; as a columnist at a small paper I wrote once against nuclear arms proliferation. These open declarations are few and far between, even for those closest to me, and I doubt very much that newspaper readers can ferret particular stances out from the way I edit articles or write headlines (assuming they could tell which articles I handled).

And just how is it that I would sway random newspaper readers to my way of thinking through such subtlety, when I don’t even declare, let alone push, an agenda with those closest to me? First, I would either have to adulterate a reporter’s work or let slide a sort of reportorial malpractice I was specifically employed to eliminate. Then, I would have to submit that work to another editor looking to eliminate the same sort of malpractice from me, who would have to share my specific view and deem my particular twist on the message as effective. We would not only have to sing the same song, so to speak, we would have to be in the same key.

It is much more likely that I would quickly either quit or be fired at any publication where such things occurred than it is that such tactics could work.

The left-wing media, as a unified political force, does not (indeed, I say cannot) exist. Is there a systemic problem or danger if it is true that journalists tend toward one political stripe? Well, there are prevailing ideas and there are prevailing ideas: It is a good thing that Flat Earthers have a hard time getting a hearing in our modern society of heliocentrists, yet in a society of predominantly white male bureaucrats we have come to reject the notion that there can be separate but equal segregated schools. So, our blindness to our biases can be a danger, but the casual tyranny of the majority, particularly among journalists, is a topic for another post (coming soon).

And I leave you with a counter thought: If the left-wing media myth is so readily invoked, is it possible the real problem is that the halls of power are marching too hard to a right-wing drumbeat?


One Response to “Yo left, yo right”

  1. […] Yo left, yo right […]

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