Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

What’s left

Posted by boakley59 on October 17, 2008

Invoking the “left-wing media” is a diversionary tactic used by pitchmen who don’t believe their own ideas have the coherence to carry the day in honest debate. Yet if a unitary and powerful “left-wing media” has no more reality than a unicorn, the actual mass media does have at least as much reality as some kind of horse, and its characteristics are a worthy topic of reflective self-study.

It is fair to wonder, as I did at the end of Yo left, yo right, whether newsrooms that surveys indicate are full of left-leaning thinkers can fairly present the world to a more diverse audience. The question has different answers, depending on where emphasis is placed.

From the perspective of cultural completeness, the answer is unequivocally “Better than the obvious alternative,” since a right-wing media would simply be an extension of the government or reigning authority in any aspect of human endeavor. Such a newsroom would have no purpose, and in a fundamental sense no news. (“World still round today,” “government policy working just as designed,” “nothing wrong here.”) From the perspective of pure logic, the answer must be “Not really,” since we are all imperfect thinkers with incomplete information, and pure fairness is another unicorn.

Yes, there is danger in a herd mentality from any perspective. We reject the possibility of “separate but equal” schools in a culture divided by skin color; it is presumably difficult to achieve balanced reporting in a culture divided by political ideology. But the cases are not equivalent. The media exist to monitor the status quo. If those in the media have no doubts about the status quo, no questions, then they are part of the status quo, part of the reigning authority. I suggest that in order to do their fundamental job, those in the media must be leftists in some sense.

I am using left and right in a very broad way that some might argue makes the terms almost meaningless, but this is part of the point: The catchall “left-wing media” is a ridiculously indescribable entity, so that it is merely a meaningless way to talk about “some people who didn’t say only nice things about me.” Any narrow definition of a universal left-wing media target (“they always favor abortion rights, gun control and anarchy”) fails the test of matching to media performance. We don’t have the kind of society we should have if a left-wing media dominated, if only on a narrow issue or two.

Life is complex. The question should not be whether it is fair that the media more often than not are negative in mentioning a president or his policies, but whether the media are correct or gave sufficient reason for believing they are correct when doing so. If the president says a potential enemy state possesses weapons of mass destruction, is it more dangerous to point out or to ignore findings to the contrary? Is it negative simply to mention countervailing data? The determination of negativity cannot gloss over reality.

Studies of alleged media bias need a sharp focus and clear definitions. Not all ideas are equally valid. We should expect and be glad that believers in a flat earth are depicted negatively in a free press, because their claims don’t match reality. It is the job of the media to describe reality and to investigate claims about it, and this necessarily includes self-examination. Studies of alleged media bias should include some assessment of whether any imputed negativity is baseless.

It seems to me that alleged media bias will self-correct or have a vanishing impact, because the very essence of the journalistic enterprise is doubt and investigation. People with a bias against bias, or an enterprise conscious of the weaknesses of enterprises, seems likely to be the best we could hope for, and I suggest that’s what we have. Journalists, properly applying the tools and methods of their trade, will present information in accord with reality. If they don’t, their enterprise collapses.

Einstein showed that there is no inherently superior frame of reference, so reality and perspective are interlinked. Explanations of the same events can differ when considered from different frames of reference, but the explanations must be valid in the frames in which they arise. If the media has a left perspective that seems harsh to some canted to the right, that’s just tough if that perspective matches reality. Even from different frames, the explanations of the same event must resolve to equivalence.

The real danger lies in the competence of journalists, not their political tilt. If that tilt limits their ability to apply their standards, that’s a problem. Again, using the broadest notion of right and left, I suspect the right benefits more often from journalistic incompetence. A failure to investigate fully should favor entrenched authority, which is the orthodox right. It’s easier to believe the government, science, the pope or whatever establishment exists, in part because we grow up under its sway.

Science, and less rigorously journalism, move forward through doubt and investigation. In our culture, this acknowledgment of doubt in these enterprises leads to a lot of foolishness. Evolution is “just a theory” and autism comes from vaccines, claim idiots who seize on the uncertainties that science admits as they discard evidence that has the highest degree of certainty. Because we can never be sure there are no monsters under some bed somewhere, some don’t trust the reports of police who shine the flashlights under particular beds and find — nothing. There’s reasonable doubt and there’s conspiracy-theory doubt. The danger comes when we can’t tell the difference.

Good journalism checks up on authority in the best of times and challenges it in the worst. The test is who most accurately describes and explains the world in which we live.

I think journalists, even if most of them lean left, do that better than they get credit for. And, yeah, I’m biased about it — because I know how journalists work.

Coming soon: What should journalists do better and how can they do it?


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