While pumping away on the elliptical machine at Gold’s Gym the other day, I looked up to see two side-by-side flat screens showing Fox News and CNN. I couldn’t hear what was going on (I was listening to left-leaning NPR on my headset), but I could surmise the bias of each from the visual presentation. Fox was interviewing the African American father of a slain teen who was killed by an illegal immigrant. Meanwhile, CNN featured a discussion over the banner “Is Sean Hannity Trump’s ‘Shadow’ Chief of Staff?”
I was reminded of last month’s hullaballoo over the “must-run” speech delivered by local news anchors working for the Sinclair Group. I confess my first reaction to this news was, “so what?” Aren’t we asked to do things we don’t like by our employers from time to time? Further, there was nothing untrue in the statement the anchors were directed to read on the air.
Still, something bothered me about it. TV journalists spend their careers developing a personal brand based upon journalistic integrity. And, having someone else – especially your boss – putting words in your mouth is inconsistent with the idea of integrity. Had it been me, my Sicilian temper is likely to have gotten the best of me; and, today, I would be sending out resumes instead of writing this post.
The statement suggests that mainstream media sometimes picks up “false news” from social media without checking the facts. That doesn’t come close to identifying the real challenge faced not only by media but also by each of us trying to figure out what to believe and how to evaluate it.
False news? Mainstream media doesn’t need help from Zuckerberg et al. How about Dan Rather’s 2004 CBS News report on George W. Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War? Or, the 2008 front page NY Times article about the alleged affair between John McCain and a lobbyist? Both turned out to be untrue and both resulted in retractions (Dan Rather lost his job over it). But that doesn’t change the fact that the choice made by those mainstream media organizations to pursue those stories reflects their bias.
Then there was the 2016 Newsweek story about American interrogators in Afghanistan desecrating the Koran. It was later retracted but not before the Muslim attacks on government organizations and NGO’s which resulted in the death of 15 people. And, don’t get me started on the Rolling Stone rape story.
It’s only fair to say that mistakes will be made and principled news organizations correct their errors, as was the case in these examples as well as the winners of Trump’s Fake News Awards.
So, what of it?
The word bias has taken on a pejorative connotation, as if good people shouldn’t be biased. It’s a ridiculous notion. Bias in decision-making has been well established since Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking work (which won him the Nobel Prize for Economics).
We all have biases including the titular bias of this post. The danger, as I see it, is in believing that we can be unbiased. That can only lead to the certainty that we are right! How can we reconcile our differences unless we introduce doubt into our thinking? Isn’t it possible that you may be wrong about some of your dearly held beliefs? If it’s possible, you are open to learning more. If not, you’ve stopped learning and anyone who believes something other than you do is dead wrong. How can that lead to healthy dialog?
As for media, bias is reflected in many ways. The selection of the Fox News story cited above reflects a bias in favor of the President’s most outrageous statements about immigrants. The CNN discussion raises bias to a new level. “Is Sean Hannity Trump’s ‘Shadow’ Chief of Staff?” isn’t even news. It’s conjecture. A good journalist should be aware of Betteridge’s Law, which states that, “any headline that asks a question can be answered by the word no.”
WHO WILL LEAD?