Media Bias Isn’t A Problem. Your Bias Is

James Callender was a crackerjack dirty linen waver who makes contemporary fake news factories look like purveyors of mild pish and milquetoast posh.  He sported a fifth degree black belt in fact strangling and his partisan fug spewing skills rated an eleven on the Limbaugh Scale (and Rush only clocks a ten). He made his reputation during the republic’s first-ever slander-fest between rival political parties—the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans—who were duking it out around the time of John Adams’ administration. Thomas Jefferson, who wanted Adams’ job, hired Callender as a sort of Ye Olde Breitbart News, tasked with whipping up populist sturm und drang and directing it at the Federalists.

Callender did so with relish. He reported that Hamilton was canoodling with a comely twenty-three year old whose irate husband was demanding hush money. This was the nation’s first political sex scandal, and made Hamilton the inaugural recipient of the “I Shagged Away My Political Career” award.  Calllender smeared George Washington as a traitor and a liar, and called Adams a “repulsive pedant.” In public Jefferson and his fellow Democratic-Republicans tut-tutted. In private they cackled with glee at the salutary effect of Callender’s we-report-you-decide mud chucking on their political fortunes. Callender’s trail of slime greased Jefferson’s path right into the White House.

I mention this history of guttersnipe slam and scandal to make the point that media bias, fake news and alarms over its ability to put partisan anger on the boil is nothing new. There’s no democratic code or canon that demands the press be free of bias. Democracy simply requires that the press be free. Given human nature, it’s hardly surprising that partisan propagandists would use that liberty to buy ink by the barrel and take every chance, fair or foul, to stick a rhetorical shiv into their opponents. James Callender, Father Coughlin (look him up), Sean Hannity and a long list of others across the years have done exactly that. The First Amendment will always give shelter, succor and huge audiences to blowhards with dodgy political values and generous levels of factual flexibility. Trafficking in complete applesauce about politics and government is a natural byproduct of having freedoms of speech and of the press.

What isn’t natural is having a news media that consciously regulates itself to accurately report on governmental goings on while keeping partisan bias to a minimum. Astonishingly, for the past fifty or sixty years, that’s more or less what we’ve had. In the first half of the 20th century people like journalist Walter Lippman and New York Times publisher Adoph Ochs began championing the idea of objective journalism, the notion that newspapers (and later radio and television news) should focus on reporting verifiable facts rather than pushing any partisan line. This was a pretty radical idea with no real historical precedent.

And, at least for a bit, Americans actually seemed kind of grateful to have this huge social institution that took on the job of keeping an eye on the government while really making an effort to give their audience the straight story. Walter Cronkite—CBS’ iconic news anchor—was, without irony or sarcasm, known for years as “the most trusted man in America.” That sort of faith in journalism and journalists has long gone. These days less than a third of Americans trust the mainstream press to accurately and fairly report the news, the lowest recorded since reliable public opinion polls on the matter have existed. What went wrong?

Most seem to genuinely believe that somewhere along the line the media started playing partisan favorites again, though predictably conservatives think that problem is down to pinko reporters while liberals chalk it up to amoral corporate conservatives like Rupert Murdoch. Political scientists and communication scholars have devoted a lot of effort trying to detect systematic partisan bias in the mainstream press.  After decades of diligent digging we haven’t found much of anything to support the notion that mainstream news media consistently tilt the partisan scale one way or the other.

On the other hand, we’ve never had any problem finding systematic favoritism among media consumers. There’s an Everest of evidence pointing to this inescapable conclusion: Humans are big jiggling bags of bias. We have built in predispositions to discount stuff we don’t want to believe and to massively overweight stuff we do want to believe. If we don’t like the message we are quick to suspect the messenger of spin and sophistry. We rarely consider the possibility that our own biased processing of information, not bias in the information source itself, might be shading things one way or the other.

These tendencies are rarely consciously checked because we have nothing in our psychology equivalent to the sophisticated vetting and verification processes mainstream news operations employ to keep eager partisan thumbs off the scale. Our built-in predilections for our own prejudices kind of come out in the wash, though, if we are all getting the same story from the same sources and share some faith that those messengers are, more or less, on the up and up. And, at least for a while, that’s what we had. Cronkite worked in an era when the news media consisted of three major TV networks, their radio offspring, a handful of news magazines and the newspapers. That was pretty much it, and all of them were largely staffed by professionals whose main goal, most people accepted, was not scoring partisan points.

The big problem with that arrangement was that depending on whose ox was getting gored by the story of the day, a sizable chunk of people was always thinking, “the media is not telling me what I want to hear.” Well, no worries. New communication technologies—cable news, the World Wide Web—sprang up to supply that demand. Old technologies, especially radio, got in on the act too. These days you can tell the Uncle Walts of the media world to go stuff it. Just cruise the alt-media options and cherry pick the information that makes your political bits feel all warm and tingly.  A big casualty of this trend is the mainstream news media, which is still plodding along like an objective journalism mastodon while the alt-media hyenas rip at its flanks, undermining its credibility in order to better sell the ideological codswallop that is their stock in trade.

The alt-media phenomenon is mostly (though not exclusively) a product of the ideological right, and some in that crowd are belatedly realizing that maybe it was a bad idea to play on partisan prejudices to paint the likes of The New York Times and CBS News as little more than Callender fanboys. Charles Sykes—a long-time conservative radio host—is pretty upfront about this.  He says that delegitimizing mainstream news outlets basically destroyed “much of the right’s immunity to false information” and ran all the adults right out of the conservative movement. The lads over at Fox News—at least the real journalists, the Shep Smiths, Britt Humes and Chris Wallaces—likewise seem alert to the danger of reinforcing Sarah Palin “lamestream” fairy tales. They’re clearly alarmed at a presidential administration that doesn’t seem to have much belief in the idea of a free press. Wallace’s spanking of Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, especially his defiant we’re-not-enemies-of-the-people and you-don’t-get-to-tell-us-what-to-do moment, provides some small hope that the project of Lippman and Ochs is not going to be abandoned entirely.

Right now, though, it’s looking pretty shaky. There are simply too many “news” operations out there that are largely predicated on feeding people what they want to hear. They’re hugely successful because, facts be damned, gorging on the sweet syrup of confirmation bias tastes better than the eat-your-veggies offerings of the mainstream media. And, believe me, you only make people mad by pointing out all that if your information diet lacks fortifying factual fiber you’re probably full of crap.

There is a cautionary tale from history about how these sorts of partisan stokers of righteous indignation end up. Jefferson welshed on a promise to make Callender postmaster, and was in turn consumed in the fires of Callender’s pen. Callender went public with the story of Jefferson’s licentious extra-curriculars with his slave Sally Hemmings. Lesson there: Those who profit from partisan muckrakers also tend to get burned by them (I’m betting the Donald will experience that sooner rather than later).  As for Callender himself, he came to an ignominious finish. Sloshed to the gills, he pitched face first into the James River and drowned, apparently too sozzled to extricate himself from water only three feet deep. His legacy will live on, though, as long as we citizens are more interested in justifying our own prejudices than in really understanding our politics. Because ultimately, it’s not the mainstream news media that are Callender fanboys. It’s us.