Friday, June 12, 2009

Bias in the Media 1/7/09

At the end of any basketball game I’m usually convinced the referees are cheating my team. Though it’s unlikely referees world-wide have conspired against every high school, college, professional and Olympic team I’ve ever rooted for, at the end of a game, I’m left with that feeling.
Many people perceive the news media the same way. Conservatives have long claimed the media has a liberal bias, while iberals have lambasted the media for their adoring treatment of Ronald Reagan and their unquestioning reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The bias is real, but often isn’t motivated by partisanship. A fundamental truth: TV and print media are primarily about selling advertising to make money. News and information is a secondary concern. They’re main goal is to get you to watch or read, so you’ll see the advertising.
The two most biased news outlets I see on television are FOX News and MSNBC. Both seem to have been designed by the same media consultants pursing consumers at either end of the political spectrum.
FOX, started by one of the world’s most famous conservatives, Rupert Murdoch and run by long-time Republican consultant, Roger Ailes, was a brilliant stroke of marketing. Conservatives have long decried the so-called, “liberal news media.” So Murdock and Ailes created an outlet where conservatives could be comforted hearing news bent toward their beliefs.
It’s target marketing. Just like Teen magazine runs articles aimed at teenage girls, Fox presents stories from a conservative perspective.
From a marketing point of view, that’s all well and good so long as the conservative brand is flying high. But when the brand is floundering, what happens?
MSNBC happens.
The channel, born of a marriage between Microsoft and NBC was for years an under-performer. But as the Republican Party and President Bush’s poll numbers began plummeting early in Bush’s second term, MSNBC morphed into a full-blown liberal version of FOX.
Instead of conservative demagogue hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, with a lightweight liberal thrown in to give the impression of balance, you get smarmy, liberal intellectuals like Keith Oberman and Rachel Maddow with Joe Scarborough thrown in for faux-balance.
I don’t think the corporate boys at FOX or MSNBC did this to grind a political ax. They’re trying to sell laundry soap, cars, washing machines, and erectile dysfunction tablets to identifiable segments of the market. This is further born out by a tendency both cable channels share – an obsessive focus on crime and disaster stories. They actually joke in the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
FOX loves crimes stories, especially those involving missing, young, pretty white girls or small children. It plays into their viewers’ belief that our culture is going to hell in a hand basket (we’ll ignore for the moment that crime in America is at a 30 year low). On the other hand, MSNBC spends entire afternoons and weekends playing murder investigation documentaries for similar reasons; people are titillated by blood.
Where does CNN fall? Somewhere in the middle. They’re not great, but that’s where I often go for a quick shot of TV news. But truth is, I’m a liberal, so when I watch FOX I get irritated and when I watch MSNBC I’m soothed. But I don’t watch the news to have my biases validated. I watch MSNBC barely more than I watch Fox for that very reason. This isn’t a game meant to validate my team, it’s me trying to figure out what’s really happening in the world.
That’s why I watch a little FOX when I’m getting dressed in the morning and listened to NPR on the way to work. I listen to a little BBC news online in my office, and scan my Indianapolis Star each evening, reading both the liberal and conservative columnists. If there’s a Wall Street Journal nearby, I’ll read their conservative editorial page and I’ll also scan the relatively liberal Time Magazine.
But in reality the biggest bias in the media is toward the frivolous. That’s why CNN, FOX, or MSNBC would all gladly interrupt a Senate vote on income taxes to cover a police chase. It’s why stories on the common needs of childhood healthcare are rarely done, but acutely rare incidents of abducted children are covered heavily. It’s why few Americans know why the Israelis and Palestinians are fighting, yet most know the particulars of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s marriage.
And no doubt there are those reading this who see The Contrarian as a referee of sorts and feel I’ve called the game unfairly.

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