Sunday, July 09, 2006
Is Mainstream Media Guilty of Bias or Incompetence?
Critics of mainstream media have lost their favorite poster boy. The king of liberal bias has left the building. Sadly, we won’t have Dan Rather to kick around anymore.
So what’s a mainstream media critic to do? Well, there’s no need for any of us to join Rather in the unemployment line. The poster boys and girls of media bias are really only a very small part of the story. I think we should be more concerned with the vast army of journalists who feed the teleprompters read by TV newsreaders like Rather and fill the pages of liberal newspapers like the New York Times. Media bias is not a problem confined to a few well known personalities. It’s an institutional problem that taints journalism in general and dominates the newsrooms of ABC, CBS, NBC and a significant number of influential newspapers.
Personally, I struggle with whether biased reporting is the result of intentional bias—twisting the facts to tell the story the journalist wants to tell—or incompetence.
Consider this example. Just before the start of the Senate confirmation hearings for pro-life Supreme Court appointee Samuel Alito, NBC News excitedly reported that Alito was out of step with a clear majority of Americans who support a woman’s right to an abortion. The conclusion was based on an NBC News poll that asked the following question:
“The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe versus Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision, or not?”
Anyone who has done their homework realizes that Roe v. Wade legalized abortion without restriction in the first six months of pregnancy and provided a loophole that makes it almost impossible to restrict abortion even in the last three months of pregnancy.
So why would NBC News falsely imply that Roe v. Wade legalized abortion only in the first three months of pregnancy? Could it be that NBC News wanted to make Roe v. Wade sound more benign than it really is in order to elicit the desired answer? Or were NBC journalists incapable of understanding the implications of Roe v. Wade? Was it bias or incompetence?
A more subtle recent example from ABC News further illustrates my dilemma. This recently appeared on the ABC News website:
“Has your life been directly affected by global warming? We want to hear and see your stories. Have you noticed changes in your own backyard or hometown?”
It’s clear from the request that ABC News believes global warming is a proven phenomenon. You might take issue with that. I don’t. I believe there is evidence enough to conclude that Earth’s average temperature has risen in the past century. I further believe that our lifestyle is likely responsible for a portion of that increase. So I don’t find bias per se in the request.
What bothers me is ABC’s method of fact gathering. The case for global warming should be made by qualified scientists employing scientific methods to prove the hypothesis. Asking everyone to look in their own backyards for evidence of global warming is the equivalent of asking citizens who are untrained in the methods of science to observe the relative positions of the sun, moon and stars from our backyard observatories in order to prove that the earth is the center of the universe. It’s enough to cause Copernicus to roll over so rapidly in his grave that he might spontaneously combust.
So is mainstream media guilty of bias or incompetence? Unfortunately, both. And at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether inaccurate reporting is the result of intentional bias or incompetence. One way or the other, the American public is too often poorly served by mainstream media.