Monday, August 29, 2005

Rutten on bias

For several years now, conservative writers have spilled hundreds of thousands of words proving that the mainstream media has a bias in favor of the Democratic party. Some of the argument has involved pointing out that the large majority of the press consists of Democrats and Democrat supporters, but by no means all. The huge majority of that argument has consisted of hard evidence: press accounts, individually or in summary, that clearly treat Democrats differently from Republicans and leftists differently from rightists, that frame issues to assume that the Democrat side is correct, that push stories that hurt Republicans (contrasted with a lack of stories that hurt Democrats). In other words, they don't just assume that the press is biased, they provide huge amounts of evidence.

And when a prominent member of the mainstream media wants to argue that the press is unbiased, how does he respond to this overwhelming deluge of evidence? He ignores it:
You know this particular argument like a mantra: All humans have personal beliefs, including political ones, which inevitably bias anything they write or broadcast. Therefore, everyone who reports or analyzes the news must publicly declare everything they believe and all their personal associations so that their readers or audience can — to borrow Hewitt's phrase — "correct" for the journalist's bias. The notion that the former — all people have biases — might be true, but not the latter — they always determine absolutely everything you say or do — never is considered. Nor is the possibility that personal discipline and the conventions of the craft already accomplish that "correction" among journalists who observe them. It's simply not an admissible idea here. (Let's not even touch the common-sense proposition that it's the normality of the mainstream media's workaday, unbiased journalism that makes the biased stuff stand out so clearly — and offensively — when it occurs.)
That's Tim Rutten of the LA Times writing about conservative talk radio (via Pattericao and Hugh Hewitt).

This is a disgraceful caricature of the conservative position. Actually, it would be disgraceful if it came from an admitted partisan. Coming from a journalist who claims to be writing impartially, it's downright journalistic malpractice --of the same sort that we have been pointing out for decades. While arguing that the mainstream media can report objectively in spite of its political leanings, Rutten demonstrates that he, at least, is severely lacking in this legendary capacity of the Professional Journalist. One might even suspect that for Tim Rutten, the idea that his biases might be infecting his writing "never is considered". Nor is the possibility that personal discipline and the conventions of the craft have failed to produce the objective reporting that they claim to produce. "It's simply not an admissible idea here."

He makes no attempt to present evidence. All he gives us is a dismissive assurance that he knows what he is talking about and we should just be open-minded enough to take his word for it. Who are we going to believe, him or our own lying eyes? He has nothing to say to the volumes of hard evidence of press bias.

Where is his explanation for why a Republican who believes in completely un-regulated abortion, who believes private citizens should not be allowed to own guns, and who wants to legalize gay marriage is called a "moderate Republican", but a Democrat who doesn't believe in all those things is called a "conservative Democrat"? Can he explain why the military record of a Republican presidential candidate who never mentions his military record deserves endless scrutiny but the military record of a Democrat presidential candidate who mentions it in every speech is not worth questioning, even when people who served with that candidate say that he is lying about his record? Is there a good reason why on the one hand the press is so concerned with America's image abroad and the way George Bush is tarnishing that image,while on the other hand, they flog to death any story that will tarnish America's image abroad --stories like Abu Ghraib, Korans in the toilet, harsh questioning at Guantanamo, and the Iraqi civilians killed in the war?

This is a tiny sample of the biases. For more, see Accuracy in Media. For the LA Times in particular, Patterico has an examples of press bias several times per week.

This volume of complaints shows how silly is Rutten's suggestion that "it's the normality of the mainstream media's workaday, unbiased journalism that makes the biased stuff stand out so clearly — and offensively — when it occurs." There certainly are some good, unbiased stories in the mainstream media. Probably even the majority can be described as "reasonably unbiased". But biased pieces are far from an aberration. They are extremely common. I once estimated that every issue of the San Francisco Chronicle has at least one obviously biased story on the front page.

So there is our evidence. What do we see in response? Well, the response to AIM has been FAIR and Media Matters for America. Both organizations purport to be critical of press bias, but neither offers the kind of hard comparative evidence of bias that conservatives offer. They berate the press for not pushing anti-Republican stories enough, they give advice to the press on how to frame the issues in a way that is more favorable to Democrats, and they engage in direct advocacy. Neither of these sites can be seen as an actual response to the volumes of evidences that conservatives have piled up.

Nor has the press itself answered the charges with anything except empty assurances that their system will weed out bias. There is no explanation of how they are going to even detect the biases when everyone in the system shares the same ones. All we have is an assurance that it works, in the face of massive evidence that it doesn't. But Tim Ratten scolds us for not considering the alternatives. That's pretty rich.

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