March 10, 2007

Cultural Divisions and the News Media

With the appointment of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 by the Supreme Court, a culture war erupted in America. At least, that is what the American media has been telling us ever since. I was initially tempted to dismiss much of this culture war talk as little more than an effort to boost ratings by manufacturing conflict and giving voice to polarizing elements on either side of the political continuum. Nevertheless, I have become convinced that there is in fact an important cultural divide which I expect to deepen as we get closer to the 2008 election.

The right has long complained of a "liberal media bias." In fact, exposing oneself to any form of conservative media will quickly reveal that "liberal media bias" remains one of their chief talking points. Is there any evidence of a liberal media bias? Absolutely, but not in the way the right envisions.

When conservatives refer to a liberal bias in the media, they are claiming that all mainstream news media (i.e., everything but Fox) is biased in a liberal direction. Al Franken and others have examined the available data on this possibility and have concluded that this claim is without merit (see Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right). Franken's data are difficult to dispute and suggest that if the mainstream news media (again, I'm excluding Fox here) is biased, it is in the direction of supporting the status quo. All one has to do in order to see this bias is to examine the media's coverage of 9/11 through entering Iraq.

While there is no evidence of a systematic liberal bias in the mainstream news media, one can certainly find examples of liberally biased programs on mainstream networks which masquerade as news. Countdown With Keith Olbermann is as biased in a liberal direction as anything you can find on Fox News is in a conservative direction. A progressive who views Olbermann as presenting the unbiased truth is every bit as guilty as the conservative who thinks that Fox News is truly "fair and balanced."

In examining many common national news programs, it is clear that there are two main ways in which news can be biased. First, a subtle bias can enter through decisions about what it newsworthy (i.e., what topics are presented). We should all be suspicious of this, given the identity of the umbrella corporations which now own virtually all media outlets. I think the massive pro-war campaign we saw as Bush invaded Iraq illustrates this danger well. This is why it is so important to maintain an independent media and oppose further corporate consolidation.

The second clear form of bias, and one which has become disturbingly prevalent, is the mixture of punditry and news we see on Countdown, The O'Reilly Factor, and the vast array of similar shows. Olbermann and O'Reilly do report some news, but most of what they give us is their opinion on what we should think or how we should feel about various topics. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of punditry, it becomes problematic when these men and their parent stations attempt to pass them off as news anchors rather than pundits.

A quick visit to the Fox News website reveals the tagline "We report. You decide." Great, except that O'Reilly, Hannity, and others want to decide for us, or at least tell us how to decide. Still, we find the very same tagline on O'Reilly's page. Does the average American know the difference anymore? As the opinion shows attempt to mimic news programs, and the news programs become increasingly opinionated, will any of us be able to tell which is which should these trends continue?

The likely effect of continued merging of opinion and news is that the cultural divide will deepen past a point of no return. When I watch Countdown and O'Reilly on the same day, I experience two very different "realities." In all likelihood, both represent perversions of reality. I worry about those who take either at face value. Programs like this cement the viewer's worldview by reinforcing what the viewer thinks about the world. We have seen the devastating effects of religious indoctrination; is there any reason to think that this sort of indoctrination won't be harmful as well?

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